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Posted on: March 25th, 2015 by Lewis Mindenhall No Comments

A complete history of Exploitation Films. Introduction (Part 1)

By Lewis Mindenhall




 “Exploitation” film is a very loosely defined and informal label which is applied to films considered low budget and apparently attempting to gain financial success by “exploiting” a current trend or niche in the market that uses lurid subject matter like sex, violence and drug use for it’s appeal. Quite often exploitation films are considered to be of low quality and called B movies. These type of film were popularised more in the 60’s and 70’s with the general relaxing of censorship issues and cinematic taboos in the U.S and Europe. And with the introduction of a new type of cinema in America called ‘Grindhouse theatres’, which got it’s name from the former inner-city Burlesque theatres which originally included “bump and grind” style of dancing. Located on 42nd street New York. These type of cinema were known for playing non-stop programs of B movies which usually consisted of double features played back to back.

The history of exploitation films can be divided into two periods, the “classical” period which runs through to the 1960’s and can be characterised by the production routines associated with the Hollywood system, and of the showman/producer’s provocative marketing and advertising schemes which is now largely studied through a historical lens, and the “modern” period afterwards which used a higher degree of explicit material in it’s presentation to viewers through different forms of exhibition such as drive-ins, grindhouse theatres, television, video/dvd’s and film festivals.

Definition of an exploitation film:-

1. A film that relies on lurid subject matter for it’s appeal.

2. Exploitation films may feature suggestive or explicit sex, sensational violence, drug use, nudity, freaks, gore, the bizarre, destruction, rebellion and mayhem.

3. A type of film that eschews the expense of “quality” productions in favour of making films on the cheap, attracting the public by exciting their more prurient interests. “Exploitation” is the show business term for promotion, and an exploitation film is one which relies heavily on the advertising of it’s content, rather than it’s intrinsic quality of the film.


The original grindhouse theatres were located on 42nd street, New York.

  So the aim for this project is to explore the history of Exploitation Cinema from the very early beginnings of cinema and the implementation of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934 up to present day film making. I will look at every genre and subgenre that has become associated with Exploitation films and look mainly at the key films that have become cult classics over the years , and some that were a bit less well known, obscure and off the radar. Im hoping this project will be interesting to people who want to know a bit more about The History of Film making and also to the seasoned pro’s who glorify in counter-culture values and arthouse cinema. I will also try and keep the text to a minimum for this web based version and mainly use original artwork and photo’s when needed.



Mae West. The First Sex Symbol.

Part 1. The early years

While film was still in it’s infancy film makers were attempting to gain financial success by “exploiting” the market through advertising and marketing schemes. In Europe and America the early pioneers of Narrative driven feature  films often used sex and  violence for appeal. Before the rise of Hollywood the early film studio’s were located on the east coast of America. Universal Studio’s based in New York was founded in 1912 (originally based in New Jersey (as the Edison-backed Motion Picture Trust) used the working women of Ellis Island and Manhattan as subject matter to fuel the “moral panic” over the issue of prostitution.

A very early example of this is Traffic in Souls, made in 1913 and directed by George Loane Tucker. The film was a social commentary on the thriving New York sex trade of the time. This notorious melodrama was a tremendous box office success yet banned in many American cities due to it’s subject matter, although it will probably be remembered more for the fact that it was the first American produced feature film and the first of the “white slave” exploitation films that were popular in the 1910’s. Even D.W Griffith’s seminal film The Birth of a Nation in 1915 caused major controversy in major cities over it’s glorification in taboo subjects including race, violence and sexual aggression towards women. In Europe the film maker and surrealist Luis Bunuel  was using startling images of acts of violence, most notably in the infamous scene from Un Chien Andalou (1929) of a very close up and detailed image of a woman’s eye being sliced open with a razor blade.


Traffic in Souls (1913). Aka While New York Sleeps is a narrative feature film focusing on forced prostitution and white slavery in the U.S.

 Watch Traffic in Souls (1913) Full movies here

 It was always Luis Bunuel and co collaborator Salvador Dali’s intention to shock the audience of his early films. In this infamous scene from Un Chien Andalou (1929) a woman’s eye is clearly shown being sliced with a razor blade. Bunuel was extremely anxious of the films initial release and feared violence from the audiences reaction for showing extremely graphic content. This is also considered to be the first extreme gore scene in movie history.

 Watch Un Chien Andalou (1929) Full movie here

 Pre-Code: Hollywood before the censors.

Known as the Pre-Code era, this period is usually dated from the start of the sound era in the very late 1920’s and up to the implementation of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1933. In this small space of time Hollywood studio’s were able to portray a certain amount of realism previously unseen before including sexual innuendo, drug use, infidelity and violence. This was after all the era of the mobster (real life and fictional) and the sexy dominant screen siren. A good example of a Pre-Code era film is Safe in Hell (1931) directed by William Wellman and starring Dorothy Mackaill and Donald Cook. Safe in Hell opens in the depraved  New Orleans den of prostitute Gilda (Mackaill). After she is accused of murdering  the man responsible for ending her life as a secretary before prostitution. She finally flees to a remote island with ex sailor boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) only to find the island populated by criminals and licentious characters. At the time of it’s release, the film was labelled as being “Not for children”.


The opening shot of the movie goes straight up Dorothy Mackaill’s legs and to her garter (still from Safe in Hell, 1931)

Another notable film made in 1931 was The Public Enemy starring  James Cagney as a young hoodlum rising up through the ranks of the Chicago underworld. Along with Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932), which was a dark psychological fictional analysis of real life mobster Al Capone, set the standard for the gangster/mob and Crime genre. The Public Enemy is also a very good example of an early ‘Film Noir’ type of film, which takes it’s name from the ‘dark’, downbeat and ‘black’  look of the film along with the themes of the criminal underworld and hard-boiled detective stories. The term ‘Film Noir’ wasn’t actually coined until 1946 but did refer to earlier gangster films such as The Public Enemy for there Dark appearance and style of film making.


The Public Enemy (1931) starring James Cagney as mobster Tom Powers.

The Public Enemy is one of the earliest and best gangster films  from Warner Bros studio’s. This was James Cagney’s  fifth film performance and had previously played tough guy roles in other  Warner Bros films called Sinners Holiday and The doorway to Hell both in 1930. In a dramatic scene near the end of the film (shown below) Cagney’s character slaughters some rival gang members while the camera remains outside the building as a barrage of shots and screams are heard from inside. After emerging seriously wounded utters the immortal words “I ain’t so tough”. However the most controversial scene in the film is what is known as the ‘Grapefruit scene’ when James Cagney’s character smashes half a grapefruit into his girlfriends face played by Mae Clarke. Some stories say Clarke’s surprised and angry reaction was due to an unscripted action from Cagney, that was intended as a joke to amuse the crew and never actually meant to be in the final film. According to Cagney though was the amusing anecdote to the story that Clarke’s ex husband would always buy tickets only to watch the scene of his ex misses get a pounding to the face and leave soon after.

The circus freak show

The most notorious film however to come out of the Pre-Code era was undoubtedly director and producer Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932.). This story about carnival sideshow freaks used real life people with abnormal deformities as characters in the film. The original version was considered too shocking and was never released and sadly no longer exists, but an extensively cut version does still exist and remains an object of extreme controversy.

Freaks effectively ended Tod Browning’s movie career afterwards and despite having success in earlier films like Dracula starring Bela Lugosi in 1931 never recovered from the controversy surrounding the film. A number of contemporary reviews expressed complete outrage and revulsion with The Hollywood Reporter calling it an ‘outrageous onslaught upon the feelings, the senses, the brains and the stomach of an audience”. There were however some reviews that weren’t as harsh including The New York Times which stated “excellent at times and horrible” and as “a picture not to be easily forgotten”. MGM studio’s who owned the film eventually sold the rights to exploitation producer Dwain Esper who i shall discuss later.


 Watch Freaks (1932) Full movie here 

Freaks was rediscovered in the early 1960’s as a counter-culture film and as a cult classic, and regularly played throughout the 70’s and 80’s at midnight movie screenings throughout theatres in the U.S. And in 1994 was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’. One way to look at Freaks though  is as a rarity that horrifies rather than frightens and way ahead of it’s time. And although banned in several countries including the U.K for more than 30 years still manages to have a cultural influence in film making today, most notably with FX’s award winning series American Horror Story: Freak Show (2014-2015).



Tod Browning (top,centre) with some of the cast of Freaks (1932)



“and for my next trick i shall cut my own head off with this cut throat razor” (still from Freaks, 1932).

 The Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code).

It was as early as 1922 when the major studios enlisted Will H. Hays as president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributers of America (MPAA) to try and clean up the image of Hollywood, after several risque films and off-screen scandals threatened the industries reputation as well as growing pressure from religious and political organisations of the time the studios were finally forced to take action and assign Hays who was a respected politician and strict Presbyterian elder to try and rehabilitate the movie industry.

It was finally in 1930 that Hays first proposed the Motion Picture Production Code.  Also Known as the Hays Code (or just The Code) after the chief censor of the time Will H. Hays. Before The Code there were no strict regulations so film makers often used lurid subject matter in there films. But growing pressure from the government and religious organisations meant the studio’s had to come up with a solution to the problem. And in particular to the cause was a vicious campaign beginning in 1933 of the immorality of cinema by the American Roman Catholics.

” I wish to join the legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land… Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and christian morality.”

– Catholic Legion of Decency pledge.


Will H. Hays. Founder of The Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) and also pictured (centre) on the right.

The Production Code sought to determine ‘what’ and ‘what not’ to show on screen, and to try and promote a set of traditional values to the public. Some of the key aspects in The Code were the ban of showing sexual relations outside of marriage, all criminal action had to be punished and the offender(s) could not elicit sympathy from the audience, all authority and religious figures had to be treated with respect and  the depiction of sexual relations between different races couldn’t be shown either. Some restrictions such as the ban on homosexuality and swearing were never actually mentioned in The Code but were assumed to be prohibited too.

So in 1930 state film censorship boards were set up throughout the U.S to try and impose these bans within the Movie industry. Although, generally unenthusiastically ineffective in 1930 by the head of the committee at the time Jason Joy and his successor Dr James Wingate. At first The Code was seen as prudish from a fairly libertine audience of the time who were against the earlier Victorian period of restrictions and high level of moral standards. It was first predicted by the more liberal thinkers of the 1920’s and 1930’s that The Code would be hard to enforce  and generally ignored, and that was the case in the proceeding years known as the Pre-Code era with many film makers taking advantage of slack enforcement of The Codes strict rules and regulations. Another key factor in the early ineffectiveness of The Code was The Great Depression of 1929 and early 1930’s that changed American values, beliefs and cynicism towards traditional beliefs systems.


The Blue Angel (1930). Starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings (pictured together, right) was the very first film the Board reviewed with conflicting opinions from Jason Joy passing the film (albeit with several cuts) and banned by the California censor.


I am a Fugitive from a chain gang (1932). Starring Paul Muni as a wrongly convicted criminal. An early example of a Pre- Code Social Problem film and the first film in the Chain Gang subgenre.

The film studios of the time were often breaking the rules simply to try and seek an income by any way possible with the Hollywood Reporter publicly mocking The Code in 1931 by saying “the Hays Code is not even a joke any more, it’s just a memory“. Since films containing sex and violence resulted in high ticket sales the studio’s continued to produce films with graphic content.

This is a very  brief  list of the early genres and subgenres from this Pre-Code era that contained inappropriate material which came under intense scrutiny. They are as follows:-

1. Social Problem Films; Which stated a position about a social issue that dealt with issues including prohibition and prostitution and used as either “propaganda films” or “preachment yarns”. Generally cheaply made and gritty in their realistic approach to film making.

2. Political Films; Similar to Social Problem Films. Politically orientated social problems that ridiculed politicians as incompetent liars and scoundrels.

3. Crime Films; Similar to Political and Social Problem films. With the birth of the violent Hollywood gangster, which was fuelled by the publics fascination and celebrity status of real-life criminals like Al Capone.

4. Prison Films; Similar to Crime Films, Political films and Social Problem films. Portraying a corrupt state of Order and Power, and depictions of  the inhumane conditions of prison life in the early 1930’s.

5. Chain Gang films; Similar to Prison Films, Crime films, Political Films and Social Problem Films where prisoners are innocent of the crimes they were committed for and  are subjected by prison guards to strict discipline and forced to work hard from their ruthless captors in the sweltering sun.

6. Sex Films; Similar to Social Problem Films. Overly-suggestive material of beautiful women as provocative adulteresses or prostitutes which were blamed for threatening the purity of adolescent woman and lowering moral standards.

7. Comedy; Similar to Sex Films and Social Problem Films. Performers often featured an alienated, cynical or socially dangerous comic style and plenty of sexual innuendo.

8. Cartoons; Similar to Sex Films. Also covered by the Production Code was cartoons that included smut, sexual innuendo and considered indecent towards the public.

9. Horror and Science Fiction; Not much of a problem to the board until the introduction of sound intensified the effect of atmosphere, macabre dialogue and blood-curdling screams of terror to the audience.

10. Exotic Adventure Films; Similar to Sex Films and Social Problem Films. With a recurring themes of white racism and xenophobia towards the local race of inhabitant’s, and to the dangers and allure of interracial sex.

11. Newsreels and Documentaries; Similar to all of above.  The documentation of real life events and tragedies around the globe (often staged) and made more dramatic for effect, sparking unrest towards the public and to the creation of media circuses.


Betty Boop (left) the most notorious cartoon character to come out of the Pre-Code era. Dolores del Rio from a scene in Bird of Paradise (centre) is a good example of an Exotic adventure film (1932), and The Lindberg kidnapping (right) was a newsreel story that gripped the world, also in 1932.

 The start of a new era.

By 1934 an amendment to The Code was established called the Production Code Administration (PCA)  which required all films to obtain a certificate of approval before being released. And in the same year the next big turning point for The Code was the appointment as head of the PCA of Joseph Breen, who was also a prominent Roman Catholic layman and skilled in public relations. This period is known as the ‘Breen era’  and lasted until Breen’s retirement in 1954. Breen sought to clean up Hollywood and purify the screen of what he considered to be in a complete mess, and the fact that he was also a notorious and raging anti-Semitic meant he wanted to change the system completely, and this resulted in a fuelled desire to use the new stricter laws of The Code to clamp down on what he described as “a rotten bunch of vile people with no respect for anything beyond the making of money. Here we have Paganism rampant and in it’s most virulent form. Drunkenness and debauchery are commonplace. Sexual perversion is rampant… any number of our directors and stars are perverts. Ninety five percent of these folks are Jews of an eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the earth”. 


Tarzan and his mate (1934). The first film to have scenes cut by the strict laws governed by the newly revised Hays Code. And the under water swimming scene (far right) .

Breen’s religiously zealous hardline approach to cleaning up the film industry had a major impact on the studio’s, which resulted in some film makers having to find other ways of evading the strict censorship laws imposed by The Code. This now became an era of independent film making that worked outside the film distribution system and through Hollywoods “Golden Age” of cinema until it’s eventual demise along with The Code in the late 1950’s. A new type of film emerged by 1934 known as The Cautionary Film, which managed to avoid strict censorship laws by documenting cautionary tales of the dangers of illicit teenage rebellious urges such as drug use, promiscuous sex and moral corruption, and will be the discussion for my next episode.