You don't see it much anymore. When it does arrive, it's usually an event based in evangelical preaching or infomercial hard selling. Back in the day though, it announced the arrival of a media experience unrivaled in the history of the locale. The limited engagement would set itself up within a theater or drive-in. Banners and flyers would adorn the city streets. Interviews and publicity stunts were staged. And when it was all over, when the singular production was completed and the last of the receipts tallied, the ballyhoo would be repacked and stored away in the trunk of a car or truck, ready to move on to the next venue.
Sadly, over time, the traveling theatrical exhibit has fallen by the wayside and simply died out. But thanks to Something Weird Video and their DVD title for May, The Wrong Rut and Birthright, we can again revisit those days of social engineering via the city-by-city traveling scare tactic. Each film is an excellent example of the thrill and shill genre. Rut revolves around a young woman named Sally Kelton whose naïve notions of love end up getting her in some Eisenhower era scandal. Not even a jovial grease monkey or an extended stay in a home for unwed mothers can cure this gal of her "sex before marriage" Hester Prynne lettering. Birthright covers the same scourge, but in a decidedly matrimonial manner. Chicken farmer John gets no respect from his spouse or his live-in liver spotted in-laws. After one too many beers, he hooks up with the town tart, and ends up with a raging case of chapped hips. The local health department is on the case, but it may be too late to save John's future foundling. His wife is pregnant, and the seed of his wicked one night stand threatens the fetus's future. Naturally, both films break up their narrative to offer completely unrelated footage of babies being born in graphic, gory detail.
In the case of The Wrong Rut, the surreal cesarean sequence follows a formulaic melodrama in which our heroine, high school drop out Sally Kelton, carries on like a tween in the midst of a boy band bender. Taking in the act of miserable pianist Steve Ryan, she is instantly smitten. She pines for the cranky keyboardist though the only interest he seems to return derives directly from below his waist. When he prepares to leave for a gig in Capital City, Sally gets desperate. She gives up her virtue in a veiled attempt to keep her musician man. He leaves anyway, and when Sally is caught coming in late by her prudish parents, she decides to leave home. An overnight bus trip to her lover's lair leads to heartache, and Sally is left relying on a kind hearted wounded war vet gas station owner named Drew Baxter for support. Our petrol pumper gives Sally a job, treats her like a queen, and uses that most seductive of '40s/'50s aphrodisiacs – the model railroad setup – to win her over. But soon the pangs of pregnancy hit, and Sally senses she'll eventually become another 'with child' outcast. She ends up in a home for unwed mothers, and eventually gives up the kid for adoption. When Drew finds out, he is taken aback. Sally spirals into a world of motherhood mental illness, eventually attempting to baby-nap a toddler. Sadly, it seems that she'll be trapped in The Wrong Rut forever.
The Wrong Rut – actually a renaming of the 1949 novelty Not Wanted – has quite a complicated past. Unlike other roadshow attractions, this film didn't start out as a sex hygiene extravaganza. Indeed, famed b-movie maker Elmer Clifton (he was responsible for Assassin of Youth and several journeymen Westerns) had hoped to forge a dramatic diatribe on the evils of premarital passion. Using the standard story of a girl gone gratuitous, and the infant-oriented comeuppance as a result of being risqué, the director thought he was created something seminal. Unfortunately, he never got to see the fruit of his labored labors. Struck down by a cerebral hemorrhage during filming, the movie floundered. It was completed by his famous friend, actress Ida Lupino. Though she would later be known for both her performing and her efforts behind the lens, this was Ms. Lupino's first foray into mainstream moviemaking, and it's fairly easy to tell where one auteur exited and another amateur arrived. Lupino was always acknowledged as a student of the Method, and it's interesting to watch her cast careen between emotion and excess throughout Rut's running time. Sometimes they are merely icons in a studio system storyline. At other instances, however, they seethe with an inner angst that clearly carries over to the audience.
At the center of this scattered soap opera is poor sad Sally, played by the like named nobody Sally Forrest. A minor Miss in the history of cinema, Forrest would forge a decent career in '50s/'60s TV before dropping out of the business all together in the '70s. It's too bad that she didn't have more of a chance to showcase her performance mantle – she is sensational here, playing pie-eyed and pissed on with equal poignancy. During the final act, when she recognizes that giving up her baby was a mistake, her breakdown in the hospital offices is quite memorable. With her fragile china doll features and glamour gal gone to seed persona, we truly identify with this little lewd girl lost. While some of her reactions may be a bit unbelievable – she moons over the schlub Steve Ryan like he's the second coming of Thelonious Monk – but her moments with the decent Drew Baxter have a real tang of truth. Sadly, roadshow hack Jack Lake got his hands on the film, and befouled it by intercutting some pointless surgical shenanigans (what did the raincoat crowd want with a non-private parts delivery of a child?) and playing it in drive-ins for decades. What was surely an attempt at a decent, controversial drama became just another facet of the exploitation freak fest, along with the photocopied sex manual and the "visiting doctor" giving the mandatory intermission sales pitch.
At least Birthright makes no bones about its "education via exposé" ideals. A creation of the Georgia Department of Health, this hour long example of personal preaching has real life citizens of a backwater burg reenacting a particularly prickly bit of sexual scare tactics. John lives with his wife and her old crone parents on the only chicken farm in the entire Peachtree state that kills more hens than it harvests. Everyone points to big dumb dork John as the reason for the dwindling pullet populace. Sick and tired of being pegged a capon killer, our angst-ridden agriculturalist heads into town and gets good and liquored up at the local diner. A wicked waitress with a garter of gold picks him up, takes him home, and in a single fade-out, gives the lunkheaded Lloyd a substantial case of syphilis. Asymptomatic most of the time, John finds out about his genital jaundice during a citywide campaign for VD awareness. Upon learning of his sullied loins, our hero tries to break the news to his bloated better half. But she's a country gal, and can't cotton to things like doctorin'. Eventually, she gives in, and after treatment, worries that she'll give birth to some monstrous flipper kid. Even worse, John goes into a deep malaise, dead convinced that he's given his baby a Birthright founded in deformed DNA.
Like the level of performance in The Wrong Rut, acting is at the center of this government sponsored screed. Using actual citizens from a stark Southern city sure gives Birthright an unique approach to storytelling. Everyone here, from real life farmer Boyce Brown (as John) to Mr. and Mrs. W. O. Jarrett (as the elderly in-laws) add an air of realism to the rube-based narrative. Sadly, they are also as exciting as a sickly Rhode Island Red. No one here can maneuver above a monotone – both verbally AND physically – and line readings are rendered in matter of fact, reciting in front of the classroom convincingness. The plot is peppered with innuendo and suggestion, but the realities are always drenched in rational moralizing. Our booty giving waitress is not a harlot, but an abandoned spouse whose husband is responsible for her case of poison poon, and John's violation of his sacred marriage vows is seen as the necessary result of a few too many malt beverages. As the scenes stumble along, delivering their kitchen sink situations with standard sudser subtlety, we wonder what all this has to do with live birth footage. Indeed, it seems the more suitable approach would be to discuss social diseases, and their visually vile symptomology.
But no, Birthright is another jerryrigged release, a film befouled by the insertion of a delivery room dynamic. Under the original theory, baby birthing footage was incorporated in exploitation films to – believe it or not – give the grindhouse gang a shot of genitalia without having to worry about censorship concerns. Oh sure, the moral watchdogs wailed when they learned that full frontal female nudity was being featured in a film. But the excuse here was kind of clever, no matter the concerning concept that men, so desperate to see some snatch, would ignore the small human crawling out of it. Since it was footage of a medical procedure, and since science was not pornographic, offering up such material avoided the onus of offensiveness. Soon, producers were piling on the pregnancy, using the birth of twins, triplets and other biological variables to differentiate their drama from all the others.
Almost all of these presentations were sold as part of the roadshow format, since it allowed the producer to pitch sex manuals and offer lectures by ersatz scholars in the realm of the risqué. The entire enterprise was one big con, a chance to use sex and its pre-'60s secretiveness to fleece the perplexed public. Many thought they were attending real life lessons in love. What they ended up with was melodrama marred by shoddy stock footage of bleeding beavers. In truth, such a film going format reminds us of an era when movies really made a difference in people's lives. Radio was the regular media, and TV was just taking off. For the average individual, the cinema was still the palace of personal propaganda. All flim flam and swindle aside, the roadshow routinely formed the thinking for entire communities – and in some cases, the country.
As they did with their previous DVD presentations of these exploitation rarities, Something Weird Video does their best to provide the most consistent transfers possible. In the case of The Wrong Rut, the movie looks amazing, nicely monochromatic and lacking substantial scratches or defects. Certainly, when the OBGYN elements enter into the mix, the 1.33:1 image goes goofy, jumping and skipping in badly edited obviousness. Still, compared to the dull and faded façade of Birthright, The Wrong Rut looks great. Speaking of that Georgian joke, when taking into consideration the overall scarcity of this movie, the full frame transfer of the regressive rural cautionary tale is pretty good. In both cases, the Dolby Digital Mono is a mess. Flat, tinny and drowning in distortion, the sad state of the source material means SWV can only provide aurally insufficient mixes.
As for bonus features, the differing elements of the roadshow experience are spelled out in the excellent added content featured on this disc. There are three additional short subjects, each one dealing with the depressing truth about how gosh-darned gruesome the birth of a baby actually is. With Life and Its Secrecies, Life Begins and the sex manual pitch for The Art of Love, we witness firsthand what it must have been like to sit in on one of these perverted presentations. The footage is quite foul (the doctors all wear long black gloves that give their limbs a kind of horror film fiendishness) and the experts espousing on life's randy realities sound like their shilling stereo equipment, not guides to Eros explained. Along with some amazing trailers, the typical gallery to the gratuitous, and a couple of excellent roadshow only extras (including a complete program pitch, and an interview with "hygienist" E.J. Shaefer), this DVD does it's best to dramatize the truth about the tawdry tent revivals of the era, a time when the science of sex was used to front for a more perverted purpose.
Oddly enough, it didn't take much to replace the roadshow. Movies themselves became their own three rings circuses of over-the-top theatrics. The blockbuster mega-plex extravaganza with its multi-million dollar special effects and superstar names are in reality nothing more than gussied up examples of these traveling tricks, maximized. In this case, however, the hard sell shill comes before you enter the parking lot and continues as long as the merchandising machine can push their manufacturing into maximum overdrive. Who needs live birth of a baby footage when you've got the human zygote in regression antics of Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, each so in tune with their own inner embryo as to raise the distinct possibility of child abuse charges against themselves. So what if The Wrong Rut ruins a perfectly playable drama with a lot of bilious bodily fluids, or Birthright rambles on like a hick hung over on homemade apple wine. At least these films and their makers were honest and somewhat noble in their objectives. True, they wanted to cheat some change out of the wallets and purses of the panting, paying public. But they never tried to substitute computer generated "stunt men" for actual effects in order to prove their point. They just showed surgical wounds and ballooning wombs. The Wrong Rut/Birthright may be relics from a bygone era, but at least they disgusted us for the right reasons.
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