Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Exploitation Movies: Child Bride (1938)

The late 1930s produced a cornucopia of grindhouse exploitation films (aka "sexploitation" films), often disguised as "educational" movies that were cautionary tales about one social problem or another. Perhaps the most famous of these was Reefer Madness from 1938, mostly famous because it suddenly found a whole new audience in the early 1970s: Hippies who went to see it and get stoned. I watched it at an off-campus "art" theater in Isla Vista CA in an auditorium so filled with pot smoke that you could hardly see the screen. It was also hard to hear the dialogue over the laughter, the cat-calls and the hoots and jeers at the stern lectures and sordid examples of the horrible things marijuana could -- no, would -- do to you.

Among these exploitation films, perhaps the most infamous, the most notorious, was Child Bride, also from 1938, which was ostensibly about the contemporary social horror of grown men marrying girl-children in -- where else? -- the Ozarks:

Great cinema it ain't, and it got its notoriety solely because of a fairly lengthy scene of a precociously-developed 12-year-old girl skinny-dipping at the old swimmin' hole somewhere in the Ozarks while a good-ole-boy older-man voyeur/would-be swain looks on. If she looks vaguely familiar, it's likely because the actress, Shirley Mills, also played Ruthie, the youngest daughter of the Joad family, in The Grapes of Wrath, released the following year.

The film's exploitational taglines for its "educational" posters included the following: "A throbbing drama of shackled youth!" and "Where Lust was called Just!" It also managed to land on  Filmsite's list of the 100 Most Controversial Films of All Time.

That nude swimming scene, BTW, predated by thirty-some years a very similar scene by a teenage Jenny Agutter in the 1971 Australian film Walkabout, which was also controversial because of the tender age of the actress at the time of filming.

Child Bride was able to avoid the restrictive censors of the Hayes Office by being produced and distributed outside the studio system. Because of that nude scene, it was banned in many locales, and that banning, along with the gratuitous prurience of the scene itself, gave it an infamy that has long outlived any merits of the film itself. (Spoiler Alert: There aren't any.)

From the Wikipedia article:
The movie is perhaps best known for the lengthy nude child swimming scene, which Allmovie described as "completely gratuitous" and "obviously Child Bride's main selling point and the reason for its longevity on the exploitation circuit."
The film had been submitted to the Production Code Administration for a certificate of approval, but was denied because of its subject matter, which was said to be "a sexually abhorrent abnormality which violates all moral principles," and because of the onscreen child nudity. The censors also objected to [spoiler alert] the murderer never being punished for his deeds.
In fact, I am honestly kind of surprised, in our modern age of overreaction to anything smacking of so-called "kiddie porn" (an attitude which led to the bare breasts of a young Hawaiian girl being "pan-and-scanned" out of frame in the home video release of the 1966 movie Hawaii) that Child Bride is so readily available for viewing on YouTube and other places on the Internet.

There's another notable "sexploitation" scene in this movie: A young and beautiful "schoolmarm" is yanked from her bed in the middle of the night by a bunch of hood-wearing ruffians and dragged through the woods while wearing a sleek satin nightgown that looks more a product from Sak's Fifth Avenue than Paw Clampett's General Store down in the holler. Unsurprisingly -- shockingly -- it gets torn to shreds during the abduction.

Back in the golden age of exploitation films, people who went to grindhouse theaters, while not true connoisseurs of cinematic art, still were more or less conscious enough to recognize the title if they'd seen a movie before, so it was common for movies to be rapidly re-released under different titles. Reefer Madness originally appeared as Tell Your Children and sometimes was known as The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth and Love Madness. Child Bride was also distributed, at various times, with the titles Child Brides, Child Bride of the Ozarks and the neutral-sounding Dust to Dust.

If you watch it, you'll likely see another familiar face in this movie, and that's Angelo Rossitto (here billed inexplicably as "Don Barrett"). If that name doesn't pop out at you, his filmography will. He was a dwarf whose film career spanned 60 years, including an appearance in Tod Browning's controversial classic Freaks and in the role of Master in the Mel Gibson Road Warrior sequel, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.  What an Italian dwarf was doing in the Ozarks in the first place was never explained...but I guess it didn't need to be.

We live in the Information Age. For good or ill, we have almost instant access to more information than any other people at any time in history. That includes the ability to watch, in the comfort of our own homes, the tawdry spectacle of movies that were originally intended to be quick cash grabbers and then vanish. I can just imagine the final embarrassment that Shirley Mills, who died in 2010 at the age of 83, must have felt when toward the end of her life her movie debut became so widely available.