The debate over how and when sex should appear in films is a prominent contemporary issue. Concerns about common decency and sexual objectification, exploitation, and stereotyping fuel an important discussion on the cinematic depiction of sexuality in today's society.
But, as much as the discussion about sex in film seems, to us, to be a particularly modern one — surely the explicitness of cinematic sexual imagery newly peaks each year? — the truth is that concern over sex in the cinemas has existed since the dawn of the moving image. People began taping sexual acts almost as soon as technology allowed and objections to cinematic sex followed virtually immediately.
If you find this to be surprising, consider: from the genesis of the modern moving image — when Eadweard Muybridge produced a series of stereoscopic images of a horse galloping in 1878 — up until the introduction of the Hays Code in 1930, there was no overriding standard for decency in the movie industry. State and local ordinances often restricted screenings of "immoral" films, but no industry or federal regulation prevented filmmakers from committing the most lascivious acts of carnality to celluloid.
That all changed with the introduction of the Hays Code. This code, which was an industry response to public outcry over a series of Hollywood scandals involving sex, drugs, and death, banned, among many other acts, "nakedness and suggestive dances" as well as "sex perversion" (homosexuality) in films. The brainchild of Will H. Hays, head of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association at the time and a Republican lawyer and former United States Postmaster General, the Hays Code radically altered the course of cinema history by initiating and, eventually, enforcing standards of decency.
But, in a historical sense, the Hays Code came too late. Many milestones in cinematic sexuality had already been reached long before Hays managed to ban sex on film. Here, I've compiled a list of fourteen such pre-Hays Code sexual milestones for your enjoyment. Almost all of these are very tame according to today's standards, but one of them (which I will warn you about ahead of time) is explicit.
The Human Figure in Motion - Descending Stairs and Turning Around
Milestone: First Male and Female Nudity
As part of his Primitive Motion Studies, which took place from 1884 to 1887, Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneer of the modern moving image, filmed naked men and women walking up and down stairs. These images are the earliest known examples of both male and female nudity on film.
Le Coucher de la Marie
Milestone: First Striptease
[via Film Journal]
Le Coucher de la Marie, or Bedtime for the Bride, is a short French erotic film released in 1896. Produced by Eugène Pirou, one of the earliest French filmmakers, Bedtime for the Bride was originally 7 minutes long, although only 2 minutes survive today. It is notable for having the first striptease in cinema history: in the film, a maid undresses and bathes an aristocratic woman. The screenshot provided is not from Bedtime for the Bride, but rather from After the Ball, a slightly tamer remake that appeared a year after Pirou's film.
Fatima's Coochie-Coochie Dance
Milestone: First scene censored for sexuality
[via Film Site]
Fatima's Coochie-Coochie Dance, a short kinetoscope (a precursor to the movie projector) from 1896, was the first film to be censored for sexuality. It features a belly dancer named Fatima who was famous for the dances she performed at the Columbia World's Exhibition in 1893. Fatima's lustily rotating pelvis was covered up by a "white picket fence," which was really just a grid of white lines: a very evocative historical happenstance, given the association the white picket fence would eventually come to have with polite, chaste suburban sexuality.
The May Irwin Kiss
Milestone: First Kiss
The May Irwin Kiss is a short Edison kinetoscope released in 1896 in which two actors enact a scene from the Broadway play The Widow Jones. In the scene, a loving couple nuzzle each other before enjoying a dainty kiss on the lips. Upon its release, the film caused an uproar of protest and calls for police action because of its lewdness.
A Fool There Was
Milestone: First Femme Fatale
This 1915 silent film features Theda Bara, one of the movies' first sex symbols and the actress who, in this film, introduced the character of "The Vamp" (short for vampire), an evil temptress who lures men to their downfall. In A Fool There Was, Bara seduces a prominent diplomat, causing him to abandon his wife and daughter. The film introduced her catchphrase, one of the most famous lines in movie history: "Kiss me, my fool!" You may know it better as "Kiss me, you fool!"
A Free Ride
Milestone: First Pornographic Film
[WARNING: Sexually explicit - Very NSFW]
A Free Ride, released in 1915, is reportedly the earliest American stag film. These films were illegal and so were shown only in private, all-male locations, not in mainstream theaters. The film runs about 10 minutes and features a plot about as thin as those in contemporary pornography: a man driving a model-T car picks up two girls by the side of the road, drives them to the desert, and has sex with them.
Milestone: First Time a Leading Actress Appeared Nude
Inspiration, later re-released as The Perfect Model, is a 1915 film that features the first nude appearance of a leading actress in a mainstream film. Audrey Munson, who was a real life sculptor's model and the inspiration for over 15 statues in New York City, stars as a model who inspires a young sculptor. Upon release, censors were reluctant to ban Inspiration, fearing that they would have to ban Renaissance art as well. No copy of the film is known to still exist.
Behind the Screen
Milestone: First "Gay" Kiss
One of the first films that Charlie Chaplin produced for Mutual Film Corporation, Behind the Screen famously features cinema's first "gay" kiss. The film takes place at a movie studio, where Chaplin is working as a stage hand. Upon discovering that one of his fellow stagehands is a girl masquerading as a boy, Chaplin kisses her several times and is then mercilessly mocked by a supervisor who believes that Chaplin is gay. The episode concludes when Chaplin kicks the supervisor.
Daughter of the Gods
Milestone: First Major Female Star to Appear Nude
In this controversial 1916 film, Annette Kellermann, a swimming and diving star who was already notorious for promoting the scandalous one-piece bathing suit, became the first major female star to appear nude on film. Annette plays the titular daughter of the gods and scandalously bares it all in a waterfall sequence, which is depicted in the screenshot here. Daughter of the Gods was the first US film to cost one million dollars to produce. No copy is known to still exist.
Anders als die Andern
Milestone: First Sympathetic Portrayal of Gay Characters
Anders als die Andern, or Different From the Others, is a 1919 German film that features the first sympathetic portrayal of gay characters on film. Different From the Others, which was banned by the Nazis, was produced as a polemic against laws banning homosexuality. In the film, a successful violinist falls in love with one of his male students, but is blackmailed and, tragically, ultimately commits suicide. In this clip, the violinist walks through a park, arm in arm with his lover, before being approached by his blackmailer. The film is also notable for depicting the first gay bar in movie history.
Flesh and the Devil
Milestone: First French Kiss
One of Greta Garbo's earlier films, 1927's Flesh and the Devil features the first open mouth kiss in movie history. The film is a melodrama about a love triangle and is famous for the exquisite sexual tension it captures between real life lovers Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. In the scene provided, Garbo and Gilbert meet for the historic french kiss in an exquisitely lit garden scene.
Milestone: First Male-Male Kiss
Wings, released in 1927, is the first Best Picture winner, is the only silent film to win Best Picture, and contains the first male-male kiss in cinema history. The film is a dramatic portrayal of fighter pilots in World War I and, in the scene provided, a handsome young soldier places a kiss on the lips of his dying friend.
Glorifying the American Girl
Milestone: First Colorized Nudity
Glorifying the American Girl, a rags to riches story about an aspiring performer in New York City, features the first colorized onscreen nudity. In a revue section towards the end of the film that recreates a performance by the Follies, the camera focuses on a nearly-nude Adonis (played by Johnny Weissmuller, the actor who would go on to play Tarzan) and choir girl.
Milestone: First Well-Developed Lesbian Character
This 1929 German melodrama met hateful initial reviews because of its overt sexuality. In the film, a young femme fatale named Lulu seduces an engaged newspaper owner away from his fiancee, later shoots her husband in the midst of a fight, and ultimately meets her end at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Pandora's Box features a subplot about the attraction between the bisexual Lulu and a lesbian countess. In the clip provided, Lulu and the countess share an erotically charged dance at the wedding party for Lulu's marriage to the newspaper owner.