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Film / Cold Turkey

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"Big clocks are never wrong!"
Merwin Wren

A 1971 satirical black comedy film produced, directed, and written by Norman Lear (just prior to his creating television's All in the Family).

In the economically-depressed town of Eagle Rock, Iowa, the Reverend Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke) spearheads his community's effort to rise to the Cold Turkey challenge. In a campaign devised by crafty public-relations expert Merwin Wren (Bob Newhart), the Valiant Tobacco Company has promised a $25-million cash prize to any town in America that can quit smoking completely for 30 days. So Brooks leads the charge in this "Battle of the Butt", hoping to become a local hero in the process. But when Wren shows up in Eagle Rock to undermine his efforts, and nationally-famous media personalities (all played by Bob & Ray) turn the spotlight of celebrity onto the town and its citizens, this wicked comedy kicks into high gear.

Notable for featuring the first movie score written by Randy Newman, acting as the poor man'sinvoked Elmer Bernstein for the film's music at the time before ultimately becoming the Spiritual Successor to the latter following his passing in 2004. (Interestingly enough, in the opening scene where Wren is talking to Hiram C. Grayson, a banjo can be heard playing Bernstein's theme music from The Magnificent Seven.note )

This film provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Edgar Stopworth, who claims that he needs to smoke in order to drink and thus is encouraged to leave town for the month.
    "My drinking is directly connected to my smoking. Now, when I say 'directly', I mean there's a thing—a physical thing—that is directly connected from my liquor buds to the smoke pouch in my lungs. If you want me to quit smoking, you're gonna have to cut— [starts sobbing] I mean, you're gonna have to physically cut that thing! And when you do, my head's gonna fall off! You understand, Reverman? [*sniff*] The booze bone's connected to the smoke bone. And the smoke bone is connected to the head bone. And that's the word of the Lord."
  • As the Good Book Says...: Brooks, naturally. To his displeasure, his wife quotes a relevant passage herself when she thinks that things are getting out of hand: "What profit it a man if he gain the world and lose his soul?"
  • Background Halo: Parodying "the most trusted man in America", Walter Chronic is introduced this way, with one of the clinic's lights forming a halo.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The film ends with the town celebrating their victory, oblivious to the fact that Reverend Brooks, Dr. Proctor, and Merwin Wren have all just been shot and are calling for help. And Eagle Rock is "saved" by the arrival of a defense plant that soon enshrouds the entire town in the pollution belched from its giant, cigarette-shaped smokestacks.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Odie Turman is constantly trying to get her hands on Amos Bush's pistol. She eventually does, and it winds up shooting three people.
  • Chubby Mama, Skinny Papa: Dr. Proctor is short and thin, while his wife is tall and big-boned.
  • Cold Turkeys Everywhere: Invoked especially when the townspeople criticize Brooks, a some-years-former smoker, for not understanding their pain. He takes it up again so that he'll be suffering in solidarity.
  • Creator Cameo: During a sequence showing various Eagle Rock residents coming unglued from nicotine withdrawal, Norman Lear can briefly be glimpsed as a man sitting on a park bench and sobbing.
  • Dying Town: Eagle Rock has lost many of its townsfolk and most of its economy since the closing of the nearby military base.
  • Everytown, America: Eagle Rock, although as mentioned above, it's in a bad way.
  • The Faceless: President Richard Nixon supposedly arrives in Eagle Rock during the climax, but we never get a clear view of his face.
  • Fun T-Shirt: One scene shows a teenager with a shirt that says "Iowa is a four letter word."
  • Going Cold Turkey: Well, yeah. Much of the film chronicles the various ways in which the town tries to cope with the lack of cigarettes as their desperation increases.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: "Heel" is a strong word, but in one scene, Reverend Brooks takes in the media circus and growing greed that the town's cold turkey challenge is causing and walks through the town in a daze while frowning. Then his bishop shows up to praise the publicity brought by his efforts while listening to his concerns and then dismissing them. Brooks is back to his Holier Than Thou self in the next scene.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: Just before midnight, Merwin Wren is trying to light a cigarette for Dr. Proctor using a novelty lighter shaped like a gun when it's bumped from his hand. As he's trying to find it, Obie Turman appears with the real gun she stole from Amos. Wren grabs it from her, then goes up to Proctor... and accidentally shoots him, setting off a chain reaction that leads to Wren and Rev. Brooks getting shot as well.
  • Kick the Dog: Done quite literally by one withdrawal-angered Eagle Rockian.
  • Loads and Loads of Roles: For Bob and Ray.
  • Loophole Abuse: The one townsperson who won't sign the non-smoking pledge manages to avoid disqualifying the town for eligibility in the cold turkey contest by taking a vacation for the duration of the contest.
  • Man of the City:
    • Mayor Wappler collects an annual salary of less than $1,000 for his work as the mayor and the city's mail is forwarded to his barbershop. He is also the first person to grasp that Eagle Rock can enter the tobacco cold turkey contest and revitalize the Dying Town with the $25,000,000 prize, even though he's a heavy smoker and going cold turkey will be hard for him. He plays a decent role in rallying people to sing the pledge and enforcing the tobacco ban without being tyrannical. He does get caught up in the showmanship and media circus of the contest and has some self-interested moments (like accepting endorsements and wanting to spend some of the money on a proper city hall despite the difficulty making a good budget), but manages to seem Only Sane by Comparison next to everyone else.
    • Reverend Brooks seems like this to the public, and does far more to rally the town than Wappler does, but he only wants to save and improve Eagle Rock to impress his bishop and get promoted to a parish away from the town.
  • Morally Bankrupt Banker: Downplayed and Played for Laughs when the local bank president threatens to foreclose on the hospital unless the doctor joins the anti-smoking pledge and make a False Rape Accusation if he protests. It's a very dirty trick, but it is meant to get a $25,000,000 prize that the Dying Town desperately needs.
  • Mouth of Sauron: Colonel Galloway repeatedly visits Eagle Rock to convey the blatantly self-interested but not really malicious requests of President Nixon and the Pentagon regarding whether they will open another government base in the town.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Famous newscasters such as Walter Chronic show up to cover the town, and the Christopher Mott Society is an obvious parody of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society.
  • Never Mess with Granny: Odie, whenever she grabs Amos' gun. "Don't you move, now. With my palsy, you're in enough trouble just standing there."
  • Oh, Crap!: Dr. Proctor and Merwin Wren, after the latter accidentally shoots the former.
  • One Last Smoke: Dr. Proctor has been gut shot, unconvincingly insists the injury is clearly fatal, and begs for a last cigarette before he dies. Problem is, all the residents of the town signed a pledge not to smoke, and it doesn't expire for five minutes, and if anyone smokes before the deadline, the town will lose 25 million dollars. He erroneously claims that he won't last five minutes, but nobody will break the agreement by giving him a cigarette.
  • Only Sane by Comparison: Mayor Wappler is the town council member least prone to lining his own pockets or bolstering his own ego instead of focusing on the town, bullying people who are reluctant to stop smoking, or making unreasonable demands for the prize money. He's still overly excitable, does allow in the media luster some, and deals with his difficulties with going cold turkey by seeing a prostitute.
  • Overly-Long Gag: The Mayor and Reverend Brooks waiting for the news story to come on with The Mayor's wife sneezing in the background.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The Sons of the Confederacy club work for the tobacco company (whose ruthless and greedy owner flies a Confederate flag over his mansion) and help try to make people quit smoking before the deadline.
  • Precision F-Strike: Newsman David Chetley repeatedly attempts to interview a rival tobacco-company executive, who keeps telling him to "leave me the (bleep) alone!"
  • Publicity Stunt: The $25 million challenge cooked up by Merwin Wren for the Valiant Tobacco Company.
  • Putting on the Reich: Played for Laughs with the Christopher Mott Society, who take it upon themselves to enforce the cigarette ban and set up checkpoints to stop smuggling and wear tan uniforms in the final scene.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • Mayor Wappler is out to save the town's economy even though it doesn't benefit him much directly, doesn't ask the townspeople to undertake any stress he won't face himself in the cold turkey challenge, and plays a big role in helping Reverend Brooks gain and enforce pledges for the challenge.
    • Local archconservative Amos Bush is recruited to enforce the ban on cigarettes for the thirty-day period and is thorough without bullying or intruding on anyone more than necessary, even though, visually, he has some Putting on the Reich moments. That being said, he does want a couple million dollars from the prize to be used to build an institute for "Americanism."
  • Recurring Extra: One town councilman, an elderly farmer, spends all of their meetings sitting around, scowling, saying nothing, and being ignored as chaos engulfs the town.
  • Red Scare: Amos and the others who are deputized into enforcing the smoking ban are always insulting communists.
  • Running Gag: Amos often has tissues on his face due to cutting himself shaving. One of them is right over his lip and looks like a Hitler mustache.
  • Sinister Minister: Reverend Clayton Brooks is a downplayed kind, having this It's All About Me aura in his Establishing Character Moment following his sermons when he chastises his wife Natalie during the beginning of the film, presumed to engaged in love making with her unlike the celibate role a reverend should usually have during their no smoking period, accused as a "monster maker" by his wife and finally picketing youths protesting against him.
  • Slowly Slipping Into Evil: Brooks, whose motive goes from sincere religious calling to wanting to be seen as a hero once Eagle Rock starts attracting national attention.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Amos Bush, head of the Christopher Mott Society.
  • Springtime for Hitler: Merwin Wren convinces Valiant to hold the contest in the firm belief that no town will even be able to unanimously sign the pledge, never mind last the month. In fact, Eagle Rock is the only one that does, but it only takes one...
  • Toilet Humor:
    • The opening credit sequence shows a dog walking forlornly down a road leading into Eagle Rock, past signs for various shuttered or departed businesses and the entrance to an abandoned army base. At last the pooch stops at a welcome sign from the town's churches, which he promptly lifts his leg and pees on.
    • With the contest deadline approaching and Eagle Rock holding fast, Merwin Wren is in a car with Mr. Grayson and some other Valiant executives, reassuring him that his plan to get the townspeople smoking again before midnight can't possibly fail. He tells them, "Repeat after me: 'In Wren we trust.' ... 'In Wren we trust.' ... 'In Wren—'"... Cue Mr. Grayson loudly breaking wind.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Dick Van Dyke's downplayed Sinister Minister character Reverend Clayton Brooks would qualify, one of a few rare roles outside of his usual upstanding lead roles.
  • The Voiceless: Hiram C. Grayson, the elderly, wheelchair-bound Valiant Tobacco founder (played by veteran character actor Edward Everett Horton in his final screen role).