So, I recently got the latest issue of Filmfax (my favorite magazine in the world) and it was a good one. As soon as a I got it I was heading directly for the article on Peter Hyams’s NASA conspiracy flick Capricorn One (1978), but I got sidetracked by Paul Holbrook’s article about an exploitation film from 1938 called Child Bride. I think it was the sub-title that grabbed me: “A THROBBING DRAMA OF SHACKLED YOUTH!”
Paul Holbrook does a wonderful job talking about the making of this exploitation film from the 30s which was actually trying to cash-in on the moral panic surrounding Eunice and Charlie Johns in 1937. You see, Charlie Johns was 22 and Eunice Winstead was nine. And with their marriage Eunice became “the youngest American girl married in the history of marriage statistics.” When the marriage was picked up by the press, the Tennessee newlyweds became national celebrities, and it proved to be one of the most outrageous topics of 1937. In fact, Life magazine took exclusive images of them at their home, and even featured the confrontation between Charlie Johns and Eunice’s teacher when she was switched in elementary school as part of their Private Lives series in the August 23rd, 1937 issue (you can read it by clicking on the image of Eunice to the left). And if you want more about the elementary school switching, you can read another article on the same day from Time magazine here. And for more on this, read the article exposing Child Marriage in Time‘s February 15, 1937 issue titled “What God Hath Joined.”
So, with this as the backdrop, “one of the most notorious exploitation films ever made, a weird cinematic oddity unlike any other film shot in the 1930s” gets produced by Raymond L. Friedgen. And as Holbrook points out:
Exploitation films had dealt with narcotics, perversion, sex hygiene, and all kinds of other things movies were not supposed to show but which people secretly wanted to see anyway. These roadshow films were produced quickly and exhibited in only a few theaters at a time, often accommodated by a lecturer who spoke who spoke out against whatever evil was being presented and sold educational literature warning of its dangers.Because they were made independently and never distributed through the standard theater chains, they were not under the jurisdiction of the Production Code. The films were free to show topics that would get any other film in trouble and pulled from circulation.
This nice, taut frame for the exploitation film circuit frames beautifully how morality can be the most subversive distribution channel. By promoting these films as a morality tale railing against some vice or social issue, it could simultaneously get away with visualizing some of the most illicit visions of the day. And this in many ways is what makes the film Child Bride so controversial, even to this day. And despite the scrolling moral that starts the film to “Abolish child marriage,” by the time the film is ready for release the child marriage laws in Tennessee and other states had already been changed due to immense social pressure. So, what you have is social issue film without an issue. Or, rather, it’s own issue. What makes this film so controversial is a swimming scene that features brief nudity of 12 year-old actor Shirley Mills, as well as her double Bernice Stobaugh. Nudity was a staple of this exploitation films, but child nudity, if even brief, became its own issue as the film re-circulated under various different titles over following decades. In 1958 Child Bride appeared in theaters again, and, as Holbrook notes:
By the ’60s, Child Bride‘s underage skinny dipping scene led to its brief screening in the grindhouses of San Francisco as an adults-only film. Bernice Stobaugh Ray, Shirely’s swimming-double and life-long Christian, heard about that and says she was in a meeting of church women one afternoon in the 1980s when the pastor tried to begin a discussion by asking if any of them had ever one anything outrageous. Bernice raised her hand and said, “I was the double for an actress in a porno film once!”
There was an uneasy silence, and the preacher switched the topic.
Man, articles just don’t get much better than this one in Filmfax, filled with interviews and repleted with images and spot-on writing about a classic from the exploitation canon. And what’s more, the article mentioned Child Bride was in the public domain, so on a goof I googled it (though I was sure to add the year and movie so the FBI doesn’t show up at my door) and voila, guess who has the full version for free streaming or download? That’s right, the venerable Internet Archive has the full film, all one hour and two minutes of Child Bride right here.