Bad Movies and Good Times
Screening Room for That’s Exploitation!
The 7th Annual Bad Movie Festival
by Dan Lybarger
For the last seven years, the Kansas City, Kansas Public Library at 625 Minnesota has taken pride in presenting some of the least revered movies in history. Each year in November the Library presents a series of uniquely entertaining flicks that are more likely to be reviewed by Crow and Tom Servo on Mystery Science Theater 3000 than by Siskel and Ebert.
That’s Exploitation: The Seventh Annual Bad Film Festival offers several obscure classics that will amuse even if the films weren’t intended to. Every Wednesday night at 6:00 p.m., the library will present a different cinematic atrocity from the world or exploitation. According to Gary Huggins, who helps organize the festival, exploitation films earn their title because of "their willingness to exploit anything, whether it was schizophrenia or Santa Claus, that might possibly tempt people to risk getting ripped-off in pursuit of a thrill—usually they just got ripped off."
While many of these films might feature cheap sets, stilted dialogue and wooden acting, they also have unique content and fascinating histories. Child Bride, which will play on November 13, is a fairly innocuous 1937 movie about a schoolmarm who encourages goat ropers not to marry 13-year-olds, but its posters and other advertising promised illicit thrills that mainstream films couldn’t offer. The Production Code of 1933 muzzled Hollywood movies.
The distributors of Child Bride leaped at the chance to bilk those who were starved for titillation. Huggins explains, "There were a group of rogue exhibitors and distributors who called themselves ‘The Forty Thieves.’ They would make a film on some sensational subject, or acquire one, and take it from town to town, sometimes as part of a tent show with a motivational "doctor," always named "Eliot Forbes," who sold pamphlets on birth control or whatever for a dollar. Once a film like Child Bride was played out, they’d add another reel showing the birth of a baby, re-title it Dust to Dust or something and take it through all the same towns once again."
While several might compete in the racket, they also formed a network that would make the Mob jealous. Huggins continues, "They were all in cahoots. One group would come in and ‘burn the place’ and let everybody else know where they’d been so the other groups wouldn’t move in for a while."
The broken promises of illicit sex weren’t the only lures for the gullible. A trade also started in demented Mexican films as well. The early sixties relics The Brainiac and Neutron vs. The Death Robots, which will play on November 27th, and Santa Claus, which will play at 2:00 p.m. on the 24th, reached audiences in the United States by rather dubious means. Huggins says, "Rene Cardona, Jr. (Santa Claus) and others would make these really terrible and super bizarre children’s films. K. Gordon Murray bought all this stuff from Mexico and West Germany and dubbed them and played them for years at matinees. Most were based on the same fairy tales Disney had already adapted as cartoons, like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but Murray’s were a lot more memorable because of all the real midgets and cheap monsters they contained." Santa Clause is particularly odd. "It’s a weird collision of cultural beliefs. It’s got the western import of an omniscient, god-like Santa fighting a force from a completely different supernatural league, the Devil, which is really strange."
Not all of the films in That’s Exploitation! are misrepresented imports or titillation rip-offs, The Bronze Buckaroo (1938) and Son of Ingagi (1940), which will play on the 20th, were earnest films that were hampered by meager budgets. Both movies featured Spencer Williams who later came to fame on TV’s Amos and Andy, and both featured all-African-American casts. Huggins says, "Herbert Jeffries (the star of The Bronze Buckaroo) wanted to make westerns with blacks in them because there weren’t any around. Their really low budgets account for most of the absurdities, although it’s great when in the middle of horror film like Son of Ingagi people suddenly start jitterbugging around and playing the blues. It’s really a pretty good movie."
The fact that odd and occasionally wretched films like these see the light of day is due to Library employee Mark Ingersoll, who founded the Festival and runs it every year. His interest in presenting celluloid refuse was very simple. "I didn’t want to watch them alone." With a group of appropriately wise-cracking fans, the films can be more fun. "I encourage people to talk back to the screen."
Thanks to home video, finding the right disasterpieces for each festival is much easier. "I was limited (at first). It’s gotten to the point where we have to have double-features to fit them all in." Those who don’t wish to be ripped-off like the early audiences of Child Bride need not worry because the films will be shown for free and will also be accompanied by with appropriate refreshments—stale popcorn and luke-warm Kool-Aid. Ingersoll says that he and the others only recently hyped their condiments. "We started advertising it, hoping maybe people would come because they like Kool-Aid," he chuckles.
He adds, "This is not just a dry library experience."
This page was last updated on 10/29/97.