The name David F. Friedman won't get a mention in any academic course on the history of cinema and none of his films are ever going to get into one of those books of movies you must see before you die, but he brought entertainment to the masses in a way that Godard and Bergman couldn't. He was the first to admit that most of the films he produced were not very good, but he had fun making them and audiences kept coming back for more. At heart he remained the carny that he was before he got into the film business. He entertained by showing people things they had never seen on the big screen before, first nudity, then gore, and later sex. He was the Mighty Monarch of Exploitation, one of a merry band of confidence men (and women) who made up for their lack of skill in filmmaking by including in their films various salacious or shocking ingredients that mainstream Hollywood would not touch. But even more than the visuals in the films themselves what counted was the way they were sold. More was always promised than could possibly be delivered, but that was half the fun. Friedman's philosophy was that you "sell the sizzle not the steak". This is why he was not keen on the arrival of hardcore porn features which actually delivered on his false promises. To him this was poor business. But he did relent and produce some better than average hardcore porn features in the seventies and early eighties.
Friedman's cinematic output falls into a series of genres, each characterising a period in his career. After learning the exploitation film business while working for Kroger Babb, producer of the notorious sex education movie Mom and Dad (1945), with its then shocking birth of a baby sequence, Friedman teamed up with director Herschell Gordon Lewis in 1961 to make a nudie cutie called The Adventures of Lucky Pierre. While loops featuring cute girls cavorting nude had been popular in penny arcades and sold to collectors through the mail for years, it was Russ Meyer who established the nudie cutie feature as a new genre of motion picture in 1959 with The Immoral Mr. Teas. As with any hugely popular innovation, poor imitations of Meyer's work proliferated. Both Teas and Lucky Pierre consisted of a loosely connected series of corny gags featuring beautiful nude women. The spirit was that of burlesque theatre which had always mixed beautiful scantily clad women with low brow gags and slapstick. Friedman and Lewis followed up this very successful first collaboration with two nudist camp movies. One of the key tricks of the exploitation business was to use the pretence of education to justify the presentation of salacious material. Typically, the nudist camp films which proliferated in the early sixties presented serious, somewhat melodramatic, stories of individuals defending their right to nude recreation in the face of conservative members of their community who are worried that the local nudist camp was a front for some kind of depravity. Narration informed us of the emotional and physical benefits of getting our gear off in a communal setting. But the businessmen who snuck into "art cinemas" on their lunch break to lap up all that fascinating flesh were very unlikely to answer the siren call to nude living. The next Gordon/Friedman collaboration was a self-parody called B-O-I-N-G!!! which dealt with the misadventures of two sleazy filmmakers making a movie called "Nature's Nudnicks".
But, by 1963, audiences were starting to get bored with the nudie cuties. After Friedman saw a performance of Paris's Grand Guignol (a theatre which presented gruesome simulations of dismemberment and disembowelling), he decided that, since people were bored with nude bodies, the only way forward was to start exposing internal organs. He and Lewis made the infamous Blood Feast. A leg came off, a brain was removed and a woman's tongue was ripped out of her mouth, all in blood-drenched close-ups. When the film hit drive-ins audiences went wild. People screamed, fainted and threw up, and then came back for more. In Baltimore a young John Waters peered over the back fence of his local drive-in and saw something that would help to inspire him to become a filmmaker. Friedman and Lewis made two more gore pictures together - Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red - as well as more nudies before going their separate ways. (They would team up again in 2002 to make a sequel to Blood Feast.) One of the last of those original collaborations was a film called Scum of the Earth (1963), which pointed the way to the next stage in Friedman's career. This was one of the first of what were known as "roughies". The roughies were generally shot in black and white and had very melodramatic stories filled with violence, including sexual violence, and general depravity. They usually contained nudity, but often less of it than the cuties, but added sex scenes to the mix. Of course the sex scenes were not very explicit at all, but the overall atmosphere was of something dark and kinky and forbidden.
Friedman was not an auteur. While he sometimes did some directing, he was almost never the credited director on any of his features. He did, however, write or co-write most of the scripts. While he may have produced films by many different directors, you can see Friedman's creative stamp on every film. Friedman's best roughie was called The Defilers (1965). He borrowed the basic plot idea from William Wyler's The Collector (based on the novel by John Fowles) which had just come out. But in Friedman's movie there was more than one collector. It told of a pair of sadistic delinquents who kidnap a girl and subject her to sexual torment. The director was Lee Frost, who would go on to make many notoriously sadistic exploitation pictures. Friedman made a couple more roughies with other directors, but it was a film he made in 1966 which became the blueprint for the type of picture which would be his specialty for the rest of his career.
The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill was a colourful tongue-in-cheek period sex romp directed by Pete Perry. This was the first of a series of sexy spoofs which would take on various established Hollywood genres, including western (Brand of Shame (1968)), science fiction (Space-Thing (1968)), Valley of the Dolls-style showbiz melodrama (Starlet! (1969)), jungle adventure (Trader Hornee (1970)) and the swashbuckler (The Erotic Adventures of Zorro (1972)). He referred to these pictures as "crotch operas" or "crotch hoppers". He found the desperation of the patrons of adult cinemas to see naked flesh kind of ridiculous so he expressed that in the parodic nature of many of his films. Even when he made some softcore films which played it straight, one feels that, for him, it was all one big lark. Irony was never lost on him, such as that of being a Jewish man playing a sadistic Nazi officer in his friend Bob Cresse's Love Camp 7 (1969). And he would also produce the most notorious of all Nazi-sploitation pictures Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. (1975), which was shot by director Don Edmonds on sets left over from Hogan's Heroes.
Of all his films, Friedman's personal favourite was She-Freak (1967) a low rent remake of Tod Browning's Freaks (1932). He loved it best because it was filmed at a carnival. Friedman was a carny first and foremost and his films were just like a carnival ride. The sex romps were never quite as exciting as you hoped they would be. They left you feeling dissatisfied. But there was only one answer for that. To step aboard the next one.
Films like Blood Feast and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS get a lot of attention on horror fan sites, so I've decided to pay my tribute to the great man by watching his sex comedy films and reviewing them here, beginning with The Adventures of Lucky Pierre and finishing with his first hardcore film 7 into Snowy (1978).
Friedman's autobiography A Youth in Babylon is one of the best books ever written on the exploitation movie business. Unfortunately his promised sequel Kings of Bablylon never made it into print.
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