Kroger Babb is my spirit animal.
I first learned of Kroger Babb from two sources: John Waters’s groundbreaking essay “Whatever Happened to Showmanship?” published in the December, 1983 issue of American Film and David F. Friedman’s amazing autobiography, A Youth in Babylon, now sadly out of print. Waters shared a possibly apocryphal story about Babb in the introduction to his essay on William Castle. Friedman briefly worked for Babb before starting his long career as an exploitation movie producer.
1) Saturation advertising. Babb spent more on leaflets, posters, newspaper ads, and radio advertising for his one-week engagements than most theaters spent in a month. His life-long motto was, “You’ve gotta tell ’em to sell ’em.”
2) Gender-segregated audiences. Adult women and high-school age girls were welcome to the afternoon and early evening screenings; the late evening screening was for men and high-school aged boys only.
3) A book pitch. The intermission of the film featured “noted hygiene lecturer” Elliot Forbes selling sex-education pamphlets. At the height of Mom and Dad’s theatrical run, Babb had more than 50 Elliot Forbeses crisscrossing the country, selling his booklets during the intermission of the film. The booklets cost eight cents apiece to produce. Babb sold them for a dollar.
The Plot in Brief: Although Joan Blake (June Carlson) has been dating bland but good-hearted Allen Curtis (Jimmy Zahner), she allows herself to be lured away at a high-school dance by the greasy charms of boy pilot Jack Griffith (Bob Lowell). One night, Joan secretly leaves her house to keep a date with the aggressive young man. Griffith plies her with beer, takes her for a moonlight drive in his flivver, and starts to kiss her. Fade to black.
(The houselights come up in the theater, and noted hygiene expert Elliot Forbes gives a short lecture on the importance of sex education and hard-sells the movie audience into buying some salacious pamphlets.)
Carl Blackburn (Hardie Albright), a teacher at Joan’s school, has been arguing for months that the school needs some sort of sex education (here called “social hygiene”) class. His pleas fall on deaf ears. The administration and local parents oppose such a class.
Given the reason for the film’s enduring legacy, the quality or content of the film are almost beside the point. It was the “selling” of it—the way it was shown and marketed—that made the film famous, not the film itself. Though not the worst film from famed B-movie director William “One Shot” Beaudine, Mom and Dad is a dreary melodrama full of unrealized performances, stilted dialogue, scenes that unfold before a single camera in real time with no editing (like some kind of crazed, small-town community theater performance) and endless padding. The high-school dance that Joan and Allen attend at the beginning of the film features “the Four Liphams” performing a dance routine that seems to go on forever. I came here to buy sex manuals and watch a pregnant girl cry, NOT TO SEE INTERMINABLE ACROBATIC DANCE ROUTINES!
My favorite story from Eric Schaefer’s comprehensive and entertaining audio commentary involves officials from the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese who assured Babb that his film could avoid a “Condemned” rating from the Catholic Church (and therefore be shown in Chicago theaters) if he were to make a $50,000 donation to the church. Babb’s refusal kept the film out of Chicago for over ten years. Schaefer is the author of Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959, the indispensable book from which I first learned of Mom and Dad, Unashamed, and a slew of other exploitation classics.
Why am I explaining all of this historical nonsense? Because I love it. This is the “hidden history” of film: not the Oscar-winners and art films about which so much is written and discussed, but the odd, offbeat movies that forged their own paths across middle and rural America. The stories I’ve read researching films like this are banana-pants crazy. The hucksters, showmen, and four-wallers of these “social problem exploitation” movies were approaching film from a completely different angle than as art or entertainment or narrative or even theater; they saw it as a con. This is where we find the intersection between motion pictures and three-card monte. I’m honestly considering writing a book about Kroger Babb, partly because he’s so endlessly fascinating that I can’t believe that book hasn’t already been written.