“What happened?” the doctor in Sex Madness asks, of a female patient who’s come to him with a case of syphilis. “Tell me… everything.” He leans in a bit, and hits that last word… a bit too excitedly. It’s telling – in those two lines of dialogue, in those five words, the actor has summed up the ethos of that film, and many other “social disease” pictures that wrapped their prurient interests (and those of their audience) in the reputable clothing of education and warnings. Five such films are collected in Kino Classic’s new series Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture (out tomorrow on Blu-ray), and they offer plenty of opportunities for smug snickering. But they are, in fact, informative – though perhaps not in the ways their creators intended.
The centerpiece of the set is the 1947 teen pregnancy tale Mom and Dad, which is, per the opening titles, “A VITAL EDUCATIONAL PRODUCTION, Appealing To All TRUE-AMERICANS.” Mom and Dad is a legendary title; according to Joe Bob Briggs’s essential book Profoundly Disturbing, “to this day many old-timers regard it as the purest and most successful exploitation film in history. It played continuously for twenty-three years, still booking drive-ins as late as 1977, and grossed an estimated $100 million.”
Brought to you by “HYGENIC PRODUCTIONS” (seems legit), it concerns one Joan Blake, who is (according to the opening crawl) “a sweet, innocent girl growing up in this fast-moving world.” Alas, poor Joan meets a fast boy from out of town; they neck at a lover’s lane, fall out of the frame, and one month later, Joan realizes that she is “in trouble.” This, we told repeatedly, is the fault of her mother, a real speak-to-the-manager type who believes “ignorance is a virtue.”
About halfway into its 97-minute running time, director William Beaudine tosses up this title card: “We interrupt our story for a few moments in order to present… IN PERSON… the famous hygiene commentator Mr. Elliot Forbes.” This is a real remnant from its lengthy theatrical run, and if you’re wondering how they could be sure that Mr. Forbes could make every theatrical screening, there’s a good explanation: there was no such man. “Mr. Elliot Forbes” was an actor – often several, playing the role at simultaneous screenings around the country – part of the medicine show-style ballyhoo that was so key to the film’s original presentation.
Producer Kroger Babb would tour prints of Mom and Dad around the land, with a busy advance team plastering small towns with posters, planting preemptively outraged letters in local newspapers, and renting out theaters; “Mr. Forbes” would give his live lecture in the middle of the film, and then (and here was the most important part) sell companion paperback “educational” books at a buck a pop. Babb’s roadshows frequently made as much money on book sales as they did selling tickets – and they made a lot of money selling tickets.
The film would resume after the sales spiel, but the story would not; Mom and Dad then clumsily finds a way to further pause the narrative to play a series of full-on “educational” shorts, in their entirety. First is an old-school sex-ed film, culminating with graphic footage of a “normal birth” – reportedly a big draw for the raincoat crowd in those pre-porn days, and I must tell you, if that’s true, these people were far more perverse than we’ve ever imagined. Next comes a “Modern American Surgery” film, documenting, with similarly explicit detail, a real live C-section.
These films-within-the-film are screened for a classroom of young women at Joan’s school (her mother got him fired for hinting at sex ed in class, but he’s hurriedly re-hired after Joan gets in trouble); then a classroom of young men is shown another “sex hygiene” film, about the dangers of venereal disease (“Gonorrhea and syphilis show no mercy!”). The arrangement of these sequences is indescribably telling: it is, it seems, the responsibility of girls to have babies, and the responsibility of boys to not get a disease. Women are comforted; men are warned – terrified, really, by graphic images “showing the ravages upon the organs of the male.”
Similar nightmare fuel fills Sex Madness, which shares the second disc of the collection with our old pal Reefer Madness. The latter was retitled (it was originally called Tell Your Children) when it hit the midnight movie circuit in the late 1960s, and became a big counterculture hit for its wildly inaccurate dramatizations of marijuana consumption; its actors smoke joints like cigarettes (the exhales are immediate!) and quickly descend into wild cackles and wide-eyed, manic overacting. Like Mom and Dad, it’s basically a Hays Code melodrama, in which we voyeuristically enjoy the bad behavior of The Youths, before watching them pay the piper for their sins.
Reefer Madness finds a couple of nice high school kids turned into murderous dope-smokers by a gang of morals-free, fedora-wearing gangsters; Sex Madness (originally titled Human Wreckage) is a cautionary tale in which a single sexual encounter ends up with a woman blinding her husband and killing her baby. But first, in a series of scenes barely related to much of anything, director Joseph Seiden hangs out at a burlesque show – on stage, out front, and most winkingly, in the dressing room. The pattern of pleasure and punishment inflicted on its heroine is also put upon the audience; if we enjoy the images of the girlie show, we pay for it by sitting through more images of STI-ravaged organs.
Though Mom and Dad has long been strangely unavailable, this Madness double-feature has been a public domain standby for decades (though Kino’s restorations make them sharper than they’ve ever been). The third disc in the set features two more rarities, this time of the nudist-sploitation stripe: Allen Stuart’s Unashamed: A Romance, and Carl Harbaugh’s Elysia (Valley of the Nude). They’re peppered with the standbys of nudist movies of the era: carefully arranged nudity (butts and boobs only) of an “anthropological” nature, capturing these “nudists” (usually actors and models playing nudists) lounging, playing music, cooking, eating, showering, performing ventriloquism (?), and, of course, playing volleyball.
It’s hard to imagine getting a rise out of the mostly unwatchable (and often downright unpleasant) earlier titles, but real talk: there are genuinely sexy images in these two films. Yet they’re also not built to strike guilt or fear into the heart of the viewer; both of these films concern an outsider coming into the colony, getting a warm walk-through of one kind or another, and enjoying campfire lectures meant to reassure the curious viewer, rather than terrify.
These films are remarkably sympathetic to their subjects, in striking contrast to the other movies in the set, though the circumstances are important: they see nudists as harmless, so long as they’re isolated from the rest of society, and only interacting with each other. But they have one thing in common with the rest: the idea that they can get away with pretty much anything, so long as it’s shrouded in the notion of “education.” As Mom and Dad never tires of reminding us, ignorance is dangerous, and that wasn’t just a plot point – it was the M.O. of these social hygiene movies, which managed to simultaneously exploit both the dearth of information and the (ahem) curiosity around these subjects.
It was all for the good of the children, you see, and we all must see the dangers lurking in these dark underworlds, so we know what to avoid, right? “After you have looked at these pictures,” the students are told in Mom and Dad, “I know you will realize the benefits that can come to all that lead a clean, moral life.” Um, sure?
The three volumes of “Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of Exploitation” – “Volume 1: Mom and Dad,” “Volume 2: Reefer Madness plus Sex Madness,” and “Volume 3: Unashamed and Elysia” – are out on Blu-ray tomorrow.