Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Glutton for Punishment: MOM AND DAD

by JB
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.
Babb was a promotional genius and made Mom and Dad on the limited budget of $65,000 at the Monogram Studios with the express purpose of presenting it, state by state, in the following manner:

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.
Mom and Dad played in theaters for over ten years. The film’s final gross is estimated to be more than $65 million, and that does not include book sales, which often grossed more than the film itself. Mom and Dad was voted into the National Film Registry in 2010.

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.
Joan gets pregnant, but tells no one. Griffith dies in a plane crash; he must have been as adept at piloting as he was at purchasing condoms. Joan confides in Blackburn, who immediately blabs to her folks. I guess “Mom and Dad” (Lois Austin and George Eldredge) were wrong about NOT WANTING THEIR DAUGHTER TO HAVE PRECIOUS INFORMATION THAT COULD HAVE SAVED HER REPUTATION. Blackburn gets his sex education class. Mom takes Joan “out East”, where she can have her scandal-baby free from the prying eyes of her hometown’s vicious gossips. Joan puts the baby up for adoption. That baby… was me.

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!
Kino-Lorber’s restoration is stunning. It uses 4K scans of four different source prints since the original negative has irreparable nitrate damage. Methinks that this Blu-ray disc looks much better than the often-battered and sometimes decade-old prints that were projected during the film’s protracted original run. The disc also contains an approximation of the Elliot Forbes book pitch, which is highly entertaining, and trailers for other exploitation films that followed in Mom and Dad’s curious wake.

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.
The final irony is that ultimately, Kroger Babb was right. It is better to have young people fully informed about all manners of “hygiene” before they make the choice to be sexually active. But the filmmakers weren’t really on a moral or hygiene crusade. They just wanted to make a buck. Because the prevailing morality at the time condemned such discussion in the popular arts, that prohibition provided an easy market from which the exploitation guys could profit. Kroger Babb and his compatriots were on the right side of history, but only because that’s where the money was.

4 comments:

  1. Write that book! What will you call it? My vote: "Babb Blab!" I'll be glad when you go lob globs of good Babb gab, Baby.

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  2. BOLD!DARING!SHOCKING!TRUE! is indispensable read for any exploitation fan. I read it almost a decade ago and still vividly remember parts of it. The chapters about the roadshows and the hucksterism involved with them were the most interesting to me, as well. I laughed reading about how films were re-titled and taken to the territories where they had played before.

    Is MOM AND DAD the one featuring footage of a live birth, J.B.? I may be thing thinking of something else.

    The movie of the "classic" period of exploitation that made the biggest impression on me was MANIAC, made by Dwain Esper (of Reefer Madness fame) in 1934. It is one of the weirdest movies from that period of time I have seen. The nudity in it greatly surprised me.

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    1. Thank you for dredging up some memories of a pleasanter part of my life, J.B. In the gloom of recent times, it is nice to be reminded that life can fun.

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  3. Yes! Mom and Dad contains live birth footage! Yes! Esper’s Maniac is batshit crazy!

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