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.

Bite Size: The Flesh Merchant/The Wild And The Wicked (1956)

We are not interested in the mysterious, difficult woman, the femme fatale, who wears elegant underwear, with lace, and she is sad, and somehow mentally filthy. “- Hugh Hefner, as interviewed by Oriana Fallaci in the January 10th, 1967 issue of LOOK magazine

The girl gone wrong vice picture was another stalwart of early exploitation, with a endless parade of pretty young things moving to the big city seeking glitter and glamour, usually in show business. Despite men’s feelings on the matter, the women of exploitation cinema were certainly interested in curating mystery and a cosmopolitan air of casual difficulty, outside the limited confines of hearth, home and day dresses demanded by their former existences. The desire for more, be it material goods, sexual agency or the additional options afforded by financial independence is exactly what is used to lure these women into sex work, white slavery (non Caucasian characters are rarely afforded the same level of respectability or perceived innocence to warrant the same paternalistic, protectionist hysteria) or some hybrid of the two.

For all of his pretensions toward both the liberated and the libertine, Hefner’s quote shows he was no different (aside for a flair for personal opportunism) from any of the moralists of his day, or the production codes they created that mandated crime mustn’t ever appear to pay. The female protagonists of vice films may not be rounded up by law enforcement, but they are still punished in the end. Locked away from their former lives, tainted by their ambitions and implied to be deserving of whatever befell them before the credits rolled. You can be that difficult, mysterious woman…..but you’ll be forever marked by the filthy stain of wounded male ego. Had you just been content with your lot, none of this would have happened.

The Flesh Merchant is, on its face, a nondescript little exploitation film. The movie was indifferently directed by grindhouse journeyman W. Merle Connell (best known for the 1948 hygiene film Test Tube Babies) and dumped unceremoniously into the grindhouses in 1956. Typical of B fare, a spate of retitlings (The Wild And The Wicked, Sex Club, Dial 5683 for Love) and projectionist recuts makes information on the original conception of the film a bit tricky to track. Both “hot” (as seen on the Secret Key Archives Skin In The 50s DVD release) and “cold” (the print available most everywhere else) versions of the film exist, with a barely feature length runtime designed for the addition of additional loops to spice things up a bit.

22 year old Nancy Sheridan (Joy Reynolds) hops the bus to Hollywood where her estranged sister Paula (Lisa Rack) has had some success as a fashion model. Paula is far from thrilled by kid sister’s plans to stay awhile, and her reaction makes clear that modeling is probably not how she affords her fur coats and swank apartment.

Paula drops Nancy off at the bus depot the following morning. Nancy instead takes a cab to an art institute seeking models, the business card of which she stole from Paula’s desk. The nude modeling escalates into luxury prostitution at a resort like compound run by obvious Mafia stand ins. Soon Nancy is rooming with wise old broad Easy, and realizing the “guests” would like more than to take her picture.

This zippy little melodrama whizzes by, as necessitated by the scant 58 minute runtime. The cast of colorful characters (end of the line hooker Easy, a closeted male secretary at the art school, a goofy Chico Marx type brothel employee referred to only as Joker) are full of coded, delightfully suggestive dialog clearly designed to skirt right up to the knife’s edge of what the mores of the day would allow, while cluing the audience in with a nudge and a wink. When young Nancy is asked if she has any art modeling experience, she chirps “Yes, naturally”. A “naturalist” was a common synonym for “nudist” at that time.

There’s plenty of filmy peignoirs and bathing costumes and sheer dresses, as well as a brief bit of actual nudity even in the “cold” cut. In a refreshing change, where the loops are meant to be inserted isn’t hugely jarring or distracting. Given there there isn’t much visual craft here other than the beauty of actresses, having the more salacious elements passably blend into the main plot definitely helps the overall experience.

Perhaps most interestingly, while The Flesh Merchant hits all of the standard beats of a vice picture, Nancy is given far more agency than most of these stock plots usually allow. While initially a bit shocked by nude modeling, she calculates a beat and playfully drops her draping in an alluring pose. When she catches on to the true nature of “The Colony”, Nancy is more afraid of her gangster employers than the work itself. Soon she is getting quite used to champagne cocktails and diamonds on her wrists. Nancy’s already had the wholesome agreeable small town girl bit, has learned the rules of engagement, and has decided the brothel is definitely the better deal.

This leaves Paula to be the sanctimonious voice of era approved reason. Once the inevitable insanely improbable coincidence happens to make both sisters aware of the other’s true nature, she makes a second impassioned plea for Nancy to go home, before she misses her chance at Eisenhower era perfect domesticity. Paula then explicitly states she doesn’t know how to appeal to Nancy. You can see Paula realizing she’s projecting her own yearnings onto her younger sister, as her impassioned arguments run out of steam in an admission of futile frustration.

Paula makes one last ditch effort, bursting into the drawing room full of clients. Instead of charming them, makes an angry speech detailing her rage and disgust at the purveyors of sex, the men who buy it and all of the compromises that trade has forced her to make in her own life. Lisa Rack never made another film, and the role of moral scold is a rather thankless task. Her performance as Paula is surprisingly adept, and she delivers this final screed with believable conviction that she is trying to save young Nancy from that same fate.

Of course, the moral majority wins out in the end. Considering the stranglehold the expectations of happy domesticity and constant feminine cooperation had on this particular era, Nancy eschewing all of that, no matter how briefly, might just be the spiciest bit of content The Flesh Merchant has to offer.