Cold Turkey: Going cgi-free has Dick Van Dyke seeing double…no, triple!
How about a hilarious helping of Cold Turkey for Thanksgiving?
Cold Turkey (1971)
Looking to combat bad publicity with good, Big Tobacco offers $25 million to the one American town that can collectively kick the habit for 30 days. The weeds grow so tall they shroud the road signs in Eagle Rock, Iowa, and without the help of government assistance or an act of God, Eagle Rock doesn’t have anything to offer big industry in exchange for putting them on the map. But as it happens, it’s a municipality so hooked on being besides the point that it becomes cigarette guru Merwin Wren’s (Bob Newhart) odds on favorite to lose the challenge.
In jig time, the snoozing burrough becomes a bustling tourist mecca. A Citizen’s Militia stationed at the border searches cars for smokes. (A group of proud boys who go by the name “Sons of the Confederacy” are later bussed in to keep the peace.) So many cars line the checkpoint you’d think Kirk Douglas had uncovered a caved miner. Townsfolk turn on each other. Drivers turn to road rage as a means of relieving aggression. And with half of the country cheering for a smoke-free victory and the other half threatening to quit smoking as a show of support, it seems this publicity stunt gone wrong could topple the tobacco industry.
At the center of the controversy stands Rev. Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke), a concerned minister with an innate ability to strike fear into the hearts of his parishioners — who, by all accounts, are a band of dunderheads. No one fears his wrath more than Natalie (Pippa Scott), the little woman who dutifully transcribes her husband’s sermons. But when the words of Rev. Brooks’ homily begin to veer in the romantic direction of a travel mag left open by the side of her typewriter, no one seems to notice. Not knowing what to do with their hands since quitting, a radio hint from Bob & Ray points the otherwise loveless couple in the direction of the bedroom. The act of physical lovemaking as a means of relieving tension becomes a daily ritual. (Sometimes a two-or-three-times-a-day daily ritual.) Natalie takes notice when sex removes pimples, but nothing can erase the dark cloud that hangs over their marriage.
Director Norman Lear wouldn’t set foot out the front door for a project unless it came with a political conscience in tow. It almost cost him here. He’d completed production in 1969, but the film appeared destined to be shelved. It wasn’t until the success of television’s All in the Family that Cold Turkey snagged its theatrical release. Much of what was targeted for satire in 1969 — the military, corporate greed, democracy gone haywire — withstands the test of time; it’s only when it comes to comedy that the film remains mired in topicality: how many folks under 50 recall broadcast news deities Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley — or the ordinary-guy team of radio comedians Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, so skilled at mimicking them? Will contemporary audiences recognize the theme from The Magnificent Seven, let alone associate it with the Marlboro Man?
The film is populated by a formidable fleet of character actors. Fans of the aforementioned All in the Family will recognize many of the supporting cast, who went on to work in Lear’s pioneering program. Edith Bunker herself, the inimitable Jean Stapleton, turns up, along with Vincent Gardenia, Barnard Hughes, M. Emmet Walsh, and Tom Poston as the loveable comic drunk — in hindsight, the film’s most expendable character. But none of the supporting cast is more recognizable (or beloved) than Edward Everett Horton. If my calculations are correct, Cold Turkey was the first feature to feature flatulence. Alas, the start of the fart sounded the last gasp from Horton, making his big screen swansong as the otherwise mute tobacco company president.
Allow me a moment to recognize Judith Lowrey as Odie Turman. I received my driver’s license the year the movie came out, and celebrated by seeing the film at least 50 times in a theatre. The character actress was in her 80’s when called upon to play the cantankerous commie-hater with a leaning towards the John Birch Society. She can’t have been on screen for more than five minutes, every second of which I have studied at length. Olivier couldn’t deliver the line “It’s all a big bullshit” with the same force and conviction as Dame Judith Lowrey. She’s just one of the many reasons — all of them hilarious — to go Cold Turkey for the holidays.