This week, we of Team Bartilucci will take a look at substance abuse on film—the serious side and the satirical side, in that order!
Dorian’s Pick: The Lost Weekend (1945)
Vinnie’s Pick: Cold Turkey (1971)
In our last collaboration, I went on about the untapped potential of Dick Van Dyke in respect to his titular role (a term I just love saying, and so rarely get the opportunity) in Fitzwilly. In said piece, I quickly mentioned the 1971 satire Cold Turkey, and am pleased to have the opportunity to elaborate on such here. It's an oft-forgotten film, known mostly for being one of Randy Newman's first forays into songs for the films. But thanks to the growing print-on-demand DVD industry, the film has been made available to the general public again.
It's based on the classic comedy trope that has brought us films like The Producers, The Mouse That Roared, and Bamboozled; that of an outrageous plan intended to fail, and the chaos that erupts when it accidentally succeeds. Mervin Wren (Bob Newhart) is a PR flack for the Valiant Tobacco company. He proposes a way to make Owner and CEO Hiram C. Grayson (Edward Everett Horton's last role; he passed before the film's release) as beloved to history as Alfred Nobel: offer a prize of $25 million dollars (a princely sum in 1971) to the first town that can quit smoking en masse for thirty days. The idea was that no town could achieve such a feat, so the money would never be collected, but the offer alone would make him appear a humanitarian.
But the little town of
Eagle Rock, had grown so distressed over the loss of a nearby military base (and its requisite jobs) that they saw this as a godsend, or at least its spiritual leader, Rev. Clayton Brooks (Van Dyke) did. Usually trying to whip his flock into a frenzy (and succeeding only in barely keeping them awake), he now whips the entire populace into a desire to quit smoking. He ends up driving one unable-to-quit citizen out of town for the month, and the townspeople get the last holdouts to sign the pledge by hook or by crook. By the time of the deadline, only Eagle Rock has succeeded in getting everyone to quit. Iowa
The town turns to madness quickly, both as a result of the lack of tobacco and the sudden attention of the media their simple act has spurred. The networks set up camp in town, and advertising opportunities stream in, along with tourists. Brooks becomes an overnight sensation, making the cover of Time. And all along, Mervin Wren is madly trying to bollix up the town's low-nicotine situation. It ends bittersweetly, with helicopters, the President's cufflinks, and two people lying on the ground shot. Like many films of the past, it is as topical today as it was upon its release. The cash amounts are wildly larger now, but nowadays the tobacco companies are forced to finance their own negative campaigns via the multibillion dollar lawsuit that now funds (among many other things) the "Truth" ads you've seen for so long now. People are still trying to quit, and the companies are still making it look like they want to help while all the while hoping they don't. The news media has expanded its grasp as well, but they can still transform a town when they descend upon it for a story, and rarely for the better.
The script is simple, the directing capable, both the work of Norman Lear, approximately 18 minutes before All in the Family hit the air, and released shortly after. The cast is a Who's Who of television soon-to-be stardom, including Jean Stapleton, Vincent Gardenia and Barnard Hughes. But the film's three tentpoles (OK, technically four) are Van Dyke, Newhart and the comedy team of Bob & Ray. Van Dyke plays Brooks as an unswerving servant of God who slowly gets his head turned by the potential of fame this media circus has spawned. Newhart is possibly the best Small Angry Man in film history. His "slow burn" puts Edgar Kennedy on notice, the seething anger that whistles out his ears as his plans gang aft aglay is priceless. Like Van Dyke and Andy Griffith, the roles he played in film were all but forgotten once he became a star on television, and that's a damn shame. The dry humor of Bob & Ray threads its way through the film as they play the multiple roles of almost every member of the media we see on film, including parodies of Arthur Godfrey, Paul Harvey and Walter Cronkite.