Awesome Men Throughout History: Kroger Babb
It’s been too long since we talked about the film industry in this column, and no, we’re not going to be talking about more actors. Guys like Richard Harris are a rare breed – most actors are fairly pedestrian in their lifestyles, or spoiled by success in a degenerate Roman emperor kind of way. I mean, every time I hear a story about Jack Nicholson making an ass of himself at a Lakers game, I want to punch him in his weird, saggy face. We know you have money, Jack, now sit down and shut up.
No, it’s the guys behind the camera, or sometimes in the office that procures the camera, who are really interesting, which is defined here as a cross-section between “sleazy” and “insane.” Occasionally those two traits produce someone whose occult carnival genius contributes to the national character, and this week’s subject, Kroger Babb, is one of those men.
Babb, born in Ohio in 1906, got into the movie business through a job at Cox and Underwood, a company that bought up crappy movies, added “sensational” material to them (often medical reels and other stock footage of debatable educational value), and re-released them with new titles. Babb’s promotion of one such film, Dust to Dust, was a big enough hit that Babb left to start his own company, Hygienic Productions, and do the same thing for more money.
Not long afterward, Babb oversaw the production of Mom and Dad, a morality tale about unplanned pregnancy featuring a graphic (for the time) live birth scene that left nothing to the imagination. Such a thing would have stirred up controversy, among other things, on its own, but Babb went the extra mile by writing churches and newspapers in his target markets, usually pretending to be the mayor of a neighboring town who was concerned about the content of Mom and Dad. He also insisted on gender-exclusive screenings of the film (men only for the later show) and a lecture by “fearless commentator Elliot Forbes” during intermission; Forbes was usually played by a local actor hand-picked by Babb himself.
As if that wasn’t enough hucksterism for a single film, Babb enthusiast and cult film director John Waters claims that Babb used to hire audience members to faint during screenings to drum up publicity. If the movie had been about snake oil, he’d have been selling it from the concession counter.
Babb’s promotional techniques were expensive for the time (he’d spend $400 in ad saturation per town, and would often rent out non-theater spaces to screen the film), but they worked: Mom and Dad was the third highest grossing film of the 1940s, making upwards of $40 million thanks to Babb’s tireless efforts. Mom and Dad was added to the National Film Registry in 2005.
Babb made and promoted numerous other movies (including The Best Is Yet to Come, which he screened in cancer wards), but none matched the success of Mom and Dad. But that’s okay, because Babb’s taste for lurid subject matter and shameless promotional techniques have outlived him. Where would Quentin Tarantino or Rob Zombie’s film careers be, after all, without guys like Kroger Babb leading the way? Would stuff like Death Proof even exist without archives of Babb’s campy sleaze to draw upon for inspiration?
More than that, Babb was a creative, industrious man who had the work ethic to make his low-budget creations profitable. Even today, he stands as an example that you can do great things with limited money and establish yourself through hard work and an eye for opportunity.
For more information about Babb and his filmography, here’s John Waters talking about Babb’s impact and legacy.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.