Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Corn’s-A-Poppin’ (Robert Woodburn, 1955)

It's refreshing for once to have heard about a freakishly obscure film and then have the opportunity to catch it on the big screen mere months later. Chicago programmer Patrick Friel hyped Corn's-A-Poppin' to me earlier this year and thanks to the preservation efforts of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, a gorgeous print was shown at the Music Box last night. And while it didn't quite live up to the hype, I bow nevertheless to the Society for rescuing this godforsaken thing.

J. R. Jones' terrific Chicago Reader review will remain the most thorough account of the film's background until a DVD with commentary shows up. And if it does shows up, it will be due to the fact that Robert Altman co-wrote the screenplay well before his days as a New Hollywood maverick. To quote Jones: "Corn's-A-Poppin' originated with Elmer Rhoden Jr., an old school pal of Altman's in Kansas City. Rhoden's father co-owned Commonwealth Theatres, a regional chain of movie houses, and his brother was chairman of the Popcorn Institute, a trade association; together they came up with the idea of a locally shot, popcorn-related feature that could play the circuit. To direct the movie, Rhoden turned to Robert Woodburn of the local Calvin Company, which cranked out 16-millimeter industrial films, and Woodburn brought along his colleague Bob Altman to help on the script." So Corn's-A-Poppin' comes off as a PRC or Monogram horse opera filtered through an industrial film mode of production complete with abysmal acting, creative framing, and crummy musical numbers (repetitive too - hey Johnny, what are you running after again?).

I anticipated something even grungier than that - a singular wonder along the lines of Ten Minutes to Live (Oscar Micheaux, 1932) or Glen or Glenda? (Edward D. Wood, Jr., 1953). And indeed, the scene transitions yank the viewer out of the story world in intriguing ways. A dinner party is introduced with an uncomfortable close-up of a pot of boiling spaghetti. Or the camera lingers too long on an actor after the last line has been delivered. And Dora Walls' remarkable performance as Agatha Quake seems piped in from Mars with an irritating squeal that crosses a lock-jawed Edith Massey with Gigglesnort Hotel's Blob. But overall, Corn's-A-Poppin' tells a pretty straightforward tale about a shifty press agent attempting to bring down popcorn magnate Thaddeus Pinwhistle (although someone please explain to me how Pinwhistle finally figures out the swindle). The story world is simply too sturdy, lacking the cognitive dislocations of the most unique orphan films. It certainly has more character than the long-lusted-after but disappointing Howdy Broadway. But I found the Soundie-style shorts shown before the feature far more compelling, especially The Stoneman Family's speedfreak "Goin' Up Cripple Creek" which burned a hole right through the Merle Travis, Johnny Cash, Bill Anderson, and Norma Jean shorts that came before it.
Here's a trailer for Corn's-A-Poppin' which shows the nifty number when Hobie Shepp and the Cowtown Wranglers get pelted by popcorn:

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