Hot on the heels of the death of Tura Satana came the sad news that we’d lost another important cult figure—exploitation film producer/distributor David F. Friedman, one of the last links to this distinctly American motion picture genre. Part filmmaker, part carnival barker, he specialized in selling “the sizzle, not the steak,” and his enthusiasm for showmanship and seeing what he could get away with colored his entire career.
When he was a child, he and his father, a reporter for The Birmingham News and a circus expert, visited the small traveling carnivals of Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, igniting his passion. As a result, he was “with the show” from an early age.
While he was serving in the army, he met Kroger Babb, a pioneer in the exploitation field, whose most famous film is the 1945 Mom and Dad, a low-budget opus about the travails of an unwed mother. Strictly in Reefer Madness territory, Babb spiced the movie up with separate screenings for men and women, an in-person “sex hygiene expert,” Elliott Forbes hawking hygiene pamphlets (an excuse to sell nude photos to aroused audiences) and actual baby birthing footage. He successfully toured the film around the country for decades.
After the war, Friedman worked briefly for Paramount Pictures as a local marketing representative and one of his major projects, ironically, was the promotion of Cecil B. DeMille’s Greatest Show on Earth (1952). However, the sawdust and greasepaint beckoned, and he soon found himself back on Babb’s doorstep, helping him to sell Mom and Dad, along with other exploitation titles, for the next few years.
In those much-more-innocent days, Babb was one of a group of exploitation distributors who practiced “four-walling,” a technique that eliminated the need for a seal of approval from the MPAA. They’d go into a small town, rent a theater for a week (or a night!) and promise the local populace sights of nudity, sleaze and debauchery that their films seldom—if ever—delivered. After the show, they were often to be found racing for the state line in the middle of the night with their ill-gotten cash, leaving behind angry audiences and even angrier authorities who realized they’d been “had.”
Friedman loved the idea of the game, but unlike the other exploitationeers (who he dubbed “the forty thieves”), he stayed on the right side of the law, correctly figuring that if he burned customers with garbage films and empty promises, he’d soon run out of towns to exhibit in. Friedman himself said that when audiences weren’t satisfied by the skin on display in the main feature, the projectionist would quickly thread up a “square-up” reel, giving them the “pickle and beaver” shots they’d come to see. These were silent, 20-minute reels with grainy scenes culled from ancient porno films, but they usually did the trick.
Friedman also led the way for the foreign film boom of the 1950s, which saw audiences flocking to subtitled movies in search of more “adult” entertainment. Babb and Friedman decided that rural America would enjoy the brief glimpses of nudity and sexual implications in Ingmar Bergman’s 1953 Monika, so they picked it up for domestic distribution. Cutting out all the Swedish dreariness but preserving all the hot stuff, they subtitled it “The Story of a Bad Girl,” and it was a smash.
Friedman met Herschell Gordon Lewis in 1959 while he was selling his first film, The Prime Time (with Karen Black!). They formed a partnership and started making “nudie cuties” like Boi-i-ing! and The Adventures of Lucky Pierre. Nudie cuties were an outgrowth of the nudist camp films that the Supreme Court had recently ruled legal for exhibition. No physical interaction or lower body frontal nudity was permitted, however, so they were really the cinematic equivalent of “Playboy” centerfolds at the time.
The genre became repetitive and tiresome, though, and their next step was to virtually invent the splatter genre with Blood Feast in 1963. It was a huge hit, especially in the South, where it played drive-ins for years. After a couple more gore films, Two Thousand Maniacs! and Color Me Blood Red, they parted company, and Friedman began to make films in the “roughie” genre, including The Defilers and A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine. Roughies combined nudity with violence, bringing the exploitation genre one step closer to softcore…and eventually full-on hardcore sex.
Friedman made She Freak in 1967, which was both a remake of Tod Browning’s 1932 Freaks and a loving behind-the-scenes glimpse of the traveling carnivals he loved. The sexploitation genre kicked into high gear in the late 1960s, though, and that’s when he made some of his most playful—and playfully monikered—films. Space Thing, Starlet! and Trader Hornee are the most memorable titles. In keeping with Friedman’s carny background, their trailers are full of hilarious hyperbolic narration (written by the man himself) and are far more entertaining to watch than the films themselves.
Friedman often appeared in these films in playful cameos. He definitely stayed behind the scenes, however, when he produced the notorious Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S., filmed on the sets of the “Hogan’s Heroes” television show! This near-porn torture-fest was the sleaziest project he’d been involved in up to that time, which is probably why he chose to hide behind a pseudonym.
The porno chic genre arrived in 1972 with Deep Throat, a film that drew married suburban couples to theaters to get their first glimpse of full-on sex, and sexploitation was dead as a doornail. Friedman reluctantly produced a few hardcore projects, but it just wasn’t any fun for him, and he retired in the mid-1980s.
A revival was just around the corner, though—the home video craze of the 80s brought his movies—mostly the Lewis gore collaborations—to a new audience. I remember going into Budget Video on Highland Avenue in Hollywood in 1984 where patrons were watching a laserdisc version of Blood Feast and admiring the deep color and exceptional picture quality. I have to admit it did look great!
Mike Vraney’s Something Weird Video began re-releasing a much more complete catalogue of his work in the early 1990s, bringing back the notoriety he loved. With the advent of DVD, he worked on many of the films’ commentary tracks. Something Weird offers a special edition of a 1948 VD scare film (and Mom and Dad ripoff), Because of Eve, in which Friedman himself re-enacts the book pitch as “noted hygiene commentator” Alexander Leeds during the intermission. Now that’s a must-have!
And in 1998 he published the autobiography I mentioned earlier, “A Youth in Babylon,” which tells not only his story but those of the exploitation pioneers he’d had the opportunity to meet over the years. The tales he spins (and embellishes, I’m sure) are just fascinating, and I waited for years for the promised sequel, which sadly never materialized.
Friedman appeared in some documentaries about the exploitation field, two of which, Mau Mau Sex Sex, with fellow huckster Dan Sonney, and Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies, both from 2001, are quite entertaining. He’s credited as executive producer for Lewis’ Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (2002), which I have yet to see. According to The New York Times‘ obituary, he’d been blind and deaf for the ten years leading up to his death. Poor guy.
Interestingly, Friedman was born on Christmas Eve and passed away on Valentine’s Day. If he’d known that was going to be his fate, I’m sure he’d have figured out a way to market it:
“Special holiday show! One night only!”