Just before the market crash of 1929 known now as Black Tuesday, movie theatres were opening like mad to accommodate the massive demand for a growing pop culture phenomenon dubbed the motion picture. Films were being churned out in numbers that are inconceivable by today’s standards, but shorter silent films were often inexpensive to produce and required little in terms of quality. So, the result was a pretty wide range of film ideas, some good and some… not so good. A not-so-well-known fact about the early days of cinema is “nudie” films were extremely common. Even in the 19th Century nickelodeons, a short film featuring a topless dancer was far more common than one might imagine. As films took to the big screen, and the Hays Code took over in the 1930’s, most of these sorts of films were driven out. Given their reputation and poor storage, most of these movies have suffered the tragic fate shared by so many films of the early 20th Century: degradation through disintegration. This was a consequence of the celluloid used for years to print film media. Since it was now “illegal” to show nudity and other banned content in theatres, an underground was formed.
|42nd Street Grindhouses (Source: Soundonsight.org)|
42nd St. in Manhattan is arguably the most famous theatre district in the world (not discounting Los Angeles’ famous Beverly Cinema), and many of the joints on this stretch of road were not ready to give up the profitability of sexuality. There was just one problem: That damn Hays Production Code! So, many theatres repurposed their floors to become burlesque theatres, performance theatres typically featuring women dancing seductively and singing songs riddled with innuendo. Some of these clubs also became associated with New York’s Red Light District, though most were nothing more than very tame strip clubs.
As the decades rolled on, the theatres that continued to show movies often bought reels to cheap movies of poor quality, showing them several times throughout the day, as opposed to the one or two showings-per-film common at that time. The rates would increase during the day, capping off around 6pm. This set the tradition of the Matinee Price so common in theatres. This trend continued through until the 70’s, when things began to change dramatically. This process of repeated showings became known as “grinding” and became the namesake of the theatres that practiced this new profitable idea. The existence of these “grindhouses” actually spurred a new market for cheap, quickly-produced films that in many ways were built to violate the already weakening Hays Code, featuring copious amounts of sex, graphic violence and other material that was, in that period, very controversial and some films are still shocking by today’s standards.
While these same grindhouses were showing films that would or could not be shown in other major theatres, they also did show many major releases, as well as a number of films that are widely regarded as modern classics. Another fact is some entire genres owe their very existence to these theatres. In-particular, slasher, spaghetti westerns, martial arts and blaxploitation films would likely have never caught on without help from the grindhouse districts. However, as the 80’s came around, the market for these films in theatres shrunk rapidly due to the proliferation of home video. Within a few years, the theatre market would collapse all around; a consequence of the rapidly-growing video market and the advent of megaplexes, which were competing to be bigger-budget attempts to monopolize local theatre markets by offering more and more movies and showings at a time in a single location.
The exploitation genre continues on, though it’s subgenres have split off, with newer films being mostly inspired by the 70’s classics rather than trying to craft any real identity of their own. However, in spite of the cinema collapse, the legacy of the grindhouse persists to this day directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are highly inspired by the films of the 70’s grindhouses and many modern action and horror movies draw a lot of inspiration from the grindhouses. Also, many films from the grindhouses’ heyday have found a new market thanks to home video and digital distribution, garnering a new cult following and have themselves crafted a dedicated and unified fan culture.
The question is: Were the grindhouses disreputable garbage heaps throwing out nothing but gore and pornography? Or, rather, were they inspirational and daring cultural hubs that would leave a lasting impression on future audiences? I would say they are a little of both. If they weren’t just a little controversial and didn’t do things differently from the norm, it is likely they would not even be talked about to this day. It left quite an impression by defying the standards and refusing to accept the rules set by a paranoid and aggressive censorship bureau, instead embracing the strange and opening the gates to a new idea of film that was not only unknown to most, but was outwardly banned by major theatres. The grindhouses paved the way for a new era of independent filmmakers and broke down barriers to artistic expression. Modern film would likely not even exist in its current form if it weren’t for this film culture. So, next time you scoff at an Italian sexsploitation flick, consider that many films you love may not have even been made if it weren’t for the theatre owners brave enough to show it in the first place.