Forbidden Fruit

Page 1Page 2Page 3    page 1 of 3 -- interview by Gary Johnson

Throughout the '30s and '40s, the major Hollywood studios owned the vast majority of theaters in America. This arrangement, called vertical integration, ensured that Hollywood product would fill movie screens around the country--and excluded non-Hollywood product. Independent theaters had the opportunity to show Hollywood movies but only after the movies had already played for several months, even years, at the studio-run theaters.

To help boost revenues, independent theaters frequently turned to movies produced outside of the Hollywood system. These movies capitalized upon salacious, sensational topics--such as drug abuse, prostitution, polygamy, and venereal disease. They provided scenes that no Production Code-approved Hollywood movie would ever provide. In Damaged Lives, a group of fun-loving women strip naked and go skinny dipping. In Because of Eve, a doctor educates a young couple on the joys of reproduction by showing them documentary footage of a real childbirth. In Slaves in Bondage, prostitutes share a good time by spanking each other. And in Reefer Madness, arguably the most famous of all exploitation films, partying teens freely indulge in marijuana and turn into giggling maniacs.

This world of exploitation cinema is recreated in a new book by Felicia Feaster and Bret Wood, Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film (go to book review), and a CD-ROM interactive disc from Night Kitchen Media (go to software review). Recently I had the opportunity to talk to Felicia and Bret about exploitation cinema.

Poster artwork for The Devil's Harvest.
[click photo for larger version]

IMAGES: What kind of exploitation film falls within the realm of your book?

Felicia: The films that we are interested in have a pretense of addressing some valid social problem, whether it's child marriage or alcoholism or drug addiction, and they use the pretense of talking about that issue to show a lot of lurid, sensational subject matter--cesarean sections, nudity, actual use of drugs. So the term exploitation [means] exploiting this subject matter to show things that wouldn't normally be allowable.

IMAGES: When we use the term "exploitation," are we talking about the subject matter itself being exploited or are we also talking about the filmgoers being exploited?

Bret: A little bit of everything. Part of it is exploiting the social topic at hand and another part of it is exploitation in the traditional P.T. Barnum sense of the word, where it's almost like selling the sizzle and not the steak, where it's pure promotion and hype--presenting something in the most sensational terms possible. A lot of people broaden the definition of exploitation to include a lot of later and even contemporary films because they share this sensational nature, targeting people's prurient interests. I don't really feel they were exploiting the audience. It's really a hard thing to gauge, whether or not the audience felt cheated by what they saw or whether they were totally satisfied. The indications that we seem to have gotten is that viewers were pretty reverent and pretty satisfied at these stolen glimpses of the human body, whether it's having syphilis or giving birth. These were things that you couldn't commonly see in a movie theater. So people were satisfied with that even though that kind of thing might disappoint audiences today.

Felicia: I think it's easy also to think of audiences of the past as being somehow more gullible than we are today, but I think that actually we're just as enthralled by hype as audiences back then. Maybe even more so today because there is much more money pumped into the entertainment industry.

Bret: Back then they weren't putting Reefer Madness figures on fast-food drinking cups, but there were plenty of other ways. They were handing out handbills on the sidewalks. They were putting out banners and large posters. The idea was still the same.

Felicia: I think it's unfair to act as if these people were being duped. If anything, people today are more cowed by celebrityhood and stardom than they've ever been before.

Poster artwork for Reefer Madness.
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IMAGES: Back in the '30s and '40s Hollywood owned most of the movie theaters. So where did these movies play?

Bret: These films may have been responsible for the survival of independent movie theaters across the country. Those which weren't owned by the major studios could only get major motion pictures after they had played the first-run houses and the second-run houses. By the time they would get an A picture, it could be a year old and have already played in that city for a couple of times. Also, these theaters were not intimidated. They felt they could get a film from anywhere. They weren't under the same restrictions as a studio-run theater. A studio-run theater could have gotten an exploitation film if they wanted, but it would be like competing against themselves. They wouldn't want to get someone else's product. So the independent theaters were free to get whatever they wanted, and they were less concerned with image. They didn't mind having a really racy sensational poster hanging out front. They didn't mind that maybe there would be some letters written to the local paper because they knew that if they played this kind of film they could prosper. We found lots of theater owners who would write into the trade magazines and say they hadn't had a sold out crowd in months. But as soon as [they] played this [movie], [they] had to bring out the standing-room-only sign.

A crowd waits to see The 7th Commandment.
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IMAGES: Where did exploitation movies originate?

Bret: These movies were indebted to the carnival and the freak show. Again, going back to P.T. Barnum and the whole idea of where you're not just sitting and getting an entertainment. You're walking into another world. You're seeing relics of tribes of headhunters. Or you're seeing the gun that Dillinger carved out of a piece of soap. There was definitely a carnivalesque atmosphere to a lot of the exploitation films, especially those that really promoted themselves to the hilt. A lot of the time you could go to the theater and just see the movie. It depended on how ambitious the theater was and how ambitious the roadshow person was.

Felicia: I think it was definitely a small-town version of going out to a Broadway show or going to a burlesque house. It was a way of getting access to this completely captivating multimedia event that you just didn't have access to in a small-town setting normally.

Bret: A lot of the time the exploiteers would rely on this kind of promotion because there were no major stars in the film. These films didn't have much reputation in the press. They weren't given a coordinated release. They sold it to territories and it would start playing. It wasn't like there was a premiere, so a lot of these films fell through the cracks.

A theater-lobby display case for Forbidden Adventure.
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IMAGES: They didn't necessarily get reviewed in Variety?

Bret: Exactly. Or The New York Times. They wouldn't necessarily get reviewed in the local paper. So the theater had to make up for that by using every promotional technique and by making it more than a film, making it an event, with display cases and things like that in the lobby.

Felicia: And the times they were reviewed, because occasionally they would be reviewed in something like Variety, the reviewers were so incredibly dismissive you really get a sense of the absolute control Hollywood had on all phases of the industry, not only on their own output, distribution, and exhibition, but also the pervasive hold they had on the media and the publicity machines that promoted their own films, even down to reviewers.

IMAGES: These movies certainly don't meet the classic Hollywood style convention.

Felicia: They hark back to silent film aesthetics, more long shots, more stodgy, melodramatic themes and events, but I think they were also quite appealing on multiple levels. The stodginess we see in them is not necessarily a bad thing because that is [one of the qualities that] we value in silent films.

Bret: The look of the film had its own aesthetic, which can be appreciated on its own level. In the book [we compare] it to the photography of Weegee. It's more harsh. It's not a glossy, pretty picture--but it's a picture that fits the subject matter. If you want to see a picture of someone sleeping with a prostitute and [later] giving his wife and their baby gonorrhea, you sort of imagine it being dark, grainy, and bleak. And a lot of times they live up to that.


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