Until almost 1960, there existed in this country an alternate film-exhibition circuit--mainly in rural drive-ins and inner-city grind houses--devoted to product that rarely broke the surface of official cultural acknowledgement. It was a shadow culture, an id culture, and its secrecy was its strength. When it met the light of day, it withered.
In the '20s and '30s, the staples of this secret circuit were cautionary shockers like "Reefer Madness" and "Wages of Sin." In the '40s, it was sex-hygiene programs like "Mom and Dad" (the birth-of-a-baby classic), which added segregated shows for men and women only and offered a live lecture by an "eminent hygiene commentator," a fast-talking peddler of sex manuals whose last venue was probably a carnival midway. In the '50s, nudist-camp films and then "nudie cuties" such as Russ Meyer's "The Immoral Mr. Teas" took over by eliminating the moralistic veneer and making the sexiness light-hearted--a blessed relief for the paying customer but also, alas, the beginning of the end.
It was just about here, with Meyer's films and the launching of "Playboy," that the subculture of titillation was desublimated and robbed of its forbidden essence. It makes sense that in their heyday the gypsy exploiters shared the back roads with the "sky grifters," or tent-show evangelists. But the potency of this sin-and-salvation one-two punch couldn't survive the erosion of the sense of sin itself. Without the delicious shudder of treading on taboo terrain, the wastrel distributors didn't have much left to peddle.
David F. Friedman's "A Youth in Babylon" is the most detailed portrait ever written of America's parallel-shadow-film culture of exploitation. The book also is a rich self-portrait, which is what really makes it spring to life. How many other actual denizens of this concupiscent cinematic underworld could have described it so vividly?
Friedman's career as a peripatetic movie huckster began in the 1940s in the deep, dark South. As a barefoot lad in Alabama, he told people he wanted to be a circus press agent when he grew up. As a young man, he rose to become a field rep for Paramount Pictures, quickly chucking the job for something more like his childhood dream: He became a fast-talking road-show man, hawking "Mom and Dad" for exploitation legend Kroger Babb.
In the early '60s, producer Friedman and a partner in Chicago, director Herschel Gordon Lewis, cranked out nudist-camp romps like "Goldilocks and the Three Bares," shot in three days, and and then made the exploitation record books with the first "gore" horror movie, "Blood Feast," in 1963. This is the picture that will earn Friedman a footnote even in above-ground movie histories.
It also is the point at which this first volume of Friedman's memoirs breaks off, after 355 packed pages. There's still plenty left over for Volume 2: From the late '60s on, Friedman was in Los Angeles "nudies," "roughies" and finally hard-core porn, founding the first all-adult home-video company (VCX) and then the trade organization AFAA, the Adult Film Assn. of America. Nobody else in this field has touched as many bodacious bases.
Friedman is a zestful and evocative writer, too. His voluptuously alliterative prose evokes both the carnival midway and the humid environs of the Southern courthouse. "I first met (Pappy) Golden in the Carolinas," Friedman states, "those fertile fields forever and rewardingly reaped by the circulating seamen of cinema sleaze." (Golden was a senior member of the loose fraternity of skin-dependent hucksters known as the Forty Thieves.) A lot of the pressure of "A Youth in Babylon" derives from the anecdotes of these colorful con men and their schemes--such as he time Dwain Esper played a girl-and-a-gorilla movie he didn't own, for an entire weekend, in a theater he hadn't rented, and kept even the rental agent in the dark.
As a teller of tales, Friedman has been blessed with either an unprecedented memory or a rare gift for apt embellishment. It's often hard to believe that he still can recall 40-year-old conversations almost word for word, as their presentation implies. In fact, I think the accounts might be more effective if they were a little less word for word, if they'd been pared down to the essential.
"A Youth in Babylon" has been well written but rather poorly edited. Friedman has not, I think, been well-served by Prometheus Books or by his nominal "co-author," Don DeNevi, whose appreciative introduction, in fairness, suggests that this misguided hands-off policy was well-intentioned. ("Reading (Friedman's) prose is like bending over yeasty, bubbling wine and taking a deep breath," DeNevi fumes.)
This weighty and essential tome is well worth consuming, but it reads like the raw material for a great book, rather than the thing itself. The non-chronological structure is confusing and necessitates the repetition of several key anecdotes--this in a volume that was quite long enough already.