Sexual or Erotic Films focus on themes with either suggestive, erotic or sensual scenes or subjects, sometimes with depictions of human nudity and lovemaking, but not always of an extremely explicit, gratuitous or pornographic nature. These kinds of films often appeal to the emotions of the viewer, with their emphasis on pleasure, physical desire, and human companionship. Films of romance with heart-throb sexy lead characters may have sexual elements, but these are often secondary to the main plot goal - the search and attainment of love.
In the days before the film industry's stringent Production Code was established in 1930 (known as the Hays Code after Will Hays, the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America - MPPDA) and strictly enforced after 1934 to regulate "morally offensive" content, many silent and 'Pre-Code' taboo-breaking films contained adult-oriented material. In addition to nudity, sexuality and violence, they included candid depictions of drug use, prostitution, lawlessness, and religious blasphemy.
Since the abandonment of the Hays Code in the late 60s, and the fairly recent establishment of various rating systems, sexual or erotic films with even small amounts of nudity have become more abundant. They often include frank adult content, violence and explicit language, or just suggestions of eroticism or sensuality. Teen sex comedies, erotic dramas or thrillers, sexploitation films, and other films dealing with sexual content are included in this wide-ranging category.
The Earliest Films:
Shortly after the Lumieres conducted the first public screening of a film (in December 1895), pioneering French film-maker Georges Melies directed the very short B/W 'adult' film Après Le Bal (1897, Fr.) (After the Ball, Bath) with one of the earliest nude scenes in film history. Reportedly around the same time, "blue movie" pornographer Eugene Pirou pioneered the risque film (called "smoking concert" or stag party films) when he produced the slightly erotic Le Coucher de la Marie (1896, Fr.) (aka Bedtime for the Bride) in which Louise Willy performed the first strip tease onscreen during a bathing scene -- the short pornographic film (of which only a few minutes exist) was directed by Léar (real name Albert Kirchner).
Another similar film was Fatima’s Coochie-Coochie Dance (1896) a 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). It became the first film 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).
The very first kiss on film was between a Victorian couple seen in the Edison kinetoscope The May Irwin Kiss (1896) (aka The Kiss, or The Irwin-Rice Kiss in a filmed scene from the stage play The Widow Jones). This titillating short 20-second film, with a close-up of a kiss, was denounced as shocking and pornographic to early moviegoers and caused the Roman Catholic Church to call for censorship.
And Eadweard Muybridge's primitive motion studies (from 1884-1887) included test footage with cinematic glimpses of naked men and women. Lois Weber's and Paramount's 4-reel silent film Hypocrites (1914) featured full female nudity in the guise of an unclad lady (Margaret Edwards) - 'the Naked Truth' - who occasionally appeared as a transitional plot element between scenes.
Audrey Munson (a real-life model) first appeared artistically nude in George Foster Platt's controversial Inspiration (1915) from the Mutual Film Corporation, as a sculptor's model. It was the first known film in which a leading actress stripped down to be naked, making her the first nude film star. 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.
Theda Bara: The Vamp and First Sex Symbol
Sex was portrayed in the earliest films as something exotic and foreign. The original vamp and first movie sex goddess, the full-bosomed Theda Bara, starred in a number of early silents for the Fox Film Corporation - her first lurid, slinky vamp appearance (and first lead role) was in Fox's melodramatic A Fool There Was (1915), in which she portrayed a worldly, predatory woman who stole a married man away from his wife and child. Her most famous line in this film was: "Kiss me, my Fool!" She became known as "the wickedest woman in the world." Although she played other non-vampish roles, her vamp appearances were destined to be the most lucrative.
Other suggestive, femme fatale vamp roles were in Herbert Brenon's Sin (1915), The Devil's Daughter (1915) - her third vamp film, and in The Tiger Woman (1917). She was also most notably seen nearly nude with the contours of her breasts held by two curving gold asps in her first film made in Hollywood - the very successful Cleopatra (1917). Bara's 'come-back' picture, The Unchastened Woman (1925), was a remake of an earlier 1918 film. [Most of Bara's films, however, are currently unavailable because few of the film prints have survived.]
Other Early Silent Films and Their Sexy Film Stars:
For the most part, the silent years were not known for explicit sexual content. However, there were some exceptions:
The 'Naughty' Pre-Code Days:
Censorship bills were introduced in many states and localities - but the vast complexity of various local, state and national censorship laws added to the problem of enforcement, i.e. in some states an ankle couldn't be displayed, or pregnancy couldn't be mentioned. In 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was formed by the studios. Conservative former Postmaster General William H. Hays was appointed to head the organization, to begin efforts to clean up the motion picture industry before the public's anger at declining morality depicted in films hurt the movie business. One of his first acts in 'cleaning-up' Hollywood, due to pressure from Hollywood's top film executives, was to banish the acquitted actor-comedian Roscie "Fatty" Arbuckle from film, at least temporarily, in order to distract the public. [Arbuckle would continue to make films as a director under the pseudonym William Goodrich between 1925 and 1932.] Hays also approved the use of morality clauses in the standard actor's contract, to control the conduct of performers.
The Hays Office, with restrictions and guidelines on movie content to establish "correct standards of life," issued a self-regulating list of "Don'ts' and 'Be Carefuls' for film-makers in 1927. The following were targeted and specifically to be avoided:
Most studios basically ignored the regulatory restrictions, because there was no enforcement that was effective, and they knew that film-going audiences wanted to see the kinds of things (sex and crime) that were being blacklisted. Many times, studios would circumvent problems with the new restrictions by wrapping up a film filled with sex and sinning with a quick climactic scene of moral repentance. Some of the illicit behaviors could be exhibited -- if later punished within the film. Other film-makers avoided censorship by changing the titles of plays forbidden to be adapted into films. One of the major difficulties with the repressive code was that it was open to varying interpretations. Hays assured state and local censorship boards that he would properly regulate the industry.
Two Female Challengers to Film Morality:
A number of notable and successful films produced in the early 30s before the Code was strictly enforced -- so-called "bad girl" movies -- showed women using their sexuality to get ahead, such as in the taboo-breaking comedy Red Headed Woman (1932) starring Jean Harlow.
One of the earliest sex stars of the silver screen was smart-mouthed, 18-year old platinum blonde Jean Harlow, who shocked audiences as a sexy floozy with generous glimpses of flesh and her famous line of dialogue - "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" - in her first major role in Hell's Angels (1930). In Goldie (1931), she was noted as the first woman specifically referred to as a "tramp" in a talking picture. She also appeared as an adulteress in Red-Headed Woman (1932), and had a starring role as a stranded, wise-cracking floozy opposite Clark Gable and a bourgeois, middle-class Mary Astor in a tropical, steamy setting in Red Dust (1932) - Harlow was best seen bathing in a rain barrel. She has often been acknowledged as the first screen actress to place erotic emphasis upon her breasts in a time when flat-chested women were the rage.
In a number of films made by obsessed, Svengali-styled mentor/director Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich played seductive, cool females in sexually perverse melodramas. She was Lola Lola, a cheap, smoky-voiced, sensual cabaret singer with stockinged-legs and top hat atop a beer barrel in the Blue Angel nightclub in her greatest film, The Blue Angel (1930), Germany's first sound film. In the atmospheric, seedy film, she manipulatively lured a repressed and obsessed Professor Emmanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) towards his doom by her teasing exoticism while singing Falling In Love Again.
And she scandalously wore a men's tuxedo in Morocco (1930) and accepted both a rose and a mouth-to-mouth kiss from a young lady in the cabaret audience - one of the earliest (if not the first) female-to-female kisses. In the highly-stylized Blonde Venus (1932), she performed a cabaret striptease from her full-bodied gorilla suit and then donned a bushy Afro blonde wig to sing "Hot Voodoo" in a throaty, hoarse voice to the beat of an African drum ("...That African tempo has made me a slave, hot voodoo - dance of sin, hot voodoo, worse than gin, I'd follow a cave man right into his cave"). Adultery and sadomachism were evident in the unusually frank and suggestive The Scarlet Empress (1934), in which Dietrich played Catherine the Great.