Dr. John Romulus Brinkley Jr. had trouble with the truth. But then again, Dr. Brinkley was an American, and Americans have a particular allergy to the truth. Especially when it stands in the way of a good story. To borrow a line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The place where legend supersedes fact is precisely where Penny Lane situates the majority of her documentary on Dr. Brinkley, Nuts! The title is an apt one, and not just because Dr. Brinkley was particularly fond of using a particular organ for medical purposes, but because the story behind Dr. Brinkley is nuts. Here is the story of a snake oil salesman who became one of America’s first radio broadcasters, a local demagogue and a millionaire during the height of the Great Depression — all thanks to goat testicles.
According to a biography Dr. Brinkley commissioned, published and distributed, a local farmer sought Brinkley looking for a cure for his impotence. When Brinkley offered none, the farmer noticed two goats enjoying a little rumpy-pumpy and suggested the good doctor could give him the virile goat’s testicles in hopes that it would kick-start his own. Not one to turn down a paying gig, Dr. Brinkley performed the surgery and voilà, a miracle cure was discovered. Soon Dr. Brinkley was grafting goat testicles to cure impotence, reduce high-blood pressure, prevent the hardening of the arteries, create energy, treat epilepsy and diseases of the stomach, (including constipation), and even cure Locomotor ataxia and insanity. Brinkley broadcasted his claims from his station at KFKB — Kansas Folks Know Best — and it made him a wealthy man. That was until Morris Fishbein exposed Brinkley for being a quack. Brinkley sued Fishbein for libel and the following trial is where Brinkley’s lies finally caught up to him.
Dr. Brinkley’s exploits are so odd, and his story so cockamamie, that it’s almost too good to be true. Yet Nuts! is as factual as Brinkley was a hoax. Lane structures her film around Brinkley’s aforementioned fictitious biography, The Life of a Man, even drawing passages from the over-the-top prose to illustrate the kind of rhetoric a flimflam man would need to traffic in. Lane brings these words to life through animation. The style of each animated segment notates the validity of the scene. Some are grounded and clear, while others are sketchy and jerky.
Yet, Lane’s angle isn’t to expose Brinkley’s cover — Fishbein took care of that — but to try and understand him. It’s true that Brinkley was a huckster and a con man, but why? Lying isn’t necessarily easier than telling the truth. And Brinkley worked damn hard at lying. Did Brinkley think that he could will his way to legitimacy? Did he buy the slop he was slinging, or was he laughing all the way to the bank?
Brinkley, like so many others, found himself so embroiled in a lie that he actually started to believe it. It’s a shame to let something as silly as the truth get in the way of a good story.
On the bill: Nuts! Opens August 19, Sie Film Center, 2510 E. Colfax Ave, Denver, 720-381-0813. Tickets start at $8 www.denverfilm.org