Back Issues: The sex education film The Secrets of Life caused a sensation at the cinema in 1950

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As you settle into the comfy seats of local cinemas this summer, enjoying the air conditioning and your choice of the many films on offer, take a moment to reflect on the most unusual box office success of 1950.

In Palmerston North, like everywhere else in New Zealand, The secrets of life, reached attendance records.

Unlike popular genres of the time – comedies, musicals, westerns or dramas – this was a film with a difference. Belonging to the exploitation genus, the secrets of life, was a sex education movie.

Exploitation films used sensational material and fashionable advertising to attract their audience.

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A promo featuring yet another suitor cutting a couple's dance.

Provided

A promo featuring yet another suitor cutting a couple’s dance.

Advertising in the Manawatu Standard claimed missing out on the film ”was a sin” and he promised the film would teach ”true facts of life” to boys and girls so they don’t ”grow up innocent out of ignorance” .

A special attraction was Elliot Forbes, the American sex education commentator, whose role was to initiate discussion and answer questions during the film’s interval.

Forbes was actually a character used on the show, a fictional name given to the speaker who accompanied him.

Accompanying the film in New Zealand were two ”Elliot Forbes”, the second being used to rest the first.

When the film was shown in the United States, where it was billed as Mom and dad, there were up to 25 ”Elliot Forbes” on different stages at any one time.

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“Missing it is a sin” advertisement promoted in the Manawatū Standard on July 21, 1950.

Changing film titles was standard operating practice, as such films were often renamed more than once over a period of years and in different regions. Australians saw the film under the title the secrets of life, when it was renamed The family history in Great Britain.

Further evidence of the film’s graphic and sensitive content is seen in the special censorship decree to hold separate sessions for male and female audiences, a practice almost unheard of in New Zealand.

Two daily sessions have been scheduled for women and girls over 14, including one, the last at 8:30 p.m., reserved for men and boys over 14.

This bias suggests that issues of “sexual hygiene”, pregnancy (and/or its prevention) and childbirth were primarily seen as part of women’s domestic responsibilities, reinforced by the headline of an advertisement: ” She did not know ! Mother was old-fashioned.’

The photographic stills used to advertise the film looked innocent enough, with one showing a young man “cutting” a dance and another showing a young couple kissing.

However, the film incorporated scenes of childbirth, caesarean section and venereal disease footage into a standard feature story about a high school girl who ‘gets into trouble’ due to her lack of knowledge about the facts of the life.

Newspaper advertisement for the film The Secrets of Life, 1950.

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Newspaper advertisement for the film The Secrets of Life, 1950.

Nurses were present at each screening to help viewers whose sensibilities were overwhelmed by the graphic representations on the screen.

Along with the hype announcing its sexually provocative nature, we can be sure the comments from those who had seen the film had the effect of luring people into cinemas to see just how shocking it really was.

The combination of the object, the segregation of the audience, the commentator and the presence of nurses were, in essence, ”special effects” that gave theater managers a greater opportunity to flaunt the show aspect of the evening ”entertainment” than usual.

Indeed, the term ”exploitation film” reflects the use of a variety of promotional techniques to attract audiences to a film that had no identifiable stars, although this film claims an ”all-star Hollywood cast”, nor a recognized conventional film genre.

As one commentator put it: ”A kind of carnival ballyhoo has become part and parcel of his success.”

A look at the Mayfair Theater Exhibitor Registry reinforces the popularity of this film. It was the time when people went to the movies often and the movies were changed every few days.

At the Mayfair, a film rarely stayed longer than three days, with the number of screenings ranging between two and six. The secrets of life screened for a full week from July 21-27 and was screened 18 times.

There was no chance it would be held up by popular demand, as it was due to start screening at The Cozy in Hastings the following day.

Its net receipts for the Mayfair that week were £1,450, compared to the theatre’s average weekly total for the year, £246. The comparative week of the previous year had receipts of £176.

Newspaper advertisement for the film The Secrets of Life, 1950.

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Newspaper advertisement for the film The Secrets of Life, 1950.

Across New Zealand, net receipts of almost £40,000 were significantly higher than Kerridge-Odeon’s next highest-grossing film for the same year, the British drama No room at the hostel, Who grossed £23,460 and had 11 showings for its week at Mayfair.

Globally, The secrets of life lasted seven months in New Zealand, from May 4 to December 14, 1950, and was seen in 29 centres.

It finished its New Zealand run 10 days before Christmas, leaving moviegoers with the festive season and summer holiday period free for the most “holiday-appropriate” fare. Annie Take your gun.

Pauline Knuckey is Special Collections Librarian at Massey University Library and serves on the Editorial Board of the Manawatū Journal of History.

About Debra D. Johnson

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