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



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

Cleopatra (1934)

Producer/director Cecil B. DeMille's epic telling of this oft-filmed tale of Cleopatra (1934) featured midriff-bearing Claudette Colbert as the Queen of Egypt's Cleopatra. In the film's opening title screen, a statuesque (naked?) slavegirl held up two incense burners (one in each hand).

The alluring, cold-blooded queen would first seduce Roman leader Julius Caesar (Warren Williams), leading him to plan to divorce his wife Calpurnia ( ). His advisors commented about the treacherous Queen of Egypt: "Women soften all men," and "That woman's making an Egyptian out of you."

Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) With Suitor Julius Caesar of Rome

Then, after Caesar's tragic downfall by assassination, she immediately turned her attention to the dashing Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon). She began her seduction of him in the infamous barge/bordello scene which began with decadent entertainment - a prelude to taking him onto her barge to sail off:

  • near-naked dancing girls accompanying an ox (with a scantily-clad dancer riding upon it and stroking its side)
  • the remarkable sequence in which 'clams' that were hauled up in a net were revealed to be more dancing-girls wrapped in seaweed; the females supplicated themselves at Antony's feet, offering him clamshells filled with jewels
  • leopard-skinned animals/girls followed, led by trainers with whips, who engaged in a mock Egyptian cat-fight and then jumped through fiery hoops
The Barge/Bordello Scene with Marc Antony

The film ended with Cleopatra's famous suicidal bite by an asp placed to her own throat.

(Claudette Colbert)

George White's Scandals (1934)

This pre-Code film starred Fox's resident queen of musicals in the 30s and 40s - Alice Faye, opposite Rudy Vallee (as Jimmy Martin). It was Broadway impresario George White's first film, as co-director, writer, and actor. It was followed by a similarly-titled sequel in 1935, in which Faye was top-billed.

The platinum-blonde 18 year-old vamp, Alice Faye (in her debut film) was given a major role when the lead actress Lilian Harvey broke her contract and walked out. Faye portrayed vulnerability, sweetness and sultry sexuality in this backstage musical revue film as Kitty Donnelly/Mona Vale, a vivacious aspiring singer with a velvety contralto voice.

Her performance was most noted for a lurid rendition of "Oh, You Nasty Man" with rude lyrics.

Oh, you nasty man, Taking your love on the easy plan, Here and there and where you can, Oh, you nasty man.
You're not fooling me, I've got you figured from A to Z. But you're darned good company, Oh, you big bad man.
You're sweet and nasty, I know what's on your mind, You'll pull a fasty, make me fizzle and then you chisel.
Oh, you nasty man, I never met anyone who can, Be as bad or better than. You, you nasty, Who taught you that, Oh, you nasty, Don't ever do that, Oh, you nasty man.

Her appearance in the film made her an instant star, and she signed a long-term contract with Fox.

(Alice Faye)

Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934)

This was an RKO slapstick comedy musical by director Mark Sandrich. The clever film featured the team of W & W (ex-vaudeville and RKO radio stars Wheeler and Woolsey, who also starred in Diplomaniacs (1933) and Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934)):

  • cherub-faced Andy Williams (Bert Wheeler)
  • cigar-chomping Dr. Bob Dudley (Robert Woolsey)

In the farce, the two con-men (flavored lipstick salesmen) were hired to favorably impress Maiden America Cosmetics' executive Amelia Frisby (Thelma Todd), the boss of fashion model Daisy Maxwell (Dorothy Lee).

The risque film opened with a live radio studio broadcast that featured naked models in bathtubs (they were discreetly shielded by foreground products or their hair), proving the old dictum in Hollywood that sex sells.

Risque Kissing Scene

Other bold scenes for their times were ones in which a coin was dropped down the front of a bosomy gal (with a 'Ka-Ching' sound effect), and scantily-clad (bare-backed) girls eagerly offered kisses to the two men, to guess lipstick flavors.

Live Studio Broadcast of Models in Bathtubs

It Happened One Night (1934)

Frank Capra's quintessential romantic screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934) about the battle-of-the-sexes, the first film to take all five top Oscars, starred:

  • Clark Gable (as newspaper reporter Peter Warne)
  • Claudette Colbert (as heiress Ellie Andrews)

After 1934, the Production Code required that sexuality had to be constrained so films sublimated touchy subjects into other plot elements (use of witty dialogue and repartee).

One particularly questionable scene was of the bed blanket separating the two beds of an unmarried male and female (the "walls of Jericho" scene), providing the two co-stars with privacy and respectability. The film mischievously suggested a romantic climax - the walls of Jericho toppled.

Gable also made a sexy revelation of his bare-chest under his shirt - the scene reportedly killed the T-shirt industry for awhile.

Another of the film's notorious scenes was the 'hitchhiking' technique scene in which Colbert showed off her legs - instantly stopping a passing car.

The Walls of Jericho

Bare-Chested Peter
(Clark Gable)

Ellie (Claudette Colbert)

Men in White (1934)

Sidney Kingsley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play in 1934 was adapted into this Code-era story. Because of its illicit romance and suggested abortion, it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency as being "unfit for public exhibition."

This gritty slice of life melodrama starred Clark Gable as internist Dr. George Ferguson, a heart specialist who was dedicated to saving lives, and engaged to be married to shallow-minded, headstrong young socialite-heiress Laura Hudson (Myrna Loy), the daughter of a wealthy real estate dealer. He was torn between his relationship with Laura and his opportunity to work with respected Dr. Hochberg (Jean Hersholt).

One of the more controversial aspects of the film was the doctor's illicit, one-night stand sexual liaison (after a discreet fade-out) with pretty British student nurse Barbara Dennin (British actress Elizabeth Allan), ending up with her becoming pregnant. She kept the fact of her pregnancy to herself. [Note: Gable began a two-year romance with his married co-star on the set.]

The young female patient, after having experienced an illegal, butchered back-alley abortion (or self-induced abortion, or suicide attempt?) to avoid shame, was rushed into emergency surgery. This led to the film's mostly-implied scene related to the abortion (without the explicit use of the word 'abortion' in the film, but alluded to with veiled dialogue about her dangerous condition):

George: "Ruptured appendix?"
Dr. Hochberg: "More serious than that."
George: "Why didn't she come to us?"

Typical of films at this time, Barbara died following the operation - interpreted as divine retribution for her sexual transgressions.

Dr. Ferguson (Clark Gable) with Laura (Myrna Loy)

With Barbara
(Elizabeth Allan)

Of Human Bondage (1934)

In the romantic drama Of Human Bondage (1934) by director John Cromwell, Bette Davis played the role of blonde, lower-class, slatternly and vulgar, Cockney-accented, illiterate tea-room waitress Mildred Rogers. In the star-making film, she was manipulative, repugnant, exploitative, two-timing, shrewish and cruel.

She used her sexuality to manipulate Philip Carey (Leslie Howard), a sensitive student of medicine. Then, when he expressed interest in going out, she self-centeredly and vindictively berated the crippled, 'hang-dog' Philip with nasty insults for becoming romantically-interested in her.

However, the weak-willed Philip could not resist rescuing her and helping her to recover from two failed relationships (one of which resulted in a child).

Things took a turn for the worse when Mildred moved in and became very abusive toward him. When she became flirtatious with him, he told her, "You disgust me." She viciously retaliated, ending her tirade by calling him a cripple:

Me?! I disgust you? You, you, you're too fine! You'll have none of me, but you'll sit here all night looking at your naked females...You cad! You dirty swine! I never cared for you, not once. I was always makin' a fool of ya. You bored me stiff! I hated ya! It made me sick when I had to let ya kiss me. I only did it because ya begged me. Ya hounded me and drove me crazy! And after you kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! WIPE MY MOUTH! I made up for it. For every kiss, I had a laugh. We laughed at ya, Miller and me, and Griffith and me, we laughed at ya! Because you were such a mug, a mug, a mug! You know what you are? You gimpy-legged monster? You're a cripple! A cripple! A cripple!

The film ended with Mildred sick and destitute (although it was unspecified in the film, the original novel clearly stated she was a streetwalker). She was portrayed as a waitress, suffering from tuberculosis (it had been changed from syphilis to satisfy the demands of the Hays Code): "Well this is what you might call the irony of fate," and she died in a hospital charity ward.

Mildred (Bette Davis) with Philip (Leslie Howard)


The Painted Veil (1934)

MGM's soap-opera drama was based upon W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel of the same name and set in colonial China. A second film adaptation was The Seventh Sin (1957) with Eleanor Parker, and a more modern third version was made in 2006 with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton.

Early in the film, Austrian spinster Katrin Koerber (Greta Garbo) and her younger sister Olga (Cecilia Parker) shared a lesbian kiss - although it was disguised, due to restrictive Hays Code rules just put into effect, as an intense series of multiple kisses between sisters on Olga's wedding day.

Katrin (Greta Garbo) and
Olga (Cecilia Parker)

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

This was one of Marlene Dietrich's most frank and suggestive films with director Josef von Sternberg (the sixth of their seven collaborations). This stylish, unorthodox and mature biopic showed the fur-hatted queen, Russia's oversexed Sophia Fredericka (renamed Catherine the Great), as a sexually-depraved, dominatrix ruler with a whip. In one scene as she appraised her troops, she made a swaggering, flirtatious assertion to Lieut. Dmitri (Gerald Fielding) - one of her attractive, virile soldiers: "I'm certain you're very efficient."

The historic film was filled with erotic images and motifs, including a depiction of grotesque tortures:

  • a rotating wheel with a nude woman tied to it
  • multiple axe-executions and beheadings
  • nude females being burned at a stake, etc.

Everything culminated in a dissolve from a human bell-clapper into the hoop skirt of the young eight year-old empress-to-be on a swing. It wasn't censored due to the fact that it was released just before the Hays Code went into effect.

(Marlene Dietrich)

Rotating Wheel

Burning at the Stake

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

In this second pre-code, uncensored Tarzan film - Tarzan and His Mate (1934) - a sequel to Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Jane Parker (Maureen O'Sullivan) had adapted to life in the jungle with Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) - as an uninhibited and sexually-free partner who had revealed much of her primitive nature.

With the rise of the rigid censorship of the Hays Production Code after this film was made, Jane's scanty clothing and nudity, and rampant sexuality with Tarzan would disappear in future installments.

In one of the film's earlier scenes, Jane was tempted to return to civilization with a number of "lovely," "gorgeous" fashionable dresses, hats, shoes, sheer stockings - she was seen nude in silhouette while dressing in the well-lit tent.

Through most of the film, she wore only a skimpy, sexy halter top and loin cloth that left her midriff, hips and thighs exposed. One morning in the wild, Tarzan awakened with Jane sleeping next to him in the nude - and coyly told him: "Oh, Tarzan, you're a bad boy."

When they went for a swim, Tarzan held onto her dress as he threw her in, and the dress was ripped off her body - she hit the water naked.

A nude Jane (body double Josephine McKim, a championship American swimmer who competed in the 1928 and 1932 Summer Olympics) took a skinny-dip swim. She performed underwater somersaults with Tarzan in a scene with beautifully photographed underwater images. Reportedly, there were various versions of the nude scene (nude, topless with a body suit, and with full body-suit), to allow individual states to select the version of the scene which best conformed to its local censorship laws.

Later during an attack of a band of lions, Jane's skimpy jungle outfit proved to be very revealing as she knelt down.

Jane Parker
(Maureen O'Sullivan)

Jane with Tarzan
(Johnny Weissmuller)

Jane's Nude Swim

China Seas (1935)

Platinum-blonde sex goddess Jean Harlow was known for icing her breast's nipples before scenes, and for flaunting her bra-less anatomy.

In this romantic adventure film, she took the role of a tough-talking, hot-tempered night-club entertainer (she would have been a loose-living prostitute in the pre-Code days) named Dolly "China Doll" Portland. She portrayed the bawdy mistress of roguish ship Captain Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable).

She appeared bra-less in a slinky silk evening dress, which became completely clingy and see-through when ocean-spray-soaked by the storm at sea.

(Jean Harlow)

Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1935)

This mid-30s ethnographic docudrama by French director Henry de la Falaise featured lots of topless native nudity (in the guise of an artful documentary) from an all-native cast.

It was filmed in two-strip Technicolor (one of the last), and was often considered the last silent film released in the US by a major American studio (Paramount Pictures).

The quasi-docudrama was advertised with the tagline: "TRUE - ACTUALLY FILMED IN BALI", and was accompanied by a poster displaying a bare-breasted Balinese girl.

The film's plot was a tale of unrequited love within a love triangle - it was banned in many countries, and the non-prurient nudity was excised from the U.S. release, reducing it to about a 30-minute film. The film was eventually restored by combining three versions -- US, British, and Canadian.

The film was typical of a number of exotic Bali pictures released as exploitation or "lecture" films in the early-to-mid-30s following F. W. Murnau's South Seas docudrama Tabu (1931) filmed in Tahiti, such as:

  • Balinese Love (1931)
  • Goona Goona: An Authentic Melodrama of the Isle of Bali (1932) (aka Kriss: Sword of Death)
  • Isle of Paradise (1932)
  • Virgins of Bali (Land of Love and Romance) (1932)
  • Wajan (1933)

The narrator of Virgins of Bali emphasized the film's exploitative content:

"Bali is a land of beautiful women. They outnumber the men five to three. They have fine features and well-rounded, slender bodies. Due to the custom of carrying burdens on the head, they are firmly and harmoniously developed and walk with a swinging, easy rhythmic movement...Life is fascinating anywhere in Bali, but never more so than in its market. Here, Balinese womanhood displays an unspoiled naturalness, a classic perfection of form which happy fortune seems to preserve long beyond her youth. Rarely aging early as in most tropic lands, these women in their prime all have style, personality, and beetle-nut, the chewing gum of the tropics...Where in all the world is there beauty equal to this? More comparable charm equal to this?"

Legong: Dance of the Virgins

Virgins of Bali (1932)

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

In this vintage Universal horror classic by director Lambert Hillyer, Gloria Holden played the part of the dark and exotic Dracula's Daughter (aka Countess Marya Zaleska).

It was remarkable in this Code-era film to have a major character with a kinky (or lesbian) affinity and tormented addiction for the blood of female victims.

In one risque scene, she asked a starving young streetwalker named Lili (Nan Grey) to disrobe in order to pose for a painting portrait and then lustfully approached the hypnotized subject's jugular - the suggestive lesbian scene ended with:

  • a jolting pan upwards to a grimacing mask
  • a blood-curdling scream from the frightened and doomed victim
  • a quick cut to black

Lili (Nan Grey) with
Countess Marya
(Gloria Holden)

Klondike Annie (1936)

Hip-sashaying sex symbol Mae West's earlier hits She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I'm No Angel (1933) established her reputation for bawdy and wisecracking talk. Things would be different, now that the Production Code was in full effect.

This film was vigorously censored (or laundered) for its implications of inter-racial sex, representations of torture and unpunished murder, and the immoral character of West as the Frisco Doll - a prostitute/nightclub performer kept by a Chinese lover.

Frisco Doll
(Mae West)

My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey (1936) was the definitive screwball comedy of the 1930s. Flighty, scatter-brained socialite/heiress Irene Bullock (portrayed by the Queen of Screwball comediennes Carole Lombard) was made to be sexy with daffy sillyness.

In the most obvious scene, 'forgotten man' butler Godfrey (William Powell) revived Irene during a faked fainting spell. He hauled the lovesick girl up on his shoulder, carried the limp rag-doll upstairs into her bedroom, deposited her on a stool in the shower and turned on the cold water. She was left soaking wet to the skin in her evening gown.

She skipped toward him with hands outstretched, embracing him and exclaiming:

"Oh Godfrey, now I know you love me..."

Irene Bullock
(Carole Lombard)

Love Life of a Gorilla (1937) (aka Kidnapping Gorillas)

This little-seen compilation 'educational' documentary from producer Samuel Cummins was an independently-produced jungle exploitation film typical of the 30s. It was inspired after the success of the pre-Code exploitation film Ingagi (1931) about gorilla-worshipping Congolese native women, and after the success of RKO's King Kong (1933).

It was promoted with the hinting tagline: "Do Native Women Live With Apes?" The film speculated that there was social/sexual intercourse or matings between African women and gorillas, after a Ubangi maiden was abducted by a gorilla and carried off into the jungle. It was considered scandalous and "off-color" by the Board of Review because of the theme of "the mating of women with wild animals and because of nude figures in the picture."

The film included sensational content (ineptly interspersed with horrible stock footage) including a few shots of topless native women (censored versions superimposed fake ferns over bare breasts) and lusty gorillas (men in monkey suits).

They Won't Forget (1937)

In a small breakout role in her debut film (with a speaking role), 16 year-old Lana Turner was featured with a sexy, tight-sweatered walk - it made her "the Sweater Girl" and launched her career.

In the film, she portrayed teenaged Mary Clay - who was murdered in a school-house in the opening sequence during a Southern town's Memorial Day parade.

Mary Clay
(Sweater Girl
Lana Turner)

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 | 2015

Index to All Decades, Years and Features

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