An Original, Bizarre, Unforgettable Film
“Greaser’s Palace” takes the story of Christ’s suffering and places it in the Old West (you might want to reread that sentence). We meet a zoot-suited drifter who performs miracles and attracts a large following, but all he really wants is to sing and dance. After finally getting to play The Palace, a saloon run by the ruthless Seaweedhead Greaser, he soon learns that he’s got more miracles to do.
Robert Downey Sr. directed this farce. He was a major cult filmmaker in the late ’60s and early ’70s thanks to irreverent, provocative social satires such as films like “Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace” but time has not been good to him and he had some twenty years of flops and naturally this affected his critical reputation. . Now with the video reissue of “Greaser’s Palace”, his surrealistic 1972 comic western and religious parable, there are hopes that his reputation will be regained. The film stars Allan Arbus as a Zoot-suited Christ figure who parachutes into a frontier town run by tyrannical saloon proprietor Albert Henderson. Arbus who really just wants to sing and dance, soon finds himself healing the sick, resurrecting the dead, tap-dancing on water, and fending off the advances of frontier little person and his transvestite “wife.” The film is actually a ramshackle collection of skits built around the flimsiest possible premise. Its outrageousness feels like facile adolescent shock for its own sake. “Greaser” is filled with random violence, slapstick, silly names, toilet humor, and various other signifiers of lowest-common-denominator satire. I do not see any chance of Downey’s reputation being improved by this. It is well-acted and handsomely filmed but totally boring. For a film that aims to shock and offend, its juxtaposition of show business and divinity now seems downright old-fashioned but it does have a perverse appeal even though as a comedy, it’s unwatchable.
Jessy (Arbus) claims he is headed for Jerusalem to become a singer/dancer. From this point on there are jaw-dropping surprises: a woman who bears the indignity of wound after fatal wound in scenes unrelated to the main plot, the Father and Holy Ghost (a man with a sheet draped over his head, and a cowboy hat propped on top) wander through the film as the Ghost complains that the Father hogs the spotlight, bad guy Greaser (who kills his son “Lamy Homo” repeatedly) finds that Jessy resurrects him but is so constipated that he keeps a mariachi band nearby to mask his screams of pain when he goes to the outhouse.
These things might sound entertaining when lumped into a single paragraph, but the calmer (yet sometimes confusing) scenes between the surprises never seem to end. Fortunately, there’s enough going on that you won’t fall asleep. Occasionally a cameo will grab your attention, such as that of a young Robert Downey Jr. as the kid who is murdered early in the film, or Hervé “Tattoo” Villechaize as the very hungry midget. This just may well be the weirdest film you ever see about the life of Christ, but it may also be the one to which you pay the most attention and if you can, wait for the ending.
The messiah is a dandy with a New York Jewish accent named in a pink brimmed hat and zoot-suit who is en route to Jerusalem. This should tell you something early on— this irreverent offbeat slapstick comedy is so silly, witless and tiresome that it is an embarrassment. This is Downey’s most ambitious movie and his most costly and it was his biggest flop, turning off even his most ardent fans.
Jessy becomes involved with the eccentric residents of a frontier tumbleweed town run by the evil, brutal and greedy tyrant Seaweedhead Greaser (who is a land baron and owner of the dance-hall called Grease’s Palace that also acts as a church. Jessy’s healing powers lead him on a strange trip he never planned, as he now has a gathering of loyal followers hoping for miracles. When Jessy gets a chance to perform at Greaser’s Palace, his singing and dancing doesn’t excite the locals, but when blood starts flowing from his palms they go wild and he wins the audience over. Later Jessy’s sent out to the desert by the Holy Father (Woody Chambliss) and gets crucified by a dying woman he brings back to life (who is supposed to be his mother).
Some of the weird characters include Greaser’s daughter Cholera (Luana Anders), the star singer/exotic dancer at the saloon; the Holy Ghost (Ronald Nealy) who pleasures himself by putting out his cigar on a hairy chest; a topless Indian scout (Toni Basil) riding around town, that gives us gratuitous breast shots; the crippled weirdo Vernon (James Antonio) who is healed by Jessy and now crawls; and the interactions of a sexually aggressive dwarf (Herve Villechaize) and his bearded transvestite wife (Stan Gottlieb). The slight plot is built around a collection of skits that are meant to shock and are violent and perverse. It is, however, beautifully filmed and the acting is fine.