Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Iowa On The Silver Screen Pt. I

This is the first entry in an ongoing series regarding the great state of Iowa as setting and/or location for motion pictures. The examples are few, and yet more than we'd figured. In 1971, when Norman Lear's COLD TURKEY was released, the very idea of a movie being shot in Iowa was unheard of to a young Otto. Movies were windows into other worlds, never reflections of my own.

The story takes place in the fictional town of Eagle Rock, and was shot mostly in the real town of Greenfield, as well as Winterset and others. When the film premiered in Des Moines, the line at the old movie palace The Galaxy Theater wrapped around the block. One would have thought all those eager consumers were waiting to see THE FRENCH CONNECTION or DIRTY HARRY, released the same year. But to the largely ignored fly-over citizenry of Iowa, such was the novelty of a movie based in their state. Young Otto stood in that line, and was neither bored nor enthused about the results; it had been entertaining enough. In a recent viewing of the second half of the movie, Otto has determined that the movie ultimately degenerates into a sixties-style farcical romp, complete with an incessant marching brass band, and everyone screaming and hollering over each other at top volume. Could the movie's title be its own two-word review?

Not the right stuff for these old nerves, but OM owes it a full screening. For a good synopsis and review of COLD TURKEY, click here.


Perhaps the most noteworthy Iowa film is David Lynch's THE STRAIGHT STORY, based on the true story of Alvin Straight's trek across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawnmower; significant because the shooting of the film took place along the actual route taken by Mr. Straight, as he tenaciously ventured to pay a last visit to his estranged and ailing brother. A touching tale made believable by numerous authentic details, unique to those vast swaths of midwest country.

The pacing of the story corresponds appropriately to the speed of life out in those endless rolling fields of corn, cut through by unbending asphalt arteries, upon which parades of tractor-trailers seem to come from nowhere, and go to nowhere. At one point, Straight is passed by a large group of bicyclists, participants in an actual annual cross-Iowa bike ride known as RAGBRAI.

But the real authenticity, for this viewer, is the bulls-eye performance by Richard Farnsworth, himself ailing during production. Stoic and understated, Farnsworth perfectly captures the spirit of that generation of Iowans, who would reap no more than they would sow, and would prefer self-reliance over charity.

And for a native of Los Angeles, Farnsworth affects an impressive Iowa accent, sounding remarkably like Otto's old man, Ulmer (below right). Whether or not the movie holds up for Otto after a decade will soon be seen, but as a unique entry into the Lynch portfolio, it is worth a look. (Farnsworth was nominated for Best Actor Oscar; his second nomination.)


And finally, we feature Julie Adams, best known for her vocal chords, among other assets, in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Born in Iowa, and raised in Arkansas, she found her way to Hollywood and a string of fifties B-movies-- --until she got her groove with consistent television work; all the way from PERRY MASON to LOST, with some Mannix, Night Gallery and Beverly Hills, 90210 thrown in! Among her later box-office roles was a part in the almost-great "McQ", with fellow Iowan John Wayne.