The assault on our senses, sensibilities and sensitivities continues with Kino Lorber’s sensational and sin-filled series of Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film, presented in stimulating association with Something Weird Films.
PopMatters reviewed the first three volumes here. As the class will recall if they were paying attention, we learned that exploitation filmmakers were mavericks who didn’t participate in Hollywood’s mainstream studio system or even the lower-tier “Poverty Row” studios. Rather, these iconoclastic entrepreneurs independently distributed films that exploited subjects forbidden by Hollywood’s Production Code, such as drugs, sex, and other unmentionables.
They did this by claiming to be “bold” and “daring” and “educational” and presenting the films in an atmosphere somewhere between a civics lecture and a carnival, complete with hired “experts” and testimonials and the hawking of books. Ladies and gentlemen, step right up and experience at least half the show off of the screen. Bold and daring these productions often were, and at least some of the educational value is now accidental and socio-historical.
Narcotic (1933) Director: Dwain Esper
Volume 4 is devoted to the output of Dwain Esper, a longstanding maven of exploitation whom even family members recall as a crooked son of a bitch. That’s according to the highly informed commentaries on both films by historian Bret Wood, which some viewers may find more entertaining than the features. Wood explains that these presentations, assembled from Library of Congress prints and Something Weird prints, comprise the most complete versions of these titles ever to circulate on home video, and it’s still possible that material is missing.
Also entertaining and informative is the raconteurism of the late filmmaker David F. Friedman and the late Mike Vraney (of Something Weird) on a second commentary for Marihuana, which has been retained from a 2000 DVD release on the Something Weird label. Friedman claims that Esper sometimes exhibited the mummified corpse of Elmer McCurdy, an Oklahoma outlaw who’d been shot by a posse early in the century, as an example of the wages of sin that comes to drug addicts. Perhaps more than any other detail, this should place the level of cultural elevation for such screenings.
The one-hour films can’t exactly be called incompetent or even totally amateurish, for Esper’s sensibilities were clearly artsy if cheap. They’re rough and ready and sometimes dizzying, and sometimes this effect is deliberate. All were scripted by Esper’s wife, billed as Hildagarde Stadie, a vital creative partner in his output, and all are marked by her mix of on-the-nose dialogue, odd wordplay, and speechifying. Their hands-down masterpiece is Maniac (1934), and we won’t be surprised if it shows up later in this series, but this volume is devoted to two drug pictures.
Narcotic is the earliest surviving Esper epic, so we’ll discuss it first. This film purports to be the biopic of the alternately spelled Dr. William G. Davies or Davis (played by Harry Cording in a surprisingly good performance), a morphine addict and snake-oil salesman whom Esper knew personally. As Wood explains from having read a memoir by Davies’ common-law wife, the film is more or less accurate, almost, and gives us a template of an earlier era of carnival hucksters who influenced Esper and other exploit-eers.
The doctor’s tale begins with self-satisfied shirtless arm-wrestling in a college dorm room. Looking on is a dignified Chinese gentleman, smoking a long pipe of ordinary tobacco, and played in grotesque makeup by J. Stuart Blackton Jr., son of the important film pioneer. He speaks in correct and cultured English, though delivered in a halting manner.
He states that China has learned to tolerate opium as a recreation while the west doesn’t know its limitations. Davies praises him and drops remarks like, “China was already highly civilized when the people of the western world were still savages.” The Chinese man will later declare that China banned the importing of opium and burned its own crop “even though the other countries re-drugged our nation for their own gain.”
Wood explains that this character is based on a real Chinese doctor friend of Davies who might have gotten him hooked on opium. In the movie, this character introduces Davies to an opium den for relaxation after Davies nears exhaustion running a free clinic where, among other feats, he performs a miracle caesarean section on a dead woman. That’s the film’s cue for astounding and nauseating medical footage of an actual operation in which the womb is removed from the body, and this drop-in goes hand in glove with the film’s practice of recycling footage from silent movies in order to provide free car wrecks and the like.
At one point, Davies kicks the habit at a treatment facility and gets instantly re-hooked by doctors after surviving a spectacular silent-film crash. Meanwhile, he’s cooked up the idea of getting rich by selling some nonsensical cure-all salve called “tiger fat”, which works fabulously to elevate his lifestyle as his hand-wringing wife (Joan Dix) calls it quits. With dramatic irony, the Hippocratic oath falls to the floor when she slams the door.
Davies becomes a top-hatted quack who visits prostitutes, the chief tart played by one Miami Alvarez. He takes her to the big setpiece drug party that caused so much consternation with local censor boards. It’s such hot stuff that the film pauses to post a lecture on how important and serious-minded it is, just so none of us get the wrong idea and set out to find such a filthy shivaree on our own. As the flashy knuckleheads spout lingo like “Are you saying I can’t handle my sweet marguerite?” and commence jittering and sputtering and gyrating, we’re treated to a closeup of a needle going into the arm. Yikes.
Wood affirms that censorship was sometimes a shell game in which Esper would cut one of his handful of prints to conform to censors and let the other prints circulate in the knowledge that nobody was double checking. Even so, stuff definitely got cut, and he’s proud that the long-lost prostitution sequence has been restored for this print.
As an example of the director’s arty impulses, Esper edits a fight scene among Davies’ carnival cronies with wildlife footage of snakes, reptiles and skunks. This is partly justified by the fact that the carnival has such animals, but it’s mostly to show Esper’s awareness of Eisenstein’s ideas of intellectual and metaphorical montage.
I’m not joking, and neither is Wood when he invokes John Cassavetes to discuss the acting in the final scene, as Esper points the camera at Cording’s almost fourth-wall-breaking “emotional truth”. The use of a long unbroken closeup is clearly a conscious decision and it pays off. I also suspect that the arty use of a “subjective” vision of thumbnail flashbacks against a backdrop of stars while Earth spins amid clouds below is purposely evoking Oscar Wilde’s line that “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Marihuana (1936) Director: Dwain Esper
Marihuana also ends on a tragedy staged with surprising poignancy and artiness. This is the story of Burma (Harley Wood), a middle-class teenager whose mom (Juanita Fletcher), forever sitting in an armchair or wringing her hands, is focused on big sister’s prospects of marriage to a fancy boy in the social register. This alleged neglect of attention to Burma leaves her and 19-year-old boyfriend Dick (Hugh McArthur) to go dancing at roadhouses, where she changes her schoolgirl flats for high heels. Stylistically, this movie devotes quite a few shots to female feet and legs, although it’s easy to forget this in the big scene of full-frontal skinny-dipping.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, so back to the roadhouse. These joints, offering beer for a nickel in the wake of the recent end of Prohibition, were part of the era’s social concerns as gateways of vice and show up in many an exploitation picture about the road to ruin. Not only are such places cruised by drug dealers looking to hook the innocent, but this scene throws in a urination joke whose vulgarity would never pass muster in a regular Hollywood movie.
The invasive “foreignness” of drugs is hinted by the fact that dealers Tony (Pat Carlisle) and Nick (Paul Ellis, from Argentina with a heavy accent) seem to be Italians. Also, the opening “square-up” crawl has declared, among other things, “For centuries the world has been aware of the narcotic menace. We have complacently watched Asiatic countries attempt to rid themselves of DRUGS CURSE, and attributed their failure to lack of education. We consider ourselves enlightened, and think that never could we succumb to such a fate,” yadda yadda, until: “Marihuana, hashish of the Orient, is commonly distributed as a doped cigarette. Its most terrifying effect is that it fires the user to extreme cruelty and license”, etc.
Let’s get to the skinny-dipping. Burma’s gang of fun-loving high school “teens”, frightened at the thought of being made wards of juvenile court despite clearly being in their 20s, accept an invitation for a “wienie roast” at Tony’s beach pad. They’re already dancing on tables and canoodling from free-flowing booze when “funny cigarettes” cause gales of high-pitched giggling and lead to topless disrobing in medium closeup, then full-frontal female frolics in longshot amid the waves. The bummer is that one girl drowns, probably from too much giggling while swimming.
Burma didn’t go swimming but it might have been better if she had, for she finds herself “in trouble” courtesy of Dick. We’ll let that stand. Apparently his sole prospect of finding a job at 19 is to turn to Tony, who hires him to load “tea” at the docks, leading instantly to a tragic police shootout. In general, the cops behave with what might seem extreme disregard even in the ’30s, or maybe it was par for the course.
Anyway, the distraught Burma is one or two edits away from transforming into a hardbitten flashy moll, all plucked eyebrows and “iridium platinum” hair, who deals “C” and “H” to high-class suckers. One of the surprising ambiguities of this final sequence is the depth of humanity accorded to Tony and Nick, who have helped her give the baby up for adoption and paved the way for the irony of the ending, where Burma plots a spiteful revenge on her sister (Dorothy Dehn) and brother-in-law (Richard Erskine) that adds up to classic melodrama.
Marihuana is frequently advertised with the subtitle “The Weed with Roots in Hell” (or sometimes “The Devil’s Weed”), as seen in posters and trailers, while the onscreen title just says Marihuana. Both features look surprisingly decent for the well-worn and cobbled-together items they are. It’s kind of amazing that any of these ugly step-children of Hollywood survive.
The Blu-ray rounds out the Esper-mania with a few bonus items. A film he produced, The Seventh Commandment (1932), exists in a few snippets with direction credited to Hollywood professional James P. Hogan. We also get two 1937 shorts in pretty good shape, How to Undress in Front of Your Husband and How to Take a Bath, both directed by Esper and scripted by Stadie.
Incredibly, the undressing comedy stars Diana Barrie Barrymore (John Barrymore’s fourth wife) as herself, showing how to undress stylishly (and unexplicitly), in contrast to the comic relief of loutish overweight comedienne Trixie Friganza. There’s also a shorter version that cuts Trixie out of it. The bath short is again based on comparison and contrast, this time between an arguing couple and a couple in harmony. This features “T & A” in the shower.
Tomorrow’s Children (1934) Director: Crane Wilbur
Volume 5 offers two striking examples of transgressive sex topics, beginning with Tomorrow’s Children, which exploits the ripped-from-the-headlines topic of eugenics and court-ordered sterilization. Eric Schaefer’s commentary gives a history of this topic’s growth in several states during the early decades of the 20th century, its pervasiveness in California, and how Hitler’s embrace of the practice (referenced in the very first scene, literally in a headline) began to signal its increasing controversy and diminution.
Schaefer quotes Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous 1927 decision that “three generations of imbeciles are enough”, which the film recycles as the judge’s statement that “three generations of unfit are enough.” The film places this statement by a callous judge immediately after the same judge has blithely excused a leering fool because he’s from a rich and influential family and defended by an ex-senator. We’ve just seen this lanky goon with caterpillar eyebrows, who looks like a grown-up version of Butch Patrick’s Eddie on
The Munsters, yank off a woman’s top on impulse.
Thus, the film makes a clear “one law for the rich” statement of social criticism. Although it also essentially crusades against sterilization, with the director playing the priest who successfully intervenes, the story creates a special loophole for its heroine by the last-minute revelation that she’s unrelated to the clan of alcoholic, physically and mentally disabled misfits who get sterilized. Still, the film makes the point that she’s legally helpless in face of the forces around her.
A curious detail is that while the heroic doctor keeps insisting on how different and healthy and productive is Alice from the rest of her family–so that she sounds like the changeling she turns out to be–the actress, Diane Sinclair, was being promoted as an “exotic” beauty born in Surinam. In other words, she does seem slightly out of ethnic character with the family around her, and that’s a loaded irony in a film about eugenics, where one blowhard expresses his concern about “race degeneration”.
These subversions might make all the more sense if you register the most astounding name in the credits. Writer Wallace Thurman was a crucial playwright, novelist and literary editor of the Harlem Renaissance. His novel The Blacker the Berry (1929) explores discrimination based on skin tone within the black community, while Infants of the Spring (1932) is about the Harlem Renaissance. The Interne (1932), co-written with A.L. Furman, has a city hospital setting, like Tomorrow’s Children.
Thurman is the kind of talent that, in a better world, should have been writing screenplays, so it’s both amazing and unsurprising that he found the opportunity very off-Hollywood. Kudos to producer Brian Foy for hiring him to write this film and the pregnancy drama High School Girl (1934), Thurman’s final works before dying at 32 of tuberculosis and alcoholism in their year of release.
Schaefer points out the relatively high level of professionalism in production and acting for such outsider cinema, and this can be traced to long mainstream Hollywood experience of Foy and director Crane Wilbur. For one thing, the hospital’s Art Deco sets and props (dig the small statue of a golfer’s backswing in front of the pro-sterilization blowhard’s crotch) are so classy, we must wonder if Foy borrowed them from somewhere.
Foy’s career included directing Warner Brothers’ first all-talkie, Lights of New York (1928). He made Tomorrow’s Children during a brief indie stint that yielded three fascinating exploitation pictures, the nudist Elysia (1933) and High School Girl. Wilbur had a long career as a silent star and had gone back to the stage as a writer-director. Foy lured him back to Hollywood to direct Tomorrow’s Children and High School Girl, and Wilbur then broke into mainstream studios as writer and director. Unfortunately for Foy, Tomorrow’s Children faced serious issues of state censorship and outright banning.
All actors are good, including Sarah Padden and Arthur Wanzer as Alice’s parents, John Preston as the conscience-stricken do-gooder doctor who accidentally touches off the sterilization debacle (a sign of how patronizing people can bring pitfalls –something Thurman knew in the Harlem Renaissance), Carlyle Moore Jr. as Alice’s fresh-faced beau, and well-known character actor Sterling Holloway, third-billed as comic relief. Knowing that Thurman scripted lends an extra dimension to the joke of Holloway’s character singing a verse from Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe”. This knowledge alters our perception from an unconscious to a conscious gesture.
Viewers of Elysia may recognize the ex-senator as the same tall elderly actor who led the hero around the nudist camp in that film. (Schaefer identifies him as Hobart Glassey but I don’t think so. Glassey, the camp owner, is the one who gives a speech at the camp meeting.)
The most surprising and moving appearance is a cameo from Schlitze, a well-known and beloved microcephalic sideshow performer most famous as the female “pinhead” in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932); he also played a female sideshow act in Robert Florey’s Meet Boston Blackie (1941). Is your head spinning yet?
We might wonder if Thurman’s apparently closeted sexuality has any connection to the brief scene where Alice disguises herself as a boy hobo and attracts unwelcome attention, as though she becomes more attractive when androgynous. Schaefer points out that it’s reminiscent of William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and I’ll add that it’s a plot point out of Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928) with Louise Brooks.
Throughout the film, Thurman’s script strongly identifies with Alice’s plight as she continually looks up at authority figures with pleading eyes and is rendered passively as acted upon, even when she makes her one act of escape. Her life is determined by people who have more say about it than she does, and it feels painful, especially with Sinclair’s “exotic” inflection as her voice kind of channels the patrician tones of Katharine Hepburn. In the final breathless sequence of D.W. Griffith cross-cutting, Alice is presented almost literally as meat to be cut up while the forces of moral authority are set against each other.
Her adoptive parents never told her the truth because they depended on her as the family’s breadwinner and were afraid she’d dump them. In other words, they kind of colonized and exploited her, via “charity”, to exact gratitude and service. Intentionally or not, this makes Sinclair’s origin in a Dutch colony of Latin America all the more resonant.
Child Bride (1938) Director: Harry J. Revier
And that brings us to Child Bride, in which a minor’s lack of agency is the whole point and problem. In a typically contradictory square-up, the opening states: “In dramatizing life among these ‘back yonder’ folk — we aim neither to ridicule nor to defend their mode of living… and if our story will help to abolish Child Marriage — it will have served its purpose.”
More Erskine Caldwell than Li’l Abner, the film presents a community in the midst of complicated cross-purposes. Jennie is played by 12-year-old Shirley Mills, later the youngest Joad in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). She’s a carefree child of Ma (Dorothy Carroll) and Pa (George Humphreys), who’s partnered in a moonshine business with violent skunk Jake (Warner Richmond). Jake is introduced abusing and manhandling dwarf Angelo (Angelo Rossitto, alumus of Freaks) and the simple-minded Happy (Al Bannon).
Jennie loves the new teacher, Miss Carol (Diana Durrell), and parrots everything she says, to the disgust of her longtime pal and potential future boyfriend Freddie (Bob Bollinger), who doesn’t hold much with learnin’ and spellin’ and suchlike. Their schooling includes jokes about bodily functions, those of people and pigeons, thus marking this right away as a non-studio movie.
Miss Carol constantly harangues the local women about the evils of child marriage, a local custom because “there aren’t enough women” (claims a local man). Her “stirring up trouble” falls on deaf ears to the point where Jake and his cronies, masked and waving torches, almost succeed in tarring and feathering her (and who knows what else) in the dark of night before she’s rescued by Jennie’s Pa and Angelo.
It’s personal for Carol because she’s local and “was fortunate enough to get an education”, so she’s a liminal and transitional figure, an insider arrived from outside. Her impatient big-city assistant D.A. boyfriend (Frank Martin) wants to take her away from all this and tells her “these people will never change”. He and the other city authorities aren’t above laughing at racist jokes, an unconscious and telling detail. This is the guy who lectures the governor with “The purest blood in our land flows in the veins of these mountain people and yet the government does less for them than for any group within its boundaries.”
A bunch of stuff happens in this densely constructed one-hour movie, building to the personal and socially constructed threat of Jake’s marriage to Jennie. This is probably a SPOILER, but the last-minute arrival of the “cavalry” in the form of the city slickers with their new laws solves nothing, although Carol and her beau are oblivious of this fact. Yes, it may have a positive effect going forward, but the immediate problem must be solved via rough justice. Jake had said that “we’re the only law”, and those words will prove prophetic.
Having heard of this movie’s sleazy notoriety, I wasn’t prepared for its quality. Writer-director Harry J. Revier comes across as a good filmmaker, ably assisted by photographer Marcel Le Picard. The natural locations offer beautiful production value, and many of the bit players look and sound Ozark. The film coherently builds a web of cultural values involving violence, self-reliance, sexual exploitation and xenophobia while also conveying a sense of community. Some of the actors are very good, the complex story takes surprising turns, and the villain’s all-purpose menace is palpable and scary in his sexual predation and everything else.
And then we get to the infamous scene in the last reel where Jennie goes skinny-dipping as Jake ogles her from above. As reviewers noticed in 1938 and probably more so today, it’s a frankly exploitive gesture, all the more so because it foregrounds the idea of looking at Jennie in sexual terms. Since this is the elephant in the swimming hole, let’s address it.
Viewers will recall that after tasting of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve became self-conscious of their nudity, which had never occurred to them before. This scene deliberately evokes that Edenic myth, as Jennie and Freddie stand on opposite sides of a huge tree. Jennie halts Freddie’s intention to join her in skinny-dipping, as he’s always done before, by quoting the authority of her god, Miss Carol. She explains that Miss Carol has told her not to skinny-dip with Freddie anymore.
Jennie has processed the concept of “thou shalt not” but she’s vague on the reasoning behind it, and can offer no better explanation than the equally vague one she probably received herself, that “we’re not what we used to be”. Beyond that, they don’t know and seemingly can’t guess. From now on, they have to swim separately and can only kiss with their clothes on. By the way, I suspect that the kids’ naive innocence is a false romantic idea of rural adolescence. After all, they grow up around livestock. It’s one of the films’ false moves, made expressly for spurious decorum and, ironically, to be “tasteful”.
Jennie instructs Freddie not to watch her as she takes her dip and frolics in the water with her dog for a couple of minutes. However, the camera does watch her, and so does the hidden Jake, until he’s called out and chased away by a jeering old woman. So perhaps the scene references two female gods watching over Jennie: the teacher and this granny.
One on hand, the “paradise” of the Edenic scene and the “innocent” music try to convey the idea that Jennie’s behavior is entirely natural, as it surely is within her own subjectivity. On the other hand, the idea that witnesses (Freddie, Jake, camera, audience) may lay a sexual meaning over it, that sexuality may even be contained and defined by the act of witness, is built into the fabric of the scene and even becomes its point. Reviewers of 1938 and today talk of how uncomfortable the scene is to watch, and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ commentary emphasizes it by saying that, as a mother, she wants to burst through the screen and cover the actress in a towel.
Jennie has become aware (told by authority) of something she never knew: that she shouldn’t be watched. That makes her self-conscious, but as long as she believes no one can see her, then she’s unconsciously herself and fearless, which is a desirable condition for her–and, according to these terms, a condition that cannot be witnessed by others except possibly someone without sexual desire, like her mom or the dog or the granny. That’s the tension embodied in the scene. If there are viewers who aren’t made uncomfortable by the scene, we probably don’t want to know them.
Now, if everybody freely avows that the scene makes them uncomfortable, and virtually nobody says otherwise, then it’s logical to conclude that the filmmakers understood this and that one of the primary intentions of the scene is to make viewers uncomfortable. And it succeeds. We assume a titillating intention that must really exist, and that’s partly why the scene is uncomfortable. We’re unable to revert to Jennie’s innocence. We’re cast out.
Many critics seem to assume that being made uncomfortable is undesirable and shouldn’t be part of the point of a work of art. When I spell out that implicit assumption and haul it into the light for examination, we can see its obvious falseness. I suspect that viewers would feel better about the scene if it never showed nudity, and/or if Jake fell into the water and drowned as instant punishment for peeping. Would the scene be less gratuitous? Less titillating? Should that really be more acceptable? As is, the scene confronts or provokes the viewer in ways that openly disturb us and make us think about it.
People have a tendency to think “this is a bad feeling or emotion I’m experiencing, I don’t want to feel this” and then move on to “I shouldn’t be having it” and “this isn’t right, and the thing making me feel this is doing something wrong, it must be bad”. Heller-Nicholas’ commentary gives us oodles of social and personal context while insisting that there’s really no defending or excusing the movie, which implies that movies need defending. She rightly finds the film valuable as a social and historical artifact, and she’s probably taking the best approach to discussing it.
She mentions that at least a couple of mainstream Hollywood producers tried to make “child bride” movies at the same time and got shot down by the Production Code. The Wikipedia entry for this movie gives us insight as to why this was suddenly a hot topic. In 1937, newspapers had a heyday with the case of a 22-year-old Tennessee man marrying his nine-year-old neighbor. This ignited a national controversy over the lack of marriage laws, and this independent film was able to exploit that topical furor.
The movie, which was highly controversial, as you may imagine, entered that national dialogue and was evidently some factor in changing those laws. At least such was the impression of Mills, who was interviewed as an adult after making a pioneering career in data processing in the 1960s. Heller-Nicholas quotes from her interview, and also from the dwarf Rossitto, and from various social and historical sources on this film and the general topic in an enlightening manner.
I’d never seen Tomorrow’s Children or Child Bride, and now I rank them with Volume 3’s nudist movies, Unashamed and Elysia, as socially important and well-made films that challenge the viewer and deserve to be seen and discussed.