Marijuana. Venereal disease. Child brides. Peeping toms. All this and more is the subject of Film Forum series Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture, starting this Friday and running throughout March. This seven-film series (plus shorts) features new restorations from Kino Lorber, presented in association with Something Weird and the Library of Congress.
For the film history-inclined, Forbidden Fruit provides fascinating insight into a little-examined corner of independent film history, a time when indie producers and exhibitors harnessed the power of titillation to pull moviegoers away from more traditional studio fare. And if film history isn’t so much your thing… well, there are the movies themselves, which have much more by way of sex, nudity, and hilariously outdated drug terminology than typical fare of the ‘30s and ‘40s. (“You tellin’ me I don’t know how to handle my sweet marguerite?”)
The restrictiveness of the movie industry at this time was just what was needed for exploitation films to thrive. Pre-Paramount Decree, most cinemas were still owned by the studios. While there were independent theaters, studios wouldn’t give them prints until after their own locations were done with them. Hungry for content that wasn’t old by the time they got it, these independent operators were forced to look outside the studio system.
And who was there? Men like Dwain Esper and Kroger Babb, who saw opportunity in the studios’ unwillingness to tackle taboo subjects like sex and drug use (thanks, Hays Code). Explains Bret Wood, programmer of the series and Vice President and Producer of Archival Releases at Kino Lorber: “The studios didn’t want any sort of regulation being imposed on the industry, so that’s why they stayed in line so much. These independent companies would be dead in a few years, so they didn’t care that much. They were a little more willing to break the rules. They were not as concerned about the health of the industry as, say, MGM, Paramount, all those guys.”
The features and shorts these smaller outfits produced are ostensibly (and sometimes actually) educational, teaching mid-century audiences about drug use (Narcotic, She Shoulda Said No!, and Marihuana: Weed With Roots in Hell), so-called “social diseases” (Sex Madness), and childbirth (Mom and Dad).
But a quick glimpse at the taglines for these films tells you that “education” wasn’t the sole selling point. They were also quite skeezy. Sex Madness “shows and tells all.” Marihuana “divulg[es] heretofore unheard of orgies of youth’s dissipation.” And you don’t need a tagline to figure that the short films How to Undress (screened with Sex Madness) and How to Take a Bath (screened with Child Bride) are going to be a bit racier than what we’ve come to expect from films out of the 1930s. (For Marihuana, Kino Lorber was able to add nudity that was present in one of the trailers but missing in the feature. Recalls Wood, “I went to UCLA and got their trailer, and they didn’t have it. And I went to the Academy and got their trailer, and they didn’t have it. Finally, the Library of Congress had the trailer that had all the nudity in it. They’re usually my standby, but I went to them last because I just assumed they wouldn’t have smut like this. But apparently they have a lot of smut.”)
Many of these film’s roadshow engagements paired their screenings with lobby displays (like an electric chair for the March of Crime shorts or a display case of fake drugs for films like Marijuana or Narcotic), live lectures, or souvenirs for sale. (Sex hygiene booklets from the era will be sold at Film Forum throughout this series.)
The most bizarre of Forbidden Fruit’s offerings is 1938’s Child Bride (“A throbbing drama of shackled youth!”), about a schoolteacher who attempts to bring a halt to the practice of child marriage in a backwoods farming community. The movie walks (stumbles) a thin line, appearing to be against the practice of child marriage while also featuring an extended scene where an adult man spies on his intended pre-teen bride while she bathes naked in a pond.
“For the most part, I think the filmmakers legitimately believed in the messages of the films, but their eagerness to exploit the subject matter for profit far outweighed their moral stances,” argues Wood. “The pre-adolescent nude bathing in Child Bride is a perfect example. Also, when the schoolteacher is stripped in preparation for being tarred and feathered, is the viewer repulsed by mob violence or craning their necks for a better view? It’s hard to know how you’re supposed to react when watching exploitation films, because the filmmakers themselves were so conflicted.” As were, one can imagine, audiences. They lined up around the block to see these films: How much of that was genuinely wanting to know more about these subjects, and how much was them wanting to see women engaged in scandalous behavior (with a chance of nudity).
Test Tube Babies, screening March 9, is an informative (for the time, anyway) exploration of infertility and artificial insemination that also features an extended catfight between two women. Narcotic has the typical “dope party” scene that gives director Dwain Esper an excuse for showing women in lingerie, but it’s also genuinely disturbing in its depiction of a respected doctor’s slide into addiction. “Some of [these movies] are stylish when you don’t expect it,” argues Wood. “Some of them have an emotional current. You’re there to laugh at the movie, and then you find yourself being drawn into the story. They’re not something you should just dismiss as camp.”
The most legitimately educational of the lot is William Beaudine’s 1945 drama Mom and Dad, screening March 2, which uses the story of teen pregnancy to make the case for sex education in schools. Midway through, the already sparse plot grinds to a halt for a pair of in-film documentaries, explicit even by modern standards, on childbirth and venereal disease. Mom and Dad is a “dry movie,” Wood admits, but “there wasn’t a lot of information [about these subjects] that was being taught in schools. There wasn’t a reliable way to learn these things. So there was definitely a hunger for it. Whether or not these films did a good job of providing that information is up for debate.”
Mom and Dad, as well as many other exploitation films, split up their screenings by gender: women in the afternoon, men at night. That part of the theatrical experience isn’t being replicated at the Film Forum, but Wood is reading a lecture at Saturday’s Mom and Dad screening that was part of its 1945 release. That lecture, Wood explains, includes a rebuke against men making “ungentlemanly” comments to women as they left the earlier screening, indicating that it was probably common for men, at least, to get rowdy while watching these movies.
Naturally, Boxoffice doesn’t condone catcalling—but there is something to be said about the opportunity to see new restorations of these frequently quite bizarre in a communal setting, instead of as low-quality YouTube videos. Mom and Dad is the sort of film you need to see with other people, if only so you can bond over the trauma of seeing syphilitic genitals or close-up footage of a Caesarean section circa 1945. (“As the repair of the incision is completed, note that the patient has two neat rows of buttons.”) If that doesn’t compel you to buy a ticket, She Shoulda Said No!—about a sweet, innocent dancer who takes up with an evil marijuana impresario—is on the campier side of things. (Each hit on a “marijuana cigarette” is accompanied by a theremin sound effect.)
This particular strain of exploitation films “died once censorship started to be relaxed, and foreign films with nudity and adult themes”—and then, eventually, pornography—“were imported,” says Wood. The films screened in Forbidden Fruit represent only some of the prints that Kino Lorber has, gifted to Wood by Lisa Petrucci of Something Weird. If this first Film Forum lineup is successful, Wood envisions a series, with additional screenings down the line.