The Golden Oldies of Porn

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Once a porn a time people smiled while they fucked. People had body hair and people were people, or at least characters, not just the sum of their plastic parts. While pornography shot between the birth of cinema and the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1970s was never perfect, ethically or stylistically, I believe that the imaginative, saucy and often hilarious world of pre-homogenized, pre-commercialized porn reflects some of the best of human nature and creativity. To preserve and celebrate the films themselves and the spirit of joyful sexual play they encapsulate is essential to our common heritage and sensual well-being.

It is impossible to capture in one short article the amazing catalog of surviving footage shot before the 1970s, so instead of attempting to summarize half a century of cultural and technological events this piece is intended as the equivalent of a dancing girl showreel at a secret cinema porn party; to fire your passion for the main event, the grand finale, the really juicy bits. Whether you are a history nerd looking to find insight into the details of private life often over-looked by mainstream archives, or an avid consumer of smut looking for a bit of a giggle, a wank down Memory Lane can reveal a great deal more than flesh and fantasy.

I am a feminist showgirl and the curator of ArtWank, a night of vintage porn screenings, guest lectures from contemporary sex professionals, and provocative cabaret performances. I don’t tend to watch porn for my own purposes. I have found that the experience of trying to source anything online that doesn’t boil my blood politically or offend me aesthetically generally kills The Mood stone dead. Except now I am mining the tiny, precious vein of surviving silver screen porn that to me communicates some of the best of sexuality: the fun, the mistakes, the preposterous excuses we’ll come up with to take each others’ clothes off, the jizz, the juice, the jiggle. Daftness turns me on, but for a massive perv like my good self Carry On films don’t quite do the job when it comes to a naughty on-screen treat, so my delight in finding and promoting cavalier Cavaliers, al fresco wrestling flicks and slapstick temperance-themed peepshows is both a personal pleasure and political agenda.

Pornographic films (or ‘flagitious materials’, the term preferred by early 20th Century censors) have been around since the flickering birth of cinema. Thomas Edison’s Black Maria studio produced a number of illegal dancing girl movies, as well as films of prohibited boxing matches and cockfights, between 1893 and 1901, when the studio closed. The earliest ‘hardcore’ film is often cited as being El Satario, a 1907 Argentinean depiction of the Devil cavorting on a riverbank with several nude maidens. However the exact provenance of this production, like that of much surviving footage, is uncertain, and it has also been cited as being shot in Cuba, the Southern USA and Mexico from anywhere between the early 1900s to the 1930s.

The identities of many contributors to early erotic cinema are lost to modern enthusiasts due to a number of factors. Societal attitudes to sex and sex work meant that practitioners had to disguise themselves on screen and in credits, the flammable and highly perishable nature of early nitrate film, and a lack of official preservation of this aspect of cinema all cloud the history of early smut. Many films were made only for private use and so multiple copies of anything pre-1920s, when home filming equipment became more accessible to the average earner, are rare. Police raids on brothels, road-shows and studios over the first half of the 20th century destroyed many negatives and reels of film, and in the case of more ‘respectable’ patrons of porn, collections were often destroyed or swiftly sold on the event of their death by more puritan family members.

One of the most prolific French erotica producers, known only to history as Monsieur X, created hundreds of photographs and at least two short films of nude women in post-WW1 Parisian brothels. When he sold his collection to a bookseller in the 1970s, he confessed that almost all of his negatives had long since been thrown in the Seine.

The prostitutes Monsieur X frequently worked with are recorded saying they enjoyed the innocent and relaxed nature of his work. Innocence and joy are themes common to the stories of many early pornographers and performers.

In contrast to today’s increasingly violent and dehumanizing films of the ‘Brazzers’ ilk, the boundaries of what was considered extreme in early porn can strike the modern viewer as tame. Up to and beyond the 1950s oral sex was considered generally taboo, and even unthinkable by some married individuals, including those who worked in pin-up photography and film. Dave Thompson quotes pin-up queen Candy Barr in his must-read Black, White and Blue: Adult Cinema from the Victorian Age to the VCR as professing she “wasn’t even aware that people engaged in oral sex,” and as only having found out about it during the filming of a stag film.

Films depicting ‘fetish’ or taboo behaviors; spanking, group sex, bondage, bestiality, homosexuality, were predominantly made by private producers or as custom pieces for punters – although Irving Klaw popularized bondage films during the 1950’s, as spearheaded by his iconic ingenue Bettie Page. Playboy’s 1967 study of over 1,000 stag films concluded that depiction of lesbianism accounted for almost one fifth of content, and that bestiality was apparently more popular than gay sex on film. The most filmed animal in porn is and always has been Man’s Best Friend, or Nun’s Best Friend in the case of one instructional film featured in 2002’s Polissons et Galipettes (‘Rascals and Somersaults’) compilation of clips from 1920s French brothel movies. The director of this classic collection, Michel Rielhac, chose not to include a discovered sequence with a duck-centric fuck in the final edit, which, in light of shocked reactions from modern audiences to his selections, was probably prudent.

The most popular post-automobile-era forums for viewing pornography until the advent of established sex cinemas in the 1950s were the ‘road-shows’ – traveling salesmen across the USA and Europe who would pitch up for one night only to screen ‘smokers’, ‘beavers’, ‘coochie flicks’; reels of titillating footage for large groups of predominantly working-class ‘average Joes’. Across the USA (the main producer of skin-flicks during and after the First and Second World Wars, whilst France and Germany, previously the main producers of dirty movies, had more pressing issues at hand) enterprising promoters were the passport to porn, traveling from town to town, avoiding arrest and scandal where possible. The stag film salesman’s collection could be hired by fraternities, private members’ clubs and lodges for special events publicized by word of mouth, and the demand for new material was high. The emphasis on sociable group appreciation and heckling is perhaps a contributing factor for the apparent lack of hardcore or niche material.

To appeal to the widest possible audience and to garner repeat bookings, the stag film salesman would commission or personally produce films starring wholesome, approachable girls performing acts acceptable as ‘boys night’ entertainment, as opposed to solitary wank-fodder. Films made for all-female audiences were also shot but in far smaller quantity and were more akin to Chippendales-esque dance numbers than to the comparatively explicit material available to flappers’ brothers, fathers and lovers.

The variety and charm of material shot in the pre-commercial era is often regarded as amateur by cinema purists: lighting is unbalanced, crew appear in shot accidentally, story lines are ludicrous at best (burglars, fleas in clothing that had to be investigated, statues springing to life erection-first) and material from different shoots are spliced together incongruously. The point of coochie films, of course, was to excite the viewer and to present sex as novelty. Few porn directors had aspirations of artistry, with their focus being on money and market control, although connections between porn and organized crime prior to the 1960s were not as well established as is commonly believed. Nor are the connections between erotic film and dirty books; films were more widely available for hire from party suppliers than from the sleazy bookstores with which porn distribution has become inextricably linked.

The birth of sex on film brought forth a new means of expressing desire, from nudie sunbathing movies to the animated adventures of Ever-ready Hardon and his highly animate member, from politically incorrect faux inter-racial encounters to Biblical epics. While social mores and tastes have changed, and production of porn has skyrocketed since it’s flickering beginnings, nothing in sex is new. Vintage porn shows film-making at it’s most bold, fumbling and naughty, and that, to me, beats anatomical uniformity and flattering lighting hands down.

Get your fill of vintage naughtiness at the Hot August Fringe: ArtWank! Hosted by Ophelia Bitz. Four whole nights of wall-to-sticky-wall smutfest at the legendary Royal Vauxhall Tavern. August 18th, 19th, 25th and 26th.www.artwank.co.uk

Illustrations from the ER Archives.

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