delightful, inexplicable cornpone from Kansas City, MO
It appears that some particular IMDb user has rather hopefully indicated that Robert Altman served as co-director on this one-of-a-kind production, but there is no available documentation to back that up. Altman was brought in to write the screenplay, from a story by the film's producer (Elmer Rhoden, Jr.) and director (Robert Woodburn), but it is unquestionably a product of its production team. Such as it is. For all intents and purposes, and hopeless attempts to see the film as presaging NASHVILLE, Robert Altman had little to do with this picture's result. It is strictly an aberration, well outside of his "oeuvre".
This CORN sprang to life as both a showcase for local talent and a long-form commercial for popcorn at the same time. The story is of a local TV "variety hour" sponsored by the Pinwhistle Popcorn company (which, embarrassingly, is only a half hour) hosted by toothsome crooner Johnny Wilson (played by singer Jerry Wallace, in his first, and evidently only, lead role in a feature). Wilson's wallflower 12-year-old sister sings lead vocals for Hobie Shepp and the Cowtown Wranglers, who sporadically perform throughout the picture. But the real pathos concerns poor, struggling Mr. Pinwhistle's ill-fated association with a slimy promoter, Waldo Crummit (a rubber-faced James Lantz) and his utterly talentless singing wife, Lillian Gravelguard (look for the amusing CITIZEN KANE reference in her first television performance), who are conniving back-room deals to "buy popcorn for peanuts".
There's little point in further summarizing the plot here, because the meat of the matter is in the film's staggeringly strange design and equally strange performances (particularly Keith Painton as Pinwhistle, whose particular brand of gesticulating should be the stuff of legend). Ostensibly framed for the 1:1.85 widescreen exhibition of the time, it can only be viewed/projected as full-square 1.37 aperture because of the extreme framing of its subjects. Widescreen would lop off lower halves of bodies while leaving yards of "headroom" up top. As it is, you'll never see a picture with more inadvertent emphasis on fabric curtain rod covers and bizarre paintings hung on set walls. By all accounts, the cinematographer simply didn't have proper guidelines in his camera viewfinder to properly frame for widescreen, and this only lends a uniquely bizarre feel to the whole enterprise, as if the entire production is floating in some strange liminal space.
The other leads in the picture are determined local amateurs who turn in utterly charming and naive performances. Popcorn savior Agatha Quake, as played by Dora Walls, is like an unholy mixture of both witches from Oz; 12-year-old Cora Rice as Johnny Wilson's singing sister steals every scene she's in, playing Greek chorus to on screen shenanigans with aplomb. Every musical number is its own little piece of gold.
Unavailable for decades, and having never had a wide release in the first place, the film has just been restored by the Northwest Chicago Film Society (with funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation) and premiered at UCLA in May, 2014, which is where this reviewer saw it. That its penultimate musical number takes place in outer space on a "trip to Mars" only underscores what a beguiling and utterly unique little picture this is.
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