(0022X) Cold Turkey

Cold TurkeyFebruary 21, 1971 | 2 weeks at #1

Seen by Martin before? No

What did I expect? A “hysterical” satire — It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World meets Thank You For Smoking.

What did I get? An unjustly neglected treat, more intelligent (but no less ridiculous) than I was expecting. The entire thing, about a small town that quits smoking for a month in order to win $25 million, feels very much like a Mad Magazine satire come to life. Directed and co-written by Norman Lear, it bears every indication of the savvy liberal intelligence that would make him such a dominating force on television in the decade to follow. Memo to Trey Parker and Matt Stone: Remake this movie!

What makes Cold Turkey work is that the premise comes with enough meat on it to last 90 minutes without feeling stretched (too much). The roomy concept allows the filmmakers to toss darts at big business, religion, the media, and government without ever feeling scattershot, and, more humanely, also pokes gentle fun at the seemingly bottomless capacity of ordinary folks to overdose on debilitating habit. Rarely does it cross the line into mean-spiritedness or cease being funny.

Along the way, Lear, taking every opportunity to show, not tell, seizes on the ample opportunities for dialogueless sequences and montages and countless sprightly visual gags. Early on we see Dick Van Dyke, as the Reverend Clayton Brooks, who for his own ambitious reasons spearheads the drive, jogging through bucolic Eagle Rock, while a cacophony of the citizens’ hacking coughs emanates from each house he passes. Understanding what cigarette deprivation does to people, Lear assembles a pretty hilarious montage depicting the frayed tempers of the townspeople, complete with one poor sap diving headfirst into a set of bowling pins. And so on.

There was a vogue at this time, perhaps derived from TV, of somewhat overdrawn and heavy-handed satirical movies, such as Putney Swope and The President’s Analyst; even as original and probing a movie as A Clockwork Orange is related to this. Cold Turkey belongs to the set and, in its focus on small-town mores, is a cousin of sorts to 1978’s Harper Valley, P.T.A. One of the signal strengths of the movie is that it manages to create a pretty convincing (albeit put-upon) small town, and the various montages and short bits allow us to become acquainted with a couple dozen of its residents.

Consistent with Lear’s eventual legacy, it’s notable that the movie is populated largely by figures from TV and radio, including Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding (Bob and Ray), Tom Poston, and All in the Family‘s own Jean Stapleton. Rev. Brooks is supposed to be a fearsome figure, but Van Dyke is too “nice” an actor for that, so he becomes harried instead; it’s not a big problem. Similarly, some of the gags involving Newhart and his corporate overlords are a bit ham-handed, but the overall result is generous and satisfying.

Fun fact: It’s also the first movie Randy Newman contributed a song to.

What here smacks of 1971? Oh, golly, lots of things. The deftly intercut footage of Nixon, Humphrey, and (then-California governor) Ronald Reagan (his face conveniently concealed, Nixon also shows up at the climactic rally). The spoofs of newscasters Walter Cronkite, Brinkley/Huntley, Hugh Downs and so on (all played by Bob or Ray) must have been real thigh-slappers back in the day. But good satire dates, it’s impossible to avoid it.

IMDB score: 6.6

My score: 8

Director: Norman Lear

Writers: Norman Lear and Vincent Price Fox Jr.

Starring: Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Paul Benedict, Helen Page Camp, Bob Elliott, Ray Goulding, Vincent Gardenia, Edward Everett Horton, Barnard Hughes, Graham Jarvis, Harvey Jason, Judith Lowry, Tom Poston, Pippa Scott, Jean Stapleton, M. Emmet Walsh, Barbara Cason

IMDB synopsis: Reverend Brooks leads the town in a contest to stop smoking for a month, But some tobacco executives don’t want them to win, and try everything they can to make them smoke. If townspeople don’t go nuts, from wanting a cigarette, or kill each other from irritation and frustration, they will win a huge prize.

Get it at Amazon!

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