May 30, 2018

On Blu-ray: Dick Van Dyke and Bob Newhart in Cold Turkey (1971)

When Olive Films announced that it was releasing Cold Turkey (1971) on Blu-ray, it was the first I’d heard of this film starring Dick Van Dyke and Bob Newhart and directed by Norman Lear. It isn’t shocking that this comedy about a town that temporarily quits smoking in a bid to win a fortune never came across my radar before. It was filmed in 1969, deemed poor potential box office by the studio and released years later to little fanfare. This is a shame, because it’s an entertaining flick. I was glad to have the chance to give it a look.

Dick Van Dyke stars as a highly moral preacher who always hopes for a little more from his congregation than he can realistically hope to get, a fact his wife (Pippa Scott) understands with stoic silence. When the town mayor (Vincent Gardenia) tells him about a contest a tobacco company is sponsoring, where if an entire town can quit smoking for 30 days, it will win $25 million, Van Dyke realizes the civic improvements this windfall could fund and becomes determined to sign every last reluctant resident to a pledge of going cold turkey for a month.

The contest is the brainchild of an advertising executive (Bob Newhart, in an uncharacteristically and delightfully sleazy performance) who convinces the frail head of the Valiant Tobacco Company (Edward Everett Horton) that much like the Peace Prize established by weapons manufacturer Alfred Nobel, offering the prize could help the profile of Big Tobacco. It is a cynical effort though, as he doesn't believe any town could qualify for, let alone complete the challenge. Panic sets in when he realizes how much influence the reverend has on his town.

Cold Turkey is Norman Lear at an interesting point in his career. He’d built up a solid reputation as a television writer and producer, but was on the edge of his greatest successes with a remarkable run of shows like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and One Day at a Time throughout the 70s and 80s. Here you even get a peek at Lear regular Jean Stapleton before she would forever be known as Edith Bunker.

While Cold Turkey follows the townspeople as they struggle to stay away from cigarettes, it’s really about the greed the experience arouses in them. At first they focus on the pain of withdrawal, and how ravenous, horny, and angry it makes them. Then the town’s seemingly impossible quest become the focus of national attention. Ad money begins rolling in, merchandise featuring the reverend and other town leaders begins to sell, and these ordinary people get to experience the glamour of appearing on TV.

Lionized and idolized, Reverend Brooks is wary of the hero worship and dismayed to no longer recognize his neighbors. Sure they were always tacky, and self-centered and shallow, but they were also essentially humble, hard-working, and more satisfied with life than the greedy, demanding mob they have so quickly become.

Backing up this intriguing premise is a cast of astonishing talent. It is remarkable that they were all assembled in the first place. In addition to those previously mentioned, television mainstay Tom Poston plays the town alcoholic and comedians Bob and Ray make an appearance as a pair of godly television presenters. Perhaps the most remarkable is Edward Everett Horton though, who in his last role communicates plenty, while remaining completely silent except for a single fart, which was apparently the first passing of gas recorded in a mainstream film. I could see him being amused that this moment was his swan song.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

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