Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Life in Dirty Movies: give me some of that old time sexploitation


Back in the summer of 1977, a couple months before my older brother Duke left our little farmhouse to move to Pittsburgh and attend school at Pitt University, he pulled me aside one day & said “I have a real surprise for you, but you can’t tell anyone what we’re doing—got it?”  I was 15 years old & ready for anything.  He said “tomorrow night, Jay & I are going to the movies, and taking you with us.”  I asked what was playing.  He said “That’s not important.  We’re going to the drive-in, the Brownsville Drive-In.  They show dirty movies.”

The following night, en route to meet up with Jay, Duke laid out the rules.  “We’re going to leave my car at Jay’s house and go in his truck.  Now when the movie starts playing, don’t say or do anything to embarrass me, got it?  Just sit there & be cool.”  Got it.  We meet his friend, climb into his truck and are soon at the Brownsville Drive-in.  It’s a double-feature, “Alice in WonderLand” & “Puss n’ Boots”.  And as I sat there, feeling a bit disappointed at the lackluster storyline & muffled sound and grainy going-ons on the big screen, my brother and Jay whooped & hollered throughout the show.  (I think I heard “OMIGOD!” shouted 25 times.)  

Oh and for the record, both movies were only rated X.  (Only XXX movies showed the hardcore stuff!) 

 I shared that lurid memory as I just finished watching a curious documentary titled “A Life in Dirty Movies”.  It tells the story of 88 year old Joe Sarno and his 70 year old wife Peggy, a quiet couple who take care of one another in their outdated (but filled with memories) New York apartment.  In the 1960s, Joe was a filmmaker who made ‘sexploitation films’, which were actually more of the art-house variety (but with long kissing scenes and some bare-chested ladies for show). 

The movie posters painted a far racier picture than the films themselves.  Joe explained “you had to make it hot without showing anything.”  Then the 1970s began, and introduced the world to hardcore films.    

“They had real sex, but no real stories, no real actors”  Joe lamented.  “I thought they were just a fad.  I was wrong, of course.”


Some of Joe’s sexploitation films from the 1960s, he gave the audiences just enough to keep ‘em coming back for more

But the documentary focuses just as much (if not more) on Joe & Peggy’s 45 year marriage, and nevermind that there’s no longer a market for his films—Joe still has one left in him, and Peggy is going to do everything she can to help him finish his script.  “Our finanaces are terrible” Peggy admits.  “Joe doesn’t have a clue.  But this film he’s writing, that’s his lifeline.”   She later adds “fortunately, I have a very wealthy mother… even if she never did approve of Joe’s work, or my marrying an older man.”  (Indeed, we later meet Peggy’s 100 year old mother, a New York socialite from another bygone era, who laments that her 70 year old daughter didn’t marry that successful Irishman 50 years ago when she was ‘less matured’.)

So what happens?  Does Joe finish writing his final film?  Yes and no (I don’t want to give away the ending) but I couldn’t help but feel real adoration throughout this story for everyone involved.  Joe refusing to believe he’ll never make another film, his & Peggy’s decades-long marriage of mutual admiration and respect--and even for Peggy’s upper-crusty mom.  “I admit it” she says.  “Back in the day, Peggy’s father and me… we were snobs.”


  1. Thanks, very interesting! Those posters are awesome, but I can believe the movies did not quite live up to them... Have to see if I can find the documentary somewhere as well.

  2. Thanks Iikka! Yeah it really was a fascinating documentary, they also talked a bit about the popularity of Swedish films from the same era, and how these movies dominated the theaters in NYC in Times Square for a couple decades... I'd love to see some of these for myself :)

  3. They always sound better than they actually are....


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