The Road to Ruin (Kino Lorber, NR)

Willis Kent is an interesting character in the history of American film. As a producer, he stayed afloat in the business for 40 years by giving the public what they wanted—in the 1920s and 1930s, that meant low-budget westerns with a few police and mystery films thrown in. From the late 1920s through the 1940s, he produced “Real Life Dramas” which were in fact exploitation pictures. Finally, in the 1950s he produced short films of burlesque dance numbers, some of which were edited into feature-length compilations* with names like “Fig Leaf Frolics,” “Peek-a-Boo,” and “The A-B-C’s of Love.”

Kent made two versions of the exploitation picture The Road to Ruin: a silent in 1928 and a talkie in 1934. Helen Foster stars in both films as the heroine (Sally in the 1928 film, Ann in the 1934 version) who begins each film as a pure-at-heart high schooler, falls in with the wrong crowd, and slides right down the slippery slope to degradation and ruin. Both are pure melodramas and not particularly scandalous by today’s standards, but remain interesting as documents of their time.

The 1928 film, directed by Norton S. Parker from a screenplay by Willis Kent, claims the high road, as did many exploitation pictures, opening with an appeal from Captain Leo W. Marden of the LA Juvenile Bureau for audience members to help him combat the menace of juvenile delinquency. The action opens with high schooler Ann asking her mother to stay the night with her friend Eve (Virginia Roye). Eve may look like a nice girl, but before you know it she’s introducing Ann to the world of dirty books, in this case Ethel M. Dell’s A Man Under Authority (“He drew her back to him without words and kissed her hotly, closely, passionately…”). From there, it’s drinking and smoking and riding in cars with boys, then seduction by an older man who has only one thing on his mind.   

The 1934 remake is directed by Dorothy Davenport, a.k.a. “Mrs. Wallace Reid,” from a screenplay by Davenport and Kent (which often follows the earlier film scene for scene). In this version, Ann is also brought into the fast life by a female friend, Eve (Nell O’Day), but this time the dirty book is “Une Vie” or “The History of a Heart” by Gustave Flaubert, which  contains passages like “Then he began to kiss her temples and neck, little light kisses…”) Hot stuff for Americans in the 1930s, apparently because before you know it Ann is coupled up with her cute classmate Tommy (Glenn Boles) and she’s drinking and smoking and carrying on with the best of them. Her downhill slide accelerates from there because this is not a film that deals in subtleties.

Both films were made on tight budgets, but the 1928 film has the distinction of being (if one can trust the Wikipedia), one of the cheapest films made that year. Not that the 1934 film has much to brag about in terms of production values: you can forget about guessing the time of day based on ambient light and most of the sets look like a random collection of objects. Still, they are interesting as documents of their time, and for my money the 1928 film is less prudish and more fun, not to mention more honest about the actual dangers lying in wait for naïve young women. | Sarah Boslaugh

*Fun fact: the production company responsible for the burlesque compilations operated under the name of “Billiken Productions.” I have no idea whether there’s any connection with the mascot of Saint Louis University.

The Road to Ruin is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include audio commentaries for the 1928 version of The Road to Ruin by film historian Anthony Slide and for the 1934 version by Eric Schaefer and a gallery of exploitation trailers. The 1934 version is presented in a 4K restoration while the 1928 version is provided with a jazzy piano score by Andrew Earle Simpson.

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