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



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

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Howard Hawks' famous screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938) was purported by many commentators to contain the moment in film when the meaning of the word 'gay' changed.

Fluffy, boa-collared, negligee-wearing David Huxley (Cary Grant) gave an uncensored, emasculated exclamation while jumping up in front of Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson), relative of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn):

"Because I just went gay all of a sudden."

David Huxley (Cary Grant):
"I Just Went Gay..."

Child Bride (1938) (aka Child Bride of the Ozarks)

The film's exploitational taglines: "A throbbing drama of shackled youth!" and "Where Lust was called Just!" hinted at its 'educational' plot contents designed to circumvent the Production Code restrictions.

This independent film was 'road-showed' by legendary roadshowman Kroger Babb, although it was banned in many locations due to its infamous underage nudity.

The film supposedly had a positive purpose - to warn against underage marriage: "...if our story will help to abolish Child Marriage - it will have served its purpose." It told about the door-to-door moral crusade of schoolteacher Miss Carol (Diana Durrell) to rid the Ozark rural community of Thunderhead Mountain of hillbillies (especially Warner Richmond as Jake Bolby) who courted and married underage girls.

The film's most notorious and gratuitous sequence was at the 30 minute mark -- a 4 minute undressing and nude skinny-dip in a pond surrounded with woods by Jennie Colton (nubile young 12 year-old actress Shirley Mills (not Miles) in her screen debut), accompanied by young friend Freddie Nulty (Bob Bollinger in his sole film role). As she disrobed, she told him not to undress but to stay onshore, and they discussed how their physical differences were beginning to show:

Freddie: "I'll beat you undressed, Jennie."
Jennie: "Freddie, you ain't goin' swimmin' with me no more. So don't you take your clothes off."
Freddie: "Aw, you're teasin'."
Jennie: "No, I'm not. I mean it."
Freddie: "We've always gone in swimmin' together. Why not now?"
Jennie: "Teacher says not to."
Freddie: "Why?"
Jennie: "Well because, because we're not what we used to be."
Freddie: "You mean, we're different. How?"
Jennie: "Naw. We're the same, only you can't see me without my clothes on."
Freddie: "How come? I know how you look without your clothes on. I've seen ya lots of times, haven't I?"
Jennie: "Yes, I know, but now we're grown up and barin'. Teacher says that I shouldn't put bad ideas into your head."
Freddie: "Aw shucks. Now I can't kiss ya no more."
Jennie: "Of course you can, silly. Only with my clothes on."
Freddie: "All right, but I wish that teacher would mind her own business."
Jennie: "Now don't beg."

At the end of her long and playful swim, she was leered at by Jake from a nearby ridge, and an old women startled the voyeuristic Jake by asking: "Pretty, ain't she?" When Freddie noticed, he alerted Jennie and she swam for cover.

(Shirley Mills)

Olympia (1938, Ger.)

Hitler commissioned photographer Leni Riefenstahl to make this documentary film (in two parts) about the XI Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936.

It opened with a beautiful, silent prologue sequence with views of:

  • ancient nude Greek statues (that seemingly came to life)
  • nude dancers
  • near-nude male athletes

The images artistically captured the movement of beautiful human bodies to perfection.

Sex Madness (1938) (aka Human Wreckage, They Must Be Told, Trial Marriage, and About Trial Marriage)

This Dwain Esper-directed film was a typical sex-ploitation melodrama of the period often shown in skid-row theatres - purportedly it was educational to warn about the perils of sexual contact (venereal disease, especially syphilis and gonorrhea).

The shoddy propagandistic film was banned by the Legion of Decency for its taboo subjects strictly forbidden by the Production Code, such as implied lesbianism, wild house parties (with drinking), sex out of wedlock ("promiscuous relations"), and other similar 'sex madness' evils.

In the scrolling foreword, it was stated:

"Down through the ages has rushed a menace more dangerous than the worst criminal. Syphilis. Let us seize this monster and stamp out forever its horrible influence..."

In a tearful flashback (told to her doctor), innocent Millicent Hamilton (Vivian McGill) explained how she had won a beauty contest in her small-town home. She came to New York where she became desperate for a job and begged a theatrical manager: "I'm willing to do anything. I'm ambitious." After hiking up her skirt to show her legs to him, she spent a "social" weekend at a wild party hosted on Long Island. She painfully admitted that she drank champagne and then "gave myself" to one of the men - it was "a terrible dream."

It was conjectured that Millicent had acquired syphilis due to her single act of unwed sex. She was "unclean" and needed money for medical attention, and thereafter entered the big-city world of burlesque shows as a chorus girl.

The scantily-clad stage performers were seen in their dressing room after a performance. Her co-performers attended an after-hours house party with libations, and soon were paired up with men who escorted them to various upstairs bedrooms. It was later confirmed that some of the sexual associations led to VD infection (and "months of misery").

After treatment, Millicent returned by train to her hometown boyfriend Wendel Hope (Stanley Barton) (she thought to herself, regretfully: "Oh, why did I ever leave you?") with her "dreadful" disease. She continued treatments in a nearby town (in secret) for over half a year, and was told she could safely marry Wendel. She hadn't been treated properly, however, when a headline in the paper revealed that her doctor was a "quack" who offered fake cures for large sums of money. Their newborn baby was unhealthy and pronounced "syphilitic," and Wendel also had become infected (with symptoms of feeling poorly and failing eyesight). Millicent realized she had played a 'murderous' part in spreading the social disease to her family as a wife and mother.

She was on the brink of suicide (and about to take a fatal dose of poison) at her ailing husband's bedside, when she learned by telephone that there might be a real cure for the horrible condition.

(Vivian McGill)

Suez (1938)

Director Allan Dwan's romantic drama was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Score, Best Sound, and Best Cinematography. Its most spectacular sequence was of a massive, tornado-like sandstorm, toppling tents, timbers, cranes and water storage tanks. The historical romance starred Tyrone Power as Ferdinand de Lesseps who directed the building of the Suez Canal in the Isthmus in the mid-1800s.

However, its historical veracity was questioned as it was a semi-fictionalized account of the monumental creation of the canal.

In the controversial sex scene in question, de Lesseps first met tomboyish love interest Toni Pellerin (Annabella) in Alexandria, Egypt, the daughter of a French sergeant. She was introduced in a shot showing only her bare legs and feet as she emerged and ran from a pool of water, ushering commands to her donkey to stop pulling her dressing booth away. She quickly returned to the water and hid naked behind a large rock, as de Lesseps approached and flirted with her.

Although she discreetly re-clothed herself when her dressing booth was reversed to the edge of the water, the booth was jerked and the two fell into the water - and she emerged with a wet T-shirt effect, clearly and prominently revealing her erect nipples underneath her wet top.

In an interview many years later, 95 year-old director Allan Dwan described his fight with Joseph Breen and the Hays Office at the time, which forbade nudity or nipple baring - even innocently.

"I wanted them to show...Have you ever seen a nude woman? Ever seen your wife nude? There was nothing there that wasn't positively true to life ... you knew she was going to be sexy ... that's why you picked her. The audience knows. This is my idea of giving it to them. All women are alike - they can go to the mirror and see that anytime."

The matter was dropped when it was clear the scene couldn't be reshot.

Gone With the Wind (1939)

The Civil War-era Best Picture blockbuster Gone With the Wind (1939) included a scene in which drunken Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) confronted his wife Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh). He berated her for her constant attentions to Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). He threatened to tear her to pieces with his hands "if it'd take Ashley out of your mind forever. But it wouldn't. So I'll remove him from your mind forever this way." He said he would smash her skull between his crushing hands "like a walnut" to block him out.

She claimed he could never corner or frighten her, and stated: "You're jealous of something you can't understand." As she left and said goodnight to him, he claimed he wasn't jealous because he knew that Ashley was honorable and had not had sex with her to make her unfaithful. Rhett told her that they were different from Ashley: "We're not gentlemen, and we have no honor, have we?" As she walked away to the foot of the stairs, he bent her over and kissed her as she resisted:

"It's not that easy, Scarlett. You turned me out while you chased Ashley Wilkes. While you dreamed of Ashley Wilkes. This is one night you're not turning me out."

He dramatically carried the resistant and protesting Scarlett up the long flight of stairs after the kiss - it has often been referred to as the 'conjugal rape' scene - a night of forced passion between the married couple (off-screen).

After a black fade-out, the next scene was the morning after - with a view of Scarlett's fulfilled face in bed, as she stretched out her arms. She had been furious the previous night, although she had clearly enjoyed their sexual experience. Her smiling, purring, happy face when she awakened the morning after betrayed her pleasure. However, they were both unable to really express their open feelings toward each other.

The most controversial, much-debated scene in the film was not the "conjugal rape" scene, but the one of Rhett Butler's declaration to Scarlett at the film's conclusion: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

The Conjugal Rape

Scarlett O'Hara
(Vivien Leigh)

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 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018

Index to All Decades, Years and Features

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