Review: ‘Nuts!’ blends fact and fiction in this tale of eccentric inventor John R. Brinkley

Archival photo of John Romulus Brinkley in the documentary “Nuts!”

Hey there, how’d you like to see a part-animated, research-rich, narratively fleet documentary about an early 20th century doctor who a) discovered an impotence cure by grafting goat glands onto human testicles; b) was nearly elected governor of Kansas on a write-in ballot; c) built the world’s most powerful radio station; and d) invented the infomercial?

Say no more. Filmmaker Penny Lane’s movie “Nuts!” will cure you of any entertainment-deficient blues you have, and you won’t even need surgery. That’s a promise.

Don’t believe in promises? Then you also have good reason to take in this entertaining hornswoggle of a movie. Because the real skill in Lane’s colorful tale about self-made millionaire, “inventor” and maverick John R. Brinkley is that it revels in how fun it is to believe in the unbelievable, and how sinisterly effective the mixture of fact and fiction can be. That includes, Lane eventually reveals, documentaries themselves.

You might want to stop reading now if it’s at all tantalizing to you, as there are some delicious surprises in Lane’s riff on the pull of the self-mythologized man (which makes it especially juicy Year of the Donald viewing). Besides, as persuasive as any review of a movie might ultimately be, it pales in comparison with the electric sway types like Brinkley have had over the minds (connected to the wallets) of susceptible millions.


Lane’s last movie was “Our Nixon,” a curious all-archival peek into the 37th president. Here she spiritedly combines the work of different animators, old footage, press clips, emotive readings from Brinkley’s authorized biography (modestly titled “The Life of a Man”), and present-day interviews with historians to give her subject a lively kick up the biographical ladder.

First, Brinkley is the scruffy country lad denied entrance to the hoity-toity Johns Hopkins medical school. Later, armed with a degree from a smaller school and with a devoted wife in tow, he settled in Milford, Kan., and set up a thriving practice, where he hit upon the experimental notion that the “sexually weak” (not to mention sufferers of many ailments) could be remedied with the transplanted glands of virile goats.

Once a treated man’s wife bore her first baby, though, Brinkley — with some innovative advertising help — became a national sensation in the 1920s, boasting famous clients (Rudolph Valentino, William Jennings Bryan) and pop culture recognition: Buster Keaton made a goat-gland joke in his two-reeler “Cops.”

Though the medical establishment hounded him over his credentials, Brinkley found continued success marketing his expensive panaceas and homespun wisdom through a canny, revolutionary use of mass media. His wildly popular KFKB radio station — which pioneered the country music format when it wasn’t hawking his cures — was followed by a million-watt, regulation-skirting border-blaster erected in Mexico that further entrenched him as a renegade broadcaster.


Hubris eventually did Brinkley in when he brought a libel suit against his nemesis, American Medical Assn. journal editor Morris Fishbein, who’d dedicated himself to exposing the wealthy doctor. The dramatized trial, presented as a hand-drawn, voice-acted courtroom thriller, acts as the pulling back of the curtain on a lot of unanswered questions. But it’s also the rhetorical “a-ha” that crystallizes Lane’s own masked experiment in storytelling: When you watch a slickly assembled media history, are you even asking questions? A story as bizarre as it is humorous, wicked and sad, “Nuts!” can be fully appreciated as an entertaining slice of American flimflam history. But if there’s a chilling takeaway, it lies in the residue of consternation Lane leaves behind. You may think falling for goat glands is a pre-Internet age, snake-oil era folly. But call it something else, and who knows what you’ll believe if the spiel is powerful enough?




Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes

Playing: The Cinefamily, Los Angeles; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood (Mon., 7:30 p.m. only); Laemmle Monica Film Center (Tue., 7:30 p.m. only); Laemmle Claremont (Wed. , 7:30 p.m. only)

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