From Poverty Row To Exploitation And Showmanship

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Although the phenomenon of exploitation pictures was as old as cinema itself, the low-budget exploitation films of the 1950s and 1960s represented a drastically different approach to film content from previous forms of exploitation (though this was not the case when it came to questions of advertising and publicity). In previous decades, exploitation films dealt specifically with 'the gratification of forbidden curiosity', more often than not under the pretence of educating the audience.13 Ostracised from the content of films made by the majors, top-rank independents and Poverty Row studios, taboo subjects such as venereal diseases, miscegenation, homosexuality, drug use, sexual relations outside wedlock, abortion and childbirth found their way into a number of films that were made strictly outside the American film industry, distributed through the states rights market and screened at any place a distributor could get (including tents and warehouses that were transformed into exhibition sites overnight). From the first cycle of sex hygiene films in the late 1910s to the classic exploitation pictures of the 1930s such as Cocaine Fiends (O'Connor, 1935), Reefer Madness (Gasnier, 1936) and Assassin of Youth (Clifton, 1937) to the phenomenally successful Mom and Dad (Beaudine, 1945), these types of pictures were never a part of the US film industry.

As a large number of Poverty Row outfits also used the states rights market to distribute their films, they soon realised that they could stir interest for their own films by emulating the outspoken manner in which exploitation films were publicised. For instance, in Chapter 2 we saw how even the bigger Poverty Row studios, like Monogram, made use of exploitation tactics to advertise Women in Bondage (1943), a film with a highly exploitable title that dealt with the enslavement of women in Nazi Germany. The use of exploitation techniques in film distribution quickly paved the way for the emergence of a new brand of exploitation film, which this time was made within the structures of the film industry (though still away from the major powers) and which was not disreputable in the same way that the 1930s exploitation films were. As Steven Broidy, president of Monogram Pictures, proudly announced in 1946: 'We make stories which lend themselves to exploitation. Give us a headline and we can give you a completed picture in sixty days. No major studio can compete with us when we turn them out in a hurry.'14 Indeed, by that time Monogram was doing outstanding business with two low-budget exploitation films, Dillinger (Nosseck, 1945), a film about the famous gangster, and the self-explanatory Black Market Babies (Beaudine, 1945), made by the director of Mom and Dad.

Broidy's description of Monogram's approach to filmmaking gives a clear idea about the main characteristics of this type of exploitation film:

1. it is based on newspaper headlines with a title as outspoken or controversial as the headlines themselves

2. it covers a number of subjects often in the form of exposé that throws light on various forms of illegal activities

3. it promises - but almost never delivers - controversial or titillating visual material

4. it is produced cheaply and quickly while the subject it is set to exploit is still in public discourse (and therefore is still marketable)

Obviously, the success of this type of film depends heavily on its 'exploitation' during the distribution and exhibition stages, which are designed in such a way as to attract maximum public awareness for the lowest possible amount of expenditure on the part of the distributor. The topicality of the subject, trend or fad that most of these films deal with guarantees them a certain amount of publicity (non-paid advertising), and distributors and exhibitors are ready to exploit any available means to attract paying customers, including exaggerated or even outright false advertising about the extent of the presence of controversial elements in the picture. As Mike Ripps, producer of Bayou (Daniels, 1957), a film with the tagline 'Somewhere, a 15-year old girl may be a teenager ... in the Cajun country, she's a woman full-grown! . . . and every Bayou man knows it!' remarked: '[Audiences] don't come to see a picture, they come to see a show.'15 And the distributors of low-budget independent films were in the business of ensuring that the show would be memorable, even if the picture almost never was. From that moment on, the concept of 'showmanship' became of utmost importance for producers, distributors and exhibitors of exploitation films, prompting various players in the low-budget market to adopt it as the modus operandi of their companies (for instance, Steven Broidy christened Monogram 'the showmanship company' while the official slogan of American International Pictures was 'dedicated to showmanship').16

The exploitation picture and the strong showmanship with which it was marketed found the perfect audience in the emerging teenage demographic of the 1950s. The increased visibility of teenagers in public discourse (and in newspaper headlines) made them appropriate material for the subject of a large number of exploitation films. And as those films dealt with issues relevant to teenagers they specifically targeted them as their main audience, often to the point of excluding other potential audiences. Equipped with a new type of picture for a distinct audience demographic, the low-budget independents were ready to shun their Poverty Row image and readily adopt the exploitation label. A new type of exhibition site that specialised in showing exploitation teenpics and in attracting youth audiences completed the picture, the drive-in theatre.

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