WARNING: THE FOLLOWING review dares to lay bare the often shocking world of exploitation films and their scandalous population of devious delinquents, brazen nudists, unwed mothers and freaked-out hop heads. The intent is not to titillate or in any way inflame the passions of impressionable readers, but simply to educate about this long-neglected area of film history in a bold and frank manner. It is as timely as today's headlines, and of course, for Adults Only!
Long relegated to the film-culture trash heap, exploitation movies have been mostly ignored by film historians, mocked by bad movie cultists, and ridiculed by arbitrators of "good taste." With the goal of rectifying this appalling situation, film historian Eric Schaefer has concocted what will surely become the definitive study of the outlaw exploitation film industry in his new book, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959, a probing, elegant analysis of the industrial and cultural construction of such neglected classics as Test Tube Babies (1948) and Is Your Daughter Safe? (1927). Although a number of quickie books celebrating exploitation films have been released over the last decade, none have approached the depth of Schaefer's ambitious study, which is scholarly in its wide scope and intellectual insight, yet still accessible to armchair film buffs.
Written in a colorfully loose style befitting the outrageous films he examines, Schaefer has performed a crackerjack piece of detective work in piecing together the history of a rather mysterious film industry, notorious for its disorganized structure and relative lack of existing documentation. In fact, many of these maligned films simply no longer exist, since they were never considered artistic endeavors (by producers or audiences) worthy of archiving. Facing this distressing gauntlet of buried information, Schaefer has accomplished a Herculean feat of investigative research by unearthing reviews, press clippings, surviving films, anecdotal materials and oral histories (supplied by such cultural curios as '40s burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr and exploitation mogul David F. Friedman) to shed light on this world that time forgot.
Schaefer focuses his study on what he defines as the "classical exploitation" era, ranging from World War I to the early 1960s, just before the sexual revolution (signaled by Playboy magazine, the Kinsey report, changing views on birth control and women's rights, and a general increase in sexual discourse) hit the culture at large, making these films' moralizing tone and peek-a-boo sexuality passé. Schaefer categorizes classical exploitation films as low-budget motion pictures that were independently produced outside of the Hollywood studio system, which had to rely on the cheap spectacle of taboo subject matter to draw audiences. Trafficking in topics and imagery verboten to Hollywood, which at that time was securely under the thumb of the regulatory Hays Office and the Motion Picture Production Code, crafty indie producers lustily exploited hot topics of the early 20th century ("Ripped from Today's Headlines!" screamed the ads), ranging from white slavery and narcotics abuse to artificial insemination and the burgeoning nudism movement, and did so with an often hypocritical combination of titillation and moral condemnation. Although such flicks as She Shoulda Said "No"! (1949) and A Fig Leaf for Eve (1945) often ran afoul of local censors, their profit-minded producers were always prepared to dodge legal hassles, supplying exhibitors with both a "hot" version of the film (featuring crowd-pleasing nudity), and a "cold" version (sans offensive imagery, in the event of a police raid).
Perhaps the most intriguing way this "Adult's Only" entertainment attempted to avoid legal turmoil was to create the appearance of social responsibility by Trojan Horse-ing its lascivious material within an "educational" context, which led to such bizarre practices as gender-segregated screenings, instructive sex hygiene films spliced into the middle of narrative features, and fake hygiene "experts" (such as the mysterious "hygiene commentator" Elliot Forbes, an expert with no credentials who enjoyed a long-lived career on the exploitation circuit) on hand at screenings to lecture and hawk sex-ed pamphlets. Ironically, this pretense actually supplied helpful and hard-to-get sex education to many viewers, particularly women, whose access to such information was severely restricted at the time by societal double standards. Exploitation screenings during this era became a truly oddball combination of theater, carnival and lecture hall, leading to what Schaefer describes as "a state of delirium" in the typical exploitation viewer of the day.
While the author never claims that films such as 1939's No Greater Sin (which turned the miracle of childbirth into a horror show by promising "You'll Gasp, You'll Wince, You'll Shudder...as You See the Actual Birth of Triplets!") are classics in the Citizen Kane sense, he compellingly argues that these are much more than bad movies to be laughed at due to their campy "incompetence" and prudish attitude toward sex and vice. Positioning classical exploitation within the larger context of film history, he delineates the ways in which this outlaw industry both paralleled and rebelled against the Hollywood studio system, and offers compelling evidence that these small but profitable films, with their own unique production/distribution practices, exerted a strong influence on the evolution of Hollywood's censorship standards, its marketing and its narrative content.
Schaefer also uses his analysis of exploitation films to gain insights into how American society grappled with transgressive issues of sex, class and morality during the first half of the 20th century. The exploitation cycle began by riffing on the venereal disease panic of World War I, when rampant concerns over GIs and prostitutes with sexual infections became a hot socio-political issue, feeding off the bourgeois ideals of Progressivism which feared the contamination of the middle class by the sexually unchecked lower classes. Over the course of a 40-year period, these crudely made films served as a barometer for the mutating morality of a culture which, like the films themselves, attempted to stimulate its consumer-based population with sexual commercialism (albeit of a "proper" nature), while simultaneously condemning the pursuit of individual sexual pleasure.
As Schaefer details the industrial and cultural importance of these films, he also paints a vivid portrait of a bygone era -- a time when a truly independent film industry could thrive under the shadow of the monolithic Hollywood system, run by a rouge's gallery of cigar-chomping, renegade producers willing to try anything to attract an audience hungry for taboo thrills. Strangely enough, seen from the vantage point of today's anything-goes culture, these movies seem not "quaint," but almost unbelievably perverse. After all, the idea of 1920s audiences flocking to theaters to be tweaked by medical footage of syphilis-ravaged soldiers and Cesarean operations seems infinitely more outrageous than the slickly produced, conventional images of sexuality seen in today's Adults-Only entertainment. By 1960, these films were history, replaced by the more overtly sexual "nudie cutie" films of Russ Meyer, with hardcore pornography and increasingly bold Hollywood films looming on the horizon. A newly sophisticated motion picture audience looked upon these exploitation films as relics of a more innocently ignorant time. In 2000, Eric Schaefer has also looked back upon these strange films with the keen eye of a social historian, and brilliantly illuminated not only their historical significance, but their influence on the contemporary cultural landscape as well.