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The UNCENSORED history of SEX on SCREEN. Pornography, perversion, lust…

Eroticism accompanies the cinema from its very birth, but the beginnings were timid and meek. It shyly crept onto the screens like a child watching adult movies from behind the sofa.

Maja Budka

18 June 2023

UNCENSORED history of SEX on SCREEN

Before the wave of sex, the revolution of naked bodies flooded us and breasts poured out of screens with impunity, the film had to go through a lot. It wasn’t a boring road though. Over the years, directors have tempted with secrets and understatements. They reached for the forbidden fruit, slowly breaking the taboo. New challenges for cinematography were thrown, smuggling passion and desire, arousing great excitement and suggestively affecting the senses of the viewers. After all, as Walerian Borowczyk, the world-famous creator of artistic erotic cinema, said, The last delight is the delight of looking. So let’s see how sex has influenced and changed cinema over the years.

The first erotic films

It all started in 1896, just four years after Thomas Edison patented the kinematoscope. He shot a twenty-second film The Kiss, one of the first commercially presented, and the first film kiss of the couple May Irwin and John Rice was immortalized on it. Innocent, but brave for those times, the kiss was recognized by the first viewers as shocking, indecent and scandalous. Since public kissing and intrusive display of tenderness were not allowed at the time, the Roman Catholic Church intervened, calling for the censorship of the work and its moral reconstruction.

However, the production of erotic films continued to develop despite bans and censorship. The pioneers of the genre were the French, including Albert Kirchner, who directed the oldest surviving picture, Le Coucher de la Mariée from the same year, 1896. In the seven-minute production, actress Louise Willy performs a striptease, hiding from her husband behind a curtain. The woman removes many layers of clothing one by one: dress, blouse, shirt, skirt. The footage survives only in the first two minutes, so it is impossible to watch the entire performance. There is no nudity, the first was only documented in other productions. Prior to this, however, another cinematic short was released in 1896, Coochie coochie dance, a stage performance by Fatima. It shows the artist’s spinning belly dance, which seemed too perverse and did not defend itself against censorship. The woman’s bare pelvis and breasts are covered with white stripes overlaid on the film.

The time has come for the long-awaited (distorted) negligee. One of the pioneers was Georges Méliès, the creator of the A Trip to the Moon. In 1897, he filmed a one-minute scene, After the Ball. The French film shows a bathing scene of a woman, played by the director’s future wife. The maid helps her undress from many layers of clothing to a special costume that only simulates nudity. In such splendor, she is washed with water. This is the first known production that refers to femininity in such a bold way. A scene in the 1901 film, Birth of a Pearl, was similarly characterized. The long-haired model was dressed in a flesh-colored costume imitating a naked body. She stands seductively and provocatively facing the camera, and the whole scene is modeled on Botticelli, The Birth of Venus.

For the first time, the nudity was revealed in front of the Austrian camera, in the country of a real pornography boom. It was there that cinemas organized special bachelor parties, the so-called Herrenabende, where banned films, including those by French Pathé brothers, were shown. The father of pornography, however, was Johann Schwarzer, who founded the company Saturn-Film in Austria. In the years 1906–1911, it produced 52 erotic films, each featuring a young, shapely and fully naked woman. In 1911, Schwarzer’s studio was dissolved by the censorship authorities, and all the films they found were destroyed. Only some items from private collections have survived, including the Am Sklavenmarkt.

Saturn-Film consciously advertised its films as erotic and artistic, not pornographic. Schwarzer’s productions were more professional and more widely distributed than their French and Argentinian counterparts, also popular at the time. The oldest surviving pornographic film is considered to be the French A L’Ecu d’Or ou la bonne auberge from 1908, which tells the story of a fleeting romance between a soldier and a maid in an inn. Argentina’s El Satario, about women copulating with the devil, may be even older, dating from 1907 to 1912. It also featured the first extreme close-up of the genitals. As far as Argentina is concerned, the distribution of illegal erotic films at the turn of the 20th century is considered to have started in brothels in Buenos Aires and other South American cities, from where it quickly spread to Europe. Since then, pornography has developed rapidly in many countries of the world. In the second decade, the works of American cinematography featured female nudity, while European works became bolder and more promiscuous. For example, the 1910 German Am Abend captured female masturbation, fellatio, and anal sex.

am abend

A short history of kissing on screen

It’s hard to find a movie today that doesn’t feature a single kiss. Cinema has made us associate it with a beautiful, romantic, sublime moment. Especially in Hollywood films, which were accompanied by elegant set design and subtle lighting. However, it wasn’t always that simple. The first in history and the first condemned brush of lips was shown in the already mentioned scene from Edison’s The Kiss. In 1899, a British imitator, George Albert Smith, made the film Kiss in the Tunnel, in which a couple traveling by train, taking advantage of a moment of darkness, indulge in a brief passion.

In the 1930s, another constraint fell on the movie kiss, and the American film industry was firmly shackled. From 1930 to 1968, Hollywood had the Hays Code. It was a set of consistent guidelines to which most American productions from the largest film studios had to adapt. His task was to improve the image of Hollywood, which after some high-profile scandals of screen stars and film content depreciating American society began to be associated with the source of evil and corruption. The solution was the introduction of general censorship, which was demanded by civil and political organizations and the Church. The introduced code forbade, among other things, showing extramarital sex, nudity, references to non-heteronormative sexual behavior and finally passionate kissing. American cinema was dominated by insensitive censorship. The filmmakers tried to discreetly ignore a code considered prudish by the liberal society of the early 1930s. Soon the disregard for the directives became an open secret. Alfred Hitchcock stood up for the independence of the American Kiss with the film Notorious in 1946. The Hays Code stipulated that a close-up of lips in a film could not last longer than three statutory seconds. The master of suspense found a way around the guidelines. In the famous scene with Ingrid Bergman and Gary Grant, the director interrupted the intimate close-up of the actors. Finally, the kiss scene, composed of several autonomous, passionate kisses, lasted two and a half minutes.

Hays’ guidelines also applied to the portrayal of mixed-couple relationships, marriages, and relationships of different racial groups, which were, of course, forbidden at the time. The first interracial kiss was featured in the film Island in the Sun in 1957. Despite the controversial depiction of the British romance with the indigenous inhabitants of the fictional island of Santa Marta, Robert Rossen’s production slipped through the censors.

Breaking the taboo. Sex on screen

We may be living in the era of Fifty Shades of Gray and Gaspar Noé’s Love, but cinema, especially in the Dream Factory, wasn’t always so liberal. However, since the pictures went into motion, it was only a matter of time before sex appeared on the screen. The Czechs became interested in the first reflection of desire. When the Americans had their hands tied by William Harrison Hays, Gustav Machatý made the film Ekstase in 1933 with the American actress Hedy Lamarr. As Eva, she leaves her impotent husband and starts a passionate affair with a newly met, younger man. While the precursory sex segment doesn’t feature nudity, the movie itself does. This is evidenced by the long bathing scene in the river. The episode of sexual intercourse itself is presented subtly and sensually. The camera does not reveal more than the characters’ faces. The culminating moment is the immortalization of the orgasm of the then nineteen-year-old actress, which at the time caused great controversy. Ecstasy is the first non-pornographic film depicting sex and female elation.

When Machatý’s film broke one barrier, another, a twin, was broken exactly 33 years later. The 1966 Danish drama Gift is credited with being the first film in which actors engage in an unsimulated sex act. Key erotic scenes of Knud Leif Thomsen’s work, however, were censored during screenings in the United States. Artwork showing explicit sexual activity was restricted to private underground shows. In mainstream movies, actors rarely engaged in real sex. An exception may be the American film Blue from 1969, the second production of the artist Andy Warhol. However, the biggest boom of non-simulated erotic scenes took place in the 1970s, with the (in)famous Pink Flamingos by John Waters. The transgressive black comedy from 1972 is notable, among other things, for the first depiction of an oral sex scene in the history of American cinema. Although the climate for making this type of independent film was more favorable in the US than in Europe, where the film was banned in many countries, the scenes of fellatio and the charming episode of the divine Divina eating dog feces did not defend themselves against the scissors of censorship.

pink flamingos blow job scene

One of the most appreciated pictures with authentic sex scenes is Nagisa Ôshima’s 1975 Japanese In the Realm of the Senses. In the Land of the Rising Sun, softcore films and manga with a strong romance with eroticism, the work of the Japanese put censorship on its feet and caused worldwide outrage. Sensual images of sexual obsession, erotic experiments of a young cleaning lady and her boss, as well as scenes of harassment meant that the film could not be made in the director’s homeland. It was realized only because it was recognized as a French work. The fact that the story written by Ôshima actually happened was also a source of controversy. It is a story about a Japanese prostitute, Sada Abe, who is remembered as the murderer of her lover, Kichizo Ishida. After erotic asphyxiation, she was to cut off the man’s penis and testicles and then wear them in her kimono. The story became a national sensation in 1930s Japan. It was given a mythical meaning, and artists, philosophers, novelists and filmmakers, including Nagisa Ôshima, subjected it to various interpretations.

in the realm of the senses sex scene

Another interesting film breaking conventions was Caligula from 1979. A high-budget production about a cruel Roman emperor, played by Malcolm McDowell, was to become, according to producer Bob Guccione, an explicit pornographic film with a feature narrative and conspicuous production values. In addition to the key image of an orgy involving 50 naked women, the film offers endless rounds of intercourse performed in all possible ways and in all possible combinations. Uncut by censorship, the over two-hour version of the film contains several six-minute insert shots, scenes filmed from different angles, authentic penetrations, fellatio and cumshots. The rest of the sex scenes already shot by director Tinto Brass, while very believable, were simulated. The proud Roman epic presented in the form of a golden, ornamented and pornographic spectacle became an epic flop, even with bold scenes that challenged the mainstream of erotica.

caligula sex scene

The beginnings of homosexual passion

Sex in the film was governed by its own rules, not separating itself from intimate and carnal scenes of homosexual love. And you have to start with the years 1894–1895. It was during this period that William Dickson made Dickson Experimental Sound Film, the first sound-enabled film at Thomas Edison’s Black Maria studios. It is basically a simple operator test to demonstrate the technical capabilities of the inventor’s new machine. The seventeen-second scene shows Dickson playing the violin and two men embracing, dancing to the music. Historian Vito Russo titles the film The Gay Brothers and places it in the context of the history of gay American productions. The homosexual content of the work was accepted on the Internet and in several publications. It is not clear whether the director’s vision was to present the men as a romantic couple. Considering the lyrics of the song Dickson plays, it describes life at sea without women, which imposes a different, playful interpretation of the male environment of the Black Maria studio.

In the Oscar-winning film Wings from 1927, everything is clear and legible when the viewer’s eyes see the first same-sex kiss. The picture shows a tender meeting between two soldiers fighting on the front of the First World War. Interestingly, it did not cause any scandal. Why? According to history, letters and war reports, kissing and hugging in the trenches was extremely common. There are stories that tell of men giving themselves affectionate nicknames. The war succeeded in breaking the traditional limits of emotional and physical intimacy between men.

There are definitely fewer female love stories in the history of cinema, especially silent cinema. One of the most interesting and perhaps the first cases of a homosexual woman in film can be seen in Morocco from 1930 with Marlene Dietrich. Actresses of the old film industry often put on men’s clothes, imitating representatives of the opposite sex. Artists such as Leatrice Joy or Jessie Matthews put on men’s suits, hats and carefully combed their hair back in their acting creations. The Dietrich production is best known for the scene in which the actress, dressed in a men’s tailcoat, kisses an embarrassed woman during the song.

Gay cinema eschewed the innocence of sweet kisses in 1947 in favor of genuine obscenity and vulgar sexuality. The homoerotic twelve-minute film Fireworks was shot by the legend of the American avant-garde, seventeen-year-old Kenneth Anger, in the absence of his parents. The very context of its creation gives the work a controversial, enigmatic tone. Fireworks takes the form of a trance film in which the main character, played by the director himself, takes part in a hypnotic journey deep into his subconscious, which ends with a sadomasochistic, brutal fantasy involving a group of broad-shouldered sailors. The title fireworks sparkle from the unzipped fly of one of the men. Anger was arrested after the film’s release, and a year later a lawsuit was launched against a theater manager for showing Fireworks, which ended with the film being recognized as an art form.

https://youtu.be/EHMrj3lwPVE

Another artistic and extremely sensual form of presenting gay love was the only film by the French writer Jean Genet, Song of Love from 1950. The action of the work takes place in a prison and tells the story of an intimate relationship between two convicts in love, separated by a cell wall. Excited by their presence, they spend their days on erotic fantasies and sharing cigarette smoke through a straw in a hole in the wall. Genet discreetly and passionately presents homosexual passion and desire, complementing them spicy with the presence of a guard who enjoys watching the masturbating prisoners. A blunt scene is a fragment of beating one of them with a belt, while the guard forces him to ambiguously suck his pistol. This scene is interspersed with idyllic images of pure homoerotic love. The director additionally renounces dialogue, focusing on silent close-ups of bodies, faces and covered limbs. The work was banned shortly after its premiere due to its explicit homosexual content. Although Song of Love clearly refers to corporeality, the first image of a naked man in the film had to wait until 1969 for Women in Love. The first non-pornographic depiction of a woman in a film was the creation of Audrey Munson from Inspiration in 1915.

The first movie temptresses

It is no surprise that the symbol of eroticism and sexuality in the film is a woman. Preferably playful, coquettish, alluring, often tempting with her charms. One of the first sex icons to appear on the screen was Jane Russell and her bust, which was the biggest decoration of the 1943 western The Outlaw. Director Howard Hughes designed a special bra for the film to enhance the actress’s breasts. After battling the censors for two years, the work was released without Hays’ approval. The fascination around Russell was better than publicity.

A year later, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity was released. The main character’s lover, played by Barbara Stanwyck, plans to murder her husband and portrays herself as a cold-blooded, seductive femme fatale. The creators included the image of the fascination of the two heroes in well-written dialogues in which the woman hypnotizes with her dangerous coquetry.

Jane Russell in The Outlaw

The movie Baby Doll caused a lot of controversy even before its premiere, when a billboard hung over New York City with Carroll Baker lying on a crib and excitingly sucking her thumb. The work from 1956 tells the story of Archie Lee Meighan, who waits for the title Doll’s twentieth birthday to be able to consummate his marriage with a virgin. The actress appearing in frilly, lace and short pajamas (named in her honor Babydoll), her seductive, girly creation ensured the woman a great acting career and the status of a Hollywood sex bomb. Carroll became the intoxicating Lolita of the 1950s.

baby doll Carroll Baker in a crib

Until finally God created Brigitte Bardot. The French cat shone on the screen of Roger Vadim’s … And God Created Woman in 1956 as well, and sparked a sexual revolution in American cinema. Although this is not the first film in which she appears, he directed the spotlight on her and gave her the name of a sex kitten. The actress played the role of a teenager who seduces men in a sexy bikini outfit. The costume was well-known in France in the 1950s, but still perceived risqué in the United States. Nevertheless, the work became an international success, and Bardot could only be removed from the pedestal of the sex queen of the 1950s and 1960s by Marilyn Monroe.

And God Created Woman brigitte bardot in a bed

Experimental films

In the history of cinematography, we find many erotic works that re-contemplate the aesthetics of sexual desire, sensuality and romantic love. It is impossible to list all of them, but it is worth mentioning the earliest and most interesting films that redefined screen sexuality throughout the cinema, often bordering on controversy and censorship. One of them is Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 picture The Cheat, which is the first to refer to sexual violence. The silent spectacle is full of gloomy and sadomasochistic fantasies. It shows a Japanese businessman in the role of a predator, in whose snare the defenseless Edith Hardy falls, surrendering to his brutal domination for money.the cheat

Nine years later, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s German Michael is created, which is an image of the relationship between a painter who hides his homosexual tendencies from the world, an impoverished countess, and an artist’s model who becomes a silent lover of both. The story of the love triangle is the first to have an emotional impact on the later history of gay cinema.

In the history of sound cinema, the iconic A Streetcar Named Desire became a milestone of erotic cinema, an intimate work considered immoral and violating the customs of the time. It talks about passion, lust, passion and sexuality. Above all, however, it is a precisely drawn portrait of a mature relationship, one of the best in the history of American cinema.

A Streetcar Named Desire Vivien Leigh Marlon Brando

The British-Italian film by Michelangelo Antonioni also became a breakthrough in the history of American cinematography. The subject of Blow-up from 1966 is fashion photography, which, according to Hollywood standards of the time, was bursting with sex, sensuality and carnality. The director also smuggles in the first glimpse of pubic hair in the history of cinema. The expressive sexual content of the work by the Italian creator was clearly against the Hays Code, but the pink years of the counterculture, the success of the reviewers and the box office production  provided the American edition with immunity and a symbol of the official fall of Hollywood censorship in 1968.

blow- up David Hemmings Vanessa Redgrave

Sex and the Swedish New Wave. Vilgot Sjöman created an avant-garde mix of documentary, nudity scenes and staged sexual intercourse under the banner of the social changes of the 1960s in I Am Curious (Yellow) from 1976. The director made the film together with his crush, Lena Nyman. The production includes many interviews about gender equality, social classes, and a conversation with Martin Luther King. One particularly controversial scene is the image of Lena kissing her lover’s limp penis. A huge controversy erupted around the work. The film was banned in Massachusetts, and the Boston police began confiscating the tapes. The case went to the United States Supreme Court, where Sjöman’s work was deemed decent. Thus, it gained worldwide fame. To this day, popular culture refers to the Swedish film.

I Am Curious (Yellow)

One of the most controversial films, nudity of forty-eight-year-old Marlon Brando and anal rape with butter as lubricant. Bernard Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris from 1972 shows a recently widowed American man who begins an anonymous sexual relationship with a young Parisian woman. Overcoming barriers became the main theme of the work. The film’s uninterrupted depiction of sexual violence and emotional turmoil led to international controversy and invoked censorship. The director, revealing the backstage of the most controversial part of the film, anal rape, admitted that the young and inexperienced Maria Schneider who played next to Brando did not know about the scene. The director and actor were supposed to come up with it shortly before shooting. The actress was supposed to experience a shock at that time, and some of the screams she uttered and the tears shed were supposed to be a natural, unsimulated reaction. In some interviews, he admits that Bertolucci fulfilled his own erotic fantasies on the set. In the end, Schneider admitted that participation in the production of the Italian destroyed her life. The artist himself was deprived of his civil rights for 5 years and sentenced to 4 months of suspended detention.

last tango in paris rape scene marlon brando Maria Schneider

The aforementioned Walerian Borowczyk is considered a pioneer of surrealist cinema of the absurd and the world’s greatest creator of artistic erotic cinema. His first financial success came with the 1974 film Immoral Tales. The film was banned in France, only allowed after protests. No wonder, although sublime and artistically beautiful, it is saturated with blood and sex. It presents four independent stories. Among other things, about the heroine who is locked in a room full of holy paintings and has intercourse with a cucumber, and about Elżbieta Batory, who arranges sadomasochistic, bloody, lesbian orgies.

immoral tales

A pornographic film, compared to an erotic work, has no artistic value. Sexuality appears in it mainly in order to stimulate and achieve erotic satisfaction by the viewer. Sensual works, on the other hand, treat sex as an object of art. They refer to the fascination with carnality, deeply rooted in the human psyche, the desire to perceive the world sensually, human exaltation. And although this truth has been known since the beginning of the world, cinema made a huge effort to ensure that sex gained proper autonomy and shed the cloak of prohibition and fundamental secrecy.

Maja Budka

Maja Budka

I write about film and art with a cat on the keyboard. I like animation and films lined with gentle absurdity.

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