Good for Nothings
For Eric Schaefer, it all began when he was a masters film student at the University of Texas at Austin in the mid-1980s. One day, he stumbled across a reference to a forgotten movie called Birth of a Baby, which isn't a prequel to Birth of a Nation but a 1938 film by director Al Christie that contains footage of a child's birth. It isn't a long scene--it lasts but a few moments--yet Schaefer was nonetheless astonished to discover that in the 1930s, there were films being screened in theaters in which such graphic, verboten images were flashed before audiences' disbelieving eyes.
After all, Birth of a Baby was made and released beneath the withering shadow of the 1934 production code, created by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which sought to wring immortality and corruption from the movie business. Those were the days of the oppressive Hays Office, of mighty Joe Breen, of forbidden images when any hints of friggin' and fightin' (...these are a few of my favorite things...) were banished from the big screen. Surely, Schaefer figured, footage of a baby being yanked out its mama had to fit somewhere on that checklist of outlawed behavior. C'mon.
"That just seemed counterintuitive to everything I knew about movies in the '30s and '40s with the code and state regulations," Schaefer says. "I began to dig into these movies and found a fairly healthy chunk of movies from the '20s to the '50s were devoted to these taboo subjects, and it piqued my interest and sent me off to find out how these films were made, how they could be shown given the more restrictive attitudes of the times, how they could even thrive in some cases given all the factors aligned against them."
And so the student began down a path that would render him, in 2002, an expert on the subject of illicit movies made in prohibitive times, which sounds like a decent way to pull down a paycheck: Schaefer's an assistant prof of visual and media arts at Boston's Emerson College and author of Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959, published in 1999. This weekend, he's also speaking at the Magnolia Theater, where he will introduce one of his favorite films of that period--1936's Marihuana, The Devil's Weed, which is far superior, whatever that means, to its more famous counterpart Reefer Madness--and three others (Office Girls, Revenge of the Cheerleaders and Disco Godfather) that are being screened because, well, good prints were recently discovered on the shelves in the G. Williams Jones Film and Video Collection at SMU.
Vice! Menace! Outrage! Coed Showers! is hardly a fest of the best; you've seen better film on old yogurt. But when viewed in proper context--or when very, very, very stoned--they're intriguing relics, like something Woody Allen might have been asked to expound upon in Sleeper. Sadly, Marihuana's the only classic of the era being screened; Disco Godfather, starring Rudy Ray "Dolemite" Moore, belongs to the blaxploitation genre--and it's so awful Moore, maker of many truly awful movies, disowns it. That's like Mussolini saying Hitler was a little too mean for his taste.
"For a long time these movies have been seen as goofy party films that are fun because they're laughably bad," Schaefer says. "But you have to realize Marihuana came about because of this push from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to crack down on marijuana, and that it was being motivated by a desire to crack down on illegal Mexican immigrants who were threatening a tight job market during the Depression. When you pull in that context, you see the real fear that inspired something like Marihuana--fear of the unbridled sexuality marijuana supposedly unleashes--the film takes on a lot more interest."
The earliest exploitations trafficked in paranoia; weed would lead down the road to ruin, sex promised only back-alley abortions. The later films offered only tepid, timid porn--soft core that couldn't get a teen-ager hard. Office Girls (better known among collectors and shut-ins as Eros in the Office, released in 1972) is the handiwork of German filmmaker Ernst Hofbauer, who had a prodigious career in the '60s and '70s cranking out "sex reports," fuckfilms woefully masquerading as documentaries. Office Girls plays like 60 Minutes for the 15-minute man: Here, sexual harassment in the workplace translates into women stripping off their clothes and gettin' it on with the nearest male colleague, usually The Boss.
Revenge of the Cheerleaders, released in '76, is a progenitor of Porky's with a handful of differences: random and randomly performed dance numbers (the cast is rendered epileptic), an oddly placed message about morals on the high school campus and repeated sightings of a horny David "Boner" Hasselhoff's lil' knight rider. "I'm sure they'll be packing the theater on that selling point alone," says Schaefer, who will include Revenge in his second book, Massacre of Pleasure, which deals with the exploitation films of the '60s and '70s that were marketed as sex films but couldn't have been bigger turnoffs in the way they depicted female sexuality, marriage and homosexuality.
"They're about pleasure, but more often than not they're killing any potential for pleasure one might find in that subject," Schaefer says. In other words, forget the raincoat, and thank God the Magnolia allows you to bring in booze from its bar.
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