It All Starts with a Kiss...
Sexuality has always been a prominent subject in the visual arts and that was true of film since the first flickering images illuminated a hastily rigged screen. Likewise, legions of the prudish and indignant have always been at the ready to bleat shrill, shrieking protests at art’s affronts to their twisted version of decency and morality. From the first onscreen depiction of a kiss (1896’s The Kiss, appropriately enough) to early nude scenes in films such as Apres La Bal (1897), public outcries brought waves of censorship and repression. Instead of going away, however, sexuality in film went underground to morph and mutate into all manner of wondrous, peculiar, and delightful forms.
No Nudes Is Good Nudes
Even as nascent motion picture technology spawned and suckled the infant Hollywood entertainment industry, spurred by religious and women’s groups, the sharp scissors of censorship were quick to make their presence felt. In 1909, the New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship was formed in the Big Apple. Other local municipalities were also creating their own censorship committees, each with its own “what’s fair game” for content idiosyncrasies.
In 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Mutual Film Corporation v. Ohio Industrial Commission that motion pictures were a product, not an art form, and as such, didn’t enjoy First Amendment protection. Federal censorship seemed inevitable, and to the era’s movie moguls, devising their own in-house body to sanitize films was far preferable to government intervention. They recruited Will Hays, a former Postmaster General, to draft a code to address content concerns expressed by religious groups and the general public. The Studio Relations Committee, popularly known as The Hays Office, worked to consolidate the hodgepodge of content restrictions issued by the plethora of municipal censorship boards across the country.
The Hays Code was issued in 1930. Studios submitted films for review, and if their content passed muster, they were issued a certification number. The process was voluntary, but studios owned over 70 percent of American theaters, so a film without a certificate had little chance of distribution. Since non-compliance was tantamount to economic suicide, filmmakers jumped on the sanitized bandwagon.
The more adventurous filmmakers weren’t about to abandon depicting sensuality in their films and they came up with some ingenious methods for thwarting the censors. For a marvelous example of an early movie that justified prurient content by passing it off as educational fare (a tactic which became de rigueur once the Hays Code was implemented), check out the 1914 silver screen sex milestone Damaged Goods. Based on the work by French playwright Eugene Brieux, the story deals, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, with “diseases that are supposed to be the punishment of profligate men and women.”
Sexploitation pioneers offered sensational pictures such as Cocaine Cowboys, Child Bride (one of the most notorious films from the 1930s thanks to 12-year-old star Shirley Mills’ four-minute skinny-dipping scene), and Reefer Madness with lurid content tricked out as precautionary tale. Disclaimers rolled prior to the opening credits soberly advising that the provocative material was presented solely to warn viewers against pernicious social evils. The tactic worked like a dream. Sexploitation begot “infotainment” and many of these films became popular hits that remain classics of trash cinema.
From the 1930s through the mid-1960s, the primary outlet for onscreen nudity was the quasi-documentary naturalist feature. Plot? Forget it. Under the pretext of exploring daily life in a nudist colony, filmmakers shot sexless romps through clothing-optional wonderlands. The resulting efforts resembled tepid travelogues, but hey, audiences got to feast their bulging eyes on full-frontal nudity, and that has to count for something. Skin flicks never played mainstream theaters, but they did generate hefty profits as road show features, touring from town to town in limited engagements.
Vixen, Vixen, Über Alles
Three major court decisions gave sexploitation producers the longest leash they’d enjoyed since the glorious pre-Code days. In United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948), the Supreme Court ruled that vertical integration between studios and theater chains was illegal. As soon as studios lost control over theater chains, sexually provocative foreign imports began to find outlets in major American cities. The Supreme Court’s 1952 decision, Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, reversed the 1915 ruling that movies weren’t entitled to First Amendment protection. In 1957, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in Excelsior Pictures v. New York Board of Regents that nudity alone didn’t render a film obscene. This particular ruling was a license to thrill for the independents. The floodgates opened for new and exciting adventures in sexploitation.
Pioneering independent filmmaker Russ Meyer tested the limits of this new envelope with his 1959 film The Immoral Mr. Teas, the first non-naturist picture to depict nudity since the pre-Code era. Produced on a $25,000 budget, it raked in over $1 million. That kind of money was worth risking an obscenity bust, and a plethora of ‘nudie cutie’ erotic comedies followed. Meyer’s success and a prolific output during the 1960s and 1970s, featuring his trademark wholesome-looking, big-breasted starlets, coupled with an anarchic sense of satire that skewered contemporary social and sexual mores, earned him the richly deserved title of “King of the Nudies”.
Beginning in 1964, however, Meyer’s films took a major detour with the release of Lorna, widely considered to be the first “roughie”, a subgenre of nudie films that veered away from light comedy in favor of darker themes and brutal violence. 1965’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, laced with theatrical, cartoonish violence to accompany the titillation, epitomized this era of Meyer’s filmmaking.
Some Like It Roughie
Doris Wishman, another nudie pioneer, had her most gonzo achievement with Nude on the Moon (1961), which she co-wrote and co-directed with Raymond Phelan. In the film (which became a camp classic), intrepid scientists venture to the moon, and to their astonishment, find a lush, verdant paradise inhabited by joyous nudists. Bad Girls Go To Hell (1965), a lurid melodrama about a young woman who goes on the lam after killing a would-be rapist, only to find herself trapped in a nightmarish landscape of sexual exploitation and violence, was the first of many roughies Wishman continued to churn out, well into the 1970s.
Producer David Friedman, another important figure in the formative days of the roughie, hooked up with legendary goremeister Herschell Gordon Lewis, for Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964). The two cheapo horror flicks became underground hits by virtue of gore more graphic than any previously viewed by audiences. Under the pseudonym Herman Traeger, Friedman produced Love Camp 7 (1969), the film that launched both the Naziploitation and Women in Prison subgenres. Friedman also produced the still infamous Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974), starring Dyanne Thorne as a diabolically domineering Nazi prison camp warden who castrated lovers for their shortcomings and devised horrifically sadistic tortures for female inmates. Isla spawned three sequels and a cottage industry for Thorne, who became much sought after for personal appearances on the fandom convention circuit.
Other notable figures in the roughie subgenre include director Michael Findlay, whose films, The Body of a Female (1964) and in his Flesh trilogy (1967, 1968), depict previously unparalleled sadism and brutality against women. Joe Sarno, one of the genre’s most gifted auteurs, explored the darker corners of sexuality with films that delivered a sophisticated mix of outstanding composition and lighting, along with trademark close-up shots that drew comparisons to the work of Ingmar Bergman. Sarno’s 1964 psychodrama, Sin In the Suburbs, featured a rare pairing of sexploitation icons, Dyanne Thorne and Audrey Campbell (best known for playing Madame Olga in a trio of roughie classics: White Slaves of Chinatown, Olga’s House of Shame, and Olga’s Girls).
“Ride!” She Said
Biker movies, beginning with the 1959 Marlon Brando classic The Wild One, were primo showcases for sex and violence; you could almost count on brutal, sprawling fight sequences (unfortunately, along with a drawn-out gang-rape scene0. These films also provided training grounds for some of the biggest movie stars of the 1970s, including Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson. Russ Meyer took a stab at the genre with his 1965 release, Motorpsycho, but it took the spectacular success of 1966’s The Wild Angels with Fonda, Dern, and Nancy Sinatra, to establish biker movies as a financially viable subgenre. They remained an exploitation staple until the mid-1970s, producing a genuine film classic, Easy Rider (1969), starring Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson—one of the few exploitation pictures to be regarded as art by mainstream film critics.
That 70s Show
In 1968, the Hays Code was finally scrapped, a victim of changing social mores in America and its own impotent enforcement powers. It was replaced by the MPAA’s rating system, which allowed any content to be depicted in a film. With the Code’s abolition, exploitation broadened its purview to include a wider range of subgenres, from blaxploitation action thrillers to explicit gross-out comedies, a.k.a., shock cinema, which took exploitation into the strangest, most bizarre territory ever to slither across the silver screen.
John Waters is the best known shock auteur by virtue of his mainstream success, Hairspray (though his earlier work would likely send Hairspray fans rocketing for the vomitorium). His cinematic triumph, 1972’s Pink Flamingos, is laced with subversive humor and set pieces crafted solely with shock value in mind. Waters cheerfully treated viewers to incestuous blowjobs, freaky chicken fetishes, and a penultimate money shot of transvestite megastar Divine chowing down on dog crap for the film’s grand finale.
Shlockmeisters Gualitiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi made names for themselves by using revolting staged “reality” in the creation of “shockumentaries” such as Mondo Cane (1962) and Farewell, Uncle Tom (1971). They abandoned their traditional gimmick for 1975’s Mondo Candido, a tripped-out riff on Voltaire’s Candide. Chock full of surrealistic imagery, the film included footage of nude women being marched into a giant meat grinder, and zany antics from buff, masked Inquisition torturers.
The Twilight of the Gawds
By the mid-1970s, the era of big-screen sexploitation was drawing to a close. Softcore features such as Emmanuelle (1974) and Flesh Gordon (1974), along with their hardcore cousins, were populating the grind-houses and drive-ins that had once been home to the nudies. Several exploitation giants, including Meyer and Wishman, tried to adapt to the changing zeitgeist, producing their own softcore features, but as contemporary audiences’ appetite for non-stop sex grew, the demand for the campy visions and satirical narratives—sexploitation filmmakers’ stock in trade—dried up. By the late 1970s, the genre had been effectively displaced from theaters.
Even so, sexploitation constitutes a mutant body of art comprised of badly dated films that remain wonderfully weird cultural artifacts. Although they were ultra-low budget, and had some of the crappiest production values of all time, these films were still wildly profitable, and laid the groundwork for the explicit depiction of sensuality in cinema. They stand as some of the 20th century’s most peculiar and enduring milestones, whose conventions and motifs are kept alive today by filmmakers as diverse as Quentin Tarantino, Rob Zombie, and Takeshi Miike. The current availability of sexploitation classics on DVD ensures that an ever-renewing fan base will rediscover them, and that film buffs will have the opportunity to revisit one of the most remarkable oeuvres in cinematic history, free to turn and face the strange whenever the fancy strikes them.