Julian Antos, Kyle Westphal, Rebecca Hall
Julian Antos, Kyle Westphal, Rebecca Hall

Robert Altman was one of the greatest filmmakers America ever produced, a true maverick with a panoramic vision of the United States and sharp insights into the national character. His first big success, the antiwar comedy M*A*S*H (1970), introduced people to his signature style of large ensemble casts, overlapping dialogue, corrosive social satire, and sudden, startling moments of drama. Altman followed it with several more strong, idiosyncratic movies—Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1972), California Split (1974), Nashville (1975)—before settling into a long career trough, though before his death in 2006, he managed to recapture his former brilliance with such knockouts as The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), Kansas City (1996), Gosford Park (2001), and A Prairie Home Companion (2006).

Interviewers always found Altman reluctant to talk about the movies he directed before M*A*S*H, and he had even less to say about his screenplay for Corn’s-A-Poppin’ (1955), a low-budget musical comedy shot in his native Kansas City, Missouri. Altman biographer Patrick McGilligan calls it “one of the worst movies ever made,” and most books about Altman don’t even mention it. But that hasn’t stopped the Northwest Chicago Film Society from carrying out a meticulous restoration of Corn’s-A-Poppin’ that will receive its Chicago premiere Monday at Music Box. For NWCFS founders Rebecca Hall, Julian Antos, and Kyle Westphal, the movie is not only a notable piece of juvenilia from a legendary filmmaker but a crackpot gem in its own right.

“You can giggle about Corn’s-A-Poppin’ all you want,” says Westphal, 28, who spearheaded the operation to rescue the film, “but it has a verve, a charm, a real ‘Let’s clean up the barn and put on a show’ energy that’s genuinely rare.” Thaddeus Pinwhistle, president of the popcorn company that bears his name, hopes to boost sales with a big TV show featuring live western-swing music, but Waldo Crummit, the press agent he’s hired to put the thing together, is secretly working for Pinwhistle’s competitor to ensure that the show will be a fiasco. Things look pretty bad until the company acquires a new brand of explosively poppable corn that sprays all over the set during the broadcast, creating a public sensation and pushing Pinwhistle sales through the roof.

Corn’s-A-Poppin’ originated with Elmer Rhoden Jr., an old school pal of Altman’s in Kansas City. Rhoden’s father co-owned Commonwealth Theatres, a regional chain of movie houses, and his brother was chairman of the Popcorn Institute, a trade association; together they came up with the idea of a locally shot, popcorn-related feature that could play the circuit. To direct the movie, Rhoden turned to Robert Woodburn of the local Calvin Company, which cranked out 16-millimeter industrial films, and Woodburn brought along his colleague Bob Altman to help on the script. Woodburn and Altman traveled to Hollywood to audition talent, though their main catch, nightclub singer Jerry Wallace, was actually a Kansas City native. To back him, they hired the local band Hobie Shepp and the Cowtown Wranglers. Kansas City actors—some of whom had appeared in industrials for the Calvin Company—filled out the cast. The coup de grace turned out to be amateur child actress Cora Rice, whose snot-nosed character monitors the progress of the TV extravaganza and periodically announces, “It stinks!”

Some might say the same of Corn’s-A-Poppin’, with its rinky-dink sets, hambone acting, and convoluted story logic. Mystery Science Theater 3000 would have had a field day with it. Yet Corn’s-A-Poppin’ has some swell musical numbers, particularly the up-tempo “Running After Love” and the interstellar novelty tune “On Our Way to Mars.” And for Altman aficionados, it’s essential viewing: his sarcasm and jaundiced view of the business world are already much in evidence, and the live country-western show at the center of the story makes the movie a fascinating precursor to two of his most beloved films, Nashville and A Prairie Home Companion.

Westphal first came across Corn’s-A-Poppin’ back in 2007, when he was a University of Chicago student assembling the summer calendar for the venerable Doc Films series. Kian Bergstrom, another Doc staffer, sent him a list of several dozen 35-millimeter prints held by the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in Madison, Corn’s-A-Poppin’ among them. The Altman connection was sufficiently intriguing for Doc to book the movie; it drew only 25 people, but Westphal remembers it as a head-turning experience: “We’ve been working ourselves into a frenzy about it because—well, it’s Corn’s-A-Poppin’. It has to be great, right? . . . And it just shatters our expectations. It’s so utterly strange.” Eventually the film’s legend grew large enough for Doc to screen it again; by that time Westphal had graduated and was studying film preservation at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, but his friend Rebecca Hall called to report that the film had drawn a large and appreciative crowd.

As Westphal began to investigate, he discovered that the Wisconsin Center had the only known print, and the original camera negative had been destroyed when its storage facility in Kansas City was shut down. Incredibly, Rhoden’s Crest Productions had neglected to copyright the movie, so it was now in the public domain. In fall 2011, Antos found a print of Corn’s-A-Poppin’ listed on eBay from an estate sale in Kansas City, and the three Doc Films alumni, who had formed Northwest Chicago Film Society earlier that year to present weekly repertory screenings, decided to buy it. “It wasn’t perfect,” Westphal recalls. “There were a few splices. But it was very good overall—not much cinching, not much scratching. A few light scratches on the base side of the film, but those can effectively be hidden through wet-gate printing, where the scratches are filled in chemically during the printing process.”

The partners had always considered striking out into restoration work, and Maxine Ducey, then head film archivist at the Wisconsin Center, agreed to lend its print for use in the project. “Their print had some problems, too—splices here and there, some cinching, some arc burn,” Westphal says. “But miraculously, the two prints complemented each other. Everything missing in ours—a frame here, a frame there—was intact in theirs.”

As a nonprofit 501(c)(3), NWCFS was eligible for a preservation grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation, which has also funded projects by Kartemquin Films, Chicago Filmmakers, and Chicago Film Archives. Last April the foundation came through with $12,000 to restore Corn’s-A-Poppin’. “NFPF grants target so-called ‘orphan films’—documentaries, silent-era films, newsreels, home movies, industrials, and independent films,” explains Jeff Lambert, acting director of the foundation. “Corn’s-A-Poppin’ was a natural fit for our programs. It’s also significant as a regional showcase for the music scene in Kansas City in the mid-1950s. The fact that Altman cowrote the screenplay is an added bonus.”

FotoKem, a Burbank film laboratory whose clients include Universal Studios and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, carried out the restoration, working mainly from the NWCFS print but replacing certain shots with footage from the Wisconsin Center print. A new negative was created, and from it two prints were struck, to be maintained by NWCFS and loaned out for exhibition. Westphal hopes that more screenings, including the Music Box engagement, will stoke demand for a DVD edition: Cora Rice is still alive to do an interview and/or commentary, and Westphal would like to record a commentary track with Kian Bergstrom, who got the revival going, and local film writer and programmer Patrick Friel. Corn’s-A-Poppin’ may have a whole new life ahead of it now, though Robert Altman must be rolling over in his grave.