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This marvelous, mostly animated doc/drama hybrid couldn’t have come along at a better time. Director Penny Lane (Our Nixon) showcases, with wit and suspense, the undoing of one of the 20th century’s great flimflam artists, a huckster who seized then-new communication technologies — and the trappings of Christian divinity — to convince Americans of profitable nonsense. In Milford, Kansas, in the late 1910s, Dr. John R. Brinkley hit on the idea of sewing goat “glands” into men’s scrotums as a cure for impotence. This terrible idea caught on, with no evidence that it was working, something that terrible ideas still manage to do in that state — how else to explain the reelection of supply-side governor Sam Brownback?
Lane’s film purports to be based on a vintage self-commissioned Brinkley biography, written by Clement Wood, and in its opening reels Nuts! gets a little breathless championing the doctor’s success. Luminaries descended on north-central Kansas for the treatment, including Rudolph Valentino and William Jennings Bryan. Buster Keaton immortalized the power of goat glands in his 1922 short Cops, in which the procedure makes a staid bronc get to bucking. Perhaps it was the movies that revealed to Brinkley the true, no-joke power that he actually could command: mass media. In the mid-Twenties, he launched America’s fourth radio station, and soon it was the most powerful in the world. Milford’s KFKP was the first station to broadcast country music, but Brinkley invested his genius in selling his cure rather than monetizing new media. As an on-air personality, he dispensed gentle homilies, answered medical questions and talked frankly about sexual dysfunction in marriage. And guess what? He recommended his own cures, including the miracle tonics and creams he had lately whipped up.
But then the American Medical Association came for him. Lane spins the first half of this story as a mostly straightforward bio-doc, with amusingly dry Kansas historians appearing between archival clips, scans of vintage newspapers, and the occasional animated scene with invented dramatic dialogue. (And non-graphic goat sex.) The animation becomes more prominent as the bottom falls out of Brinkley’s life. It’s in a lengthy, exciting courtroom sequence that Lane’s approach proves most rewarding. During the Depression, after being chased from Kansas to Del Rio, Texas, Brinkley made the mistake of suing the noisiest of his critics for slander. Before this, the film glosses over the effectiveness of Brinkley’s goat-gland treatment, and even occasionally depicts the doctor, as a cartoon, carping about the establishment’s eagerness to shut down alternative medicines. In front of a judge and under tough questioning, the glands shrivel up entirely. Lane and screenwriter Thom Stylinski offer up a smart, theatrical précis of the testimony, in rousing scenes of cross-examination, building to an epic denunciation from the AMA’s Morris Fishbein.
The animation, from several different artists, has a grayscale, sketch-like look in keeping with newspaper illustrations of the trial itself. The device elevates Nuts! over the many recent documentaries whose creators have struggled with how to visually represent the key moments in stories that were not documented on camera. Rather than stage reenactments, film vague vignettes, or rely on stock footage (or any of the other approaches that distract audiences with questions of what footage is “real”), the Nuts! team gives us a grand cartoon playlet, scripted like the best movie dramas. It’s not what people in that courtroom saw, of course, but it’s probably close to how you’d imagine it if you were reading a transcript.
Directed by Penny Lane
Opens June 22, Film Forum