Fantastic author and byNWR favorite KEIR-LA JANISSE digs deep into the pros and cons (well, mainly the cons) of the crazy netherworld of the square-up picture!
Here is a page from the book of life
Here is a page from the Book of Life…The characters are real people who live deep in the heart of Thunderhead Mountain. In dramatizing life among these “back yonder” folk – we aim neither to ridicule nor to defend their mode of living…and if our story will help to abolish Child Marriage – it will have served its purpose. – Child Bride, 1943
Was the purpose of Harry Revier’s exploitation film Child Bride really to see that child marriage was abolished? Of course not. The purpose of the film was to make money off a crowd eager to see the controversial nude scenes of its 12-year old star, or perhaps just to position themselves morally above the film’s subjects, but one thing’s for certain: if there wasn’t a buck to be made off this film, it wouldn’t have been made.
From 1919 to 1959, a sharp divide existed between exploitation films and their mainstream counterparts and one of the exploitation underground’s chief tactics – among an arsenal of sleazy and nefarious tactics – was something called the ‘square-up.’
Though definitions of the square-up vary, for my purposes the square-up refers to an extra-textual device – often at the start of the film, but sometimes in the middle – that alternately took the form of admonitory scrolling text, an introduction by an onscreen expert or an in-person lecturer at screenings themselves – meant to deny a film’s prurient motives and present it as an educational public service. The absurd moralizing tone of these square-ups is pure camp today – full of hyperbolic and accusatory language (this could happen to YOU!) – and the evidence shows that producers likely had more fun crafting the square-ups than making the films themselves.
By disguising exploitation films as educational films, producers could theoretically placate local censors or communities where the pictures would screen. But as we shall see, the square-up became the bane of censors at multiple levels – from the Production Code Administration office of Will Hays and Joseph Breen to the individual state censors – and wreaked havoc on the industry as well as on the public health system, thereby shaking up the establishment on multiple fronts.
Surveying the square-ups thereby becomes a valuable tool for investigating changing social mores, censorship laws, educational reform, public health campaigns and more. They also allow us to see the unlikely interplay between the exploitation film and the educational film – which experienced its own massive explosion as the classical exploitation era ended in the late 1950s and adopted the square-up for its own purposes. In the 1970s, the square-up evolved further into television’s concept of the ‘Very Special Episode,’ and perhaps, in today’s landscape, has been reconfigured as the Trigger Warning. The square-up has had a long road, and its manipulations stand as a testament to the accomplishments of a gang of rogue filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors who rightfully dubbed themselves “The Forty Thieves” – who caused us to question our own social values, the institutions we allow to shape our public policies, and even to question the very concept of education and expertise.
Defining the Square-Up
In the back of his 1990 autobiography A Youth in Babylon: Confessions of a Trash Film King, infamous exploitation producer David F. Friedman lists a glossary of various exploitation-related jargon. In the entry for ‘square-up’ he writes:
Square-Up: To make someone happy, contented; to pave the way for what you’d like to do with whoever calls the shots.
This definition is vague enough to be open to a number of interpretations. However, prior to the publication of A Youth in Babylon, Friedman relayed a more specific definition to journalist David Chute in a 1986 issue of Film Comment; Friedman used the term to refer to a reel of racy material added to the end of a show to pacify thrill-hungry audiences, either because it had been excised from the film itself to secure a production code seal or to accommodate regional censorship laws. Or sometimes just because the film wasn’t actually that salacious and had only been marketed as such through typical exploitation ballyhoo.
“A roadshower gets to town and the cops are there,” says Friedman, “so he just snips out the hot footage…But when the movie was over and the cops left, the guys was up in the booth handing the projectionist a one-reeler…and suddenly – zoom, zam – frontal nudity, tits and ass, everything. It only ran eight or nine minutes, but the audience walked out saying, ‘Boy you should have seen what we just saw.’ That was called the square-up reel. The term comes from the carney or con artists’ phrase ‘squaring a beef.’”
Despite Friedman’s reference to the square-up as a reel of film full of naughty bits to placate the audience who felt the film didn’t deliver on its advertising promise, the most common usage of the term square-up in my lifetime (and the one to which I tend to subscribe) refers to the admonitory text or expert who appears at the beginning of a film to warn of the graphic content audiences are about to see, but to assure its educational value and import in combating social ills (In the documentary That’s Sexploitation!, director Frank Henenlotter referred to this as the films’ “cardboard morality”).
This use of the term seems to stem from academic circles and its validity is thus occasionally refuted in the exploitation fan community. While Poverty Row noir, gangster pictures and even respected studio fare occasionally sported a square-up, the square-up was a staple of the exploitation film, and this constituted its strongest association.
The first use of the term ‘square-up’ to refer to onscreen text that I know of is in film historian/programmer-turned children’s author Kathleen Karr’s essay “The Long Square-up: Exploitation Trends in the Silent Film” which appeared in a 1974 issue of The Journal of Popular Film. Karr joined the American Film Institute as an archivist in 1971, and her research for the AFI’s Catalogue of Feature Films contributed to what the first wave of exploitation preservationists knew about the film prints they were collecting.
Karr’s essay was written at a time of new permissiveness in cinema, as signaled by the popularity and acceptance of films ranging from Last Tango in Paris to Deep Throat. But this also coincided with the theatrical revival of 1934’s Reefer Madness, which drove Karr to investigate what exploitation film precedents existed before the explosion of nudie cuties that followed in the wake of Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959).
Karr traced the square-up to the 1912 film The Evil Art (or) Gambling Exposed, and described this new approach to exploitable topics as “a prefatory moralistic statement of apology for contemplating the discussion of nefarious subjects.” She insists that the square-up was “very much of a protective device and most interestingly foreshadowed the Supreme Court’s 1959 guide-line decision on obscenity (regarding D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover) that in order to be obscene, a work must be ‘utterly without redeeming social importance.’” This remains the barometer of many censor boards worldwide, leaving it up to the producers, distributors and exhibitors to make their case for social importance – which is one reason the square-up became such an important component of the exploitation film.
Eric Schaefer’s Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 is a foundational study of classic exploitation film, and Schaefer remains of its most active authorities (he’s currently working on a follow up, exploring exploitation cinema of the 1960s and 70s). Schaefer uses the term ‘square-up’ interchangeably in his book, differentiated by ‘square-up’ (Karr’s definition) and ‘square-up reels’ (Friedman’s definition), thereby comfortably accommodating both. “Both definitions are valid,” he says. “As I recall I probably first heard the term from David F. Friedman, but he also used it in both ways – in reference to the prefatory scroll and as the reel used to ‘square a beef.’
"I think that the derivation, in both senses, comes from the notion of paying something off a debt or making good on an obligation; you see the term being used that way in the trades back in the teens and twenties. There's a pretty obvious connection with the square-up reel – making good when the audience felt they did not get what they paid for. But I think it also attends to the crawl, in that the filmmakers were attempting to square themselves with communities in which their movies were exhibited by making claims to educational or moral value.” As to whether Karr’s academic definition had a precedent in terms of industry usage at the time, Schaefer maintains that we can’t know for sure. “The problem with a lot of terms is that they may have been used by the people in the business,” he says, “but the business was only sporadically reported on in the trades, and rarely from the point-of-view of the exploitation producers or distributors.”
The Froth and Scum of Humanity: The Marginalization of the Exploitation Film
Early cinema has more in common with the carnival barker-esque tactics of the classic exploiteers than with the aesthetes who claimed cinema as an art form first and a business second; much of early cinema was about creating a spectacle that the lower classes could afford to patronize. Both topics and methods of attracting audiences have much in common with the later roadshow model espoused by Dwain Esper, Kroger Babb and the infamous Forty Thieves of exploitation legend, with films about ‘fallen women,’ alcoholism, drug abuse, white slavery and venereal disease already popular before the start of WWI.
From 1911-1934 the Bureau of Social Hygiene (BSH) supported research and lobbied for public policy on issues related to sex, crime and delinquency. Funded in large part by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., its establishment was prompted by Rockefeller’s experience as a jury member on a white slavery case. In 1913 the first in a series of Rockefeller Reports on prostitution made this particular vice a popular topic for film and theatre alike. Even Universal got in on the act with Traffic in Souls (1913), which claimed to be based directly on the Rockefeller Report. But The Moving Picture World’s critic Louis Reeves was not impressed, saying in an October 1913 editorial that “There is no need of avoiding the truth in some of its repulsive aspects when it must be held up as a torch of enlightenment, but this does not mean that we are justified in opening sewers of filth on the screen for the purpose of drawing the froth and scum of humanity into the picture shows…”
By 1912 when the square-up was first introduced as a stock device, the film industry was striving for respectability, to progress beyond low-rent spectacle, and were perturbed as each new Rockefeller Report just seemed to initiate a fresh wave of vice pictures. This combined with the proliferation of post-WWI social hygiene films prompted the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI) to issue a 1919 resolution aimed at eradicating the sex hygiene film altogether. As Eric Schaefer points out, this attempt (and others) by Hollywood to police movie content led the major studios to increasingly veer away from taboo subjects, which in turn led to the establishment of a separate but parallel industry of exploitation films.
As Dave Friedman has mentioned in his autobiography and elsewhere, exploitation producers and distributors were not subject to the same financial constraints, nor reputational threats as their Hollywood counterparts. Where Hollywood increasingly aimed to have film taken seriously as an art form, the exploitation producers were businessmen above all else, and didn’t seek approval from the industry’s collective self-censorship machinery. With several states threatening to support proposals for federal censorship laws, the Hollywood establishment saw self-censorship as their only hope, and created an association called the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) under the leadership of Will Hays in 1922 to combat this, as well as adopting a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” in 1927 – topics and situations that Hollywood filmmakers should avoid if they wanted to keep motion pictures free from censorship by local bureaucracies.
The items on this list became the almost exclusive territory of the exploitation filmmakers – who for the most part did not value membership in the MPPDA – as a direct response to the restrictions their Hollywood counterparts faced. These topics provided the spectacle exploitation producers relied on for commercial viability, and interestingly, as Schaefer points out, these topics were almost invariably focused on the marginalized or ‘Other.’ This focus on the ‘Other’ as protagonist was one of the things that would continue to differentiate exploitation films from their mainstream counterparts as the decades wore on.
Smaller and more remote theatres were often overlooked by the major studios, which led to them to rely on exploitation distributors to stay afloat. With independent theatres available to four-wall, exploiteers could control the experience of their own films. “In the 1930s and 40s,” explains Schaefer, “the majors only controlled around 3,000 theaters give or take. But there were anywhere from 15,000 to 17,000 theaters in the U.S. Of course you would have to subtract the theaters in states with strict censorship like New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and such. But that still left a huge number of independent or ‘unaffiliated’ theaters for the exploitation films to play in.” Their relationships with the independent cinema owners also allowed them to create outlandish ad campaigns for the cinema frontage, promising all manner of lurid material and “added-value” gimmicks that would stop passersby in their tracks.
Instead of minding the rules laid down by the MPPDA, the exploiteers independently devised tactics to evade the consternation of local censor boards and authorities, one of which was the square-up. “The square-up points to the tension between education and titillation within exploitation,” said Schaefer in Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!, “Occupying this liminal space – controversial without being strictly illegal, but far from conventional – exploitation required explanation and justification.” The square-up always implied that the topic to be addressed was a real social problem, one that could only be eradicated via its candid exposure on the screen.
The exploitation producers and distributors were experienced showmen and hucksters, and they would appeal to the censors with the same phony zeal that they would utilize in the square-ups themselves, emphatically assuring that their films were made out of public concern. “Some producers and distributors evidently would do screenings of their films for the local burghers to get their approval before playing a picture in a particular town or city,” says Schaefer. “Sometimes the strategy worked, sometimes it did not. The MPPDA and elements of the mainstream industry always seemed surprised when one of the films was given a ‘seal of approval’ by church groups or law enforcement because they worked so tirelessly to discredit the films.”
The Hollywood establishment adopted the stance that the movie theatre was a place for entertainment, not education, which made the square-up a point of contention. Critics, too, thought there should be a distinction between theatrical films and educationals. Of Warner Brothers’ VD melodrama Open Your Eyes (1919), trade paper Wid’s Daily said in a July 1919 editorial that there was, “no reason for turning a theatre into a medical clinic and asking the audience to sit through two hours of sample cases illustrating the probable results of promiscuous living...”
Although the ‘legit’ Hollywood industry and the exploitation underground were firmly divided, and the educational film divided further still, there was the occasional crossover, with the exploiteers usually steering any transgression of these boundaries. Dwain Esper (1894-1982) was a World War I vet and former building contractor who started working in the film business in the 1920s, quickly finding his niche in the exploitation world. Esper was a key figure in manipulating the boundary between education/exploitation/Hollywood pictures; he was the pioneer who turned a church film called Tell Your Children (1936) into Reefer Madness, and turned Tod Browning’s Freaks from a studio flop into a roadshow sensation. This was the essential quality of any exploiteer – knowing how to exploit opportunities, as much as audiences and subject matter.
Citing Marijuana has “a violent narcotic – an unspeakable scourge – The Real Public Enemy Number One!,” the square-up of Reefer Madness attempted to describe the effect of the drug on the human brain, including “dangerous hallucinations – space expands – time slows down, almost stand still…fixed ideas come next, conjuring up monstrous extravagances…ending often in incurable insanity.” But above all, like most square-ups, it was a call to action, proclaiming that if the film made you think, made you realize something had to be done, then it “will not have failed in its purpose.”
Reefer Madness wasn’t Esper’s sole foray into to the drugsploitation realm; two of the other most infamous drug films of the classical exploitation era – Narcotic (1933) and Marihuana (1936) – were also Esper productions, and both written by his wife and partner-in-crime, Hildegarde Stadie. Narcotic claimed to be the true story of quack doctor and opium addict William G. Davies and after a brief square-up, begins with a suicide note addressed to Esper himself. Marijuana likewise begins with a square-up, this time pointing the finger at “Asiatic countries” who apparently struggle with rampant addiction due to a lack of education – which this film of course aims to rectify.
What the square-up promised was truth and insight necessary to arm the viewer against the dangerous mistakes of ignorance. While stories of vice were the square-up’s primary fodder, they also could be used on horror films, to justify on-screen violence. The square-up for Freaks – added by Dwain Esper when he licensed the film for the roadshow circuit from MGM in the late 1940s – emphasized the “code of the freaks,” thereby not only preparing the audience for the physical abnormalities on display in previously unseen minute detail, but also the social and psychological implications of their ‘Otherness’ (David F. Friedman even recalls Esper throwing on a “square-up reel” in the middle of a Freaks screening in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1949, a nudist short meant to pacify the near-riot that resulted from Freaks not having any “pickles and beavers,” as Friedman would put it).
But it was Esper’s Maniac (1934) – despite being a loose adaptation of Poe’s The Black Cat – whose square-up promised a case study of a psychopath informed by real studies of convicted criminals, thereby rendering its run-of-the-mill horror narrative somehow educational. Like Freaks, the square-up for Maniac insisted that violence was a reaction to external factors, in this case the oppressive grip of fear, “a psychic disease which is highly contagious and extraordinarily infectious.” The call to action in this particular square-up is bizarre, insisting that “it becomes the duty of every sane man and woman to establish quarantine against fear.”
‘White-Coaters’: The Medicalization of Exploitation
But where the square-up really found its foothold was in the sex hygiene film, which from the 1930s through the 1950s were the bread and butter of the exploitation film world. Though it would be in the aftermath of WWII that the sex hygiene film experienced its second major resurgence (its first being in the wake of WWI as soldier boys came home having contracted venereal diseases overseas), the 1930s had their share of controversial social hygiene films with square-ups – Guilty Parents (1933), High School Girl, Sex Madness, Road to Ruin and Tomorrow’s Children (all 1934), among them. “Here we see the insidious effect of syphilis on one dainty finger,” proclaims the doctor in Sex Madness. “Hands that rocked the cradle, now pleading for humanity’s help.”
Edgar G. Ulmer’s Damaged Lives (1933) – a morality tale about a man who contracts syphilis via a one-night indiscretion and passes it onto his wife, and by extension their unborn child – was co-produced by the Canadian Social Health Council and Columbia Pictures (under the name Weldon Pictures to optically maintain Hollywood’s boycott of sex hygiene pictures). Damaged Lives did not feature a textual square-up but was accompanied by a filmed lecture on its second release in 1937 to appease local censors, who had originally banned it in many towns before the American Social Hygiene Association lobbied on behalf of the film.
This lecture by a stiff, mustachioed doctor (there is no identification of the doctor on the surviving print, which is currently being restored by UCLA Film and Television Archive) is intercut with rudimentary pencil drawings of a woman’s reproductive system while he narrates the process of fertilization and pregnancy, eventually transitioning to footage of people suffering from gonorrhea and syphilis that mirror similar sequences in the film itself. Through all of this the emphasis is on the danger posed by the syphilitic mother, even though in the case of Damaged Lives it is the husband’s indiscretion that brings the disease to his family.
“The notion that one’s sexual dishonor and history can be worn on the body like a scarlet letter or a withered limb,” says Felicia Feaster in her essay “The Woman on the Table,” “is a powerful reminder of the folk traditions which posited that maternal shock and experience was often registered in the infant body.” It is most often maternal impurity that is equated with deformity. As such, the sex hygiene film would typically court female audiences as much as male ones – in this case the historical pressure on the woman to be responsible for such things working in the exploiteers’ favor.
Dwain Esper formed his company Roadshow Attractions in 1934 to distribute his films independently, beginning with Modern Motherhood, an early example of what would become a staple of the sex hygiene film: real birth-of-a-baby footage. The film also featured a “dynamic sex lecture” that was “fearlessly told” by one Mrs. Kay Burke, who would also be on hand to sell the 150-page book Your Sex Questions Answered, written by Esper’s wife Hildegarde, whose tiny typeface covered everything from how early to talk to your kids and about the birds and bees to whether homosexuals are always effeminate (the book is remarkably accepting on this front for its time), complete with an extensive glossary.
Esper had a host of sex hygiene films he would tour accompanied by lectures – Sins of Love (aka Test Tube Babies) and Male and Female among them – and this book was later retitled Facts of Life, peddled by one “Ruby Lee Griffin” at screenings through the late 1940s. The female authorship and presentation of these books speaks to how much these square-up devices were genuinely used to make the films more palatable to general audiences, including women, which is evidenced also in surviving photographs and documentation.
It also speaks to an interesting component of the sexploitation film: namely, sex films that weren’t sexy, and didn’t event present themselves as sexy, even though in subsequent film studies they are still almost exclusively discussed under the heading of sexploitation. But it’s important to remember that the exploiteers weren’t in the business of selling sex pictures, they were in the business of film exhibition, and had no loyalty to genre or subject matter; they would do whatever made money, and ham it up to the max in the process.
As for who Kay Burke and Ruby Lee Griffin were meant to be, or what their credentials were for providing such lectures is unclear. But that these vague credentials were entirely fictional is pretty certain, and sometimes Esper would be called out on it. In one such case the Mutual Broadcasting System sent him a cease and desist letter for claiming that one of his experts had a show on their network, which was wholly untrue. Not that he was remotely deterred. As David F. Friedman said of Esper, he was the king of the gypsies, with “the balls of a life-size bronze stallion.”
The opening square-up of Sins of Love aka Test Tube Babies claimed that its medical and technical data had been approved and supervised by The National Research Foundation for Fertility Incorporated in Long Island, but this name smacks of a put-on. This film, lobbying for artificial insemination, has the most epic square-up I’ve seen, again stressing universality, necessity and truth, and describes a couple in a rocky marriage: “some unseen driving force is slowly and surely destroying their lifetime of Heaven on Earth…Neither realizes that Motherhood is the only link necessary to sustain their love…” Whether the film is convincing in its mandate to promote artificial insemination is uncertain, but it does feature a terrific catfight.
Many of these screenings were segregated into “Men Only” and “Women Only” screenings, a gimmick of the roadshows that was well established by the 1940s but had actually been prompted by a comment made by a journalist for Wid’s Daily in a 1919 editorial, suggesting that sex hygiene pics should be shown on a ‘special performance’ basis with gender-segregated audiences. This subsequently became a favored marketing tactic of the exploiteers and sometimes even came to be required by local censor boards, thereby playing into the exploiteers’ hands. With the Hollywood establishment also trying to distance themselves from sex hygiene films, they were foiled by a huge campaign by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s new surgeon general in 1936 to combat the spread of venereal disease through greater educational efforts, thereby validating the efforts of the exploitation producers and neutering the establishment’s efforts to discredit them. It was directly because of this campaign that Damaged Lives was re-released in theatres.
But the most famous of the post-WWII sex hygiene films was Mom and Dad (1945), which toured around in roadshow format, shepherded by infamous exploiteer Kroger Babb and appealing to a mainstream middle class audience that was unprecedented at the time.Eric Schaefer cites the square-up for Mom and Dad as his personal favorite. “They are all pretty absurd,” he says, “moralizing and self-righteous. Many are atrociously written. But I've always liked the ones such as Mom and Dad's square-up. Part of it reads:
“Ignorance is sin – knowledge is power.
“In the modern world youth is entitled to knowledge of hygiene – a complete understanding of the facts of life.
“Boys and girls of today aren't bad! But millions of them are becoming sexual delinquents and victims of venereal disease, simply because they do not know the full truth about these subjects.
“This problem is a challenge to every Mom and Dad.
“If our story points the way to a commonsense solution. . . and saves one girl from unwed motherhood. . . or one boy from the ravages of social diseases. . . it will have been well told!
“I'm a sucker for the ones that say that evoke the one boy or girl who might be saved from x or y or z -- and how the filmmakers will have succeeded if that's the case. (One girl or boy doesn't seem like a very good return on the investment.) . . . . Anyway, that was a rather common rhetorical strategy in square-ups.”
David F. Friedman was in the Signal Corps while in the Army during WWII, which is where he got a taste for film production, exhibition and distribution, but it was through Babb that he got his start in the exploitation film world, who at the time was already touring with Mom and Dad. The film would typically be stopped at the midway point to allow for an in-person lecture from “Eminent Hygiene Specialist Elliott Forbes,” who would, as with Esper’s roadshows, sell sex education books at the screenings – one for the mothers (Mother and Daughter) and one for the fathers (Father and Son). According to Frank Henenlotter in the documentary That’s Sexploitation! other Babb-distributed books were The Art of Love and Secrets of Sensible Sex, the latter supposedly authored by Elliott Forbes.
Since Forbes was neither a real doctor nor even the same person from town to town – in one such case he was found to be a local traffic cop who knew nothing whatsoever about the topic – these presentations and accompanying books spread a fair amount of misinformation.
“Although much of the material was supposedly taken from public health pamphlets, most of the information on venereal disease in the company’s literature was either out of date or mistaken,” says Suzanne White in her 1988 essay on the film for The Bulletin of the History of Medicine. “The promotion creatively confused symptoms of gonorrhea and syphilis as well as the treatments for each, effectively undermining the longstanding efforts of the government, especially the Public Health Service and the Armed Forces to encourage early treatment for venereal diseases.”
As a direct response to the success of Mom and Dad, the Public Health Service was forced to rigorously expand its own VD education campaign. Most notably writing about the benefits of penicillin – only then recently being used to treat infections – which is not mentioned in the circulating booklets as its effectiveness in treating venereal disease would have undermined the abstinence-based moral message of the film.
The promotional blitzkrieg and record-breaking numbers of Mom and Dad (which continued to play well into the 1970s) caused birth-of-a-baby footage to become a staple in many exploitation pictures that followed. In Albert H. Kelley’s Street Corner (1948), a teenage girl has premarital sex, and before she and her beau can wed, he is killed in a car accident. To avoid having to shame her family she gets a cheap back-alley abortion whose complications nearly kill her. Not only does the film feature an opening text square-up that emphasizes the universality of the girl’s plight, but her doctor’s weekly sex-ed lecture allows for a film-within-the-film that depicts vaginal and cesarean birth footage as well as VD footage for good measure.
Similarly Ida Lupino’s The Wrong Rut (aka Not Wanted) of the following year is about a young woman who gets knocked up by a moody jazz pianist who dumps her, and her trauma over giving the baby up for adoption causes her to disassociate and kidnap a stranger’s child. While it also features the requisite silent childbirth footage spliced in from some secondary source, it’s actually a beautifully shot, atmospheric and stylish film.
“In mid-century America there were tons of suppliers of educational films, including some that specialized in medical footage,” says Bret Wood, co-author of Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film, as to where all this dodgy medical footage was coming from. “It was a booming market so there were lots of catalogs covering a wide range of topics, including surgery, birth, and venereal diseases.” Educational Film Guides existed as early as the 1920s and remain the primary documentation for what was being taught in classes to what age groups and demographics, and it’s likely through these catalogues that that the exploiteers acquired their secondary footage (whether or not the Educational Film Library knew this footage was being repurposed in an exploitation film is another matter…)
As to how and why the sex hygiene film experienced the popularity in the 1940s that it did, Felicia Feaster has argued that “Informed by a mix of eugenics and the medical community’s evolving perception and control of the body, exploitation films use these scientific tracts to at once define and legitimize the presentation of the female body, providing a vision of woman as inert text, as a performative sickness who gives herself over to the detached gaze of the camera and audience.” Supporting this claim is the fact that these films coincided with the Paranoid Woman’s film of the 1940s, which also privileged medical discourse around women’s physical and mental health, and where heroic doctor characters were positioned as the keepers of valuable knowledge that could liberate their female counterparts from their own folly and/or inner torment. In the hygiene film the doctor was both a diagetic and non-diagetic character who addressed the audience directly, either in the onscreen square-up or in person at screenings to add extra legitimacy to the film’s graphic content. Despite the fact that sex hygiene films were clearly ‘not sexy,’ this kind of clinical exploitation, Feaster argues, trains the viewer to look at the female body as ‘parts,’ prefiguring the fetishistic look of later pornography.
Don’t Eat the Messenger: Ethnographic Exploitation
The ethnographic exploitation film – namely those that positioned themselves as field studies in marginalized or distant cultures – was a unique brand of the documentary notable for its sensationalism or lack of sensitivity in depicting those cultures, either through the filmmaking itself, or its subsequent marketing. Many of these have crossover with sexploitation – the 1930s nudist films, the Mondo films that proliferated in the 1960s and 70s and the late 1960s/early 70s “instructional” pornographic film whose educational airs paved the way for the widespread acceptance and legalization of pornography – while others found their more direct ancestor in the colonialist adventure film.
In the early 1930s, the nudist movement was on the rise in America following the publication of Maurice Parmelee’s Nudism in Modern Life in 1931 and the establishment of the first American nudist colony, Sky Farm, the following year in New Jersey. The movement soon spread nationwide and the press was eager to cover it, as the accompanying images – which were deemed to not be obscene on the basis of cultural discrimination – brought newspaper sales back up for the first time since the dawn of the Depression in 1929.
With the nudist movement came the nudist films, which quickly became fodder for the exploitation circuit and faced significantly more scrutiny from local censor boards than their still-image counterparts in the dailies. But the independent exhibitors were undeterred. The most popular of these was Bryan Foy’s short narrative feature Elysia: Valley of the Nudes (1933), shot at the now-defunct California nudist camp Elysian Fields.
Though not host to a traditional square-up, it does begin with a lecture round the campfire by the camp’s actual founder Hobart Glassey, wherein new arrivals to the camp are warned of the "morbid, unhealthy ideas about sex and the human body” that nudism combats. At several points Glassey does look straight at the camera, thereby addressing the audience as though we are around the campfire with them. The square-up of the documentary This Nude World (1933) aka This Naked Age, which claims “one hundred percent authenticity” in its depiction of nudism in America, France and Germany even references a Walt Whitman poem in its defense of the Naturalist zeitgeist.
A host of subsequent nudist documentary shorts – Why Nudism (1933), Ten Days in a Nudist Camp (1935), Nude Ranch (1940) – became roadshow filler that could easily act as square-up reels in a pinch. Expose of the Nudist Racket (1938), a ten minute short distributed on the roadshow circuit by Dwain Esper (incorrectly billed on the marquee in the attached picture as “Nudist Racket Exposed”) features a humorous rhyming square-up that both serves the required admonitory purpose and calls attention to its own artifice through self-congratulatory witticism.
Brian Hoffman, author of Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism, notes that the nudist movement was in part inspired by “the public’s fascination with cultural primitivism, as evidenced by the popularity of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes books and the curiosity generated by the discovery of Ishi, ‘the last wild Indian’.” Fitting into this cultural preoccupation were jungle documentaries such as explorers Martin and Osa Johnson’s Cannibals of the South Seas (1918) and Headhunters of the South Seas (1922), Universal’s Shipwrecked Among Cannibals (1920), which sensationalized headhunting practices in Indonesia, and Gow the Killer (1928), re-released as Cannibal Island in 1931.
“Man has come down through the dark ages by progressive intellectual development finally reaching our present-day civilization and the wonders of this scientific age,” asserts the square-up of Gow the Killer. “But time stood still in a part of our world known only to a few intrepid explorers. A part of the world were the natives still live in the dark stone age when man was a creature to be killed and eaten like the animals with which he lived…It is to our courageous cameramen that we dedicate these pictures – the last ever to be made of the world’s most vicious people.”
Notably, Gow the Killer’s cinematographer was Merian C. Cooper, who also co-wrote the 1924 book The Sea Gypsy with explorer Edward A. Salisbury and would later utilize this combined experience in devising the jungle backdrop of Skull Island for his film King Kong (1933), made with fellow Gow alum Ernest B. Schoedsack.
As Ian Olney wrote in his book Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture, “the specter of the non-white cannibal served as a justification for the annexation and colonization of Other(ed) lands and bodies.” The narrative formula of the white explorer venturing into the jungle and witnessing ancient savage practices and rituals was a staple of the classic Hollywood jungle film from Trader Horn (1931 – David F. Friedman would later riff on it with Trader Hornee in 1970) to Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (1966) and later this was transposed onto the Mondo film.
The Mondo film explosion of the 1960s was preceded by almost a decade by William Treutle’s Karamoja! (1955), which has no square-up, but the narration throughout conveys the same sentiment – that these people are frozen in time, customs preserved from thousands of years ago, being witnessed and documented by civilized man for the first time.
But the Mondo film boom began in earnest with Mondo Cane (1962), which begins with a square-up, typed onscreen and simultaneously read aloud by a narrator for maximum effect: “All the scenes you will see in this film are true and are taken only from life. If often they are shocking, it is because there are many shocking things in this world. Besides, the duty of the chronicler is not to sweeten the truth, but to report it objectively.”
It would be the first of several mondo films by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, its gruesome follow up Africa Addio (1966) featuring a bizarre and sadistic square-up that both reveals its filmmakers as participants in the devastation of the continent (though it is referring to colonial forces in general, Jacopetti was in fact arrested and later acquitted on charges of murder pertaining to an onscreen execution) and simultaneously dismisses their responsibility:
“Africa of the great explorers, the huge land of hunting and adventures adored by entire generations of children, has disappeared. To that age-old Africa, swept away and destroyed by the tremendous speed of progress, we have said farewell. The devastation, the slaughters we have assisted, belong to a new Africa… one which – if it emerges from its ruins to be more modern, more rational, more functional, more conscious – will be unrecognizable.
“On the other hand the world is racing toward better times. The new America rose from the ashes of a few white men, the redskins, and the bones of millions of buffalo. The new, carved up Africa will rise again upon the tombs of a few white men, millions of black men, and upon those immense graveyards that were once its game reserves. The endeavor is so modern and so recent that there is no room to discuss it at the moral level. The purpose of this film is only to bid farewell to the old Africa that is dying, and entrust to history the documentation of its agony.”
The Square-Up Winds Down
Any manner of exotic or marginalized lifestyle was fuel for the exploitation film. Christine Jorgensen’s groundbreaking and headline-bursting sex reassignment surgery in 1951 opened the floodgates for a slew of films, books and magazines attempting to discuss trans identity with varying degrees of success and/or sensitivity. Among the most sympathetic portrayals of a gender non-conformist to follow in the wake of the Jorgensen case not surprisingly is Ed Wood, Jr. in his film Glen or Glenda? (1953), whose square-up assures authenticity and calls for tolerance in dealing with the film’s “strange and curious subject.”
The square-up for Bob Clark’s She-Man: A Story of Fixation (1968) aims for sensitivity but has a hard time balancing it with the film’s pulpy tone and structure. But it is at least delivered by a real doctor – albeit one with mob ties who found himself peripherally connected to a Cuban arms deal that became a part of the Kennedy Assassination investigation.
Though it wouldn’t come until long after the collapse of the ‘classical’ exploitation era, Doris Wishman’s infamous Let Me Die a Woman – originally released as Adam or Eve in 1971 but recut and rereleased under its new name in 1978 – warrants a mention here. After a brief introduction depicting the daily ablutions of one of her subjects, the film features a square-up by Dr. Leo Wollman who – despite the fact that he looks like someone’s square dad stumbling through all his lines – was known for his lifelong work medically and psychologically aiding transsexuals with their transitions, and had worked with Harry Benjamin, the medical advisor for Christine Jorgensen’s own vaginoplasty. While his square-up is therefore sympathetic (if dated) its poignancy is constantly undermined by the film itself, which features graphic surgical footage, dramatized sex scenes and a lot of poking and prodding that presents the transitioning characters as freak show subjects.
The appeal of exploitation films masked as social message films was not lost on later exploiteers, and the teen delinquency epidemic of the 1950s would provide further fodder for the square-up via the fast and furious teen pics that proliferated throughout the decade. Roger Corman’s 1957 Teenage Doll is a fantastic girl gang tale of juvenile delinquency that begins with a square-up that – like all square-ups! – cites this as the number one problem in society today that must be dealt with.
The 1949 introduction of the rocket V8 engine created a generation of gearheads – and teen road fatalities – which would solidify the notion that teenagers were the number one problem in America, whether in schools, in gangs or on the road. And this in turn led to the popularization of the grisly highway accident classroom film – taken up by filmmakers such as Sid Davis, Michigan’s Suicide Club and The Ohio Highway Safety Films Foundation (none of whom, by the way, had any formal credentials that would render them suitable educators for a nation of children). The latter’s film Signal 30 – the police code for a highway fatality – remains the most infamous of all highway safety films, beginning with what is probably my favourite square-up of all time, citing its onscreen victims as “bad actors who received their only billing on a tombstone.”
“Basically, while most educational films purport to educate I've always thought that they were often just as exploitative as their exploitation film counterparts,” says Skip Elsheimer of AV Geeks. “I personally think the Highway Safety Films films were just an excuse to show the carnage of traffic accidents. That the Ohio highway patrol let the filmmakers film and distribute footage of the wrecks and mangled bodies as a way to punish the public for their traffic transgressions – something the highway patrol had to deal with on a daily basis. It was cautionary but was it educational? It's debatable.”
In 1957, the Russian launch of Sputnik and Sputnik 2 – and the failure of the Americans to launch its own rocket, mocked in the press as a “flopnik,” – signaled the beginning of the golden age of the classroom film, as the Americans scrambled to get their education system up to the rigorous standard of the Russians. Part of this campaign’s deployment involved securing thousands of leftover 16mm projectors from WWII training efforts and placing them in schools, which in turn prompted the genesis of a massive industry for producing educational films. While originally the theatrical exploitation picture for adults still featured more graphic footage, the explosion of classroom films meant that all manner of taboo topics were being addressed in some manner through educationals.
“The square-up seems to disappear around the same time that 'classical' – I use that word to parallel 'classical Hollywood cinema' as defined by Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson – exploitation films disappear,” says Eric Schaefer. “A lot of the topics that had been traditionally a part of exploitation were being taken up by Hollywood – unwed motherhood, drugs, prostitution, etcetera. And educational films were also moving into that territory. With movies granted First Amendment protections with Burstyn v. Wilson in 1952, increased challenges to prior restraint, and the decline of the Production Code, the necessity of offering justification via a square-up was not as critical.
As we see the development of sexploitation films in the late '50s and early '60s there was no pretense of education – it was solely about the titillation. That said, a lot of sexploitation features continued to operate as 'warning' films and featured a good deal of moralizing.” As Schaefer points out in his essay “Pandering to the Goon Trade,” with the advent of the nudie-cuties in the late 1950s, sexploitation pictures ceased to hide behind an educational mandate and instead branded themselves as harmless comedies, which brought its own problems in terms of cementing the common perception of exploitation audiences as drooling morons.
The era of the square-up was winding to a close. Russ Meyer’s 1965 Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (“Who are they? One might be your secretary! Your doctor’s receptionist! Or a dancer in a go-go club!”) features a parody of the square-up – and parody typically suggests the end of a cycle.
Released the same year as Faster Pussycat, The Incredible Sex Revolution (1965) acted as something of a bridge between an older brand of sexploitation and the ‘self help’ instructional sex films that would eventually provide the transition to mainstream pornography. It bills itself as being “based on the Dr. Gladden Study on Changing Sex Mores in our Modern Civilization,” and Gladden himself appears to deliver the square-up, where he not only offers up his own credentials, but that of the film’s director Albert Zugsmith, who had previously produced Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and Russ Meyer’s Fanny Hill.
“Every word you will hear is true,” he assures. “Every scene you will witness has happened to someone, somewhere. How do I know? Well you might say it happened to me.” The film then runs through a series of vignettes – beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden up to the origin of key parties at an isolated army outpost in the mid-19th century – before introducing Gladden as a character in the drama itself, the psychologist of a female patient who recounts her sexual experiences through dramatized flashbacks.
While structured like any number of pornographic paperbacks circulating at the time – confessions to a psychologist being one of the most common framing devices in these pulps – The Incredible Sex Revolution is still softcore sexploitation. But it prefigures hardcore instructional sex films such as The Language of Love (1969), Matt Cimber’s Man and Wife (1969) and He and She (1970), which would pave the way for the legalization of hardcore pornography in the early 1970s. He and She’s scrolling text doesn’t shy away from talking about orgasms right in the square-up, a frankness that will be reflected in its depiction of sexual situations. “Whether man ventures into the unknown or stays at home,” it reads, “he will always carry with him a world that also holds infinite vistas for discovery…His own body.”
Small Screen Square-Ups
Television too had its share of square-ups. Fascination with the occult saw an explosion of witchcraft and satanic themed films and TV programs in the second half of the sixties. Even Australian TV was not immune to the occult trend – or the square-up – as evidenced by the “Witch Hunt” episode of the iconic Crawford Productions drama, Homicide (1964-1977). Written by longtime Crawford scriptwriter and producer Sonia Borg, whose credits included Storm Boy (1976) and the Ozsploitation classic Dark Age (1987), the episode concerns an investigation into the assault of an old woman that leads the Homicide team into the dark underbelly of witchcraft in Melbourne’s suburbs. Screened in 1965, ‘Witch Hunt’ is the first depiction of the occult on Australian television, and the episode begins with the series’ star John Fegan directly addressing the camera – the only episode in the series to do this – to warn the audience of the very real threat of witchcraft in Melbourne.
But the small screen sweetheart of the occult subgenre was undoubtedly Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched (1964-1972). In the 1970 Christmas episode “Sisters at Heart,” Samantha and Darrin’s daughter Tabitha has a black friend, who Darrin’s racist employer mistakenly assumes is Darrin’s, causing him to deny Darrin a prestigious account. In an attempt to cure him of his bigotry, Samantha casts a spell on him that makes him see everyone with black skin, including himself. At the beginning of the episode, standing in front of a prudently-placed Oscar Meyer sign, Montgomery introduces the show as “a Very Special Bewitched,” and delivers a square-up citing the episode as “conceived in innocence,” and based on a story by a class of African American students who had previously visited the set. While the square-up is brief, any moral message contained within the show itself, the Emmy-winning episode marked the beginning of a decade that would see the public service announcement develop into an art form and a staple of children’s programming – as well as foreshadowing what would come to be known as ‘The Very Special Episode.’
Like the Movie of the Week and the Afterschool Special – both ABC initiatives, it must be noted – the 1980s phenomena of the “Very Special Episode” took on topical but controversial subjects, often with an allegedly educational mandate that featured a call to action. In the TV movies A Case of Rape (1974) and The Burning Bed (1984) this call to action came in the form of rape crisis and domestic abuse hotlines that saw unprecedented engagement following the broadcasts, but in the Very Special Episode – as with the Bewitched and Homicide episodes – the square-up involved a star of the sitcom directly addressing the audience at the start of an episode to warn of a social problem that the episode would aim to tackle. “TV sitcoms that took on heavy subject matter was a massive game changer in popular culture,” says film historian Lee Gambin, who is currently at work on a book entitled Tonight on a Very Special Episode.
“I would say it started strongly in the 70s. This was headed by show-running legends such as Norman Lear, who created his own "universe" with groundbreaking shows such as All in the Family, Maude, Good Times and more. Lear and his peers such as Howard Leeds and writers who would eventually become major players in creating TV shows, such as Susan Harris, thought that serious topics could be integrated within the realm of comedy and say something profound about the human condition.
However, with the advent of the moral majority, Reaganism, conservative America stepping up the fold, the 80s would be a decade that absolutely reveled in serving up the Very Special Episode. Also with the 80s came newfound "issues" to scrutinize – AIDS being one of them – three sitcoms would take on the disease with varied approaches: Mr. Belvedere dealt with juvenile AIDS, The Golden Girls with AIDS-paranoia and a health scare after a blood transfusion, and Designing Women took gay male AIDS head on.”
Of course not every Very Special Episode had a square-up – The Facts of Life suicide episode “Breaking Point,” for instance, which came complete with a highly inappropriate laugh track – but those that did ranged from child molestation (Diff’rent Strokes “The Bicycle Man”, Mr. Belvedere, “The Counselor”) and rape (Diff’rent Strokes “The Hitch-Hikers”) to drug addiction (Punky Brewster and Saved by the Bell ran “Just Say No” campaigns). But these TV square-ups were often cagey, warning audiences that they were going to see something controversial, something shocking, a pressing social issue that warranted serious discussion – but rarely saying exactly what it was the episode was going to address. So if you weren’t quite ready to have a conversation with your child about pedophilic rape, whoops!
Epilogue: Trigger Warnings
On the other hand, Trigger Warnings tell you exactly what you’re going to see with no context or sensitivity whatsoever, often at the expense of the film itself. The square-up and the Trigger Warning live in the same universe as extra-textual admonitions, but whether one is the modern incarnation of the other depends a lot on motivation. It would depend on whether contemporary exhibitors, programmers and educators sincerely use Trigger Warnings to keep audiences feeling emotionally secure, or whether they are trying to think of creative ways to show what they want without getting in trouble. If the latter, then the Trigger Warning is definitely the direct descendent of the square-up.
But as with all ‘warnings’ on any kind of art, we always have to consider that the warning comes from a place of perceived authority, which is something the exploiteers gleefully subverted through their repeated use of phony experts, outdated literature, deliberate double-talk, and all manner of trickery that both discredited the very concept of expertise while cementing their own reputations as experts in manipulation – throwing the Hays office, local censor boards, the Public Health Office, the Armed Forces, educational authorities and pretty much every facet of the Establishment into complete chaos.
Contemporary programmers, exhibitors and educators are often comparatively sincere in their artistic motivations, but unlike the classical exploiteers, who laughed off threats to their reputations and maneuvered through a hostile landscape where they always managed to get the upper hand anyway, their counterparts today live in a state of fear that any perceived transgression will lead to public humiliation and/or loss of livelihood. In the age of the internet, there’s a lot on the line.
But luckily, thanks to over a century of square-ups, we know how to bullshit our way through.
Personal interviews with Eric Schaefer, Skip Elsheimer, Lee Gambin and Bret Wood conducted between July and December 2018.
Special thanks to: Lisa Petrucci of Something Weird Video, Keith Crocker, Eric Schaefer, Skip Elsheimer, Joe Rubin, Bret Wood, Lee Gambin and UCLA Library Special Collections. Some of the square-up videos are courtesy of LIsa Petrucci/SWV.
Kier-La Janisse is a film writer and programmer, Owner/Artistic Director of Spectacular Optical Publications and founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (2012, currently in development as a series with Rook Films) and contributed chapters to Destroy All Movies!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (2011), Recovering 1940s Horror: Traces of a Lost Decade (2014), The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul (2015), and We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale (2017). She co-edited and published the anthology books KID POWER! (2014), Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s (2015), Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (2017) and Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television (2017), and is currently co-curating (with Clint Enns) an anthology book on the films of Robert Downey, Sr. and writing a monograph about Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter. She serves on the boards for both Fantastic Fest and the American Genre Film Archive.
 Most online sources list the date of Child Bride as 1938, and Eric Schaefer’s book Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! dates it 1941. However the copyright date on the film itself is 1943.
 Kroger Babb was also the only distributor who would touch She Shoulda Said No! (1949), an anti-drug film starring Lila Leeds as a young dancer who finds herself dealing drugs as a means of putting her younger brother through college – with tragic consequences for all involved. “This is the story of ‘tea’ – or tomatoes,” its square-up read, “the kind millions thru [sic] ignorance, have been induced to smoke…If its presentation saves but one young girl or boy from becoming a ‘dope fiend’ – then its story is well told.” Leeds had famously been arrested in the company of Robert Mitchum on marijuana charges the previous year. But where Mitchum’s career had bounced back from the scandal, Leeds’ didn’t, and she found her only job offer was being cast in an overly moralizing anti-drug drama plainly capitalizing on her own case.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Bureau of Social Hygiene, 100 Years: The Rockefeller Foundation, accessed online November 23, 2018.
Chute, David. “Wages of Sin: An Interview with David F. Friedman” in Film Comment July-August 1986. pp. 38.
Cohen, Matthew Isaac. “Representing Java and Bali in Popular Film” in Sites, Bodies and Stories: Imagining Indonesian History. Edited by Susan Legêne, Bambang Purwanto, Henk Schulte Nordholt. NUS Press, 2015. Pp 132-155
Feaster, Felicia. “The Woman on the Table: Moral and Medical Discourse in Exploitation Cinema” in Film History Vol 6, No 3 Autumn 1994. pp 340-354
Friedman, David F. and Ron De Nevi. A Youth in Babylon: Confessions of a Trash Film King. Prometheus Books, 1990.
Hoffman, Brian. Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism. NYU Press, 2015
Karr, Kathleen. “The Long Square-Up” in Journal of Popular Film, 3:2, 1974. Pp 107-128.
Schaefer, Eric. Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Duke University Press, 1999.
Schaefer, Eric. “Pandering to the ‘Goon Trade’: Framing Sexploitation Audiences Through Advertising” in Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style and Politics. Duke University Press, 2007.
White, Suzanne. “Mom and Dad (1944): Venereal Disease ‘Exploitation’” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine 62, no. 2, 1988: 252-70.
Wood, Bret and Felicia Feaster. Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film. Midnight Marquee Press, 1999.