In 1959, an unidentified caller alerted the staff of a California hospital to a body lying on the well manicured grass of the grounds. She was pronounced dead immediately, but the body was still warm, her handbag and the labels inside of her clothing having been carefully removed. The only clues to her life (and subsequent untimely death) were a distinctive locket, a delicate wedding ring on her left hand, and two mysterious needle marks.
The story was front page news, and the media attention brought forward family members who were able to identify the young woman as 16 year old Brenda Blonder Emerson. The headstrong daughter of a well to do family, she had recently eloped against her parents’ wishes. The official cause of death was an overdose of sodium pentothal. The subsequent investigation revealed a shady network of fly by night “clinics” and nebulously qualified “doctors” promising desperate young women the bodily agency the law denied them.
While underground abortions had long been reported by hospitals tasked with dealing with the terrible after effects, the high profile death of a wealthy white woman brought a new mainstream attention to the dangerous gauntlet long run by the poor and people of color in seeking reproductive choice. The manhunt and trial for those responsible for Brenda’s death was still enough of a hot topic that her story was used as the lede on a Saturday Evening Post expose on illicit abortion published in the spring of 1961.
The expose was the likely inspiration for Patty (later retitled as both The Case Of Patty Smith and The Shame Of Patty Smith). Filmed in the summer of 1961, but released in 1962, the basic beats are obviously ripped straight from the headlines of the period, in both the grand exploitation tradition and the “timely, topical, not typical” ethos of major studio dramas of the 30s and 40s.
Patty Smith (Dani Lynn, If a Man Answers) is fresh off of the bus from Kansas, having moved out to the coast just five months prior. In that time, she’s found a friend in her roommate, Mary (Merry Anders, Young Jesse James), a job as a secretary for a real estate agency, and a budding romance with the square-ish and square jawed Alan (Carleton Crane).
The pair are out on a date when Alan gets into a fender bender with three leather jacketed miscreants straight out of juvenile delinquency film Central Casting. The young punks mock both Alan’s straight laced nature, and his annoyance at the damage to his fancy car. Patty guides Alan away from further confrontation, reminding him that “there’s no winning with that kind”. Unfortunately, even the mildest form of a woman standing up for herself further angers the crew.
The gang follows the couple to a remote spot on the beach, doubly determined to show that mouthy Patty just what kind they are. What began as a minor mishap turns much darker, as the trio sexually assault Patty and force Alan to watch while held at knife point. Traumatized and shaken, Patty begins apologizing to Alan as they escape to their car. Despite being the victim of unimaginable trauma, the poor woman blames herself for both the assault and Alan’s own cowardice, helping him rationalize his inaction. Knowing she’s too ashamed to report the crime to police, Alan drops Patty at her door with a selfish admonishment to forget the whole thing, and an empty promise to call her later.
Six weeks later, Patty discovers she’s pregnant. Alan is studiously avoiding her phone calls and she’s lost her job in a mistake laden, trauma fueled fog. Patty doesn’t want to give birth to a product of assault, and she and Mary begin searching for a solution to her tragic predicament. Patty’s general practitioner lectures her on legality, and attempts to ship her off to a home for unwed mothers when she reveals that her conservative immigrant father would never accept her condition. Mary finds a doctor willing to break the law, but the pair don’t have his $600 fee (roughly $5000 in 2021 dollars), and the recently unemployed Patty is unlikely to receive a bank loan. Patty appeals to the mercy of her parish priest for the cash, but he condemns her to eternal damnation when he discovers the nature of her needed operation.
While the the topic at hand is firmly in the wheelhouse of roadshow style fare, The Case Of Patty Smith is a somber drama forced to wear the white coater trappings of an exploitation film by virtue of its subject and era. This was writer/producer Leo A. Handel’s only stint in the director’s chair on a feature, but he had a successful business producing 16mm classroom films, which is likely why the bursts of voiceover narration and factoid filled expositional scenes amongst the film’s authority figures carry a much more genuinely educational bent than the usual censorship evading veneer, in a very bold push to reconsider public policy and its side effects (a full 11 years before the landmark decision of Roe vs. Wade).
The film carefully avoids sensationalism, and while individual characters victim blame Patty, the movie itself is very clearly on her side, never castigating her for being a career girl, abandoning small town life or dating before marriage. This is underlined in the opening minutes of the film, when the narrator informs us Patty is “the average American girl, with average hopes and average problems”.
There’s no screeching moralism or lurid camp in the performances, and Dani Lynn is near instantly sympathetic as Patty. Initially determined even in the face of the nightmare she’s endured, it is heartbreaking as she makes herself sweet and small, full of apologies and earnest pleas to be heard and believed. Instead, everyone she turns to hides behind the performance of kindliness and earnest assistance, following the letter of the law (both secular and religious) to avoid addressing the intent of those same principles. So dedicated to the idea of preserving life, none of the men in the film give adequate weight to the actual life consequences for the innocent victim begging for help sitting in front of them, even as they privately acknowledge the horrors of the choices their inaction pushes her toward.
Unsurprisingly, it is Merry Anders’ Mary that is the only person in the film who truly hears and supports Patty, and the genuine warmth of their friendship is one of the few bright spots in a rather dark film. There’s no cattiness or competition in their interactions, only an almost maternal empathy and the sort of steely, sassy protectionism that Patty is too fragile to conjure up for herself in the face of the endless parade of emptily moralizing male authority. There but for the grace of luck or better sexual health education goes Mary, and she treats Patty just as kindly as she would want her fellow women to regard her if the roles were reversed.
Unfortunately, this is still 1962, and by the time the cowardly Alan finally emerges to hand Patty $60 and the address of a bar owner named Colbert (long working character actor Bruno VeSota) who has some very questionable “connections”, the audience knows exactly where the film is headed. Patty’s strength and Mary’s support are no match for the thunderous indifference toward female suffering that would make access to a fly by night underground clinic a profitable addition to the portfolio of shady services a man like Colbert provides in the backroom of a seedy bar.
In the final third, Patty‘s competent, but generally unobtrusive aesthetic takes a turn toward the terror this all is. Colbert spews smoke and casually suggests the already fallen Patty turn a trick or two to raise the $200 for her appointment. A pawn shop is lit like a jail cell, the diamond cross Patty pawns just another dingy trinket. Her journey to the floating “clinic” is full of shadowy corners and twisting staircases. By the time a chain smoking “nurse” pulls a filthy thermometer out of her pocket, leering at how pretty Patty is like the lecherous warden of a b movie women’s prison, what was already heart breaking has become a full on nightmare, all low lit terrors and the creeping dread of the inevitable. Because the bulk of the runtime is played appealingly straight, this sequence is more effective than many of the actual horror films of the same period. As Patty makes her doomed walk into the “doctor’s” (actually an unemployed pharmacist) makeshift surgery, I found myself biting my nails to the quick, stifling the urge to shout a warning at the screen.
When discussing vintage exploitation and horror films, there is often a certain comfortable remove from both the more harrowing aspects of the subject matter, and the retrograde ideas that often drive the narrative. There’s little real danger of atomic mutants, rabid hippies, or cannibals stalking the streets of urban centers. The ongoing work of multiple social justice movements, while far from done, have made notable strides toward a more progressive and inclusive society than the ones that produced these films.
What makes Patty so oddly affecting is how far we haven’t come in the nearly six decades since its release. Abortion is legal in the US, but both that status and actual access to the surgery itself (or non abortion related reproductive health services) are under perpetual attack. Sexual assaults remain under reported, and under prosecuted, when a victim does go forward with charges. The rationales espoused by various characters in the film for denying Patty assistance, both religious and secular, can be found nearly verbatim in recent conservative media thinkpieces (which I’m choosing not to hotlink so as not to heighten engagement for ideologies I’d prefer not to signal boost).
The real shame of Patty Smith is what an enduring stand in she is, not only for young women demographically like her, but as a signpost pointing towards the thousands of women who died needlessly for similar reasons. Those who weren’t deemed acceptable as tragic figures, or found worthy of front page headlines and thinly fictionalized films, who died alone on dirty kitchen tables or anonymously in hospitals from back alley butchery complications. For those born after 1973, it can be a bit too easy to take Patty’s fate for granted as a sad, melodramatic relic of an earlier era, secure in the knowledge that abortion can be safely performed in hospital settings. The sorrowful reality is that without vigilance regarding those protections, the dangerous consequences in the rearview mirror are much closer than they appear.