Cold Turkey (1971)

Cold Turkey (1971)

“Stop smoking? You might as well ask me to stop breathing!”

When Valient Tobacco Company offers $25 million to any city willing to stop smoking for 30 days, the economically depressed town of Eagle Rock (pop: 4,006) — led by Reverend Clayton Brooks (Dick van Dyke) — takes on the challenge.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
  • Comedy
  • Media Spectacle
  • Small Town America

This all-star comedy — directed and co-written by Norman Lear of “All in the Family” fame — is a rare treat: an unapologetic spoof with more chuckles than groans, and plenty of incisive commentary on subjects as diverse as corporate corruption, nicotine addiction, personal will versus collective imposition, and the mass media. Although the story starts to lose a bit of steam once Eagle Rock turns into a tourist haven, it’s remarkably funny until then, with Lear perfectly capturing the insanity of what might happen if hundreds upon thousands of addicted smokers were asked to quit “cold turkey” overnight.

There are many noteworthy performances throughout the film, and it’s fun to see so many familiar T.V. faces together in one flick. Dick van Dyke is perfectly cast as the self-serving pastor who engineers the entire project; I like the way he re-addicts himself to cigarettes in order to bond with his “flock”. In addition, his interactions with his cowed wife (Pippa Scott, reminiscent of Carrie Snodgress in Diary of a Mad Housewife) are quite amusing. My two favorite performances, however, are Barbara Cason as a schoolteacher whose patience towards her students is immediately thinned once she stops smoking, and Tom Poston as a wealthy lush who recognizes that the only option he has is to skip town for the month (his explanatory monologue is priceless). Less enjoyable (surprisingly enough) is Jean Stapleton as the mayor’s wife (her performance is one-note), and, through no fault of his own, beloved character actor Edward Everett Horton (in his final role) as Valiant Tobacco’s aging tycoon — it’s frustrating that he’s never allowed to speak.

Note: This would, naturally, make an excellent double feature with the more recent satire Thank You For Smoking (2005).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dick Van Dyke as Reverend Brooks
  • Pippa Scott as the Reverend’s put-upon wife
  • Tom Poston as the town’s self-aware lush:

    “The thing is, I can’t stop drinking, see? That’s just the thing about me — I can’t stop drinking.”

  • Barbara Cason insisting that, because she went to bed at 11:30 rather than midnight, she’s “owed” an extra half hour of smoking
  • Graham Jarvis as the stalwart leader of the Christopher Mott (a.k.a. John Birch) Society
  • Bob Newhart as Valiant Tobacco’s smarmy idea-man
  • Reverend Brooks’ reaction to hearing that sex — “naturally, only for married couples” — is an excellent substitute for smoking
  • A hilarious depiction of collective nicotine withdrawal
  • A consistently clever screenplay

Must See?
Yes. This enjoyable satire is an all around “good show”. Listed as a cult movie in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Good Show


One thought on “Cold Turkey (1971)

  1. Not a must – but a pleasant-enough viewing experience.

    Whereas I don’t think there are any out-and-out “groans”, there is not much that keeps one (i.e., me) more than generally amused. Occasional moments stand above: watch Newhart when he says, “This [idea] may be the…greatest thing since Creation.”; Cason’s bit about feeling “owed” another 1/2-hour is pretty funny; Barnard Hughes – playing a doctor, as he did in the same year’s ‘The Hospital’ – demanding a cigarette before he operates; etc.

    At the same time, one often feels the stretch of ‘the joke’, and there are more longueurs than there should be. Part of the film seems under-developed (i.e., the problems in Van Dyke/Scott’s marriage and, oddly, some of the ground of withdrawal behavior), but that’s easily overlooked in a comedy. What’s less easy to overlook is something like (agreed) Stapleton’s strained, partly pointless performance.

    The end – involving three accidental ‘murder attempts’ – is particularly odd, but the final bit is a nice touch.

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