Cast & Crew
Edgar G. Ulmer
Donald Bradley, Jr., in charge of all ships for his father's steamship company in New York, breaks a theater engagement with his fiancée Joan, who longs for a baby, to talk over business with Nat Franklin. After Don spends the evening with Nat and his friend, Elise Cooper, in a nightclub, Nat, intoxicated, flirts with Rosie, the blonde companion of Jackson, an associate, who then invites them all to his house, where a party is in progress. Nat leaves the party with Rosie, and Don goes with Elise to a speakeasy and then to her apartment, where she seduces him. The next day, Don feels horribly guilty and confesses to Joan, who persuades him to elope rather than wait for their planned June wedding. When Elise frantically calls later and Don visits, she warns him that she has contracted an infectious disease from Nat. Refusing to believe that this could happen to him, Don says she is lying and starts to leave, whereupon she shoots herself. After Don is questioned by the police, his name appears in the newspapers in connection with the affair. He refuses to talk to his parents or Joan about the disease and instead, tells her that he doesn't love her anymore and walks out. After reading a newspaper ad, Don visits Dr. Hortonn, who, for a fee of $100, tells Don that he will be alright. He and Joan reconcile, but later, Don's friend and physician, Bill Hall, interrupts him at work and takes him to see Dr. Vincent Leonard, a famous specialist who has diagnosed Joan as having a venereal disease. Don refuses to accept the situation until Dr. Leonard exhibits a variety of patients suffering from the disease. He tells Don that if he and Joan begin a two-year treatment immediately, they and their unborn baby will probably be cured. That night while Don sleeps, Joan turns on the gas in their apartment to kill herself and Don, but he awakens in time. After she says that they are dead inside and fears that they will never laugh again, her pestering pregnant friend Marie calls and worries that she forgot her condition and ate pickles. Joan and Don both laugh and realize that they have much to live for.
Edgar G. Ulmer
Dr. Gordon Bates
Another film, Damaged Goods (1937), dealing with the same subject, venereal disease, was released a week after this one.
Although the film's credits say it was produced and released by Weldon Pictures, it was actually filmed and distributed by Columbia. Weldon Pictures was a dummy company set up by Columbia, which didn't want to be associated with the film's topic, syphilis. Producer Nat Cohn was the brother of Columbia's head, Harry Cohn.
According to modern sources and records of the Canadian Health Council housed at the National Archives of Canada, on October 6, 1932, the Council received from J. J. Allen, a Canadian distributor and exhibitor, a proposal to make a new sound film about venereal disease to replace the silent film the Council had been using as an educational vehicle and fundraiser, the 1919 U.S. film, The End of the Road (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20), which was originally made to warn American servicemen of the dangers of the disease. Allen had distributed that film in Canada for the Council and also had the franchise for Columbia product in Canada. An agreement was reached between Allen's company, Columbia Pictures of Canada, Ltd., and Columbia Pictures Corp. in New York to make the new film, with Dr. Gordon Bates, the director general of the Council, as the film's clinical supervisor.
Edgar G. Ulmer, then employed by Columbia as a short subject producer, was chosen to direct. A script, entitled Happy Ending, was commissioned and approved by the Council's board. By the time production began, the title had been changed to Dark Waters. Maxwell Cohn, the producer of the film, was the brother of Columbia's president, Harry Cohn, and the company's vice-president and treasurer, Jack Cohn. The film was shot in Hollywood after the script had been approved in March 1933 by the American Social Hygiene Association, which sponsored the U.S. showings and had a contract with the distributor whereby the association censored all advertising for the film, according to a letter from Maxwell Cohn in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library.
Sources are unclear concerning the film's production company, and the extent of Columbia's involvement in the production is unclear. According to correspondence in the MPAA/PCA Collection, George Brown, Columbia's director of advertising and publicity, stated in August 1933 that he knew nothing of the film. A July 1933 Film Daily news item states that the film was a Beacon production. Weldon Pictures Corp., which was organized to distribute the film, May have been associated with Columbia, as Maxwell Cohn was the president of Weldon. Although a December 1933 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that the film cost $18,000 to produce and had already grossed £100,000 in Great Britain, a budget of $60,000 to $100,000 had been mentioned in Allen's original proposals to the Council.
The film was released first in Toronto on May 22, 1933 in an eight-reel version, followed by a three-reel supplementary lecture in which Dr. Bates appeared. Alternate versions of the lecture were made for men and women, and audiences were segregated; men and women were admitted only on alternate days to view their appropriate version of the lecture. According to modern sources and material at the National Archives of Canada, the version for women showed illustrations of women's sex organs, while the version for men showed illustrations of men's sex organs. In England, the film was presented under the auspices of the British Social Hygiene Council. Only women were allowed to attend the morning and afternoon screenings, while mixed audiences in the evening saw the film with the version of the lecture intended for women.
In the U.S., the film had an invitational screening on August 22, 1933 in New York at the Little Carnegie Playhouse, sponsored by the American Social Hygiene Association. The association sponsored public showings of the film beginning September 15, 1933 in Boston. According to Maxwell Cohn, Mayor James Curley of Boston "interceded on our behalf to obtain a license" and Mayor Edward Joseph Kelly of Chicago "insisted upon this picture being shown in his State." The film was rejected by the New York State censor board in October 1933. (NYSA records state that the length of the film submitted at that time was 10,382 feet in 11 reels; while a film of that length would have a running time of 115 minutes, existing prints, which do not include the supplementary lecture, run between 60 and 70 minutes.) In Ohio, the censor board rejected the film on December 9, 1933, but on March 3, 1934, they approved the first eight reels with deletions and rejected the last three reels, which were the supplementary lecture. The film was re-submitted to the New York censors on January 30, 1937. The Commissioner of Education approved the film, and in April 1937, the New York Board of Regents, under which the censor board operated, revised their decision of 1933 and approved the film after some specific eliminations were made. (The length of the version approved was 7,866 feet in 9 reels; the running time of a film of that length is just over 86 minutes, which nearly matches the running time of 87 minutes given in the July 1937 The Exhibitor review of the film and supplementary lecture. Variety, reviewing the June 1937 New York showing, gives the running time as 61 minutes plus the 29 minute supplementary lecture.)
There is no evidence that alternate male and female versions of the lecture were shown in the U.S. According to correspondence in the National Archives of Canada, the American Social Hygiene Association insisted on a different version of the supplementary lecture, one which did not use Dr. Bates, a Canadian. The Variety and July 1937 The Exhibitor reviews state that Murray Kinnell, who played the doctor in the main film, delivered the lecture. This section, according to material in the MPAA/PCA Collection and the July 1937 The Exhibitor review, contains scenes advertising the sale of pamphlets; diagrams of reproductive organs, cells, the process of fertilization, the development of the human embryo, the growth of a child, and the birth mechanism; operating room scenes; scenes depicting gonococcus (a bacterium that causes gonorrhea), syphilis organisms, lip chancres and lesions; views of people afflicted with syphilis, showing insanity and defective glands, nose and palate; scenes of women in a prenatal clinics; a discussion of the necessity for prophylaxis; and scenes detailing the treatment of syphilis.
The New York Times review in 1937 commented that the film was "perhaps the most outspoken motion picture ever made for general release." An affidavit was filed with the New York censors for a change of title on February 14, 1958 to The Shocking Truth. According to a New York Times article from 1966, the film helped shape new health legislation in the state.