“Teenage Mother”: The film that dares to explain what most parents can’t

By on November 17, 2016

The 1968 film Teenage Mother — now streaming as part of our Something Weird collection on Night Flight Plus — is still somewhat notorious today for being one of the first exploitation films to insert colorful and graphic footage of an actual baby being born.

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Teenage Mother is also likely remembered as one of the few directorial efforts of Jerry Gross, who is better known for his success as a distributor of exploitation films, much of those certified drive-in sleaze.

Gross’s distribution companies (Cinemation Industries and, later, the Jerry Gross Organization) released the first two Mondo movies — Mondo Cane (1962) and Mondo passo (1963) — in addition to Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (he also claimed a producer credit on that one), Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary, an edited version of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, The Cheerleaders, The Black Godfather and a spate of memorable horror films like I Drink Your Blood, I Eat Your Skin and I Spit On Your Grave.

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Gross — who died in 2002 at age 62 — also distributed the original adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre, Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, Academy Award nominee Turkish Delight, New York Film Critics award winner Stavisky (with John Paul Belmondo), and a version of Madame Butterfly.

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Over his more than 25-year career, he distributed — and created clever U.S. marketing strategy and ad campaigns — for more than fifty films.

He also produced one of the highest-rated TV movie-of-the-week for the ABC network, 1974’s All the Kind Strangers.

Teenage Mother, which clocks in at just 78 minutes, is one of the few films he directed, confronting head-on the topic of sex education materials being made available to teachers — and students — in high schools, a topic which ostensibly leads to further discussions about teen pregnancy, which of course leads to tough decisions down the road.

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Foxy big-haired Arlene Sue Farber stars as Arlene Taylor — one of Gross’s over-the-top taglines says she’s “15 years old, no longer a girl, not yet a woman” — who encounters a sexy and apparently very open-minded Swedish sex ed teacher who the school has just hired to teach “anatomical biology” classes (we remember our high school sex ed teacher was the same guy who taught the “driver ed” classes, and he often confused us by saying “Hit the brakes!,” and “Step on the gas!,” when we weren’t even in a car).

Her name is Erika Peterson and she’s played by the lovely, doe-eyed Julie Ange, who appeared in one of the other movies Jerry Gross directed, Girl on a Chain Gang (Gross, a New York City native, attended New York City College and made his first films there).

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At the school principal’s request, Miss Peterson begins to develop a sex ed program that will be taught at the school (the film was shot on location in Long Island in New York City) believing that presenting the real facts about sex and what happens with our bodies will help reduce teen pregnancy.

Some of the other teachers object, and clearly aren’t on board with their plan (one of them is actor Fred Willard, making his film debut).

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In one of the film’s best scenes, a student informs Miss Peterson that a book called Male and Female isn’t available in the school’s library, and so the teacher tries to find out why, asking the librarian, Miss Fowler (the actress is uncredited) why, as it’s a pretty standard book they should have on hand to help answer the kid’s questions.

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She’s told by an angry Miss Fowler that the book has never appeared in the library, and never will, as long as she’s there.

“It’s a filthy book… Filthy… I wouldn’t allow one of our students to even leaf through it. The illustrations are positively vulgar.”

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Peterson argues for the student’s freedom to have access to books like the one in question, but the librarian — who represents the school’s misguided moral watchdog, using her personal power to censor library materials — stands firm in her decision to be a bitch about it, saying about the book’s naked bodies: “Teenage children are not meant to see such things.”

Meanwhile, Arlene seems a little upset by the fact that the teacher keeps her boyfriend Tony (Howard Le May) after class, and gets jealous that her boyfriend (a future medical student and stock car enthusiast) might actually be hot for teacher.

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Arlene is so worried about what Miss Peterson might do, that she ends up stirring up the emotions of a local bully, drug pusher and nudie photo salesman named Duke Markell (Frederick Riccio), who ends up hatching a plan to discredit the teacher with his porn supplier, the smut peddler he buys his nudie pics from, who also happens to be the school janitor, Henry Kaplan (David Vancelette).

Meanwhile, Arlene hatches a plan of her own — she pretends to be pregnant, so that her boyfriend Tony will be forced to marry her.

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Meanwhile, Duke tries to rape the teacher, and then he tries to rape Arlene after she argues with her parents and then runs away from home. Tony arrives in the nick of time to teach the rapey creep a lesson he won’t soon forget.

The teacher, meanwhile, shows an actual childbirth film to the school board to convince them that sex education belongs in the classroom, and the school board agrees with her. Gross apparently paid a hospital $50 for the bloody birth footage (it’s not for the squeamish).

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We’ll let you watch the film to find out what happens next, but take it from us, if you’re looking to kill an hour and would like to see an exploitation film from the late 60s that crams all kinds of interesting characters together — including repressed adults, angry parents, psychotic thugs, troubled young lovers, and well-meaning idealistic teachers — in a sexploitation setting that involves fast cars, loose women and a little go-go dancing, you probably can’t won’t be able to find a better film to watch than Teenage Mother. (Well, you might be able to, but this is the one we’re recommending).

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Not everyone agrees with that assessment, of course: in fact, when the venerable Gray Lady — aka The New York Times — reviewed Jerry Gross’s Teenage Mother on September 16, 1968, shortly after it was released to theaters, the writer of said review, Howard Thompson, said this:

“The only word for Teenage Mother is garbage. It’s bad enough to see a cheap, feeble and dully sensationalized little drama purporting to preach sensible sex enlightenment to youngsters. It is sickening to find that the real excuse for this junk is a climatic, two-minute scene documenting the forceps delivery of a baby. That’s what the picture is really peddling — again the only word. The scene is stark, not for the squeamish, and entirely pointless.”

Frankly, we can’t think of a better endorsement than this New York Times review. You’ve been warned.

Watch Teenage Mother now on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.