Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture

February 25th 2019

With the implementation of the Motion Production Code (popularly known as the Hays Code) in 1930, studios became willingly beholden to content and thematic guidelines so as to not "lower the moral standards" of filmgoers. The limitations placed on filmmakers regarding what they could depict on screen engendered creativity in finding out ways to work around the code's principles; subtext and visual metaphors became important tools through which to suggest any subject matter that could potentially be deemed perverse, uncouth, or even questioning of authority. In a surprise twist, however, the era of the Hays Code turned out to be the landscape in which the American exploitation film was born, which Film Forum is celebrating in their exciting series, "Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture."

The films showcased in "Forbidden Fruit" run the gamut from showing the downward spirals started by skinny dipping and pot-smoking to offensive and over-the-top portrayals of opium dens and footage of live childbirth. Filmmakers like Dwain Esper and William Beaudine and producers like Kroger Babb brazenly avoided censorship of their sleazy, often lascivious works by cloaking them with the label of "cautionary films." They claimed their movies were morality plays that warned the viewer about the dangers of premarital sex and recreational drug use, but sensationally marketed them as the only way the public could legally see footage of things as utterly depraved as female anatomy. Often presented as part of touring roadshows, these early exploitation pictures had more in common with carny culture than cinema, daring audiences to attend wild midnight screenings and be part of the spectacle while toying with the scholastic guise by inviting doctors to give talks on sexual hygiene.

Prominently featured in this series are the 1930s films oftrash trailblazer Esper, who collaborated with his wife Hildagarde Stadie throughout his career in crafting sometimes-serious, sometimes-campy moralizing tales about the consequences of fornication and drug use. Narcotic (1933) is Esper's earliest-surviving work, a dreadful depiction of a doctor slowly giving into insanity from opium addiction. Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell (1936) is comparatively a much more fun romp, with gratuitous nudity and a hell of a lot of plot twists for a movie only 57 minutes long. Finally, his cult classic Sex Madness (1938), a warning against predatory lesbians and having sex for pleasure, two sinful traps that will undoubtedly lead to syphilis.

Marihuana 600

The highlight is far and away the notorious Mom and Dad (1945), directed by the ridiculously prolific Beaudine and presented by "America's Fearless Young Showman" Kroger Babb. A teen pregnancy tale that famously ends with graphic footage of a real live birth, Mom and Dad toured the United States roadshow circuit for three decades accompanied by Babb's ingenious marketing gimmicks: adults-only, gender segregated screenings, nurses on site to assist with fainting viewers, and live lectures by "Fearless Hygiene Commentator Elliot Forbes," who, believe it or not, will be making a special presentation at Film Forum's very own screening!

Other entries include Child Bride (1938), a repulsive picture about the horrors of "hillbilly" culture and their outdated practice of marrying children, Test Tube Babies (1948), a foray into the world of artificial insemination, and She Shoulda Said "No!" (1949), a cash-grab starring Lila Leeds, capitalizing on the jail time the actress spent for getting caught smoking pot with Robert Mitchum. Sprinkled throughout the series are various "educational shorts" and trailers for other lost gems of the era.