Sex in the Movies Guide

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In those early days, film stock and equipment was rare and expensive, so access to a screening of a rare and forbidden clip of film was like entering, as Walter Kendrick calls it in the title of his history of porn, The Secret Museum. "Pornography names an argument, not a thing," writes Kendrick, contending that the fluid and ever-evolving definition of porn is a tool used by those in power to forbid access to something for those who aren't. Could be. What we do know is that these early, sexually explicit films were most often projected in private clubs or homes for a men-only audience. Imagine such a screening, and you can well understand why the films were called "smokers" in the beginning: a bunch of men sitting around in the dark puffing away their nervous energy on smoldering cigars. French director Jean Renoir is rumored to have considered making one of these "smokers" himself in the 20s, but backed down due to "moral considerations."

By the 1950s, these films were being referred to more often as "stags" since they were shown at men-only "stag parties." Luke Ford, in his book A History of X: 100 Years of Sex in Film - an extraordinarily frustrating piece of work; poorly written, misogynist through and through, and yet weirdly useful - quotes William Rostler's outline from his 1973 book, Contemporary Erotic Cinema, tracing the common plotlines in these early flicks that would be played out again and again for decades:

  1. A woman alone becomes aroused after handling a phallic-shaped object. Masturbation follows. A man arrives, is invited inside, sexual play begins.
  2. A farm girl gets excited watching animals copulate. She runs into a farmhand, or a traveling salesman, and sexual play begins.
  3. A doctor begins examining a woman and sexual play begins.
  4. A burglar finds a girl in bed or rapes her or vice versa.
  5. A sunbather or skinny dipper gets caught and seduced.

Recently, there's been an interest in rediscovering these vintage films and collections have appeared with names such as Olde Time Erotica, Antique Erotica, Authentic Antique Erotica, Vintage Erotica - Anno 1930 and Vintage Erotica - Anno 1940. What surprises many expecting to see something rather tame and sepia-toned is the revelation that our grandparents and great-grandparents did just about everything we thought we come up with on our own. But after all, sex is sex.

Sexploitation and the Grindhouse

In the early and mid-20th century, there existed a fascinating limbo between mainstream movies, most of them coming out of Hollywood, of course, and no-holds-barred porn. The "sexploitation" phenomenon in the US has its roots in the 1910s, with the big stand-out year being 1913. That was the year of Traffic in Souls and The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, both promising to reveal the lurid underbelly of the world of prostitution (and here, it's interesting to note that the original, literal definition of "pornography" is "writing about prostitutes"). The second is notable for having been made by a former Director of the Secret Service, Samuel H. London, who appears on the screen in the first moments of the film to warn viewers that they may well be alarmed by what they are about to see, but rest assured, it's all "For Educational Use."

"White slave pictures are hardly shocking by today's standards," writes Greg Merritt in Celluloid Mavericks: "The exploitation racket was always about the promise of the forbidden... Once projected, many 'SHOCKING TRUTH!' movies such as the innocuous Damaged Goods (1914) or The Sex Lure (1917) proved to be nothing more than tepid melodrama." Nevertheless, if the "SHOCKING TRUTH!" is defined merely as nudity, there was surprisingly quite a bit of it in the cinema of the 'Teens. DW Griffith himself didn't think twice about including a bathing scene in Intolerance (1916), for example, and Merritt describes "a lost classic," Purity (1916), in which a nude Audrey Munson is depicted in the context of various works of art: "Because the production recreated classic paintings, censors were not eager to ban the Italian Renaissance, and Purity slipped into theaters. Box offices were crowded with men who'd never heard of Botticelli but knew a naked dame when they saw one."

Over the following decades, as cinema rapidly evolved to become America's real favorite pastime, newer, bigger, better and more technologically advanced theaters were required to accommodate demand, leaving some of the old nickelodeons and theaters behind as a sort of second or third-tier circuit for films made on the cheap that would promise unprecedented sex or violence or both. This usually amounted to depictions of life in nudist colonies, such as Garden of Eden (1957), or on tropical islands where semi-nude natives (usually homegrown out-of-work actors in threadbare costumes) cavort and get chased by carnivorous monsters, "educational" films addressing such natural phenomena as birth or venereal disease and so on. Often, the films would deliver little that the posters promised, but before word got around, they'd be off to the next town. The theaters they played in became known as grindhouses and a solid account of their heyday is Eddie Muller's Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of Adults Only Cinema.

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