Cold Turkey

Director: Norman Lear            
Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Pippa Scott

When you hear the name of Norman Lear, most likely you will immediately think of the famous TV shows he's produced over the year, big hits like All In The Family, Sanford And Son, and Maude. Least likely what you'll think of are the motion pictures he's produced during his career; oddly, despite a couple of exceptions like The Princess Bride and Fried Green Tomatoes, these movies that he produced remain more or less "unknown" to this day. One of these movies is Cold Turkey. Made in 1969, it gathered dust on the distributor's shelf for two years before it was released - coincidently, around the time All In The Family became an instant hit and it and Lear became a hot Hollywood property.

Looking at the movie today, several possibilities come up when wondering why the distributor had, well, cold feet about this movie. Possibly it was because when the movie was made, Van Dyke, who had been concentrating on movies during this period of his career, was becoming box office If you hire someone to push your wheelchair, best that the pusher don't suffer from flatulencepoison. Another reason might be for the movie's unconventional structure; Lear often pushed for something different, and the way this movie unfolds is certainly not in any manner most viewers will have long become accustomed to. Most likely the reason why the movie remained unreleased for so long was because the distributor was unsure on how to convince an audience to see it. Though it's indeed a comedy, Cold Turkey is so cynical and biting in its portrayal of the kind of people you personally know - and probably you yourself for that matter - it's easy to see the distributor shivering with the thought of people being outraged of such a depiction of what they held near and dear. Perhaps the movie was ahead of its time, and enough time needed to pass before an appropriately cynical age - like today - came along so that the movie could be more fairly judged. Despite more than 30 years have passed after it was made, the movie still has an undercurrent of near-nastiness that raises your eyebrow slightly... though much of what gets portrayed in the movie has actually come true to a certain degree, so your eyebrow will actually have not moved that much. Though the movie is by no means perfect, you can't deny that to a degree it proved to be very prophetic.

Around the time Cold Turkey was made, some serious measures against the cigarette industry had already been put into effect. Several years earlier, manufacturers had been forced to put warning labels on cigarette packages, and more recently plans for keeping cigarette advertising away from radio and television had just started. So it's no wonder that when the movie begins, the Valiant Tobacco company is experiencing internal chaos, knowing that anti-smoking members of the government and the public will not let it rest just there. But public relations man Merwin Wren (Newhart) comes up with a great plan, inspired by that famous scientist Alfred Nobel. Sure, Nobel came up with the deadly concoction of dynamite, but isn't he now better known today for the money he set aside for all those Nobel prizes? Wren suggests to Valiant president Hiram Grayson (Edward Everett Horton) that they make a similar kind of gesture to show everyone that Valiant Tobacco has the public's best interest at heart. Namely, by making the claim that they are encouraging people not to smoke, giving proof of this by offering $25 million to any town that has all its citizens quit smoking for one month.

Of course, they don't really expect any town to get every citizen to agree to these conditions, let alone manage to go thirty days without a cigarette. As its pointed out, just getting everyone in your typical office to quit smoking for thirty days would be difficult enough. But Wren and Grayson haven't heard of Eagle Rock, Iowa and its 4006 residents. Since the local military base closed down in Eagle "Here I am - a big Dick flapping in the breeze!"Rock, the town has been slowly dying, and everyone from the mayor (Vincent Gardenia, Fire Sale) to Reverend Clayton Brooks (Van Dyke), the community's religious leader, are desperately trying to get the military to come back and bring industry - though ironically, the military won't throw around money in Eagle Rock until the town goes under serious renovations, which they don't have the money to do. So when Brooks hears about the offer Valiant announces, he sees it as the salvation he's been telling his parishioners has been on its way. What's equally miraculous is that Brooks, along with the other town councilmen and women, manage by hook and crook to sign every citizen up just before the deadline - barely. Though even before the smoke-free month begins, it's clear that a number of Eagle Rock residents are going to have a difficult time. And even with that problem inevitably coming up, the Valiant Tobacco people, after recovering from their initial disbelief, are clearly not going to sit back with the knowledge that there's even a Virginia-slim chance the Eagle Rock residents could pull it off.

What is surprising to find in Cold Turkey is how the tobacco industry ends up being portrayed. Certainly, it's not a very flattering portrait. The executives at Valiant are shown to be heartless money-loving sleazebags who consider the American public to be made up of a bunch of rubes. But when you look at the citizens of Eagle Rock - as well as the various outsiders who happen into the town during the course of the movie - you have to wonder if those Valiant executives have a point. Believe it or not, the movie is in no way designed to contain any serious slam against the cigarette industry; such bashing only takes a couple of minutes of the running time. Instead, the movie turns out to be a savage look at every imaginable all-American society outside of big business, revealing that even what's considered to be spotless and dependable Mom & Apple Pie can in fact be hiding a diseased core, or can be thoroughly twisted in the worst way by just the right conditions. This includes sacred institutions like the government and the church. When Eagle Rock's struggle becomes national news, the army comes knocking again suggesting a factory could be built there - though would the town be open to the President dropping by for a televised appearance? Not that long earlier, the church suddenly happened to be in the neighborhood, telling the now-famous Reverend Brooks that they wanted him to accept a high-profile post, which would give him that transfer he had asked for earlier.

Though when Reverend Brooks had asked for that transfer not long after the movie begun, it was right after he delivered a sermon for the destitute townsfolk that told them that God was "preparing" them for salvation, so they needed to hang on. When he subsequently learned of the Valiant tobacco offer, he suddenly seemed more than happy to stay - possibly Edith's habit of making friends with trees was one reason why she was called "Dingbat"because he was also one of the members of the town council, and could help decide how and where the money should be spent. Brooks is understandably so determined to get everyone signed up that he'll not only end up threatening someone with physical violence if they don't sign the pledge, he convinces reluctant smokers who think he won't understand their pain by purposely taking up smoking and getting addicted just before the pledge starts. His actions aren't the only ones of the townspeople that provide hilarity. The local John Birch-like society eagerly volunteers to be search-and-seizure guards at the entrance of town ("Can we wear armbands?"), a nicotine-withdrawn Jean Stapleton (All In The Family) goes into an insane rant at the breakfast table when she's interrupted while stuffing her face, and a dog gets kicked six feet into the air by a frustrated passerby. When word starts to spread across the country about Eagle Rock, it results in the townspeople getting into even more funny experiences, from Zen Buddhists and a female "massage" professional offering the citizens various methods to curb their obsession with cigarettes. Later on, with the numerous television crews hovering around and freely manipulating the eager-to-be-famous residents, various consumer businesses figure out Eagle Rock will be just as eager to make some extra money with advertising, which adds even more funny situations.

There are plenty of crazy moments like these throughout Cold Turkey that make the movie funny enough to make watching it worthwhile. Yet at the same time, you'll get the feeling that the movie is nowhere as funny as it could have been. Although the movie has what seems to be a dream cast consisting of top comic talent, none of these actors are at their prime here. Among the well-known cast members is the famous duo of Bob (Elliott) & Ray (Goulding), each of whom appears in multiple roles. But not only do these popular comedians never appear together in any scene, none of their roles turn out to be more than slightly amusing - ironic, because they are playing reporters and television commentators, and you would think their particular style of humor would be put into great effect here. Van Dyke manages to deliver a few laughs with his performance, though often he doesn't seem to be performing with the appropriate comic note. It doesn't seem to be enough for him to come across as absurd by his character doing all these crazy activities; he apparently thought that he had to act absurd while doing these things. So whenever Van Dyke blusters in an over-the-top manner, it seems unnatural and forced, and his comic contribution is muted as a result of this. As for Newhart, his first appearance is very promising, with his relishing the nastiness of his character and providing some good laughs. Then all of a sudden, he stops his snarling and retreats to his familiar and bland technique... of... talking like... this.

That's not the only problem that I had with Newhart's character. You would think Merwin Wren would be a frequently appearing adversary for the Eagle Rock residents, but not long after Eagle Rock starts its smoke-free month, he suddenly Ray's style of comedy, however, was not so heavenly this time arounddisappears and does not reappear until near the end of the movie. Pippa Scott has another similarly underused character as the Reverend's wife. She is seemingly set up to sometime become a major player in the scheme, but she never does. Until near the end of the movie she hardly says a word, and then spouts an out-of-the-blue rant about Eagle Rock losing its soul. Afterwards, she and her concerns are forgotten about and never brought up again. Previously, there had been a scene of youths protesting about the same thing, and they also ended up getting forgotten after their scene ended. There are plenty of other things brought into the movie that are forgotten about or are utterly wasted, such as when Wren ships in a truckload of volunteer observers (who end up doing nothing.) It shouldn't come as a surprise then that the ending is an utter mess, using a cheap device to put the major players out of the way so that the movie can bring up the resolution it decided on, though it in no way fills the holes left by those major characters being denied a part of it. With all these problems, it's a miracle that Cold Turkey still can be considered a fairly funny movie - though barely. It succeeds, but I could help but think it succeeds like a recovering nicotine addict who got through the mighty struggle of his first week without cigarettes.

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See also: Get Crazy, Preacherman, Rustlers' Rhapsody