Bold! Daring! Shocking! True: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959

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  • Copyright: 1999-10-01
  • Publisher: Duke Univ Pr
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"When I was in the business I billed myself as 'The Expert Exponent of Exploitation.' I hereby bestow that shibboleth to the genuine, absolute, factual Expert Exponent, Eric Schaefer. Nothing more need ever be told about this subject."--David F. Friedman, who was there when a lot of it happened, producer of "Daughter of the Sun," "Blood Feast," and other exploitation classics

Author Biography

Eric Schaefer is Assistant Professor of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College in Boston.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction: ``As Long as It Was in Bad Taste!'' 1(16)
``An Attempt to `Commercialize Vice''': Origins of the Exploitation Film
``A Hodge-Podge of Cuttings and Splicings'': The Mode of Production and the Style of Classical Exploitation Films
``You Gotta Tell'Em to Sell'Em'': Distribution, Advertising, and Exhibition of Exploitation Films
``Thoroughly Vile and Disgusting'': The Exploitation Film and Censorship
``No False Modesty, No Old-Fashioned Taboos'': The Sex Hygiene Film
``The Monster That Caters to Thrill-Hungry Youth'': The Drug Film
``Timely as Today's Front Page'': Vice, Exotic, and Atrocity Films
``They War No Clothes!: Nudist and Burlesque Films
Conclusion: The End of Classical Exploitation
Appendix 1---Major Exploitation Producers/Distributors and Their Company Names 343(2)
Appendix 2---Filmography 345(44)
Appendix 3---Video Sources 389(2)
Notes 391(54)
Bibliography 445(14)
Index 459


Chapter One

"An Attempt to `Commercialize Vice'"

Origins of the Exploitation Film

The entire motion picture industry has recently come in for severe criticism on account of such so-called health films as Fit to Win and The End of the Road , with which the recognized producers had nothing to do. One young girl, after attending a public presentation of one of these, said, "I never want to see another movie!"

-- Photoplay magazine, 1919

Exploitation films are usually thought of as ethically dubious, industrially marginal, and aesthetically bankrupt. That they emerged from the mainstream industry, indeed, that their origins can be traced to respectable films made with the alleged "good intentions" of decreasing human suffering, is another paradox surrounding exploitation. But progressivism, the movement that gave birth to these films and was then instrumental in suppressing them, was itself filled with paradoxes. Progressivism was not a coherent ideology but a series of political, economic, and social reform movements that flourished in the early twentieth century. Some progressives were strictly concerned with the welfare of farmers and the agricultural sector. Some attempted to curtail the power of industry through "trust busting"; others looked to industry for management solutions with which to cure some social ills. Some progressives favored reinvigorating political energies of the people through populism; others sought to empower a new class of technocratic experts. Some attempted to improve the lot of newly arrived immigrants to America's cities; others hoped to keep them out. Arthur S. Link and Richard L. McCormick note that "different reformers sometimes favored the same measure for distinctive, even opposite, reasons. Progressivism could be understood only in the light of these shifting coalitions." What the progressives did share was a concern over the consequences of industrialism, an interventionist stance, and a Protestant moralism that could be justified through scientific disciplines such as statistics, sociology, and psychology. The progressives "made the first efforts to grapple with the ills of a modern urban-industrial society."

The cycle of white slave films that appeared in the early teens can be seen as precursors to the development of exploitation films. These films about the supposed traffic in white slavery--the buying and selling of girls and women for the purposes of prostitution--were the result of progressive anxiety over industrialization and the growth of the cities. They foreshadowed exploitation films in their promise of titillation, their professed educational mission, their topicality, and their construction of a social Other--the prostitute, in this instance. To locate the origin of exploitation films, we must look to another series of motion pictures spawned by progressive reform: the sex hygiene film. In the course of just five years, the sex hygiene film moved from being relatively common and accepted to being the scourge of the young movie industry. Censorship efforts directed at hygiene films not only excised the subject from the mainstream but served to create a separate industry that began to make films on topics that Hollywood would no longer approach. As a result of censorship, the exploitation film emerged as a distinct class of motion picture, existing alongside the classical Hollywood cinema from the late teens to the late fifties.

To understand the controversy that surrounded and resulted in the suppression of sex hygiene films, it is necessary to examine the social evaluation of venereal diseases and their treatments in the years prior to World War I. Medical progress throughout the nineteenth century had increased physicians' knowledge about the systemic threat of syphilis and the seriousness of gonorrhea. Yet the diseases were also attended by a social stigma that led many physicians to adopt the attitude that patients who suffered from the maladies were only receiving their due for moral transgressions. In his social history of venereal disease, Allan M. Brandt states, "Because of misunderstandings of the pathology of the disease, as well as a desire to avoid the moral opprobrium attached to venereal infection, physicians often ascribed deaths due to syphilis to other causes." Prince A. Morrow, the progressive physician who led the fight against venereal diseases at the turn of the century, claimed in 1901 that from 5 to 18 percent of all men carried syphilitic infections.

Such efforts to call attention to and combat venereal diseases were certainly designed to decrease pain and death. However, the attention to sexually transmitted diseases accorded by Morrow and other progressive physicians stemmed not so much from the desire for accuracy in recording a cause of death as from fears that venereal diseases were among the major reasons for declining birthrates among the middle class, a phenomenon labeled "race suicide." As Brandt notes, "Morrow's view demonstrated the wide-spread medical concern about the declining size of the white, middle-class family and provided a means for members of the profession to join the debate about the future of domesticity." The gravity that progressive physicians attached to the potential decline of the white, middle-class family is also related to an attendant fear of the lower classes. Brandt elaborates:

The substantial professional interest and popular anxiety that extra-genital infections generated ... reflected concern about changes in American society during the late nineteenth century, particularly the heterogeneity and unhygienic nature of the burgeoning cities. Innocent infections promoted apprehension of the city, the working class, and the new immigrant populations, ultimately encouraging racism, and nativism. Progressive unease about hygiene, contagion, and cleanliness were evoked in the belief that in the brief contacts of everyday life--at the grocery, in the park, at the barber shop--these infections, originally obtained in "immoral" circumstances, could be passed to native, middle-class "moral" Americans.... Venereal diseases had become, preeminently, a disease of the "other," be it the other race, the other class, the other ethnic group.

Brandt's contention that underlying concerns about sexual diseases were phobias of contamination by nondominant social groups is confirmed by period hygiene books and articles.

In a 1921 booklet, The Control of Sex Infections , J. Bayard Clark laid much of the blame for the spread of VD on modern industry and the working class. Clark wrote that professional prostitutes were not the largest source of the diseases because they knew how to stay free from infection. Instead, he pointed to working girls from shops and factories, servants, "and those who idle at home" as responsible for almost three-quarters of recorded infections. "This is doubly unfortunate," Clark wrote, "as these girls not yet cut off from self-respecting sources of support still carry the hope of husbands and homes. Let us now move backward, as it were, and see if we can tell where the responsibility rests for this group of infected and oftentimes sexually ruined industrial workers who ignorantly spread the majority of sexual havoc to all classes of society." Clark identified industrialism, which put young women to work while in "the flower of maternal possibility," as the source of the spread of venereal diseases. And he located in the working class the conduit that carried "the social evil" from the lower classes to the middle and upper classes.

In a similar vein, a paper delivered at the National Conference of Social Work in 1919 by Edgar Sydenstricker of the U.S. Public Health Service quoted statistics showing 5.5 percent of white army cadets "`representative of the better class of young men found in our colleges'" suffered from venereal disease, as compared to 16 percent or more of recruits "regarded as representative of `mechanics, artisans, and untrained laborers.'" Sydenstricker suggested that those in the lower economic strata were faced with conditions that led to "increasing sexual excitement and ... lowering self-restraint." He continued: "There hardly will be any disagreement on the general observation that among the economically less favored group of our population these conditions are far more pronounced than among the well-to-do. These influences arise not only from the conditions which directly stimulate sexual activity but also from the conditions of living. The lack of healthful recreation and avocational opportunities, the monotony of daily life and work, the brevity of formal education--these factors which may be considered just as seriously as the more direct and positive forces that lower the standard of morality and tend towards vulgarity and grossness of thought." Whether because of social conditions or "direct and positive forces that lower the standard of morality," the upper and middle classes had located the source of venereal disease in the lower classes.

The fullest expression of this class doctrine can be found in the ideology underlying the pseudoscience known as eugenics. The eugenics movement was an attempt to combat "race suicide" by encouraging the "fit" white, Anglo-Saxon, middle and upper classes to have large families and "better babies" while attempting to reduce the growth of the "unfit" lower classes through means ranging from immigration restriction to sterilization. The threats posed to the status and power of the bourgeoisie by immigrants and the lower classes drew financial support for the eugenics movement from many bankers and businessmen. Writing about the movement, Thomas M. Shapiro notes that "by focusing on both class and racial challenges, the propertied class simultaneously united on the basis of class consolidation and segmented the working class along race and ethnic lines." He suggests that eugenics gradually spread from the upper classes throughout society to become the pervasive ideology, nurturing attitudes of "racism, superiority, and outright hatred among the American people--all in the name of science." Discourses on venereal disease and eugenics were so tightly intertwined as often to be inseparable.

The problems of venereal disease were exacerbated by what came to be known as the "conspiracy of silence." Although physicians spoke of venereal diseases among themselves, little information was available to the society at large. In 1906 Edward Bok, editor of the Ladies' Home Journal , published a series of articles on VD. His effort resulted in the loss of seventy-five thousand subscriptions. As Morrow claimed in 1906, "Social sentiment holds that it is a greater violation of the properties of life publicly to mention venereal disease than privately to contract it." The same sentiment was echoed fifteen years later by Clark as he spoke about "a subject which polite society has seemingly not cared to meet face on." Ironically, the conspiracy of silence prevented the lower classes, who were identified as the cause of venereal diseases, from receiving medical and preventive information about them. As Brandt notes, Margaret Sanger's pamphlet, What Every Girl Should Know , was confiscated by the U.S. Post Office in 1912 because its references to syphilis and gonorrhea were considered obscene under the Comstock Law. Although the "conspiracy of silence" was relieved somewhat in 1909 when Paul Erlich developed a viable treatment for syphilis, the heartening information about prophylactic measures was counterbalanced by moralists who claimed that dissemination of the knowledge would encourage sexual promiscuity.

Science offered new hope for sufferers of syphilis, but this was militated by old moral interdictions as issues of class and sexuality kept tensions high. It was in this highly charged atmosphere that the first play to attack directly the problem of venereal disease was produced in the United States. Some novels had obliquely referred to venereal disease, and Ibsen's Ghosts , with its references to Osvald's "hereditary illness," had been produced in America as early as 1882. But it was Eugene Brieux's Damaged Goods that pulled back the veil of secrecy that cloaked venereal disease and spoke the word syphilis on stage for the first time. In 1913 Brieux's play was staged in New York City, produced under the auspices of the Medical Review of Reviews to stave off possible public protest. The drama told the story of a young man who contracts syphilis. He marries to collect a dowry despite the protests of his physician, eventually infecting his wife and baby. Lacking much dramatic action, the play was often described as a "preachment" or "medical sermon." Its staid tone and the sponsorship of the Medical Review of Reviews combined to keep opposition to a minimum.

Damaged Goods was endorsed by many in New York society, who engaged boxes for the initial "special" performance. In a feature story, the New York Times said that the play had been given "the approval of many of our leading men and women" and that a special performance had been arranged for President Woodrow Wilson and the Congress in Washington, D.C. Most reviews of the production rhetorically asked if the stage were the proper place for the discussion of venereal disease yet concluded that Brieux's play served a useful purpose. A review from Hearst's Magazine is representative: "I would wish to take a young boy or girl of mine to see this play. If they could get harm out of it, I confess I do not understand how.... This play puts the horrible truth in so living a way, with such clean, artistic force, that the mind is impressed as it could possibly be impressed in no other manner." A New York Times editorial conceded the good that could come from dramatic treatment of "subjects generally considered too delicate for common conversation," but concluded, "It invariably causes harm, too, by its appeal to the merely curious and morbid minds." Nevertheless, the conspiracy of silence had been broken and venereal diseases became legitimate subject matter for drama. " Damaged Goods ," writes Brandt, "became a symbol of a new sexual openness."

It was only a short time before Damaged Goods and its star and driving force, Richard Bennett, made the transition from the stage to the screen. Scenarist Harry Pollard expanded Brieux's chamber play for the American Film Manufacturing Company, and the film was released by Mutual in late 1914. In a letter to the New York Times in 1952, Terry Ramsaye described the movie as a prestige production, claiming that it was "pretentiously made, for that day, at a cost, including promotional expenses, of less than $50,000, and its states' rights ... sold for $600,000, thus indicating a boxoffice take of probably more than $2,000,000." Ramsaye claimed that the production required special promotion and commanded higher ticket prices. Reviewers for the industry trade magazines seemed to be caught up in a progressive fervor when they discussed the film. Variety 's reviewer urged, "See Damaged Goods , and after seeing it, tell your son or daughter to see it, and let them tell other boys and girls, and you tell other fathers and mothers, until all the world has seen Damaged Goods on the picture screen." The Moving Picture World found the film "free from taint which inheres in most of the `sex problem plays.' It does not parade evil in order that good may come of it."

What was being praised? For one thing, the reviews took special note of the social status of the protagonist. George Dupont was described as "a young man of excellent home," a lawyer by profession, who is set to marry "a prominent society belle." George gets syphilis from a "street walker." Annette Kuhn notes that "VD propaganda films ... construct sexually active women as the principal cause of venereal infection"; it is also important to note the low social station of those women and how the disease is visited upon those of the upper classes. The social dynamics established in Damaged Goods , and repeated in most other hygiene films of the period, illustrate Brandt's claim that venereal disease was seen as a malady of the Other inflicted on the bourgeoisie.

Sander L. Gilman has described the Other as that onto which we project our anxieties, externalizing our loss of control. The Other is not random, nor is it isolated from historical context. He suggests that when a group makes demands on a society, "the status anxiety produced by those demands characteristically translates into a sense of loss of control. Thus a group that has been marginally visible can suddenly become the definition of the Other." Gilman goes on to describe how difference, in a variety of guises, threatens order and control: "This mental representation of difference is but the projection of the tension between control and its loss present within each individual in every group. The tension produces an anxiety that is given shape as the Other. The Other is protean because of its source, the conflicts within the individual as articulated in the vocabulary of the group. Qualities of the Other readily form patterns with little or no relationship to any external reality." Industrial workers, immigrants, and blacks from the South were moving to America's great cities in tremendous numbers in the 1910s. At times, these groups made specific demands regarding working and living conditions; at other times, they appeared to require special treatment to be socialized or broken of "bad" habits or traditions. Such demands, or the perception of demands, led to a sense of loss of control over the reproduction of a class and a way of life, resulting in the middle and upper-middle classes projecting their fears on groups with lower status.

In Damaged Goods , the catastrophe that visits George was brought about by a related error. The film version of Brieux's play features a bachelor party thrown for George by his friends. He gets drunk and spends the night with a prostitute, acquiring the disease from a momentary failing of standards. Alcohol was often cited as a contributing factor in the spread of venereal disease, and hygiene pictures assimilated this notion. In Damaged Goods , as well as its successors, the consumption of alcohol frequently occurs, resulting in the bourgeois hero dropping his guard and engaging in social (and sexual) intercourse with the lower class. The audience was encouraged to view drinking as wrong not because of some innate moral doctrine or sin but because it broke down social discriminations, allowing a mingling of the classes. Lower classes then spread venereal diseases to the bourgeoisie, rendering wives sterile and babies diseased or dead, with the middle class facing "race suicide." The temperance and eugenics movements merged in Damaged Goods as George gives syphilis to his wife and their child is born with the disease. Morality became class doctrine rather than religious dogma in the early sex hygiene films.

Just who made up the audience for the early sex hygiene films is difficult to determine. In any case, we can be assured that the films were successful. A 1915 article in The Moving Picture World spoke of Damaged Goods ' run in Detroit: "The Grand Circus started to show Damaged Goods on Monday, Oct. 18, and has placed [ sic ] to capacity every performance. The Grand Circus only seats about 650 and the total daily attendance averaged 5,000 people. In the evenings the crowd has been so large that three policemen were sent over by the police department to keep the people in line and from blocking the sidewalks. Manager Blankmeyer will run Damaged Goods at least four weeks." The same article also indicated the willingness of distributors to exploit the hot topic of sex hygiene in its reference to a 1913 film, A Victim of Sin , put in release to capitalize on the success of Damaged Goods. A Victim of Sin appears to have been almost identical to the Brieux work in structure and detail. It followed the story of a rising young medical student who falls in love with the daughter of a prominent banker, becomes infected with a venereal disease after spending an evening in Bohemia with friends, and returns to his hometown, where he is overcome by "a moment of forgetfulness," resulting in the pregnancy of his fiancee. A child is born, "suffering the sins of his Father, but soon after birth, is relieved by the merciful hand of Death." Again, someone from society's upper crust, a physician, suffers because of a sexual liaison with a member of the lower class.

Damaged Goods proved so popular on its initial run that it was rereleased in 1917 following American military engagement along the Mexican border. The newly acquired freedom to discuss the topic of venereal diseases had focused national attention on conditions in cantonments along the U.S. southern border, where troops had assembled to guard against raids by Pancho Villa in 1916. Saloons and red light districts contributed to a general air of moral laxity and fostered the concern among progressives and politicians alike that an army suffering from the ravages of venereal diseases was, in fact, no army at all. The Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA) was created in 1917 to battle VD among American armed forces through a program of planned recreation or distraction, and coercion. The progressive philosophy that posited education as a cure for all ills was bureaucratized in the CTCA with its program of "educational prophylaxis."

Concern about venereal disease was not limited to rowdy troops in far-flung outposts. Mark Thomas Connelly quotes a physician writing for the Journal of Sociological Medicine in 1917 claiming that the actual number of cases of VD in a large city was one hundred times greater than the official reports indicated. According to Connelly, the article "manifestly articulated the contemporary belief that venereal disease was rampant and out of control , a belief just as vital in focusing medical and public attention on the problem of prostitution and venereal disease as the concurrent explosion of new medical knowledge of the nature and consequences of venereal infection." Connelly's characterization of contemporary beliefs holding that venereal diseases were "out of control" is important. Exploitation films generally followed when discourse on a given issue or problem reached a convulsive state. The white slave scare around 1913 served as the spark for a series of films and, as we shall see, the pattern was repeated with venereal disease pictures in the late teens, nudist films in the early 1930s, antidope movies during the marijuana scare in the mid-1930s, vice ring pictures following Lucky Luciano's racketeering conviction in 1936, the postwar hygiene films, more narcotic movies in the early 1950s, and so on. Exploitation films were fueled by moral panic.

In 1919 eight new sex hygiene films, along with another rerelease of Damaged Goods , hit American screens in rapid succession. At the vanguard of the postwar wave of sex hygiene features was The Spreading Evil , produced by James Keane and released in the last months of 1918. Though complicated by a story of wartime intrigue, the theme of venereal disease penetrating the upper strata of society from the lower classes was once again evident. The film received the enthusiastic endorsement of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, The Moving Picture World praised the film for its frankness, noting that "the production must be given credit for setting forth every phase of its story with acceptable delicacy." Variety fairly trumpeted, "We are moving rapidly in the advancement of civilization! Only a very short time ago an educational film of the undoubted value of The Spreading Evil would not have been permitted by the authorities."

At the beginning of 1919, The Scarlet Trail was added to the group of films that illustrated the effects of venereal disease on the middle class. In it, a corrupt financier threatens the bourgeoisie with his uncontrolled avarice. Not only does Ezra Grafton head a syndicate of quack doctors who sell VD nostrums, but his son Bob was born with congenital syphilis. Bob, planning to marry a debutante, learns of his fate and eventually kills himself, leaving his father "crushed by the knowledge that he is reaping of his own iniquities." The film did not point directly to the lower classes as the breeding ground of syphilis, but did demonstrate the dangers inherent in the middle class letting its guard down: the threat comes from Bob, who could perpetuate his father's disease among the bourgeoisie by marrying Ethel Harding. The film was widely praised for its inoffensiveness: "A disagreeable theme has been handled carefully"; "One point in the picture's favor is the absence of suggestive scenes"; "[The director] may be criticized, in fact, for being too delicate"; "The picture was made in a clean way."

Up to and including the release of The Scarlet Trail , venereal disease pictures had been, above all, "clean." The protests that they generated seem to have been attributable to the subject itself, a holdover from the conspiracy of silence, rather than their treatment of VD. Indeed, the earliest venereal disease films were evidently subjected to little pressure from censors. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise, as the films had little reason to be censored: they espoused morality and continence as a middle-class defense against the threat posed by subordinate classes. Moreover, the films were made by major companies or the large pool of undifferentiated independents and as such were part of mainstream commercial releases. Thus, the early sex hygiene films can be viewed as part of a social discourse taking place on a biological battlefield where class conflict was played out on an intimate level. VD was represented as tantamount to a revolutionary weapon of the poor, a weapon that posed a far greater threat to the middle class than bullets because it robbed the bourgeoisie of the chance to reproduce both their population and their ideologies. The "educational" aim of the films was to offer morality and continence as a shield for bourgeois protection, not to offer broader solutions that would benefit the underclass as well. Trade journals, newspapers, and censors--the forums, watchdogs, and arbiters of American middle-class tastes and agendas--had little reason to argue with the films that cautioned against "the evils that threaten our future race unless we act now and act quickly."

What, then, explains the dramatic reversal in the reception of sex hygiene films in 1919 after the release of The Scarlet Trail? The backlash against the venereal disease pictures is linked to three films produced by the CTCA as armed service training films: Fit to Fight (1918), Fit to Win (1919), and The End of the Road (1918). Ironically, it was these state-supported films that brought about the suppression of the sex hygiene film and the institution of exploitation movies. Fit to Fight traced the adventures--and brushes with VD--of five young men of divergent backgrounds in an army training camp. Fit to Win was essentially the same film but with an added epilogue that takes place after the war. The End of the Road was created to impart lessons about social diseases to a female audience and told the story of two young women. Made during the war, the three films were turned over at war's end by the CTCA to the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA), an organization created by the merger of two existing groups (the American Vigilance Association and the American Federation for Sex Hygiene) in 1913 to combat prostitution and venereal disease through education. ASHA placed the films under copyright and selected Isaac Silverman's Public Health Films to distribute them. Twenty-five percent of the profit from the pictures was to be returned to ASHA. Officials of the organization must have considered their decision to release the films to the general public to be a benevolent gesture toward a society in need of education about venereal disease. But authorities in the motion picture industry and municipal and state governments did not respond with anything akin to charity.

With the "war to make the world safe for democracy" just ended, Fit to Win was advertised as "The Opening Shot in the Big Battle To Make the World Clean and Safe For Posterity." In April 1919, Public Health Films ran a trade ad, reproducing a letter from Assistant Surgeon General C. C. Pierce addressed to state and municipal boards of health. The letter stated in part, "In carrying forward this campaign throughout civilian life, the United States Public Health Service asks the cooperation of State and Municipal governments and requests the abrogation or suspension of such censorships as might impede this very essential missionary work. Fit to Win will be shown to both men and women, but always separate screenings except where audiences may be absolutely segregated according to sex. Children under the age of sixteen will be rigorously excluded." The letter indicated a suspicion that some censorship might be attempted. Moreover, it set out exhibition strategies that were to become standard for exploitation films as they matured in the 1920s: screenings segregated by gender and minimum age requirements.

The new films prompted far more caution on the part of reviewers. "Is Fit to Win fit to be shown is the first question that an exhibitor wants answered," stated The Moving Picture World . The journal concluded that under the proper circumstances, benefits could result, but that "It does not belong in a family theater to be shown to a mixed audience of men and women." Exhibitor's Trade Review directed theater owners' attention to the prologue, which offered "actual views of diseased men and women with the ugly sores open to view." One writer speculated that Fit to Fight "may have to be shown in the city dump." Still, the films were apparently very popular with audiences. In May 1919, Fit to Win along with The End of the Road were "playing to capacity in the fifth week of a 12-week run" at the Grand opera house in Brooklyn. The End of the Road 's opening in a Syracuse theater drew fifteen hundred "at top dollar price" and did almost $9,000 in one week at a Philadelphia theater "with two shows a day and a 25 to one dollar scale."

The Mutual v. Ohio decision, handed down by the Supreme Court in 1915, had left motion pictures without First Amendment armor. In spite of efforts to stave off any legal troubles with its ploy of segregated audiences and cautionary reviews, Fit to Win and its two companion films were the subject of tremendous censorship. In Dallas, censors deferred action while a team of physicians passed judgment: "Nauseating close-ups showing ravages of venereal disease on the human body will be lopped out of the film. So will the section that deals with the squalor of the vice district. This was too raw for the medicos, even though they did look at it from a scientific viewpoint." In New York City, Fit to Win was the subject of litigation when the city license commissioner, John Gilchrist, threatened to revoke the license of any theater showing the film. In court, Gilchrist claimed, "I believe that any film or picture dealing with the social evil, particularly with diseases arising out of the social evil are improper to present before mixed audiences." The commissioner had acted after a letter, critical of the film, appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle . His authority to ban the film was eventually upheld by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The End of the Road was barred in Pennsylvania and was the subject of a vigorous campaign, instigated by the National Association of the Moving Picture Industry (NAMPI), to have it blocked in Chicago. The Providence, Rhode Island, Police Commission labeled the films "an attempt to `commercialize vice.'"

Why were the three government films subjected to such harsh censorship when the earlier films had not been? The most obvious reason for increased censorship seems to have been the graphic footage of the effects of venereal disease. Several efforts had already been directed at eliminating films that were sexually oriented or overly gruesome. The nature and number of sex hygiene films in 1919 led to a critical mass. Stacie Colwell has questioned "the extent to which increasingly graphic depictions helped precipitate the `backlash'" against sex hygiene films. Relying on government records from September 1918, she indicates that all hospital footage was cut from The End of the Road and prophylaxis footage was removed from Fit to Fight . Yet the reviews and trade paper stories on Fit to Fight and Fit to Win from 1919 refer to "ugly sores open to view" and "nauseating close-ups showing ravages of venereal disease." National Board of Review documents (one from March 1919, one undated) in which reviewers were bothered by "the graphic nature" of The End of the Road and "sicken[ed]" by shots of syphilitic lesions are further evidence that at least some of the material that was to have been eliminated was either not cut or, more likely, was reinserted by the distributor.

Second, the crisis surrounding the sex hygiene films occurred as motion picture production in the United States was settling in southern California and the industry attempted to upgrade its public image. More important, however, is the fact that the industry was stabilizing around the primary commodity of the feature-length narrative film. A series of conventions had developed around the narrative film to the point where any deviation from those conventions was seen as improper or inadequate. The educational aspect of the hygiene films, usually referred to as "propaganda," set them apart from the conventions of narrative filmmaking. Annette Kuhn has pointed out that in the hygiene films, characters operated as representatives of certain moral positions instead of as psychologically rounded individuals. I have identified five major character functions in the early hygiene films:

The Innocent: The Innocent is the young man or woman who, through ignorance about the ways of the world in general and sexual matters in particular, finds himself or herself in need of education. A male Innocent may contract VD from a prostitute or a "loose woman." A female Innocent either contracts a venereal disease or becomes pregnant, often forcing her to seek an abortion. In other instances, the need for education may arise from a legitimate pregnancy in which the prospective mother requires information about childbirth. Although the Innocents' actions may differ, their function--that of receiving proper education or demonstrating the need for education on sexual matters--always remains the same.

The Corrupter: The Corrupter is the man or woman who leads the Innocent down a path that is both injurious to the Innocent's health and contravenes society's formal sexual mores. The Corrupter may be a prostitute who gives a young man VD or a worldly man or insistent boy who seduces a girl, leaving her with a venereal disease or pregnant. As exploitation developed, theatrical agents or men posing as showbiz types often act in this capacity. The Corrupter may be conscious or unconscious of his or her actions. Minor versions of the Corrupter may also appear in a film in the form of friends or acquaintances who induce the Innocent to try alcohol or cigarettes or instigate a wild night on the town or a visit to a house of prostitution.

The Parents: Parents appear in two complementary, or contradictory, pairs in hygiene films. Good Parents are those who have given their children proper sexual and moral instruction at an early age, arming the child with knowledge of how to avoid disease and unwanted pregnancy. Bad Parents are those who, through unreasonable modesty or self-centeredness, have failed to tell their children about sex, leaving them prey to the Corrupters of the world. Bad Parents are equated with the forces of ignorance in society.

The Crusader: The Crusader generally appears in the guise of a physician, a teacher, a public health officer, or a reporter. He--and the Crusader usually is a male character--either supports birth control, battles venereal disease and abortion, or engages in some combination of these. The Crusader is often in direct confrontation with the Bad Parents and local officials, who wish to maintain the status quo by standing in the way of sex education. The Crusader operates from a pragmatic point of view, often espousing a philosophy that may be at odds with the community but is proved to be in everyone's best interest in the final analysis. He is the man with a bitter pill that must be swallowed for the good of society. The Crusader often offers direct aid to the Innocent in his or her time of need and addresses both the characters in the film and the audience.

The Charlatan: The Charlatan is a physician, or someone posing as one, who takes advantage of the Innocent's condition and advances his or her suffering. The Charlatan may be a quack who offers nostrums for venereal diseases or illegal abortions. He--and the Charlatan is almost always male--is motivated solely by greed and has no regard for the health or welfare of those he attends. The Crusader works to expose the Charlatan.

Though they can be broken down into numerous subtypes, each of the major archetypes embodies a canon of beliefs that compel the character to act in a prescribed manner and propel the film along a fairly narrow trajectory. Education is at the axis of character function in the sex hygiene exploitation film and provides the locus for the discourse on social issues under examination. Each character functions to either receive, promote, stifle, or create the need for education about sex and reproductive health. The limited number of characters engaged in set functions contributes to relatively standardized story lines. Indeed, many of the plots of hygiene pictures appear to be scene-for-scene duplicates of earlier films. Once initial exposition has set the time and place of the film, a lack of education about one or more of the topics (birth control, abortion, etc.) is established. As Kuhn notes, rather than "identifying" with characters as in standard narrative film, audiences were "addressed as occupying a precisely identical position of ignorance and moral corruptibility as characters in the fiction." The lack of knowledge shared by the characters and the audience was filled at the same moment. This, in addition to scenes of documentary material on the diseases and their treatments that were inserted into a narrative framework, placed the sex hygiene feature "in a rather uneasy relation with contemporary approaches to cinematic narrativity." I will expand on the issue of formal properties of exploitation films and the controversy over mixing education with entertainment in succeeding chapters.

Beyond the unpleasant spectacle of disease and the awkward relationship to dominant cinematic practice, a study of the psychological effects of Fit to Win conducted at Johns Hopkins University by Karl S. Lashley and John B. Watson identified a series of criticisms of the film that point to other reasons for the widespread censorship. The first broad category of criticism identified was that based "upon purely sectarian concepts of "morality." A large segment of the leadership in the Catholic Church took a hard line on the government films and others released in 1919, organizing a pamphlet campaign against the films. These same sectarian criticisms might have greeted the earlier films but never in a quantity that prompted heavy censorship. The second category of criticism claimed that "the method of sex education by motion pictures is ineffective or that it will lead to specific anti-social alterations in behavior." Two of the criticisms enumerated in Lashley and Watson's second category seem to have a direct bearing on the change in attitude about the films. First, the government-produced movies emphasized the importance of chemical prophylaxis, something earlier films did not do. As Brandt points out, "The more conservative social hygienists and purity activists centered their attack on the films' advocacy of chemical prophylaxis: `If you can't be moral, be careful.'" Information about prophylaxis was thought to counter messages about continence, thereby increasing immorality. Second, "The picture shows as a characteristic of the young men described in it a carelessness and lack of moral responsibility in sex matters which casts an unmerited reflection upon the decency of the average American home and of the Army."

Furthermore, not only did the films pose prophylaxis as an alternative to continence, but Fit to Fight, Fit to Win , and The End of the Road did not locate the source of venereal diseases in the lower classes, as had the earlier films either directly or by implication. The five characters at the center of Fit to Fight/Win who are faced with the specter of VD are a mixed group. Billy Hale and Chick Carlton are college boys, Kid McCarthy is a boxer, Hank Simpson a country bumpkin, and Jack Garvin is a cigar salesman. Thus, rather than invading a bourgeois home, venereal disease affects the egalitarian world of the military camp: members of all classes are equally at risk. The End of the Road tells the story of venereal disease having the same impact on the bourgeoisie as on the working class. No longer are the poor ruining middle-class lives through the transmission of venereal infections, leaving them to face the possibility of race suicide. In the government-made films, syphilis and gonorrhea are equal-opportunity diseases.


Copyright 1999 Duke University Press. All rights reserved.

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