Friday, March 9, 2018

Comedy Movie Churches 2

Cold Turkey (1971)
Smoking used to be an emblem of glamour. Bogart lighting up was cool, Bette Davis’ cigarette was almost as important to her image as her eyes. From the twenties through the sixties in American pop culture, tobacco was essential in the life of the elite, but during this period of American history, not everyone was celebrating smoking. In the church, particularly in fundamentalist churches, smoking was considered sinful. Some lived by the motto, “Don’t smoke, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls who do.”

The Surgeon General’s 1964 report on smoking and tobacco use demonstrating demonstrated links to cancer and heart disease. It led to a very different view of smoking in popular culture. The change sparked by the report led to smoking being frowned upon in much of American popular culture.

A movie often receives a harsher MPAA rating for smoking (a PG rating changing to PG-13, PG-13 to R). City ordinances and state law in much of the country forbid smokers from smoking anywhere except in private residences (and laws prohibiting that are being considered in some locations).

More smoking the darker the state
It’s interesting that while in recent history, only the church seemed to frown on smoking, in current culture, smoking and religion may no longer have an inverse correlation. For instance, statistically, Kentucky has one of the highest percentages of smokers, and it is also statistically one of the most religious states. California, on the other hand, is one of the least religious states statistically, but a great many people are quite judgemental of smoking.

Not all churches even take a stand on the matter any longer. In fact, we visited Scum of the Earth Church in Denver, Colorado, which employed a pastor who, as one of his duties, smoked with people on a porch. The goal was to make people comfortable visiting the church.

All that explains why the film Cold Turkey is culturally interesting. It was made right in the midst of those changes in America. Written and directed by Norman Lear (the film came out the same year his groundbreaking television series, All in the Family, debuted), the movie tells the story of a tobacco company offering any city or town in the United States 25 million dollars if residents refrain from smoking for 30 days. The film features some of the best comics from the era, including Bob Newhart as the public relations executive who comes up with the scheme and the comedy team of Bob and Ray mimicking a variety of newscasters of the era.

The one city in America that gets all of its citizens to sign a pledge not to smoke for a month is a depressed little Iowa town, Eagle Rock (population 4006). The camera roams that small town during the credits accompanied by Randy Newman singing “He Gives Us All His Love.” A billboard at the city limits proclaims a welcome to visitors from quite a lot of churches, but the camera zooms in on a service at Eagle Rock Community Church. (In spite of the nondescript name, it seems to be a Methodist church, guessing by worship style and organizational government.)

The sign in front of the church announces the sermon title for the week, “Is God in Eagle Rock’s Corner?” The camera goes into the church, and we hear the choir singing, “I Love the Lord.” When the choir finishes, the church’s pastor, The Reverend Clayton Brooks (played by Dick van Dyke) begins his sermon. “God had not abandoned us, but He has a plan for His people… We have been chosen… Let us leave with His plan and purpose… We will battle the powers of darkness.” It isn’t clear whether he is addressing the congregation or the citizens of Eagle Rock in general. Unfortunately for him, the sermon then slips into a description of the beauty and wonders of Lima, Peru.

When the sermon (abruptly) ends, the pastor severely reprimands a woman for letting her eyes wander while typing his sermon with “Holiday Magazine” next to her. I wondered if the woman was his secretary, but in moments we discover she's his wife, Natalie, when a woman (Jean Stapleton of All in the Family fame) tells Natalie she’s married to a saint. Natalie’s expression suggests that she doesn’t agree.

We later see the Rev. Brooks trying to convince his bishop to send him to Dearborn, Michigan, to minister to the wealthy executives of General Motors. The bishop admonishes him that such a move would never be possible unless he turns things around in his current position in Eagle Rock.

As soon as the Reverend hears about the offer from Valiant Tobacco Company, he seizes the opportunity. Some in the town argue that the Reverend, a nonsmoker, is in no position to ask people to give up smoking. Brooks assures the townspeople that even though he and his wife no longer smoke (Natalie, unknown to him, has not given up smoking; she hides it from him), he would be willing to take it up again to give it up when the town does.

He successfully persuades all the citizens of the town to sign the pledge except for one, Mr. Stopworth (Tom Poston), who agrees to leave town for the duration after the Reverend threatens him with physical violence (while bragging about his boxing prowess in college).

As the smoke-free days proceed, people become increasingly irritable and even violent. After a radio announcer suggests that the “act of physical love” may help with the cravings of smoking, the Reverend and his wife take the suggestion, but we see little apparent affection (and visible reluctance on Natalie’s part).Others act on the radio advice by frequenting a prostitute that sets up shop downtown.

The no-smoking competition quickly attracts national attention, and Eagle Rock begins to thrive financially. The government courts the town to become the home of a missile manufacturing plant. A television network asks to televise one of Eagle Rock Community Church’s Sunday services, and we see the TV director giving instructions to the congregation, “You dig the hymn and the words the Reverend is laying on you.”)

Rev. Brooks begins to wonder if perhaps this competition has brought a dangerous portion of greed and avarice to the community. Natalie has the same concerns to as her husband, asking him, “What good would it do if the town gained the whole world but loses its soul?”

The Reverend responds, “How dare you throw my own words back at me?”

When she tells him she was quoting the Bible, he argues she’s resorting to semantics.

The relationship between the Reverend and his wife is one of the uglier perspectives into the life of this clergyman. He says it is important that they talk, but he always talks over her and never listens. When she asks to leave a light off, he turns it on.

Natalie is right, of course. The pursuit of wealth by the town brings out the worst in all concerned, not excluding her husband. When Brooks is featured on the cover of Time Magazine, his bishop tells him that is the zenith of their profession. (Silly me, I thought hearing, “Well done, good and faithful servant” was a Christian’s dearest hope.)

The film is a dark satire, and it doesn’t leave the church unscathed. Rev. Brooks and Eagle Rock Community Church, therefore, receive our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.

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