Day 788: Vintage Celluloid Boobery

originally published February 26, 2014

Whenever I’m assessing a question of morality, I like to assume the vantage point of an interplanetary visitor from an advanced race, dropping in to see how humanity stacks up to their alien equivalent. Don’t kill each other? I’m sure the little green dude agrees. Don’t pilfer one another’s wallets on the street? No question, Gleep would be down with that. Don’t allow parts of one’s natural form to be visible to anyone else, lest they succumb to evil, lust-sopped acts? He might raise a quizzical, crooked antenna at that one.

But our society has fought to uphold this denouncement of defrocking, this ban of the bare, particularly in film. It’s as though the collapse of our fragile culture could be set into motion by one wayward nipple. Sure, the pope probably gets naked, and so does every sign-toting, network-calling yahoo who feels their eyes have still not recovered from the excessive displays of side-boob on NYPD: Blue twenty years ago. But there’s a difference when it comes to being naked in one’s own home (or Pope-Fortress as the case may be).

Forget the fact that, with exceptions for size and possible skin conditions, butts tend to look fairly similar. And forget that the prohibition of anything (alcohol, drugs, looking at naked people) does nothing to quell the public’s desire for it. Our culture – and here I mean our global culture, because this is not simply a western taboo – spent decades frowning upon cinematic nakedness. Not too far back in our past movies could show blood from a stab wound by a homicidal maniac, but pubic hair? Hell no.

It should surprise absolutely no one who has watched the landscape of the internet develop over the past 20 years that nudity was appearing in films before actual film had gotten around to being invented. Eadweard Muybridge (and I should point out that ‘Eadweard’ is a name choice more parents should consider) created the zoopraxiscope, a projector that could display images etched onto a spinning glass disk. With his rapid-fire photography method, he could capture what amounted to the equivalent of a brief gif of a horse galloping, a donkey bucking or, of course, a naked person. The photo above is his own grizzly self-portrait.

These displays bordered on the fringe between scientific experiment and art. The fact that many of the human zoopraxiscope displays were nudes suggests either a desire to examine human anatomy (Muybridge infamously used similar technology to prove the theory that a galloping horse’s feet are not always touching the ground) or a craving for titillation. Muybridge employed a handful of anonymous male and female models for his toy, though apparently he also created the first “footage” of naked celebrities when George Bernard Shaw and Walt Whitman posed for him.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the physical forms of those two esteemed writers, but believe me, this stuff wasn’t considered porn.

The first exhibition of motion picture technology took place in 1895. The earliest erotic films were made in 1896. The world saw the Lumière Brothers’ magic of moving workers exiting a factory up on the big screen and immediately thought, “Fantastic! Why aren’t they naked?”

French producer Eugène Pirou and director Albert Kirchner collaborated on Le Coucher de la Mariée, which featured actress Louise Willy performing a seven-minute bathroom strip-tease. The film was brought over to America in 1903, by which time a small industry had begun to develop in France, as first-generation filmmakers discovered there was money to be made in racy 30-second flicks.

Only about two minutes of that film have survived, both of which take place before Louise gets to what the French used to call “le good stuff.”

The 1907 Argentinian film El Satario is notable for being perhaps the first cinematic use of the extreme close-up. It’s also an outright porno, telling the story of three female river bathers who use their cleansing time to get busy with one another. Then the devil shows up and insists on a little ‘oral handshake’ from one of the ladies before getting all skronk-crazy with all three of them. Not a lot of time wasted on plot in these early pornographic efforts.

It’s no big shock that the majority of early film nudity – at least that which was exhibited publically – took place in Europe (and apparently South America). The first American film with a naked leading actor wasn’t until 1915 when Audrey Munson played an artist’s model in George Foster Platt’s Inspiration. Americans still found ways to sneak some flesh into their features, but mainly under the guise of educational films or documentaries of tribal customs. Canadian filmmaker Nell Shipman inserted her own unclad self into our nation’s first feature film, Back To God’s Country, in 1919.

The 20’s were a wild time for racy film, so much so that it was making the industry a little nervous that the government would bow to pressure and swoop in with their censor-stamp to ruin everyone’s fun. Silent film starlet Theda Bara made waves in a sequence of revealing outfits in 1917’s Cleopatra, and it all spiralled outward from there. I’ve already kvetched at length about the Hays Code, the film studios’ self-imposed warning (and eventually regulatory) system. But there’s more to the story.

The American film studios employed the rigorous Hays Code of so-called decency as a means of placating angry conservative groups until 1934, when it became the semi-official law of the land. This was around the time when the Catholic Legion of Decency showed up and publically condemned films they felt were inappropriate for Christian consumption.

Across the Atlantic, censorship was operating at a much mellower pace, as evidenced by Gustav Machatỳ’s 1932 Czech film, Ecstasy.

Joseph Breen, the moral compass behind the Hays Code (who incidentally pushed studios to avoid making anti-Nazi flicks before WWII due to the strong pro-German, anti-Semitic sentiment in America), called Ecstasy “highly – even dangerously – indecent.” What makes this film so evil? It’s the first non-pornographic movie to depict sex, though we only see the actors from the neck up. Also, Hedy Lamarr is nude, but also shown receiving great – some might say ‘orgasmic’ – joy from the sexual tryst. It’s bad enough to show nudity and sex, but to show people enjoying it? For shame.

And so nudity in the realm of film had to go underground, to the nudist pseudo-dramas of the 30’s to the “nudie-cuties” that launched Russ Meyer’s career at the dawn of the 60’s, to the sexploitation films that inched so close to the mainstream, both the Hays Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency were hammered into irrelevance.

American censors have always been far more tolerant of violence than nudity or sex in movies, TV, video games, etc. Some may call that a symptom of a twisted culture. I consider it a relic from a skewed moral code that is thankfully eroding away for much of the populace.

Those little green men may approve of us yet.

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