For many people, the exploitation cinema of the '30s and '40s is represented by only one movie, Reefer Madness, but during this time period, exploitation movies thrived. Several new movies each year would hit the exploitation circuit, to be hawked by roadshowmen who hop-scotched across the country, through both large cities and tiny rural towns--and everywhere in between.
Drug addiction (as depicted in Reefer Madness) was one of the prime topics of exploitation cinema; however, exploitation movies came in a wide variety of types. Sex education movies (such as Damaged Lives and Because of Eve) showcased the pleasures and perils of sexual activity and placed special emphasis on the horrifying consequences of social diseases. Wayward women movies (such as Slaves in Bondage and Mad Youth) depicted how good girls could be led into lives of prostitution. Topics ripped from the headlines provided fodder for movies such as The Lash of the Penitentes (about murder in a religious cult) and Tomorrow's Children (about forced sterilization). And pseudo-documentaries featured a mix of authentic and fraudulent footage and introduced us to sex-hungry gorillas (as in Forbidden Adventure) and sunlight-worshipping nudists (as in Nudists at Play).
Preserving the elusive history of exploitation cinema is one of the goals of Felicia Feaster and Bret Wood. They have written a new book, Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film, that chronicles this largely neglected period in film history. While most film historians have considered exploitation films hardly worthy of mention, Feaster and Wood insist that "a bounty of insight into the history of the cinema and also, the culture of the 1930s and '40s, can be gleamed from the exploitation film… if one only looks beyond their often hackneyed and amateurish surface." And while exploitation films are generally considered the poor cousins of Hollywood products, Feaster and Wood remind us that these movies frequently packed in audiences. As evidence, the book contains surprising stills of huge audiences waiting to get into movies such as Modern Motherhood, Sins of Love, and Street Corner.
Historians of Hollywood cinema would like to "ignore this bastard sibling--laughing it off as camp, schlock or golden turkeys." But Feaster and Wood convincingly argue that this episode in film history deserves to be considered seriously. Sure, the movies were frequently outrageous and played off of the audience's most prurient interests, but at the same time these movies prospered because Hollywood cinema had a stranglehold on the vast majority of theaters: "The exploitation film prospered like fungus in this shadow of vertical integration and block booking, and many an independent theater vied for a dose of its penicillin to slow the economic disease spread by the majors."
Exploitation cinema arose as an alternative to Hollywood cinema. While the major studios were forced to follow the Motion Picture Production Code, the exploiteers could film virtually anything they wanted, as long as they wrapped their productions in a cloak of moralizing. These movies typically began with scrolling text that warned the audiences about a social problem (drug addiction, prostitution, venereal disease, etc.). Or they began with a lecturer who warned the audience about the dangers of the vices depicted in the film. This framing method is one of the hallmarks of exploitation cinema. It could be used to justify showing almost anything on film-- drug parties, skinny dipping, opium dens, etc.--as long as the exploiteers also feigned disgust and claimed a higher purpose. As Feaster and Wood argue: "The illuminating message that each exploitation film offered as a matter of course was little more than a standard, half-hearted effort to placate public officials who might attempt to censor the film and to accommodate the viewer who needed the pretense of education to allow herself to indulge in such prurient displays."
Forbidden Fruit doesn't simply focus on the films themselves. The movies were just part of the exploitation experience. It also focuses on the roadshow experience, an experience not dissimilar to the carnival sideshow. Huge posters screamed, "THE MOST VITAL PICTURE OF ALL TIME" and "YOU MUST SEE IT." A flatbed truck might haul a display around town. The roadshowman would hire kids to pass out handbills. "Esteemed" lecturers would preach about the dangers of drugs or the dangers of venereal disease and urge filmgoers to buy educational booklets. Theater lobby displays for drug warning movies contained hypodermic needles, simulated reefers, and other drug paraphernalia. For jungle pictures, lobbies were stocked with palm fronds, an assortment of stuffed creatures (leopards, lions, alligators, etc.), and "authentic" spears and shields. Among this onslaught of hype, the movie almost became an afterthought. Forbidden Fruit includes a wealth of materials to help recreate this roadshow atmosphere: roadshow schedules, newspaper ads, posters, photos of packed audiences and lobby displays, pressbook clippings, and much more.
When I saw the name Bret Wood attached to this book, I immediately thought of the stunning designs that he creates for Kino International's video releases. I hoped that Mr. Wood would bring his excellent design sense to Forbidden Fruit (as Eddie Mueller did with the marvelously designed Grindhouse, published in 1996 by St. Martin's). However, because this book is being published by Midnight Marquee Press, a publishing house known for relatively low-budget efforts, the book's layout features a traditional layout of text and pictures. So you won't find any background images or any photo collages or any images running (bleeding) off the pages. It would be unfair to criticize Midnight Marquee for not providing the resources for publishing a more elaborately-designed book, but at the same time, I have to admit that I'm a little disappointed that the material didn't receive a more robust layout. Yet, the book does indeed contain an astonishing set of stills, posters, ads, and other materials. And the text itself is filled with valuable insights. Most notably, Feaster and Wood avoid adopting a judgmental tone. They recognize the deficiencies of the movies that they write about (the "crude" aural qualities, the "clumsy mechanics," the "poorly coached actors," etc.), but they don't condemn the filmmakers. Nor do they give the movies a Golden Turkey treatment. Instead, they argue that "the ugly reality denied by Hollywood, but which keeps slipping through the cracks in exploitation, gives the genre an intoxicating quality … It convinces the viewer, in spite of the film's aesthetic ungainliness, that the story is more real than make believe." This willingness by Feaster and Wood to treat the movies seriously and convince the book's readers of the historical significance of exploitation cinema makes Forbidden Fruit an absorbing experience and a valuable addition to any film lover's library.
Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film by Felicia Feaster and Bret Wood is now available in a trade paperback edition from Midnight Marquee Press. 224 pages. Suggested list price: $20. For more information, check out the Midnight Marquee Web site.