Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Sex Madness (1938)

Sex Madness was one of the movies made by legendary exploitation producer / director / distributor Dwain Esper. The story of the exploitation film-makers and distributors of the 1930s and 1940s is often a lot more interesting than the movies themselves. The introduction of draconian Hollywood self-censorship in the form of the Production Code in the early 30s gave the exploitation mavericks their golden opportunity. So many subjects were now off-limits, but these restrictions didn’t apply to the tiny exploitation producers who were even further down the food chain than the Poverty Row studios. The exploitation producers weren’t members of a later became the MPAA so the Production Code didn’t apply to them.

The exploitation studios focused on any subject matter that was banned by the Production Code. Abortion and prostitution were favourites, but there was an entire genre devoted to venereal diseases. The standard trick was to present these films as educational films performing a important public service, while promoting them as luridly as possible. The actual content was often fairly tame, although in fact most such films existed in multiple versions. Different US states had different censorship laws (until the Supreme Court eventually overthrew the state censorship boards as unconstitutional) and widely differing policies on enforcement. So you’d have a tame version for showing in strict states, a warm version for more lax areas, and a hot version for screening in places where you could get away with it.

The movies were distributed completely outside the established exhibition and distribution system, either on a “states rights” basis where the rights to exhibit in a particular region were sold to an independent distributor, or by roadshowing. Roadshowing, where the movies were literally take in the road and screened in public halls, theatres or even tents, was Dwain Esper’s favoured method. Most of the exploitation distributors had backgrounds in traveling carnivals and sideshows and had an unerring instinct for separating suckers from their money.

Sex Madness is a fairly typical example of the VD genre. The incredibly ramshackle plot follows the fortunes of a rich but naïve young man who is foolish enough to attend a burlesque show, and afterwards goes on to a “house party” where there is plenty of booze and ladies who enjoy showing a fellow a good time. Naturally he contracts a dreaded “social disease.” There’s a parallel story about an innocent country girl who wins a beauty contest and is lured to the big bad city where she soon falls prey to unscrupulous talent agents and loses her virtue and contracts syphilis. She returns home to the country hoping to marry her childhood sweetheart, after spending her money on a quack cure and being assured she is no free of the disease. But of course she isn’t, and tragedy ensues.

I hope I’m not giving the impression that this film has a connected or coherent plot. It jumps all over the place, the editing is jumbled and confused, and the script is excruciating. It also boasts some truly awful acting. Esper may have been a formidable showman, but as a director he was roughly on a par with Ed Wood for technical competence but far less entertaining.

While the clams of such movies to being important educational documents were pure carny hokum, it is worth pointing out that they did at least admit that such things as abortion and venereal diseases existed. So in an age of overwhelming sexual ignorance they may even have served some purpose.

The movie is, fortunately, very short. Like other Esper films it’s fascinating in its true awfulness although it lacks the bizarre touches of Maniac. It’s interesting as a glimpse of a kind of film-making that has now disappeared completely. There are other exploitation movies by other directors dealing with similar “forbidden” subject matter that I would recommend as being a lot more entertaining, such as Party Girl, Slaves in Bondage and Gambling With Souls. But you must see at least one Dwain Esper movie.

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