Bright Lights Film Journal

The Wages of Skin: The Irrepressible Rise of All-American Smut

Linda Lovelace meets the Forty Thieves

Having seen how sixties San Francisco spawned a generation of irreverent young celluloid porn barons — “Before The Green Door” in Bright Lights 57 — we now look at these events from the perspective of exploitation film history.

If proof was needed of the pace of social change in 1960s America, the treatment of sex in the cinema provides a vivid example. Just ten years separate the sunny, funny, nudie-cutie antics of The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) and the advent of hard-core in late 1969.

From topless tease to explicit penetration in a decade — and the Mitchell Brothers, Alex de Renzy and their fellow San Francisco porn pioneers were key players in the final stages of that revolution. But let’s delay the moment of coitus a little longer and place the tumescent transformation in a broader perspective.

The Chief Cook is a 1917 comedy short starring Billy West, a Chaplin imitator who pilfered the Little Tramp’s persona down to the tiniest detail. It also features Oliver Hardy as the heavy. But its main point of interest for our current history is a scene where West spies on a woman taking a bath, her nipples clearly visible over the edge of the tub.

Universal made Traffic in Souls (1913), a lurid tale of prostitution; D. W. Griffith decorated the Babylonian sets in Intolerance (1916) with topless slave girls; and a counterfeit comedian enhanced the appeal of an otherwise unexceptional two-reeler with a flash of voyeuristic titillation.1

So let Ellen Burford’s breasts serve as a reminder that, in its highly competitive, early years, producers weren’t above exploiting risqué spectacle and situations when it came to attracting audiences.

A dozen years later it was a very different situation. The movie moguls had become millionaires, playing for very high stakes, and they needed to prove their respectability to financiers, politicians and other moral guardians. So, in 1930, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA, later the MPAA) created the the “Hays Code,” a list of prohibitions to guarantee that nothing salacious would pollute the screens of America.2

But the big studios’ rejection of their own rude past presented an opportunity for a band of enterprising rogues who would have had trouble scratching a living on Poverty Row, let alone getting past the gates at Metro or Fox.

Selling the Sizzle

They may not have had budgets to match Mayer’s or Thalberg’s, and they certainly didn’t have access to star names, but they did have an unerring instinct for the financial rewards that could be reaped by providing people with a peek of the forbidden.

The “Forty Thieves,” as this first generation of exploitation entrepreneurs came to be nicknamed, knew just how to play upon peoples’ prurient curiosity; how to shock and thrill audiences in equal measure with the promise of depraved stories and indecent spectacles. The Code’s list of prohibitions was their menu for spicing things up.

With lurid titles like Damaged Goods (1937), The Wages of Sin (1938) and Child Bride (1938), their threadbare epics seldom lived up to the ballyhoo. The basic formula was a moral scare story that served as a vehicle for scenes of scantily clad party-goers or, if the audience was “lucky,” footage showing the birth of a baby or VD-ravaged genitals.

For the most part, this loose-knit band of cinematic nomads operated on a roadshow basis. They arrived in a blizzard of publicity, their prints in the trunks of their cars: they rented theatres on a four-wall basis or via some other unorthodox profit share — or even pitched tents when no “hard top” venue was available: and they were gone again before the authorities or audiences knew quite what had hit them.

They made use of existing movie theatres but otherwise their modus operandi was closer to that of a travelling carnival than the streamlined operations the studios had developed. But their ad hoc system proved that the Hays-sanctioned establishment didn’t have a monopoly on the movie business.

One of the last and greatest practitioners of classic exploitation, Kroger Babb, used to promote himself as “America’s fearless young showman.” And those attributes of which Babb boasted — courage to break the older generation’s taboos and show the public what they really wanted, namely “forbidden” spectacle — would make an appropriate battle cry for porn pioneers in years to come.

Classic exploitation continued to exist on a hand-to-mouth basis on the very margins of the film business for more than two decades, but by the end of the 1950s, its practitioners had themselves become the “older generation.” The American public had become more prosperous and more sophisticated and — post-Kinsey — less willing to automatically associate sex with guilt.

What had wowed them in the depression era no longer worked. Films that had played packed shows — with separate screenings for women and girls in the afternoon and men and boys at night — were now booked into triple bills at drive-ins.

Hollywood had encroached on exploitation territory too. In 1955, United Artists threatened to withdraw from the MPAA when it was refused approval for The Man with the Golden Arm, Otto Preminger’s story of drug addiction, leading to a wholesale revision of the dusty list of prohibitions. How could the roadshow men’s shabby offerings compete with Frank Sinatra with a monkey on his back?

Classic exploitation’s last gasp was the nudist camp picture, which had been around since the 1930s but was given a fresh burst of life when, in 1957, the New York Court Of Appeals declared Garden of Eden (1954) to be a legitimate portrayal of an alternative philosophy, resulting in a wave of homegrown and imported odes to the clothes-free lifestyle.

While audiences initially proved willing to sit through endless travelogue filler and endure inane plots and heavy-handed narration extolling the virtues of nudism just to get a look at smiling sun worshippers playing volleyball or basking by the pool, the heavily formulaic nudist camp genre was a cinematic dead end. It did, however, spur Russ Meyer to make The Immoral Mr. Teas.

The Immortal Mr Meyer

Mr. Teas does not have more nudity than a nudist camp film — indeed, it may have less than many of them. But it didn’t try to trump up some sort of justification for the topless girls in the way that classic exploitation would have. They are simply pin-ups — just like the ones Meyer was shooting for Playboy — brought to life, to be ogled by the hip moviegoer with no need for specious excuses.3

In truth, the nudie-cutie genre pioneered by Meyer was almost as limited as nudist camp films were. But Mr. Teas and its scores of imitators proved immensely profitable without attracting too much heat from the authorities, allowing a whole new generation of sexploitation producers to establish themselves with countless slight variations on the cheesecake and cheesy humour formula.4

By 1964, the marketplace had become saturated, so Russ Meyer embarked once more on an innovative course. If Mr. Teas was the cinematic equivalent of a glossy pin-up magazine, Lorna, a brutal tale of backwoods infidelity and rape, shot in moody monochrome, was a sleazy tale from a two-fisted adventure pulp.

Once again, Meyer proved to have an unerring instinct for what the red-blooded American male wanted, and his success encouraged others to experiment. From the mid-sixties onwards the screens of skin palaces were filled with ever rougher roughies and kinkier kinkies, as producers competed to see who could go furthest without falling afoul of the authorities.

Almost all classic exploitation films had been directed by hacks, with little to commend them artistically. But Meyer took pride in every aspect of his productions, achieving a distinctive style and even receiving serious acclaim for Mr. Teas: literary critic Leslie Fiedler discovered in the film a covert social commentary and “imperturbable comedy, with overtones of real pathos.”5

Meyer had demonstrated that “skin flicks” could have a degree of technical flare and even artistic merit. In the decade that followed, sexploitation was to mature even further, attracting a number of filmmakers who wanted to do more than simply fill the screen with bare bodies.

Some were tyro directors using the genre as a step on their way to the big time — Francis Ford Coppola and John G Avildsen6 among them — while others, such as Joe Sarno, were independent filmmakers who sought to explore aspects of sexuality in a far more upfront manner than the mainstream would have allowed.

Sexploitation kept pace with — and even became an integral part of — the sexual revolution. It diversified, catering to audience demographics from urban sophisticates to dirty old men. At one end of the spectrum were Radley Metzger’s exquisite erotic dramas, based on literary sources and filmed in Europe: at the other, American Film Distributors specialised in grimy, monochrome kinkies, shot on shoestring budgets but greatly appreciated by 42nd Street’s s/m connoisseurs.

While the business practices of the Forty Thieves had been almost anarchically individualistic, as the sexploitation industry grew it took on some of the trappings of the mainstream, with an infrastructure of sub-distributors supplying films throughout the States to theatres specializing in adult entertainment, from dusty main street “scratch houses” to the plush, high-profile Pussycat chain.7

Then again, rather than being Hollywood outsiders like their roadshow predecessors,8 several of sexploitation’s biggest operators had worked for the major studios before spotting an opportunity and striking out as independents in the skin sector and, through shrewd business sense, building their own, efficiently organised empires.

David Friedman, who ran Entertainment Ventures Incorporated with Dan Sonney, had worked in publicity for Paramount; Harry Novak, of Boxoffice International, had been in distribution with RKO; even Bob Cresse of Olympic International had been a messenger boy at MGM.

The biggest sexploitation companies produced and distributed their own and other producers’ titles. And — because they were exempt from the 1948 “Paramount decree,” which had forced the major studios to sell off their cinemas — they were even involved in exhibition, premiering films in their own houses to minimise risk and maximise profit.

By 1969, the sexploitation industry had developed to such a degree that it felt the need for the ultimate symbol of respectability, its own trade body, the Adult Film Association of America (AFAA).

Hollywood too had moved with the swinging times. Among 1969’s major releases were: Easy Rider, with Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Toni Basil, and Karen Black tripping out and cavorting naked in a New Orleans cemetery; Women in Love, in which Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestle naked in front of a roaring fire; and Midnight Cowboy, the tale of a male hustler in Manhattan that became the first studio film to be released with the new X rating.9

But possibly the most shocking cinematic upset in the final year of that tumultuous decade was the invitation extended by Twentieth Century Fox to Russ Meyer, the man who had started the sexploitation revolution ten years earlier, to write, produce, and direct a million-dollar movie, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970).

The man dubbed “King Leer” now had his own office on one of Tinsel Town’s most venerable lots. It seemed that sexploitation was on the verge of semi, if not full, respectability. But 350 miles north, in San Francisco, a new, unruly generation was making itself heard.

Sexual Freedom in San Francisco

In 1969, Russ Meyer was 47 and David Friedman was 46. By contrast, Artie Mitchell was 24, his brother Jim just two years older. Alex de Renzy, a relative senior citizen at 34, was still younger than Meyer had been when he made Mr. Teas. They were part of the new generation of “fearless young showmen” who had discovered, in just a couple of years, the vast profits to be made from putting skin on screen.

Compared with Friedman, Novak, Meyer, and sexploitation’s other giants, they were still strictly marginal operators, shooting shorts and featurettes, in 16mm rather than 35mm, for their own, small theatres. Bill Osco, only 22 years old, made regular trips from Los Angeles to the O’Farrell Theatre, to sell beaver loops to the Mitchell Brothers — a quaint echo of the Forty Thieves’ style of operation.

They could never match the slick appearance of Friedman’s and Novak’s costume — or, more accurately, no costume — romps, such as The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (1966 — EVI) and The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet (1969 — BPI), but did production values really sell tickets to sex film audiences?

With a lot less to lose and far more to win, San Francisco’s young turks were able to go further than the middle-aged members of the AFAA. Even though there wasn’t a Production Code laying down prohibitions, the older generation’s self-restraint meant that the situation had echoes of 1934.

In the highly charged, competitive atmosphere of America’s most liberal city, it was inevitable that one of the storefront theatre owners would, sooner or later, break the final taboo and show explicit penetrative sex on their screen.

Nobody seems quite sure who was first. It may have been the Mitchell Brothers, who had graduated from solo girls to couples and simulated sex. Several accounts suggest they eventually decided that, if they were going to be busted for softcore, they might as well go all the way.10

But a pair of documentaries about Denmark’s liberal attitudes to sex and pornography — censorship was abolished there in 1967 for the written word and in 1969 for images — are also strong contenders: Alex de Renzy’s Pornography in Denmark and Sexual Freedom in Denmark, directed by “MC von Hellen.”11

Sexual Freedom in Denmark was a more explicit update of the sex-hygiene formula, even including that old stalwart, the birth of a baby. Meanwhile, de Renzy reshot explicit footage from a Danish porn theatre’s screen for his account of the Sex 69 trade show in Copenhagen, providing him with the defence that he was merely recording actual events.

When Pornography in Denmark premiered in late 1969, such big crowds gathered outside the Screening Room — including couples as well as single men — that even the Mitchell Brothers joined the line to find out what all the fuss was about. De Renzy, whose budget had been just $15,000, was rewarded with $25,000 from the film’s first week, and it went on to make over $2 million.

The explicit documentary was simply the reinvention of an exploitation mainstay, using the time-honoured justification of serious, “socially redeeming” content. But sex no longer had to be associated with shame and VD or even with procreation — in tune with the swinging zeitgeist, this was sex purely as recreation.

It was far too good an idea to be ghettoized in the marginal world of storefront theatres. By Spring 1970, Pornography had been picked up by art-house/exploitation distributor Sherpix12 and not only had been shown in New York but had even been reviewed by New York Times critic Vince Canby.

It started a gold rush as filmmakers and distributors came up with factual subjects that allowed them to rent hard-core to respectable theatres. “White coaters” were celluloid marriage manuals: Man and Wife (1969),13) made in 35mm by Matt Cimber, Jayne Mansfield’s last husband, was a famous early example.

Another popular option was to cut a collection of old stag loops together into a “history” of pornographic cinema: de Renzy’s History of the Blue Movie (1970) is of particular interest because it concludes with examples of his own loops, one of which even shows the Screening Room entrance.

In general, hard-core documentaries required minimal budgets and little imagination to generate disproportionate profits. But it would only be a matter of months before what Variety called, “the long awaited link between the stag loops and conventional theatrical fare” appeared.

The eponymous heroine of Mona, the Virgin Nymph (1970) chastely preserves her maidenhead but is happy to fellate all and sundry. The 16mm feature was produced by Bill Osco who, in a couple of years, had grown from selling solo girl shorts from a suitcase to becoming the “Boy King of LA Porno,” as Variety dubbed him.14

Mona was another acquisition for national distribution by Sherpix and it gave them another hit. One trade review called it “the hard-core equivalent of Birth of a Nation” while Village Voice raved that it possessed “the same combination of fascination and revulsion that characterized La Dolce Vita“: claims that now seem ludicrous but that serve as proof that, in 1970, hard-core’s time had most certainly come.

Inevitably, Mona unleashed a flood of porn films with at least some semblance of a storyline. Many were hour-long one- to three-day wonders, little more than extended loops, but there were a few noteworthy exceptions, among them Electro Sex ’75(1970), the first hard-core film to be advertised in New York’s newspapers; School Girl(1971), directed by De Renzy’s cameraman, Paul Gerber; and Adultery for Fun and Profit (1971), which won the Blue Movie award for best feature at the “Wet Dreams” Festival in Amsterdam.15

“A Guy with Three Penises”

In the second half of 1970, everyone involved in the blossoming business received encouragement for a very unexpected source — the Report of the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography.16

Established by Lyndon Johnson two years earlier to report on the “problem” of the rising tide of filth, the majority of those involved in the exhaustive study found that, in fact, there was no problem, and advised that legislation preventing adults from having access to pornography should be abolished immediately.

It was a major embarrassment for the politicians. President Nixon declared, “I have evaluated that report and categorically reject its morally bankrupt conclusion and major recommendations. So long as I am in the White House, there will be no relaxation of the national effort to control and eliminate smut from our national life.”17

But another, less obvious group was also unhappy to see suggestions of liberalisation — the established sexploitation moguls and the AFAA. Russ Meyer thought hard-core was anti-erotic, claiming that his wife refused to go down on him for weeks after they’d watched Deep Throat. “I personally will never make a hard-core picture. That would be the end of the line.”18

David Friedman’s objections were more business related. Primary among them was the fact that, from the standpoint of the exploitation practitioner, whose basic credo was to promise the audience something which he never fully delivered, hard-core gave away the “final act.”

“I have no respect for any of the people who make ’em … it’s no real challenge,” he told sex film director William Rotsler. “Anybody can find people who are willing to do it on camera — so what? Everything I have seen doesn’t even measure up … to the average 35mm sexploitation picture.”19

Mona, he said, was probably the best he’d witnessed, but even then, “She says to the first guy she meets, ‘I want to suck your cock.’ I don’t care how big a nymph the broad is, it isn’t going to happen that way. Put some mystery to it.”

He went on to argue, “Once the initial shock is over, that [the public] can see it all … they couldn’t care less. Because there is nothing creative or entertaining about it. So I hope and pray that we never have complete freedom.

“It’s the same position I was in in the carnival business — you have a three-legged calf or a two-headed woman or a guy with three penises — yeah, people will pay money to see it. There’s no big trick in doing that. It’s like a geek show. You find some guy that will bite the heads off chickens, you can make money with it!”

All this may sound like the complaints of a middle-aged man who does not care for what the young tearaways are up to, especially when it could present a threat to his own, well-established interests.

The “geek show” remark seems especially ironic, coming from somebody who had learned his trade from that great huckster Kroger Babb and had got his start in exploitation, touring with sex-hygiene pictures and selling slim, facts-of-life tomes during the intermission — at a huge mark-up, naturally — to rubes in the rural “sucker belt.”

And how credible was his assertion that hard-core, however basic in presentation, could only maintain short-term appeal? After all, the same old freak shows had remained a profitable mainstay of the carnival midway for generations.

But look beyond the kvetching and what Friedman’s comments really reveal is how much s/exploitation cinema had developed in its decade of supremacy. It was no longer a second-cousin to the ten-in-one tent show, he seemed to imply, but a quasi-legitimate part of the movie business.

I have never seen Friedman claim that he was making art or ever wanted to. In fact, in recent years he has been generally dismissive about his films per se, instead revelling in their marketing and relishing teasing taglines such as “The Film That Breaks the Law of the Jungle” (Trader Hornee, 1970) and “The First Movie Rated Z” (The Erotic Adventures of Zorro, 1972).

For Friedman, the game of “sell the sizzle, not the steak” was everything. The trailers for his movies are masterly condensations of the very best scenes, swiftly cut and accompanied by tongue-in-cheek, hard-sell narration. They make the features look irresistible even though, almost inevitably, audiences knew they would not — could not — live up to the fervid hype.

But his films themselves are, for the most part, effectively scripted and competently made. Indeed, they had to be because, as even the most cynical old carny knows, you can only fleece the rubes so many times before they get wise and won’t come back.

And if all you give them is bare flesh, you run the risk that the only audiences you’ll attract are the dedicated dirty old men. That might have been sufficient for Times Square’s producers of micro-budget kinkies to get by, but Friedman, Novak, Cresse, Meyer and their peers were aiming higher. The presence of recognisable “real movie” elements elevated their offerings above mere smut, making them acceptable to a far broader section of society.

Sexploitation’s leading players had perfected their act. They had achieved equilibrium. The narrative — the vehicle for the bare skin spectacle — was entertaining enough to keep the audience content when there was no nudity on screen and — while the titillation never went as far as audiences hoped — it was plentiful enough to make up for any cinematic shortcomings.

So these self-made moguls might not have sent audiences away from the theatres feeling totally satiated, but they pleased them well enough to keep them coming back on a regular basis. In fact, the lack of fulfilment may have helped create such habitual customers, always within sight of the promised land but never quite achieving it, always wanting just that bit more. It sounds almost like an addiction.

A star system had even developed, in which, not surprisingly, women like Marsha Jordan and Uschi Digard were most prominent but male players, such as EVI stalwart John Alderman and Forman Shane, a regular in A. C. Stephens offerings, also had a fan base who would no doubt have loved to emulate their heroes’ on-screen sexual exploits.

It takes at least two parties to play a game, and the audience were willing participants, even if they were being ever-so-slightly conned. Subconsciously they must have known that they were not going to be shown everything — the law did not allow that — but they could feel sure that they would not be totally short-changed.

And David Friedman could sleep easily — he not only dealt the cards but also set the rules and even owned a share of the casino. It was a relatively risk-free, regular income if you played as well as he did. As he explained years later, the budget for the average sexploitation film in 1970 was $25,000-$75,000, and if it played the complete California Pussycat chain, it could be expected to earn $100,000. This meant that any bookings elsewhere in the country represented pure profit.20

With both X- and R-rated versions for different markets, Friedman predicted that the harder version of Trader Hornee would gross nearly half a million dollars and the soft version would pick up another quarter million — an impressive return considering its $100,000 budget.21

Catering to a loyal and enthusiastic audience with predictable tastes, using proven patterns of exhibition to cover their financial nut, it was as close to a sure-fire thing as you can find in the entertainment industry. No wonder Richard Zanuck invited Russ Meyer to work at Fox — Hollywood itself could learn from this virtually risk-free money machine.

And no wonder, either, that the AFAA spoke out against the 16mm “heat” merchants, whose seemingly undisciplined activities threatened to destroy that precious balance of narrative and spectacle and break up the big game.

According to the new kids’ rules, as Friedman saw it, the audience would be expected to accept an almost total absence of traditional movie values in exchange for finally getting to see what they had always been promised — a peek at the ultimate taboo. But Friedman did not believe the ultimate taboo could have lasting appeal in the same way the old midway come-on did.

Friedman was also dismissive of hard-core’s primitive business methods. “There are some porno exhibitors who have made some very large scores, yeah. [But] I don’t know of any producers who have.

“First of all, they cannot legitimately distribute their films as we can. The incidence of thievery is so high … The exhibitor buys a print, runs off copies, sells it to all of his friends, and the producer gets about one-tenth of what he is entitled to.”

He broke down the figures: a hard-core film could be made for $2,500 and, providing the producer sold ten to fifteen prints, once lab costs were deducted he could expect a profit of around $10,000. Repeat the process ten times a year and net earnings would be $100,000. “I don’t consider that big money … particularly with the risks involved.”

Regular incomes … risk and reward … money into light but with a 99% guaranteed return. Friedman and his cohorts had a great thing going. But their boat was being rocked and the seas were about to get a whole lot more turbulent.

One Swallow Makes a Summer

Friedman’s lengthy conversation with William Rotsler is incredibly valuable as a “state of the nation” address by one of sexploitation’s foremost practitioners. A reference to one of EVI’s releases indicates that it took place in 1972. But by the time it finally appeared in print in 1973, Friedman may have had even more to say.

For in June 1972, a film appeared that would change everything. It made a household name of a sex performer with an almost freakish ability for fellatio. And it made going to see a porn film not just socially acceptable but “chic.”

To his credit, Friedman spotted its potential: “I think this Deep Throat is going to make some people some money,” he predicted. But even a senior figure in the world of exploitation cinema couldn’t have predicted just how influential it would be.

The story of how hairdresser-turned-director Gerard Damiano and producer Louis “Butchie” Peraino — two classic industry outsiders — made the best-known film in hard-core history and one of the all-time most profitable films of any genre is now well known.22

There are numerous theories as to why Deep Throat was such a phenomenal success and, as with any surprise hit, a big part of the answer is that it was in the right place at the right time. A significant portion of the public had loosened up enough to want to see an explicit film, and Throat ticked all the right boxes.

Linda Lovelace didn’t just have sex but performed a novelty act that could be recounted in breathless tones to friends who hadn’t yet witnessed her prodigious talents. What was David Friedman’s comment about a “three-legged calf or a two-headed woman”?

There are those who argue that the film’s plot, about the heroine’s failure to achieve sexual fulfilment until her clitoris is located — albeit in the vicinity of her larynx — can be read as a feminist fable about a woman’s right to be satisfied, expanding the film’s resonance beyond porn’s traditional male audience.

And the ceaseless efforts of New York’s authorities to shut down the film did no harm for, as every exploitation expert knows, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But there is one aspect that is mentioned less frequently but that I believe must have been of tremendous importance — the use of humour.

From the opening throwaway gag, when Linda’s flatmate dryly asks the man performing cunnilingus on her, “Do you mind if I smoke while you eat?”, it throws out a succession of dirty jokes. Indeed, Harry Reems’ zany doctor character seems to have strayed in from a burlesque skit.

Just as The Immoral Mr. Teas imitated the gags and gals of its era’s men’s magazines, Throat serves up the same combination — it’s just that, by 1972, the laughs were cruder and the sex was full on. But, however deeply Linda swallows, there’s always a sense that it’s not to be taken seriously — witness the hyperbolic montage of fireworks and bells when she finally achieves orgasm.

The humour serves to tame, if not entirely sanitise, the sex and, I suspect, played a huge role in making it safe for even middle-aged Manhattan matrons to go and see what all the fuss was about — and maybe enjoy a mild frisson of shock but never risk being seriously offended, much in the way that audiences had thrilled to the forbidden spectacle of classic exploitation.

Mr. Teas‘ conclusion was that “some men enjoy being sick”: that Teas and his ilk — maybe including his brothers in the audience — are happy to remain unrepentant voyeurs. But Throat ends with Linda finding sexual satisfaction and even the promise of love, not through being a passive spectator — as she is when she walks in on her flatmate receiving oral sex at the start — but through participation. It is a message perfectly in keeping with the “if it feels good, do it” era.

So these two films, apparently radically different in terms of content, are really surprisingly similar in the way that they tell us, with a knowing smile, that sex is to be enjoyed. The differences are simply those of social change, but, in essence, the films are part of the same tradition of s/exploitation cinema.

And this means that the screen’s most famous “sword swallower” is related — via several social seismic shifts and the twists and turns of cinema history — to peeping tom Billy West, spying on a bathing beauty in her bath, some 55 years earlier.

Next issue: Hard-core becomes chic but can its neophyte film makers rise to the occasion?

Works Cited

As with the previous article, two books from the start of the porno-chic age provide contemporary perspectives and valuable insights into soft- and hard-core: Contemporary Erotic Cinema by William Rotsler (New York: Penthouse/Ballantine, 1973); and Sinema by Kenneth Turan and Stephen F Zito (New York: Praeger, 1974).

Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of “Adults Only” Cinema by Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1996) (UK edition published as That’s Sexploitation!! London: Titan Books, 1996) is a highly informative, entertaining, and extremely well illustrated account of the period covered by this article.

“Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!” by Eric Schaefer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999) is exhaustively researched and provides academic analysis of the classic exploitation genre by the leading expert in the field. For a more personal account of the swashbuckling exploits of the roadshow exhibitors as well as the sexploitation generation, I again recommend David F. Friedman’s wonderful autobiography, A Youth in Babylon (New York: Prometheus, 1990).

Two magazine format catalogues published by Something Weird Video, Blue Book (1997) and Blue Book 2: Sloppy Seconds (1999), provide articles on storefront theatres by Eric Schaefer, the Pussycat chain by David Friedman, and various early hard-core sub-genres and starlets. Something Weird Video is a prime source of early exploitation and sexploitation — plus hard-core from the pre-Throat era on DVD-R — directly from the company’s web site.

Finally, the back story to Deep Throat is told in print in The Other Hollywood by Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne (New York: Regan Books, 2005) and on DVD in Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary Inside Deep Throat (2005).

  1. Comedy and cheesecake glamour have frequently been close neighbours. The most obvious example from cinema’s early years, Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties, was racy for the time but still relatively chaste. But West’s production company, King Bee — which only existed from 1917-18 — was a far smaller outfit than Sennett’s companies (first Keystone then, with Ince and Griffith, Triangle, and, by 1917, Mack Sennett Comedies), which may explain why it went that bit further when it came to serving up some sauce. []
  2. Under Will Hays, a former Postmaster General, the Production Code was ineffectual until 1934. In that year, under pressure from religious groups, who threatened to press politicians for greater legislation, Hays’ successor, Joe Breen, increased the list of prohibitions and ensured that, for over two decades, all mainstream films complied with the MPPDA version of what was acceptable, censoring sex more heavily than violence.

    Breen wasn’t the only force keeping the silver screen spotless. Martin Quigley wielded tremendous influence as the publisher of the trade paper Motion Picture Herald. Also, several cities, most notably Baltimore and New York, had powerful censorship boards. And U.S. Customs played a part by confiscating racy imported films, especially during the fifties and early sixties, when “art-house” was synonymous with occasional flashes of bare flesh in nude bathing sequences or a bedroom scenes. []

  3. Mr. Teas is very much like a glossy men’s magazine of its era, a bright and breezy combination of risqué gags and glamorous gals. Its sunny setting, likeable, sad-sack hero, and use of humour — which resembles an American populist take on Tati’s Monsieur Hulot (Les Vacances de M. Hulot, 1953 — one of Teas’ marketing lines was “A Frenchy Comedy for Unashamed Adults!”) — ensure that it never feels sleazy.

    Its final joke seems to state its intention to provide nothing more than unabashed titillation: when Mr. Teas finally visits a female psychiatrist because he has been mentally undressing every attractive woman he meets, he sees her naked too: he’s not cured but, as the narrator explains, “some men just enjoy being sick.” []

  4. Muller and Faris estimate as many as 150 in the three years following Mr. Teas‘ release:Grindhouse, p. 85. []
  5. Show magazine (vol. 1, no. 1), October 1961, quoted in Jimmy McDonough’s Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006). []
  6. Coppola’s contributions to the nudie-cutie genre were The Bellboy and Playgirls and Tonight for Sure (both 1962): Avildsen made the sublimely funny private eye spoof Cry Uncle (1971) for sexploitation distributor Cambist. []
  7. The first Pussycat opened in downtown L.A. in 1967, and the group eventually grew to 45 venues throughout California. They took pride in being clean and well maintained, with good projection and respectable, white-collar audiences. Outside California, the name was appropriated by other exhibitors, such was its association with the best in adult cinema.

    The Pussycats adapted to the coming of hard-core in the early 1970s: Deep Throat played for 56 consecutive weeks on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. But the advent of home video finally killed the chain, despite attempts to introduce video projection to compensate for the fact that 35mm films were no longer being produced. Something Weird Video’s Blue Book, pp. 39-41. []

  8. A couple of roadshow men had tangential links with the mainstream. According to Muller and Faris, J D. Kendis had worked as a tour guide at MGM. And Kroger Babb (right) worked in publicity for a movie theatre chain before embarking on his career in exploitation. []
  9. The MPAA’s new, voluntary rating system had been introduced in 1968 under president Jack Valenti, who had been appointed two years earlier. This introduced the X rating, which not only covered films the association considered to be fit for adults only but also ones that had not been submitted — the so-called “voluntary X.” Sexploitation distributors were quick to see the promotional advantages of having a self-imposed X rating, which not only came to signify taboo content but also conveniently clouded the difference between their own micro-budgeted productions and studio films the MPAA had issued with an X. Hollywood was less than happy about being associated with voluntary X skin flicks too. []
  10. Bottom Feeders, p. 108 says it was a film called Redball, but I can’t trace any other mention of this production: however, there is a quote from Jim Mitchell that seems to support this version of events in The Other Hollywood, p. 84. []
  11. The similarity of the titles sometimes leads to confusion, but they are two, distinct films. It’s extremely likely that “M. C. von Hellen” was actually John Lamb, who had been the first person to put pubic hair on screen in The Raw Ones (1965), a late entry into the nudist camp cycle. []
  12. Louis K. Sher is an unjustly neglected pioneer of exploitation cinema. An exhibitor turned distributor and producer, starting in Columbus, Ohio, he built his Art Theatre Guild into a chain of 54 venues, initially specialising in racy foreign fare.

    He played a major part in defending Louis Malle’s Les Amants (1958) against obscenity charges, all the way to the Supreme Court where, in 1964, Justice Potter Stewart made his famous pronouncement about pornography: “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

    In the sixties Sherpix distributed several key underground films including Warhol/Morrissey’s Flesh AndLonesome Cowboys (both 1968) as well as Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother(1969) and James Bidgood’s shot-on-8mm labour of love, Pink Narcissus (1971) — though Bidgood had his name removed from the film when Sher, who had provided completion funding, took the film away from the director during post-production.

    Another notable Sherpix hit — albeit of rather less artistic intent — was the 3D skin flick The Stewardesses (1969), which broke out of the grindhouse ghetto to play respectable theatres.

    As the hard-core era dawned, Sher had the foresight — not to mention the courage — to buy distribution rights to several sex documentaries and features, bringing them to a far wider audience than they could otherwise have expected.

    Finally, he was almost certainly unique among sexploitation businessmen for gaining a Tony nomination for a 1975 Broadway production of Shenandoah. []

  13. Does the title suggest a degree of caution in the face of possible opposition from conservative moralists? The film may have shown explicit sex, but it was intended for married couples.

    Man and Wife reportedly made $2.5 million in its first year, with engagements in nearly 100 cities and no legal problems. Even Anomalies (1970), a not particularly noteworthy study of “aberrant” sexual practices, apparently returned over $2 million in its first 128 bookings. (The figures are from Sinema, pp. 84 and 93. []

  14. Fellatio was to form the basis of Deep Throat‘s plot two years later and has remained a staple part of porn to this day. Easier to shoot than vaginal sex and arguably more visually rewarding, as it permits the camera to include both face and genitals simultaneously, it is also easier for the man to control his ejaculation this way.

    It is presumed to have an extra “taboo” quality to titillate audiences, though in recent years it has been supplanted by anal sex as the activity that wives and girlfriends supposedly won’t perform, imbuing it with a special fascination for porn film viewers. []

  15. American advertising for the film claimed that it had won the “Grand Prize” but, in fact, the ultimate award went to Bodil Joensen, A Summer Day (1970), a 25-minute documentary about thebestiality film performer, directed by Shinkichi Tajiri and Ole Ege. With exploitation cinema’s traditionally easygoing attitude to the truth, Sherpix promoted their own release. At the following year’s Wet Dreams Festival, the Grand Prize went to School Girl while Mona won an award for best editing. []
  16. A preliminary draft had already been leaked to a Congressional subcommittee, revealing that its findings were plainly not what had been expected. []
  17. October 24, 1970; see here. President Nixon’s tenure in office came to a premature end, before he could rid America of the scourge of skin flicks.

    Ironically, Nixon’s sole appointee to the Commission, lifelong anti-porn campaigner Charles Keating, who declined even to be a signatory to the dissenting minority report, publishing his own hard-line response, was also brought down by scandal when he was sentenced to four years for fraud over the collapse of his Lincoln Savings and Loan business.

    A hard-core documentary, Beyond the Commission’s Report on Obscenity and Pornography,premiered in New York in August 1971. Advertisements stated: “This film covers the full spectrum of sexual experiences. After viewing it you will be given an IBM card to register your reactions … All data will be processed by a computer and the findings will be made available to the commission …” (Screw magazine, no. 127, August 9, 1971). Even a classic exploitation roadshow man would have been proud of the IBM card gimmick, offering the audience the chance to make their views known to the commission (though it had stopped sitting almost a year earlier). []

  18. Unpublished conversation with the author, 1985; and Take One (vol. 5, no. 3), 1976. []
  19. Contemporary Erotic Cinema, pp. 175ff. []
  20. Something Weird Video’s Blue Book, pp. 39-41 []
  21. Contemporary Erotic Cinema, pp. 178-9. []
  22. It’s worth noting that not only Damiano but also Peraino had a genuine dedication to the film business. The director parlayed his breakthrough hit into a career making increasingly ambitious erotic films, while Peraino relocated to Hollywood and used Throat’s profits to establish Bryanston Distributing, which released both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Return of the Dragon(1972: U.S. release 1974), meaning that, in its brief existence — it was active from 1973-75 — it handled two of the key films in the most influential exploitation genres of the 1970s. []