Bite Size: Test Tube Babies (1948)

This roadshow ultra cheapie was brought to audiences by producer George Weiss (Glen Or Glenda, the Olga series) and directed by classical exploitation knockabout W. Merle Connell (The Flesh Merchant), in a blatant attempt to make the headlines around otherwise staid medical breakthroughs into a tantalizingly racy ticket.

George (William Thomason) and Cathy (Dorothy Duke) are a blandly blissful married couple, so much so that the film zooms through their engagement, honeymoon and purchase of a suburban home in a quick windshield wiper montage. Yet trouble is brewing on the morning of their first anniversary, despite Cathy doing housewifery impeccable coiffed and in a rather fetching shortie pajama set.

George’s job as an architect has him working long hours, and the booze soaked parties of their assorted friends just aren’t measuring up. In fact, George’s friend Frank (John Michael) is a bit too forward with Cathy, and he’s none too pleased about it. Not enough for him to actually come home at a decent hour or stop Frank from ogling Cathy when he arrives to drive George to work, but incensed none the less. Cathy offers the baby shower of a mutual friend as an alternative activity, her husband misses the obvious hint there too.

In a frustrating display of obliviousness, George has Frank take Cathy to a dance, because he’s pathologically allergic to fun. Shocking no one, Frank tries to put the moves on Cathy assuming a bored housewife would be an easy target. She refuses him, and instead puts on a sheer bed jacket to seduce her husband when he finally gets home. Rather than different friends, a better work/life balance or a hobby, the pair decide that a baby will be the solution to all of their problems, and they promptly head to the bedroom to attempt making one.

Their contentment doesn’t last long, and lacking anything else to do, Cathy tosses one of the parties that George hates so much. He, as usual, mopes off to work when she refuses to cancel it and sit at home in lingerie waiting for him to deign to come home. Not wanting to cancel at the last second, she hosts the party on her own.

Hilariously, all of the guests present behave just as badly as the wayward teens in youth scare films. Everyone’s sauced, everyone (except Cathy) married is openly cheating, and Frank brings a very confused actress to the party only to drop her for someone else’s wife midway through. For a moment, it is almost understandable why George hates these damn things so much. These people need a copy of The Ethical Slut and perhaps a stint in rehab, post haste.

Despite the standard text crawl about medical “miracles” that can “change the course of nature” and the co-sign from an official sounding but likely faked “fertility foundation”, Test Tube Babies seems a bit bored by its white coater premise and delays the titular medical concerns as long as it possibly can.

Dorothy Duke’s Cathy is in bathing suits, lingerie and other revealing clothing as often as possible, and the film never misses a chance for a scandelous hint of nipple or flash of leg from any female character that appears on screen. The party devolves into a duo burlesque routine, infidelity, and a partially topless hair pulling catfight remarkably quickly.

Only when George arrives home to two women he doesn’t know trying to kill each other on his living room carpet does the film begin its faux educational journey toward the titular baby, albeit not via any means that remotely involves a test tube. Wanting to prevent Cathy from any further bouts of independent thought, the couple head to a doctor to see what defect could possibly be stopping her from getting pregnant. Cathy can’t even pronounce gynecologist— which has some rather depressing implications of the state of reproductive healthcare in the 1940s— but off they head to see Dr. Wright (exploitation regular Timothy Farrell, minus his trademark mustache) anyway.

In a rarity for early exploitation films of this ilk……the central narrative conflict isn’t the woman’s fault. George is sterile, while Cathy is in perfect health. It is rather fun to watch Dr. Wright tell him so in the most indelicate and indifferent manner possible, and its the only time in the film where George manages not to sound like a selfish, ineffectual mope. Neither is too fond of the idea of adoption, but Dr. Wright breaks out the visual aids and extolls the benefits of artificial insemination.

Test Tube Babies
isn’t great, even by the relatively low standard of W. Merle Connell directed features or other entries in the hygiene subgenre. It looks cheap and sounds worse, every actor delivering their lines as if they’re reading a cue card they’re squinting to see from several rooms away. Two kids in five years—with another on the way— is painted as a happy ending, despite the couple having addressed none of their actual emotional or communication issues.

Where Test Tube Babies does excel is as an excellent object lesson in the sheer pervasiveness of the steel trap strength of rigid gender norms and expectations of heterosexual domesticity in American culture of the era. Men were expected to provide, women were expected to serve, and it wasn’t seen as catastrophically bad decision making to use another living creature as a Band Aid on an unrelatedly bad marriage.

Despite men having all of the cultural and economic power, conventional masculinity was still so fragile that even a bargain basement roadshow film had to carefully reassure dudes that they weren’t being cuckolded by a medical fertility procedure. When spending an hour and ten minutes amongst the social norms of the day feel this utterly suffocating, the increasingly chaotic rebellion of the 50s and 60s youthquake makes all the more contextual sense.