PopMatters has been following Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray series The Golden Age of Exploitation, a collection of films made outside of Hollywood’s studio system by independent mavericks. These filmmakers defied the Production Code and censor boards by making movies with taboo subjects and distributing them piecemeal as roadshows or on a “states’ rights” basis to local exhibitors. Such films belong to the underside of commercial cinema and reveal social neuroses and the tension between titillation and moral outrage.
Volume 7 pairs two items without much in common. Test Tube Babies (1948), produced by prolific cheapskate George Weiss, presents a case study on artificial insemination, a topic making headlines at the time. Jack Townley’s Guilty Parents (1934), dating from more than a decade earlier, is a typical hand-wringing melodrama about the price of sexual ignorance.
While most of the films in this Blu-ray series boast a degree of style or flair, and we’ve found several of them absorbing and well-made, the Weiss productions are more aesthetically challenging, and we don’t mean avant-garde. In his commentary, historian Eric Schaefer states “they’re now prized for their sort of bad movie quality and they do often open up a window onto the period.”
The “bad movie quality” refers to the fact that Weiss didn’t encourage his director, W. Merle Connell, to waste time and money on retakes or even multiple set-ups, so that many scenes unfurl in front of an unblinking camera planted in the middle distance. We’re lucky when it pans left or right to center the action.
Some international filmmakers today, unlikely to have been inspired by Weiss, have adopted this aesthetic as a means of capturing life on a wide visual canvas in real time. They sometimes partake of what critics call Slow Cinema, all done with artfully composed and lit staging. Weiss and Connell are just leaving the lights on, pointing the camera, and maybe sometimes going out for a cigarette.
Weiss also appears to cast actors for an ability to memorize lines without regard to how they’re delivered, so that such words as “amateurish” and “awkward” pop up frequently in reviews. Lack of rehearsal may contribute to this alienated cotton-wool effect. Robert Bresson drilled his actors to repeat their lines with as little emotional affect as possible, but that wasn’t the same thing.
On the understanding that what you see is what you get, you can sit through the 70 minutes that comprise Test Tube Babies. An idyllic montage of outdoor scenes opens the picture to convey the courtship and honeymoon between George (William Thomason) and Cathy Bennett (Dorothy Dube, not Duke as often cited on the interwebs). They’re a handsome young middle class couple, seemingly on top of the world in their under-decorated new ranch-style home.
George, whose black hair shines like a wet badger, is an architect, a builder, a maker of the new postwar world, just like Howard Roarke in Ayn Rand‘s The Fountainhead (1943)–but not quite. Maybe more like the dad on The Brady Bunch–but also not quite. Anyway, he spends all day into the night at work, where we see him sitting at a drafting table drawing random lines on empty graph paper.
The fly in the marital ointment is that Cathy is frustrated and bored and horny, forever parading in skimpy and suggestive sleepwear and practically having to hijack her husband into bed, when he’s around, which he usually isn’t. However, the problem isn’t stated like that. She expresses desperate angst, that she has a feeling they shouldn’t have gotten married. “Are you saying you want a divorce?” he asks hopefully, but no such luck. They both diagnose the problem as lack of children, a yearning represented by the doll on the bed.
On one hand, they observe that all their friends are getting knocked up and no longer have time for socializing. On the other, they’re constantly attending “baby showers” that somehow become raucous outings of drunks making a play for each other’s spouses, and they’re getting sick of the scene. The apparent contradiction between these scenarios isn’t articulated or even noticed.
Cathy wants to attend these parties and have a good time, even though she also claims she doesn’t really enjoy them anymore. The last straw is the movie’s epic if dire setpiece, a party at her home. In a snit, George boycotts in favor of staying at work again to draw random lines, while Cathy obliviously hosts three or four inebriated couples feeling each other up and doffing items of clothing in between giggling salacious repartee.
The chief instigator is Frank (John Michael), the lone bachelor and most competent actor. While George builds things, Frank tears them down as that modern phenomenon, a divorce lawyer. In accord with his calling, he comes on like a sleazy playboy horndog who points his nose at every untried female, as though drumming up business. He encourages one drunken hussy to do a striptease to conveniently rowdy radio music. (If this were made a few years later, they’d have a hi-fi stereo and TV, and maybe Cathy would be less bored out of her skull. Or not.)
The pièce de résistance, which many will resist easily enough, is when her loud comical-drunk hubby joins her by tearing off his shirt amid many shimmies and staggers. He may be balding, but he proves otherwise hirsute.
One hoity-toity guest (Mary Lou Reckow) in platinum-blonde Cleopatra hair turns off the radio to prevent things going too far, and we don’t know whether to be grateful. Supposedly Frank’s date, she fumes because she’s been deposited on the sofa while he plies his trade elsewhere. She’s an actress who throws around high-falutin’ diction, only to be exposed as an ex-stripper before she launches into a topless catfight in what’s effectively this movie’s money shot. Its protracted irrelevance isn’t a demerit. Just like the songs in a musical, this is really what the audience has paid to see, and not so much the instruction on miracles of modern obstetric science.
Although I call it irrelevant to the baby plot, the wild party is probably the film’s secret subject. More explicitly, everyone’s degenerative behavior signals an existential ennui in the portrait of white middle-class idealism. Are all these couples childless, or are they the crowd of procreating friends with babysitters at home? If the latter, clearly their itches still need scratching.
Schaefer’s commentary points out assumptions like the frequent emphasis on what’s “normal” and the necessity of reproduction to keep wives from going “neurotic” (this is actually stated) in the supposedly ideal middle-class world that, nevertheless, leaves Cathy unsatisfied with literally nothing to do. He observes that Betty Friedan would diagnose Cathy’s ills in The Feminine Mystique (1963), and I’ll point out that this film was made only one year before Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (Le Deuxième Sexe, 1949). Even though these aren’t the stated topics of the film, something was in the air or the water.
Let’s digress a little further. Beauvoir’s book was translated into English in 1953, the year of Ray Bradbury‘s Fahrenheit 451. This widely misunderstood novel has nothing to do with a society that outlaws literacy but rather one that forbids works that make people “unhappy” by causing them to think or be offended. Bradbury’s future permits “trash”, including romance novels that housewives are encouraged to read as they’re encouraged to scarf tranquilizers. Since science fiction set in the future is really a report on “the way we live now”, Bradbury finds that his hero’s stay-at-home childless housewife becomes a neurotic, drugged-out vegetable–the proof that something’s wrong with women’s roles in this happy world.
Some forest-for-the-trees critics have described the “sexism” of this one-dimensional basket case instead of recognizing Bradbury’s pre-Friedan diagnosis of contemporary life disguised as science fiction. The wife has never had room to develop any dimensions, and that’s why the hero, Montag, finds himself drawn to a “rebel” woman who thinks for herself. One person who understood this point was François Truffaut, whose 1966 film version casts the same actress as both women, thus making the point that the only difference between them is the choices and restrictions open to them. One obeys, the other doesn’t.
End of digression. Returning to Test Tube Babies, the Bennett’s problems are traced to George’s sterility after a bit of peek-a-boo in the scene where Cathy prepares for an examination and is pronounced normal. George’s sperm cells are dead, and he states that he always felt so normal. We might go to town on that one. As Schaefer notes, George takes the news remarkably well. He seems almost as underwhelmed as though he were told of a cavity.
Fortunately, gynecologist Dr. Wright (Timothy Farrell) is there to deliver lectures in what Schaefer calls “black hole acting”. At one point, he even pulls down a nonsensical chart to explain chromosomes. He’s given to muffing his potentially salacious dialogue about how he could help, and he drops enigmatic phrases like “Mothers today are not like our mothers were.” Farrell, who played a similar expert in Ed Wood‘s Glen or Glenda (1953), can be seen as the bad guy in The Devil’s Sleep (1949) in Volume 6 of this series. Our leading hunk, Thomason, also stars in that film as the police detective.
What there is of substantive story is hurried through in this final reel: diagnosis, instant decision for artificial insemination, Bob’s your uncle. Five years and two kids later, everybody’s happy ever after including George, presumably now leaving his wife alone all the time.
Guilty Parents, written and directed with more panache by Jack Townley, structures its plot as a series of flashbacks while a defense attorney (John St. Polis) delivers a plea to a jury about the heroine, who stands accused of “taking a human life”. As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, the script blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X.
The message is in the very title, and it’s spelled out so we won’t miss it in the opening “square-up” crawl, which begins: “Sex ignorance, the black plague of adolescence, continues to augment the mass of innocent youth in the abyss of despair. Shouting from the mountain tops their battle cry of ‘Save our boys and girls’ and deliberately concealing from them the understanding of the mysteries of sex life, the foolhardiness of these bigots remains today, as in other days, one of the pitiful inconsistencies of life.” This goes on for three more paragraphs.
Here’s one of the oodles of movies where 20-somethings play high school kids. In this case, Jean Lacy stars as Helen Mason, a sweet blonde whose marriage manual, lent by a teacher, is plucked from her hands and thrown in the fire by outraged Mama (Isabel La Mal). If only she’d let her daughter read that book, Helen wouldn’t have been dragged to the Pink Elephants “social club” by her sleazy pretty-boy beau (Glen Boles).
“She’s free, white and under 21,” declares the bespectacled and freckled numbskull leading the group like a debauched refugee from the science fair. “How free is she?” asks one of the frisky boys before they all hoot and salivate over her “initiation” via forced striptease in silhouette. Somehow the boyfriend gets her pregnant before instantly leaving the story after pulling a failed “Bonnie and Clyde” robbery–again, all because her mom wouldn’t tell her the facts of life.
Helen flees to the city and puts her baby up for adoption (we assume) before you can say “Jack Robinson”, and then quite a lot more stuff happens in this 66-minute epic crammed with coincidence, poor impulse control, and chorus girls showing their underwear. Events lead to a botched abortion (never quite spelled out) and last-minute surprise twist. Although we’ve seen such material before, especially earlier in this series, Guilty Parents is an engaging piece of exploitation, more immediately so than its main feature.
Its cast is also more interesting. Donald Keith and Gertrude Astor were silent stars who still had presence, and we can only wish their parts had been bigger. Boles was on his way to a Broadway career and finally a doctorate in psychology. He’d played a similarly bad boyfriend in the same year’s The Road to Ruin (directed by Dorothy Davenport and Melville Shyer), which would be a more appropriate co-feature. Friend Tim Steffens of his wrote an appreciation of his life, “Remembering Glen Boles: A Tribute“.
Most importantly, Lacy carries her heroine well, or at least with professional competence. According to her IMDB bio, she went on to a serious career as a pioneer in women’s radio and TV programs. That’s two stars of this film who went on to lengthy careers. They had to start somewhere.