Forbidden Fruit

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

Poster artwork for Marihuana: Weed With Roots in Hell.
IMAGES: In the book, you break down exploitation movies into five main categories. Let's talk about those categories. We'll start with "drug scare" movies. What was the attraction of these movies for people in the '30s and '40s?

Felicia: I think that there was a great deal of discussion in the popular press, a great deal of fear, about drugs. American life was changing, moving from a rural, community-oriented America to a more urban, alienated sort of community. People had a great fear of what was going to happen when they left their familiar settings and went to the city and what they would find there. And oftentimes how that fear was expressed was through the drug film. Cocaine Fiends is about a girl who was lured to the city, basically by her nose. It's a tale about the degradation of drugs, what can happen to you once you submit to the evil of drugs, which is generally a downward spiral into prostitution and all sorts of debauchery. Reefer Madness is the best known of these films. Many people [are drawn to] the hysteria of that film and the quaintness of the way that it depicts drug addiction. Most of us know the immediate effect of the drug is not hysteria and wild dancing, so I think that camp value is what lured people to Reefer Madness. But I think the drug films in general are quite valid in their expression of the popular fears of the day, of what drugs could do, that we still haven't escaped today.

From Marihuana: Weed With Roots in Hell.
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Bret: A variety of different drugs were treated in these films. Marijuana: we have Marihuana: Weed With Roots in Hell or Devil's Harvest. Cocaine: you have Cocaine Fiends. Heroin and opium are dealt with in Narcotic. And even pep pills are addressed in a film called The Devil's Sleep. So there was a wide variety of drugs that were being addressed. One of the appeals was, generally, when you saw one of these movies, you knew it was going to be about more than drugs. Sure, you would have people using drugs and going crazy, but also once their inhibitions fell you knew there would be sexual activity or murder. So the drugs were kind of the tip of the iceberg that promised lots of consequences. A lot of people would come to see films to see the punishment. First, you see the people committing all these sins and then you get to see them being punished.

IMAGES: I suppose that was part of the attraction of these films--that ultimately they got their just desserts.

Bret: Right. There's not a whole lot of tolerance. Occasionally, rather than blaming the victim, you'll find films that blame the parents for not having properly educated their children. In The Road to Ruin, you have a girl on her death bed and her mother crying, begging for her forgiveness, but it's too late. The girl is dying. It's a really powerful film, the silent and the sound version. Occasionally, they can surprise you with their politics, but at the same time there is always punishment in the end.

A scene from a petting party in The Road to Ruin.
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IMAGES: Let's move on into the "wayward women" genre.

Bret: That's a good one to use for that [The Road to Ruin]. This is mainly good girls gone wrong. The genre "wayward women" involves women who are lured into prostitution. Guilty Parents is one. Mad Youth is one. Slaves in Bondage is probably the best one: a girl that works at a manicurist shop realizes that this shop is a front for prostitution. She is sort of drawn into this world and sees these girls spanking each other. That's probably the best example of the wayward women [genre]. It preys on people's fears of our daughters being "ruined."

Felicia: And the film's are often a kind of interesting collision of pulp novel aesthetic and D.W. Griffith sense of morality. The moral extremes are so extreme and exaggerated. It's generally these absolutely pristine girls who are being compromised, oftentime by foreign or dark men of some sort who are luring them into the secret brothels, the underground world of prostitution, and inevitably ending up with syphilis or gonorrhea or pregnant.

Bret: And the recurring theme is that the city is the source of corruption and the country is where life is still innocent and pure.

Poster artwork for Slaves in Bondage.
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IMAGES: In the book you use an example from Reefer Madness, where a police detective is talking about a young boy who goes crazy and kills his parents and the detective follows this story with one that he indicates is much worse, about a 17-year-old woman out on the town in the company of five young men--the implication being that a woman's virginity is valued above everything else.

Felicia: Without a doubt. Oftentimes it's the exaggerated nature of exploitation films that reminds you of these issues that are just as present today, but the exaggeration allows us to see them more clearly. And it has definitely been the case that women are the social standard; they're the ideal. Maintaining their virtue is maintaining the integrity of the nation. They are completely symbolic of that integrity. I think the films were probably incredibly moving to their audiences in depicting a good girl's fall into degradation. And this isn't the degradation in Hollywood melodramas, the golddigger who works her way up the corporate ladder or sleeps with rich men to get furs and jewels. This was a real corruption of innocence.

IMAGES: We're not talking about Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face or Joan Crawford in Possessed. It's a completely different type of woman in the "wayward women" movies.

Felicia: Definitely. I think that people could really relate to the characters in a way that they probably couldn't relate to Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face. It was more escapism and fantasy.

IMAGES: This topic sort of bleeds into the next genre, the documentary, particularly the jungle pictures where the lead character seems to be a gorilla whose main interest is in procuring human women. Were the documentaries marketed in the same way as the other exploitation movies? Was the same type of hard sell used?

Bret: Yes, definitely. And sometimes from the ads it's hard to tell if it's a documentary or a dramatization. The documentaries pretty much always had the lobby displays. They were presenting this as a factual account of foreign cultures and true crime. It lent itself to lobby decorations. With the crime pictures, you had people with electric chairs, jail cells, and Bonnie-and-Clyde death cars. They could pull out all the stops with that, which is a little more difficult to do with a sex education or a drug scare film.

Bestiality is the central concern of Forbidden Adventure.
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IMAGES: What are some of the main documentary titles?

Bret: In the jungle genre, Forbidden Adventure is probably the most famous. There is also one called Ingagi and [another called] Gow. There is also the sub-genre of true crime. Mostly they would take, or steal, newsreel footage, re-edit it, add their own narration, and make it their own. They would include some pretty grizzly footage of slain gangsters laying on morgue slabs. Pictures of dead bodies, things that generally didn't make it into the MovieTone Newsreels. The March of Crime is probably the best example. The Vanishing Gangster is another one. There is also the odds-and-ends category. Nudist films you'd put in that category, where you're pretending to offer a serious consideration of the nudist lifestyle. This is not people taking their clothes off. This is people discovering the helpful benefits of sunshine. So again, you have them exploiting some serious issues, allowing people to watch a bunch of topless women romping around playing archery and stuff like that. And then a few oddball documentaries, like How to Undress, which is also known as How to Undress for Your Husband, which is really stretching it a little bit too much to say that we are educating the public on how women can save their marriages by being a little more artistic when they take their clothes off. I don't think they were fooling anyone. It's sort of ludicrous to suggest that there was a serious purpose to this film, but they did it just the same.

A pamphlet sold at screenings of The March of Crime.
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IMAGES: One of the hallmarks of this genre is the mixture of real documentary footage with staged footage. In your book, you mention that Forbidden Adventure contains footage from a real Harvard expedition to Angkor in Cambodia. That footage collected dust on a shelf until an exploiteer had an idea for how to utilize it. So they shot some new scenes with gorillas grabbing native women and cobbled these together with the documentary footage.

Bret: Right. And it's still under the guise of documentary. For example in The March of Crime, they have a little bit of a reenactment, influencing the true crime television shows of today. Tabloid television most strongly bears the influence of exploitation, whether it's the talk shows or the reenactment shows or the Unsolved Mysteries type shows. And especially The Guiness Book of World Records shows, which could have been a Dwain Esper short film, 50 years ago.

Felicia: The reenactments rely, of course, on a great deal of speculation and hypothesis combined with a great deal of sensationalism, showing us the sordid side of life, how criminals live, how rapists act, how murderers behave. There is a direct line from exploitation films to today.

Sterling Holloway in the forced-sterilization saga Tomorrow's Children.
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IMAGES: Another genre, the social problem film, is also related to television of today. I can easily imagine an episode of Jerry Springer dealing with child marriage or abortion or polygamy.

Felicia: I guess one of my favorites of that genre is Tomorrow's Children, which is about forced sterilization, where a girl is living in a family of moral and physical and intellectual degenerates. Based on the immediate example at hand, the authorities decide she should be sterilized to prevent her from having children. The film boils down to a race to save her ovaries from the incision knife. There is an element of social cause in a film like that. Mostly, though, it's just a big deal of prurient interest in the idea of gynecological surgery and reproductive issues. Forced sterilization was definitely on the books in the 1930s. It was a social policy to weed out alcoholics, the retarded. It was actually a means of setting forth social agendas through people's bodies, which is fairly horrifying to us today.


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