Iowa Writes

B. ARTHUR ANTHONY
Corn and Youth (part 1)


Few cineastes have ever heard of [Corn's-A-Poppin'], perhaps because it was produced in Kansas City, distributed spottily in the Midwest, and then withdrawn from circulation; perhaps because it has not been seen publicly since 1950 (the ownership rights are in dispute); and perhaps it is. . . one of the worst movies ever made.

                                    - Patrick McGilligan, Robert Altman: Jumping                                        Off the Cliff

        When I was a senior at The University of Chicago, there was some talk—mostly in jest—of starting a line of DVDs for the sole purpose of restoring and distributing Corn's-A-Poppin' (c. 1955), a 58 minute corn-sploitation musical, at once modest and exceptionally weird in its provenance and execution.  I have only seen it twice, though not for lack of trying, as there are, so far as I can gather, only two 35mm prints and one VHS copy extant — none currently circulating.  For better or worse, you will probably never see Corn's-A-Poppin'; and you might find yourself partway through this paper wondering how much I really remember of this film that I last saw in college, and perhaps wondering as well whether it ever existed in the natural world. 
        Then again.
        It is (or so I have read) a very bad movie.  The sets are sparsely furnished and uniformly rectangular, so that after a while one begins to suspect that the whole thing might have been filmed in one room with several sets of stentorian drapes switched in and out between takes; the performances range from wooden to bombastic to vaguely Brechtian; and it is never wholly clear whether the most over the top line readings, not to mention the tepid innuendos and corn-apropòs deus ex machinas are knowingly ridiculous or just ridiculous.  That is to say, it is often difficult to tell how much of the humor in Corn's-A-Poppin' is tongue in cheek and how much is inadvertent.  Such ambiguity of intent is what makes the film so very and uniquely strange, I think, and it is, all things considered, a shame that the movie is not in circulation.

Few cineastes have ever heard of [Corn's-A-Poppin'], perhaps because it was produced in Kansas City, distributed spottily in the Midwest, and then withdrawn from circulation; perhaps because it has not been seen publicly since 1950 (the ownership rights are in dispute); and perhaps it is. . . one of the worst movies ever made.

                                    - Patrick McGilligan, Robert Altman: Jumping                                        Off the Cliff

        When I was a senior at The University of Chicago, there was some talk—mostly in jest—of starting a line of DVDs for the sole purpose of restoring and distributing Corn's-A-Poppin' (c. 1955), a 58 minute corn-sploitation musical, at once modest and exceptionally weird in its provenance and execution.  I have only seen it twice, though not for lack of trying, as there are, so far as I can gather, only two 35mm prints and one VHS copy extant — none currently circulating.  For better or worse, you will probably never see Corn's-A-Poppin'; and you might find yourself partway through this paper wondering how much I really remember of this film that I last saw in college, and perhaps wondering as well whether it ever existed in the natural world. 
        Then again.
        It is (or so I have read) a very bad movie.  The sets are sparsely furnished and uniformly rectangular, so that after a while one begins to suspect that the whole thing might have been filmed in one room with several sets of stentorian drapes switched in and out between takes; the performances range from wooden to bombastic to vaguely Brechtian; and it is never wholly clear whether the most over the top line readings, not to mention the tepid innuendos and corn-apropòs deus ex machinas are knowingly ridiculous or just ridiculous.  That is to say, it is often difficult to tell how much of the humor in Corn's-A-Poppin' is tongue in cheek and how much is inadvertent.  Such ambiguity of intent is what makes the film so very and uniquely strange, I think, and it is, all things considered, a shame that the movie is not in circulation.
        Corn's-A-Poppin' was shot in approximately one week on the stage of the Lyceum Theater in Kansas City, Missouri.  Funding was arranged by Elmer Rhoden, Jr., the president of a regional theater chain, whose brother Clark was the chairman of the Popcorn Institute, and whose former schoolmate was a then unknown Kansas City native named Robert Altman.  Altman was still living in Kansas City at this time and was employed by the Calvin Company, which made educational and industrial 16mm shorts for corporate and government clients.  Another Calvin director named Robert Woodburn was taken on to head the project.  Altman is credited along with Woodburn as co-screenwriter, but histories of the film have tended to exaggerate his contribution.  In the rare event that Corn's-A-Poppin' is discussed at all, it is almost always discussed as an early Altman picture.  His biographers have either mocked or passed over it completely, and Mr. Altman apparently requested that surviving copies of the film be destroyed.  Others associated with the project have reportedly felt much the same way, some laughing and some grimacing at the mention of it.  The picture played a few shows locally and was not heard from again for another fifty years.
        In June of 2007, the summer before I matriculated at Chicago, Doc Films played Corn's-A-Poppin' for the first time.  The previous night they had screened Maurice Toruneur's silent adaptation of Maeterlinck's "The Bluebird"; the night after — Wild Strawberries.  There were probably not many people in attendance on any of those nights, but the programmers at least were taking note.  So, in 2009 Corn's-A-Poppin' was included in Doc Films' memorable and aptly named series: "WTF?: The God-damnedest Things Ever Seen."  It was, as promised, one of the god-damnedest things any of us had ever seen, and word of mouth spread until, in 2011, Doc broke its own four-year programming rule (summers don't count) to show Corn's-A-Poppin' as a special event.  The house was packed and patrons had to be turned away at the door.  There were songs from the movie being sung on the quad for weeks afterward.  It struck me at the time that not a single person was disappointed with the movie (although that was, admittedly, a self-selecting group of patrons), and a number of them asked if Corn's-A-Poppin' could be a yearly tradition.  At this point it might be fair to say that nearly anyone who has seen or heard of Corn's-A-Poppin' is most likely only one or two degrees of separation away from Doc Films.  Thus, after fifty years as an autobiographical footnote, Corn's-A-Poppin' finally has a fanbase, albeit a small and extremely local one.
        And yet, next to nothing has been written about it.  This is due, presumably, to the fact that almost nobody outside of Chicago knows it exists.  Of those who know it, few have seen it, and, judging from what one or two of the Altman biographers have said, fewer still have liked it.  The little else that has been written about it seems to have come entirely from Doc alumni and supporters.  While IMDb does not list an aspect ratio on the Corn's-A-Poppin' page, it does feature one comment thread — "Where can I find this film?" — with one very pointed response — "You should have stolen it from the booth at Doc Films."

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


B. ARTHUR ANTHONY

B. Arthur Anthony is a fifth-year PhD candidate at the University of Iowa.  Her forthcoming dissertation is a critical genealogy of contemporary American films about funny animals who play major league sports, entitled, "Most Valuable Primate?: Mammals and Melodrama in the Age of Late Capitalism."  Her favorite food is onions.

Corn and Youth will be presented on the Daily Palette in three parts.  Be sure to check back tomorrow for part 2!

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on January 06, 2015

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