RIDM 2016: Review of documentary film NUTS!

The documentary NUTS! uses animation, photos, old film footage and newspaper clippings to tell the story of medical charlatan Dr. J.R. Brinkley.
The documentary NUTS! uses animation, photos, old film footage and newspaper clippings to tell the story of medical charlatan Dr. J.R. Brinkley.

The documentary film NUTS! tells the story of Dr. J.R. Brinkley (1885-1942). He became a very wealthy man by selling his alleged medical expertise, along with his dubious potions and questionable procedures.

J.R. Brinkley was a pioneer in three fields – medicine, business and radio. He became rich and famous as the “goat-gland doctor.” He claimed to cure impotence and infertility by implanting goat testicles, or pieces of them, into his male patients, who then went on to father “miracle babies.” A public relations man saw to it that articles about Brinkley appeared in newspapers across the U.S. It was suggested that one of these miracle babies might grow up to be another Lincoln, Edison or Shakespeare. Men flocked to Brinkley’s clinic in the tiny town of Milford, Kansas for the surgery and paid hundreds of dollars for it.

Brinkley gave health advice, sexual and otherwise, on his own radio station, KFKB, which was one of only four commercial stations in the U.S. at the time. He received thousands of letters from listeners and answered them on a show he called Medical Question Box, which ran several times per day. He recommended his own elixirs, which could be ordered from the station or bought from many pharmacists. KFKB grew from 500 watts in 1923 to 5,000 in 1927. In between his talks, the station ran lectures, French lessons, and played country music instead of the staid “potted palm music” of more conventional stations. This increased the popularity of country music.

NUTS! artfully combines animation with archival footage, photos, and newspaper articles about Brinkley. He’s often seen in a white suit, like Col. Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. Like a wealthy entrepreneur of our own day, Brinkley also ventured into politics. He ran for governor of Kansas twice, and got lost of votes. When his broadcasting license and his license to practice medicine were revoked in Kansas, he moved to Texas where he built a palatial estate and set up a one-million-watt radio station over the border in Mexico. (Many years later, the DJ Wolfman Jack would broadcast his shows from that station.)

Brinkley bought fancy cars, airplanes, three yachts and even hired a filmmaker to document a family cruise to the Galapagos Islands. Brinkley, wife Minnie and son John are seen toting guns and looming over dead creatures. They caught five turtles, too. Green Turtle Soup!

Most of the film describes Brinkley’s life as just one roaring success after another, the same way his prolific biographer-for-hire Clement Wood did in the book The Life of a Man. The only thing that kept his life from being totally perfect were some little skirmishes with hidebound naysayers in the American Medical Association and elsewhere who were determined to halt the course of progress, etc., etc. They called him a quack.

The financial success was real, but unfortunately for many of his patients, Brinkley WAS a quack, much better at selling than he was at surgery, but somehow it took years for the general public to find that out. He had gone to medical school, but it was an unaccredited one, and he did not complete the course.

In 1939, in a very unwise move, Brinkley took his nemesis, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Morris Fishbein, to court, accusing him of libel. Brinkley lost the case and his reputation was shattered. Injured patients (or their survivors) sued him for damages. By 1941 he was bankrupt, and in 1942 he died of a heart attack.

NUTS! is quite fascinating just as it is, but I would have liked to know more about all the harm Brinkley did. The Internet helps with that, though. A review of the book The Fraudulent Life of John Brinkley, by Pope Brock says that hundreds of his patients died. That being the case, I find it amazing that he couldn’t be stopped sooner.

We might like to think that we live in a more sophisticated age these days, but there are all too many quacks out there, and the Internet is even more powerful tool than a one-million-watt radio station.

Minor Canadian connections that don’t appear in the film: When he was separated from his first wife, Brinkley kidnapped his young daughter and fled to an unspecified location in Canada, for an unspecified period of tiime. Later, after he achieved fame and fortune, Brinkley liked to fish in Nova Scotia. Oh, not particularly a Canadian thing, but Brinkley was also a bigamist.
Country : United States
Year : 2016
Duration : 79 min.
Director: Penny Lane
Editing : Penny Lane, Thom Stylinski
Production : Caitlin Mae Burke, Penny Lane, James Belfer, Daniel Shepard
Writer : Thom Stylinski
Sound Design : Tom Paul

You can see NUTS! Saturday, Nov. 19, 3:30 p.m. as part of RIDM, Montreal documentary film festival.
Cinémathèque Québécoise – Salle Principale
Director Penny Lane will attend the screening, which will be presented with French subtitles.

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