Tuesday, December 18, 2012

cinema obscura: Norman Lear's "Cold Turkey" (1971)

Funny how politics never changes. Both Otto Preminger’s “Advise and Consent” (1962) and, going even further back, Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) are as relevant today as they were when they were released. Seems to me that they were more than merely mirrors of their times. They were downright prescient.

And I can think of a few dozen more films that, although made in the past, reflect today’s disheartening political scene with an uncanny accuracy.

Case in point: Norman Lear’s slyly blistering “Cold Turkey,” which was filmed in 1968, ready for release in 1969 but held up for two years by its atypically nervous distributor, United Artists. Since it was tossed away by U.A. in 1971, “Cold Turkey” has been virtually impossible to see. It has rarely screened on television and its rather belated home-entertainment release came in more than 20 years later – in 1993. It finally surfaced on DVD in 2010, courtesy of the Warner Archive.

The hugely cynical plot is about Eagle Rock, a desperate small town in Iowa, whose entire citizenry buys into a Big Tobacco company’s challenge to quit smoking for an entire month for a tax-free check for $25,000,000 in return. Big Tobacco, meanwhile, has pretentions of winning a Nobel Prize for its humanitarian efforts. In this ripe scenario, it’s difficult to determine who is more evil – the PR hack (Bob Newhart) who is the mastermind behind this marketing scheme, or the town’s beloved (and hypocritical) young minister (Dick Van Dyke) who, with ambitions of his own, finesses and coerces everyone in town to suck it up and join up.

The film was made by Tandem Productions, a company that Lear shared in partnership with Bud Yorkin. In 1967, Tandem produced the excellent “Divorce, American Style” (also starring Van Dyke), with Yorkin directing Lear’s screen play. For “Cold Turkey,” Lear directed as well as penned the screenplay. In between, Lear and Yorkin collaborated on the iconic and groundbreaking “All in the Family” television series.

Yorkin cleverly interpolated several verité sequences in “Divorce, American Style” and Lear took that conceit a few steps further by filming “Cold Turkey” almost entirely in cinema verité. Perhaps, not coincidentally, his second-unit director was Robert Downey (“Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace”) and one can sense the fascinating commingling of Lear’s political sensibility with Downey’s alt-film stylings. This was Downey’s first and only stint as a second-unit director.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Elsie Downey (Robert’s first wife and the mother of Robert Jr.) does a wacky turn in the film as an operating-room nurse freaked out because the surgeon - Barnard Hughes - wants to smoke. (That's Downey and Hughes in the still shot above.)

Barnard Hughes is one of many notable character actors who dot "Cold Turkey" – among them, Newhart, Tom Poston, Sudie Bond, Judith Lowrey, Vincent Gardenia, Peggy Rea, Edward Everett Horton, Barbara Cason, Paul Benedict, Woodrow Parfrey, M. Emmett Welsh, Gloria LeRoy, Harvey Jason, wonderful Jean Stapleton (you know, from that aforementioned Lear-Yorkin TV series) and Graham Jarvis (from Lear's "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman"), who is spot-on as an anti-Big Government right-wing nut. The comedy team of Bob (Elliott) and Ray (Goulding) pop up in several cameos, doing wicked impersonations of famous TV newsmen of the time.

Turner Classic Movies, ever on top of things, will screen “Cold Turkey” on Monday, January 21st - in tandem (pun intented) with “Divorce, American Style.” The double-bill will start at 8 p.m. (est) with "Divorce" which, BTW, gets an encore showing at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 31st.

"Cold Turkey" is the definition of topical. It's time has come.


wwolfe said...

I commented on this elsewhere, but thank you for giving me Graham Jarvis's name. Forty years later, I still smile at his pronunciation of the word "vehicle." And Bob and Ray were wicked fun.

joe baltake said...

Bill- Jarvis was an invaluable character actor during the 1970s. He made indelible comic impressions in "The Out-of-Towners" and on "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." We agree on Bob and Ray.

Dave said...

All news to me, Joe! Thanks for the info. I remember seeing it when it came out and thinking it wasn’t quite as good as a Second City sketch, but that was a long time ago