Queen B-Movies: Bad Taste, Big Money
Paper by Ruby Vasquez.
There has always been an attraction to exploitative films, no matter how bad, weird, or at times, illegal as they may be. Eric Schaefer describes the phenomena as a “carnival-like event” (6) in his book, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!. Audiences may call it a peep show into the macabre and wicked of the era. Though, what was considered ghastly and immoral in the 1950’s, would be the norm in the rated R films in the present, PG-13 if you are lucky. Exploitative films have only gotten more shocking; the more outrageous, the more audience, the more money. Exploitative films thrive on more, more, and more despite them being of awful quality, low quality, and containing distasteful story plots. Some might compare these types of films to the present time media because these reality shows, too, are making a lot of money off outrageous situations. So, is bad taste in films the fastest way to make a quick buck in the industry? It is a possibility, but it isn’t always necessary.
According to Schaefer, there are five ways to categorize an exploitation film. It consists of a forbidden subject, low quality production, independent distribution, often shown in theaters that are not part of the major companies, and it has flexible release dates (5, 6). These films are made to push the limits and be made up of “extra edge” (4) to attract people looking for a wow factor like bees to honey. Much of which full frontally defied the Motion Picture Production Code. Although, by the 1950’s, many filmmakers were brushing off the rules of the code or creatively working around them (Jacobs). Teenage exploitation films constantly challenged the basic code rules such as, making evil attractive, drug use and trafficking, violence, and lustful passion. Though, these films seem to have made it through under the radar using the system that they have. The remaining parts of an exploitation film is the time consuming and lengthy padding used to extend the running time (Schaefer, 69). Altogether, an exploitative film is born and ready for the drive-ins.
A film, for instance, that uses a considerable amount of these characteristics is that of Robert C. Derteno’s Girl Gang (1954). The movie itself was not all that great. The acting was poor, the sound even poorer, and the plot? Besides the main gal in the film, June, looking to please her new gang boss for more shots of heroin, nearly nonexistent. The film starts with a group of attractive and innocent-looking girls who trick men and then steal their car to bring back to the big boss, Joe. He rewards them with cash and a bit of drugs. Beside Joe, stands June, a fairly new recruit, who has already caught the eye of the boss with her good looks and convincing nature. The pair give each other kisses in exchange for something in return throughout the movie. Joe introduces June to a stronger drug, heroin, and instructs her how to use it step-by-step. June’s next step is to recruit more customers to Joe, in which she brings two “rich kids” in and gives them their first try of marijuana. Whirly music plays to simulate a high. Joe’s little gang then gathers in a secret clubhouse of their own where, what seemed like six minutes, of padding in the form the teenagers dancing along to a fellow gang member playing on the piano. Despite the name being Girl Gang, the gang actually consists of more men than women and the girls are initiated through sex with the boys of the gang. A new recruit, Wanda, panics, in which some of the gang girls give her a marijuana joint to “calm her nerves”, so that she can go and try again later. The intoxicated teenagers are seen getting friendly with each other and then a couple notice that one boy has died from an overdose. June becomes more and more addicted to heroin, often using sex as a way to get more money or the things she wants. The gang eventually gets involved in a gas station robbery in which, caught in between a shootout, Wanda is shot. The girl dies during an unenthusiastic operation on the kitchen table at Joe’s apartment. Lust, drugs, violence, and teenage deaths all in one to create an imperfect teenage exploitation film.
Other than Robert C. Derteno having a reign of teenage b-movies, American International Pictures, a production and distribution company, famous for creating teenage exploitation films catering to their most favorite audience, teenagers. Samuel L. Arkoff, one of the original creators of American International Pictures, revealed The ARKOFF Formula, an acronym based off his own name, containing the ideal traits for a successful teenage exploitation film. The formula stands for action, revolution, killing, oratory, fantasy, and fornication (Wikipedia, IMDb). American International Pictures released an immense amount of teenage B movies including High School Hellcats (Edward Bernds, 1958). Like Girl Gang, this film includes the imagery of tough, rule breaking, rude and sarcastic girls, who immediately start recruiting the new good girl in town. Drinking, flirting, and stealing are part of the new girl’s, Joyce, initiation into the Hellcats. On the side of all that, Joyce is sneaking behind her parents and the Hellcats with a new older boy she’s met. After the death of the boss, Connie, paranoia and jealousy engulf the next power-hungry czar in line, Dolly. The Hellcats revolt against Dolly drowning in the guilt of hiding Connie’s death and fearing for Joyce’s life when Dolly lures her into a trap. In attempt to kill Joyce, Dolly falls to her death from a theater balcony and Joyce learns her lesson about messing with the bad girls. The ARKOFF formula is successful once again.
Now, with all these exploitative films being made for thrill hungry teenagers, does that mean all those adolescent films were meant to all be of such poor quality? No, thankfully; meaning that teenage films could be entertaining and not be entirely exploitative. Such an example can be found in Nicholas Ray’s 1955 movie, Rebel Without a Cause, starring the
famous heartthrob, James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. Tim Dirks described the movie as one that “could have been exploitative, but was not” (AMC’s Filmsite). The film starts off with a giggly and drunk Jim Stark being taking into the juvenile department at the police station. The main characters are come in to play during this scene. It is made obvious that Jim, Judy, and Plato all have delinquent backgrounds, with Jim having problems with getting into fights, Judy hanging out with rebellious and dangerous teens to win any type of attention from her father, and Plato, having brought in for shooting puppies dead, a problem with abandonment. Jim seems to be driven mad with the pressure of his parents constantly fighting and his mother always downgrading his father. It is made known that the word “chicken” triggers Jim’s anger, which could explain why he is so set on having his father stand up to his mother and not be the chicken himself. Judy confesses to the department head that she believes her father hates her, bursting into tears. At her home, she tries to show affection to her father with kisses on his cheek who responses by slapping her. Hitting women seemed to be a common factor in teenage movies. Plato has developed an admiration for Jim after he offered his jacket when he was cold at the station. He’s there to support him when Jim gets challenged to a “chickie game” by Judy’s boyfriend, Buzz. Buzz ends up driving off a cliff and the teenagers scatter before the cops show up. By this point, Judy has developed a liking for Jim, even though her boyfriend had just died. Jim gets engulfed by the guilt of what he had just witnessed and gets even more frustrated when his parents encourage that he keep it covered up. Judy and Jim take off to an abandoned mansion that Plato once talked about. Plato, himself, goes to look for him in order to warn him of Buzz’s friends looking for revenge. The trio gets lost in a manic, diminutive time of joy amongst themselves, feeling like the belonged for once, and had a family to enjoy. The joy ends when the gang of teens finds them and Plato starts to shoot up the place with a gun he found in his home.
Plato is then later shot by the police in front of the Griffith Observatory. A teenage film with emotion mushed into a time span of twenty four hours with just enough edge to attract the adolescent audience.
Some time has passed since the death of the production code in 1968 and it certainly playing a great deal in the exploitation boom of the 1970’s (Wikipedia). In between that time, teenage exploitation films are still a thing today, but are more often subjects of the horror genre. The teenage films have gone from girl gangs to high school musicals; nevertheless, it is not entirely gone. Exploitation of teenagers has digressed to television series and reality shows in the modern media. The ARKOFF formula continues to be the fundamental recipe for the wow factors in mass media. As long as people are looking for excitement and dramatic situations, exploitation will continue to be a big money maker.
Dirks, Tim. “Rebel Without A Cause (1955).” Rebel Without A Cause (1955). AMC, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
Girl Gang. Dir. Robert C. Derteno. By Robert C. Derteno, William C. Thompson, Dale Knight, and Ray Mercer. Prod. George Weiss and James R. Connell. Perf. Joanne Arnold, Timothy Farrell, and Harry Keaton. Broadway Roadshow Productions, 1954. YouTube.
High School Hellcats. Dir. Edward Bernds. Prod. James H. Nicholson, Samuel Z. Arkoff, Charles Buddy Rogers, and Don Ament. By Mark Lowell, Jan Lowell, Gilbert Warrenton, Ronald Stein, and Edward Sampson. Perf. Yvonne Lime, Brett Halsey, Jana Lund, Suzanne Sydney, Heather Ames, and Nancy Kilgas. Indio Productions, 1958. YouTube.
Jacobs, Christopher P. “The Production Code of 1930.” The Production Code of 1930. University of North Dakota, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.
Rebel Without a Cause. Dir. Nicholas Ray. Screenplay by Stewart Stern. Adapt. Irving Shulman. Prod. David Weisbart. Perf. James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. Warner Bros., 1955. ITunes.
“Samuel Z. Arkoff-Biography.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
Schaefer, Eric. Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919- 1959. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. Print.
Wikipedia contributors. “American International Pictures.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 31 Oct. 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
Wikipedia contributors. “B movies (The exploitation boom).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Nov. 2014. Web. 12 Nov. 2015