Greaser's Palace (1972) poster

Greaser’s Palace (1972)


USA. 1972.


Director/Screenplay – Robert Downey, Producer – Cyma Rubin, Photography – Peter Powell, Music/Lyrics – Jack Nitzsche, Set Design – David Forman. Production Company – Greaser’s Palace Company.


Allan Arbus (Jessy), Albert Henderson (Seaweed Greaser), Michael Sullivan (Lamy Greaser), Elsie Downey (The Woman), Luana Anders (Cholera Greaser), George Morgan (Coo Coo), Stan Gottlieb (Spitunia), Herve Villechaise (Mr Spitunia), Toni Basil (Indian Girl), Pablo Ferro (Indian), Ron Nealy (Ghost)


Seaweed Greaser dominates a small Western town with an authoritarian hand. Jessy appears in town, saying he is just an actor/performer traveling to Jerusalem in search of his agent Morris. After Seaweed shoots his son Lamy, Jessy resurrects him. Jessy brings others back from the dead, as well as walks on water.

Greaser’s Palace was one of a bunch of films that came out in the early 1970s that were called Acid Westerns. These took standard Western dramas and combined them with Surrealism and experimental storytelling, much of which was influenced by the psychedelic drug and countercultural movement of the day. The way was begun with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970), which took in a heady mix of Zen and Carlos Castaneda mysticism. Other examples followed including Zachariah (1971) and several that fall outside genre confines

Robert Downey (1936-2021) is best known as the father of Robert Downey Jr. Less known is his career as a director. Downey Sr had made a handful of films before having a modest hit with the satirical Putney Swope (1969) after which he was given money to make Greaser’s Palace, which gained a cult following of sorts. Downey Sr made a total of fifteen films between the early 1960s and the 2000s, although none of these are widely known. Robert Jr can be spotted here in an uncredited role as the young kid who accompanies his family on a wagon journey before they are killed, while Robert Sr’s wife and Robert Jr’s mother Elsie Ford Downey plays the kid’s mother who wanders around the wilderness bereft.

Most of these Acid Westerns have some kind of religious allegory to them – El Topo ventured into a mad mix of Zen Buddhism but Downey stays with Christian Themes. These appeared in a number of the other counter-culture works of the era from Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) to The Omega Man (1971). In this instance, Allan Arbus plays Jessy, who seems to be intended as a homophone for J.C. ie. Jesus Christ. He wanders through the town and surrounding area outfitted in a zoot suit, performing resurrections and entertains crowds by walking and dancing on water.

Jessy (Allan Arbus)  and Herve Villechaize in Greaser's Palace (1972)
(l to r) Mysterious stranger Jessy (Allan Arbus) with Herve Villechaize

On the other hand, that seems to be the extent of Greaser’s Palace. There is not really much of a plot to it – just Allan Arbus’s J.C. up against Albert Henderson as Greaser, the authoritarian patriarch of the town and the circus of oddities that surround him. The oddities include singer/choreographer Toni Basil as a topless Indian woman, and Herve Villechaise of tv’s Fantasy Island (1977-84) as the husband of a man who dresses in drag, while there is also one character dressed in a sheet as a ghost.

Downey may have been trying to insert some political statement about big business here, it is all little plotless to tell. Into the mix comes Jessy/Jesus who conducts a few miracles, before an end where he is crucified – although this is not Jesus’s traditional end where he was killed for upsetting the social order but one where he has to beg Elsie Downey to nail him up.

Clip from the film here

Actors: , , , , ,
Themes: , , , , ,