Oak Cliff Film Festival 2016
Greetings again from the darkness. Not many true life rags-to-riches stories combine snake oil, goat testicles, Wolfman Jack, early radio advancements, celebrities, a campaign for Governor and the Journal of the American Medical Association. Director Penny Lane (Our Nixon, 2013) provides some real nuggets in her telling of the life and career of Dr John Romulus Brinkley. Her inventive approach is unique both narratively and visually … and even a bit sneaky.
If Brinkley is an unknown figure to you, it might be surprising to know that he built an empire and became famous and multi-millionaire during one of the harshest depression eras in American history (the 1920’s and 30’s). Brinkley had the cajones to transform little Milford Kansas from a sleepy town of 300 to a bustling city of 5000. So what drove this growth? Brinkley built his fortune by implanting goat testicles into men for the purpose of curing impotence … a procedure he claimed to have performed more than 10,000 times.
Based on the authorized biography “The Life of a Man” by Clement Wood, director Lane’s film allows us to get to know and feel comfortable with Brinkley. We begin to appreciate and admire his entrepreneurial efforts and success, and even side with him against his challengers. The final act reminds us why we are/should be skeptical beings and that our viewpoint affects our beliefs.
Where we might normally cry “bollocks”, the blending of news clips, home movies, photographs and hand-drawn animation have us fully on board. It would be difficult to argue against the label of genius when describing Brinkley, though the specific category is up for debate. Recognizing the power of the young radio industry, Brinkley started KFKB, when U.S. radio was still in development. He used radio to market his goat procedure, and is even credited with introducing country & western music, and the first sex talk show (a predecessor to Dr Ruth) to the air waves.
JAMA editor Morris Fishbein was a long time nemesis to Brinkley. Fishbein’s years-long crusade was fought to label Brinkley as a “quack”, a charlatan and a fraud. Brinkley was forced to re-group after a losing campaign for Governor and some challenges to his radio station. He ended up in Del Rio, Texas with his beautiful house, a new hospital, and powerful one million watt radio station (XERA) becoming his family jewels. The station was located on the Mexico side of the border to avoid U.S. regulation and he was now able to broadcast not just across the U.S., but to numerous countries.
Brinkley’s particular genius might better translate to modern times. We need look no further than the current Presidential candidates, and the success of religious televangelists and Reality TV icons. These are the folks that tell us what to read, what to believe and how to act … and they each have their followers and believers.
Brinkley lost the Libel suit he brought against Fishbein, and his empire crumbled quickly. He was dead 3 years later. Milford Kansas no longer exists and goats have a newfound success (requiring significantly less sacrifice) as viral videos on social media. When XERA became XERF, Wolfman Jack worked there as a DJ becoming the radio voice for a new wave of music called rock and roll. The film names names (celebrities of the era) and reminds us that what’s claimed is not always true and accurate. Mostly, however, the film is a fascinating character study and history lesson, and as a movie to watch … it’s a ball.
watch the trailer: