SEXUAL FIRSTS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEX & SEXUALITY IN CINEMA

Being a central function of the human condition, sex and sexuality have always had a place in culture and entertainment, and depictions of such date back thousands of years – all the way back to cave painting days (and shame on you if you’re drawing those gynecological-inspired “hearts!”).  But it wasn’t just the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons – there were the Ancient Romans, the Vikings, the Wiccans, and even Shakespeare who carried on this sultry tradition!

But cave paintings, orgies, holidays, and stage shows aside, there’s a surprisingly long and rich history of sex and sexuality in film.  And, spoiler alert, it didn’t take humanity very long to express its carnal fantasies and fears in this new and exciting medium.  As in, we got RIGHT to it as the first order of business.

Below is a crude list covering some of the more interesting firsts.

If you’re pressed for time, but still interested, there’s a handy-dandy timeline at the bottom of the article with the bare (see what I did there?) minimum details.  If you have time to spare, then check out the links, which are either clips of the films, the films in their entirety, or documentaries/commentaries about the films in question.

 

 

NUDITY

Source: Eadweard Muybridge

 

CENSORSHIP

Source: “Fatima’s Coochie-Coochie Dance”
  • 1894’s Carmencita was banned (read: censored) because the film revealed dancer Carmen Dauset Moreno’s legs and undergarments as she twirled and danced.  Barely.
  • Only two years later, in 1896, Fatima’s Coochie-Coochie Dance (AKA Fatima, Muscle Dancer), produced for the Edison Manufacturing Company, had the censors actually alter the footage to cover up the dancer’s naughty bits with censor bars.  And while those naughty bits were unexposed, belly dancer Fatima Djemille really knew how to move, and it was the sexual innuendo that was, apparently, too intense.

 

KISSING

Source: “The Kiss”

CLOSED MOUTH KISS

  • 1896’s 25-second short, The Kiss, by Thomas Edison, is the first closed mouth on-screen kiss.  Interestingly, this series of (relatively) explicit on-screen kisses between May Irwin and John Rice did not get censored in any way, compared to Fatima’s Coochie-Coochie Dance of the same year, which featured only innuendo.

OPEN MOUTHED KISS

  • 1926’s Flesh and the Devil (AKA La Chair et Le Diable) with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert featured the first on-screen (open mouthed) kiss.

SAME-SEX KISS

  • 1927’s Wings portrayed the first on-screen same-sex (male/male) kiss, though this is arguably a platonic rather than romantic or sexual kiss.  Wings is also the first and only silent film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

INTERRACIAL KISS

  • 1903’s What Happened In the Tunnel is a comedy short that features a white man played by Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson wooing a white woman played by Bertha Regustus on a train.  The white woman is sitting beside her black lady servant (actress uncredited).  As the train goes through a tunnel, under the cover of darkness, the white man makes his move only to discover that the women have switched seats and he has, instead, kissed the black maid.  The two women giggle up a storm at the white man’s horror.
  • It’s worth noting that the first televised interracial kiss was between white woman Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) and Hispanic man Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz), an interracial married couple, on I Love Lucy, which ran from 1951-1957.
  • If Hispanic is not “racial” enough for you, then you’ll have to settle for the significantly later 1959 British broadcast of Hot Summer Night, where black man Sonny Lincoln (Lloyd Reckord) and white woman Kathie Palmer (Andree Melly) lock lips.

 

EROTICA

Source: “Le Coucher de la Mariee”

SOFT-CORE EROTICA

  • 1896 was a busy year for early filmmaking pioneers as, in addition to being the year of the first filmed (closed mouth) kiss and first censored (by alteration to the footage itself) film, it also marked the first soft-core pornography (AKA striptease) ever recorded.  The French film Le Coucher de la Mariee (AKA Bedtime for the Bride, AKA The Bridegroom’s Dilemma), featured cabaret actress Louise Willy performing a striptease.  Because only the first two minutes of the seven minute film have survived, it is uncertain whether Ms. Willy went for the full Monty.
  • If you’re not convinced that Ms. Willy let it all hang out in 1896, then 1897’s After the Ball, Bath (AKA Apres Le Bal) is the earliest known film to show (simulated with a flesh-colored body stocking) nudity in a naughty fashion.  A servant (Jane Brady) helps her lady (Jehanne d’Alcy) disrobe and bathe.

HARDCORE EROTICA

  • The French live up to their naughty reputation by being the first to the hardcore pornography finish line.  Or at least the oldest surviving hardcore porno (pornography was illegal at this time, and any and all copies were seized and destroyed in police raids on brothels, where such “nudies” were featured).  Either way, the 1908 A L’Ecu d’Or ou la Bonne Auberge features several other firsts as well, including masturbation that leads into a threesome with two women and a man (performers unknown) with plenty of oral sex before chugging along to actual intercourse.  But no kissing.

 

INTERRACIAL ROMANCE

Source: “Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl”
  • 1915’s The Birth of a Nation (adapted from the novel and play, The Clansman) is exceedingly controversial, and the discussion of such warrants its own, separate article…another matter for another day.  The relevant section of the story is set in Reconstruction Era America, where we are shown two (unwelcomed/one-sided) interractial relationships.  In one, white woman Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh) commits suicide out of fear of black(faced) man Gus’ (Walter Long) marriage proposal.  Next, Congressman Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) is elated to hear his mixed race protégé, Silas Lynch (George Siegmann), wants to marry a white woman…until he realizes said white woman is his own daughter, Elsie (Lillian Gish), who also is not thrilled at the proposal.
  • If you require a more conventional romance, then consider 1919’s Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl.  This dramatic romance is all about a Buddhist missionary, The Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess), who falls in love with the daughter of an abusive prizefighter, Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish).

 

HOMOSEXUALITY

Source: “Anders Als Die Andern”
  • 1919’s Anders Als Die Andern (AKA Different From the Others) is the first film explicitly representing and addressing male homosexuality and in a positive, accepting light.  Paul Körner (Conrad Veidt) seeks a “cure” for being gay.  After hypnosis fails, he sees a sexologist who explains that, “Love for one’s own sex can be just as pure and noble as that for the opposite sex.  This orientation is to be found among many respectable people in all levels of society.”  He goes on, “Only ignorance or bigotry can condemn those who feel differently.  Don’t despair!  As a homosexual, you can still make valuable contributions to humanity.”  Of course, the Nazi party, not known for being the most tolerant or accepting bunch, banned the film and ordered all copies seized and destroyed.

 

SEXUAL VIOLENCE

Source: “Johnny Holiday”
  • 1913’s Traffic in Souls is the first feature length film to make social commentary about – and raise awareness of – human trafficking of pretty young girls as unwilling prostitutes (described in the parlance of the time as “white slavery”) and the ways in which they are entrapped.  This crime drama features both genders as villainous conspirators in the nefarious forced prostitution ring.
    • Sadly, human trafficking is a practice that continues to this day across the entire globe – even in First World countries such as the United States and United Kingdom.  You can find more information at https://humantraffickinghotline.org/states.
  • 1915’s The Cheat is the story of Edith Hardy (Fannie Ward) who embezzles $10,000 (equivalent to over $240,000 in 2017) from the charity she is Treasurer of, and loses it all on a bad Wall Street investment.  Edith repays the charity with money borrowed from wealthy Burmese ivory trader, Hishuru Tori/Haka Araku (Sessue Hayakawa) in exchange for Edith’s freedom.  Hishuru/Haka (the name depends on which release) brands Edith with a sign of ownership, and refuses to release Edith back to her husband – going so far as to take his claim to the courts.  Although the scene wherein Edith is branded is not sexually explicit or graphic per se, it is certainly intensely violent, and a strong argument can be made that it depicts the innuendo of rape.
    • Sexual assault continues to be a persistent problem.  If you or anyone you know needs support, there are many resources that are easily found online, including the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673).
  • Although Johnny Holiday (1949) doesn’t explicitly show it, it is easy enough to read between the lines and know that a group of angry boys in the showers rape a boy who they’re all angry with just beyond the camera’s view.

 

 

TIMELINE QUICK REFERENCE

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.