Cold Turkey (1971)

Comedy is about dysfunction. If you have a perfectly nice family behaving perfectly well toward their perfectly pleasant relatives, where's the comedy?
--Eric Idle, The Greedy Bastard Diary

We've all seen them before. All those quaint little Andy-Griffithesque depictions of small rural towns in North Carolina or Illinois or someplace far away from the big city where you can wake up in the morning to a big plate of Aunt Bee's homemade buttermilk biscuits spread with freshly churned butter before setting out for the morning's chores. And then after chatting with your friends at Floyd's barber shop, you spend the afternoon with Opie down at the fishing hole, after which you can both go home and sit down with your family to an evening's entertainment from Lawrence Welk and his merry orchestra before going to bed at 10:00 and saying good night to each and every person in the house before the last light goes out.

How I hate them.

Seriously. They are TOO FREAKING NICE. All these idyllic down home country settings where everything's normal and pleasant and perfect and nobody has any problems and nothing can possibly go wrong. It's all so incredibly sappy it turns my stomach. If I want to see something from this slice of Americana, I'll go sit in a Cracker Barrel and stare at a Norman Rockwell painting for half an hour.

I don't even like Lawrence Welk. Everybody's all happy and smiling and singing and it just creeps me out.

How nice it is to see movies that tear apart these sickeningly peaceful Walnut Grove-type settings. And who better to do it than the king of 1970s controversial television?

Norman Lear, before ascending to TV legend with such topical yet timeless shows as All in the Family and The Jeffersons, co-wrote, produced and directed Cold Turkey, a film which takes this image of Mom and apple pie and peels off each individual layer of Pleasantville to show its more natural, human side, as well as give us all a delicious little satire on media, religion, celebrity culture, and the American way of life. The film was produced the year before and released a little more than a month after the very first airing of All in the Family, a series which would attack American values on a more political angle, so perhaps it could be considered a warm-up exercise.

Times are tough for the tobacco industry - on top of the surgeon general linking it with cancer and other diseases six years prior, TV and radio advertising have also recently been banned. The Valiant Tobacco Company, headed by Hiram C. Grayson, a.k.a. "Mr. Tobacco" (Edward Everett Horton in his final film appearance--sad, since he spends the whole movie in a wheelchair and the only sound he makes is a small fart during the climax), is not immune to this tidal wave of bad PR. Fortunately for them, advertising executive Merwin Wren (Bob Newhart) has had a brainstorm: drawing an analogy from Alfred Nobel, who invented his Peace Prize as well as highly destructive explosives, he arranges for the company to offer a tax-free check for $25 million to any city or town in America that could stop smoking for thirty days straight. To Wren this is a foolproof idea--the humanitarian effort would make for good publicity, plus no money would be exchanged, since what kind of town would have the collective will power to give up something as addictive as smoking?

Stock footage of the most prestigious American political figures commend them for their actions, but not very many American cities can muster the task of getting everybody to stop smoking. We then come to the fictitious town of Eagle Rock, Iowa, a community of 4,006 people which has fallen on hard times. Ever since the military closed down the air base, the local economy has taken a nosedive, businesses are closing up shop and families are moving away on an eerily regular basis. Even the pastor at the Eagle Rock Community Church, Rev. Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke) is disillusioned by the state of affairs. And most importantly, it is a town that is alive with the sound of coughing and rife with the stench of cigarette ash. The Reverend and Mayor Wappler (Vincent Gardenia) catch Wren on the early morning show presenting his $25 million PR stunt, and knowing full well that the money would bring Eagle Rock back from the brink of ruin, convince the whole town to get on board with the Reverend, himself an ex-smoker whose faith convinced him to quit once but didn't stop him falling back off the wagon, leading the charge.

"Verily I say unto you, chim chiminy chim chim chiree!"

As the big day draws nearer, most of the town have already agreed not to smoke as Rev. Brooks and the others attempt to persuade the last few holdouts:

  • Dr. Proctor (Barnard Hughes), a surgeon at Eagle Rock Hospital with a family history of hypertension, who always has a cigarette before going into an operation to help calm him down. He is forced to sign the pledge when the bank threatens to foreclose on his hospital by suggestion of the Reverend.
  • Edgar Stopworth (future Newhart costar Tom Poston), the town drunk who feels that if he signed the pledge he would have to give up drinking as well--he even has a pistol-shaped cigarette lighter on hand. When he still refuses to sign, he offers to leave town for a month instead when the Reverend starts threatening to beat him up.
  • Members of the Christopher Mott Society, a right-wing group of citizens led by Amos Bush (Graham Jarvish) who compares the project to big government picking on the individual non-smoker. The Reverend and the Mayor change his mind when they allow him and his group to police the town and stop travelers coming into Eagle Rock for tobacco inspections.

Day one of the Cold Turkey Project arrives, and Bush and his group have set up their blockade outside of town, including the elderly Commie-hating Odie Turman (Judith Lowry) who throughout the inspections tries to make off with Bush's pistol and shoot up smoke-smuggling Commies. As for the rest of the town, it doesn't take long for the cravings to set in as everyone starts scratching for cigarettes. The Mayor's wife (future All in the Family cast member Jean Stapleton) starts obsessing over gherkin pickles, a crossing guard starts snapping at children, and eventually the whole town is at each other's throats. The Valiant company sends Wren in the city to keep an eye on them and hopefully smoke out a smoker, and along the way Odie stops him at the blockade and points Amos' gun at him after finding smuggled cigarettes in his car.

You know, I just bet that cigarette lighter will get mixed up with an actual gun.

The nicotine withdrawal symptoms get worse as the film goes on, and Eagle Rock descends further into chaos. Dr. Proctor proves to be the man most likely to snap during a standoff where he points a scalpel at Rev. Brooks when he tries to relieve him of his ciggy. There are fistfights, car crashes, and at one point a passerby kicks a small dog several yards. When a man on a radio talk show mentions sex as an alternative to smoking, the Reverend turns to his wife Natalie (Pippa Scott) to pleasure him whenever the urges come...which turns out to be more regularly than she anticipated. Another recurring gag happens after a lady sets up a "massage parlor" at Eagle Rock and we see different people hurriedly leaving it, including the Mayor. A Zen Buddhist (future Jeffersons cast member Paul Benedict) visits to consult new non-smokers, and a car appears as well selling "non-smoking herbs", while Wren lights up anyone who looks like they're smoking with a gun-shaped lighter similar to Edgar's. Wren has also brought in the "Sons of the Confederacy", a pseudo-military group dressed as gray-suited Civil War soldiers, to help him call out anyone breaking the pledge.

During the campaign, Eagle Rock, being the only town in America that could persuade its entire population to go cold turkey, becomes an overnight media sensation. News anchors from all the major networks (all played by comedians Bob and Ray and given punny names like Hugh Upson, Walter Chronic and Paul Hardly) report on the plucky little town's anti-smoking program, and soon Eagle Rock turns into a tourist haven--souvenirs shops, picture booths with cutouts of local celebrities, food stands, museums, dolls voiced by Maureen McCormick, masks with Rev. Brooks and the Mayor's faces on them, the whole ball of wax. Even the Reverend gets swallowed up in the glamor of it all when he sees his face on the cover of Time magazine. The town has gained the hearts of the American people, and many have chosen to quit smoking as a sign of support--unfortunately for the men in suits at Valiant Tobacco, forcing Wren to take more drastic measures.

That's nothing. You should hear how some people see Bill O'Reilly.

Wren's last resort happens on the final day of the pledge, where Valiant executives are to hand the $25 million check to the Mayor at precisely midnight on live TV. Having armed his "Confederate" army with lighters, at ten minutes till he arranges to move the hands of the big clock in the city center to 12:00 and bombard the area with cigarettes dropped from a helicopter, leaving the nicotine-starved audience scrambling. Rev. Brooks and the Mayor urge the crowd that the big clock is wrong and it's still too early to smoke as Wren wades through the discord with his pistol-lighter, while Odie, having spotted the "Communist" Wren in the crowd, makes off with Amos' gun again and Proctor disappears. The Reverend notices the doctor is missing and tells the crowd to find him and keep him from smoking, Wren, lighter still in hand, goes after him too, Odie searches for Wren and Edgar comes back from his month-long vacation. Indeed the real gun is mistaken for Wren's cigarette lighter as all parties converge and the doctor, the ad man, and the priest are all accidentally shot.

As the three men lay dying or wounded, midnight arrives for real, the city receives the check and the townspeople celebrate by lighting up en masse. But there's one more surprise in store--the President himself makes an unexpected visit to Eagle Rock with an announcement that their town is to be the site of the army's new Mercury missile plant, ending the film with a deliciously ironic final shot that I just don't have the heart to spoil for you.

Join the Van Dyke Army. Resistance is useless. You will be assimilated.

Cold Turkey is one of those ensemble comedies where everyone is a little bit weird, sorta like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and its ilk. The tobacco executives prove to be more subtly developed villains than how they are depicted in those Truth ads. The people of Eagle Rock are drawn together in community spirit, but otherwise will fend each other off just to hang on to their sanity. Seeing them deprived of their precious cigarettes and soaking in the celebrity status is the ultimate highlight of the film. I'm not nor have I ever been a smoker so I can't speak about the perils of quitting from experience, but I can tell that the symptoms are played up for laughs, and they are pretty funny to watch.

The only weird thing about this film is casting Dick Van Dyke as the Reverend. Clayton Brooks is not exactly a selfless man of the cloth, as he would rather be in a wealthier community instead of a depressing little hamlet like Eagle Rock (I hear Dearborn, Michigan has GM) and clearly thinks himself above his wife, even ignoring her in her only scene of dialogue where she says the the town is, to paraphrase the Scripture she quotes, "gaining the world yet losing its soul". Many of us know Dyke as a warm, friendly actor from films like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and seeing him in the role of a cold, egotistical Midwestern priest is more than a little unusual, despite the fact that this is a comedy.

Casting hiccup aside, I can wholeheartedly recommend this movie to anyone who can't stand those sappy heartwarming flicks where everyone's nice to each other, whether you smoke or not. It isn't a movie which outright says that cigarettes are bad for you--the tobacco bigwigs are too concerned with profits to mention anything about lung cancer--but rather it showcases what Norman Lear does best: taking a wrecking ball to the perfect patriotic vision of America and proving that it is, as Odie would put it, "all a big bulls**t".

It's also worth noting that Dick Van Dyke does look like Andy Griffith if you squint a little.

Not smoking can be hazardous to your health.


Braniff said...

As an Iowan (where much of this movie was filmed), I agree. I would rather see this movie than Field of Dreams or The Bridges of Madison County. Those films are made for the touristy, Hallmark Card set.

I also have to ask, why hasn't Cold Turkey become a classic? It's comedy at its darkest and its wittiest. I would rather watch this film than a rerun of Leave it to Beaver or The Brady Bunch any day!!!!

The movie is timeless. Just think about those who want to earn lots of money on the internet, those who compete on reality TV shows, the around-the-clock news channels, the conflicts between the left and the right, among other things. Norman Lear and his crew were on to more than just a few things.

Tucsoncoyote said...

If there is anything that can kill any bad habit.. This movie killed my habit to watch bad movies..

Sure let's get eveyone off the Cigarette wagon for 30 days.. Let's watch as a bunch of Cibilized people turn into a bunch of crazies that are locked inside a town full of no cigars, cigarettes or chewing tobacco.. watch as they go totally insane.. then they get the money and die happily at the hands of a Missile plant that spits out more pollution than a clear sday in Los Angeles (And that includes the Volano!)

But all in all If this is comedy, I'd hat eto see what this movie would be like if it were tradgedy...cause it probably would be hilarous to watch people tkilling each other for a bit of tobacco.. (Which my dog Urinated on last week)

Oh wait, that's why that Post card said.. "Does your tobacco taste different lately?

Well that's it.. it's Gatorade from here on in.. Wait, if the entire city goes without Gatorade for 30 days we win 25 million dollars?? Grabs as Many bottles of Gatorade and hides in the bottom of the well..chugging Gatorade happily..

Ah well You can't pull the smoke screen over my eyes.. Frankly.. This is a case of .. pure cancer..