Directors: Ida Lupino, Bill Clifford
Something Weird Video/Image Entertainment

During the early days of exploitation, roadshow flicks were a mainstay of American cinema that are only now getting their dues today. Hollywood censorship barred the inclusion of topics like abortion, pre-marital sex, drug use, venereal disease, prostitution, and loose living, but films made outside of the scope of Tinsel Town would throw in as much bad taste material as possible in the name of “education”. While the Golden Age of roadshowing was in the 1930s and 1940s (the days of MOM AND DAD, REEFER MADNESS, and TEST TUBE BABIES) the 1950s yielded a good number of equally envelope-pushing entries in the genre, and presented here are two interesting latter-day offerings, one made on the fringes of Hollywood, the other far from the bright lights of the filmmaking community.

Young Sally Kelton is bored with her mundane small town life; her mother complains about her lazy work ethic and she works a dime-a-day job at a local café. Her collar-down life is shattered with the arrival of traveling musician Steve Ryan, a pianist making his living at the local dance hall. Sally falls head over heels for the smug older man, and he professes his love for her by taking her virginity on a starry night in the park. However, Steve soon skips town and heads for the Big City (conveniently called Capital City, a la “The Simpsons”), leaving Sally love sick and unhappy. After she gets a speeding ticket from an unsympathetic cop, she buys a bus ticket and rushes off to Capital City to be with her beau. But Steve isn’t so happy to see her, and she realizes he was simply using her for some fun while he was biding his time in her little town. Thankfully she finds another boyfriend in the form of Drew, a young WWII veteran with a plastic leg who gives her a job at his gas station. He even asks her to marry him! But the new relationship comes to a grinding halt when she discovers she’s pregnant with Steve’s kid and rushes off to a home for unwed mothers. Can the two be reunited over this incredible controversy?

Originally begun as NOT WANTED by low-budget director Elmer Clifton, who almost immediately suffered a heart attack and died soon after, the film was completed by actress Ida Lupino, her first directorial effort (she also co-wrote and co-produced this one). Lupino was a film noir favorite, and would continue acting well into the 1970s, but her short directing career was a first in Hollywood. She was one of the first actors to make the move behind the camera, and was the very first actress to direct her own feature-length film. She wouldn’t discuss this film too openly over the years, considering its taboo subject matter, but her subsequent offerings, OUTRAGE and THE HITCH-HIKER, were milestones in 1950s cinema. Her work as a director was usually restricted to episodes of early TV series, but in her debut film, Lupino does a great job and it’s easy to see she had what it takes to take control of directing a film. The history of WRONG RUT is almost as interesting as the film itself; its original release as NOT WANTED was critically but not financially successful, but enterprising roadshow producer Jack Lake grabbed a number of prints, injected new square-up crawls and color Caesarian childbirth footage, chopped off the opening and end credits, and under the titles SHAME, STREETS OF SIN, and THE WRONG RUT, transformed the independent wonder into a popular exploitation attraction. According to the box copy, the WRONG RUT version made the rounds through the country as late as 1972, an unbelievable fact that shows the longevity of certain roadshow films, and also demonstrates how some U.S. regions could still be entertained by childbirth dramas.

Besides the obvious changes to the film to make it more exploitable, the original NOT WANTED version would be great to see. Not only is this a professionally made and acted melodrama, better than the usual low-budget stuff tackling the childbirth topic, Lupino’s feminine touch makes this a continually fascinating story. Sally Kelton grows as a character and isn’t the usual dim bulb girl usually seen in these films. Sally Forrest is very impressive as our young heroine, taking on a role no respectable young Hollywood ingénue would have accepted in 1949 and bringing out an incredible amount of pathos in her character. Before making this film she was under contract to MGM as a dancer before they let her loose to work on independent films. Forrest would continue working with director Lupino in NEVER FEAR and HARD, FAST AND BEAUTIFUL, and would act with her in Fritz Lang’s WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, but her career was primarily made up of TV guest star bits. She shows much promise in NOT WANTED which unfortunately seems to have not built to anything else major. Romantic interest Keefe Brasselle, as nice guy Drew, would reunite with co-star Forrest and director Lupino in NEVER FEAR, but will be remembered by cult film fans for directing IF YOU DON’T STOP IT…YOU’LL GO BLIND!!! Character actor Leo Penn, the father of future Hollywood sourpuss Sean Penn and the late great Chris Penn, plays Steve Ryan, the world-weary pianist with apparent emotional troubles contributing to his rejection of women. Ida’s sister Rita Lupino appears as a depressed unwed mother, and would be a regular in her big sister’s films through the 1950s, before she would appear in drive-in cult item THE WILD SCENE in 1970.

After watching a professional little melodrama like THE WRONG RUT, be prepared for the sheer amateurishness of BIRTHRIGHT, a painfully low-budget exploitation relic filmed in Athens, Georgia and the surrounding region of Harmony, cast with complete non-professionals (introduced by a narrator) and produced by a crew known for making educational shorts.

John is living the ultimate married man nightmare: living with his in-laws and working on their chicken farm. The former truck driver has had it with his father-in-law blaming him for a rash of poultry deaths, his mother-in-law chiding him, and his wife siding with her parents, so he steps out for the night and finds a sympathetic ear in lonely waitress Nell. Naturally they spend the night together, but John runs home to make up with his wife and life goes back to normal… Except John has contracted V.D. from his one-night stand and has passed it on to his unsuspecting wife and her unborn child! After a lengthy lecture by a health department official, John consents to a blood test and confirms his disease-ridden existence. Will his family survive this terrible revelation?

In 50 minutes, BIRTHRIGHT thankfully doesn’t wear out its welcome and plays as a slightly longer public education short. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as the genesis of the project reveals that it was produced by the Georgia Department of Health as an education tool to inform backwoods Georgians of the importance of blood testing, but spiced up with a brief nude scene and more birth-of-a-baby footage and released as an exploitation feature. The acting in this one isn’t even as good as community theater standards! Lines that are supposed to be read with anger or sympathy are recited like a half-hearted high school debate. Because there are very few exploitable elements in the film, sit back and revel in the terrible performances until the vagina-exploding footage. If neither sounds entertaining to you, BIRTHRIGHT will be an interesting regional curio, but little more, and is a stark contrast to the moving excellence of WRONG RUT.

Of the two monochrome transfers, WRONG RUT fares much better. From a very clean 35mm print, the remastering here is on a par with a Warner Brothers transfer, save a few print jumps and mild grain in darker scenes. A very nice-looking presentation, with gorgeous contrasts and a squeaky clean image throughout. BIRTHRIGHT doubtfully saw much of a release outside of Georgia and the Southern states, so it’s a miracle a print has turned up. The image is very grainy, with several instances of white lines, and the bad lighting results in a number of dark scenes, but it’s a serviceable transfer.

BIRTHRIGHT apparently had no theatrical trailer, but a preview for THE WRONG RUT is included, showing no footage from the film, relying on heavy hyperbole to sell the motion picture. Continuing down the path to clean living, experience more roadshow trailers geared to teach you about the wonders of having a baby. THE NAKED TRUTH is another preview steering clear of any film footage, but its accompanying poster image (“TNT! It’s dynamite! Intimate Secrets Revealed!”) shown while a narrator promises the film’s adult nature is very cool. THE STORY OF BOB AND SALLY was actually produced by a major Hollywood studio but after being denied a MPAA Seal of Approval, they sold the feature to a roadshow promoter who made a killing at the box office, cashing in on the success of MOM AND DAD and STREET CORNER around the same time. TWISTED LIVES is yet another “black-out” trailer, with a poster image and title cards, but no footage and a narrator relied upon to sell the film and its adult nature. THE WONDROUS STORY OF BIRTH actually opens with an MPAA R-rating seal, and was a production of infamous Southern promoter Claude Alexander. Medical footage (including the birth of triplets) and info on the tools used during childbirth and demonstrations of the female anatomy are promised.

A trio of short subjects are included, two of which are directly related to the WRONG RUT theatrical campaign. “Life Begins” is the official 10-minute square-up reel accompanying the theatrical presentation of WRONG RUT, and using scenes from the film, analyzes Sally Kelton’s behavior, how and why she became pregnant, and of course delivers more gory childbirth footage. Look away if you’re squeamish!! “Life and Its Secrecies” was WRONG RUT’s co-feature, a 29-minute examination of female anatomy, the process of pregnancy, and fuzzy, grotesque childbirth footage. “The Art of Love” is a 16-minute short subject, hosted by a bespectacled lecturer informing the audience of the importance of learning the facts of life, and featuring clips from other roadshow films to demonstrate immoral behavior. Pony up a buck for the book “The Art of Love”, shown proudly by our host, and which is essential to positive growth of the adult mind.

Two galleries cap off this sex-ed double feature: the first gallery is composed of roadshow pitch books, all of which look positively mouthwatering in their historical value, with a facts of life intermission lecture playing throughout. The second gallery gathers together more incredible posters and ads for exploitation classics like HOODLUM GIRLS and GAMBLING WITH SOULS, with a rare 10-minute radio interview with SLIGHTLY DAMAGED lecturer E.J. Shaefer! (Casey Scott)