Nuts! is such a fascinatingly goofy tale, with peekaboo plot elements popping out from every angle, that a straightforward documentary approach could never do it justice. Nor could actors quite capture the essential zaniness of J. R. Brinkley, one of the greatest American hustlers of the 20th century. The story of Brinkley and the empire he built on his goat gland cure for impotence begs for a radically offbeat screen treatment — and documentarian Penny Lane (her real name!) supplies it, in a wildly entertaining combo of imaginative animation, period film footage, and pure prairie personality.
John Romulus Brinkley seemed to materialize on the fabric of rural America like a persistent gravy stain. In 1917, he set up shop as a doctor of medicine in the town of Milford, Kansas, sporting a ready-made legend that pictured him, as an earnest but barefoot youth, being cruelly turned down for admission to Johns Hopkins medical school. One of the first suckers to walk into his office was a middle-aged man at wits’ end after trying unsuccessfully for years to conceive a child with his wife. Somehow, some way, Brinkley got the idea to surgically transplant goat testicles into the man’s scrotum. Voila, nine months later, the patient’s wife gave birth to a healthy baby.
Brinkley repeated the process with similar results, his reputation spread, and the list of satisfied customers grew to include movie idol Rudolph Valentino and President Woodrow Wilson. But Brinkley wasn’t satisfied with word-of-mouth advertising. In a forerunner to today’s ubiquitous advertorial content, he took his message to radio audiences, first with his station KFKB (“Kansas Folks Know Better”) and later, after running afoul of government regulations, to his station XERA, broadcasting from Mexico with the impossible-sounding-but-true power of one million watts. Brinkley’s enormously popular radio stations were among the first to feature such country music stars as the Carter Family, but the main business was miracle cures, including hair dye and bedbug powder, alongside the perennially best-selling “billy goat nuts.” They were hawked non-stop on the air with a signal that reached seventeen countries.
It was all a racket, of course. Brinkley made his millions fraudulently. He was actually a snake-oil vendor with no university degree. Goat gonads turned out to be a classic placebo. The “doctor’s” pious radio sermons, as well as his political aspirations, were concocted to endear him to his heartland audience, and that strategy worked splendidly. Despite the frankly sexual sales pitches (unheard of in the 1930s) for the goat procedure, ordinary folks naturally gravitated to Dr. Brinkley. Whatever he was selling, people bought.
As in the present day, Depression-era middle- and working-class Americans resented government meddling in their private lives. Even though Brinkley was eventually publicly unmasked as a quack, his popularity defied official efforts to shut him down. Filmmaker Lane says that’s because Brinkley, in company with his brethren hucksters a hundred years later, sells us a proposition we want to believe. As she wrote in the film’s press notes: “Who doesn’t sometimes wish the world was more interesting, more magical, more colorful than it really is?” The production values in Lane’s doc, from Hazel Lee Santino’s concept art and character design to Brian McOmber’s original music, to the narration by associate producer Gene Tognacci, go hand in hand with writer Thom Stylinski’s obvious delight in discovering such a fantastic trickster. The film editing, by Lane (she made the doc Our Nixon in 2013) and Stylinski, is a special treat in itself.
There are occasional ominous clouds in the Kansas sky — Brinkley’s veiled anti-Semitic radio rant against his nemesis, physician Morris Fishbein, is a prime example. But the prevailing tone of Nuts! is self-deprecatingly happy-go-lucky, a reminder that the craziest things in the national character remain unchanged. J.R. Brinkley’s America was a more innocent place; today, we’re forced to deal with vultures as well as frauds. Penny Lane’s merry documentary encourages us to laugh at ourselves in spite of everything. It’s highly recommended.