Paedophilia was the last taboo according to the Production Code, the self-censorship system organised by Hollywood in 1960. You could talk about rape in explicit detail (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959) and serial killers (Psycho, 1960) were acceptable, but you must not “violate the edict against depicting sex perversion…the only subject strictly forbidden by the code.”
Without the Production Code Seal (of approval), cinema bookings would be hard to come by. Cinemas that relied on the goodwill of their patrons would not dare risk upsetting them by renting a film that had met with such disapproval.
Never Take Candy from a Stranger – a.k.a.Never Take Sweets from a Stranger – had been passed as an X-certificate in Britain, where, despite being set in Canada, it had been made. While that meant it could only be seen by adults over 18, there was no objections to it being shown. It had been shot over six weeks beginning October 1959.
It had even been positively reviewed in the U.S. where Variety called it and “an exceptionally restrained film…directed with considerable skill” and Box Office magazine, another trade weekly, rated it “touching” though warned exhibitors that the “the subject matter is not to be sold as lure.”
It did not help the case that James Carreras of British studio Hammer had set out to make a movie that was “explosively exploitable” with the aim of cracking open America on the back of “heavy-exploitation marketing such as sex crimes against children” and that the movie intended to be “as frank with its theme as was Anatomy of a Murder in dealing with rape.”
The case went to appeal. The argument in its defence, as put by Roger Garis, author of the play on which the film was based, was that the movie wasn’t so much about paedophilia but about the public’s resistance to hearing about it, and the battle by two parents to rid the community of such a menace. He pointed out that on the play’s initial opening in New York in 1954 “no review indicated in the slightest degree that the subject matter was distasteful.”
But perhaps the U.S. censors took more note of the review printed in the British Monthly Film Bulletin that complained the “film’s seriousness is dissipated by an unnecessarily horrible climax.”
Hammer appealed the decision, but the Production Code would not budge.
Despite the cautionary note struck by Box Office magazine, it was almost certain that it would be sold as exploitative, and attract the wrong sort of clientele, and for moviegoers of the wrong disposition it might well be only too big an attraction. In Britain, for example, it had been sold as a sex-shocker double bill, on the ABC circuit teamed up with Brigitte Bardot number Come Dance with Me (1959).
U.S. distributor Columbia could not be seen to be selling a movie that went against the ruling of the Production Code, but it couldn’t just dump it either since it was contractually obliged to release it. So instead it was passed on to its sub-division Lopert, an independent operation with no ostensible links to the parent company, that would find a way to get it into cinemas. Lopert would either sell it through the states rights method, divvying up the picture to a different set of local distributors who would each undertake the release in an individual state, or sell it on to another distributor, perhaps with experience of handling dodgy material. Lopert did both. Distribution was handled in some territories by Omat, which had successfully ushered La Dolce Vita (1960) through the system, and later Pathe-American, and in others by an independent.
The trade magazines had urged exhibitors to enrol the assistance of parental groups in marketing the movie, but these would hold no sway in terms of publicity. A local newspaper which had denied the movie any advertising space – a nationwide ban that followed such extreme Code disapproval – was hardly going to give it editorial coverage.
But of course there were exhibitors who would take it. Arthouses were one possibility. They had been dealing with the disreputable ever since foreign production companies realized they could bypass the Production Code. If they were not signatories, they did not have to submit their movies for assessment. That was why there was such a flood of movies from France, Sweden and Italy heralding a sensational star like Bardot or Sophia Loren and promising greater leniency towards nudity than would be acceptable to the Code.
And there were many, especially among the more articulate classes, who felt the Code was outdated anyway, and that foreign films were breaking new cinematic ground, and that the directors of such films, Ingmar Bergman, Fellini et al, should be praised rather than condemned. But it was inevitable that movies from abroad with genuine artistic purpose got mixed up with those made with purely salacious intent.
The arthouse had been compromised so much that anything that could lure in the public was fair game. Even so, most arthouses drew the line at a film about child molestation. While Never Take Candy from a Stranger did receive a number of bookings in city center U.S. houses between 1961 and 1962 they were rarely in an arthouse. Most were in cinemas accustomed to offering patrons lurid product. In Chicago, outside of the major cinemas, it went out as a double bill with Sam Peckinpah western Deadly Companions.
Tracking the release through the pages of Variety and Box Office, I discovered it had only occasionally proved a success, a holdover for a second week generally one way of demonstrating that measure.
(Note that cinema capacities were much larger than today in the multiplex era and it was far from uncommon for moviegoers to be part of a 1,000-plus audience)
In May 1961 in Boston it ran for two weeks at the 689-seater Mayflower, hitting $4,500 in the first week with a relatively small drop to $4,000 the next. In November, most likely as a filler for a movie that failed to hit its targets and was pulled early, it reached the 2,995-seat Palms in Detroit, clocking up a fair $10,000, but only permitted three days the next week, for another $3,000.
But by then a different reelase strastegy was in place. The same month in an “unusual first-run hook-up” it played a couple of drive-ins in Kansas City, those theaters were dragged into the first-run loop in the absence of other available or willing houses. One week at the 900-car Crest and the 700-car Waldo brought in a “mild” $6,000. Perhaps in a bid to secure a bigger audience it was teamed with Beware of Children (1960). But anyone expecting another dip into perversion would be disappointed for it was a British marital comedy starring Leslie Phillips.
But release was a long drawn-out process, and perhaps to limit expenditure few prints were made. And by 1962, yet another different approach was taken, targeting the arthouses. In February it reached Baltimore, $3,000 at the 860-seat Avalon, In April it lasted one week at the 238-seat Capri Art in Denver taking $900 gross at the box office.
And then, never having not scaled the heights that a movie trading on controversy might expect, it disappeared. Obviously never a contender for television, and no sign of it being shoved out during the VHS boom, when virtually any movie made was revived in the hope of snaring a few extra bucks.
It took a helluva long time for the movie to surface, but when it did, it was to plaudits.
SOURCES: “Hammer’s Slant,” Variety, October 21, 1959, p4; “Realism Outbreak in Britain,” Variety, October 31, 1959, p3; Review, Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1, 1960, p48; James Carreras, “British Horror Pix As Insurance For That Wide-Open Global B.O.,” Variety, January 6, 1960, p166; Review, Variety, March 16, 1960, p6; “Child-Molesting Theme in Abeyance,” Variety, April 27, 1960, p3; “Candy Story Author Sez Not About Perversion But Public’s Own Laxity,” Variety, May 11, 1960, p4; “Candy Loses Appeal for Code Seal,” Variety, May 18, 1960, p17; Advertisement, Variety, January 11, 1961, p14; Review, Box Office, August 21, 1961, pA1; “Says Wilmington Press Is Pre-Judging Ads,” Box Office, October 30, 1961, p15; “Set Up Pathe Campaign,” Box Office, December 18, 1961, pNE6. Box office figures from Variety issues: May 31, 1961, p9; November 22, 1961, p8-10; February 14, 1962, p8; April 18, 1962, p9.