Rock Baker’s Video Cheese: Damaged Lives

Explanatory Note: Whilst doing an all-too rare bit of housecleaning, I sent Rock a box of old video tapes, which I lack even a VCR to watch anymore. He kindly offered to send his thoughts on them. Here’s his first such piece.

DAMAGED LIVES (1933-37)

“An idiot catches VD, gives it to his wife, then finds out about it.”

A note upfront. Unlike, I would wager, everybody else who frequents the Jabootu site, I try not to watch movies with a mind toward mocking irony. Most any film I see for the first time, I allow to un-spool and judge based on its own merits. I try never to be snarky with a film that doesn’t deserve it. I genuinely enjoyed The Brain From Planet Arous and From Hell It Came, for example. They brought to the table everything I could ask, so I found them to be good movies. Sure to keep me from being invited to a lot of parties, I feel the same about such lowbrow projects as Cannonball Run II and Ernest Goes to Jail, and on over to The Fat Spy, Pajama Party, and The Ambushers.

I hardly ever go into a movie with the intention of doing anything but appreciate it for whats there. I recently borrowed a tape of the 1978 Lee Majors epic Killer Fish. I’m sure that the film isn’t held in very high regard, but I felt it was a pretty good flick. I hope this gives you some idea of where I’m coming from if I praise a movie you think doesn’t deserve it. If I enjoy a picture the way it was intended to be enjoyed, as opposed to enjoying something based on its faults, I don’t see myself as in error. You may disagree.

While I take no pleasure in the suffering of others, it is also true that I don’t have overmuch sympathy for people who contract venereal diseases. Of all the horrible things in our world that can really mess us up, VD is one of the easiest to avoid. Nor am I quick to poke fun at a social warning picture as most of them, at their core, are trying to do some good. I can’t find fault with pictures that are trying to warn potential victims away from narcotics or sexual diseases, at least not their base goals.

True, some are so over the top as to be downright comical, such as the quite dreary Marijuana, or the so-stupid-nobody-will-buy-it Glen, or Glenda? or the insultingly offensive Child Bride. Hard for me to take a position against The Burning Question, however. 1949′s Wild Weed is actually quite good, cinematically speaking, and then we can open the group to include such spiffy titles as High School Confidential, The Cool and The Crazy, and Maryjane.

Sadly, education leads to cynicism more often than not, societaly speaking. The rebellion of the 60′s was a trip we never quite came back from. An embracement of all things counter to the older generations led to acceptance of previously evil and much battled objects and concepts. Today, ‘M’ is considered harmless by just about everyone. Long-lasting attempts to get cannabis legalized are finding a firm standing in the new century, while cigarettes are practically outlawed in some cities. Because of this situation, one often only allows himself to take Warning films at face value in the privacy of his own home. The ability to view a picture irony-free is quite a gift this day and age, and seldom is this trait (openly) shared by groups when it comes to certain kinds of movies.

Of course, Warning films give their mockers plenty of ammunition. In an attempt to leave an impression on the viewer, they spin tales of incredible, inescapable tragedy. Since most are independent productions, this means poor technical results as well. For every slick studio production like Wild Weed, is a few dozen shoestring efforts like Test Tube Babies. The acting is often either atrocious or wildly over the top, the sets are either shockingly minimalist or filmed in real houses, and the camerawork is usually static (that’s what hurts most of them in my opinion).

To make matters worse is the attempt to spice things up a bit, no doubt to make the experience stick more firmly in the minds of the audience (or, being uncharitable, taking advantage of the format to film some ‘dirty’ stuff and get a pass). As educational films, Warning pictures were able to skirt around the Hayes Code, useful when discussing reproductive matters. This lead to flashes of nudity and often shockingly frank discussions about sex.

It didn’t always connect to the story either. In Test Tube Babies, we examine how the personal lives of a married couple deteriorate because they are unable to have children. To fill the void in their lives, they throw wild parties, until they get out of hand. So this film about artificial insemination includes a lengthy cat-fight between two drunken women that involves much ripping of clothing. We also get a scene of our attractive leading lady changing into her bed-clothes for no real reason. For what its worth, the final fifteen minutes of lecture which actually revolved around the film’s main theme DID manage to sell me on the moral acceptance of artificial insemination.

Damaged Lives was shot in 1933, but for some reason went unreleased until 1937. It was the first talkie by director Edgar G. Ulmer, and was released by Weldon Pictures, a subsidiary of Columbia (which actually produced the picture, but the studio wanted to distance itself from the subject matter, according to the IMDB). Our subject of discussion is a monstrous ailment known as syphilis. Thankfully, this particular disease is quite treatable, and is practically a non-issue in today’s culture.

Being an actual studio film, Damaged Lives shows a bit more polish than we usually see with these things. They also don’t feel the need to spice things up with an unmotivated nude scene. Sadly, that doesn’t keep it from dragging, even as the film clocks in under 54 minutes. (According to Leonard Maltin’s video guide, the film should run 61 minutes, although this Sinister Cinema print is in superior shape for this kind of film. I don’t recall a single splice, in fact.) Reportedly, showings of the film were originally followed by a half-hour lecture about VD.

The plot is very simple. There’s this couple that have been engaged for a long time. One night on business the man, Donald (Lyman Williams, who was only credited four times in the nine films he made back in the 30s) takes a tipsy girl home when his client deserts her to make eyes with another woman. (I believe this is the character named Elise, played by Charlotte Merriam, who was quite a busy actress in the 20′s and 30′s.) Donald says goodnight to Elise and prepares to leave, but Elise lures him into the bedroom instead.

Ashamed of his actions, he confesses to his fiancée, Joan. (Joan is played by Diane Sinclair, who died just a few months ago at the age of 98, after a brief turn as an actress in the 30s.) Joan believes this incident is mostly the fault of their long engagement, and the wedding date is moved up. They marry and begin a comparatively happy life, then Donald gets a call from Elise. Without really coming out and saying the words, she lets him know that she has VD, and that she gave it to him, and he has since given it to Joan. Donald refuses to believe it.

As Donald is walking out, Elise shoots herself in shame. (It’s actually kinda weird, in this day and age of politicians who send pictures of their body parts to staffers, to think of someone being so overcome with shame that they’d take their own lives. In a way, we’ve progressed quite a ways, in another sense we’ve devolved quite a ways.) Joan wants to have children, but that’s not happening for a while. She and Donald both have syphilis and tour a hospital ward to see actual victims of the crippling disease.

Their lives fallen apart, Joan turns on the gas and lies next to Donald to hold his hand. Fortunately, he wakes and opens the big balcony window (they have a really nice place, even if you wouldn’t want to sit down when you visit). He and Joan talk things over and they discover they still have some hope. (When treated early enough, syphilis is easily conquerable.) Our couple still in love, they embrace and prepare to move forward with their lives. The End.

I must note that Donald’s doctor friend is played by Jason Robards (Sr), who was a VERY busy actor with a whopping 228 IMDB credits! Though often uncredited, we can spot him such titles as Zombies on Broadway, Isle of the Dead, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, multiple Dick Tracy movies, and countless matinee westerns.

The box cover for Damaged Lives describes it as being over the top campy. It isn’t. Those expecting something surreal like Sex Madness will instead find a fairly typical programmer of the 30s (if not for the subject matter). I don’t know, some folk just expect them all to be that wacky, I suppose. One last trivia bit, a similarly-themed VD pic titled Damaged Goods (one of a dozen films to use that title) was released a week later!

Rock Baker is a professional comic book artist and all around B-movie savant.