Overlooked Comedy Films: ‘Cold Turkey’

“Cold Turkey” is one of those comedies that most people don’t know about it, but should. “Cold Turkey” was filmed in 1969 but was not released into theaters until 1973. Guess what year this satire was finally released on DVD? 

2010. 

Why such a delay from filming to release to DVD? One might well suspect the tobacco industry might have some goons with cigarette-shaped batons are at the center of this mystery. “Cold Turkey” is, after all, the most bitingly satiric stab at the tobacco industry in the history of Hollywood. Just how powerful are the satiric punches thrown at the tobacco industry in “Cold Turkey”? This movie makes “Thank You For Smoking” look like a commercial for Philip Morris. 

Conspiracy theories are surprisingly easy to latch onto when you are certain of the villainous attributes of the targeted entity in charge of the conspiracy and few industrial villains loom as large as Big Tobacco. Nevertheless, little evidence exists that would compel one to seriously assume that the distribution problems of this most satirical of Hollywood comedies of the 1960s is the result of backroom strategizing in the smoke-filled rooms inside the offices of Philip Morris and RJR. Not that it would come as a complete surprise, however. 

“Cold Turkey” stars Dick Van Dyke in his finest big screen performance as Rev. Clayton Brooks. Brooks oversees the largest congregation in the small town of Eagle Rock, Iowa that is experiencing the kind of economic pressures generally reserved for those years in which a man named Bush occupies the Oval Office. Brooks recognizes a golden opportunity to bring some much needed hope to his town when the Valiant Tobacco Company offers 25 million dollars in 1969 money to any town in which every resident is capable of quitting smoking for thirty days.  

“Cold Turkey” is not for those who consider Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman qualified to become President. The movie is the only theatrical film directed by Norman Lear, creator of “All in the Family” and renowned Hollywood liberal. The tobacco industry takes a beating as they do everything they can to make themselves look good while engaging every underhanded trick possible to ensure that Eagle Rock’s citizens cannot make it the full thirty days going cold turkey from cigarettes.  

What makes this neglected comedy particularly complex and perhaps accounts for its failure to be as well known as that other iconic 60s satire “Dr. Strangelove” is that “Cold Turkey” doesn’t aim its arrows simply at the easiest target. The way the citizens of the town respond to the challenge becomes a metaphorical cesspool that touches on the hypocrisy of everything from religion to addiction to consumerism to television to extremist local political organizations. 

Satire is one thing, but funny is another. And “Cold Turkey” is funny! The comedy team of Bob and Ray are utilized to play all the various national journalists who descend upon the town to exploit the story and it is entirely possible to watch the movie without even realizing all those reporters are played by the same two guys. The scene where a frustrated nicotine addict kicks a dog is pure slapstick gold. A particularly weirdly funny satiric sight gag makes a fecund comment on the nature of American celebrity when the Dick Van Dyke character is stopped short by slow motion sight of kids running through the street wearing a mask of his face.