Our modern view of exploitation films is firmly focused on the 60s and 70s, the grindhouse movies that Quentin Tarantino turned into a festishized aesthetic. But exploitation is as old as cinema itself, and its most interesting - and profitable - chapter happened in the 1940s.
Audiences have always wanted to thrilled, titillated and shocked, and movies have always fulfilled those needs. In the early decades of the 20th century a new kind of exploitation film was born, one with its roots in traveling medicine shows and dubiously labeled as educational. These movies tackled sordid issues of the day, like drug use, human trafficking and teenage pregnancy. They contained footage and situations that would have been unthinkable under the Hollywood Production Code, and they operated largely outside of the studio system. (Read more about the early days of shocking films and censorship here)
These films, with titles like Human Wreckage, Is Your Daughter Safe?, Wild Oats, The Scarlet Trail, Slaves In Bondage, Child Bride and, of course, Reefer Madness, appealed to the seamier audiences while maintaining an air of respectability - at least enough respectability to keep the cops out of the distributor’s hair.
The most popular and enduring of these films was a movie called Mom and Dad, released in 1945. The brainchild of Ohio’s Kroger Babb, Mom and Dad played in theaters straight up through the 70s, earned an estimated 100 million dollars and in 2005 was listed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. It’s probably - under a different title and with a slightly different edit - the movie that Ken was remembering in this week's Mad Men. At the very least it was the movie that inspired the rip-off movie that Ken was remembering.
Babb didn’t invent the techniques that made Mom and Dad a huge hit, but he perfected them. He came up in the exploitation business working in local theaters, thinking up stunts that would drive admissions. He ended working for a company called Cox and Underwood, a distributor with a fiendishly simple business plan: they would buy up medical footage and insert it into other movies. They took a film called High School Girl, added a real birth scene at the end and rereleased it as Dust to Dust. The film was enough of a hit that the principals of Cox and Underwood retired rich.
Babb wasn’t done, though. He started Hygiene Productions and created his magnum opus. It isn’t that Mom and Dad is very good - it’s not! - it’s that Babb’s selling methods were almost perfect.
The film was born from stories of girls getting knocked up by airmen from a local Air Force base. Babb’s wife wrote the screenplay and the film was shot over the course of six days. It was directed by William Beaudine, who has hundreds of directorial credits to his name from the 1920s to the 1960s (including Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla and Billy the Kid Meets Dracula), and it stars, among others, the man who voiced young Bambi. It tells the story of Joan, who falls in love with a young pilot who gets her pregnant. He dies in a crash and Joan is left on her own, slowly realizing that she’s got a bun in the oven. Tedious, boring scenes bring Mom and Dad to its big finish, which is a real birth and lots of shots of female anatomy.
What kind of a birth you saw depended on where and when you saw Mom and Dad. The way that Babb and his ilk (a loosely aligned group of exploitation distributors who called themselves The Forty Thieves) operated, movies might be recut, changed and reworked totally from area to area. There were up to 300 prints of Mom and Dad touring the country at any one time, and each may have been edited or changed to suit local tastes. In some areas the birth is a regular live birth. Sometimes it was a C-section. Sometimes Joan’s baby was stillborn, while in other versions it was put up for adoption. And some other versions included gross footage of VD as a warning for other sorts of repercussions of unmarried sex.
The movie was simply atrocious, but the real art is in how Babb sold it. Mom and Dad toured with a hygiene specialist named Elliot Forbes... who was actually an actor hired by the touring company*. Forbes would give a talk about sexual hygiene to the crowd and, when the movie was over, sell them sex education books (Man and Boy or Woman and Girl, depending on the gender of the crowd). Later in life Babb would run into trouble with the IRS because there was no good way to keep track of the money being made on sales of the sex manuals. Babb did eventually estimate that 40 million copies of the book were sold.
Mom and Dad would come into town like an old school traveling carnival. The presenter (sometimes working for Babb, sometimes just licensing from Babb, who provided them with a strict, regimented manual on how to sell the movie) would rent out the local theater and bring his own banners, signs and fliers. In some towns there would be resistance from the local church and authorities; when such resistance wasn’t forthcoming the presenter would hand out fake protest leaflets and submit a phony letter from a neighboring city’s mayor, claiming that a recent showing of Mom and Dad had led to all sorts of indecency.
The movie was almost always ‘adults only,’ which added to the tantalizing nature of it. The advertising would be as edgy as possible without going beyond the very strict standards of taste for the time, but everyone could read between the lines. Most of the time Mom and Dad was shown to sex-segregated audiences - don’t you know that the contents of the film were too explosive for same sex crowds. And if the content was too much for the crowd in general, nurses were stationed right outside the theater. The nurses would, of course, come from the same acting pool as the Elliot Forbeses.
The system was ironclad. Mom and Dad would play for a week or two and then move on to another town where all of the steps would again be followed and again there would be sold out shows. It was such a big hit that even the studios tried to get in on the game - Universal made a sex hygiene film called The Story of Bob and Sally that couldn’t get past the rigors of the Production Code. They sold the film off. Other traveling sex hygiene movies hit the road, all imitating what Babb had done. As Joe Bob Briggs notes in his excellent book Profoundly Disturbing, “The Forty Thieves frequently quarreled over territories, but oddly enough, they never sued for copyright infringement. Of course, many of them were carnival men who regarded all cons as ancient and passed down from generation to generation, but they may have also simply sold stories the way they sold sideshow acts.”
By 1950 Mom and Dad had really made a mark, and the number of imitators was getting out of hand. There were few towns remaining that hadn’t already been burnt through, and if Mom and Dad hit Peoria in May, Street Corner or Because of Eve couldn’t come through in June using the same model. Thus was born Modern Film Distributors, a coalition of sex hygiene films that worked together to milk every penny out of small town audiences.
Mom and Dad played through the 1970s, but it found itself marginalized much sooner. As the 50s turned into the 60s exploitation tastes changed. Burlesque became a big draw, and Babb started making those films. Foreign movies with nudity were also becoming a hit; Babb saw the opportunity and released a heavily edited (to accentuate the nudity) version of Ingmar Bergman’s Summer With Monika. And eventually, Babb’s style was actually stolen by educators; real sex hygiene movies began playing in classrooms, including some of the same sorts of footage that has so scandalized the American heartland just years before.
Mom and Dad wasn’t Babb’s only film - he had doozies like She Shoulda Said No! and Prince of Peace (a re-edit of a Passion movie so inept telephone poles are in view during the crucifixion that somehow became a smash hit in New York City) - but it is his legacy. A hundred million in profit, over 400 court cases (it was banned in New York City until 1956) and an era-defining element of hucksterism are in turn Mom and Dad’s legacy.
Kroger Babb would be at home in the modern movie world, I think. He maybe wouldn't be doing midnight screenings of anti-marijuana movie She Shoulda Said No! (which he would claim were sanctioned by the US government), but he might very well be running a studio marketing department. Those are the guys who make all the decisions now, and they probably live by Babb's golden rule of film distribution:
"Nothing's hopeless if it's advertised right."
* In black communities Babb hired Olympian Jesse Owens to be the lecturer.