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.
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 is 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 or are we also talking about the filmgoers?
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 to hype than the 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 larger 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.
IMAGES: Back in the '30s and '40s Hollywood owned most of the movie theaters. So where did these movies play?
Bret: These kinds of 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 images. 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.
IMAGES: Where did exploitation movies come from?
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 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 reply on this kind of promotion was 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 sell 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.
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 it as grandiose as possible 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 on all phases of the industry, not only there 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. I think in the book it to the photography of Weegee. It's a 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.
IMAGES: In the book, you breakdown exploitation movies into five main categories. Let's talk about those categories. We'll start with "drug scare" movies. The most well-known "drug scare" movie is probably Reefer Madness. 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. It was change in American life, a move 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 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. Something like Cocaine Fiends, where it was 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 and for many people I think it's the hysteria of that film--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.
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 which 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.
IMAGES: Let's move on into the "wayward women" genre.
Bret: That's 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 is 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 prays 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 them is that the city is the source of corruption and the country is where life is still innocent and pure.
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 that with a story 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 a present today, but the exaggeration allows us to seem them more clearly. And it's 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 good girls 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 main gorilla seems to be a gorilla whose main interest seems to be in procuring some 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 its 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.
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 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 the 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 of that one. 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.
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.
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.
IMAGES: What can you tell me about another of the social problem pictures called The Lash of the Penitentes?
Bret: It started out with just some footage that was shot of a strange religious cult, I believe in New Mexico, which had been in the news because of their radical religious practices of self-flagellation and re-enacting stations of the cross, where people would be carrying crosses up to a mountaintop. [Roland Price, an exploitation photographer, who also shot How to Undress for Your Husband] photographed this. He had all this footage of people torturing themselves and whipping themselves, but what do you do with it? It became newsworthy when a reporter who was there writing a story on this cult was killed, and so everyone assumed that he was killed by this religious cult because he was going to expose them. Suddenly, it became a hot issue. Someone had the idea that this is the film. So [they] re-enacted this guy's trip down to New Mexico and how he was killed. From there it blossomed into a fictionalized re-enactment of this guy's last days on earth. But unfortunately, the entire film doesn't exist. I think about 45 minutes is the longest version that [exists]. A lot of times, these films would be chopped down so they could be put on double features. For instance, Reefer Madness is around in a 65-minute version and also a 45-minute version. Frequently you'll find films when you get them from different sources will be missing footage because it had been cut out to satisfy the censors. Or maybe they took a film, passed it to the censors, and then added new footage to give people a little something extra for their money. So there were no definitive versions of the films. They circulated in a lot of different cuts, radically different lengths, slightly different content, and with different titles because if you didn't have a film to sell, you could always take an old film, put a new title on it, draw up a new ad campaign, and go ahead and release it as if it were something new. By the time people caught on, it wouldn't matter: You'd have already gotten their ticket money. And a lot of times the film may have never played there in the first place. It was just a way of multiplying product.
IMAGES: Were these movies typically presented before censor boards?
Bret: Not every state had its own censor board. Some states were wide open. But other states, and in some cases cities, had censor boards, where you would have to apply and get a license. Sometimes they would flat out fail and don't even bother appealing it. Other times they would say, "If you will cut out this scene, this scene, this scene, this scene, we'll give you a license. So that allowed a little bit of flexibility for the filmmakers. In some cases they could take a film, submit it to the censor board, make the changes, satisfy the censor, get their license, and then release an UNCUT print. We have on record where some people did that.
Felicia: That was definitely one of the beauties of the road showman. You put your film into a theater after having played lip service to the censor board and pretended you were going to make some cuts which you ultimately didn't make. And then [you] showed the film in a small town theater. But the road showman was moving from town to town and he could whisk a film out of town if it became a problem in the local press or with the local police. Or a common strategy was to show a film that was fairly tame and to follow it with a loop of burlesque footage or a cesarean operation. So the roadshowman, being on hand for the screenings, allowed for all sorts of adaptations that could get around censorship because he was there on hand to make whatever accommodations were necessary.
IMAGES: What role did the MPPCA play with exploitation films?
Bret: The MPPCA, the production code administration, is the board that governed Hollywood films, but they didn't have any real bearing on these independent filmmakers because the only theaters that cared about a picture with a production code seal were the major theaters, the ones run by the chains, people who had a reputation to protect. It didn't really matter to the independent theaters, so the production code was not that heavy a force in exploitation.
IMAGES: Another popular genre of exploitation was the sex education pictures. How were these different than the wayward women movies?
Felicia: Damaged Lives is a good example because it is not about a wayward woman but in fact a wayward man, a man who on the eve of his marriage at a bachelor party where he has an evening of pleasure with a party girl and winds up with syphilis. The film is more specific than the wayward women films in describing his process of getting better. The films in the sex education genre are real specific about the medical treatment of something like syphilis or the condition of pregnancy and used actual medical reels, medical footage of child birth or images of syphilitic genitals, decayed eyeballs, babies who had contracted syphilis from their mothers, so these films are about sex education and incredibly explicit in showing what they're talking about. It's hard to depict the fall from grace of a girl gone bad, but it's quite easy to make your point about the dangers of syphilis or pregnancy by showing the actual imagery.
IMAGES: Yes, on the CD-ROM version of Forbidden Fruit there are some real shockers taken from the exploitation films--footage of actual live births and cesarean births.
Felicia: Audiences today tend to see those things as the ultimate gross out. At the time, a lot of those images were not common to ordinary people, so I think these films, though they certainly had a level of sensationalism and horror and shock to them, were also showing something that couldn't be seen anywhere else. The country was changing a great deal and people didn't have access to home births the way they had in the past, partly because the medical community was becoming so powerful and controlling things like pregnancy. The lines of women queuing up for something like Modern Motherhood indicate that these films weren't just for the prurient of men, but that women were quite in them. And I think the sex education films are the best example of how they also appealed to women.
IMAGES: The roadshow experience is pretty much gone today, is it not?
Felicia: I think so. We can find links with things today. It's easy to find comparisons with Rescue 911 or America's Most Wanted. But I guess the reason we initiated this whole project was because this is a lost phase of film history. This was an entire genre devoted to things that Hollywood would never touch. And it's pretty much lost, except for companies that are putting these films out on video and giving some access. It's a lost art.
Bret: The means by which they were distributed is another one of the lost arts, not just the films themselves but the way in which they were shown. Even the way in which they were made, on-the-fly, by guys who didn't really have any training in filmmaking who saw a dollar to be made and had a great idea of how to go about it. It's definitely a chapter of history that is pretty much closed. We're just trying to put some part of it on record.
IMAGES: Would you then argue that there is something of merit in exploitation movies? That they weren't simply a way to separate people from their money? But that they did provide some type of important service--entertainment, education--no matter how sensationalized it may have been?
Bret: In their own hysterical way, they definitely did. If you're willing to look beyond the campy surface and oftentimes the poor visual quality [the films] are emotionally engaging. They had a quality and then they did serve a function in satisfying people's curiosity, not only their morbid curiosity but also their curiosity about basic things as how the woman's menstrual cycle works or what happens in childbirth. How exactly does a person get pregnant. If I get syphilis go I get a pill, will it clear up? Or will I get long term treatment? There were serious answers given to legitimate questions. A lot of times these answers were wrapped up in a totally haywire drama of fast-paced teens and a downward spiral.
Felicia: And I think a lot of times watching these films is like watching a newsreel. They have this authenticity to them. And a lot of that authenticity is a result of the half-baked production values. The fact that they aren't polished like the Hollywood productions gives you more of a feeling of the desperation and the fears and the phobias of the day. You have a scene, like the one in Maniac, of the man who has the backyard cat and rat industry. What could be a more creepy and sublime image of the desperation that the Depression drove people to? I think the films are incredibly vivid and really speak to what the time was like. They are a record of the literal fears of the time. You really get a sense of what people were concerned about. It looks quaint to talk about the fear of marijuana in Reefer Madness, but for that time it was a legitimate fear.
IMAGES: What spelled the end of the exploitation era?
Bret: Once censorship became more relax, it became less necessary for them to wrap up their sensational drama in this cloak of legitimacy, where they no longer had to address a pressing social concern it order to show someone take their clothes off or to show someone using drugs. You could just make a thriller and have someone doing these things, which in past they had had to disguise as social commentary. Exploitation became sexploitation. For instance, David Friedman and Hershell Gordon Lewis go ahead and make nudie movies without any kind of medical lecture or moral lesson. Russ Meyer could make films about whatever he wanted. So the films didn't have to package themselves as legitimate social commentary. And that was what was so good about [exploitation] films. They had to be clever about how they presented things, or advertised things. They had to sidestep around being too explicit. But once it became demystified and that you knew that when you got inside you'd be seeing some nude women playing volleyball, where's the fun it that? It was no longer a mystery. It just became naked people.
IMAGES: I think there was also a greater sense of drama. When the movie was coming to town in the '30s and '40s and you weren't familiar with the title of the movie already, there was a big mystery about what would happen on the screen once the theater lights dimmed. And that mystery started to disappear with the sexploitation genre.
Bret: With a lot of these films, you didn't know how explicit they were going to be. Some of these were pretty tame. There would be no nudity. There would be no explicit drug use. And then the next one that came through town, you might get close ups of rotting genitalia. You might get images of dead bodies. You might get a skinny-dipping scene. You never knew what these exploitation films were going to be like. Even if you sort of know what exploitation films are, there is always this level of mystery of not knowing how explicit it would be.
Felicia: These is quote that we reference in our book, David Chute saying, "The classic exploitation films were flirtatious." And I think that is definitely a quality that these films have. A narrative that is almost like a striptease. You never know what's going to be revealed. It's always quite slow, but that building to what's going to happen is all the more satisfying and interesting. Whereas when you have the nudie films, the sexploitation films later on, that sense of flirtatiousness is gone. It's just pure display. And a lot of the fears that we have about sex and a lot of the mystery of sex disappear when those films come into play.
IMAGES: I think it was the anticipation that was really getting us there, that we were really feeding upon.
Felicia: Definitely. It was very much built upon what was next.
Bret: Especially when you had [the roadshowmen] coming in a week in advance, plastering the town with posters, building up this intense curiosity.
IMAGES: I suspect more money was frequently spent on the advertising campaigns than on the movies themselves.
Bret: If they had been engineered by the studios they wouldn't have been as appealing to us. But the fact that they were made on these low, low budgets--that a step up for them would have been renting a poverty row soundstage, that was like class--by these guys that didn't know that much about film, in a lot of cases. It was a real grass roots movement and it was kind of spontaneous. They didn't do any surveys to find out how these films were going to do. It was a movement that quickly became this distinctive form both in the style of film and they way the films were exhibited. And then, when the time came, it petered out. But for awhile it was a totally unique movement.
Felicia: And they weren't disingenuous about it either. It's not like they were making these films about sexual harassment to garner Academy Awards for their actors. They were trying to make a buck.
If you're intersted in learning more about exploitation cinema, we recommend Forbidden Fruit, a new book by Felicia Feaster and Bret Wood (go to book review); Forbidden Fruit, a CD-ROM interactive disc from Night Kitchen Media (go to software review); and Kino On Video's "Forbidden Fruit" video series, which includes Narcotic, Maniac, and Reefer Madness (go to video review).