History of Sex in Cinema:
The Greatest and Most Influential
Sexual Films and Scenes

(Illustrated)

Pre-1920s



The History of Sex in Cinema
Movie Title/Year and Film/Scene Description
Screenshots

Eadweard Muybridge's Primitive Motion Studies (from 1884-1887) - The Human Figure in Motion - Descending Stairs and Turning Around

Muybridge's test footage included cinematic glimpses of naked men and women in motion, such as in this sampling of pictures (to the right).



Carmencita (1894)

Spanish dancer Carmencita was the first woman to appear in front of an Edison motion picture camera, and quite possibly the first female to appear in a US motion picture. The short film (about 21 seconds long) was directed and produced by Edison's employee William K.L. Dickson. She was filmed March 10-16, 1894 in Edison's Black Maria studio in West Orange, NJ.

In some cases, the projection of the scandalous film on a Kinetoscope was forbidden, because it revealed Carmencita's legs and undergarments as she twirled and danced. This was one of the earliest cases of censorship in the moving picture industry.

Le Coucher de la Marie (1896, Fr.) (aka Bedtime for the Bride)

"Blue movie" pornographer Eugene Pirou reportedly pioneered the risque film with the premiere of this film in Paris. He was responsible for producing this film (and other similar "smoking concert" or stag party films). The short film (only part of which survives today) was directed by Léar (real name Albert Kirchner).

In this one, cabaret performer Louise Willy recreated a striptease from her cabaret act - the first striptease onscreen.

 

Fatima's Coochie-Coochie Dance (1896)

This short nickelodeon kinetoscope/film of a gyrating belly dancer named Fatima (well-known for her dancing shows at the Columbia World's Exhibition in 1893) became one of the earliest films in which a scene was censored - for her gyrating and moving pelvis.

It was covered up by what appeared to be a white picket fence (a grid-like pattern of white lines - see second image). At the time, there were numerous risque films that featured exotic dancers.


Uncensored

Censored

The May Irwin Kiss (1896) (aka The Kiss, or The Irwin-Rice Kiss

The very first kiss on film was between a Victorian couple seen in this Edison kinetoscope in a filmed scene enacted from the Broadway stage play The Widow Jones. It was titillating short 20-second film loop, with a close-up of a nuzzling couple followed by a short peck on the lips ("the mysteries of the kiss revealed").

The kissing scene was denounced as shocking and pornographic to early moviegoers and caused the Roman Catholic Church to call for censorship and moral reform - because kissing in public at the time could lead to prosecution.

Après Le Bal (1897, Fr.) (After the Ball, Bath)

Pioneering film-maker Georges Melies directed this short, B/W silent film, which contained one of the earliest nude scenes in film history.

In the scene, a fully-dressed person was helped to undress by a maid for a bath.

Annabelle (Whitford) Moore's Dance Routines (mid-1890s)

Many of the earliest nickelodeon films featured the dancing of vaudeville performer Annabelle Whitford (known as Peerless Annabelle), whose routines were filmed at Edison's studio in NJ:

  • Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894)
  • Annabelle Sun Dance (1894)
  • Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895)
  • Serpentine Dance by Annabelle (1896)
  • Annabelle in Flag Dance (1896)
  • Skirt Dance by Annabelle (1896)
  • Tambourine Dance by Annabelle (1896)
  • Sun Dance - Annabelle (1897)

Male audiences were enthralled watching these early depictions of a clothed female dancer (sometimes color-tinted) on a Kinetoscope (an early peep-show device for projecting short films).


The Birth of the Pearl (1901)

Proprietors of the arcade parlors and nickelodeons with hand-cranked kinetoscopes, designed to provide cheap entertainment for poor, lower-class immigrants in the cities, realized that sex (or erotica) sold.

One example was this short provocative American Mutoscope & Biograph film about the 'birth of a pearl' in an art tableau. When the curtains were drawn to the side by two clothed chorus girls, a large oyster or clam shell was revealed in front of a painted backdrop of the ocean.

As the shell opened, a sleeping or slumbering long-haired young model (wearing a flesh-colored body stocking) was curled up, but then slowly awakened from slumber and stood up.

From Show Girl to Burlesque Queen (1903)

This titillating short film (one-minute in length) from American Mutoscope & Biograph was designed to stimulate its audience.

It presented a view of a woman in her dressing room mischievously undressing and smiling at the camera - but after removing clothing and standing in a long white undergarment (and slipping the strap of her garment off one shoulder), she ducked behind a screen to her right.

There, she continued to undress and furtively reach for other clothes. She then appeared costumed in another outfit.

Peeping Tom in the Dressing Room (1905)

This voyeuristic short was sexually enticing to early male audiences.

After being caught 'peeping' through a keyhole while spying on a buxom female as she dressed, the humiliated man was brought into the dressing room, where chorus girls beat him with powder puffs.

A similar earlier title was Biograph's Peeping Tom (1897).


Peeping Tom (1897)

A L'Ecu d'Or ou la Bonne Auberge (1908, Fr.)

This French film has been widely regarded as the oldest-surviving hard-core pornographic film. Early pornographic films were frequently displayed at brothels, and seized (and thereafter destroyed) when police raided the illegal establishments.

The film's action was straightforward - a woman was seen pleasuring herself with a dildo, then another man and woman joined her for a threesome, involving lots of oral sex before intercourse.

Traffic in Souls (1913)

Carl Laemmle's newly-formed Independent Motion Picture Company's (IMP) first feature-length film release was the six-reel melodrama (and faux documentary) Traffic in Souls (1913) (aka While New York Sleeps).

It was the first American feature-length sex film. This was one of the first films to understand that 'sex sells,' although its producers worried that a 'feature-length' film on any subject wouldn't be successful.

It was a "photo-drama" expose of white slavery (entrapment of young women into prostitution) at the turn of the century in NYC, although the film exploitatively promised steamy sex in its advertisements.

It was the most expensive feature film of its time at $57,000, although its record earnings were $450,000.

Damaged Goods (1914)
and
Damaged Goods (1919, UK)

This early, dramatic sex-hygiene (venereal disease) educational film (now presumed lost) was typical of an early exploitation film with sensational content told with an educational slant. It was a smash-hit at the box-office when re-released in 1915 by the Mutual Film Corporation, with $2 million box-office revenue, and caused a wave of similar films for the rest of the decade.

Its plot was about how young lawyer George Dupont (Richard Bennett) contracted syphilis from a prostitute (Adrienne Morrison, Mrs. Bennett in real-life), and passed on the disease to his fiancee-wife (Senator Locke's daughter Henriette (Olive Templeton)) and baby - against Dr. Clifford's (Louis Bennison) advice.

By film's end, Dupont committed suicide by drowning himself (although in the re-release, the suicide was toned down).

A silent British version of the film was directed by Alexander Butler in 1919.

Other films in this sub-genre included The Spreading Evil (1918), The Scarlet Trail (1918), Open Your Eyes (1919), The Solitary Sin (1919), and Wild Oats (1919).

 

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

D.W. Griffith's Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) was controversial for many reasons, one of which was its racist and "vicious" portrayal of blacks and its proclamation of miscegenation (racial mixing), according to the NAACP. For that reason, it was the subject of bans for inciting "race hatred and race riots."

In one long suspenseful scene, an emancipated former house servant/slave - an inflamed, lusty Negro "renegade" named Gus (Walter Long), chased after young Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh). Although he reassured her: "Wait, missie, I won't hurt yeh," she fell from a cliff after repeatedly threatening him -- "Stay away or I'll jump."

The scene has often been misinterpreted as a rape scene, although it wasn't. However, it could be interpreted that her threatened state symbolized the emasculation and 'rape' of whites in the South by a rampant black population suddenly emancipated - and destructive of the racial order.

In another controversial scene, lecherous mulatto leader Silas Lynch (George Siegmann, a white actor dressed as black and acting monstrously) attacked Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish), representing innocence, purity and virtue. He attempted to force marriage upon her.


The Cheat (1915)

Director Cecil B. DeMille's sensational melodrama combined elements of sexuality with sadomasochism, luring large audiences to theatres to watch it. It was an early example of DeMille's predilection for sensationalism and boldness in pushing the censors to the limit.

The masterfully-filmed story was about an indebted married, spendthrift woman named Edith Hardy (Fannie Ward in her debut film) who turned to a benefactor, a wealthy Japanese/Burmese ivory merchant/dealer named Hishuru Tori/Haka Arakau (Sessue Hayakawa). [The film was accused or racial prejudice against the Japanese, causing Paramount Pictures to change the name and nationality of the character.] When she was wanting to repay a loan of $10,000, he demanded her as repayment.

When she refused (in a 'rape' scene), the sexually-predatory, sadistic Asian man grabbed her by the hair, and branded her with a red-hot iron on her bare left shoulder, making her his property or possession.



A Fool There Was (1915)

The full-bosomed Theda Bara became an overnight sensation after her appearance in this melodrama. She was dubbed the "Vamp," and became the screen's first femme fatale (the first dangerous female in the movies) and first movie sex goddess or sex symbol.

The sexy actress was first introduced as an evil temptress in this film with her character name: Vampire. She was portrayed as a predatory vamp (luring men to ruin and destruction). The vamp was a reflection of the society's anxious fear and attraction to the newly-emancipated woman of the early 1900s.

As a homewrecker, she destroyed the marriage of wealthy lawyer and statesman John Schuyler, a successful Presidential special envoy to Britain. She delivered her most famous lines to him, shown in two title cards, as she draped her arms over him:

"You have ruined me, you devil, and now you discard me!"
" Kiss me, my Fool!"

Bara was a Hollywood creation who mixed ruthlessness and dark erotic sexiness into her numerous roles - she would often appear in risque transparent costumes, in her over 40 films created from 1914 to 1919.

The Vamp character was repeated in Bara's melodramatic The Devil's Daughter (1915) in the role of La Gioconda, and also in the lost film The Vixen (1916) (aka The Love Pirate) (see below) as the nymphomaniacal boyfriend-stealing Elsie Drummond. However, the "vamp" didn't last too long at this time, because it soon became too recognizable a caricature.


A Free Ride (1915)

A Free Ride was reportedly the earliest-known US silent stag ('men only') or pornographic film. Because these kinds of films (with increasingly explicit amounts of nudity and sexuality) were completely illegal, they were shown in all-male locations, clubs, etc., not in mainstream theaters.

Its comic titles foretold its plot:

Directed by A. Wise Guy, Photographed by Will B. Hard, and Titles by Will She.

It included explicit sex scenes of a wealthy man having sex with two female hitchhikers by the side of the road.


Hypocrites (1915)

Hypocrites was a Paramount 4-reel silent film from female director Lois Weber - the most important and prolific of all American women directors of the silent era.

It was considered a shocking and controversial film that was held up for many months because of its full nudity.

Nudity was portrayed in the ghostly figure of the Naked Truth, literally shown by a nude woman (Margaret Edwards) who revealed hypocritical desires for money, sex, and power.


Inspiration (1915) (aka The Perfect Model)

Audrey Munson (a real-life 'perfect' model for numerous Beaux-Arts sculptors) first appeared artistically nude as a sculptor's model, recreating classic artistic (nude) paintings in George Foster Platt's controversial film from the Mutual Film Corporation. In fact, the film told the story of her own life.

It has been claimed that this was the first known film in which a leading actress stripped down to be naked, making her the first nude film star.

It was the first of her four silent films. Munson also appeared nude in Purity (1916) (see below) and in Heedless Moths (1921).

Behind the Screen (1916)

In this two-reeler for Mutual, Charlie Chaplin portrayed a hired worker named David at a film studio.

In the film's infamous 'gay' scene, he kissed a young girl (Edna Purviance) who was dressed in masculine clothing (as a masquerading way to find work), thereby upsetting his brutish and burly foreman Goliath (Eric Campbell). The boss believed they were homosexual and teased them mercilessly by acting 'prissy' to mock them.


Daughter of the Gods (1916)

This controversial film (filmed in Jamaica) starred Australian-born swimming and diving champ Annette Kellermann (the "Esther Williams of the silent era"). It was Kellermann's second feature film, and also the most expensive film of its decade at $1 million.

Earlier Kellermann films included Siren of the Sea (1911), The Mermaid (1911), and her first feature film, the underwater fantasy Neptune's Daughter (1914). [The biopic Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), with aquatic star Esther Williams, was based upon Kellermann's life.] She was called "the world's most perfectly-formed woman" and "The Australian Mermaid," and billed as "the Diving Venus."

In 1910, she had already gained attention for advocating the scandalous-at-the-time one-piece bathing suit, for which she was arrested in Boston Harbor.

She caused a great stir when publicity posters displayed her naked, with her long flowing hair covering her breasts and pubic region. She was one of the first major female stars to appear nude on screen.



Publicity Stills

Intolerance (1916)

D. W. Griffith's lurid epic Intolerance (1916) featured bare-breasted, lightly-draped women ("virgins of the sacred fires of life") in love temples, in the tinted Babylonian sequences.


Purity (1916)

After her appearance a year earlier in Inspiration (1915) (see above), sculptor's model Audrey Munson also appeared nude in another silent film, Rea Burger's 7-reel Purity (1916), in a dual role, as a spirit figure and as an artist's nude model named Purity/Virtue.

The National Board of Review allowed nudity in the film, as long as it was shot at a distance and posed motionless (or viewed only momentarily).

Even with some censored (or edited) scenes, the film was banned in various places (Kansas, and in the cities of Dallas and Washington). The New York Times called the film "offensive," claiming that Munson as Purity was a "beautiful figure of a famous model exploited on the screen."

The Vixen (1916) (aka The Love Pirate)

In this lost film, Theda Bara took the role of spoiled, deceiving nymphomaniac "vixen" Elsie Drummond.

She wooed Wall Street businessman Martin Stevens (A. H. Van Buren) away from his interest in her sweet sister Helen (Mary G. Martin). She continued to seek after rich men, eventually marrying young statesman Knowles Murray (Herbert Heyes) (again stolen from Helen) - but still willing to be unfaithful with Stevens who had since regained his fortune.

 

Cleopatra (1917)

This elaborately-produced film (now presumed lost) from the Fox Film Corporation was one of vamp Theda Bara's biggest hits. It was the sexy star's first film made in studios on the West Coast, and her most famous film - although only fragments exist today.

When the film was promoted, publicists realized that her name Theda Bara was an anagram for "Arab Death." The fact was overly exaggerated with the claim that she was the reincarnated daughter of Seti, high priest of the pharaohs, and in a past life was actually Cleopatra.

In the over two-hour long epic, she portrayed the historical Queen of Egypt Cleopatra -- noted for her risque and bare-breasted costuming. She was seen nearly nude with the contours of her breasts held by two curving gold asps, and she wore a gown with spidery embroidery over her crotch.

Taken From Only Surviving Footage


Publicity Stills

The Chief Cook (1917)

In this Billy West (a Charlie Chaplin imitator) short silent comedy, Oliver Hardy appeared as Babe, the head of a touring theatre boarding house who inevitably caused trouble for West.

The slapstick two-reeler contained a brief sequence in which the Star Boarder (Billy West) voyeuristically spied through a keyhole upon a young woman named Dolly (blonde starlet Ellen Burford) taking a bath. At one point, she draped herself over the tub, allowing a nude glimpse.

 

Mack Sennett's "Bathing Beauties"

Comedy pioneer and "King of Comedy" Mack Sennett popularized his sexually-appealing "bathing beauties" starlets. The swimsuited beauties were usually uncredited swimsuit models, although some became famous leading ladies, such as Juanita Hansen, Phyllis Haver, Gloria Swanson and the original bathing beauty Mabel Normand.

Sennett had them appear bare-legged in his cheaply-made popular slapstick comedies. Although he was accused of exploiting their bodies by the Temperance Movement, they remained highly popular - and racy for their time.

Isle of Love (1918) (aka An Adventuress (1920))

Young starlet Virginia Rapp (with the screen name of Rappe), who was later portrayed as the victim in the rape/murder case/scandal involving silent film comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle on Labor Day 1921, appeared in this film. She and other participants laid the blame on Arbuckle before her death four days later of a ruptured bladder and peritonitis.

She ultimately appeared in small roles in about 10 films during her short career, and had developed a trampish reputation as one who would frequently strip and sometimes modeled in the nude.

Her biographical information claimed multiple abortions, venereal disease, dabbling in prostitution, and an out-of-wedlock child raised by foster care.

Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

In this ten-reel silent film - the first screen version of Edgar Rice Burrough's jungle character, Tarzan at ten years old (Gordon Griffith as younger ape-boy Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln as adult) was almost nude for much of the first third of the film.

Then, he abruptly thought to himself: "Clothes! At the bottom of his little English heart survived a longing for them" - and adopted clothes to cover himself.

The breasts and buttocks of African natives (called "negroes") in their camp were also briefly shown.



Anders als die Andern (1919, Germ.) (aka Different From the Others)

Director Richard Oswald's silent film (only half of which survives) was reportedly the first representation of male homosexuality ("the third sex") in a feature-length film, and the first screen depiction of a gay bar (with gay males and butch females). It was also notable for sympathetically portraying homosexuality.

The two ill-fated lovers were prominent pianist Paul Korner (Conrad Veidt) and his young music student, Kurt (Fritz Schulz). The film had a tragic ending (suicide for Korner) when he was blackmailed (threats of exposure) for being homosexual, and facing jail time for violating anti-homosexuality statutes, and the social stigma of being outed.

The controversial film was banned by the Nazis and all prints were ordered destroyed, although one incomplete print surfaced in the Ukraine. The film's themes were repeated in Victim (1961, UK), with Dirk Bogarde.

Back to God's Country (1919, Can.)

This exploitative melodrama, by actress/writer/producer Nell Shipman (and directed by David Hartford), was probably the most successful Canadian silent feature film. It was taglined: "Is the Nude Rude?" - and due to its lurid advertising, it became the highest-grossing Canadian film made during the silent era.

It featured the first full-frontal female nudity of a "star" in the history of cinema (in a nude-swimming scene, although she was covered by a flesh-covered leotard of some kind).


Male and Female (1919)

Since this was a Cecil B. DeMille production (a silent adaptation of the play "The Admirable Crichton" by J. M. Barrie), it was bound to contain lurid or sensational scenes - typical of DeMille's brash and extravagant Biblical epics that always found an excuse to combine religion with sex. It was the biggest Paramount Pictures hit of its year, and notable for screen siren star Gloria Swanson, at the height of her popularity, displaying many elaborate and elegant costumes.

This film, suggestively titled, featured a contrived plot that starred Gloria Swanson as snobby, pampered and spoiled socialite Lady Mary Lasenby (the female of the title) who engaged in a restrained and short extra-marital love affair with her respectful and dutiful butler (the male of the title), Crichton (Thomas Meighan). Their improper relationship occurred when they had become shipwrecked on a deserted South Seas tropical island where roles were inverted, and she learned lessons about class differences and the social hierarchy.

Swanson was seen in a half-naked risque bathing scene in a sunken marble bathtub (filled with rosewater) in the film's beginning. Later in a fantasy and dreamy "King of Babylon" sequence, the leads were recast as a haughty monarch and feisty slave. Swanson was portrayed as a Christian slave girl in a leopard-print dress - including her sentencing by the king to descend into a Babylonian lion's den as "The Lion's Bride" (with "sacred lions of Ishtar") wearing a gown of pearls with a feathered headdress.






Sex in Cinematic History
History Overview | Reference Intro | Pre-1920s | 1920-26 | 1927-29 | 1930-1931 | 1932 | 1933 | 1934-37 | 1938-39
1940-44 | 1945-49 | 1950-54 | 1955-56 | 1957-59 | 1960-61 | 1962-63 | 1964 | 1965-66 | 1967 | 1968 | 1969

1970 | 1971 | 1972 | 1973 | 1974 | 1975 | 1976 | 1977 | 1978 | 1979 | 1980 | 1981 | 1982 | 1983 | 1984 | 1985 | 1986 | 1987 | 1988 | 1989
1990 | 1991 | 1992-1 | 1992-2 | 1993 | 1994-1 | 1994-2 | 1995-1 | 1995-2 | 1996-1 | 1996-2 | 1997-1 | 1997-2 | 1998-1 | 1998-2 | 1999-1 | 1999-2
2000-1 | 2000-2 | 2001-1 | 2001-2 | 2002-1 | 2002-2 | 2003-1 | 2003-2 | 2004-1 | 2004-2 | 2005-1 | 2005-2 | 2006-1 | 2006-2
2007-1 | 2007-2 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014

Index to All Decades, Years and Features


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