Kroger Babb's roadshow: how a long-running movie walked the thin line between exploitation and education.
If you lived in a small town in the 1940S or '50s, it was virtually impossible not to know about a film called Mom and Dad. Sooner or later a flamboyant publicity man would drive into town, the ads would appear, and the tempestuous debate would begin. Plastered on every available storefront, barn, bus bench, and shoeshine stand was a poster seducing you with an attractive couple in mid-kiss and black bold-faced ballyhoo exploding all around them. And in a black box in the lower left-hand corner:
"Extra! IN PERSON: ELLIOT FORBES, 'THE SECRETS OF SENSIBLE SEX."'
Alarmed letters to the editor would appear in the newspaper. Clergymen would express opinions from the pulpit. If you were Catholic, you'd be banned from attending. In some towns the police would send men to check the film for violations of the obscenity statutes. And as soon as the first women-only matinee was screened, at 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, the town would blaze with Mom and Dad gossip. Though all but forgotten today, Mom and Dad was so heavily promoted that Time once remarked that the ad campaign "left only the livestock unaware of the chance to learn the facts of life."
But this was not Hollywood promotion. In fact, Hollywood spent 20 years campaigning to get rid of movies like Morn and Dad. This was the last wave of the 19th-century medicine shows--part biology lesson, part sideshow, part morality play, part medical "shock footage"--and to this day many old-tuners regard it as the purest and most successful exploitation film in history. It played continuously for 23 years, still booking drive-ins as late as 1977, and grossed an estimated $100 million.
Kroger Babb, who billed himself as "America's Fearless Young Showman," ruled over a vast army of Mom and Dad "roadshow units" from his headquarters in Worthington, Ohio. He used a form of exhibition that has all but disappeared today, called "fourwalling." Instead of booking his film into theaters for a percentage of the box office, he would simply rent the theater outright and take it over for the week or, in smaller markets, just one or two days. He would pay for all advertising and promotion, put his own banners and marquees out front, and turn the theater into a midway attraction, complete with lobby curiosities designed to lure customers. But because he was a pariah in Hollywood, he had to use independent mom-and-pop theaters that weren't part of the big chains like Paramount and RKO, and he had to fight censorship boards, police forces, judges, clergy, and outraged newspaper editors everywhere he went. The film was in 400 separate court proceedings during its run.
Babb was an expert at creating a kind of mob psychosis that peaked at the moment the projector started to roll. Watching the film today, it's all but impossible to recreate the atmosphere of a capacity audience waiting breathlessly to see things they knew were forbidden and probably shocking. It was Babb's peculiar genius that he was able to evoke the emotions of a horror movie using what is actually one of the blandest, most formulaic stories ever concocted.
When the opening titles come up and the lush strings of the orchestra play the Mom and Dad theme music, the first thing you see is a type crawl:
"Foreword. Our story is a simple one! It happens every night, somewhere. It is the story of Joan Blake--a sweet, innocent girl growing up in this fast moving age. The temptations which she faces are as old as Tune itself. But Joan is no better fortified against them than was the girl of yester-year, because her mother--like many mothers--still thinks that ignorance is a guarantee of virtue. 'IGNORANCE IS A SIN--KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. In this modern world Youth is entitled to a knowledge of Hygiene-a complete understanding of the Facts of Life. Boys and girls of today aren't bad! But millions of them are becoming sexual delinquents and the victims of venereal disease, simply because they do not know the Full Truth about these subjects. This problem is a challenge to every Mom and Dad. If our story points the way to a commonsense solution ... and saves one girl from unwed motherhood ... or one boy from the ravages of social disease ... it will have been well told! THE PRODUCERS."
This had two functions: to lessen the chance of obscenity prosecutions, and to make the film palatable to women. In fact, women tended to like the film more than men, who were often a little disappointed by the lack of sex and nudity.
The first hour of the movie was devoted to showing how a sweet and pretty young girl like Joan Blake could easily have her life ruined by pregnancy. She goes to a local dance, where she's swept off her feet by a handsome and worldly pilot who steals a kiss as they walk outside. They hold hands and make eyes at each other while watching a jitterbug contest, a torch singer, and a teenage acrobatic act-all the usual padding found in exploitation films of the period. The next night he takes her to a smoky night club in his roadster, overwhelms her with sweet talk on a moonlit lover's lane, and convinces her that two people as much in love as this should definitely go all the way with it. Slow fade as the young lovers descend into the front seat.
Shortly thereafter the handsome pilot has to leave town on business, but he continues to write to her. When he mentions in one of his letters that it's been four weeks since he left, Joan suddenly becomes concerned. She checks her calendar and is obviously worried. She goes to her mother and asks if she has any "hygiene books," but her parent is flabbergasted by the request. "You're not married yet," says Mom.
A short time later Joan's father notices an article in the newspaper: A young man named Jack Griffith--the pilot who took her virginity--has been killed in a plane crash. Joan drops a dinner plate when she hears the news, goes to her room, tears up the love letter she's just written, and puts her head down on her desk.
At this point the film would stop entirely and the house lights would come up. Elliot Forbes, an "eminent sexual hygiene commentator," would stride onto the stage and deliver a 20-minute lecture on the need for openness in sex education, the morality of the times, the biology of the body, and what the community can do to avoid the ruination of its youth.
If anyone checked the credentials of Elliot Forbes, he would have discovered that the speaker was the busiest man in the history of the lecture circuit, appearing 78 times a day in cities scattered from Maine to Oregon. There were actually 26 Elliot Forbeses, one for each roadshow, and Babb hired most of them from the ranks of retired or underemployed vaudeville comedians. They knew how to work crowds with a combination of earnestness, humor, and downhome "just folks" patter that would always crescendo at the moment when they held up two paperback books--one called Man and Boy, the other called Woman and Girl--and made a spiel for "a set of these vitally important books to be read in the privacy of your own home." Two women in nurse uniforms--supposedly stationed in the theater to take care of people who fainted or had heart attacks--would then pass among the crowd collecting money and distributing the volumes.
The books themselves were rehashes of venereal disease and pregnancy information that could be obtained at any public health agency. The Elliot Forbes speech was what is known in the carnival world as a "blowoff," long used in 10-in-one freak shows to hustle additional money from people who had already paid an admission price. In any good blowoff, there's the constant implication that the "good stuff" is in the attraction you haven't paid for yet--in this case, the book. Forbes' main job was to sell the books, which frequently augmented the box-office take by as much as 50 percent. In 1957, for example, at a four-week showing of Mom and Dad in Baltimore, the box-office gross was $82,000, but 45,000 copies of the books were sold, resulting--after deducting printing and expenses--in a $31,000 additional profit.
The Busybody Villainess
After Forbes had left the stage and the money had been collected, the film would resume with our heroine sick to her stomach, sleeping late, and discovering that her clothes no longer fit her. (The actors never use the word "pregnant.") After a few scenes of dramatic desperation--including an off-screen suicide attempt--Joan's brother forces her to tell him the truth. Knowing he can't trust their straitlaced parents, he seeks advice from Carl Blackburn, a kindly teacher who was fired from the high school for teaching sex education and now sells insurance. After a night of agonizing, Blackburn calls on Joan's mother and informs her that "your daughter is going to have a baby."
The mother has been the busybody villainess of our story all along. As the member of a women's club that constantly crusades against public lewdness and drinking--the same club that got the science teacher fired--she believes that sex should never be discussed in the home. Her reaction to the news: "Who was the boy? I'll have him arrested."
"They didn't tell me his name," replies the defrocked teacher. "After all, why blame the boy?"
The hysterical mother demand to know who Blackburn would blame. "I'd blame you, Mrs. Blake," he replies, "you and every parent who neglects the sacred duty of telling their children the real truth. Why were your children afraid to come to you in their trouble? Why did they have to come to me for advice? Remember this, Mrs. Blake, when your children have to go to someone else for advice, you've fallen down from your job."
In the next scene Joan and Mrs. Blake are riding the train to Boston, where Joan will finish her pregnancy in secret under a doctor's care, but the grim faces of mother and daughter tell us all too plainly that their lives will never be the same.
Pickles and Beaver
At this point the story is, for all practical purposes, over. There's one point of minor suspense--will Joan be OK and what will she do with the baby?--but very little is made of that. In fact, the whole first 90 minutes has been a set-up for three films-within-the-film that everyone will remember long after they've left the theater.
With wife and daughter packed off to Boston, Mr. Blake is suddenly roused out of his blase attitude and tells Blackburn that he intends to go to the school board and get him rehired. Now snore than ever, "They need that class in social hygiene!" Cut to the principal's office where, in one of the more forced segues in screenwriting history, the returning teacher tells the principal, "I was talking with Mrs. Hayworth yesterday. You know, she's the sister of the famous Chicago specialist Dr. Ashley. She tells me he has some wonderful films explaining childbirth. But best of all, she says he's due here for a rest in October!"
"Do you suppose we could get him to talk to a small group like ours?" asks the principal.
"Well, I'll ask her to write to him about it. You never know until you try!"
In the next scene Blackburn is introducing Dr. John D. Ashley, an obstetrician, to a class of high school girls. Dr. Ashley has been kind enough to bring along some films made in his hospital. The first one is called The Facts of Life: An Explanation of Sex Cycles. An authoritative narrator begins: "Every girl should know the functions of the female body." Charts are revealed, showing the female menstrual cycle, drawings of the genital organs, how ovulation occurs, how spermatozoa impregnate an ovary, time-lapse depictions of the growing fetus, and then suddenly--almost without warning--graphic footage of a live birth!
The umbilical cord has scarcely been snipped before the second film commences: Modern American Surgery, in which a "famous American Surgeon" will perform a Caesarian section on-camera. In an operating theater full of white-masked attendants and spectators, we watch as the incision is made ("from pubis to umbilicus"), as layer after layer of the skin and womb are cut open, as water and other fluids spray wildly, and then as the baby is removed with forceps. The film lingers for the sewing up and a few injections "to relax the mother," followed by an encomium to "one of the great miracles of modern surgery."
But wait! There's more! Two scenes later an expert on venereal disease named Dr. Burrell addresses an all-male class. And now comes the piece de resistance. The third film-within-the-film is called Seeing Is Believing, and it's every teenage boy's nightmare, showing grainy footage of syphilis victims struggling to wall, blinded, horribly scarred, teeth rotting, their bodies oozing with chancres and open sores, and, in one case, a fleeting image of a person whose feet have been eaten away by disease. Throughout the film there are silent-movie-style caption cards: "Millions learn these facts the hard-way ... by bitter experience!" "The Price of Ignorance!" "Self-Styled MORALISTS Would Like To Keep These Facts A Secret!!!" "Is The Gamble Worth the Price?" The audience sees crippled and blind crying babies, horrible pox-ridden arms and legs, a festering sore where someone's eye used to be, and the big payoff, introduced by the title card "Doctors and Health Officials Agree--These shocking pictures of infected genital organs will awaken you!" What follows are fully naked bodies, but so bruised and disease-ridden that they're anything but attractive. The film concludes, oddly, with images of track and field athletes, healthy young swimmers, and the U.S. Army marching in formation, as though to say, "This is what Americans should look like."
Joan's story has three more brief scenes, concluding with a doctor coming into a waiting room where the nervous Blake family is pacing and praying, to say "It's all over." Joan has a good chance of recovery. And the baby? In the version I saw, the doctor says the baby has just barely survived--presumably to be adopted by a childless couple--but I've also seen accounts by Mom and Dad viewers who claim the baby is stillborn. The fact is, there were dozens of versions of Mom and Dad, including some that didn't have any films-within-the-film, so that the movie could still play in markets with strict obscenity laws. Babb was not above showing his "cold" version to local authorities and screening the "hot" version in the theater. He also always carried with him a "square-up reel." In cases where he was forced to show the "cold" version, he would sometimes be faced with an angry audience that felt cheated by the absence of what they felt they had been promised by the advertising. To appease them, he would quickly rack an additional reel of what the carries called "pickles and beaver"--footage of full-frontal nude bodies. Remarkably, it worked. The audience left feeling they had experienced at least a little of the "good stuff."
There's one additional piece of film after the story ends. The final screen image is Kroger Babb himself, sitting at his desk and speaking directly to camera. "And now, friends, you've seen the entire production," he says. "If you agree that these pictures have been bold and shocking enough, that you've learned a very worthwhile lesson from them, I wish you'd show the management your appreciation at this time. By your applause." And of course the theater, so prompted, would erupt in applause, thereby cutting down on the possibility of anyone ever asking for his money back.
This brief coda is actually the essence of Babb's shell game. He says "if you agree that ..." and then includes two reasons to like the movie--that it was shocking, and that it was educational. But he speaks as though they're the same thing. An astute student of human nature, he knew everyone needed both--you bought the ticket because you wanted to be exposed to the forbidden, but you told yourself and others that you had no choice but to be educated. It was a movie that could be marketed with a straight exploitation campaign if it played in grindhouses and all-male theaters, or an "educational" campaign that would have entire high schools buying tickets for its students.
Although syphilis and gonorrhea had periodically ravaged America throughout the 19th century, the subject was not addressed on stage or screen until 1913, when Eugene Brieux wrote a play called Damaged Goods. In it, a young lawyer gets syphilis from a streetwalker while drunk at his bachelor party. Ignoring the advice of his doctor, he marries his fiancee in order to collect a dowry, thereby infecting his wife and baby. The drama avoided censorship by being sponsored by a medical organization and exploiting a common fear of the time--that the upper classes were in danger of strange diseases brought to America by the hordes of lower-class immigrants. When the play was made into a Mutual Film in 1914, it took in $2 million at the box office, a virtually unheard-of amount at the time.
Damaged Goods marked the birth of the sex-hygiene film. A ripoff called A Victim of Sin came out almost immediately, and there were at least 20 more films about VD before 1920. But the real birth of what producers would come to call the "clap opera" occurred at the end of World War I, when a man named Isaac Silverman purchased two films that the armed services had used to train soldiers about the dangers of venereal disease. Fit to Fight, the story of five young men in army training camp, and The End of the Road, the story of two women in trouble, included explicit medical footage showing the ravages of gonorrhea and syphilis, complete with pus-filled open sores.
What could be better for a film-hungry public constantly in search of new sensations? Silverman booked the films all over the country, where they played to capacity audiences, including 12 weeks (!) at the Grand Opera House in Brooklyn. They also attracted the attention of local morals crusaders, who managed to get them banned in many cities. The Catholic Church, upset by the films' advocacy of "chemical prophylaxis," organized a pamphlet campaign to stop the films.
The Outlaw Studio
From that time forward, a new kind of film exhibition would arise. Silverman showed his films to "adults only" (no one under 16), a phrase that would become code for titillating subject matter, and he also segregated the screenings by gender. Babb would later codify this tradition in every contract he ever signed, specifying that the words "Adults Only" must be on all advertising and barring any distributor from showing Mom and Dad to mixed audiences. Women would be too embarrassed to watch a sex hygiene film in the company of men, so he would have two women's-only screenings per day, one at 2 and one at 7. The men wouldn't be allowed to see the film until 9, and by that time they were so overwhelmed with curiosity, wanting to know WHAT THE WOMEN WERE TALKING ABOUT, that his late-night males-only screenings came to be called "The Thundering Herd."
The sex hygiene film contributed greatly to the notorious Production Code that would muzzle Hollywood studios for decades to come. The first motion picture censorship law had been passed in Chicago in 1907, and by 1921 seven states had censorship boards, with new ones sprouting all the time. In an effort to head off government control of movies, Hollywood adopted "Thirteen Points or Standards," forbidding such things as the on-screen exploitation of sex, white slavery, nakedness, "illicit love and vice," narcotics use, vulgarity, ridicule of authority, miscegenation, profanity, and disrespect for religion. This list evolved into the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" of 1927, which specifically added sex hygiene and venereal disease, childbirth scenes, and children's sex organs. And all of this was consolidated into the Production Code of 1930, after which 98 percent of all movies released were judged and censored.
But there was still that 2 percent of movies made outside the Hollywood system. They not only defied the Production Code, but used it as a sort of manual for subjects that could be exploited. There was a boom in exploitation films dealing with crime, white slavery, and drug addiction--not to mention nudist-camp movies. Mainstream Hollywood despised these films, mainly because they feared they would lead to more censorship, but in their efforts to run the exploitation producers out of business they had to argue against what were always presented as educational films. Remarkably, the Production Code Administration eventually issued policy statements saying that the purpose of motion pictures should be pure entertainment, and that education has no place in theaters!
The carnies on the exploitation circuit--guys with flashy names like S.S. "Steamship" Millard and Howard "Pappy" Golden--eventually banded into a sort of informal trade association. Calling themselves the Forty Thieves, they essentially became a vertically integrated outlaw studio, using something called the "states rights" system. In the 1890s, licensing for the Kinetoscope and Vitascope had resulted in the United States being carved up into 32 exhibition territories, and this system of sub-distribution lasted well into the '80s. Hence a producer could sell his film territory by territory, allowing the local "thief" to market it any way he knew how. He could re-edit the film, shoot additional scenes, design his own ad campaign, and create any kind of come-on. (Lobby displays of drug paraphernalia were common in the '30s.) One of the most foolproof gimmicks in the business was live birth footage. No one knows exactly where the footage came from--some say medical training films, some say it was paid for overseas--but within the world of the Forty Thieves, it was constantly recycled into movie after movie.
In 1936 Surgeon General Thomas Parran initiated a public information campaign to stamp out venereal disease, making Hollywood look more and more silly as it tried to ban the films. The studios were especially incensed in 1937 when a film called Sex Madness showed up as the second feature with Shirley Temple's Wee Willie Winkie, but by the following year the government had filed an antitrust suit against them--the famous Paramount case--and they pretty much abandoned their crusade against the exploitation films because it made them look like monopolists.
Vices for Squares
By the time Kroger Babb came along, the formula for a sex hygiene movie was so well established that all he did was incorporate every element of every sex hygiene movie in history into a single film. But in search of even better profits, he changed the rules slightly. Many of the old sex-hygiene films had played in grindhouses or marginal theaters or even bars and restaurants. He wanted to break through to the biggest theaters in the country.
Howard W. Babb had gotten the nickname "Kroger" from the name of the grocery store where he worked as a boy growing up in Lees Creek, Ohio. Born in 1906, he was a sportswriter, a newspaper reporter, an ad manager, and, by his late 20s, publicity manager for the Chakeres-Warners theater chain, where he distinguished himself with publicity stunts such as having a man buried alive in front of a theater. He got the exploitation roadshow bug when he hooked up with an outfit called Cox and Underwood, which was peddling an aging sex hygiene film called Dust to Dust that was actually a 1935 film called High School Girl with a live-birth reel slapped onto the end. Proving that he was born to be in the business, it's the same plot Babb would use in Mom and Dad. (The Forty Thieves frequently quarreled over territories, but they never sued for copyright infringement. Of course, many of them were carnival men, who regarded all cons as ancient and passed down from generation to generation, but they may also have simply sold stories the same way they occasionally sold sideshow acts.)
Anxious to go out on his own, Babb got 20 investors to put up the money to make Mom and Dad. The script was written by Mildred Horn, who would later become his wife, and who would also write Mart and Woman and Boy and Girl. To direct he hired William "One Shot" Beaudine (so named because he never did a second take), who dated back to the Bowery Boys serials and had made over 200 B movies. He made the whole film in six days in 1944.
Perhaps the most revolutionary thing Babb did was to give his film such a bland and praiseworthy title. Who could object to a movie called Mom and Dad? This wasn't a movie about crazed sex maniacs or loose women or pregnant girls or the vice rackets. It was a movie about the education of all the moms and dads in the world, and, in fact, he wanted every mom and every dad to see it. His principal weapon, when he came under attack, was the very ordinariness of his story.
End of the Hygiene Era
Babb was not just prepared for the inevitable censorship battles he would face. He egged them on. He stirred up the Catholics at every opportunity, capitalizing on the church's "C" rating (for "condemned") of his film. He wrote fake letters to the editor in advance of the film's arrival in town, hoping there would be controversy. His most successful letter was supposedly written by the anonymous mayor of a small town. The "mayor" explained that he had opposed the showing of Mont and Dad in his town, too, but then the 17-year-old daughter of a local churchgoing couple found herself "in trouble." He saw Mom and Dad with a friend, and as a result had the courage to tell her parents about her predicament. They were shocked, but forgave her. The girl gave birth to a healthy boy, which was adopted by a childless couple. The girl then completed high school and is now engaged to a fine young man. The mayor goes on to thank Babb for having the courage "to tell young people what their parents didn't." And the letter ends: "P.S. That girl was my daughter."
Babb's company, Hygienic Productions, sent out an advance man to place letters like this, buy advertising, do mailings, and hold screenings for town fathers and religious leaders. (If the town's leaders liked the film, a "soft" campaign would be used. If they didn't like it, a "hard" campaign, advertising it as "the movie self-styled moralists don't want you to see," would be used. Both campaigns worked.) The advance man would be followed a week later by a crew of four--including "Elliot Forbes" and two "nurses"--to actually manage the film during its run. The crews would stay on the road for 20 weeks at a time. Babb even had one all-black crew for black theaters, with Olympic champion Jesse Owens substituting for Elliot Forbes.
As the Mom and Dad exploitation scheme evolved over time, it attracted imitators. By 1950 there were so many sex-hygiene roadshows that they were starting to get in each other's way, and after a town was "scorched" by a promotional campaign, it would be spoiled for any film arriving later. So four of the films--Mom and Dad, Street Corner, Because of Eve, and The Story of Bob and Sally--banded together to form Modern Film Distributors, carving out territories and agreeing not to steal markets.
But the genre's days were numbered. The irony of the sex-hygiene explosion is that it depicted a world that didn't exist. The communities in the films had more in common with turn-of-the-century towns than with anything more modern. Millions of young men had already been exposed to venereal disease films during World War II, and millions of women had been touched by out-of-wedlock births, abortions, or abandonment. Perhaps the films succeeded because they gave a comforting message to panicked moms and dads, promising that, with just a little more education, these things could be eradicated. But many of the problems already were being eradicated, first by penicillin, which had made new syphilis cases virtually unheard of by the time Mom and Dad came out, and then by more sophisticated forms of birth control that gave young girls more control of their sex lives.
The biggest irony of all is that the public schools actually did follow Kroger Babb's example and start showing sex-education films not unlike The Facts of Life: An Explanation of Sex Cycles. And once the information was available in schools, Babb was out of business.
The immediate cause of Babb's declining box office, though, was the burlesque film, which showed up in the early '50s. Crudely made movies filmed in aging burlesque halls, featuring strippers and comedians doing what they'd been doing for decades, these offered titillation and a hint of nudity without any of the scarifying disease subtext. By the time the second wave of nudist films came along, in 1959, it was all over for sex hygiene.
Kroger Babb died January 28, 1980, in Palm Springs, California, at the age of 73. And now, friends, you've seen the entire production. If you have been shocked and educated, please show the management your appreciation. By your applause.
Joe Bob Briggs is a columnist for UPI and the author of Profoundly Disturbing: The Shocking movies that Changed Cinema (Universe), from which this article is adapted.
John Bloom gave birth to JOE BOB BRIGGS in 1982. Working as a film critic for The Dallas Times Herald, Bloom realized he hated Hollywood. Preferring such classics as Zombie Holocaust and Graveyard Tramps, Bloom created a persona to review "the stuff your mom doesn't want you to watch." After an editor rejected several pseudonyms as "too ethnic," Bloom settled on the whitest name he could come up with: Joe Bob Briggs. Briggs went on to pen innumerable articles, write five books, and host two television shows: Toe Bob's Drive-In Theater and Monster-Vision. His sixth book, Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History! (Universe) was published this year. In "Kroger Babb's Roadshow" (page 30), Briggs celebrates a forgotten B movie pioneer.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2003|
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