Mom and Dad is likely the most successful exploitation movie ever, and it still offers a lesson in the facts of, well, not life but canny American entrepreneurialism, that is, how to get rich from selling sin, skin, and spin.
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January 3, 1945. The killer-wife film noir Double Indemnity is soon to be seven times unlucky at the Academy Awards. It’s A Wonderful Life is still a twinkle in the eye of Frank Capra’s production company Liberty Films. World War II is plummeting toward its horrific big-bang ending. The baby boom is just beginning, Kinsey hasn’t yet published his reports, and it’s a dozen years before Masters and Johnson meet (and mate). So 1945 is just the right time, apparently, for the biggest sexploitation movie ever to strut out on stage, posing with nothing on but a Janus mask of sunny “education” and scowling “outrage.”
Exploitation flicks, those trashy parents of today’s so-bad-they’re-good-for-laughs cult classics and midnight-madness movie festivals, stayed in the shadows of film history (pre-Wikipedia) until the 1970s. That was when the church group-financed movie Tell Your Children, aka The Burning Question (1930), was re-released as Reefer Madness; the overblown don’t-smoke-grass warning became a laugh-fest. (The ’70s, which ushered in blaxploitation, the cannibal boom, Canuxploitation, carsploitation, Nazisploitation, Ozsploitation, and women-in-prison flicks, had begun with sexploitation director Russ Meyer going not just big breasts but big box-office with his 20th Century Fox-released Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, co-written with Roger Ebert.)
But it is Kroger Babb’s Mom and Dad (1945) that remains, as the 2005 Library of Congress’s press release noted after it entered America’s National Film Registry, “The most successful sex-hygiene exploitation film of all time, a low-budget but relentlessly promoted, socially significant film, which finished as the third-highest-grossing film during the 1940s. Time Magazine dryly noted that Mom and Dad ‘left only the livestock unaware of the chance to learn the facts of life.’” Indeed, Mom and Dad is likely the most successful exploitation movie ever, and it still offers a lesson in the facts of, well, not life but canny American entrepreneurialism, that is, how to get rich from selling sin, skin, and spin.
The silver-screen spin-merchant was born Howard Babb, but he rechristened himself after the chain of Kroger grocery stores, one of which Babb had worked in while growing up in an Ohio town. Promotion, showmanship, hucksterism, and repackaging became the four rings of his traveling celluloid circus. In the ’40s, Babb joined a roadshow agency that dealt with those flicks, nicknamed “clap operas,” which had been shown since the 1910s. The agency, one of many “outlaw studios” then operating, as Kenneth Kammeyer notes in A Hypersexual Society: Sexual Discourse, Erotica, and Pornography in America Today, bought the rights to pictures considered controversial, often recutting them with medical reels of birth or venereal disease (hence “clap operas”) for added sensational value and so they could be deemed “educational,” skirting censorship.
Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, reviewer Mildred Horn – daughter of a policeman; niece of a preacher – was incensed by the agency’s Child Bride (pretending to educate about the lack of laws against child marriage, it included a topless shot of a 12-year-old girl) and vowed to stop its screenings. But Babb so convinced her otherwise that they soon ran off together. The couple then created Hygienic Productions and made the mother of all baby-birth films (formula: young girl, waylaid by her own ignorance and unprotected by neglectful parents, gets pregnant). Like most sex hygiene pictures, Mom and Dad was meant to fascinate and repulse, Eric Schaefer explains in “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!” A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959, and it was also an “uncredited remake of High School Girl (1934)” (58), which Babb had already screened on the road after retitling it Dust to Dust (423). For Mom and Dad, Babb and Horn got 20 investors and hired super-speedy director William “One Shot” Beaudine, who promptly filmed Babb and Horn’s script in six days. Then, to stoke the imagined and real interest, intrigue, and furor – Mom and Dad had over 400 legal actions brought against it – that would fuel the sideshow profits from the ongoing, circus-like tour, the promotion began.
In some towns, Babb had the movie screened (sometimes without the offensive bits) to community elders and religious leaders for approval. In other towns, Babb hired men to act as preachers, decrying the movie and exhorting people to shun it . . . but with flyers showing the theatre locations and show times. Faked testimonials would appear. Babb had a printing plant churning out thousands of pamphlets, mass-mailed to every place where the flick would soon show. “Adult Entertainment” or “Adults Only” or the like blazed forth from the ads, which were sensation-mongering: “IT’S POWERFUL, BOLD, SHOCKING! . . . can only be shown only to segregated audiences!” Or: “Now YOU Can SEE The Motion Picture That DARES DISCUSS and EXPLAIN SEX AS NEVER BEFORE SEEN and HEARD! . . . NO ONE UNDER HIGH SCHOOL AGE Admitted Unless Accompanied By Parents!! EVERYTHING SHOWN! EVERYTHING EXPLAINED!”
Screenings had to be sex-segregated (they were just too shocking to be seen in mixed company!), they kicked off with the national anthem (this scientific picture’s for our national good-ness!), and were paused for an intermission where Elliot Forbes, “America’s foremost hygiene commentator,” would lecture (on “THE SECRETS OF SENSIBLE SEX”). Every Forbes, played by a showman, pitched a $1 booklet about human reproduction, which women dressed as nurses went through the crowd selling. In race-segregated theatres, there was an all-black cast, including four-time gold-medalist Jesse Owens, hired instead of a Forbes for some venues. The birth scene, from colour medical footage, was spliced into the second half of the black-and-white movie, and there was also inserted footage of a caesarean section and of syphilis victims.
After its premiere in Oklahoma City on January 3, 1945, Mom and Dad, with its 300 prints and up to 26 units on the road nationwide, overseen by six booking agents, played in towns around the country for the next 20 years (including drive-ins), even reaching Broadway in 1957. It was dubbed into nearly 20 languages and shown overseas. The picture had cost about $65,000 to make but grossed, it’s estimated, between $80 and $100 million, which puts it on the box-office podium for the most-Olympian profits ever made.
A perfect distillation of the sex hygiene-film formula, pumped out by Babb’s slick hype machine, Mom and Dad spawned many imitators and followers; in Canada, for instance, there was Sins of the Fathers (1948), which included footage from the 1941 syphilis-warning short “Know For Sure,” helmed by an uncredited Lewis Milestone (director of the now-classic war film and 1930 Best Picture Oscar-winner All Quiet on the Western Front). By the 1950s, so many sex hygiene flicks competed for small-town America’s screens that four producers, including Babb, banded together to create a distribution company and stop cutting into each other’s profits. But then, as state-sanctioned sex-ed films made it into schools, burlesque films became big, and more urbanized, worldly Americans saw penicillin slash the syphilis rate, the popularity of sex hygiene movies flagged.
Mom and Dad may now seem quaintly nestled into cinema’s early shock-schlock days, when a nudity taboo was turned into body-horror and sex-spectacle. But the brainchild of “America’s Fearless Young Showman” remains instructive and sadly prescient about how the popular sense of sex has been so perverted by an Americanized commercial culture gone global. What made Mom and Dad and its ilk such salacious draws for the public were its furtive glimpses of nudity, in the darkness of a theatre, through a camera’s peephole. Shock and schlock were so transformed into titillation by Babb-like promoters that shots of birth became seamy and scandalizing. The mere image of female genitalia was alchemized from a clinical context into the golden-egg sale of sexxx. And that’s a widely exported American way of seeing the naughty in nudity today (see: softcore Polish kidnap-drama 365 Days ranking among Netflix’s most-watched content in 2020). Advertisers, branders, and marketers have made it so shots of skin can, more often than not, be blurred, distorted, or simplified into shots of sex. Still, now, however much the older generation may grouse and grumble about how steamily explicit TV and movies are getting these days, you can always retort, “Look, Mom and Dad started it!”
“Librarian of Congress Adds 25 Films to National Film Registry.” Library of Congress, 20 Dec. 2005, www.loc.gov/item/prn-05-262/librarian-of-congress-adds-25-films-to-national-film-registry-2/2005-12-20/.
Kammeyer, Kenneth C. W. A Hypersexual Society: Sexual Discourse, Erotica, and Pornography in America Today. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Mom and Dad. Written by Mildred Horn and Kroger Babb, and directed by William Beaudine, Hallmark/Hygienic, 1945.
Quarles, Mike. Down and Dirty: Hollywood’s Exploitation Filmmakers and Their Movies. McFarland, 1993.
Schaefer, Eric. “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!” A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Duke UP, 1999.
“Sins of the Fathers.” [Entry/record for the film and the film itself.] Digital Collections, National Library of Medicine, http://resource.nlm.nih.gov/8700900A.
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All images are screenshots or in the public domain.