Nuts! Great Subject, Failed Filmmaking

Nuts! (2016)
Directed by Penny Lane
Amazon Studios, 79 minutes, Not Rated.

P. T. Barnum perhaps never said, "There's a sucker born every minute," but the career of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley verifies that the slogan is true. From the moment Brinkley (1885-1942) came into his adulthood, he ran scams that would have made even Barnum blush. 

After a few minor flimflams, Brinkley obtained a license to practice medicine from the Eclectic Medical University, a diploma mill, and after a shaky (perhaps illegal) divorce, remarriage, and a short stint in the Army, he put out his shingle in Milford, Kansas in 1918. Brinkley actually did some good work during the 1919 influenza epidemic, but in the 1920s he began to treat male infertility by inserting slices of goat glands into the scrotums of men who shelled out the modern equivalent of thousands of dollars in the hope of procuring Pan-like virility. As all hucksters do, he advertised miracle results and backed them up with "testimonials," many of them faked. Whenever challenged, he struck back and called his accusers old-fashioned cranks and fanatics.

There was something to that charge. Brinkley was a complete fraud, but his tale is also one of obsession. Morris Fishbein, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association pursued Brinkley with Lt. Gerrard-like mania, but the AMA was not entirely dedicated to protecting the public. During the 1920s and 1930s, the AMA sought to monopolize medical care by making it synonymous with only AMA sanctioned practitioners. This meant driving out competition, be it from quacks like Brinkley or herbalists, midwives, and chiropractors. Director Penny Lane, however, exaggerates Fishbein's eccentricities—and postpones discussion of dozens of wrongful death lawsuits against Brinkley—to build sympathy for Brinkley. She's right, though, that our story is more nuanced than good guy versus bad guy.

Nuts! is a triple entendre title referencing the slang for testicles and Brinkley's harebrained schemes, but also the gullibility of the public. The oddest thing of all about Brinkley is that his chicanery made him a wealthy man who lived in mansions, owned what is probably the first superstation radio broadcasting studio, and was probably the rightful winner of the 1930 Kansas gubernatorial election. (More than 50,000 write-in ballots were disqualified for misspelling.) His radio stations helped make stars of the Carter Family, Patsy Montana, Jimmie Rodgers, and numerous other country music legends. They also ran ads for Brinkley come-ons so incredible it leaves one speechless, my favorite being an autographed picture of Jesus! That's only slightly more head-scratching than the fact that Brinkley got away with this stuff for nearly 20 years—despite Fishbein's pursuit, battles with radio regulatory boards, unflattering exposés, lawsuits, increasingly insane medical claims, problems with the IRS, and relocation to first Texas and then Arkansas. He might have lasted longer had not megalomania led him to sue Fishbein for slander. This resulted in a public trial in which Brinkley's house of cards collapsed and took his fortune with it.

All of this is great stuff; too bad Penny Lane's documentary isn't. She and screenplay writer Thom Stylinski chose to riff on Brinkley's life rather than rely on the truism that life is stranger than fiction. One applauds her attempt to break away from the Ken Burns technique of spinning one still photo after another before the camera, but this means that about 90% of the film is animated. The animation is terrible. Lane and her crew use crude cartoon figures—Brinkley looks a bit like Colonel Sanders—and apply shake frame techniques that make you feel like you're having a seizure. It cheapens the storyline—not that Lane actually pays all that much attention to the one biography handed her. There are invented characters throughout, and she alters chronology to manipulate viewers into thinking maybe Fishbein, not Brinkley, was the fraud. This is so she can employ a very tired cliché: the dramatic final trial in which all deception is revealed. If that's not bad enough, Lane also relied heavily upon Clement Wood's commissioned book on Brinkley (1934) rather Pope Brock's Charlatan (2008), even though Brock was a talking head in the film. It should also be noted that Lane's wrap-up on the characteristics of a quack isn't exactly ready for Psychology Today.

This film attracted some good reviews. This baffles me almost as much as why it's classified as a documentary. A feature film on Brinkley is in development and for once, there is hope Hollywood will do a better job. In the interim, if you want to delve more in Brinkley's strange career, read Brock's book. If you wish, you can view Lane's film for free on YouTube. That's about what it's worth.

Rob Weir 


No comments: