Local film preservationists Julian Antos, Kyle Westphal, and Rebecca Hall
USA (58 mi) 1956 director: Robert Woodburn co-screenwriters: Robert Altman, Robert Woodburn
USA (58 mi) 1956 director: Robert Woodburn co-screenwriters: Robert Altman, Robert Woodburn
While it’s not known exactly what role Robert Altman played in this rare early work, preserved by the Northwest Chicago Film Society with funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation, but it most likely did not include directing, though there are rumors to the effect that Altman may have directed some scenes, from anonymous sources on IMDb, repeated again by the local theater website, Corn's-A-Poppin' | Music Box Theatre, both listing him as a co-director, but there is no credible evidence to support this. When one of the user reviews pointed out this discrepancy, IMDB corrected the listing, noting only a writing credit. So more accurately, Altman co-wrote the screenplay and it was directed by someone else, Robert Woodburn, who also served as co-writer and cinematographer. Woodburn, as it happens, never directed anything else in his short-lived career. After a brief attempt to establish a career both in New York and again in Hollywood as a screenwriter, Altman returned to Kansas City in the late 40’s without any filmmaking experience, where he initially helped produce industrial films in the service department of The Calvin Company, a job that included writing, editing, directing, and doing his own camerawork, eventually moving into the production division by directing about 65 documentaries by 1955. Typically twenty minutes in length, shot on 16 millimeter, industrial films were either educational films or product sponsored films that placed the spotlight on one of the featured products, where the first completed Robert Altman film was reportedly Honeymoon for Harriet, made in 1948, with a camera following a veteran retiring mailman and his young replacement along country roads as he trains his apprentice. The film tells the story of newlyweds whose honeymoon was constantly delayed because an International Harvester dealership was located on the way to the travel agency. Written by Altman, Calvin allowed him to direct the film because no one else could figure out how to record the soundtrack of the open road conversation, where the film is currently housed in the International Harvester Film Collection. The film is also notable because it starred Altman’s second wife, Lotus Corelli. In a later 1954 film called The Perfect Crime, sponsored by the Caterpillar Tractor Company and the National Safety Council, Altman experimented with quick cuts and personal subjectivity, writing an action sequence, the holdup of a neighborhood Mom and Pop convenience store, including a shot from Pop’s point of view as Mom and another little girl get shot. As the killers get away “scot-free,” the case is made for better highway construction, suggesting if taxpayers invested in better roads, in other words those built by Caterpillar construction equipment, these unfortunate roadside incidents could be avoided. The film won Altman an Oscar award by the association of industrial filmmakers in 1955.
More fun than any rating could indicate, CORN’S-A-POPPIN’ originated with Elmer Rhoden Jr., an old school friend of Altman’s whose father co-owned the Commonwealth Theatres, a regional chain of 102 movie houses, while his brother Clark was chairman of the Popcorn Institute, a local trade organization. With money to invest, Elmer got the idea to shoot a film promoting popcorn, hiring Robert Woodburn of The Calvin Company to direct, while Altman was brought along to help with the script, with both flying out to Los Angeles in search of talent for a musical review, discovering nightclub singer Jerry Wallace, who was actually from Kansas City. To back him they hired the local country band Hobie Shepp and the Cowtown Wranglers. Originally entitled Ozark Hoedown, the title was a variation on HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941), a spoof of the many Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland backstage musical shows that they headlined while raising money for the war effort, not to mention the exuberance of their overly formulaic MGM musicals. While the film clearly falls into the camp category, a film so bad it’s good, where you may be besieged afterwards by corny jokes and hokey country music songs in your dreams at night, leaving behind an unmistakable imprint of something altogether bewildering, featuring some of the worst performances in history, Wallace as Johnny Wilson, it turns out, is a real discovery as a singer, not to mention his sidekick, amateur actress Cora Rice as Susie who is the show’s scene stealer. Unfortunately, they’re not onscreen for the majority of the film, but when they are they literally light up the screen, Corn's-A-Poppin' (1956) Trailer - YouTube (2:20). Instead it’s bogged down by an atrociously poor production design that makes FLASH GORDON (1936) seem like the gold standard and an insipid story about Thaddeus Pinwhistle (Keith Painton), owner of Pinwhistle Popcorn, who’s about as interesting as that relative you least look forward to seeing again. Timid to the point of dysfunction, Thaddeus allows his newly hired PR man Waldo Crummit, James Lantz, who also starred in Honeymoon for Harriet, by the way, to run roughshod over him in order to sabotage The Pinwhistle Popcorn Hour, a half-hour variety show that features lame musical acts in between the important commercial spots of Johnny Wilson live on camera pushing the popcorn. Crummit’s plan is to feature the worst acts he can find while lowering the quality of the popcorn, making it inedible, in an attempt to have a rival company “buy popcorn for peanuts,” where they purchase the popcorn empire for next to nothing. The beleaguered Thaddeus hasn’t an inkling he’s being hoodwinked, though his secretary Sheila (Pat McReynolds), always introduced as “more than a secretary,” couldn’t be more bored sitting alone at her desk all day, seen communicating with her boss via phone intercom, sees right though the con man’s smoke screen. But its little Susie that expresses it best, seen throughout holding her nose as she watches the show, complaining “It stinks!”
While there’s not an ounce of the Altman ingenuity behind the camera, shot in a strictly point and shoot mode from a fixed position, where each shot features a square box, not much different than the way television was shot in the early 50’s. Filmed on the cheap using two or three threadbare sets from the old Lyceum Theatre, which was at that time an old abandoned Baptist church, now Missouri's oldest professional regional theatre, where much of the film takes place in a makeshift TV station, featuring corny jokes, amateur acting so bad that it will make you squirm in your seats, and a dull central storyline that is occasionally interrupted by somewhat inspired musical numbers. Underneath it all is some uncomfortable intimations, as what’s initially creepy is the audience doesn’t know the relationship between Johnny Wilson and Little Susie, seen living together, where she is seemingly the pint-sized boss of the relationship, always in full make up, just like the other adult women, where she belts out her lines with authority, at times carrying the picture on her shoulders. She actually cooks a meal when Johnny invites the band over after the show for a spaghetti dinner party, seen dressed in her apron, where for all practical purposes she may as well be taking care of Johnny, ordering him around like a hen-pecking wife, where she could be his midget wife. It’s only much later in the picture that we learn they are brother and sister, where the actual suspense for the audience is waiting for her to finally appear on the show, as she has such a unique camera presence, like Judy Garland as a child, capable of belting out musical standards with ease. But instead we get the bullying antics of a conniving Waldo, who continually butters up Pinwhistle with neverending compliments and a rosy outlook for this ridiculously awful TV show, featuring hog-caller turned singer extraordinaire, Lillian Gravelguard (Nora Lee Benedict), whose Tiny Tim resembling rendition of “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” will surely make you wish you were elsewhere. What we hear at Johnny’s place when he relaxes with the band, on the other hand, is a true delight, reminiscent of those episodes on The Andy Griffith Show (1960 – 68) when Andy would get together with Denver Pyle as Briscoe Darling, who’s come off the mountain for some real down home bluegrass music. It’s in these freewheeling musical numbers that we realize Susie is the real star of the show, as Johnny has a raw and appealing talent, especially singing the upbeat “Running After Love,” but Susie’s 12-year old swagger is like nothing we’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, we’re forced to spend most of the movie watching the back and forth shenanigans of Pinwhistle and Waldo, two pinheads that grow extremely tiresome after awhile.
As it turns out, Pinwhistle may have been based upon a real figure, Kansas City popcorn mogul Charles T. Manley, an innovator whose electrical popping machine helped make popcorn a staple in movie theaters. It wasn’t a fixture during the Silent era, but could be purchased in other areas like circus or stage shows. Popcorn exploded during the Great Depression, sold for as little as five cents a bag, where vendors could obtain a space either inside or outside the theater to sell their product, which was at that time generated by hand. It was only during the labor shortage of World War II, which also saw sugar rationing that cut out popcorn’s main competitor, candy bars, that mechanical machines made popcorn faster and easier to make. It was the war years, and the rise of the National Popcorn Association, that made it patriotic to eat popcorn at the movies. CORN’S-A-POPPIN’ exaggerates this love of corn, where it’s a dark and dreary world depicted by a dearth of quality popcorn, continually undermined by the dreadfully unprincipled Waldo Crummit, who’s like a dastardly character out of the cartoons, where it takes a cavalry saving appearance from a popcorn guardian angel, Dora Walls as Agatha Quake, whose Norman Rockwell visage could easily make her a kissing cousin of Margaret Hamilton as Miss Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West from THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), who just happened, by chance, to make a sinister appearance in Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970). Ms. Quake’s secret ingredients not only improve the taste of popcorn, but create orgasmic effects at the popcorn machine, where the performers onstage are deluged by flying kernels of corn that quickly resemble a blinding snowstorm. Ms Quake’s success is immediate, in more ways than one, offering a deliriously happy ending, but not before Little Susie finally gets a chance to sing onstage with older brother Johnny in what turns out to be the sequence of the film, singing “On Our Way to Mars” On Our Way To Mars - Jerry Wallace and Cora Rice - Corn's YouTube (2:42) while sitting on one of those toy rocket ships that used to sit outside grocery stores along with rocking horses for kids to ride on for anywhere from a nickel to a quarter, only here it’s a cardboard rocket ship. It’s exquisitely innocent, given a slightly jazzy flair, imagining what it might be like to “dream in Cinemascope” and find a grilled cheese sandwich on the moon, ending in “Zoom! Zoom!” While Wallace made a few singing appearances on television, neither he nor Cora Rice ever made another movie. What all this has to do with Robert Altman is anybody’s guess, where Altman all but disowned these crude early works. Patrick McGilligan, in his Altman biography Jumping Off the Cliff, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff - Page 100 - Google Books (pdf format), has offered his own views, calling it “one of the worst movies ever made…the movie is slumberous, hammy, amateurish and clichéd, ultra-boring. Folks who rate Quintet the nadir of Altman’s career have not seen Corn’s-A-Poppin’” While it’s one of the final films Altman made while working at The Calvin Company, as the same Elmer Rhoden Jr. offered Altman a chance to write and direct his first feature, a film about juvenile delinquency in Kansas City, THE DELINQUENTS (1957), which has the distinction of being one of only two films, the other being 3 Women (1977), made throughout his entire career where Altman worked without collaboration and was the sole writer of one of his films.
From Kyle Westphal, one of those Northwest Chicago Film Society forces, along with Julian Antos and Rebecca Hall, behind the film preservation, written after the film was rediscovered in 2007 at the University of Chicago DOC Films, calling it “a truly insightful look at the kind of unaccountable cinema that a certain contingent of Doc people/alums are particularly entranced by,” October 9, 2011: Northwest Chicago Film Society Blog [Kyle Westphal]
A rabid auteurist might stretch the connection and claim Corn’s-a-Poppin’ as a clear antecedent to Nashville or The Prairie Home Companion, as all three share a vaguely similar down home milieu. But this suggests a clear line of personal development—and one that leads quickly, conveniently, and inexorably away from Corn’s-a-Poppin’—rather than the messier, and inherently collective, mystery of the film itself.
On its own, Corn’s-a-Poppin’ is a beguiling experience. Few films have seemed prouder of their low-rent constraints. The sets are dressed-down television leftovers, which is actually appropriate, as the plot revolves around the trials of producing an inept program called The Pinwhistle Popcorn Hour. The show, a wild scheme hatched by marketing man Waldo Crummit (James Lantz) to boost sales for Thaddeus J. Pinwhistle (Keith Painton) hovers between an embarrassment and outright sabotage. In the first reel Waldo introduces Pinwhistle to his newest headliner, former hog-caller Lillian Gravelguard (Nora Lee Benedict) whose rendition of “Drink to Me Only” actually makes the anemic popcorn seem the rightful highlight of the program. Just about the only positive effect of this enterprise is the flirtatious manner affected by Pinwhistle’s “more-than-a-secretary” secretary Sheila (Pat McReynolds) and folksy Pinwhistle Popcorn Hour announcer Johnny Wilson (Jerry Wallace), whose charm helps viewers to forget that the show only runs half an hour. The only obstacle to their union is Johnny’s pushy kid sister Susie (Little Cora Rice) who orders him around like hen-pecking wife and airs her opinions about his TV show with minimal tact. Susie speaks with all the bluster and toughness of a boozed-out Hollywood sideshow, cooks all of Johnny’s meals in an apron, and possesses a disposition very unbecoming of a child star.
Part of what makes Corn’s-a-Poppin’ so unaccountable is the way it moves effortlessly between studied sarcasm and stiff line readings. Waldo Crummit seems like a creation shoplifted from a Frank Tashlin comedy—a vulgar showbiz mover who profits in proportion to the talent’s bust. When Pinwhistle finds Crummit making a deal with an executive at Chicago’s Crinkly Corn, Crummit deploys some improbable hooey about negotiating with a senator. We’re clearly meant to take Crummit’s listless recitation as a bad joke. Likewise when he insists that the vocal talents of Miss Gravelguard are not a danger to Pinwhistle or his popcorn, reasoning that his business is about corn, not critics. Or when he laments a strain of ‘vocal cord-itis.’ These are lousy one-liners and lame locutions infused with a consciously pathetic air. Much in the same manner, Gravelguard’s singing is meant to be bad, horrendous, an ongoing train wreck of a thing. She becomes the butt and embodiment of a familiar joke about no-talent floozies crooning through a sea of cheap whiskey tears.
The performances are all over the map. How are we to reconcile the knowing dumbness of James Lantz’s performance and the near-documentary coyness of Pat McReynolds and Jerry Wallace? Keith Painton screams all his lines into an intercom, frets while twirling his girly fisticuffs, and always dances on the line of being hip to the whole ploy but never quite crosses it.
Satirically speaking, the main targets of Corn’s-a-Poppin’ are amateur ambition, outsized egos, outrageous shysterism. Yet all these qualities are abundantly present in the film, too. If the Pinwhistle Popcorn Hour is supposed to be a pathetic outpost for fifth-rank talent—horrible enough to wreck the whole popcorn empire—then what does that make Corn’s-a-Poppin’? Even rowdy crowds in the back row intuit the silliness (and limited promotional value) of pelting musicians with popcorn during a set.
And yet, the characterizations are so insistent that they overwhelm the material. After seeing Corn’s-a-Poppin’, you may find yourself referring to someone as ‘a real Waldo Crummit.’ If only more people could see this film, the name might enter the cultural lexicon and take on a real Dickensian largess. It’s such a useful and illustrative shorthand—a spot-on accurate rendition of a certain kind of marketing sensibility that has made so many of our relationships stilted and false. There’s a lesson here.