Ah, abortion: the solid center to any motion picture entertainment, right? Why so many of today’s movies have shied away from this normal, non-hot-button issue is simply a mystery. How could famed producers and artistically minded directors not see the inherent visual appeal of seedy, back alley clinics, wire coat hangers, and post-procedure hemorrhaging? You’d think by the way they avoided it, there was some manner of controversy surrounding this simple, salient life option preferred by so many modern women. Even the exploitation element felt sheepish about broaching the topic - mostly.
When corn-fed gal Patty Smith arrives in LA from Kansas, she wants to experience all that the West Coast has to offer. But getting gang-raped by a bunch of swarthy toughs was not high on her “to do” list. A couple of bouts of morning sickness later, and Patty has a permanent souvenir of the City of Angels. Hoping for help in terminating this unwanted “with child,” Patty seeks her doctor’s advice. He preaches to her about legalities. Seeking a second opinion, she visits another physician. He sermonizes about ethics…and then demands $600 to “help.” Desperate for money, Patty heads over to her church looking for a loan. The local parish priest condemns her - and her unborn fetus - to an eternity of damnation. Besides, the diocese is short on cash (go figure).
At her wit’s - and first trimester’s - end, Patty seeks the assistance of a sleazy bar owner with “connections.” He spares her a lecture, but does suggest she simply “get it over with” and just turn whore. Finally finding a financially acceptable option, Patty takes $200 to a “floating” clinic and prepares for a safe, sanitary procedure. What she gets instead is another homily to legislative change and a rather deadly infection. It may be hard for the folks back home to understand, but such knitting needle options are simply part of The Shame of Patty Smith.
Over in Dentonville, Florida, folks are as overheated as a cat on a hot tin roof, and view their small town existence as one huge crass menagerie. Trading on her family name - and her physician father’s swollen back account - little Joan Denton loves to cruise the seedy side of the city and hornswoggle the local rough trade. Eddie Mercer is the lucky load who lands Joanie’s physical love bug, and it’s not long before seed has taken womb root. The determined debutante immediately puts the kibosh on further fetlock fun, and this devastates ol’ Ed. He wants her to have the baby. But Joan is too busy preparing for country club parties, going on shopping sprees, and looking for available abortionists in Tampa (which is apparently famous for said surgical saloons).
A confrontation leads to a misunderstanding and before you know it, Edward is in jail on trumped-up charges, Dr. Denton is arranging for the fertility flushing, and a snotty lawyer from Miami is sticking his bar credentials in everyone’s dirty laundry business. When it appears that her trip to one of Ybor City’s finest birth termination facilities is threatened, Joan goes jittery and grabs a gun. Orphans are threatened. Swamps are polluted. And a planned retirement community is turned into a pre-Poltergeist burial mound as death comes from the flash of a muzzle accompanied by the screaming sentiment, “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!”
All joking aside, it’s clear that one of the reasons abortion has stayed a minor motion picture plotpoint is that The Shame of Patty Smith covered the subject so thoroughly and with enough debate-oriented detail that no other Tinseltown NOW testament could compete with its completeness. And inclusive is definitely one way of describing this legal and ethical diatribe.
Made 11 years before Roe v. Wade turned promiscuity into a viable vice option (at least in the Puritan’s mind), this cinematic amicus brief to the cause of choice gives every side - medical, religious, law enforcement, and backroom butcher - the chance to have his or her say. A lot of say. Too much say. While the arguments are cogent and the language intelligent, these discomfited conversational sidesteps turn the movie into something of a mad musical of soapbox stumping. Like one of those old MGM Technicolor classics, you can literally watch The Shame of Patty Smith‘s narrative and say to yourself, “I feel a speech coming on.”
Far too contemporary for its early ‘60s surroundings, this uncomfortable confrontation between life and privacy tries to address this most non-winnable of arguments in a realistic manner. Too bad it sacrifices salaciousness, drama and entertainment to do so. One has to wonder what the raincoat crowd made of this dull, detail-oriented offering. Never before has getting knocked up been so foul…or so thoroughly footnoted. The Shame of Patty Smith has good intentions, antithetical to a grindhouse good time.
If you ever wondered what an exploitation movie about unwanted teen pregnancy would look like had it been penned by Tennessee Williams or Truman Capote, then settle back on your porch swing, pour yourself a frosty mint julep and whittle away an hour (actually, 73 minutes) with the powerful Denton family and their promiscuous daughter Joan. So steamy it instantly irons out the wrinkles in your drapes the minute it starts to unscroll onscreen, and so full of Southern-fried melodrama that Colonel Sanders once thought of including it with a bucket of his chicken, “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!” (changed from the original Touch of Flesh) is more Tobacco Road than classroom scare tactic.
Between the backstabbing family lawyer, the local police chief who proudly flaunts his lack of parentage, and a slinky slut who’s new to town but already at home with the horny swing of things, this peculating potboiler is as bodice-bulging as they get. Add in Joan’s sexual slumming, an elderly matron with the “hots” for Dr. Denton, and some gratuitous orphans, and this sleazy saga goes from bad to perverse.
Director R. John Hugh has a unique cinematic style. Placing his camera just a little too high in the frame, he forces everyone to talk down toward the floor, so we get very little actual eye contact. Everyone navel-gazes as they deliver their overly melodramatic lines filled with family secrets and prosecutorial proverbs. Barely touching on the divisive surgery controversy, “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!” intends to show how an unwanted oven bun can lead to all manner of overacting. It succeeds in superbly seedy fashion. Not even old Ed can damage this randy rhetoric reading.
As unique as they are oblique, both The Shame of Patty Smith and “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!” represent motion picture moralizing at its most truncated and tawdry. They also stand as wonderful examples of abortion’s limited cinematic stance. Pro or con, these are a couple of crazy lessons in Constitutional constructions.