Wednesday 30 June 2010

Test Tube Babies (1948)

Director: W Merle Connell
Stars: Dorothy Duke, William Thomason and Timothy Farrell
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

There's just something at once magic and awful about the old exploitation movies of the thirties and forties that offered up tantalising titillation under the pretense of educating the masses. The fake education angle had little to do with censorship, as these films weren't shown at reputable cinemas who were restricted to screening films with an official censor's seal of approval, and more about suckering in the widest possible audience. Mostly they were distributed roadshow style across the nation, an entourage breezing into town like a carnival or revival meeting to a blaze of lurid publicity, blitzing a local rented theatre and quickly moving on before the arbiters of morality in the area descended. Films were often the least important part of the show, given that they rarely delivered on their outrageous promises and the barkers made more money off the pamplets or overpriced Bibles that they hawked than they did from actual ticket sales.

This tarnished little gem, the debut feature from Screen Classics, who also made Racket Girls and Glen or Glenda, Ed Wood's notorious tranny flick, is a textbook example of what these films had to offer. Unfortunately the version available on DVD runs a mere 53 minutes, suggesting that a full 17 minutes has been cut or lost since its release in 1948, probably some of the more risqué material on offer. It opens with two and a half minutes of credits and introductory text to explain that 'unsung heroes and unhonored pioneers, in the face of man-made prejudices and doubts, have performed miracles.' If you haven't seen such a film before, you might assume that this is a pro-science movie, especially as one credit reads, 'Medical and Technical Data approved and supervised by The National Research Foundation for Fertility Incorporated'. The initiated will not be surprised to find that this doesn't exist, not in Nesconset, NY or anywhere else.

Soon the real hints arrive. It's a film about artificial insemination, 'the Miracle of Life', where the child is assured to be 'free of all taint of heredity' but somehow, 'astounding as it may sound, it even resembles the parents.' I love that phrase, 'taint of heredity', as if test tube babies are so much better than regular babies because they're somehow not related to anyone. And yet they can look just like you, the flesh and blood equivalent of an avatar you can customise into being a wish fulfilment version of yourself. This isn't pro-science, it isn't even pro-pseudoscience, it's pro-exploitation and you don't have to wait too long to discover that in no uncertain terms. Trust me, there's a topless catfight coming and I'm still racking my brain as to how that fits into a story all about test tube babies. First we meet the Bennetts, Cathy and George, who are apparently an all American couple going through the all American life cycle. They're us, ladies and gentlemen.

For a little while we watch them live out in short vignettes exactly what we've just read in the opening text, all accompanied by a creepy windscreen wiper technique to switch scenes that suggests that we're following their every move like a stalker hiding in his van with blacked out windows. With the amount of skin Cathy likes to show us, that's understandable too. They're a young couple who know each other well enough that he can lay his head in her lap at a picnic by the lake. He's an architect who doesn't make the big money but does make enough to maintain a family. And just like that, he proposes and we're thrown into fast forward. They buy a house. She wears a big hat. They frolic together on the beach. He finds a white suit. He carries her over the threshold. Wow, this first year ends so quickly. How do we know it's a year? There's a clumsy attempt to mark time by having anniversary strawberries and cream for breakfast.

Now, you may read into this that Cathy and George are blissfully happy, but you'd be sorely mistaken. They're falling apart at the seams and the opening text explains why. 'Some unseen driving force is slowly and surely destroying their lifetime of Heaven on Earth... Neither realizes Motherhood is the only link necessary to sustain their love...' Yeah, George should just knock her up! That'll fix everything as love flourishes when you're woken up every two hours to change junior's nappies. I bet writer Richard S McMahan never had kids. Somehow Cathy understands the reason for their apparent unhappiness because she drops a lot of hints to her husband. All their friends are having babies and throwing baby showers. They don't hang out any more as they're busy with their families and so don't have time for the old gang. They all drink a lot too. Have kids, stay home, drink a lot. Awesome. No wonder the Bennetts are so unhappy!

If you pay attention you'll see that the real reason they're unhappy is that they don't have a life. Cathy stays at home all day and does precisely nothing. George works all day and all night too so they rarely see each other. When they're in the same scene, they just talk about other people like Frank Grover, who's a bad example for everyone. He drinks far too much 'lemonade' and yes, there are quotes around that in the dialogue. He chases around after anyone who wears a skirt. He's exactly who they don't want to hang around with any more and they both agree on that absolutely. So naturally five minutes later, George gets picked up for work by... you guessed it, Frank Grover. He looks Cathy up and down and asks George, 'How do you keep that beautiful wife of yours entertained?' He knows how he'd do it so suggests they go to a party together. Of course George is working on his month end reports, so he asks Frank to take Cathy instead.

How this couple survive with such amazing consistency, I really don't know, but it's all a trick. Cathy knows Frank wants to jump her bones but she just wants George to do it instead so she gets him all riled up to the point that he rings home to threaten to kick out the gigolo. He doesn't even know that Frank called her sugar and gave her a long and passionate kiss goodnight but Cathy's not going to kiss and tell. She's just going to strip off for bed with the camera running. She's spent a good deal of the film in a varying state of undress, from skimpy beach wear in the fast forward scenes to short shorts and off the shoulder dresses at the breakfast table, which may explain just why Frank was raping her with his eyes. Now she strips topless for the camera, though she faces away from it so we're only gifted with subtle glimpses. The actress is Dorothy Duke who never acted again. I can't help but wonder how she got the part.

And suddenly, as if by magic, we're at a party at George and Cathy's place. I can only hope that we're missing some scenes here because the editing is truly atrocious, but given how debauched the party gets we can forgive the editor. He probably had something else to do with his hands. At this party we presumably meet the old gang, because we're never introduced. We just pick up who they are as we go along. There's drunken Don Williams trying his lines on Dolores LaFleur, who has no business being prissy with a name like that. She's Frank the wolf's date but he's busy cuddling up to Don's wife Betty instead of her, so maybe she has an excuse to be as cold as ice, though she's so cold she could freeze you at fifty paces. 'I haven't the slightest interest in your prestidigitation,' Dolores tells Don, who persists in calling her Babe and wants to show her his card tricks. He can pull the two of clubs out of the cleavage of young ladies. I should try that.

While Dolores pretends to be an ice sculpture, everyone else is stunningly uninhibited: drinking, dancing, smooching on couches. Frank even persuades Betty Williams to do a burlesque dance in front of everyone. They just sit there while she strips down to her underwear and Don joins in, except Dolores who walks out. I get the impression that the full version shows us much more of Betty than just her underwear. We certainly get to see more of Dolores, when Betty recognises her as a stripper and they stage a topless catfight on the floor. Betty is Georgie Barton, Dolores is Mary Lou Reckow and neither of them acted again. You can see the trend already, right? Jerry gets to strip off too, because she does her parlour trick of holding a full glass of gin upside down on her forehead but some idiot called Phil lifts it up and drenches her in rotgut. She only strips underneath Don's discarded shirt but still shows a lot of leg. It's a hell of a party!

Cathy doesn't think it's a hell of a party, even though it takes her quite a while to actually notice what's going on. She's so naive that she keeps innocently explaining to Dolores just why Frank keeps taking Betty out of the room. Of course he's just helping her to find something. Of course your date isn't continuing a public necking session with a friend's wife in a more private setting. Why would anyone think that? Why would anyone think this was a movie about test tube babies? We're halfway through the film and all we've seen thus far is drunken debauchery and plenty of Dorothy Duke's skin. Only when George comes home to break it all up and kick everyone out do we start thinking about the actual subject matter, all filtered through the morality and rampant sexism of the time and here's where the real joy of these films manifests itself. Everything is so agonisingly politically incorrect yet they speak to us from the high ground of moral superiority.

The dialogue is like something out of The Room, the sort of conversation you'd expect six year old girls to gift their Barbie and Ken dolls. 'We seem to be breaking up,' says George. 'Do you want a divorce?' 'No,' says Cathy. 'I want a family.' It'll magically fix everything to have a bawling brat hanging around the place, apparently. Anyway, they've been married a year and her mom asked when she'd have a grandbaby and she just didn't know. Mom told her that if she's really worried she should go to a doctor. What sort of doctor? How about Dr Wright, obstetrician and gynaecologist, played by Timothy Farrell, who should really have been Dr Wrong. His 1951 film, Paris After Midnight, was busted in a vice raid even though he was a bailiff for the LA Sheriff's Department at the time. He eventually rose as high as County Marshal but was convicted for corruption and fired. Narrating Glen or Glenda may be his highest achievement.

What may have leapt out of the last paragraph but I'll highlight anyway is that obviously it's the woman's fault. It's like an equation: Man + Woman = Pregnancy. The only time the equation falls down is when the woman isn't up to it, so that's why they go to the gin-and-college-ist. It either has to be brand new science or the Bennetts are idiots because she can't even get the G word out and he can't pronounce it. What do gin-and-college-ists do? Why, they persuade women to strip naked! It's taken us half an hour to get this far but about ten seconds more for Dr Wright to get Cathy to strip down to the altogether for an examination and yes, she does precisely that. Nurse Mason holds a gown for her about a foot away from the edge of the screen that hides her body and she walks from the one to the other, far enough for us to be sure that while we don't really see anything she is completely naked. That's what these films are for, folks: tantalisation.

It's when we find that Cathy is perfectly healthy that the dialogue goes utterly insane. Cathy just assumes they must be unlucky. 'But surely you're not suggesting that there's something wrong with George?' she asks. The man? How could it be the man's fault? Cathy has no conception of how stunningly sexist she really is and Dorothy Duke carries that well. William Thomason, who plays George, isn't actually that bad at being sincere, as long as he looks down and avoids the camera which from here on out he gets to do a lot. It's Dr Wright who steals these scenes though the most amazing bedside manner of any doctor on film, something that Farrell manages to carry with ease. Every word Dr Wright utters just rubs in how abnormal George is and Farrell is deadpan throughout, as if he doesn't realise what the words that come out of his mouth actually mean or what impact they might have. He's the epitome of clinical insensitivity.

'I might explain that of each drop of male reproductive fluid known as semen there are as many as 15 million tiny sperms, each in itself capable of inducing pregnancy,' he tells George. 'Enough of them could be housed in a thimble to father the entire world ten times over.' But hey, you just don't have any. 'In some cases of temporary sterility the sperm count may drop as low as 20 or 30,000 sperms to the drop of semen. In these cases treatment may be effective.' Ah, possibility. 'Isn't there a treatment I can take?' asks George. 'No, Mr Bennett.' Shut up, child. 'According to this report your sperms are all completely inactive, or to put it bluntly, dead.' Give me your man card now, bitch. 'Oh I see. Well I guess that's that.' After being told he's utterly worthless, George decides that Dr Wright should break the news to Cathy. Can he outdo his previous subtlety? Why, yes, he can. 'What Mr Bennett is trying to say is that he is incapable of fatherhood.' Ouch!

Dr Wright does provide some hope, through the marvel of artificial insemination. He brings out a letter from a couple that are celebrating the first birthday of their artificially inseminated child. But when they ask for explanations, he gets all blatant again. What do they need? 'It consists in effect of removing semen from a normal healthy man...' Unlike you, in other words. You're not normal. The doctors know who's normal. They vet the donors so they can determine the right hair colour, eye colour and general physicality. It doesn't look like Dr Wright is a Nazi, but then this is 1948 and the folks from the eugenics program had to find new jobs. George and Cathy talk about it, of course. I was waiting for them to call Frank the gigolo, thinking of a correlation between the fact that he's doing everyone except Cathy and everyone's getting pregnant except Cathy. Maybe this town is a little close to the Nevada Test Site and Frank the wolf moved in later.

But no, George just turns emo now that he's lost his man card. He's all for artificial insemination because Cathy is unhappy, she's lonely at home and he's running the risk of losing her. Babies exist to keep mom company, apparently. He's even, get this, happy for her to talk to her mother about it. 'Your mother's an intelligent woman,' he says with a straight face, 'and having her tell us what she thinks might help us decide.' How many takes did Thomason need here? OK, they're not Jewish but evil mother-in-laws transcend national and cultural boundaries. We get to meet mom and she's so sensitive. 'Naturally it wouldn't be George's baby but he understands that.' she says. 'You know that George loves you now if only from the fact that he's willing to let you have a baby through this artificial insemination.' Best of all: 'It's obvious that you not only want a baby, you need one. You're getting neurotic about this business.' Yes, babies trump neuroses!

Oh, and that's it, apparently. The story's over. Go home. We just have a few more grainy shots we dug out of the stock footage archives that really don't have anything to do with the price of fish in Denmark. Women breastfeed in the park. There are hospitals. Religious quotes. Babies. The end. Anyone watching today is going to be either stunned into silence at this point or is so racked with laughter that they may have to go see a gin-and-college-ist or some other new type of doctor to see if they have a groundbreaking medical procedure just for you. I just wonder if there's someone, perhaps in Japan, that took the film seriously and set up a theme park around the concepts invoked like the reminder at the end of the film. 'We hope this story has convinced you that a fruitless marriage, caused by the lack of children, can be saved.' Magic. And awful.

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