Iowa Writes

B. ARTHUR ANTHONY
Corn and Youth (part 3)


        The purpose of a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation is to make culturally valuable orphan films available to the public, usually through free public screenings or publication on DVD and, increasingly, online.  This means that at some indefinite point in the future, more people will be watching Corn's-A-Poppin'.  On the one hand, I am ecstatic that this delightful movie that means so much to me will live to fight another day.  As annoying as it is that any and all discussions of the film immediately gravitate to the Altman narrative, were it not for that contingency, the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research might not have retained a copy in their archive for half a century, Doc Films might not have screened it, the Chicago papers might not have picked it up, I might not have seen it or written about it, and the NFPF definitely would not have agreed to pay for its preservation.  That all of this came about is something of a miracle, so it would be ungracious of me to quibble with any part of it.
        That said, what will happen in the overwhelmingly likely event that Corn's-A-Poppin' ends up on the internet?  Provided that it is to a great extent a text that benefits from public, communal exhibition, and seems to maintain little of its effect when viewed in small chunks, the internet does not seem like an ideal space for it.  Perhaps my concern is that this movie that I remember being so struck by might not stand up on its own.  Maybe it needs the buildup, the religiosity that a place like Doc can give it, whereas the internet tends to desecrate — or maybe demystify would be a more neutral word choice, as this is not a fundamentally bad thing — so much of what it touches.  Irony is the prevailing mode of discussion and analysis, at least insofar as popular culture is concerned, and I fear that Corn's-A-Poppin' would not withstand the inevitable dissection, examination, and repetition that would befall it.
        I hate the idea of some indeterminate number of strangers looking down on this original, resilient little movie that was made despite such very long odds and continues to survive against increasingly longer ones.  I hate knowing that there are people who will share clips and gifs and supercuts from Corn's-A-Poppin' with ironic endorsements — that it's "amazing"; that it's "the greatest thing ever"; that it's "so bad it's good."  I do not have the time or energy or influence to explain to the internet that Corn's-A-Poppin' is unique and guileless — or maybe it is just that it is so inept at all manners of artifice that guile is precluded.  I do not have the emotional or rhetorical resources to explain what bathos is and how Glen or Glenda? (for instance) has so much of it but Corn's-A-Poppin' has none — how the former is funny because it is too aware of what it wants to accomplish and not at all aware of what it is doing, whereas the humor in the latter comes from a lack of self-consciousness that is at once refreshing and incredibly obvious.  I hate how so much irony is uncritical, witless, zeitgeisty-kitsch, and I hate knowing that I am not free from blame.

        The purpose of a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation is to make culturally valuable orphan films available to the public, usually through free public screenings or publication on DVD and, increasingly, online.  This means that at some indefinite point in the future, more people will be watching Corn's-A-Poppin'.  On the one hand, I am ecstatic that this delightful movie that means so much to me will live to fight another day.  As annoying as it is that any and all discussions of the film immediately gravitate to the Altman narrative, were it not for that contingency, the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research might not have retained a copy in their archive for half a century, Doc Films might not have screened it, the Chicago papers might not have picked it up, I might not have seen it or written about it, and the NFPF definitely would not have agreed to pay for its preservation.  That all of this came about is something of a miracle, so it would be ungracious of me to quibble with any part of it.
        That said, what will happen in the overwhelmingly likely event that Corn's-A-Poppin' ends up on the internet?  Provided that it is to a great extent a text that benefits from public, communal exhibition, and seems to maintain little of its effect when viewed in small chunks, the internet does not seem like an ideal space for it.  Perhaps my concern is that this movie that I remember being so struck by might not stand up on its own.  Maybe it needs the buildup, the religiosity that a place like Doc can give it, whereas the internet tends to desecrate — or maybe demystify would be a more neutral word choice, as this is not a fundamentally bad thing — so much of what it touches.  Irony is the prevailing mode of discussion and analysis, at least insofar as popular culture is concerned, and I fear that Corn's-A-Poppin' would not withstand the inevitable dissection, examination, and repetition that would befall it.
        I hate the idea of some indeterminate number of strangers looking down on this original, resilient little movie that was made despite such very long odds and continues to survive against increasingly longer ones.  I hate knowing that there are people who will share clips and gifs and supercuts from Corn's-A-Poppin' with ironic endorsements — that it's "amazing"; that it's "the greatest thing ever"; that it's "so bad it's good."  I do not have the time or energy or influence to explain to the internet that Corn's-A-Poppin' is unique and guileless — or maybe it is just that it is so inept at all manners of artifice that guile is precluded.  I do not have the emotional or rhetorical resources to explain what bathos is and how Glen or Glenda? (for instance) has so much of it but Corn's-A-Poppin' has none — how the former is funny because it is too aware of what it wants to accomplish and not at all aware of what it is doing, whereas the humor in the latter comes from a lack of self-consciousness that is at once refreshing and incredibly obvious.  I hate how so much irony is uncritical, witless, zeitgeisty-kitsch, and I hate knowing that I am not free from blame.
        I will lose this movie when it goes on the internet; I will lose the ability to say decisively what it is and what it means and what about it is "good" or "bad" and what its relative value is.  Of course I have no choice in the matter, but on the whole I am glad.  I would rather lose the movie and have it survive for posterity than have the memory of it die with me.  In that sense, I think I am rather like the woman in the Solomon story who would rather have no baby than half a baby.  How is that for Camp?
        Could it be that Corn's-A-Poppin' is not intrinsically campy but invites all kinds of Camp responses and interpretations?  If Camp is all about reading against the grain and creating secondary meanings that are not explicit in the text, then perhaps Corn's-A-Poppin' is ideally suited in that it is at once so facile and so obscure.  The intent behind it was evidently to make a light, fairly formulaic musical comedy.  The Boxoffice piece about the movie — "Kansas City-Made Film Features 65 Minutes of Corn and Youth" — goes to such enthusiastic lengths to make it sound like there was a Hollywood production being made right in Kansas City:

Robert Altman, who wrote the screenplay from an original story worked out by young producer Elmer Rhoden, Jr. and Bob Woodburn, director, came here from Hollywood for the shooting.  Altman wrote the screenplays for RKO's "Christmas Eve" and "Bodyguard," and he says he is quite impressed with the local effort.  He has been in Hollywood since 1946, where his wife and one daughter remained, and has done a series called "Illusion" for the radio, in addition to his film work.

Much is made as well of the fact that "Director Woodburn is not without experience," (although it was his first — and not coincidentally his last — feature film) and that "the star of the show, Jerry Wallace, was imported from Hollywood, but is a native Kansas Citian."  The article goes overboard when it attempts to cast the amateur leads of Corn's-A-Poppin' as glamorous young stars.

[Of Jerry Wallace] His most popular record has been "Little Miss One," but he is not married.  "Just never got around to it yet," he says.  "Been too busy working at my career . . ."  Pat MacReynolds, attractive brunette feminine lead, played star parts at Baker University all four years of her drama major there.  This is her first motion picture and she is earnestly adapting herself to the different technique demanded.  She finds it a little hard to make the scenes out of their proper sequence, but says everyone is wonderful to work with.


        I wonder if Jerry Wallace and Pat MacReynolds read this passage (they must have), and I wonder whether they were pleased or embarrassed.  The abundance of clichés in the article calls into relief precisely how slapdash and amateurish the production really was.  For all that the anonymous staff writer talks about the qualifications of the cast and crew, what ultimately comes through is a clear disparity between the optimism on-set and the complete lack of experience, proficiency, and resources.  The result of simultaneously lauding the professionalism and the gung-ho volunteerism of a production where everyone takes turns using one dressing room and the producer's wife is also the scriptgirl is, at least in this case, that it comes off looking adorable, but very much in the vein of a "hey kids, let's put on a show"-style MGM musical.  The tone of the article is inadvertently summed up in a quote from Hobie Shepp (of the Cowtown Wranglers), who "is optimistic about the venture, commenting, 'Everything else is moving to the midwest (sic) — why not Hollywood?'"
        It did not strike me until recently that Corn's-A-Poppin' is a slapdash, low-budget movie about the making of a slapdash, low-budget television show; which has had its greatest success at Doc Films, which for all its history and prestige is still a relatively slapdash, low-budget operation; and now here I am writing a slapdash quasi-personal-essay about it.  Why not Hollywood?, indeed.  Despite the patent goofiness of it all, both times I saw Corn's-A-Poppin' at Doc, I found myself feeling legitimately moved by the end.  For a movie in which a character named Waldo Crummit places a call to "Mr. Johnson in Chicago," Corn's-A-Poppin' inspires an awful lot of pathos, although I cannot say how much of that is the film itself and how much is to do with the four levels of Andy Hardy situation.
        I wonder if the reason I take criticisms and the threat of bad-faith appropriations of this movie so much to heart is because I relate to it on a more personal level than I had realized.  Not only am I emotionally invested in Doc, I also know how it feels to have so much enthusiasm and zero know-how.  I wonder if the amateur cast and crew of Corn's-A-Poppin' had any idea of how self-reflexive the movie they were making would be.  Naturally, the heroes of Corn's-A-Poppin' manage to put on a great show and save the day.  To say that the makers of Corn's-A-Poppin' managed to do the same would be a stretch, although, clearly at least one or two of the people involved had reasonably successful careers afterward.  I hope the people who made this movie were at least a little proud of what they accomplished.  They made a feature film with practically no money, time, or experience, and the result is not even bad, per se, it's just that there is no apparent pretense of realism.  They deserve applause and not derisive laughter.

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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 was presented on the Daily Palette in three parts.  Don't miss part 1 and part 2.

This page was first displayed
on January 08, 2015

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