"Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!"

by Eric Schaefer

Published by Duke University Press

474 pages, 1999


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Before Sexploitation

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

 

For a book recounting the history of one of American cinema's sleaziest industries -- exploitation films -- "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!" is surprisingly devoid of, well, sleaze. Much like the sensational and garish exploitation film posters, this book's cover (a sleazy yet eloquent collage) and title promise a feast of sex, violence, torture and desperation. Yet, much like the films themselves, the book never delivers the naughty goods.

Despite its 474 well-packed pages, "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!" gives the impression of barely scratching the surface of its subject. This is both a good and a bad thing. Bad because it feels like too many questions were left unanswered. How were actors treated? How were directors chosen? How did casting proceed? What was the atmosphere on the sets? Was there a loyal exploitation audience? The author sometimes draws on personal interviews, yet there's a lack of the kind of anecdote -- from professionals and from audience members -- that would breathe life into the text beyond the wealth of statistical and sociological data. Good because, by providing a great quantity of arcane information, it successfully teases the imagination and convincingly conveys that there is much worth knowing and discovering about this obscure bit of cinematic Americana, much more than even a mammoth tome can reveal.

The book covers what the author calls the classical era of exploitation films: 1919 to 1959. Starting with a wave of "sex hygiene" films -- cautionary pseudo-documentary tales of white American girls getting pregnant out of wedlock and boys catching VD from prostitutes -- and ending with the emergence of the more explicit sexploitation films, like early Russ Meyer productions. The first few chapters contextualizes the topic by defining exploitation film and by describing aspects such as methods of production, distribution, advertising and exhibition and by detailing the history of the censorship of exploitation films -- a pertinent subject that comes up throughout the book. The chapter dealing with modes of production is a great example of the book's lack of juicy sleaze. It describes how exploitation film companies were set up, how they allocated budget (there's a copy of the complete, itemized budget for 1940's Secret of a Model) and details cost-cutting measures such as splicing material from older films into new productions and even shamelessly re-releasing old films with changed titles. But there's barely a hint of "making of"-type anecdotes or the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the people -- directors, actors, technicians -- who were on the sets of these movies.

One major obstacle to satisfying such curiosity is the lack of reliable (and often any) documentation -- a lacuna lamented by the driven and passionate author, Eric Schaefer. For example, there are no known surviving copies of many of the films. Schaefer did a remarkable job of gathering and presenting what little information still survives surrounding these films and the people who made them. The text is occasionally marred by an overindulgence in reiterating information. Considering the book's girth, a bit of trimming in this regard would have been welcome. It is nonetheless an enticing chronicle bursting with obscure facts and data. An appendix contains an exhaustive alphabetical listing of classical exploitation films with brief annotations.

"Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!" presents, with great authority, a rarely seen or discussed dimension of the history of American cinema. It's a weird parallel history where the usual names rarely crop up and where the accepted matrices and conventions for discussing film history no longer apply. Exploitation film is so different from Hollywood cinema -- and from world cinema as it has been shaped by Hollywood's unignorable presence -- that it feels like this book deals with an entirely different medium.

Everyone is familiar with the usual Hollywood genres: dramas, love stories, comedies, thrillers, mysteries, etc. "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!" traces the history of some, by today's standards, highly esoteric genres: sex hygiene, drugs, vice, exotic, atrocity, nudist and burlesque. All of these, at one time or another, drew in large box-office receipts and even sometimes, despite their uniformly lackluster production values, received serious review attention in the newspapers and trade journals. By highlighting the overt and covert attempts by the Hollywood mainstream to marginalize and ban exploitation cinema, Schaefer implicitly invites readers to question the origins of the dominance of the more familiar types of film narratives.

Surprisingly, it's not so much as a piece of film history that the book shines but as a work of American history. By detailing the history of film censorship and self-regulation and by following the development of the various sub-genres of exploitation, Schaefer paints a picture of evolving social mores in the United States from the mid-teens to the early 60s. It is, of course, an ugly picture of sexual repression, puritanical censorship, hypocritical morality, willful bigotry and greed. Exploitation's popularity stemmed from the lure of the forbidden, but its style and confused political message (to which Schaefer devotes much space) were consequences of complex social dynamics, not the least of which was the need to placate censors and public morals by explicitly decrying the very elements (promiscuous sex, drug use) that sold movie tickets. It's when Schaefer discusses the social contexts surrounding the films' production, distribution, and exhibition that the book truly comes alive.

"Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!" may not quite deliver what its cover and title seem to promise, but it does sizzle with the author's passion for his subject. There may be a lack of documentation now, but this book's skillful titillation will no doubt inspire yet more research. Just imagine the sleazy tidbits that could eventually turn up.... | January 2000

 

Claude Lalumière -- a freelance writer, editor and translator -- is the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His book reviews, essays and articles can be found on his Web site.