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II)A)1: Erotic imagery in Hollywood before the Hays Code.

II)A)1: Erotic imagery in Hollywood before the Code.

A short post today. My uncle, who commented on this post over at Comstock Films, is a tremendous resource for film history, came over last week. He’s got an enormous collection of DVDs and movie books: it’s like having my own private film historian/librarian! Some movie titles he left for me to peruse.

Ben Hur, 1907
Flesh and the Devil, 1926, Clarence Brown

Sign of the Cross, 1932, dir. Cecil B. DeMille.

Baby Face, 1933, Alfred E. Greene

I will try to get some clips ripped and uploaded soon. (My turn to cry “Fair use!)

Nothing in these movies is shocking by a modern standard. But the imagery (bare breasts, flower garlanded nude women about to be eaten by crocodiles or raped by apes) is startling compared to the highly constrained the sexual and erotic imagery in movies for the next 30-odd years. It wouldn’t be until 1964 , in The Pawn Broker, that a bare breast would appear in an MPAA certified film.

Up next: II)A)2) Enter the Legion of Decency, or, How come my parents don’t sleep in twin beds?

We’ll have a look at the actual production code, it’s most notable (to me at least) manifestation:the phenomenon of the divided matrimonial bed.

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2 Responses

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  1. Damn, wish I had an uncle like that! Great films – that will be fun. Pre-code films are more explicit but many are still pretty moralistic – sort of Victorian in feeling, to me – esp Flesh and the Devil. Makes sense – they were closer to the Victorian era than our own. Another interesting manifestation of film after the Code (besides the two bed, feet on the floor thing): the proliferation of euphemism and coded (an alternate “code”?) imagery that comes to stand in for actual sex. Which was a double edged sword — “foreplay” and symbolism can be rich, but it also eradicated a lot of our actual useful language for talking about sex (esp alt sex), pleasure, and so on.

  2. Tony Comstock said

    Everyone should have such an uncle!

    The pre-code films are very sex and consequences, and in that regard I see them as the great grandparents of the explicit arthouse films, which for all their pretense of moral ambiguity strike me as no less victorian in their treatment of sexuality.

    The double-edged sword is something that my uncle and I go around and around on, with the amputation scene in Gone with the Wind a frequent point of reference. I think that’s one of the most artful, horrifying, and affecting scenes in all of cinema.

    I also can’t help but think of the opening scenes in Glory and Saving Private Ryan. I would have left the theater during the opening scene of Glory, except that I couldn’t move. I was pinned in place by the horror of it. But that sequence doesn’t begin to compare to the Omaha Beach sequence in SPR in terms of the graphic detail of the violence.

    Mostly I’m not a fan of violence in movies. But I think it’s a good thing that producers and directors are able to explore violent imagery and gore without fear of prosecution and with unimpeded access to markets.

    In that respect the “benefit” of being forced to use coded language is kind of a non-starter with me. Before I discovered the camera, I was a fairly serious music student. There are lots of forms (classical, folk, pop) that impose limitations on the choices an artist makes, and a lot of inventiveness comes in response to the those limitations.

    But lImitation backed by threat of force of law is an entirely different matter.

    (Side note about SPR. I had a long conversation with the MPAA’s Tony Hey about why they didn’t rate SPR as NC-17 and the fall out from that. More about that an upcoming post “The MPAA took my baby away: Why exploitation filmmakers love to hate the Motion Picture Association of America”)

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