The Battle of the Butt


On Film

From the theatrical release poster for Cold Turkey.

Before he found success with All in the Family and its spin-offs, Norman Lear wrote and directed Cold Turkey, a cynical 1971 antismoking comedy that is, to date, his only credit as a film director. It’s showing August 13, 15, and 17 at New York’s Anthology Film Archives as part of their One-Film Wonders series, a collection of cinematic one-offs and also-rans.

Cold Turkey has the kind of stupefyingly ridiculous premise we need to see more often in our movies: in a bid for good PR, a big tobacco company promises twenty-five million dollars, tax free, to any town whose residents can stop smoking for a full month. (Their magnanimity earns them comparisons to the Nobel Peace Prize.) The 4,006 residents of Eagle Rock, Iowa, are up to the challenge, at least once their minister—played by Dick van Dyke, typically affable and guileless—goads them into action.

And so for roughly ninety minutes we watch a town descend into the anarchy of nicotine withdrawal. In his memoir, My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business, Van Dyke writes that he came up with the idea after attending an antismoking clinic that specialized in a brutal form of behavior modification: sitting in a room the size of a phone booth beside a massive tub of cigarette butts, he was made to smoke an entire pack as quickly as he could. (The treatment failed.) “It struck me that millions of people across the country were struggling with the same filthy habit,” he writes, “and I thought the story of someone going to great lengths to give it up would make a good movie.” He pitched it to Lear, who had a strange critique: “Norman called me up and said he couldn’t write a story about one guy. He didn’t see it carrying an entire movie … Instead of one guy trying to quit, what if it was an entire town?”

That’s what makes Cold Turkey so singular, so weird: it really is about a whole town. Though it would’ve been a more cogent, familiar film had it focused on one person or even one family, the movie instead unfolds as a kind of prolonged montage. The camera prowls the streets and peeks into windows, watching as everyone expresses their desire for cigarettes, cutting between anxious bundles of nerves. An irascible crossing guard shouts at a little girl. A housewife shoves salami-wrapped gherkins down her throat. A prostitute, masquerading as a masseuse, shows up to relieve stress. A group of Birchers police the town limits for contraband smokes. Van Dyke’s minister, having heard on the radio that “the act of physical love” between a man and his wife will help curb cravings, is seen giving his spouse wide-eyed can-we-fuck-now glances on no fewer than three occasions. Walter Cronkite comes to Eagle Rock; Chet Huntley comes to Eagle Rock; Richard Nixon comes to Eagle Rock. Oh, and all of this is scored by Randy Newman.

I won’t spoil the ending except to say that it’s as bleak as you’d hope—and in keeping with the movie’s hysterical tilt. To give a sense of the pitch, here’s the monologue given by a lush who decides to skip town rather than follow the smoking ban:

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 would have to cut—I mean, you’d have to physically cut that thing! And when you do, my head’s gonna fall off! Do you understand, reverman? The booze bone’s connected to the smoke bone. And the smoke bone’s connected to the head bone. And that’s the word of the Lord!

Though it’s broader and less assured in its satire, Cold Turkey is cut from the same cloth as Robert Altman’s MASH and Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope—two black comedies released in the same three-year period, as sixties idealism dwindled and the nation focused its ire on corporate greed. Downey was the second-unit director for Cold Turkey, actually, and you can see his hand in some of the deranged slapstick of the movie’s long montage sequences. Yes, Cold Turkey lacks the avant-garde bite of Putney Swope—it stars Dick van Dyke, after all—but if you can cope with its occasional longueurs, it’s agreeably bizarre. Norman Lear should be proud to count it as his only film, even if evidence suggests it failed to help him quit smoking. “I wrote the screenplay for Cold Turkey in a small study off our living room,” he wrote in his autobiography Even This I Get to Experience, “smoking three-plus packs a day and an occasional cigar.”

“Both of us were using the picture as a motivation to quit,” Van Dyke writes. Lear was doing okay,

until it came time to shoot a scene featuring a room full of people, all locals cast as extras, who were chain-smoking fiendishly. There was one woman who wasn’t a smoker and it was obvious. So Norman showed her how to do it.

“No, you take it like this,” he said, putting the lit cigarette in his mouth, “and then you inhale like this.”

… I saw his eyes glaze over. Before the day was finished, he’d smoked an entire pack.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.