Sixty-nine years ago—It’s A Wonderful Life still a twinkle in the eye of Frank Capra’s production company; the Second World War nearing its horrific big-bang of an ending; the baby boom just beginning; Kinsey hadn’t yet published his reports; a decade before Masters and Johnson meeting, let alone mating—the biggest sexploitation movie ever strutted out on stage, posing with nothing on but a flimsy, two-faced carnival mask of sunny “education” and scowling “outrage.”
Exploitation flicks, those trashy parents of today’s so-bad-they’re-good-for-laughs cult classics, midnight-madness movie fests, or even your local neighbourhood cinema’s “turkey shoot” series, stayed in the shadows of film history (pre-Wikipedia) until the ’30s church group-financed movie Tell Your Children, aka The Burning Question, was re-released in the ’70s as Reefer Madness. (The decade had begun with sexploitation director Russ Meyers going not just big breasts, as usual, but big box-office with his 20th Century Fox-released Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, co-written with Roger Ebert.)
But Kroger Babb’s Mom and Dad remains, as the 2005 Library of Congress press release noted after the 1945 flick entered the National Film Registry, “The most successful sex-hygiene exploitation film of all time, a low budget but relentlessly promoted, socially significant film, which finished as the third highest grossing film during the 1940s. Time magazine dryly noted that Mom and Dad ‘left only the livestock unaware of the chance to learn the facts of life.'”
Born Howard, Babb renamed himself after the American chain of Kroger grocery stores, one of which he’d worked in while growing up in an Ohio town. Promotion, showmanship and hucksterism would be his garish calling card. (His career and biggest hit are detailed by Mike Quarles in Down and Dirty: Hollywood’s Exploitation Filmmakers and Their Movies and Eric Schaefer in “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!”: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919 – 1959.) In the ’40s, Babb joined a roadshow agency, Cox and Underwood. It bought the rights to pictures considered controversial, often recutting them with medical reels of birth or venereal disease (thus the nickname “clap operas”; such flicks had been shown since WWI) for added sensational value and so they could be deemed “educational,” avoiding production-code censorship.
In Indianapolis, reviewer Mildred Horn—daughter of a policeman; niece of a preacher—was so incensed by the agency’s Child Bride (pretending to educate about the lack of laws against child-marriage, it included a topless shot of a 12-year-old girl) that she vowed to shut its screenings down. Babb convinced her otherwise; they soon ran off together.
Babb and Horn created Hygienic Productions to make Mom and Dad, the mother of all baby-birth films (formula: young girl, waylaid by her own ignorance and unprotected by her neglectful parents, gets pregnant). Like most sex-hygiene pictures, it was meant to fascinate and repulse, Schaefer notes, and was an “uncredited remake of High School Girl (1934).” They got 20 investors, hired super-speedy director William “One Shot” Beaudine; he filmed Horn and Kroger’s script in six days. And then, to stoke both imagined and real interest, intrigue and even outrage (Mom and Dad saw over 400 legal actions brought against it), fuelling the sideshow profits from an ongoing, carnivalesque tour, the promotion began.
In some towns, Babb had the movie screened to community elders and religious leaders for approval (sometimes without the offensive parts). In other towns, Babb hired men to act as preachers, decrying the movie and exhorting people to shun it—with fliers showing the theatre locations and show times. Faked testimonials would appear. Babb had a printing plant churning out thousands of pamphlets, mass-mailed to every place where the flick would soon show. He made sure the phrase “Adults Only” was on the ads, which were, of course, sensational: “Now YOU Can SEE The Motion Picture That DARES DISCUSS and EXPLAIN SEX AS NEVER BEFORE SEEN and HEARD! … NO ONE UNDER HIGH SCHOOL AGE Admitted Unless Accompanied By Parents!! EVERYTHING SHOWN! EVERYTHING EXPLAINED!”
Screenings had to be sex-segregated (further suggesting, though, that they were just too shocking to be seen in mixed company!), kicked off with the national anthem (this scientific picture’s for our national good-ness!), and were paused for an intermission where Elliot Forbes, “America’s foremost hygiene commentator,” would lecture (on “‘THE SECRETS OF SENSIBLE SEX'”). Every Forbes, played by a showman accompanying each print, pitched a $1 booklet about human reproduction, which women dressed as nurses then went through the crowd selling. (In race-segregated theatres, there was an all-black cast; four-time Olympic gold medallist Jesse Owens was hired instead of “Forbes” for some of these venues.) The birth scene, from colour medical footage, was spliced into the second half of the black-and-white movie (there was also footage of a Caesarean and of syphilis victims).
Mom and Dad, with its 300 prints and up to 26 units on the road nation-wide, overseen by six booking agents, played in towns around the country for the next 20 years, even reaching Broadway in 1957, and it was dubbed into nearly 20 languages and shown overseas; it had come a long way from its première in Oklahoma City on January 3, 1945. It had cost about $65 000; it grossed, by one estimate, around $80 million.
A perfect distillation of the sex-hygiene formula, pumped out by the slick hype-machine of Babb, “America’s Fearless Young Showman,” Mom and Dad of course spawned imitators and followers; up here in Canada, for instance, there was Sins of the Fathers (1948). By the ’50s, so many sex-hygiene films were competing for small-town-America screen space that four producers, including Babb, banded together to create a distribution company and ensure they stopped cutting into each other’s profits. But then, once state-sanctioned sex-ed films made it into schools, burlesque films became big, and increasingly urbanized, worldly Americans saw penicillin slash the syphilis rate, the popularity of sex-hygiene movies flagged.
Although it may now seem quaintly nestled into film’s early days of turning a nudity-taboo into body-horror and sex-spectacle, Mom and Dad is instructive and even sadly prescient—of how the popular sense of sex has been so perverted in an Americanized commercial culture gone global. What made Mom and Dad so titillating and shocking were its furtive glimpses at nudity, in the dark of a theatre, through a camera’s peep-hole. Shock (and schlock) were so transformed into titillation by Babb-like promoters that shots of birth became seamy and scandalizing. The mere image of female genitalia was alchemized from a clinical context into the golden-egg sale of … sexxx!!!. And that’s a particularly American way of seeing the naughty in nudity today—from billboards of cleavage to inane controversies about public breast-feeding, 21st-century advertisers, branders and marketers have made it so that shots of skin can, more often than not, be blurred, distorted or simplified into shots of sex.