The Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) was finally implemented by the Hollywood Studio’s in 1934, after it’s initial false-start in 1930. Under Will H. Mays’ leadership as president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributers of America (MPPDA), which later became the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which sought to determine what “could” and “could not” be shown on screen. The Production Code was divided into two parts, the first part was a set of “general principles” that prohibited a film from “lowering the moral standard of those who see it”, and the second part was a set of “particular applications” which demanded a list of items that could not be depicted on the screen. Although certain restrictions such as a ban on homosexuality and the use of curse words weren’t actually mentioned, they were however assumed to apply as well. The two list’s ordered a number of key points known as the “Dont’s” and “Be Carefuls”. For further information on the Motion Picture Production Code, and the content of the list Click Here.
It is from the period after June 13, 1934, in the “Breen Era” that forced a few filmmakers away from the strict laws governed by the Hollywood studio system and into independent filmmaking to avoid the restrictions imposed by The Production Code. The first directer/producer and self distributer of films to come to prominence in this era, and the first ever exploitation filmmaker was Dwain Esper. From the early 1930’s and up until the 1950’s, Esper became notorious for brandishing his own unique look on societies problems, and making films that managed to avoid the strict laws imposed on the Hollywood Studio’s, and appeal to those with more prurient interests.
Not much is written or known about the man known as “The King Of The Celluloid Gypsies”, and only a few grainy photographs survive, but what is know is that Esper was born in Washington State in 1893 and came from a carnival background of travelling gypsies, working as a sideshow “Barker” who’s job it was to attract and incite the public to the carnival events by announcing and introducing the various attractions on show. After a short career working in real estate, Esper happened by chance to acquire a small film studio and filmmaking equipment on Poverty Row in Hollywood. Along with his devoted wife, creative partner and writer/producer for many of his films Hidegarde Stadie (who also came from a carnival background and raised by an opium addicted uncle), Esper managed to launch a film career that operated outside the confines of the studio system after discovering that it was possible to get an audience to pay for admission fee’s to his films during the Great depression era by delivering a product that was sensational and sleazy in nature.
Esper was considered a bottom-dweller and peddler of lowbrow, sleazy and quite often grotesque films, who managed to cash in on the forbidden desires and taboo’s that had been heavily restricted to the studio system with the Hays Code. Esper started his film career producing a couple of silent era westerns before finding his mark as an auteur of voyeurism with his first feature as co-directer, producer and writer with The Seventh Commandment, made during the pre-code era in 1932. Although sadly the film is lost, the film contained many of the hallmarks associated with future Esper enterprises in filmmaking including the corruption of youth, adultery and abortion. After viewing the film, Production Code Administration chief Joseph Breen declared that it was, without question, the most “thoroughly vile and disgusting” movie that he had ever seen. Also after watching The Seventh Commandment, fellow exploiter Louis S. Sonney became partners with Esper and subsequently financed most of his films. His next film called Narcotic, made in 1933 is a highly eroticised yarn of the dangers of drug addiction, inspired by the real life story of Hildegarde’s opium addicted uncle.
The film Narcotic features at the very beginning of the story a disclaimer scroll known in the movie industry as a Square-Up, which was a common feature in early exploitation films, and is meant as a moralistic warning to the audience that what they are about to view is a concerning tale meant to educate the general public about the dangers of illicit activities such as opium smoking and other vices. this attempt at establishing an educational purpose towards the films appearance, by promoting a message of caution was, however, a complete fabrication, and only used as gimmick to entice the public to watch the film on show. The real intention towards Esper’s endeavours was purely to show graphic content and lurid images to a salacious audience that revelled in immoral behaviour. Narcotic is also unique in Esper’s films as it actually has a plot that you can follow, rather than Esper’s normal disregard for narrative structure and conventional filmmaking.
After Esper’s second effort called Modern Motherhood (1934), he went on to make the truly astounding feature called Maniac (aka Sex Maniac) in 1934, which told the story of an ex-vaudeville impersonator Don Maxwell, on the run from the police, that happens to find himself working as assistant to a mad scientist who steals corpses in order to reanimate the bodies with a serum formulated in the laboratory. After the mad scientist asks Maxwell to kill himself with a gun so he can then use his body for experimentation, Maxwell turns the gun on his employer and kills him. Knowing that people will soon notice the absence of the scientist, Maxwell then uses his acting ability to transform himself into the scientist with a cunning disguise. Maxwell soon starts to impersonate the dead scientist so well that he eventually becomes insane himself, and while accidentally injecting a mental patient with the wrong medication, causing him violent fits, the patients wife soon discovers the body of the dead scientist and starts to blackmail Maxwell over his crime.
Maniac attempts to examine the issue of mental health through it’s presentation of intertitle cards throughout the film describing the sort of mental illnesses which are being depicted on screen from the characters. These are meant to inform the audience with a proper medical explanation of meanings such as “dementia” or “paranoia”, as if watching a dramatic recreation on screen. But truth be told, this is just a ploy by Esper, and a cover to appeal to the lowest common denominator which exists in all of us. Maniac is a good early example of an exploitation movie that is not meant to be taken too seriously, and despite some fairly decent camera work, is just a vehicle for Esper to indulge in his shameful and sordid disregard for moral standards. The film contains a scandalous amount of nudity and gore for it’s time, and is a truly bad movie,and regarded as a cult classic for it’s sleaze and exaggerated acting from the cast. The film was marketed as a horror flick and is very loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat”, with further references to Poe’s “Murders In The Rue Morgue”. For people interested in the history and evolution of the “Horror” genre of exploitation movies, this film is required viewing. Maniac was a complete flop because of it’s subject matter and Esper soon realised that sex, drugs and the corruption of youth were more bankable subjects than mental illness, and stuck to this rigid formula for most of his next films.
The Roadshow Extravaganza. Independent filmmaking was a costly venture so Esper and his wife Hildegarde used there previous skills and knowledge acquired from there carnival background to good use and travelled throughout the country, including catholic dominated New England and the mob ruled Chicago area, usually to small towns or modest sized city’s similar to carnivals (and often as part of a carnival sideshow), and announce their films onto the general public. They were usually seen in a tent outside of town or occasionally rented the use of a theatre for a couple of days. While Esper would direct, produce and exhibit the films, Hildegarde mainly wrote the scripts and kept the censor boards, narrow-minded and puritanical hounds at bay, by trying to maintain that there films had genuine education value. He managed to distribute his films by a way thats now called “four-walling” whereby he and Hildegarde would rent a theatre and do targeted advertising (plastering “adults only” etc on the advertising boards) to create interest while still managing to keep all the ticket receipts instead of splitting them with the theatre.
His screenings were often proceeded with a burlesque performance, featuring whatever woman he could find on short notice. And he narrowly escaped obscenity charges from the law on many occasions, and would sometimes splice risque footage into unrelated film only to remove it again the following night if the cops showed up.
Jungle Fever. Esper’s next effort as producer and co writer only was Forbidden Adventure (aka Forbidden Adventure In Angkor), made in 1935. It was made in a pseudo-documentary style and was supposed to feature authentic footage of a Cambodian temple called Angkor Wat, filmed during an expedition in 1914, including rear-projection slides showing location footage. With an introduction from a narrater at the start of the film proclaiming it’s authenticity, and showing supposedly bare-breasted “natives” being menaced by wild gorilla’s.
This was, of course, completely faked and filmed entirely in the United States, with obvious men in monkey suits, and the women in the film were in actual fact 12 prostitutes hired from the Los Angeles area, and paid $10 in advance. The film managed to play on the exploitation circuit for years, using the nudity of the native women as it’s main “educational” selling point. The original advertising also promised a story of “monkey adoration” which was a clear reference to the subject of beastiality.
Forbidden Adventure was often part of a double bill with a similar film called Forbidden Women, that is apparently a Filipino production, set on an unknown island somewhere in the South Pacific, which in actual fact features American strippers and burlesque performers of the day.
It is also a pre curser to the Italian “Mondo” documentaries that were popular in the 1960’s, which i shall endeavour to discuss in later episodes.
Sex, Drugs and Jazz. Esper managed to follow Forbidden Adventure with a genuine cult classic that rightly deserves it’s place in exploitation cinema’s murky and squalid Hall Of Fame as Most Unintentionally Entertaining Anti-Drug Film Ever Made. After it was purchased by Esper (who then went on to re-edit and insert indecent shots into the film for distribution on the exploitation circuit from the late 1930’s and up until the 1950’s), Reefer Madness aka Tell Your Children (1936) and directed by Louis J. Gasnier. From it’s opening square-up announcing that “The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. Marihuana (sic) is that drug– a violent narcotic– an unspeakable scourge– The Real Public Enemy Number One!” blah blah…. and so it continues with it’s foreboding and fear for the intoxicating effects of smoking the deadly herb upon mankind.
The film revolves around a group of students who are lured by dope dealers into smoking the fatal weed, by a gang of shady characters (introduced as the “cool” kids) holding wild parties, and playing the alluring sounds of jazz music. One of the students succumbs to marijuana addiction after just one puff, and descends into madness and hallucinations. Eventually this leads on to hilarious consequences that involve the unfortunate sinner to be involved in a hit and run incident in his car, manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape and finally to be committed for life to a mental asylum.
This unabashed propaganda film is perhaps the most infamous, disreputable film in American cinematic history. Originally financed by a church group under the title Tell Your Children, it is a truly appalling film (meant in a good way!), and one of the best examples of bad cinema. With some outstandingly inadequate performances from the actors involved, who’s voices are regularly cut short from bad editing or muffled audio sound, plenty of continuity errors, crude special effects and not to mention the preposterous notion that marijuana is such a life-threatening drug to all involved that it is causes all kinds of irrational behaviour in it’s victims is just plain ridiculous and exaggerated to the point of sheer disbelief. The only people that would of taken this message seriously at the time are the right-wing extremists, single-minded bigots and the most repressed of christian youth.
The film was rediscovered in the early 1970’s by the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and attorney Keith Stroup, who saw the funny side and started to show screenings to the students in campus at midnight screenings, sometimes on a double bill with The Beatles Yellow Submarine, where it became an instant hit and gained a legacy for exactly it’s opposite intended effect, and usually watched while stoned.
And since Reefer Madness has now fallen into the public domain, you can now roll yourself a joint, make a nice snack and hold your very own midnight screening for free. Whoop Whoop!!!
As well as showcasing Reefer Madness, Esper also managed to direct and produce his own version of a similar film in 1936, called Marihuana, the Devil’s Weed which tells the story of a young girl who attends a beach party, and becomes embroiled in the murky depths of smoking cannabis. After becoming pregnant and seeing another girl drown while skinny dipping in the ocean, she eventually becomes a major narcotics dealer after her boyfriend is killed, leaving her to fend for herself and the unborn baby.
The implied message in the promotion of all of Esper’s features are that they were made with sincerity, to warn the public from the serious dangers of otherwise forbidden subjects and taboo’s, and in no way made to gain financially. By avoiding the strict censorship from the Production Code Esper still managed to dispense his films to theatres by the normal route and procedure of distribution. His contemporaries have described him as the biggest con man they ever met, and others said that he would routinely swindle his friends and enemies alike, while inviting them all to dinner and charm them into not suing him afterwards. Esper’s buisiness partner Louis Sonney’s son Dan Sonney, who eventually took over his fathers enterprise said he was “the crookedest son of a bitch whoever walked the earth”.
So the Esper family and their entourage went on to spend the next couple of decades travelling around the United States on the road with their winning formula of selling sleaze, trash and sordid sexual innuendo to a public with an insatiable appetite for immoral behaviour and lurid content in their films. With some real gems such as the short How To Undress In Front Of Your Husband (1937) and Sex Madness (1938), which looked at “social diseases” such as syphilis and gonorrhea.
In the 1940’s Esper also managed to buy the rights to Tod Browning’s big budgeted MGM flop and pre-code cult classic Freaks (1932), and toured it throughout the country as an exploitation movie, and without the consent from MGM Studio either.
After the horrors of the Second World War, however, Esper’s films started to dwindle, and suddenly didn’t seem as shocking as they had done previously. Stories about sex and dope smoking wasn’t as disturbing now to an audience accustomed to the barbarity of war. His last film as a directer was a sleazy documentary style film about Fascism and the lives of Hitler (and Mussolini) with some saucy footage of Eva Braun called Will It Happen Again?, aka Hitler’s Strange love Life (1948). He even took a 37 Mercedes on tour, claiming it to be the Fuhrer’s personal automobile. In the same year Esper sold his business to the Sonney family.
Soon afterwards Esper and his wife Hildegarde retired happily to a comfortable life in Los Angeles living as socialites. Dwain Esper died in 1982 aged 89, while Hindegarde Stadie died in 1993 aged 98.