Bright Lights Film Journal

Black and White Breakfast: Race, Class, Sexuality, and Corn Flakes in Alan Parker’s The Road to Wellville

Parker’s “ode to bathroom humor” plumbs surprising depths

Contemporary American comedy evades realistic treatment of social issues, opting instead for escape from these issues. That the bulk of racial representation should occur in comedy is an indication … of the attempt to avoid representation of an enormously difficult subject. It also suggests a canny ability to sublimate some of the social energy and anxiety toward the secondary “desire”: to recreate a difficult problem as easy solvable. In other words, to recreate race relations as useful insofar as they militate toward humor.1

Described by critics as an “ode to bathroom humor,” Alan Parker’s film, Road to Wellville (1994), at first glance, is little more than a well-intended attempt to satirize modern-day alternative medicine through the career of turn-of-the-century physician Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Known to the world as the originator of Corn Flakes, Dr. Kellogg was also the founder of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, arguably the most famous health spa in the United States between the 1890s and World War I, which was the peak of spas, water cures, and health resorts. The “San,” as it is affectionately known in the film, is a flamboyant combination of hospital, country club, and grand hotel, where rich and famous Americans, such as John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Eleanor Roosevelt, President Taft, Alfred DuPont, and Montgomery Ward are pampered in elegant surroundings, and restored to health through scientifically-planned exercises and diets.2 However, a glance below the surface of this humorous and extravagant portrayal of life at Dr. Kellogg’s health resort yields quite a remarkable racial subtext. Through the cinematic devices of humor, parody, blackface, and role-playing, Parker critiques and deconstructs early twentieth century American racial distinctions, which, as he elucidates in the film, were based on class hierarchy, turn-of-the-century scientific ideology, and sexual/gender metaphors. Moreover, Parker’s sophisticated commentary on the sometimes subtle, yet ubiquitous, nature of modern American racism, yields both an incisive and disturbing message: that, despite the nation’s best efforts, this deeply-rooted system of white privilege remains with us, even one hundred years after the decline of Kellogg’s spa empire.

Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium

Like his American counterpart Oliver Stone, the British director Alan Parker has earned a unique reputation as being both a cultural instigator, and an insightful social commentator. Through his films Mississippi Burning (1988) and Evita (1996), Parker has brought to life the twentieth century’s struggle with race, class, and gender. In 1994, Parker continued this tradition of social commentary not through cinematic drama, but rather through his comedy Road to Wellville.3 A perfectionist on every level, Parker consulted T. Coraghessan Boyle, the author of the novel Road to Wellville, who, while writing his account, used the Kellogg archives at the Charles Willard Memorial Library, in Battle Creek, Michigan to ensure the social and historical accuracy of his portrayal. The library, which houses all of Kellogg’s 220 articles and 81 books, helped Boyle reconstruct Kellogg’s eugenic theory of “race betterment,” which, undoubtedly, influenced Parker’s portrayal of race and class in Road to Wellville.4

Conceptualizing Race and Class in Kellogg’s America

Kellogg’s racial theory, and thus the racial theory in Road to Wellville, is based on the work of Sir Francis Galton, who, in 1883, invented the term eugenics to express the “science of improving stock, especially in the case of man, to give the more suitable [i.e., “white”] races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing, over the less suitable, than they otherwise would have had.”5 As net migration to the United States reached the twenty million mark in 1920, many “progressive” Americans, including John Harvey Kellogg and President Theodore Roosevelt, feared that the “great Protestant-American race,” which allegedly possessed superior genetic qualities, might be drowned by an “invasion” of inassimilable, and “uncivilized,” immigrants from Asia, Eastern Europe, and Central America.6 By invoking the eugenic specter of race suicide, the pre-existing fear of black-white miscegenation and class-mixing, and the takeover of modern society by defective degenerates and “foreigners” who would out-breed the established white Anglo-Saxon stock, popular authors were able to convince Americans that the influx of these “new” immigrants would affect the national gene pool.7

Riding this turn-of-the-century wave of white supremacy and nativism, in 1910, Charles Davenport established the first major eugenics institution in the United States, the Cold Spring Harbor Eugenics Records Office, which served as a center for eugenics research until 1939.8 Four years before the establishment of this nationally-recognized organization, John Harvey Kellogg, who, in Road to Wellville, is appropriately portrayed by a buck-toothed, crew cut, Roosevelt-esque Anthony Hopkins, founded the Race Betterment Foundation at Battle Creek, Michigan. When the film begins in 1907, Kellogg is already publishing Good Health, a journal which would later help Battle Creek become a major center of the eugenics movement in America. Moreover, Kellogg’s circle of influence, which eventually extended to several successful businessmen including J. C. Penney and C. W. Barron, leant credibility to his position as a leader in the eugenics movement.9

Like many of the other eugenicists working in the United States at the time, Kellogg went beyond the notion of the “degenerate immigrant” and applied his eugenic ideas to the pre-existing “white” Anglo-American population. In his chef d’oeuvre, Plain Facts for Old and Young, Kellogg outlined what he believed to be the largest threat to these “pure” Americans: race destruction. To Kellogg, this meant the loss of racial identity either “through complete submergence into another race” (i.e., miscegenation), or simply the failure of the “race” to reproduce itself.10 Kellogg maintained that “the [white Anglo-] American race was fast dying out, its place being filled by emigrants of different lineage [i.e., race], religion, political ideas, and education.”11 Because he believed that “Races, especially the further distant ones …  are not equipotential, equally effective, or able,” he contended that immigrants, as well as all “non-whites,” could taint and damage the gene pool of Anglo-America. Consequently, he insisted that white Anglo-Saxon Americans isolate themselves, especially in the realm of reproduction.12

In order to understand the racial subtext in Road to Wellville, it is necessary to comprehend the racial distinctions that existed during Kellogg’s era. As Matthew Jacobson conveys in his seminal work, Whiteness of a Different Color, the “white” race in turn-of-the-century America was formed in opposition to a spectrum of other (i.e. “non-white”) races.13 In other words, Anglo-Americans derived their whiteness, and racial “superiority,” by comparing themselves to a constructed, unequal, dissimilar, and non-white “Other.” “Non-whites,” or those racial groups not of Anglo-Saxon descent, were seen as possessing characteristics which conflated primitivism, savagery, foreignness and racial difference. These non-white “Others” included the obvious – African-Americans – as well as Anglo-Saxon, and non-Anglo-Saxon, members of the working class. As Jacobson delineates, “skin color itself was not simply determinative of race; race became associated with class, or a set of social or cultural ‘arbiters’ such as mannerisms, employment, and housing.”14 Because they lived and worked comfortably with blacks, the working class, in general, became a non-white “Other,” which, in essence, served to whiten “true,” or middle and upper class whites even further. Moreover, the working class, which was perceived as culturally inferior to “true” whites because of its “dangerous societies,” “barbarism” and uncivilized behavior of associating with blacks, also became a victim of the most politically-powerful racial instrument in recent U.S. history: Jim Crow. Like African-Americans, “white” members of the working class were also lynched for alleged crimes, and for violating local racial codes by “fraternizing” with blacks. Eventually, in some urban areas, members of the working class were labeled “white niggers” – a term which still exists today.15

From Kellogg’s book Colon Hygiene

In Kellogg’s opinion, the best way to ensure white racial purity was to cultivate “good health,” which he propagated through his articles, books, lectures, and treatments at the San. The key factor of his health doctrine was self-regulation and moderation, which involved avoiding the undesirable elements of society (i.e., immigrants, the working class, criminals, the mentally ill, prostitutes, the diseased, as well as anyone considered “non-white”). When Anglo-Americans did not follow these dictates, they could erode the civility that marked them as “superior,” and, just like some of the characters in the Road to Wellville, become the degenerates that they feared. When such degeneration went completely unchecked, Kellogg believed the result could be “an incurable and dirty criminal reminiscent of the dark races; an uncivilized beast.”16 In short, Kellogg’s adopted son, George, who is played by Dana Carvey in Road to Wellville.

Performing Race: Blackface and Role-Playing in Road to Wellville

In Road to Wellville, Parker uses the comedic techniques of blackface and role-playing to create a “racial double”: that is, a “white” character (George Kellogg) who, through class and race-oriented constructions, represents the token inclusion of a black character in the essentially white society depicted in the film.17 George’s role as a “person of color” stems from his personal history. In the film, the Kelloggs adopt forty-two children and raise them to be examples of “race betterment” by teaching them the proper rules of diet, exercise, and sexual abstinence. To prove his eugenic theories are valid, Dr. Kellogg adopts a prostitute’s son, names him George, and tries to “convert” him to a model of white racial superiority. As George attests: “My mother was a Chicago whore … She died one night, and then weeks later the good doctor found me in the slum, cowering over her dead body. He cleaned me up and took me home, but I’m not that clean now am I?” The fact that George is the son of a prostitute from a working-class Chicago neighborhood, where people of color mixed freely with “lower-class” whites, automatically renders him “black” in both race and class. Moreover, his unsavory background opens up a space in the viewer’s imagination for racialized and sexualized encounters in the dark streets of Chicago.

George’s racialization is enforced by “visual representations of race, which are understood through [his] body. In the case of racially or ethnically coded characters in modern film, [such as George], the obvious markers of race become skin color and facial characteristics, which are reinforced through a character’s accent, actions and values.”18 Our first glimpse of George occurs at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, where, dressed in rags and smelling of alcohol and the slums, he is a vision of physical corruption. He emerges from a group of wealthy female patients, their white skin and starched-white clothing creating a visual contrast with his black tattered rags and his dirty, or black, face. George’s slurred speech, harassing manner, “uncivilized” comportment, and lower-class status are all intended to construct him as not quite “white.”

The fact that George is in “blackface” throughout the entire film is an important aspect of the racial commentary in Road to Wellville. According to Lester Friedman, “the white actor in blackface allows a safe, cinematic, non-discussion of the place and origins of blacks in America.”19 Blackface minstrelsy, which involves white entertainers donning black make-up to “perform” black stereotypes on stage or in film, essentially constructs the minstrel (i.e., George) as the classical fool. Set apart from society and believed to be mentally inferior and immature, blackface characters such as the “city dandy,” the “plantation darky,” and “Sambo the Coon,” can express serious criticism without compelling the audience to take them seriously. Through the antics and opinions of these “benign” characters, audiences can laugh away racial anxieties while being assured that racial categories have not been altered. While the material conditions of slavery and segregation embodied white racism in the real world, blackface minstrelsy created Jim Crow in the theatrical world, guaranteeing racial domination in the imaginary realm well into the twentieth century.20

“If black comics, such as Eddy Murphy, are coming to wear an invisible whiteface in a kind of minstrelsy-nouveau (in films such as Trading Places, 48 Hours, and Beverly Hills Cop) then the white comic, like the minstrels of old, occasionally indulge in, if not exactly blackface, then black role playing.”21 In Road to Wellville, George uses blackface to perform the black “role.” That is, a satire of black culture as it is envisioned by white society. When, as an adult, he discovers that he does not belong in the Kellogg household, he decides to leave and make his own way in the world. However, because he is white, he does not act like the typical street-smart black found in modern American film. Rather, George embodies the comedic “coon”: he dresses in layers of rags, he is gullible, and he is out of control in both his personal vices (drinking) and his libido (he often accosts the female patients at the San). George is a white man performing essentialized “blackness” – a man who is supposed to be white yet because of race and class constructions, does not fit into white culture.22 Consequently, the audience perceives him as a “safe” character, for like the original minstrels, he addresses race in a humorous manner.

The veneer of social altruism perpetuated by Kellogg in Road to Wellville is more or less a conscious metaphor for a nostalgic time when “coons were coons” and racial segregation allowed whites to live in glass houses, such as the San, oblivious to the real world around them. In this context, the business relationship between George Kellogg and Charles Ossining (John Cusack), an upper class Anglo-American who ventures into the cereal business for amusement and economic independence, complements the racial subtext of the film. During business negotiations, George is consistently aloof, more concerned with whiskey than with economics. Constantly laughing, eating, and conning his father out of money, George mimics socially constructed “qualities of blackness, i.e., brutality, crime, idleness, and licentious behavior.”23 Thus, George clearly fits many of the racial stereotypes that exist in modern, as well as in antebellum, culture. A modern minstrel, George “mirrors the antebellum belief that slavery was good for the slave since it drew upon his natural inferiority and willingness to serve … Slaves were content coons. The proof was offered in the happy images of Sambo, a feebleminded slave who was content to laugh, eat, and drink.”24 In Road to Wellville, George is a modern-day “Sambo.”

Sexuality and Miscegenation at the “San”

According to Franz Fanon, the black man in any “white” society is not simply perceived as merely racially different. His “darkness” represents the savagery of the jungle; he becomes an “uncontrollable beast,” or the embodiment of lustful hyper-sexuality: “One is no longer aware of the Negro, but only of a penis; the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis.”25 Consequently, as a racialized character, George assumes the essentialized “black” traits of excessive sexuality and moral depravity. In one scene, George manages to infiltrate Eleanor Lightbody’s suite, where she is in the process of taking a therapeutic milk bath. Eleanor (Bridget Fonda), who, in Road to Wellville exemplifies the sexually-passive Victorian woman, is nude, singing innocently as she washes herself. In the middle of her bath, she is startled by George, who emerges from a black curtain, his blackface creating a sharp contrast with the whiteness of the milk and Eleanor’s skin. He introduces himself to Eleanor and, as he is undressing, begins to tell her about his questionable activities, his threatening sexuality exuding from every sentence: “I come here to look at the nude ladies. I like nude ladies. You have a very nice body Mrs. Nicebody, I mean Lightbody. My mother had a nice body too. She was a whore.” The play on Eleanor’s last name highlights George’s excitement over Eleanor’s vulnerable body, as well as the lightness, or “whiteness” of her body. Moreover, the sexualized comparison between Eleanor’s body and his mother’s body is also suggestive of incest and illegitimacy – two moral transgressions that Kellogg sought to eliminate through his theory of race improvement.

“I come here to look at the nude ladies. I like nude ladies.”

In his haste to bathe himself under an adjacent shower, George splashes some of the dirty, black water dripping from his body onto Eleanor. The mixture of black water and white milk can be interpreted as a form of social contamination, or potential miscegenation, given the sexual context of the scene. In this case, not only does George’s body pollute the sterile environment of the San, but it also offends the genetic social order Kellogg believed would save mankind. Because Kellogg maintained that the act of miscegenation is a form of degeneracy, with the “mulatto child as visible proof of this degenerate practice,” morally deprived individuals, such as George, who possess the potential to commit such an act, must be separated from society.26 In his work Plain Facts, Kellogg even prohibits those with contagious “urban” diseases, such as tuberculosis, and cholera, from marrying and reproducing offspring, essentially targeting immigrants, and those whom he collectively labeled “the lower classes,” (i.e., peoples of color). According to Kellogg, “a few generations of such a degenerating process would exterminate the [white] race, and drive it back to Darwin’s ancestral ape.”27 Kellogg even compared the product of miscegenation – “hybrid” humans – with mongrel dogs: “Different varieties or races of the same species may form a fertile union, the result of which is a mongrel – a cross between its two parents, possessing some of the qualities of each. All the varieties of dogs are produced by crossing different races, and so are mongrels. The various mixed races of men, such as mulattos and half-breeds, are also mongrels.”28 Thus, miscegenation, which deconstructs the “purity” of bloodlines, was strictly forbidden by Kellogg, for it threatened the “white” nuclear, and national, family.29 In his opinion, miscegenation, illegitimacy, and racial impurity had no place in the construction of a pure and legitimate national race. Consequently, it is understandable why the fictitious Kellogg goes to great lengths to keep his son out of the San. After George is discovered in Eleanor’s room, Kellogg informs the Sanitarium security patrol, and orders George to be chased out of the San not by human guards, but by vicious dogs.

“Biological living” and
physical discipline at the spa

The audience becomes aware of Kellogg’s presence during the entire scene after George is chased out of the San. Like a Foucauldian panopticon, Kellogg observes his son, and his patients, without being observed. While, as the observer, Kellogg possesses power over his son, he also has a weakness for George that springs not from affection, but from a sense of failure. As he remembers George’s undisciplined childhood, Kellogg realizes that George’s very existence undermines the doctor’s convictions by demonstrating the shortcomings of his theories. While Kellogg promotes “biological living” and physical discipline at the San, he cannot help but think of his failure at home. For all his talk of racial, mental, and spiritual purity, he raises a son who embodies his worst nightmare. In Road to Wellville, this sense of failure is contrasted with the racist idealism that Kellogg conveys to a group of reporters who visit the Sanitarium: “As a child I had a dream, a marvelous dream, in which I saw a wild place in the country. Dirty children were pouring down the road. The dream gave me the idea for my lifework … the Sanitarium. Everything here has behind it one ideal: biological living to improve the American race.”

Granola, Corn Flakes and Other “Civilized” Foods

Encouraging wealthy, middle and upper-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestants to “Better themselves in Battle Creek,” Kellogg conveys the notion that good health and fitness are the result of diet, exercise, correct posture, fresh air and proper rest. However, like the modern-day country club, only the “right” patients are admitted to the San. There, they are placed on strenuous physical and dietary regimes, all in the effort to improve their bodies and the affluent members of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant “race.” Patients, such as Eleanor’s husband Will Lightbody (Matthew Broderick), perform morning calisthenics at 7 am, followed by laughing “exercises,” and gymnastic classes. Will endures all kinds of humorous mechanical massages (poundings with chest beaters, pummelings with trunk rollers), and is required to sit on Kellogg’s patented “vibrating chair” to stimulate his internal organs. All of the patients bathe endlessly, both inside and out, with salt baths, steam baths, showers, douches, and a high-powered enema machine, with the belief that cleansing the body would somehow cleanse the race. Taking the words of Genesis literally – “Behold, I have given you every herb-bearing seed … to you it shall be meat” – Kellogg also includes a low-calorie vegetarian diet in the San’s purification plan. Kellogg’s diet, which consists of Bulgarian yogurt, granola, nuts, fruits, and Kellogg’s own creation, Corn Flakes, which he believes will discipline all human urges, serves as a parody of modern “fad” diets, as well as a source of racial commentary throughout the film.30

Contending that “meat-eating will destroy the race,” Kellogg holds weekly meetings in the grand ballroom of the San where he employs almost carnival-esque pseudo-science to illustrate the “carnal and savage” nature of meat. He startles his audience by proclaiming that “In the sluggish bowels of the flesh-eater lies the secret to nine-tenths of all the chronic ills from which civilized (i.e., white) human beings suffer … including national inefficiency and physical unpreparedness.” In order to prove the vile nature of meat, specifically that “pig droppings cannot be distinguished from a porterhouse,” Kellogg takes a sample of animal feces and a sample of meat, placing them both under a microscope. He then calls on Ida Muntz (Lara Flynn Boyle) to join him on stage to compare the two specimens. She finds that they both look identical under the microscope, and declares that she will never eat meat again. Kellogg thanks Ida, and ends the meeting by proclaiming that meat is “alive and swarming with bacteria.” In another “anti-meat” scene, Kellogg brings out two cages, one containing a vegetarian wolf, and the other a carnivorous one. When he places a piece of meat in front of the vegetarian wolf, he elicits no reaction; the wolf is calm and docile, like his patients should be. When Kellogg places the meat in front of the carnivorous wolf, the wolf begins to act violently, illustrating the destructive nature of meat. Rather than crediting the disparate responses to the wolves’ dietary conditioning, Kellogg demonizes meat, blaming it for the animal-like savagery of Americans and the destruction of the “civilized” white race. While Kellogg makes this proclamation in all sincerity, the humorous nature of the scene constructs his racist tirades as irrational and bordering on lunacy.

To strengthen his arguments against meat, Kellogg conflates carnivorism with the “animal-like behavior” of the “darker races.”31 In Road to Wellville, Kellogg informs his patients that over-stimulation through meat and caffeine-laden foods such as coffee, tea, and chocolate, can lead to grave vices such as moral degeneration and savagery. In this context, these “caffeine-laden foods,” suddenly become racist symbols; his patients comment on the “dark” origins of these foods (they were exported to the United States from Africa, South America, and India) as well as the “dark” color of these foods. Kellogg’s numerous racist allusions are solidified when he refers to the native peoples who consume these foods as “uncivilized beasts of the wild who indulge in these substances and other carnal pleasures.” As Kellogg elaborates in Plain Facts: “We call these lowly brothers of the human race ‘noble animals,’ but they are only noble brutes at best. The wild savage that hunts and devours his prey like a wild beast … is immeasurably inferior. In his highest development, man – civilized, cultivated, learned, generous, pious [i.e., white] – certainly stands at the head of all created things.”32

By encoding the racist arguments in this scene through the metaphor of “dark and stimulating” foods, Parker illustrates the absurdity of such discourses without directly addressing, or reifying, race delineations. The child of a prostitute and “blackened” in race and class, George becomes the vehicle through which Parker parodies Kellogg’s racist “food-oriented” beliefs. Throughout the film, George frequents the poor, jungle-esque, working-class neighborhoods surrounding Battle Creek, where “meat speakeasies” like the Red Onion, discreetly serve beer, onions and steak. There, George indulges in all the foods prohibited by his father, making animal-like noises as he eats. Swallowing his food almost whole, George intentionally ridicules his father’s belief in “Fletcherism” – a teaching of the “celebrity masticator” Horace Fletcher who maintained that food should be chewed until it magically disappeared from the mouth. While Kellogg notes that “savage cannibals [like George] always bolt their missionary,” it is the accusatory Kellogg who is the ultimate beast. When he discovers that some of his patients have been joining George at the Red Onion, he becomes enraged, screaming in his office and throwing objects across the room. After this scene, the audience is left to ponder who is the true savage in Road to Wellville.

Those Animals!: Meat, Sex, and Masturbation at Kellogg’s Sanitarium

The racist associations between people of color and jungle animals that occur in the “Red Onion” scene are prevalent throughout Kellogg’s writings and Road to Wellville. In Plain Facts, Kellogg states that there is an inverse relationship between intelligence and savagery: “As the intellect is developed, the animal passions are brought into subjection … the animal passions seem to survive when all higher intelligence is lost.”33 He believed that those who lived like savages, i.e., “non-white” peoples who had not been “Christianized,” were unintelligent, and therefore beastly in behavior. He cites various examples of savagery in his works, such as the infanticidal “Jaggers of Guinea, who devour their own children,” and “the uncouth Negro who haunts the jungles of Southern Africa.”34 In Road to Wellville, Parker lampoons Kellogg’s bizarre racist assumptions through George’s humorous animal-like expressions and behavior. Not only does George eat like a pig, but he also inhabits a pig sty. At one point in the film, George fills his father’s cereal boxes with human excrement, and throws them at the guests, jumping up and down in an almost simian fashion. In another scene, George overhears a conversation about the origins of Kellogg’s enema: “I heard the doctor got the idea for the enema in India … no, no, I believe Africa … India, Africa, what’s the difference, they are both the same … Apes eat and defecate simultaneously. They don’t suffer from the same ailments as the civilized bowel … we are far too house-trained.” The conflation of Indians and Africans not only illustrates the extent to which these individuals were interchangeable and expendable in American society, but it also conveys the extent to which many Americans associated, and still associate, peoples of color with “incivility,” savagery, sub-humanity, and bestial behavior.

According to Kellogg, sexual intercourse was also harmful to the human body because, like carnivorism, it invokes uncontrollable animal-like urges. As we learn in the Road to Wellville, “Sexual stimulation can be fatal. Loss of fluids upsets the body’s balance …  sex for anything but reproduction is sexual excess.”35 Consequently, sexual restraint, which, to Kellogg, implied the highest form of civility, is a dominating aspect of life at the San. Upon their arrival, the Lightbodies are separated into different quarters, for sharing a room “Just wouldn’t do.” Men and women bathe and eat separately, and monitors scope the hallways like modern-day security cameras, secretly observing patients in a form of surveillance designed to discipline bodies and eliminate sexual behavior. Although Will is placed on a strict diet that will calm his “sensitive stomach,” (i.e., constipation), from time to time he sneaks down to the Red Onion with George for a piece of steak. Engaging in “lower-class, non-white” behavior, he suddenly takes on George’s racialized sexual characteristics: he begins to display his sexual appetite by visualizing his nurse, Irene Graves (Traci Lind), and the sickly Ida Muntz, nude. Since he is physically separated from his wife, Will’s visions, as well as his hot paraffin and soap enemas, serve as a replacement for sexual intercourse, resulting in erections, stimulation, and erratic behavior.36 Will becomes so overwrought that he loses all control. Like a savage animal, he publicly-engages in sexual activity with Ida, which simultaneously renders him an adulterer. In one scene, he crawls under Ida’s electric blanket during an outdoor “breathing session,” and to the sound of a nurse’s voice shouting “in and out, in and out” through a megaphone, consummates their affair. In another scene, Will enters Ida’s room during her therapy hour, removes his clothing, and, leaving the door conspicuously open, shamelessly engages in what Kellogg would have called uncivilized “bestial vice.”

Not only is sexual activity prohibited at the San, but auto-erotic activity, namely masturbation, is also seen as a source of depravity. According to Kellogg’s famous professor, nineteenth century psychologist and eugenicist G. Stanley Hall, the “impulse of wildness is embodied in the uncivilized man and is expressed as a moral struggle over bodily pleasure” (i.e. masturbation).37 Consequently, in Plain Facts, Kellogg portrays masturbation as representative of “unmanly” impulsive behavior, and the conclusive sign of one’s unsuitability for membership in civilized society: “Masturbation is common among African boys at age nine or ten, which illustrates their savagery and incivility. Masturbation is the destroying element of society, gradually undermining the health of a nation … leading to driveling idiocy and complete imbecility.”38 Believing masturbation to be the greatest human evil possible, Kellogg devoted 97 of Plain Facts’ 644 pages to “Solitary Vice or Self-Abuse.” In fact, he spent his wedding night listing the thirty-nine major “symptoms and results” of masturbation – a list comprehensive enough to indict practically every living human being.39 Such “symptoms” included sleeplessness, love of solitude, bashfulness, unnatural boldness, confusion of ideas, capricious appetite, tobacco use, and acne.

Aware of Kellogg’s obsession with masturbation, Parker exaggerates the act as “the silent killer of the night” by portraying all the racialized characters in Road to Wellville as masturbators. George is frequently shown fumbling around in the dark; when the lights are turned on, his pants are always down around his ankles. During their first encounter at dinner, Ida asks Will: “Do you masticate?” While in the context of the dining hall this might have been a reference to Fletcherism, the word “masticate” is a double-entendre, sounding a great deal like the word “masturbate.” Will’s stunned reaction to Ida’s question, and the fact that he suffers from constipation, which Kellogg believes is caused by masturbation, reinforce the reference. Kellogg himself warns Will that “masturbation is a vile pollution … the act of a lustful animal” and that “an erection is a flagpole on your grave.” In another scene, Will discovers Dr. Lionel Badger (Colm Meany), whose questionable publications on female sexuality render him “lower-class,” as he is masturbating in the woods. Will also confronts his wife Eleanor as she is engaging in “womb manipulation” with the “foreign” Dr. Spitzvogel.

Female Illness, Racism, and Sexism at the San …

Given the racial subtext of the film, the medical diagnoses of the female characters in Road to Wellville are also very poignant social metaphors. Ida is diagnosed with “green sickness,” or Chlorosis, as it was known in the nineteenth-century medical community. According to Kellogg, Chlorosis, or what twentieth-century physicians would call anemia, “is very often caused by menstrual irregularity and by the unholy practice in consideration [i.e., masturbation].”40 By associating Chlorosis with masturbation and menstruation, Kellogg simultaneously constructs the disease as both “perverse” and distinctly female in nature. In the film, Ida is “sicker than anyone else,” most likely because she suffers from “female” ailments as well as sexual vice. Although Will is her partner in adultery, as a woman, Ida bears the symbolic burden of shame. In modern film, the consequence of such shame is always death, which finds Ida just as she is beginning to gain the strength to act independently.

Since, as Kellogg notes, it is “uncivilized to die,” not all those who commit moral transgressions are killed off in Road to Wellville. While Kellogg’s gluttonous and overweight assistant dies of a heart attack, and the Russian patient, who sexually-stimulates himself with electricity, is killed during an experiment, Will’s savagery is “surgically removed.” The bowels, which, as Kellogg states, “are the source of nine-tenths of all human illness,” are the source of Will’s constipation and sexual excesses. The “darkness of Will’s bowels” therefore serves as a racialized metaphor for the “darkness of the jungle,” where Kellogg also believed “nine-tenths of the world’s degenerates can be found.” When the diseased portion of Will’s bowels is removed through surgery, he is instantly cured: his civility is restored, and he no longer engages in activities Kellogg associates with lower-class “non-whites,” such as masturbation, adultery and the consumption of meat.

Upon her arrival, Will’s wife, Eleanor, is diagnosed as having “an acute case of autointoxication and neurasthenia, brought on by the loss of a child.” One year prior to their stay at the San, the Lightbodies became the parents of a baby girl. While the film does not disclose the reason for the infant’s death, it does convey the fact that at the time of the baby’s birth, Will was an alcoholic, who was also addicted to the “juice of the poppy” [i.e., opium]. Kellogg informs the couple that Will’s vices led to degeneracy and the child’s health: “If sterility does not result from vice, the children of degenerates are liable to be delicate, puny, and decrepit … Sometimes, the unfortunate result is the death of degenerate offspring.” To save society from another George Kellogg, maintain the “racial purity” of the San, and illustrate the vengefulness of Kellogg’s ideology, the Lightbody’s child must be killed in the film. As Eleanor states, “By the time you sobered up Will, our child was dead. Now we have nothing left.”

Eleanor’s diagnosis of neurasthenia is of particular significance, for implicit in the disease was an antagonism between race, class, gender, and civilization. According to George M. Beard, the physician credited with first identifying the illness in 1881, and incidentally, one of Kellogg’s close associates, neurasthenia refers to “nervousness” in the highly evolved (i.e. white, middle and upper-class) person. Beard writes, “The chief and primary cause of the development and very rapid increase of nervousness is modern civilization. Civilization is the one constant factor … under which … nervousness, in its many varieties, must inevitably arise.”41 Although neurasthenia was a white middle and upper-class disease, the uncontrolled bodies of primitive individuals (i.e., peoples of color) were often compared to the bodies of female neurasthenics and contrasted with the rigidly-disciplined bodies of civilized individuals (i.e. white men). While, according to Kellogg, both categories of individuals (peoples of color and women) are clearly united in their propensities toward excess (of wildness and control respectively), as Parker illustrates, it is always racialized and gendered subjects who undergo medical scrutiny and classification.

Virginia Cranehill (Camryn Manheim), like Eleanor Lightbody, is also diagnosed with neurasthenia, however, for different reasons. Virginia’s husband is suffering from erectile dysfunction, or impotency, which in the film is encoded as “marital dysfunction.” Virginia, who states that she “no longer has any use for her husband,” is sent to the San by her spouse to be cured (he believes that Virginia’s “nervous condition” is the source of his problem). Based on her dialogue with Eleanor, it is evident that Virginia is a well-educated woman who has been influenced by the late-nineteenth century women’s movement, which Parker uses to satirize modern feminism. Under the guise of humor, she directly confronts Victorian notions about female asexuality: “The notion that sex is harmful or dangerous is an idea dreamt up by men. What is dangerous is when women don’t get enough of it, or don’t enjoy it when they do.” She also disparages the “sacred” institution of marriage, explaining to Eleanor that “marriage is legalized prostitution” – an idea held by some second-wave feminists, as well as nineteenth-century free-love advocates, such as Victoria Woodhull, whose name, perhaps not so coincidentally, resembles Virginia Cranehill.

Implicit in Virginia’s liberal thinking, however, is also a subtle hint of racist ideology. From the 1860s onward, various sexual radicals used the goal of “better breeding” as a justification for the sexual education and emancipation of women. In the United States, Victoria Woodhull repeatedly employed eugenic concepts to encourage the “scientific propagation” of the human race. Moreover, she preached free love, however, within racial and class boundaries. Consequently, the “bicycle scene” in Road to Wellville can be interpreted in terms of its racial sub-content. In this scene, Virginia explains to Eleanor that her greatest joy at the San is cycling while wearing her bloomers, which she claims has “changed her life.” As Virginia confesses: “There is nothing like the pleasure of a leather bicycle seat in between one’s thighs … a long ride once a week usually does the trick for me … you know what I mean … bicycle smile.” In this case, the “bicycle seat,” which resembles the male phallus, serves as a substitute for her husband’s impotent phallus. The fact that the seat is made of dark brown leather might suggest a secret desire for the sexually-taboo black man, which correlates with Fanon’s statement that in white society “the Negro is a penis.” The “bicycle smile,” which is a metaphor for sexual climax, is Virginia’s way of fulfilling her desires without the shame of social transgression. Virginia’s encoded conversation with Eleanor is finally decoded at the end of the scene when she tells her cycling companion to “Go on ahead … I feel a smile coming on.”

While Parker’s use of parody, blackface, role-playing, and race/class-encoding might be perceived as a means of evading a realistic treatment of social issues, Road to Wellville is anything but a crude attempt to avoid the representation of enormously-difficult subject matter. Rather, it is a sophisticated blend of humor and documented historical material that seeks to question the various forms that race and class have assumed in twentieth-century American society. Consequently, the characters in Road to Wellville are not simply constructed for comedic purposes; each has a specific role in the dialogue of the film, whether it be to illustrate the absurdity of turn-of-the-century racial ideology, or to criticize modern social trends. What Parker accomplishes in this film is more than a sum of its parts; one cannot merely look at an isolated scene to understand his anti-racist and anti-elitist commentary, for the fact that problematic social issues are often disguised is part of Parker’s message. Road to Wellville is a statement to the world that in spite of our alleged social advances, not enough has changed with respect to race and class since the turn-of-the-century; many of the racist and classist assumptions in the film are, like Corn Flakes, still thriving today. While these prejudices might be more subtly expressed in today’s world, they are still as ubiquitous as they were back at the Battle Creek Sanitarium.

  1. Lester Friedman, ed. Unspeakable Images. (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 191-192. []
  2. Gerald Carson, Cornflake Crusade. (New York: Rinehart and Company, 1957), 122. []
  3. The phrase “Road to Wellville” was coined by C.W. Post, originator of Grape Nuts, after undergoing an appendix operation at the San. He later used the expression as the title of a pamphlet he created to accompany his cereal. Basically, the pamphlet urged consumers to “Eat Grape Nuts, drink Postum, and think positive thoughts.” Carson, 155. []
  4. In an effort to distinguish what was said by the fictitious Kellogg from what was said by the “real” Kellogg, I will preface a quote from the “real” Kellogg with the name of the work from which it comes, and follow the quote with a footnote. All quotes that are not followed by a footnote come from the film. []
  5. The word eugenics comes from the Greek “eu,” meaning “good,” and “gen,” meaning “people.” In nineteenth century scientific and medical literature, “race” and “blood” were used almost interchangeably, for it was maintained that one was dependent on the other (i.e., that race was determined by blood, and that blood determined race). The American obsession with “octoroons,” “one drop” theories, and racial “passing” strategies further illustrates the fascination with this interconnection. Carson, 105 – 106. []
  6. The term “net migration” is used to exclude another five to ten million immigrants who returned to their country of origin or made another migration elsewhere. Walter Nugent, Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870–1914. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 150. []
  7. Ibid., 153. []
  8. Carson, 98. []
  9. Ibid., 100. []
  10. John Harvey Kellogg, Plain Facts for Old and Young. (Burlington, Iowa: Segner and Co., 1889), 82. []
  11. Ibid., 470. []
  12. Ibid., 84 – 85. []
  13. Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998), 9. []
  14. Ibid., 56. []
  15. Ibid., 57. []
  16. Kellogg, 88. []
  17. Friedman, 193. []
  18. Joanne Hershfield, The Invention of Dolores del Rio. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2000), xii. []
  19. Friedman, 195. []
  20. Ibid., 196. []
  21. Ibid., 195. []
  22. Ibid., 195. []
  23. Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 22. []
  24. Friedman, 196. []
  25. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1952), 170. []
  26. Kellogg, 120. []
  27. Ibid., 122. []
  28. Ibid., 101. []
  29. Hershfield, 30. []
  30. Kellogg had many “ingenious” uses for Corn Flakes. He prescribed Corn Flake enemas for those suffering from constipation, and believed that bathing in Corn Flakes would improve the skin. Carson, 134. []
  31. Interesting to note is that the term “race” was created by the West in the sixteenth century. Scholars such as Fernando Ortiz and Raymond Williams claim it was borrowed from zoological terminology. []
  32. Kellogg, 330–1. []
  33. Ibid., 216. []
  34. Ibid., 216. []
  35. This theory has its origins in ancient Greek medical thought. Up until the twentieth century, it was believed that the body had four major humors, or fluids – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile – which, when kept in balance, ensured perfect health. By the nineteenth century, other fluids, such as saliva and sperm, also entered this equation. As a result, any loss of sperm, in Kellogg’s opinion, would disrupt the body’s fragile balance of humors, resulting in ill health, or if fluids were loss in excess, death. []
  36. Although Kellogg married nursing student Ella Eaton in 1879, their marriage was never consummated, and they lived in separate apartments during their marriage. While Kellogg maintained that his celibate life should be taken as an outstanding example of the benefits of “biological living,” those who have researched Kellogg’s life, such as Gerald Carson, maintain that mumps as a child, and not his convictions, precluded him from engaging in sexual activity. Scholars have also linked Kellogg’s obsession with enemas to an alternative form of sexual stimulation, which is interesting to note given Will’s reaction to the procedure. Every morning, after breakfast, Kellogg requested an enema, which was administered by one of the nurses at the San. While this daily routine might have been for hygienic and health reasons, according to Kellogg’s own dietary rules, it was unnecessary. Thus it might have been symptomatic of klismaphilia, a condition in which an enema substitutes for regular sexual intercourse. For the klismaphile, placing the penis in the vagina is difficult, dangerous and repulsive, which corresponded with Kellogg’s own view of sexual relations. For more information on this topic, please see Carson, pp. 187–188. []
  37. Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 105. []
  38. Kellogg, 234 – 5. []
  39. Carson, 156. []
  40. Kellogg, 259. []
  41. Bederman, 86. []