Hollywood Filth: the saucy movies of the 1930s

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Sarah uncovers some of the sexy and sensual moments from 1930s movies, when times were on the more prudish side.

My current life quest is to uncover the sauciest films made in times when toleration of such fruity behaviour was less than it is today. I’ve landed back in the 1930s, where there was no shortage of under-the-table filth…

Bird Of Paradise (1932)

I’m not going to spend much time on this one: it features a heinously racist treatment of native islanders, which includes depicting them as savage. Leading man Joel McCrea also darkens his skin to fit in with the group. In many ways, this is a movie about conservative civilization clashing with the more liberated islanders. However, it still falls into the trap of sacrificial ‘savage’ stereotypes and it would be remiss to not mention it.


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That said, Bird Of Paradise is also a movie that features highly erotic sequences, the most memorable being a swim under moonlight. Under the watchful eye of McCrea, lead actress Doloros del Rio swims partially nude at night and coaxes him to join her. She further tempts him by sucking an orange, and there are some salacious scenes where the pair climb bamboo poles.

I Am No Angel (1933)

When you think of the provocateurs of the pre-code era, one name springs to mind: Mae West. I can just hear her now, rolling her shoulder and suggestively saying “why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” I Am No Angel is one of two movies to immortalise that iconic moment (the first being She Done Him Wrong, where she actually says “why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”). Still, that voice and delivery has been parodied throughout the decades, becoming a cultural phenomenal.

Mae West is the ultimate queen of the innuendo and she solidifies that in this adventurous movie. Directed by Wesley Ruggles, it sees West star opposite Cary Grant again as Tira, a circus performer who attracts the affections of many men, eventually falling in love with one. From her burlesque performance at the beginning of the film to the way she slowly drips and drapes across the screen, West is a delectable dish and knows it. She swans around the screen with quips aplenty and her trademark, “ow”. Devilishly brilliant.

The Greeks Had A Word For Them (or Three Broadway Girls) (1932)

While I’m still trying to figure out what word the Greeks had for women such as Jean, Polaire, and Schatze, I do know that I love each and every of them. This comedy feature revolves around the trio, who are ex-showgirls. Putting their money together, they rent a penthouse apartment with one purpose and one purpose alone – to get themselves a wealthy husband. The sly and sexy girls all attempt to seduce rich men and aren’t afraid to use their womanly ways to do so.

There are lists of men they attempt to take under their wing. In one scene, the ambitious Jean (played by the sultry Ina Claire) sets her sights on a piano-playing millionaire. To ensnare him, despite his obvious interest in her friend Polaire, Jean stays behind and slips off her dress under the lavish big coat. Sprawled upon a chaise, her little plan works and suddenly he’s enthralled by her.

The film isn’t just about bagging a man, though. The brilliant, spirited women tell off perverted men and stand their own ground in a male world. In fact, the men of the movie are simply perilous to the three’s scheming. Also, the hot-heated publicity shots of Ina Claire lying down alluringly caused such an outrage.

The Divorcee (1930)

Norma Shearer is one of the pinnacle performers who often played devilish and sexually liberated characters in her movies. Mark LaSalle in his 2000 book, Complicated Women: Sex And Power In Pre-Code Hollywood, said of Shearer that she was “the first American film actress to make it chic and acceptable to be single and not a virgin on screen”. But her biggest on-screen conquest was Robert Z Leonard’s The Divorcee.

Starring opposite heartthrob Chester Morris, the film sees Jerry and Ted, a happily married couple. For a while, that is. Ted drunkenly has an affair, and Jerry decides she has to “balance the books”, thus she sleeps with a friend. An argument ensues, and Jerry resorts to partying and sleeping around after the break-up.

Shearer is spunky and sensual as she flirts fervently throughout the film. One of the sexiest looks you’ll ever see is Jerry taking a friend back to her apartment, fully aware that she is going to sleep with him. She practically growls with hot anticipation. Shearer was once fearful that she’d never shed her good girl image. Yet here it falls off her like the silk clothing she’s draped in. Her performance was so incredible that she earned herself an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Funnily enough, Irving Thalberg – the head of MGM and also Shearer’s husband – thought she didn’t have enough sex appeal. That’s until she did a photo shoot and everyone saw how sultry she was.

Shearer would go on to be dubbed The First Lady of MGM, starring in classic romps, big dramas, and more, though it was her silent and pre-code films that ensured her iconic status long after her death.

The Sign Of The Cross (1932)

This is the film that prompted me to go back to the 1930s pre-code movies for this filthy exploration. I seriously couldn’t sit back and let this go unwritten about. This 1931 film is so raunchy that I had to pause it and fan myself.

Surprisingly, this came from the golden era of Hollywood’s star director Cecil B DeMille. The movie revolves around a Roman prefect called Marcus who falls in love with Christian woman, Mercia. However, Christians are persecuted by punishment of death if they practise their religion.

Led by Fredric March, wearing the tiniest tunic you’ll ever see, this film is filled with nudity and suggestive scenes. The brilliant and stunning Claudette Colbert, who plays Empress Poppaea to Charles Loughton’s odious Emperor Nero, bathes naked in milk. When her confidant comes to spread the gossip about Marcus, the Empress tells the girl to strip and join her in the milk too. Another scene sees Mercia captured by Marcus and he wishes that she’d lavish in the loose Roman lifestyle. In order to soften her morals, Marcus asks a female friend to seduce her with a dance and it is quite something.

Of course, the point of DeMille’s work is that the Romans are so depraved and the Christians are so good that, even in death, they are better than their oppressors. In the most cutting sequence, which even by modern times serves as an allegory to how desensitised audiences are, Romans watch nude victims eaten by different animals with varying reactions, including one woman yawning and retrieving a scroll.

Despite this, DeMille’s biggest problem is that he made the Romans, well, too much fun. As Mercia is being danced to, the Christian’s hymning loudly steadies her resolve. And ruins what could have been a mighty good time…

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