Iowa Writes

B. ARTHUR ANTHONY
Corn and Youth (part 2)


        I would like to think that it made no difference to me either way what other people thought about this movie, but apparently that is not the case.  The blessing and the curse of researching an obscure movie called Corn's-A-Poppin' is that nearly everyone has a follow up question.  This is a conversation I have had at least four or five times this month and somehow have not gotten any better at (verbal tics redacted):
        Q: What is it about?
        A: I never really know where to start.  It was made in the 1950s (nobody knows the exact year, but it's probably 1954-56) and funded by a guy named Elmer Rhoden, Jr. who was president of a chain of theaters in the Midwest, and he decided that he wanted to get into doing, "juvenile delinquent," teen-sploitation movies.  This isn't quite that, but it's sort of in the same vein.  It's a backstage musical about the making of a TV musical variety show about popcorn — do you know what a backstage musical is?
        Q: No.
        A: Did you ever see 42nd Street?
        Q: No.
        A: A backstage musical is a musical about people putting on a show, so that — you know how in most musicals people break into song and dance to express their feelings?  In a backstage musical all the musical numbers are in the context of performance and rehearsal, so it's more "realistic."  Usually the whole movie will end with a big show and it's, you know, a make or break moment, so the performance you're seeing is presumably all the characters giving their all because they have everything riding on that moment.  Get it?
        Q: Yeah.
        A: So Corn's-A-Poppin' is a backstage musical set in Kansas City, Missouri.  The show is called the "Pinwhistle Popcorn Hour" because it's sponsored by the Pinwhistle Popcorn Company.  And the head of P.R. for the Pinwhistle Popcorn Company is a guy named . . . it's something really funny, I can never remember it — Waldo Crummit!  But half the time it sounds like people are saying "Waldo Crumpet."  And Waldo Crummit is secretly trying to bankrupt the Pinwhistle Popcorn Company so that he can "buy popcorn for peanuts."  So he's sabotaging the variety show by switching in bad popcorn and hiring this pig-caller woman to be the lead singer, and Johnny (who's the MC of the show) and the secretary at the Pinwhistle Popcorn Company (who is also Johnny's love interest), and Johnny's little sister (who is always wearing a cowboy hat and stomping around, shouting her lines), have to save the day by putting on a great show at the end.  And the music is really surprisingly good. . . And it was co-written by Robert Altman.
        Q: Is it a good movie?
        A: . . .

        I would like to think that it made no difference to me either way what other people thought about this movie, but apparently that is not the case.  The blessing and the curse of researching an obscure movie called Corn's-A-Poppin' is that nearly everyone has a follow up question.  This is a conversation I have had at least four or five times this month and somehow have not gotten any better at (verbal tics redacted):
        Q: What is it about?
        A: I never really know where to start.  It was made in the 1950s (nobody knows the exact year, but it's probably 1954-56) and funded by a guy named Elmer Rhoden, Jr. who was president of a chain of theaters in the Midwest, and he decided that he wanted to get into doing, "juvenile delinquent," teen-sploitation movies.  This isn't quite that, but it's sort of in the same vein.  It's a backstage musical about the making of a TV musical variety show about popcorn — do you know what a backstage musical is?
        Q: No.
        A: Did you ever see 42nd Street?
        Q: No.
        A: A backstage musical is a musical about people putting on a show, so that — you know how in most musicals people break into song and dance to express their feelings?  In a backstage musical all the musical numbers are in the context of performance and rehearsal, so it's more "realistic."  Usually the whole movie will end with a big show and it's, you know, a make or break moment, so the performance you're seeing is presumably all the characters giving their all because they have everything riding on that moment.  Get it?
        Q: Yeah.
        A: So Corn's-A-Poppin' is a backstage musical set in Kansas City, Missouri.  The show is called the "Pinwhistle Popcorn Hour" because it's sponsored by the Pinwhistle Popcorn Company.  And the head of P.R. for the Pinwhistle Popcorn Company is a guy named . . . it's something really funny, I can never remember it — Waldo Crummit!  But half the time it sounds like people are saying "Waldo Crumpet."  And Waldo Crummit is secretly trying to bankrupt the Pinwhistle Popcorn Company so that he can "buy popcorn for peanuts."  So he's sabotaging the variety show by switching in bad popcorn and hiring this pig-caller woman to be the lead singer, and Johnny (who's the MC of the show) and the secretary at the Pinwhistle Popcorn Company (who is also Johnny's love interest), and Johnny's little sister (who is always wearing a cowboy hat and stomping around, shouting her lines), have to save the day by putting on a great show at the end.  And the music is really surprisingly good. . . And it was co-written by Robert Altman.
        Q: Is it a good movie?
        A: . . .
Notwithstanding that I am a terrible storyteller with no skill at creating suspense or interest and a tendency to bury the lead, it seems peculiar that, having heard for the first time about such a strange movie (and told with such enthusiasm) an intelligent and creative person's first question would be "is it good?" or "is it a good movie?" or alternately: "You seem to really like this movie . . . Why? . . . Is it a good movie though? . . . But, is it a good movie?! . . . I don't understand.  Why can't you just tell me if it's a good movie?"  Taking a page from the Camp manual, perhaps whether it is "good" (insofar as having "dignity . . . truth, beauty, and seriousness" is concerned) is beside the point.  Oscar Wilde wrote that it is "absurd to divide people into good or bad.  People are either charming or tedious," and surely the same can be said of movies.  The obvious risk of taking up that principle is that there are so very many things at once delightful and insidious.  Allowing that one can "resist everything except temptation" adopts (perhaps facetiously, perhaps on principle) the naïve premise that all temptations are self-evident, and maybe even that the only things worth resisting are those that present as temptation.  What about those things that merely delight?  Could a movie like Corn's-A-Poppin' conceivably be one of those things worth resisting?
        It seems that I have a certain anxiety about Corn's-A-Poppin'.  This paper jumped the shark a long time ago vis-à-vis dignity, truth, beauty, and seriousness, so why don't we pursue this line of thought a bit further: In the first place, I am anxious because when I say I cannot explain why I love Corn's-A-Poppin', even that is something of an evasion.  What I really mean is that I do not know for wherefore I love it.  I try and fail to isolate what it is I like — distinct from love — about the movie that I also recognize and similarly appreciate in other texts.  This is difficult when all I have to work with are idealized memories, other people's synopses and analysis, and two minutes of scattered clips.  It may not have to be seen to be believed (surely some other films look the same, and presumably everyone I have told believes me that it exists and that I love or like it), but I am quite sure that it needs to be watched all the way through to get the full effect.  I have showed the clips to a number of people at this point and not one of them was visibly struck by the film's strangeness or apparently interested in watching the rest of it.  Why is this film that is inexplicably so important to me of no interest to anyone I show it to?  Westphal at one point describes Corn's-A-Poppin' as "an unaccountable film," in the sense of inexplicable, but for some reason I find myself trying in a more literal sense to justify its existence and justify my affection for it.  What does it mean that I keep trying to account for this "unaccountable film"?
        Is it even inherently, as it were, interesting to me?  It seemed that everyone who saw Corn's-A-Poppin' at Doc had a similar reaction, but could it have been a coincidence?  Perhaps it was a coincidence of the film and the circumstances of exhibition.  Corn's-A-Poppin' was one of nine films shown in the "WTF" series, and I can assure you it was neither the strangest nor the worst nor the most surreal (apropos of my earlier statement).  For reference, the series also included The Terror of Tiny Town, a western featuring a cast of all dwarves; Bill and Coo, a drama and romance with all the parts played by birds; Glen of Glenda?; and Eraserhead.
        I expect the difference between seeing Corn's-A-Poppin' in bits and pieces on a laptop and watching it in a packed theater with free admission and popcorn, pretty succinctly represents the stakes of the so-called "decay of cinema" — or rather, of cinephilia.  Is the reason I have been unable to reconstruct or make sense of my lingering enthusiasm for this movie that it needs to be watched all the way through to be affective, or is it because the affective experience of the movie was so thoroughly tied up in the original time and place where I first saw it?  Some of both, perhaps, but more likely the latter than the former.
        I wonder if I would feel the same way about Corn's-A-Poppin' if I were to see it again, at home alone?  A more pressing question might be: how would the film be received by first-time viewers, seeing it for the first time on their computers rather than in a theater?  Were the jokes funnier because everyone around me was laughing?  Was the whole thing more exciting because it had been hyped for weeks as a "special event"?  Might I have been dangerously sleep-deprived at the time, the event being less than a week after I submitted my bachelor's thesis?  Apropos of that, is it possible that all these years I have been remembering Corn's-A-Poppin' through the lens of Nabokov's ethics of reading (the subject of much of my work that quarter)? — All too ludicrously possible.  I wonder if that is why I have been so desperate to save this silly little well-intentioned movie from anyone who would watch it in bad faith, or whether that mentality is just a part of my critical DNA now.  Perhaps this stone is better left unturned; this essay is camp enough as it is.

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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.

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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.  part 1 was published yesterday.  Be sure to check back tomorrow for part 3!

This page was first displayed
on January 07, 2015

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