Sex in Cinema: Surprises from the Archives


How much sex can you handle? We were overwhelmed by just how much we found in our odyssey to create a Sex in Cinema infographic for Fandor. Who knew the rich history of sex in the cinema that went all the way back to the first short films shown to audiences?

Okay, a little context here.

When me and my fellow film history mavens and Keyframe contributors Dennis Harvey, Shari Kizirian and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo first embarked on the Sex in Cinema research project, we divided up the continuum and each tackled a specific era in depth. When we reconvened a few weeks later and compiled our research, we were faced with an overwhelming variety of films, sub-genres and oddities, far more than could be squeeze into the visually-oriented infographic. Any one of our surveys could have blossomed into a feature in its own right.

Much paring and editing was called for and many interesting streams and curious eddies in the churning waters of cinematic sex were necessarily left out of our final map. Did you know that white slavery dramas were a sensation in the early days of silent movies? That long before the drive-in exploitation market took off, independent exploitationeers promised salacious thrills in cheap, tawdry films that they personally hauled across the country? That Ang Lee has thoughtfully and sensitively challenged more sexual taboos than probably any other major filmmaker today?

Here are the most interesting, unusual, and outright bizarre films and trends that we simply couldn’t fit into the final “Screen Sex” infographic, plus a few priceless bits of bonus historical perspective we just had to share.

The Kiss: Cinema’s First Smooch
Painter John Sloan, writing in the arts journal “The Chap-Book,” gave the spectacle of Edison’s 1896 short film a priceless review: “In a recent play called ‘The Widow Jones’ you may remember a famous kiss which Miss May Irwin bestowed on a certain John C. Rice, and vice versa. Neither participating is physically attractive, and the spectacle of their prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was hard to bear. When only life-size it was pronounced beastly. But that was nothing to the present sight. Magnified to Gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting. All delicacy or remnant of charm seems gone from Miss Irwin, and the performance comes very near being indecent in its emphasized vulgarity. Such things call for police interference.”


‘The White Slave Trade’

White Slavery Films
Denmark spawned an entire genre with the lascivious 1907 short film The White Slave and dominated the international market with such films as The White Slave Trade (1910) and Shanghaied (1912), all with the same basic plot: innocent girl lured by promises of employment ends up sold to a brothel and rescued by the forces of good. The disreputable genre proved highly profitable and very exportable.

Theda Bara: The Vamp
The original femme fatale, Theda Bara made a career as the exotic seductress of American cinema as they came of age in the teens. Watch her drain the willpower of her married victim just for the fun of it in A Fool There Was (1915) to see how she earned her nickname “The Vamp.” Few of her films survive today, but she the cinema’s first sex symbol and she took her reputation seriously: “I will continued doing vampires as long as people sin.”


Theda Bara

Pennsylvania vs. Way Down East
“The movies are patronized by thousands of children who believe that babies are brought by the stork, and it would be criminal to undeceive them.” D.W. Griffith was the most Victorian of the silent auteurs and Lillian Gish his great Madonna, yet the censors imposed sixty cuts on Way Down East (1920), removing the mock marriage, honeymoon, and all scenes alluding to maternity and childbirth.

Rudolph Valentino: The Latin Lover
The legendary Latin Lover not only gave birth to a Hollywood trope, he became the first male sex symbol in the movies, thanks to his smoldering presence in such films as The Sheik (1921) and Blood and Sand (1922). When he died in 1926, thousands of woman lined the funeral route and distraught fans rioted to get into the services.


Production still for ‘Blood and Sand’

Mae West and Marlene Dietrich
Two very different icons of female sexuality in the cinema took center screen in the early 1930s. Broadway star West was brazenly sexual and confident but never a femme fatale. She liked men and loved sex and her motto, delivered in I’m No Angel (1933), was: “When I good I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.” Dietrich, imported from Germany, was molded by director Josef von Sternberg from The Blue Angel (1930) into an exotic, glamorous, worldly figure (“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”). She made her American debut in Morocco (1930), wearing a tuxedo and kissing a woman on the lips, and played characters who understood that sex was power but really just wanted love.

Before the Code
Between 1930 and 1934, Hollywood experienced a surge in mature content in mainstream movies. Nudity was taboo but sex between consenting adults (married or not) was acknowledged and even flaunted and filmmakers teased audiences with salacious suggestions of skin and scandal. Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck sleep their way to the top in Red-Headed Woman (1933) and Baby Face (1933) respectively, Miriam Hopkins is degraded and abused in the harrowing The Story of Temple Drake (1933), William Warren juggles young mistresses and big business in Skyscraper Souls (1932) and Employees’ Entrance (1933) and Ruth Chatterton does the same with boy toys in Female (1933). The Production Code Administration clamped down in 1934 and these films were either cut for rerelease or simply locked away in studio vaults for decades. In the 1990s, the rediscovered films were given the “Forbidden Hollywood” brand and revived in theaters and on home video.


Poster for ‘Wages of Sin’

‘Adults Only’ Exploitation
Independent producers put the sins front and center in cheap “Adults Only” productions that promised salacious thrills they could rarely deliver. Films like High School Girl (1935, about teenage pregnancy), Wages of Sin (1938, forced prostitution), and Child Bride (1939, underage marriage among the hillbillies), played regional theaters and carny-style tent shows, often touring for decades under different names. The most notorious (and lucrative) of them all was the “sex hygiene” film Mom and Dad (1945), featuring clinical footage of a live human birth. Not what most audiences have in mind when they imagine a “sex film.”

Foreign films and the Art-house Titillation
Americans could see past Hollywood censorship in foreign imports, where exceptions were made in the name of “art.” Which meant an earthy Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice (1949, Italy); topless Sophia Loren in It Was Him Yes Yes (1951, Italy); Ingmar Bergman‘s Summer with Monika (1953, Sweden), which was retitled Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl; and Bridget Bardot in And God Created Woman (1956, France). A new audience flocked to foreign films, and it wasn’t for the culture.


‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’

Nudie cuties and roughies
The stripper shorts and nudist romps of the “adults only” margins of the industry matured (if such a term can be applied) into the nudie cuties of the 1960s. Former Playboy photographer Russ Meyer added vaudeville humor to the cinematic skin game with The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) and became the sixties auteur of buoyant skin flicks, thanks to an energetic style, voluptuous stars, and a healthy attitude toward sex as a consensual romp between two appreciative adults. He also contributed to the genre’s darker cousin, the roughie, though Mudhoney (1965) and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966) were nothing compared to the more sadistic and violent entries in the genre, like The Defilers (1965), which presented abduction and rape as voyeuristic spectacle, and Doris Wishman‘s nudie noir Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965).

Sex and the Drive-in
The ratings system gave independent studios a whole new market to exploit. With the drive-in markets in mind, they revived the women in prison film as a sexploitation showcase and created entire genres around nurses, stewardesses and cheerleaders with hearty sexual appetites. Most were purely formula but Roger Corman gave his filmmaker free reign to slip social politics between the money shots. The best of these—Stephanie Rothman‘s The Student Nurses (1970), Jack Hill‘s The Big Doll House (1971), and Jonathan Demme‘s Caged Heat (1974)—put women in charge of their sexuality.


Poster for ‘Caged Heat’

VHS and the home video industry
When the pornography industry invests in the format, you can bet it’s a winner. It all began when it embraced VHS in the format wars and created a multi-billion dollar industry selling and renting dirty movies on tape. The adult entertainment industry went on to embrace DVD and streaming video.

Porky’s and the Teen Sex Comedy
Porky’s (1982) took the teen sex comedy to its highest box office and lowest common denominators: horny boys, gratuitous nudity, and all women as sex objects. While Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Risky Business (1983) briefly elevated the genre, films like Zapped! (1982), Screwballs (1983), Hot Dog… The Movie (1984), and Private Resort (1985) defined it until the Hollywood shift to PG-13 and video game movies for teenage boys. The 21st century revival was more self-aware and the American Pie (1999-2012) films even acknowledged the desires and pleasures of the women.


‘Basic Instinct’

Erotic Thrillers and Castrating Women
As films offered kinkier sexual thrills, the morality became even more conservative. Fatal Attraction (1987) ushered in a vogue for erotic thrillers, where sex and adultery inevitably lead to murder and / or destruction. The warning to men was clear: sexually aggressive women are actually castrating femmes fatale so find a nice girl and settle down. See Basic Instinct (1992), The Last Seduction (1994), and scores of low-budget straight-to-video productions.

Ang Lee: Breaking Taboos
The Taiwan-born, American-trained filmmaker has managed to push boundaries in both countries. Beyond Brokeback Mountain (2005), he presented the first male-on-male kiss in Taiwan cinema in the sly gay love story The Wedding Banquet (1993) and the explicit sex scenes of Lust, Caution (2007) were censored in China and India and earned the film an NC-17 in the U.S.


Poster for ‘This Film Is Not Yet Rated’

The Censorship Gap
Kirby Dick took on the MPAA’s double standard in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which is more lenient on studios than on indies, on heterosexual scenes than portrayals of gay sex, and on female nudity over male nudity. And, of course, it finds sex and nudity more objectionable than murder and gore, but that’s another story. John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006) was released unrated and full frontal male nudity in The Bad Lieutenant (1992) and Shame (2011) earned them an NC-17 rating. Thanks to Judd Apatow, however, the penis is now permissible on screen…as long it’s funny and flaccid.

Text by Sean Axmaker, research and writing by Sean Axmaker, Dennis Harvey, Shari Kizirian and Sara Vizcarrondo.

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