Part 3

Sexual-Erotic Films

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Exploitative Sex Hygiene -- Sex Education Films:

Even in the late 20s and early 30s, before censorship officially took hold, independent film producers such as S.S. "Steamship" Millard defied the Code by producing tawdry films and anti-sex diatribes about the scourges of venereal disease, white slavery and unwanted pregnancy -- such as Pitfalls of Passion (1927) (advertised as "Sexsational" with the lobby card tagline: "Is Sex Knowledge a Sin? See the Birth of Life Unfolded") and Is Your Daughter Safe? (1927) - a "educational" melodrama that Variety said was "possibly the strongest and most daring of so-called hygiene and sex warning pictures ever made." Edgar Ulmer also directed Damaged Lives (1933), a social drama about the horrors of venereal disease for a married couple.

Once the Hays Code was fully enforced, exhibitors attempted to continue to cash in on the underground and road show film audiences' prurient interest in sex hygiene films, by producing films such as:

  • High School Girl (1934) - about teenage pregnancy, repackaged or remade for Kroger Babb's post-war Mom and Dad (1945) - see below

  • Sex Madness (1937) - a propagandistic film about the downfall of a teenaged 'good girl' named Millicent whose behavior led to the social disease of syphilis and worse!

  • The Birth of a Baby (1938) - a typical 'facts-of-life' maternity docudrama, with documentary footage of an actual birth spliced into the last reel to make it "daring" and "controversial" and cause some showings to be sex-separated

  • No Greater Sin (1941) (aka The Lonesome Road) - an expoitation film and serious melodrama about a young machinist who contracted syphilis from a prostitute and then passed the disease onto his newlywed 'girl-next-door' wife and unborn child after consulting with a quack doctor; the disclaimer was attached to the film: "Due to the adult subject matter of this program, no one under 16 admitted!"

  • Mom and Dad (1945) - producer/promoter Kroger Babb's (self-dubbed as "America's Fearless Young Showman") low-budget, heavily-promoted film soon became one of the most successful exploitation films of all time - it was the 3rd highest grossing film during the 1940s; banners and ads cried out: "ONCE IN A LIFETIME Comes A Presentation That TRULY PULLS NO PUNCHES! Now YOU Can SEE The Motion Picture That DARES DISCUSS and EXPLAIN SEX AS NEVER BEFORE SEEN and HEARD! THE ONE, THE ONLY, THE ORIGINAL...MOM AND DAD...Truly The World's Most Amazing Attraction! NO ONE UNDER HIGH SCHOOL AGE Admitted Unless Accompanied By Parents!! EVERYTHING SHOWN! EVERYTHING EXPLAINED!" Besides being socially-significant as a sex-hygiene film (with facts about sexual reproduction, pregnancy and the female anatomy), and tales about the dangers of venereal disease and the disastrous results of premarital sex, prints of this black and white feature drama were made and road-showed for more than two decades, each print showing an innocent young girl deflowered and becoming pregnant (without displaying nudity or sex of any kind), graphic footage of a live birth, a C-section, and images of the ravages of venereal disease

Mae West's Racy Influence:

She Done Him Wrong - 1933All of the sultry comedies of bawdy, liberated and buxom Broadway star Mae West were an affront to the Code, after Paramount brought her out West from New York. West flaunted her sexuality and full-figured body, and irreverently made sex into a comedy, first in Night After Night (1932) in a small cameo role, and then in two of her most controversial films: She Done Him Wrong (1933) (a film version of West's popular Broadway play Diamond Lil) and I'm No Angel (1933).

Her sexual wiles and wisdom were obviously on display in one film after another. The Production Code Administration also had severe problems with the racy Belle of the Nineties (1934) (originally titled: It Ain't No Sin), with West as notorious vaudeville star Ruby Carter. Some of her most famous lines of dialogue (from scripts often toned down and replaced with double entendres) from the above-mentioned films include the following:

  • Hat-check girl: Goodness, what beautiful diamonds.
    West: Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.
  • Listen, when women go wrong, men go right after them.
  • Come up. I'll tell your fortune...Ah, you can be had.
  • You know it was a toss-up whether I go in for diamonds or sing in the choir. The choir lost.
  • Why, he'd be the kind a woman would have to marry to get rid of.
  • Don't worry. I ain't gonna hurt him. I only wanna feel his muscles.
  • Well, it's not the men in your life that counts, it's the life in your men.
  • When I'm good, I'm very good. But when I'm bad, I'm better.
  • It's better to be looked over than overlooked.
  • A man in the house is worth two in the street.

After July of 1934, films that were considered tawdry, cheap, and offensive to the code were not allowed. In part, Mae West's popularity, with her trademark sexual innuendos, declined precipitously as a result.

The Imposition of the Hays Code:

The film industry, represented by the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association) that was formed in 1922 and headed by former US postmaster Will Hays until the mid-1940s, created a series of self-regulating agencies that led to the Production Code Administration in 1934. The Production Code was administrated by Joseph Breen. It required producer-members of the MPPDA to submit script material and final film prints for Production Code approval.

Three factors forced Hays and the studios to become more restrictive:

  • mounting pressure from the Catholic Church aided by support from other religious groups
  • economic hardships during the Depression
  • the threat of federal censorship

In 1934, the American Catholic church announced the creation of the Legion of Decency, which encouraged the production of moral films and promptly condemned any film with an immoral message. The threat of movie boycotts by the Catholic Legion of Decency led the industry's trade association in mid-1934 to establish a stronger Production Code Administration (PCA) Office, headed by appointee Joseph Breen, to regulate films.

When the new, morally-strict Motion Picture Production Code was imposed (actually strictly enforced) on the mainstream film industry from 1934 on, certain words, gestures, and actions were forbidden, as well as explicit violence and sexual innuendo. Films would be submitted for a "seal of approval" - and if a film was denied a seal, it was not to be exhibited in theaters. If a film was deliberately offensive and failed to meet the code's requirements, it could face severe penalties or risk losing distribution rights. Many films were either suppressed, or severely mutilated or censored to fit the seal's requirements. A film that abided by the rules received a "Purity Seal" - otherwise, a film was denied distribution or screening, and the public was denied that viewing choice. A $25,000 fine was imposed on anyone showing a film without the group's seal of approval.

The Code forbade the following, particularly anything related to sex and crime (two of the biggest box-office draws): crimes against the law, explicit treatments of adultery, excessive lust or scenes of passion or rape, vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, complete nudity, indecent exposure, white slavery, miscegenation, suggestive dance, disrespect of religion (or clergy), homosexuality, childbirth, and various repellent subjects (hanging, gruesome brutality, branding, cruelty to children or animals, etc.). The Code enforced rigid compliance, fearing corruption of morals otherwise.

Reaction to the Hays Code: Subliminal Sexuality

As a result, the Hays Code pushed earthy sexuality and eroticism ('deviant' depictions of infidelity, homosexuality, etc.) deeper into new levels of suggestiveness, repression, deviation, and displacement. In some cases, films were actually improved by appealing to the audience's imaginations. Writers often presented subjects by metaphorical implication rather than literally, for example:

  • the truncated bathing and overnight dalliance scene of young soldiers with French farm girls in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

  • the vampire's (Bela Lugosi) blood-sucking kisses in Dracula (1931)

  • King Kong - 1933the approximately three minutes of censored scenes (mostly for violence) in King Kong (1933), including one of the hairy Beast Kong peeling some of the clothes away from Beauty Fay Wray (as Ann Darrow) and sniffing them; this was the ultimate Beauty and the Beast monster film, with a strong subtext about the introduction of the feminine into a man's world and into uncharted territory, and the release of the primal male beast upon the civilized world (NYC); the film was considered slightly scandalous for its inter-racial 'love story' of a giant black ape with a white blonde woman - their forbidden love resulted in Kong's subsequent punishment - death; sexy screamer Fay Wray was featured as the object of male affection and of the desires of the giant hairy Beast -- and the Empire State Building was the ultimate phallic symbol from which the beast was toppled; the white blonde woman was regarded as a more valuable virginal substitute for Kong by the natives of Skull Island who regularly sacrificed half-naked, garlanded black virgins (white woman Ann was worth the equivalent of six native women, acc. to the tribal chief); the film even contained sexual double entendres, as in the scene when film-maker Denham (Robert Armstrong) told First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) that he feared his crewmember had been emasculated and gone "soft" (or impotent) and "sappy" over Ann's Beauty, as the Beast would do later: "It's the idea of my picture. The Beast was a tough guy too. He could lick the world. But when he saw Beauty, she got him. He went soft. He forgot his wisdom and the little fellas licked him"; in addition, the film had a sexy sequence in which a braless Ann went to costume herself for the screaming film-test with Denham, and soon returned wearing a revealing, off-the-shoulder "Beauty and Beast costume"

  • These Three - 1936the blanket ("wall of Jericho") suspended between the single beds of unemployed reporter Clark Gable and runaway heiress Claudette Colbert in a shared bedroom; and later a second scene with their beds separated by a blanket, and Colbert's tearful, confessional request: "Take me with you, Peter. Take me to your island. I want to do all those things you talked about....I love you. Nothing else matters. We can run away. Everything will take care of itself. Please, Peter, I can't let you out of my life now. I couldn't live without you"; in the final scene, a trumpet's sounding and the fall of the 'wall of Jericho' signaled the consummation of their love, in It Happened One Night (1934)

  • a man and woman (Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll) were handcuffed together through circumstances beyond their control, and forced to share a bedroom in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935)

  • William Wyler's retitled These Three (1936) (adapted from Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour) ambigiously hinted at the forbidden, objectionable theme of lesbianism

  • Claire Trevor portrayed a streetwalker suffering from consumption (tuberculosis) rather than syphilis, more common to her occupation in Dead End (1937)

  • They Won't Forget - 1937Bette Davis portrayed a 'nightclub hostess' (euphemism for prostitute) opposite gangster Humphrey Bogart in Marked Woman (1937)

  • teenaged Lana Turner's performing a tight-sweatered walk in They Won't Forget (1937) - becoming "the Sweater Girl"

  • Cary Grant's embarrassed exclamation while dressed in a frilly woman's dressing gown, "...I just went gay all of a sudden," in Bringing Up Baby (1938)

  • Judith Anderson portrayed a lesbian-leaning, obsessed housekeeper to the dead Mrs. Rebecca de Winter in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940)

  • a homosexual, criminal trio consisted of Sydney Greenstreet, Joel Cairo, and "gunsel" Elisha Cook, Jr. in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941)

  • allegedly, the longest screen kiss in film history in a commercial feature film, between Jane Wyman and Regis Toomey in You're In the Army Now (1941), lasted 3 minutes and 5 seconds. However, that is an entirely false statement. It is only a legend or myth that the kiss in You're in the Army Now (1941) lasted 185 seconds. The kiss in question was actually two kisses (broken up by cutaways) that lasted a total of only 24 seconds. See for detailed proof.

  • a cleaned-up Kings Row (1942) - was released with little of the original novel's scandalous content (including incest), and Cassie's (Betty Field) nymphomania affliction was transformed to dementia

  • the shared use of cigarettes served as a metaphor for the sex act in Now, Voyager (1942)

  • a suggestive fadeout occurred after Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) fell into Rick's (Humphrey Bogart) arms in his upstairs apartment, confessed her love ("if you knew how much I loved you, how much I still love you"), and offered a passionate kiss, in Casablanca (1942)

  • The Big Sleep - 1946the verbal come-on of a bold 19 year old Lauren Bacall (in her film debut) to Humphrey Bogart upon rising from his lap after kissing: "You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. (She opens his door and pauses.) You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together - and blow," in To Have and Have Not (1944)

  • the interlude sex scene in Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946) in which Bogart's Philip Marlowe convinced an aggressive book salesgirl (Dorothy Malone) to share a drink of rye with him during a wet and hard rainstorm! - she quickly lowered the shades, coyly removed her eyeglasses and the barette from her hair, and conveniently brought out two cups; after a fadeout, Bogart left the shop many minutes later (their long dalliance was signaled by the end of the rain)

  • Gilda - 1946Rita Hayworth's performance of a seductive, but minimal black glove "Put the Blame on Mame" striptease in a black strapless gown in Gilda (1946)

  • the marathon kiss on a balcony and throughout an apartment between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock's Notorious (1946)

  • in Michael Powell's and Emeric Pressburger's tale about a Himalayan nunnery in Black Narcissus (1947, UK), one of the unstable and spurned British-Anglican nuns Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) was driven mad by repressed sexuality and jealousy; in the unnerving conclusion, she renounced her vows, adorned herself in a bright red dress (with matching red lipstick), and sought to lethally attack her rival Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr)

  • the disguised abortion doctor ('psychological consultant') with whom Bette Davis visited with an unwanted pregnancy in Beyond the Forest (1949) - a film that warned in its opening that it was salutory to view this "story of evil" in order to be delivered from it

Compensating Moral Value and Censorship:

Two-Faced Woman - 1941In certain cases when "compensating moral value" tempered the immorality, sin, and evil within a film, various prohibited actions would be allowed. For example, in the romantic classic Camille (1936), the affair between the dashing Robert Taylor and courtesan Greta Garbo could exist as long as their dalliance would ultimately be prohibited by Taylor's father Lionel Barrymore. In director George Cukor's Two-Faced Woman (1941), Garbo's last film, the star played the part of her twin to seductively lure philandering husband Melvyn Douglas away from his ex-mistress Constance Bennett. The film's suggestive and immoral sexuality and Garbo's low-cut gowns were condemned by the Legion of Decency.

The Moon and SixpenceThe Production Code always ensured that criminals or 'bad' girls would be punished in the end. In Billy Wilder's film noir Double Indemnity (1944), the amoral, shrewd and sexy Barbara Stanwyck and her male lover-accomplice Fred MacMurray end up shooting each other (and dying) after committing a sexually-charged perfect murder. And in the adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence (1943), a disillusioned, rakish, sexually-adventurous, Paul Gauguin-like painter (George Sanders) abandoned family and moved to Tahiti to engage in a hedonistic life - where he was duly condemned by the film's narrator (provided by Herbert Marshall).

Producer David O. Selznick's Gone With The Wind (1939) faced tough treatment by the Hollywood Code, with the attractive but immoral character of prostitute Belle Watling, Melanie's difficult labor and childbirth scene, the conjugal rape scene of Clark Gable carrying his wife Vivien Leigh up the stairs (that ends with a fade out), and Gable's scandalous parting words: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" that broke the Production Code's language provisions; and it is still widely-believed that the bold line of dialogue cost Selznick a $5,000 fine.

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