As I write this review, the world is experiencing a deadly pandemic caused by a previously unknown strain of coronavirus. There’s no vaccine and no cure, so schools and businesses around the world have closed in an attempt to limit transmission. The stock market is plunging, people are being laid off, many small businesses will likely go under, and no one knows when the world will return to normal.
Given the very real problems that we’re facing today, it’s positively comforting to visit a world where, it seems, people had to work overtime to invent things to be upset about. Enter the delights of Kino Lorber’s Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of Exploitation Pictures, whose first three volumes have been released. Given the censorship of the time, these films had to fly under the false flag of “education,” neither the first nor the last time virtue has been claimed to disguise the lurid. But it’s always fun to puncture hypocrisy, so the wholesome claims of these films just add another layer of meaning to be dissected.
Volume 1 presents the infamous Mom and Dad (1945), directed by William Beaudine and produced by Kroger Babb, the exploitation king himself. It’s a cautionary tale about a “sweet, innocent girl” (quoting the opening crawl, a regular feature of these films) who fails to save herself for marriage, with predictable consequences. It’s all her mother’s fault, however—by believing that “ignorance is a guarantee of virtue,” Mom set up her daughter for her sad fate. This is a theme that will recurs throughout these films—men are enlightened and knowledgeable, while women are afterthoughts or negative influences. Mom and Dad then sets out to provide the education its heroine was presumably lacking, through several industrials including one that shows a Caesarian birth in more detail than anyone but a medical student really requires, and an equally graphic venereal disease film.
Volume 2 contains two films, Reefer Madness and Sex Madness. Reefer Madness (1938), directed by Louis J. Gasnier, opens with a lengthy crawl explaining why the “shocking” scenes to come were necessary—to “sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of American”—and the reference is not to oxycodone (OK, that didn’t exist at the time) or even heroin, but marijuana. Yes, good old Mary Jane is “The Real Public Enemy” (caps original) of our youth, and Reefer Madness is out to prove it. Before it became an ironic cult hit in the 1970s, Reefer Madness was a well-intentioned and unintentionally hilarious cautionary tale entitled Tell Your Children, which was intended to educate parents about the dangers of pot. This version, however, was purchased by producer Dwain Expert and recut to emphasize the exploitation aspects of the film, while evading censorship by claiming educational purposes.
Dwain Esper directed Sex Madness, a 1938 film that purported to educate people about the dangers of venereal disease, but is mainly just lurid. It opens with a lengthy screen crawl (“Down through the ages has rushed a menace more dangerous than the worst criminal. Syphilis. Let us seize this monster and stamp out forever its horrible influence” and so on and so forth), followed by an amateurish drama featuring burlesque performers, a lesbian (!) secretary, and the urban equivalent of Ma and Pa Kettle plus their wayward son. In fairness, syphilis is no laughing matter, and was even less so before penicillin was commonly available, but shaming people has never been an effective way to change their behavior.
Things get lighter in vol. 3, which features two nudist films: Unashamed: A Romance (1938, dir. Allen Stuart) and Elysia: Valley of the Nude (1933, dir. Carl Harbaugh). In Unashamed, the racially ambiguous (and rather attractively butch) Rae Lane (Rae Kidd) conspires to get her boss (Robert Stanley) to a nudist camp (the real-life Olympic Fields in Elsinore, CA), on a weekend when she also just happens to be there. Nobody’s winning any prizes for acting in this film, but that’s clearly not the point—it’s all about the naked bodies, carefully posed so you don’t see too much. Things are enlivened by, I kid you not, a musical number incorporating a nudist ventriloquist and his dummy.
Elysia: Valley of the Nude (Carl Harbaugh, 1933) is more of a straight-up propaganda piece about “the benefits derived from bathing the body in sun and air,” i.e., of outdoor nudity. The story involves a reporter sent to write a story about a nudist colony (the Elysian Fields in California) and finds himself attracted to the lifestyle. There’s no award-winning acting in this one either, probably because appearing in such a film would pretty well kill the career of any actor. It’s only 45 minutes long, a lot of the dialogue is really exposition, and some of the footage seems to be either anthropological films or home movies, but it’s an interesting curiosity all the same. | Sarah Boslaugh
Forbidden Fruit is distributed on Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber. The discs include many extras, including trailers, related short films, radio spots, and several audio commentaries by Eric Schaefer (author of a book about exploitation films). The audio and visual quality varies from film to film, with Mom and Dad being in the best shape and Sex Madness the worst.