American men desperate to rev up their sex lives in the late 1920s knew just who to turn to.
Seven decades before Viagra, John R. Brinkley had developed a therapy that could return impotent men to their youthful vigor. All it took, Brinkley explained in broadcasts from KFKB, his megawatt radio station in Milford, Kan., was to place goat testicles (goats being notoriously randy creatures) inside the scrotums of his human patients.
Brinkley’s rise to wealth and prominence thanks to his “goat gland” therapy — not to mention his subsequent fall from grace — is the subject of “Nuts!,” director Penny Lane’s (and, yes, that’s her real name) smart, funny and sobering documentary. It opens Friday.
A hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Nuts!” tells a tale so wild it sounds like fiction. And it does so in large part by retelling Brinkley’s story through animated sequences.
“Initially I figured this would be largely an archival film,” Lane said in a telephone conversation from Winter Park, Fla. “So I went out and collected all the available Brinkley material. But the archival stuff was mostly advertisements and, 100 years later, there’s nothing at all seductive about Brinkley’s ads.
“So about two years into the project I hit on the idea of having Brinkley’s story told through animation. Animation felt right because it’s a colorful, crazy story. And animation is fun. The movie had to be fun for it to do what I wanted it to do.”
What Lane envisioned was a movie in which Brinkley — through his radio recordings and an authorized biography — describes his own life. As Brinkley tells it, this is a grand tale of rags-to-riches enterprise, medical genius and glorious self-promotion.
Only late in “Nuts!” is the curtain pulled back to reveal the tawdry story at the heart of Brinkley’s empire.
Lane said Brinkley — photos show a portly man who looks and dresses just like Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame — has a lot in common with Richard Nixon, the subject of her 2013 documentary “Our Nixon.”
“Both Brinkley and Nixon are 20th century American tragedies,” she said. “They came from nothing, but they were intelligent men who worked very hard, rose to the top and fell in spectacularly tragic ways because of their own actions. It’s like Shakespeare, right?”
Despite being regarded as a quack by the medical establishment, Brinkley operated on hundreds of men in his private hospital in Milford (the town now sits at the bottom of Milford Lake just northwest of Junction City). He was equally famous as a broadcaster whose station featured country music and homilies by the good doctor himself.
While the medical experts denounced him, Brinkley became wildly popular with the American public, who tuned in to KFKB from throughout the country.
“The story of the little guy up against the establishment is hugely appealing,” Lane said. “We all prefer the maverick outsider to the boring establishment man.”
Despite having both his medical and broadcasting licenses suspended, Brinkley had so much political clout that he defied his critics by running as a write-in candidate for governor of Kansas in 1930.
Only interference from the Kansas attorney general, who ruled that write-in votes had to be for “J.R. Brinkley” (not “John Brinkley,” “Dr. Brinkley” or other permutations), kept him out of office. As many as 50,000 ballots were disqualified for this reason; had they been counted, Brinkley would have been elected.
Brinkley’s political career is eerily similar to that of 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump, Lane said.
“If there had been TV back then, Brinkley would have been a reality TV star like Trump. Both men took the same path — running for office with no background in government, buoyed by their reputation for financial success and an appeal to populist emotions.”
Refusing to fold, Brinkley moved his operation to Del Rio, Texas. He built a lavish mansion on the American side of the Rio Grande. On the Mexican side he built a powerful radio transmitter that the U.S. government could not regulate. (Two decades later Brinkley’s Mexican station would gain more notoriety for beaming early rock ’n’ roll music to eager American ears.)
Brinkley fell because of a bruised ego. When the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association described Brinkley as a “charlatan,” Brinkley sued for libel.
Big mistake. Once in the courtroom his enemies unloaded tons of damning evidence that Brinkley’s supporters heard for the first time. He lost that 1938 case, and his former patients filed their own lawsuits. He was bankrupt when he died of a heart attack four years later.
The underlying question behind “Nuts!,” Lane said, is this: Why are we so willing to believe in the ridiculous?
“As sophisticated as we think we are, we still fall for bogus ideas,” she said. “Movies are a perfect example of that. Movies are designed for fast thinking, first impressions, gut instinct. It’s not intellectual; it’s emotional. You don’t have the time to dwell on individual moments because you’re swept up in this terrific story.
“Cinema is a lot like stage magic. Most filmmakers don’t want you to know how they did the trick, how they got you to believe in the movie. Personally, I come down on the side of telling the audience how I did it — or at the very least I admit that it was always a trick.”
After living with the “Nuts!” project for five years, Lane said the essence of John R. Brinkley still eludes her.
“He’s totally an enigma”, she said. “He was proud to have lifted himself through his own hard work and genius.
“But he was also a master manipulator. Did he believe his own BS? Did he know he was lying? We’ll never know.”