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“Kroger” Babb made a bundle hawking a movie melodrama about a girl who gets in trouble

[divider_flat]AMERICA HAS SPAWNED hordes of skillful scammers but only a precious few have concocted a scheme so brilliant that it became a work of art. Howard W. “Kroger” Babb is among those precious few. If there was an American Schemers Hall of Fame, Kroger Babb would be in that pestiferous pantheon.

[divider_flat]“I’m just a country boy with a shoeshine,” he liked to say, as any country hustler cozying up to a mark would. Actually, Babb was a country boy with a genius for salesmanship, showmanship, and unrelenting self-promotion. He was more accurate when he billed himself as “America’s Fearless Young Showman.”

Born in 1906 in Lees Creek, Ohio, Babb in his youth worked at a Kroger grocery; hence the nickname. He grew up to be a sportswriter and newspaper ad salesman. In his 20s, he got a job promoting the Ohio-based Chakeres-Warners cinema chain. He made his bones as a flack with an outrageous stunt—burying a man alive for six days in front of a theater in Wilmington, Ohio.  The poor fellow—Babb billed him as “Digger O’Dell”—got air and food through a shaft positioned so that customers could gawk down at him before buying tickets.

Howard W. “Kroger” Babb knew nothing sold like sensationalism posing as education, preferably sexual. (Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

In 1939, Babb traveled nationwide peddling Dust to Dust, a low-budget melodrama about a naïve high school girl who gets pregnant—the cheesy plot enlivened by footage of an actual birth and B-roll from a U.S. Army training film about venereal disease featuring hideously infected genitalia. Dust to Dust was awful but quite popular, which inspired Babb to create the masterpiece of sex and hype that made him rich—Mom and Dad.

“This dumb high school girl, very beautiful, wanted to know more about her body, about sex,” Babb said in 1977, summarizing Mom and Dad for a Washington Post reporter. “But every time she asked her mother a question, the mother said, ‘Tut tut, you’re too young to know.’ So then she went to a party, danced with a good-looking stranger and she got pregnant.”

Babb stole that plot from Dust to Dust and hired Mildred Horn, his mistress—and later his second wife—to write the script. In 1944, Babb contracted with B-movie director William Beaudine to shoot the movie. Nicknamed “One-Shot” because he seldom did a second take, Beaudine filmed Mom and Dad in six days. Total cost: $62,000. 

Not only did Babb swipe the plot of Dust to Dust, he also stole its gimmick, incorporating the same delivery room and horror-show VD footage into Mom and Dad. What the master added—his special sauce—was the Babb ballyhoo treatment, rooted in the notion that nothing sells like controversy. His company, Hygienic Productions, sanctimoniously touted Mom and Dad as a high-minded educational experience. “Mom and Dad is not just a show,” Babb would tell anybody who’d listen. “It is a lighthouse in the darkness of human ignorance. It peels aside the veils of sexual superstition and suppression surrounding nature’s most glorious and incredible act. It is the most vital presentation the vast American public has ever been privileged to attend.”

Who could resist—especially when ads screamed: “ONCE IN A LIFETIME Comes A Presentation That TRULY PULLS NO PUNCHES! Now YOU Can SEE The Motion Picture That DARES DISCUSS and EXPLAIN SEX As NEVER BEFORE SEEN and HEARD!”

And there were lots of those ads. A week before Mom and Dad was to play a local bijou, advance men plastered the area with posters. They also bought space in local papers for ads that frequently inspired ministers to denounce the movie as smut. If clerics ignored the bait, Babb mailed pseudonymous letters to the editor decrying Mom and Dad.

Babb delivered more than a mere movie. The Mom and Dad roadshow included one Elliot Forbes, billed as a sex expert and lecturing on “The Secrets of Sensible Sex.” Two women in nurse’s uniforms stood by to treat audience members who might faint from shock. In a genius stroke of hullaballoo, Babb insisted theater operators segregate screenings by sex.  He’d schedule shows for women at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., pumping up excitement for the men-only event at 9.

Halfway through the movie—after protagonist Joan weeps to learn that the handsome pilot who impregnated her has died in a plane crash—Mom and Dad stopped. The house lights came up for an intermission, during which Forbes inveighed on behalf of sex ed while the “nurses” hawked a facts-of-life book written by…Mildred Horn. The film resumed with the live-birth and VD footage, which actually did cause some viewers to faint. “In Minneapolis,” Babb bragged, “we had ’em laying there by the dozens on marble benches in the lobby, like slabs in a morgue.” 

The movie closed with a sequence featuring Babb himself. “If you agree that these pictures have been bold and shocking enough, that you’ve learned a very worthwhile lesson from them,” he declaimed. “I wish you’d show the management your appreciation at this time—by your applause.” And audiences applauded.

Local censors banned Mom and Dad countless times but Babb and his lawyer, Henry Fox, fought back. “Oh my God, you don’t have any idea of the vigor with which opponents pursued this film,” Fox later recalled. “They swore they’d die before they’d show the thing.” But Babb and Fox generally won their court fights, arguing that Mom and Dad was educational—“a lighthouse in the darkness” and a valuable tool in the fight against teen pregnancy and social diseases. 

Babb imported future auteur Ingmar Bergman’s 1953 “Summer With Monika,” retitling it “Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl.” (Everett Collection)

Through the ’40s and ’50s, a dozen or more Mom and Dad roadshows circulated simultaneously, each with its own “Elliot Forbes” and fake nurses. An all-black outfit featured Olympic hero Jesse Owens delivering the Forbes folderol. Between 1944 and 1977, Mom and Dad grossed between $40 million and $100 million—not counting receipts for those facts-of-life books.

Babb had other hits. He bought Karamoja, a documentary featuring naked Africans, that he flacked with the line, “They wear nothing but the wind.” He imported Summer With Monika, a 1953 film by an obscure Swede named Ingmar Bergman that he retitled Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl. But it was Mom and Dad that made Babb a legend of hype.   

Retired comfortably in Palm Springs, California, in 1977, three years before his death, the wizard of sexploitation grumbled that movies had become too smutty. “The pictures just got so bad, so filthy,” Babb told an interviewer. “I just don’t have any taste for ’em.”