ADVENTURES IN VOD: NORMAN LEAR AND COLD TURKEY (1971)

December 21, 2010

cold turkey

That’s a lot of Van Dykes. This rather frightening menagerie was arranged by Norman Lear, who wrote and directed the slapstick satire Cold Turkey in 1971. A cult item that used to circulate solely on out-of-print VHS tapes, now MGM has released it through Amazon on a burned-on-demand DVD as well as through their video-on-demand service (rental is $2.99, purchase is $9.99). It’s amazing how quickly a film can go from rare to ubiquitous these days.

Lear had transitioned from variety show gag-man to more full-length narrative work by the time of Cold Turkey, which was shot just before he became an institution with All in the Family. His entry into show business had been greased when Jerry Lewis saw a blind date sketch he had written, and he was hired to produce material for the Martin & Lewis run on the Colgate Comedy Hour (1950 – 1953).  These extraordinarily raucous 60 minutes buzzed on the improvisatory bravado of the actors, but Lear set them up in scenarios primed for chaos. In one opener, a ballroom dance descends into a brawl when Jerry spritzes ink on a brute’s white shirt. An irate wife arm-drags Lewis to the ground, and then Dean socks her down with him. Then the whole set degrades into a brawl.

There’s a feeling the show could collapse at any moment, as Martin & Lewis constantly break character, inserting snide self-reflexive remarks in the middle of the sketches. In one bit, Lewis has trouble moving a suitcase through a doorway, so he simply steps off the stage set and around to the next room, breaking the fourth wall and delighting the audience. It’s unclear whether it’s staged or improvised, but it could be either in the anything goes atmosphere created by Lear, co-writer Ed Simmons and the actors. Many of these episodes are up on YouTube, as well as on a variety of public domain DVDs. A number are also on Netflix Instant, in faded prints.

Afterward, Lear bounced around variety shows, including The Martha Raye Show (1955) and The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show (1957-1958). Bud Yorkin was a producer on the latter, and he and Lear formed the Tandem production company together. This led to their coup of casting Frank Sinatra in their film adaptation of Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn (1963). Yorkin directed and Lear wrote it, along with their follow up, Divorce American Style (1967). After being loaned out to William Friedkin for The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), Lear was handed the director’s job for the first and only time on Cold Turkey. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Lear said Yorkin was busy with other projects, so he took the gig.

The story was adapted from a novel, I’m Giving Them Up For Good, by Margaret and Neil Rau, and it centers on an outrageous contest put on by a major tobacco company. Bob Newhart, as flaccid publicity flack Merwin Wren, has the inspired idea to offer a city $25 million dollars if every resident would agree to quit smoking for 30 days. Feeling confident no town could possibly succeed, it was an easy way to leverage public opinion in the tobacco business’ favor (herein lie similarities to the dire Thank You For Smoking).

One depressed Iowa town, Eagle Rock, takes up the challenge, however, led by Reverend Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke), the golden boy former track star. He riles up the crowd with dreams of gleaming office buildings and all sorts of government cheese. Van Dyke plays him with stuttering obliviousness. He’s a do-gooder blind to his own ambition. Only his wife, the secret smoker Natalie (Pippa Lee) sees through his facade. As the town closes in on the prize money, it becomes a media sensation, bringing in tourist money and documentary film crews from across the country.

Filmed on location in Greenfield, Iowa, using many local residents in the cast, Lear aims for a wide angle take-down of corporate and small-town pieties. Newhart’s glad-hander is as officious as the mini John Birch Society clone, here called the Christopher Mott Society, that the Reverend placates by hiring to inspect cars for smokes as they enter the city. An especially aggressive older lady investigates for Commies, too. Money talks to all walks of life, and Lear’s favorite visual device is the grotesque close-up of citizens’ and CEOs’ greedy grimaces.

The touchstones seem to be Wilder and Altman. The bitter caricature of media exploitation is straight from Ace In the Hole, and the multi-character scope of the narrative, and clothesline compositions (TM Dave Kehr) seem reminiscent of MASH, which was released a year earlier (a few unreliable sources like Wikipedia say Cold Turkey was filmed in 1969 and held for release until ’71, out of concern for its box office potential, which would pre-date MASH).

Lear uses the close-up as a punchline constantly, often taking the air out of a slow-burning joke, not giving things adequate time to build. In his opening sermon, the Reverend reads from his notes, and starts mouthing the copy from a Peruvian tourism ad, an antecedent to Ron Burgundy’s instinctual reading of the teleprompter in Anchorman, but Cold Turkey muffs the setup. As the Reverend reads, it just scans as non-sequitur. But after the service, the joke is explained to be the mistake of his wife, who was transcribing when reading a magazine. If there was a slower setup before the speech, this could have killed, but instead it opted for ex post facto explanations, slowing the story in the process.

But because of its sprawl and the sheer volume of jokes, there’s plenty to get distracted by. There’s Randy Newman’s score (his first), Robert Downey’s slapstick work as second-unit director (where parents slap their babies), Bob Newhart’s reaction shots (sublime) and the endless list of  character actors: Edward Everett Horton in his final role as a flatulent mute cigarette king, Jean Stapleton as a harried wife, M. Emmet Walsh as a rabble-rousing socialist, Tom Poston as a drunk and Paul Benedict as a Buddhist therapist.

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