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1971 was a very important year for writer-producer Norman Lear. On January 12th, his ground-breaking TV series All in the Family (1971-1979) premiered on the CBS network and launched Lear as the hottest and most controversial television creator of the decade. The following month United Artists released the biting satire Cold Turkey (1971), which Lear had produced and written, and which also ranks as the only feature film (to date) he has directed. Executive-produced by Lear's television partner Bud Yorkin, the film is the blackest of black comedies, and takes on numerous obvious targets such as corporate greed, manipulations of the broadcast media, and President Richard Nixon. More surprisingly, though, Lear's satire also skewers small-town America and its citizenry, often with a mean-spiritedness that renders the movie's dedication to "the Good People of Iowa" a cruel joke. The film features a generous helping of likeable comedians and comic actors who help soften the sting of the harsh material.
In a pre-credits sequence, Merwin Wren (Bob Newhart), the public relations man for the Valiant Tobacco Company, has his wheelchair-bound boss, Hiram Grayson (Edward Everett Horton), right where he wants him. Wren tells Grayson that he has a terrific idea, "The Capper" of his twenty years in public relations: just as munitions manufacturer Alfred Nobel spent a fraction of his fortune to create The Nobel Prize, Grayson should offer a prize of $25 Million to any town whose residents can quit smoking for thirty days straight. The publicity will be enormous, Grayson's name would be associated with Good Works, and, as Wren reassures a nervous board of directors, "You're overlooking one thing - have you ever seen a whole office building give up smoking? A whole neighborhood?" Confident that there is no way an entire community can successfully stop the habit as a group, the board votes to go ahead with the offer.
The Valiant board did not count on Eagle Rock, Iowa - population 4,006. During the opening credits, we see a black mutt wandering into town, past dilapidated business signs marked "Closed" and "Moved." The depressed state of the city is further emphasized by the forlorn Randy Newman song, "He Gives Us All His Love." The churches are about the only establishments in town in full vigor, and we meet the Reverend Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke) trying to stir up his sleepy, dull-witted parishioners. When the ambitious Brooks hears about the Valiant offer, he persuades the town council and the citizens to take the challenge. What follows is a series of vignettes in which the diehards are dealt with (Tom Poston is superb as a wealthy alcoholic who does not want to play along), the anti-Communist "Christopher Mott Society" (a parody of the John Birch Society) refuses to sign up, and the many consequences of "withdrawal syndrome" are faced.
In addition to finely-etched characterizations from such wonderful comic actors as Vincent Gardenia, Barnard Hughes, Jean Stapleton, and Paul Benedict, radio comics Bob (Elliot) and Ray (Goulding) appear as multiple characters. Bob and Ray are most welcome, in fact; they are instrumental in softening some of the mean-spirited humor and upping the satirical quotient as they portray high-profile news correspondents who descend upon the town. Their thinly-disguised personas include "David Chetley," "Hugh Upson," and "Walter Chronic."
Lear's screenplay was based on an unpublished novel by Margaret and Neil Rau called I'm Giving Them Up for Good. Cold Turkey was shot entirely on location in Iowa, not in the fictional town of Eagle Rock, but in Winterset, Greenfield and Des Moines. Cinematographer Charles F. Wheeler takes advantage of the natural setting and many scenes, such as one depicting Rev. Brooks' morning jog, are bathed in gorgeous Midwestern light. Apparently production wrapped in 1969 and the film sat on the shelf unreleased for nearly two years. Consequently it is a posthumous credit and the last film appearance for Edward Everett Horton, who died in 1970.
Critical reaction to Cold Turkey was mixed; that is to say, most critics seemed to simultaneously dislike the vulgar humor while still admitting the film was funny. Vincent Canby, for example, writing in the New York Times, called Cold Turkey a "very engaging, very funny movie," but admitted that it contained "...a lot of typical, nasty humor and old-fashioned, clean-cut vulgarity." Canby noted, "there are moments when the movie makes a few, half-hearted attempts to say something about the evils of greed and avarice, but its concerns are both more immediate (to get laughs out of things like false teeth and flatulence) and its intentions more specific (to question the economic system that must punish as it rewards)." Finally, Canby said that the film "...is not terribly significant satire. It was made - after all - to amuse the very people it is satirizing, but it does this with such hustling, commercial vitality that I found most of it irresistible..." Similarly, Roger Ebert wrote that the movie "...assume[s] as a matter of course that the human being is powered with unworthy motives, especially greed," and that it was a movie "...that I can recommend to cynics and malcontents with little fear they'll be disappointed." At the same time, Ebert wrote, "...Lear makes it work by a brilliant masterstroke: He gets the comedy, not out of people trying to stop smoking, but out of the people themselves ...during a series of vignettes handled by Lear with an unfailing eye for human frailty. Even if you don't smoke, you'll find Cold Turkey funny."
In a long piece written for New York Magazine, Judith Crist noted that at least Cold Turkey was made for and about adults, and was breaking what she felt was a long line of "youth oriented" films that had been flooding screens since The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), so "...we're free of Beautiful Youth vs. Rotten Society. With Cold Turkey it's a case of Norman Lear vs. Rotten Society." Crist goes on: "One tends to be grateful for small favors these days - And getting Bob and Ray pure in their impersonations of major newscasters, Bob Newhart in his buttoned-down-mind routine as a p.r. man who tells it 'from le coeut,' or the late Edward Everett Horton as a prune-like tycoon aglow with venality is among the pleasures on hand." But above all, Crist writes, "...Lear is merciless in his consideration of the common man, whom he obviously sees as the alum rather than salt of the earth....There is a touch of black to Lear's comedy, one that does not blend easily with the too much that is bland. Lear tends to linger long on the obvious; indeed, high spots of the film are provided by flashes of slapstick withdrawal-symptom scenes, provided by Robert Downey as a second-unit director."
Cold Turkey marked the first film score written by Randy Newman, the nephew of famed composer Alfred Newman. Kevin Courrier, biographer of the younger Newman, wrote (in Randy Newman's American Dreams, Ecw Press, 2005) that the film's music "...was a droll blend of [Aaron] Copland and his Uncle Alfred, but he dismissed the effort later, saying it wasn't a real score because he merely sketched it out and left the rest to Jerry Goldsmith's regular orchestrator, Arthur Morton." Courrier also quoted Newman, who said, "It's always scared me to write for orchestra. With experience, I've gotten better about it. This job, being the first, really got to me." The movie's featured song, "He Gives Us All His Love," made its debut here before appearing on Newman's classic 1972 album Sail Away.
Producer: Norman Lear
Director: Norman Lear
Screenplay: Norman Lear (screenplay); Norman Lear, William Price Fox, Jr. (screen story); Margaret Rau, Neil Rau (novel)
Cinematography: Charles F. Wheeler
Art Direction: Arch Bacon
Music: Randy Newman
Film Editing: John C. Horger
Cast: Dick Van Dyke (Rev. Clayton Brooks), Pippa Scott (Natalie Brooks), Tom Poston (Mr. Stopworth), Edward Everett Horton (Hiram C. Grayson), Bob (Hugh Upson/David Chetley/Sandy Van Andy), Ray (Walter Chronic/Paul Hardly/Arthur Lordly), Vincent Gardenia (Mayor Wappler), Barnard Hughes (Dr. Proctor), Graham Jarvis (Amos Bush), Jean Stapleton (Mrs. Wappler)
by John M. Miller