Why Are Bad Movies Called Turkeys?

Why Are Bad Movies Called Turkeys?

Nov 21, 2012

Chevy Chase

As a nation of devoted movie fans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving Day by gathering with friends and family, cooking large feasts, paying proper obeisance to the television football gods, ingesting large amounts of food, and then sneaking off to go see a holiday movie or two, may I suggest addiing one more item to your ‘To Do’ list?

Stop calling movies turkeys! Both filmmakers and turkeys deserve greater respect. And here’s why. 

Fun Facts

Thanksgiving - Norman Rockwell-- The birds we now call turkeys were native North Americans living happily in the wild. They were first domesticated in Mexico and then taken to Spain by explorers in the 16th century, soon making their way to the U.K., and then reintroduced to North America along with other newly arrived immigrants.

-- The turkeys served as part of the first Thanksgiving Day feast were of the native, wild turkey variety.

-- Average life span for a turkey is 10 years. However, most “Thanksgiving” turkeys are bred for size, not for longetivity, thus increasing health problems associated with obesity, such as heart disease, respiratory failure and joint damage.

-- Male turkeys spend much of their time on what is termed “sexual display.” (Use your imagination.)

-- Turkeys are known to be highly social and can become very distressed when isolated.

-- Turkeys have their own form of social media; when one turkey expresses a certain type of behavior, that in itself makes it more likely that other turkeys will express themselves in the same way.

-- Generally, turkeys do not like strangers in their midst. “Aliens” might get pecked to death.

-- There is no evidence that Benjamin Franklin publicly supported the wild turkey over the bald eagle as the national bird of the United States, though in private correspondence he wrote: “In Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.”

The Turkey Gets a Bad Rap

The expression “let’s talk turkey” has meant “to speak plainly” about possibly unpleasant subjects since about 1830, and spawned a derivative expression, “cold turkey,” in about 1910. The meaning of “cold turkey” sprang from the idea that serving turkey cold required no preparation, and so “quitting cold turkey” would be understood to mean stopping a bad habit on a moment’s notice, without any preparation beforehand. (Example: the 1971 movie Cold Turkey, in which an entire town attempts to stop smoking.)

But it was in 1927 (or so) that “turkey” came to mean a failed or inferior theatrical production, and with the exodus of theatrical show folk to Hollywood, it’s only natural that the expression came westward as well. By 1951, “turkey” also came to mean a person who was not too bright, and is probably derived from the World War II expression “turkey shoot,” referring to marksmanship contests in which -- yikes! -- turkeys were “tied behind a log with their heads  showing as targets,” according to one reference work. (The expression was used as the apt title for Brian Tenchard-Smith’s futuristic thriller Turkey Shoot.)

Another related expression, “jive turkey,” emerged in the late '60s and early '70s, again relating to the thought of someone acting foolishly or in a less than genuine manner. (Note that the 1974 blaxploitation film Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes was rereleased as Jive Turkey.)

Golden Turkeys

Golden Turkey AwardsCalling movies “turkeys” gained huge momentum after the 1980 publication of The Golden Turkey Awards: The Worst Achievements in Hollywood History, by Harry and Michael Medved. Building on their previous book, The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time, the authors made clear their intention to celebrate movies, and they did so with playful, tongue-in-cheek humor that connected with the public. Many spirited discussions were sparked as cineastes rushed to defend forgotten auteurs such as Ed Wood and his best-known film, Plan 9 from Outer Space, prompting others to shake their heads in astonishment!

While the 1970s produced a number of unquestionable classics, by the end of the decade audiences were getting bowled over by big-budget blockbusters, which became the predominant force in the Hollywood studio system during the 1980s. Though many teens and young adults flocked to the increasing number of popcorn films, a large number of older adults began to turn away from Hollywood product, and were very receptive to the idea that bad movies = turkeys.

So Bad It’s Good?

Years ago, I helped prescreen submissions for a major film festival in Los Angeles. Of the initial batch of films I watched, I was taken aback at how awful some of them were. But a veteran festival programmer reminded me: every movie (and the filmmakers involved) deserves a measure of respect… because they got their movie made!

Now, that doesn’t mean that every movie automatically qualifies to be seen by the public. But the hundreds of hours of time, energy and sheer determined work demand a minimum of appreciation by the viewer for the achievement. And it also means, to my mind, that anyone who writes about films should keep that achievement in mind. It’s fair and expected to point out any blemishes, outright flaws, and manifest imperfections in a film; it’s simply not right to belittle and impugn the motives of the people involved in the production.

(Example: “Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a bloated, cacophonous train wreck of a movie.” That’s fair, as long as examples are cited to support that opinion. “Michael Bay is a greedy moron.” That’s not only unfair, it’s unnecessarily mean and nasty. And it's an outgrowth of referring to movies as underappreciated birds.)

As a boy, Michael Paul Stephenson appeared in Troll 2, a low-budget affair featuring a cast of inexperienced actors that went disastrously wrong. The movie became known as one of the worst of all time, at a level that had to be seen to be believed, and developed a cult following. But that also gave rise to complications for the cast and crew, which Stephenson lovingly depicted with unfliching truth in his documentary Best Worst Movie. The film explores the fine line between ridicule and appreciation.

Movies Are Not “Turkeys!"

Should movies be called “turkeys?" As we’ve already established, turkeys are friendly, sociable creatures. Most live relatively short lives, during which they are fed until they’re fat so they can then be slaughtered for the enjoyment of families across the nation.

And movies reflect the combined efforts of dozens, if not hundreds, of people who are all trying their best to make entertainment and/or art that may then be slaughtered by critics for the enjoyment of their readers.

In other words, movies and turkeys have a lot in common, and both deserve more respect than they usually receive. So let’s retire the idea of calling movies “turkeys” -- its purpose has been served. Instead, let's celebrate the achievements of birds and filmmakers by enjoying Thanksgiving dinner -- and then watching more movies!

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