© 1938 Cinema Service Corp.

Sex Madness (1938)

Director: Dwain Esper
Starring: Vivian McGill
Year: 1938

Sex Madness was a brazen attempt to skirt the film production codes that came into effect in 1930, and then in a much stricter version under Willie Hays in 1936. By creating an educational cautionary tale and including some gross out shots of a scab-covered syphilis victim, the producers where able to include implications of lesbianism, premarital sex, and skimpily dressed dancing girls, all of which were strictly prohibited by the production code. One of the central characters, a “social reformer” says to a doctor friend in a key piece of dialogue: “I don’t think people should be ignorant of…sex. On the contrary, I think the horrible facts concerning the ravages of  social diseases will frighten, rather than encourage the miscreant relations.”  But Sex Madness was cleverly presented to audiences as a titillating tale rather than a boring educational film. “See regardless passion! See lives destroyed!” beckoned posters. Sex Madness is a textbook example of an exploitation film. After an initial successful run around the US, the film was reedited and re-released numerous times under separate titles such as They Must Be Told!, Human Wreckage, Trial Marriage and About Trial Marriage. The name-changing was a way to give the slip to local censorship boards, while also tricking audience into paying for the same product more than once.

At the center of the plot of Sex Madness is a girlie show called “Glorified Burlesque,” featuring girls dancing in skimpy tops, satin hot pants, and inexplicably carrying papier-mâché dumbbells while other “dancers” stand around the stage like Roman statues. We then see the deadly aftermath of this shocking entertainment. Two office girl friends, Peggy and Betty, have come to the show for a little excitement after work. At the show, lesbian Peggy is able to convince Betty to come home with her, and the two are never seen again. An overexcited weirdo leaves the show and murders a little girl. Tom, the son of a prominent anti-syphilis crusader, takes his friends around to the stage door after the show and invites the dancing girls to a sex party, where all the girls give all the boys a nasty case of syphilis. One of the dancing girls who gives the party a miss is Millicent, who doesn’t feel well and has an appointment the next morning with her doctor. Millicent, a girl from a country town who won a local beauty pageant before heading to New York to make it big. She is suffering from syphilis, which she got when she told a theatrical producer that she would do anything (yes, anything) to further her career, and he invited her to a weekend party with a bunch of big producers, where she would “not be expected to do anything bad.” She was and she did. Her New York doctor is relatively enlightened and frank with his patient, and encourages her to go back to her hometown, but warns her not to be taken in by quacks who will tell her that they can easily cure her. This was a few years before penicillin was mass-produced as cure for syphilis, and many treatments involved mercury based medicines. After a few months at home with her childhood sweetheart, Millie forgets this warning and gives a doctor 100 bucks for a 30-day cure and gets married. A baby arrives but seems sick, and lately Millie’s husband is losing his eyesight…. Yes, Millicent has given her whole family syphilis. Meanwhile, Tom has joined his father’s crusade, and encourages audiences not to be ashamed of their VD, but to seek treatment for competent doctors. Millicent is about to poison herself and her family when the phone call from New York comes…

While Sex Madness is pretty poorly made and performed, it does offer a much more frank picture of the morals and fears of the times than anything that could be found in the fictional films of 1938, which had to adhere to the production code.

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“That's life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”
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from Detour