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Damaged Lives

1933, Starring Diane Sinclair, Lyman Williams, Cecilia Parker, George Irving. Directed by Edgar G Ulmer.

From the 1928 box office disaster of Carry on Sergeant until the establishment of the National Film Board of Canada in 1939, Canadians made very few feature films. During this quiet decade, the industry became controlled by British and American interests who collaborated on a handful of genre films designed to take advantage of a British film quota requirement. One of the few exceptions to these British/American films was Damaged Lives, a Canadian exploitation film that purported to expose the truth behind syphilis and gonorrhea with implied sexual elements that were still considered taboo in mainstream Hollywood film.

The story of Damaged Lives starts with Canadian distributor J.J. Allen. Americans by birth, J.J. and his brother originally came north to run Allen Theatres, at one time the largest theatre chain in Canada. They sold the chain to Hollywood in the 1920s, but J.J. continued to work in the business, distributing and exhibiting Columbia Pictures' movies in Canada. Allen and the Canadian Health Council wanted to make a mass market film about venereal disease, and proposed a $100,000 movie based on Damaged Goods, a popular play about the ramifications of syphilis and gonorrhea. Venereal diseases were a major concern at the time, but the sensitive nature of the infection was still taboo. As the subject of a film, VD was considered appropriate only as part of army training, and not for mixed audiences. Allen got Columbia Pictures involved, but the extent of their participation in the project is disputed. What we do know is that the budget was slashed to $18,000 and a German named Edgar G Ulmer (who later made noir thrillers like Detour) was brought in to direct.

Damaged Lives portrays the story of Donny, the son of a wealthy shipping magnate. Working at the Bradley Steamship Company, Donny is revealed to be a loud, impulsive businessman who is nonetheless about to inherit the entire business. His girlfriend Joan wants desperately to get married and have a baby, but Donny is so busy that he hasn't had time to fully consider it. That afternoon he is forced to break a date with Joan to entertain a business client, Nat.

The trouble begins when Donny, Nat, and Nat's girlfriend Elise go out to a jazz club. When one o'clock rolls around, Donny and Elise want to go home, but Nat is just getting started he takes them to a whorehouse where poor naive Donny is oblivious to the nature of the establishment. When Nat goes off with one of the prostitutes, Donny and Elise decide to leave and have one last drink in a nearby illegal gambling hovel. Before the evening ends, the two find themselves locked in a kiss at Elise's house. Donny realizes that he is getting himself into trouble and is just about out the door when Elise pulls him back in, leading him to her off-screen bedroom.

The next day, Donny is racked with guilt. To cure his inner demons he submits to Joan's pressures for marriage. Under the logic that if they were married earlier his indiscretion wouldn't have taken place, they immediately speed off to Town Hall for a quickie marriage ceremony.

A few days later at work, Donny receives a hysterical phone call from Elise, who tells him she must see him right away. Donny protests since he is married now, but she convinces him that she is in great trouble. When Donny arrives, a nurse tells him that Elise tried to commit suicide, and that she must be watched at all times. Elise shies away from Donny when she sees him, yelling "Don't touch me! I didn't know!" Donny still can't read between the lines so Elise spells it out in an Oscar-worthy performance, saying "There's something terribly wrong with Nat... and now I've got it! And for all I know, I've passed it on to you... you and your little wife!" Donny calls her a liar and walks out in disgust, but as soon as Elise is off camera, a loud gunshot is heard.

Meanwhile, Joan has gotten her wish she is pregnant with Donny's child. During her first checkup, Joan is shocked to learn that she has syphilis. Under the doctor's orders, Donny is brought to the clinic where he is asked if he has "an infectious disease... a venereal disease." Donny confesses and the doctor tells him that he and his wife are both infected. When asked what has happened to Elise, Donny explains "she killed herself... because she was diseased!"

And so we are brought to the "educational" part of this film. The doctor takes Donny on a tour of the clinic examination rooms where he sees what happens when the wages of sin aren't treated in time. The poor souls range from a man with a rash on his leg to a wheelchair-bound woman. We are informed that her six children are blind, crippled, mentally retarded and syphilis-ridden. The doctor heartlessly explains many of these people simply got what they deserved. Donny fears for the safety of Joan and the baby, but the doctor explains that since the disease was caught in time, they will be cured after taking pills for two years(!). When Donny gets home, he is so exhausted he immediately falls asleep on the couch.

Joan is very upset by the news, and becomes livid when her sister won't even let her kiss her nephew goodnight. Unaware that their dirty secret is curable, she goes home, turns on the gas and lays beside Donny to die. Just in time, Donny awakens and turns off the gas, explaining that thanks to the miracle of modern science, everything will be okay... they must only try to put this nasty event behind them.

Like all great exploitation films, Damaged Lives successfully exploits an audience's fear and guilt. The educational value of the film is questionable, only revealing the results of poor judgement and not any of the important facts behind VD. Donny's night of fun serves to condemn all the vices that might lead to the dreaded " infectious disease," including drinking, gambling, whoring and "loose" women. The film even contains misinformation about syphilis, implying that one can get the disease simply from touching, kissing on the cheek, or even sharing a pipe!

Upon release, Damaged Lives was one of several VD films caught in a censorship battle over the perceived vulgarity and exploitive nature of these early "educational" films. As a result, Damaged Lives did not play in some US cities until four years after it was made, and when it did it was accompanied by a film of a 29-minute lecture on the dangers of VD to raise the educational value. Despite this controversy, or perhaps because of it, Damaged Lives made a huge profit when it was finally shown. It was subsequently rereleased under many other names (such as The Shocking Truth) and managed to stay in circulation until the 1950s.

Although Damaged Lives contains no Canadian elements per se, it was (in theory) a legitimate and progressive attempt at bringing sexual information to the public. This push for understanding societal ills can be seen in the early days of the NFB, which often looked at problems from a viewpoint outside of the individual. One such NFB film, Drug Addict, was banned in the US for suggesting that addiction was a disease, and not a behaviour. While Damaged Lives is wholly typical of American exploitation film at the time, this was the only one to receive support of any kind from a major studio, making this film a high-profile leader in making venereal disease a subject that could be addressed in polite society.

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