early (1950s, earlier?) examples of R-Rated content in films?
November 13, 2007 11:07 PM   Subscribe

Seeing some minor nudity in a 1950s film made me curious. What were some early examples of 'R-Rated' type material in films? I feel like non-Hollywood cinema makes this too easy, so what of naughty bits and foul language in American films? I know about 'Convention City.' Is there anything else Pre-Code that is anachronistically R-Rated for the time?
posted by tremspeed to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
The Turner movie network ran a great series this past June called "Screened Out," based on Richard Barrios' book Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall, that featured lots of movies that can be considered "R-Rated for the time." Some of the pre-code stuff was jaw-droppingly amazing, particularly Cecil B. DeMille's hilariously lurid 1932 Bible-and-sin spectacular The Sign of the Cross. It had lots of homoerotic content, including an amazing scene of Claudette Colbert in a huge bath of milk, tops of her naked breasts heaving on the surface as she seductively motions to a serving girl to join her. Plus lots of gore in the arenas, like a dwarf impaled in the air on an Amazon's sword and brief-but-pretty-damn-realistic scenes of lions eating Christians. Barrios calls it "one of the prime causes for the film cleanup of 1934" and "the first major American film to create significant controversy over its homoerotic content." I call it a hoot, but it definitely fits your description. Check the other early movies listed at the Turner site for more, like the 1912 gay cowboy flick Algie The Miner:

Algie's character is defined as gay through certain visual indicators of behavior and dress: his tendency to give cowboys kisses on the lips rather than slaps on the back, his bright and flamboyant Western wear, and a penchant for lace hankies and lip rouge.

This is a great question; you're definitely on to something. The freedom you see in some pre-Code movies is often really surprising.
posted by mediareport at 11:40 PM on November 13, 2007 [3 favorites]

posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:18 AM on November 14, 2007

There's another excellent pre-code documentary that runs on TCM occasionally called Complicated Women, looking at female characters in movies before the Code. There's some great stuff in there that I've been meaning to track down ever since I saw it a few months ago. I think that one's also based on a book that's probably worth checking out.

If you run a search for "pre-code" on Amazon, you'll find several boxed sets that might be a decent place to start.
posted by Stacey at 5:18 AM on November 14, 2007

Queen Kelly comes close, though it would probably only be a PG-13 today.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:56 AM on November 14, 2007

Skinnydipping scene in Tarzan and His Mate.
posted by Lieber Frau at 1:07 PM on November 14, 2007

anachronistically R-Rated for the time?

It sounds like you're saying it was anachronistic for there to have been sex in the movies before the Code went into effect. Uh, you're surprised people were interested in sex in the 30's?

Better-informed folk than I can comment on the political reasons for the Hayes Code, Prohibition, and other transient clean-up programs.

But there's no basis for your assumption that the human race wasn't interested in sex until the 60's, or your 13th birthday.
posted by JimN2TAW at 2:28 PM on November 14, 2007

anachronistically R-Rated for the time?

It sounds like you're saying it was anachronistic for there to have been sex in the movies before the Code went into effect.

I think tremspeed is just acknowledging that the R rating didn't exist pre-Code, so it's anachronistic to refer to steamy material in films of that time as "R-rated."
posted by Orinda at 3:47 PM on November 14, 2007

some great suggestions so far! thanks.

i didn't just mean sex or steamy material - drugs, swearin', violence, etc etc. was curious if there was film-firsts for every 'adult' depiction in today's cinema- if you know what i mean.

as far as I can tell it was more 'anachronistic' for that material in films POST-code, pre-60s. i'm by no means suggesting that R-rated themes weren't around/discussed until they appeared in the movies!
posted by tremspeed at 7:57 PM on November 14, 2007

There's a pretty famous scene in 1936's Modern Times where Charlie Chaplin gets high on cocaine while eating breakfast in prison [youtube], and another one in 1917's Easy Street where he sits on a hypodermic filled with coke and hilarity ensues as he beats up a bunch of ruffians. Actually, according to footnote 18 here, "Cocaine gags were fairly common in early two-reelers. In an early Harold Lloyd short, Harold revives his Model T with an injection."

You might find the first ten parts of this "Sex in Cinema" collection interesting, too; it's filled with provocative scenes from early flicks. And don't forget the sluttiness in some early Fleischer Brothers Betty Boop cartoons; at 6:25 into 1932's Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle she does an awesome rotoscoped topless hula dance, with nothing but a lei around her neck barely covering her tits.

(stop me now, this is one of my fave subjects...)
posted by mediareport at 6:45 PM on November 15, 2007

This Nude World, 1933

Kenneth Anger's Fireworks was made in 1949, which might not be the kind of thing you're looking for, but it's certainly worth checking out.

(And to get even further off track - if you're interested in skeezy and amazing Hollywood films you should really check out the oeuvre of Samuel Fuller, whose 1964 film "The Naked Kiss" opens with a scene in which a bald prostitute's wig falls off as she's beating up her pimp.)
posted by bubukaba at 9:23 AM on November 16, 2007

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