Tuesday, May 16, 2017

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "DAMAGED LIVES" (1933)

Plenty of moviemakers have demanded their names be changed on the credits because the final product wasn't to their liking. But only one studio, Columbia Pictures, ever created a one-time nom de distributor -- in this case, Weldon Pictures, for its 1933 melodrama Damaged Lives.

And for why? Syphilis, a subject that its lady with the torch wouldn't be caught within a mile of.


Go ahead, Donald, it'll be worth it.
Donald Bradley, Jr., a young ship magnate, has a one-night stand with good-time girl Elsie Cooper (and haven't we all shared a similar experience?). Ashamed and despondent, Donald elopes with his girlfriend, Joan, the following day, while never telling her of Elsie -- who, frankly, appears  a lot more fun than the mopey Joan.


Their dreams of one big happy family crash to earth when the now-pregnant Joan discovers that Donald gave her the dreaded "blood infection." That's what you get for being mopey.

"You wait here. I'm going to the kitchen for an
eternity -- I mean, a moment."
Despite her doctor's assurances that they can be cured in two years, and that their child will be OK, Elsie arranges a double-suicide -- actually, suicide-murder since Donald's asleep on the couch -- by turning on the oven gas jets. Talk about revenge! 

This is actually Damaged Lives' best directed, most emotionally effective scene. So naturally it's ruined when Donald wakes up, turns off the gas, and convinces Joan that life with V.D. can be beautiful.

You wouldn't know the plot-point of Damaged Lives if you didn't have a heads-up before going in. It takes a good 40 minutes (of its 61-minute running time) before anyone actually says "venereal disease." Up until then, people beat around the bush with phrases like "infectious diseases," like they were talking about the flu.
"Is it bigger than a breadbox?"

Elsie is even more oblique when breaking the news to Donald. "You must believe I didn't know!" she cries. "I swear I didn't know! Oh, you won't believe me, but it's the truth -- I didn't know!" She never does tell him, by the way, since she blows her brains out. What a tease.

Early exploitation movies tended to have scenes that regular studio releases never dared feature, and Damaged Lives is no different. When Donald learns that he's got the clap, the doctor takes him to various examination rooms. Here, the director intercuts real footage of V.D. carriers, whose symptoms range from open sores ("from a single kiss") to blindness to locomotive ataxia (look it up), climaxing with a  woman with seven kids. As the doctor sadly recounts:


"One of them's dead, but of the six living, one them's partially blind and deaf; one is deaf and dumb; one crippled; one an idiot; the fifth, mentally defective. And the 18 months-old baby is also syphilitic."

Those family reunions must be a blast. (And figuring out the difference between an idiot and a mental defective is above my paygrade.)

Another thing movies like Damaged Lives share are bad dialogue, stiff direction, and casts filled with nobodies (Lyman Williams), has-beens (Marceline Day),

Jason Robards is dumbfounded that Junior
will be more famous than him.
and might-have-beens (Jason Robards, whose son Jason, Jr. preferred shlock like, oh, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey into Night). But that was OK. Audiences came to be thrilled, not impressed.

And thrill it did. Damaged Lives is said to have grossed $1,000,000 on a budget of ten thousand bucks. And that's when the average ticket price was two bits. The takeaways: 1) Sex is bad. 2) Sex sells.



What the critics were actually saying
was "Don't! Miss it!"




To gin things up further, most theatres sexually segregated the audiences for these movies in order to make their patrons more comfortable -- or, in the case of Milwaukee's Gayety Theatre on the left, so guys could also catch the live Sexmania stage show before the feature.

By the way, this may or may not be the same Gayety Theatre that ran the exploitation shocker Maniac with the live on-stage "Sex Models" a year later. (Or, judging by the movie poster atop the page, only theatres with variations of the word "Gayety" in their names ran movies like these.)

But lest you think Damaged Lives is prurient for its own sake, the opening credits assure us, Shown under the auspices of AMERICAN SOCAL HYGIENE ASSOCIATION. Let's hope they received a percentage  of the gross for their endorsement.

Edgar G. Ulmer: From
S-E-X to P-R-C.
Nobody would remember Damaged Lives if it hadn't been for its director, the legendary "King of the B's" Edgar G. Ulmer. While directing his first major movie, Universal's The Black Cat in 1934, Ulmer had an affair with -- and later married -- the wife of one of the studio executives. He was immediately blackballed from the majors, relegated to poverty row outfits like PRC for the rest of his life.

Ulmer should have known when directing Damaged Lives: Sex with the wrong woman can have unintended consequences.

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