The student of erotica gets so much pleasure out of unearthing ver subject’s obscure history, and I’ve just come up with another example.

First someone invented a camera, then got someone to take ver clothes off in front of it. And shortly after that, no doubt, having sex in front of it. And the same certainly applies to motion pictures, which have the added advantage that you could show bodies, well, moving, which is what people do when having sex. The earliest examples that I can find documented by scholars indicate that sex and nudity began appearing on film right around the turn of the century, with the first American sex film for which we have a title (either A Free Ride or A Grass Sandwich and involving “a man, two women, and a Model-T Ford…and…probably shot in New Jersey”) dating from 1915, although because of records of police seizures, still earlier examples are believed to exist.

The reference to the police is material, because of course shortly after anyone actually tried to show people having sex on film, the pokenoses of the world got busy with their eternal project of suppressing Sexuality We Hate.

And they were fairly successful at it, for several decades anyway. By the early 1930s there was a Production Code in place to suppress any excess (or indeed, even minimal) erotic exuberance in the movies, of which there were at least glimmerings through the start of the talkies, and that Code held more or less right through the 1960s. During these decades stag films existed and they could be displayed in venues where their enjoyment could be limited to audiences of relatively wealthy and powerful men. Police and prosecutors would wink at this, as they generally do at the illegalities of those high in status (under-color-of-law beatdowns being reserved for the lowly). For the rest of the movie-going world, erotic experience would be purged, or at best deeply sublimated. This system would start to break down when film makers working outside the system began to push the boundaries of what sex and nudity could be depicted, an event perhaps datable from Russ Meyer’s release of The Immoral Mr. Teas in 1959. By the 1970s, the emergence of porn — with gay porn blazing the trail others would follow — would change the cinematic world forever.

Or so it seemed to me, anyway. It turns out that even before Mr. Teas there was an earlier outsider world of exploitation cinema, of cheapo independent producers making movies on shoestring budgets and publicly exhibiting them, albeit in ways that often that seemed to resemble carnival acts more than film distribution as it is or was conventionally understood. I (like millions of others on hundreds of topics) can thank Susie Bright for the enlightenment, specifically for her interviewing film historian Eric Sheafer and specifically his book “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True” A History of Exploitation Cinema 1919-1959. Shaefer did amazing research to uncover a twilit world of definitely-not-up-to-code movies that you might have actually have had a chance to see if you lived in mid-twentieth century America. These were movies that dealt with crime, violence, drug use, and of course, nudity and sex.

A showman might come to town — even if your town was an inconsiderable place no one in Hollywood had ever heard of — with his movie and you could go see it. It wouldn’t be like an ordinary movie showing. There might be a pitchman and truly lurid posters outside. The showings might have been segregated by sex or age. Inside there might be nurses (or at least, women costumed as nurses) for the sake of rendering aid to patrons overly shocked by the content of the movie.

Or perhaps two or more movies. Because the showman would have at least two reels, on to show if the cops showed up and another one if they didn’t. And if you were lucky and the cops didn’t show up, you might actually see a glimpse of nudity of the sort the Hays Office would never have approved. In some cases, you might even have seen full-frontal. Shaefer, who seems to have watched many of these movies very carefully, comes up with an example (sadly low in resolution).

girls of loma-loma

That’s from Girls of Loma-Loma (or Forbidden Daughters) which Shaefer dates to the 1930s but which IMDB appears to date to 1927. That’s unsurprising, given that these movie makers didn’t necessarily keep terribly accurate business records, much less register their work with the Copyright Office.

More evidence, as if any were really needed, that porn will find a way.

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