The Victorians may have a reputation for being prudish, but some of their short films prove otherwise – here’s a look at some saucy old shorts.
My favourite topic of conversation is speaking about the late Victorians. Mostly because I find the whole 1890s decade so terribly fascinating, and partly because I’m adamant to dispel any myths about the era. The idea that the entire 60-plus years Victoria reigned was all similar is an absolute fallacy. As is the belief that all Victorians were “stuffy” and “repressed.”
In fact, I think the 1890s were a time of innovation, invention and social change – which is represented in Victorian filmmaking.
If you’ve been following me for a long time you’ll know that I really like to talk about sexy movies of the past. When people see history as puritanical and repressed we often negate the individual human element of desire, lust, and absolute pure filth. With that in mind, I would definitely like to take you back to some saucy shorts of our Victorian ancestors!
Let’s start in 1896 with Thomas Edison’s The Kiss. Directed by William Heise, The Kiss sees two theatrical actors, May Irwin and John Rice, embrace one another, replicating the final kiss of the stage musical The Widow Johns.
Now, the idea that there was a public outcry could be a falsehood. There were a few newspaper articles that decreed it as “disgusting,” and the Roman Catholic Church denounced it. However, there seems to be little proof that general audiences were so incredibly appalled by the shown behaviour.
In fact, The Kiss was replicated, and kissing shorts became a bit of a staple during the 1890s and 1900s. Directed by William Selig, Something Good – Negro Kiss (1898) was particularly groundbreaking as it broke free from racist caricatures of the time. Believed to be the earliest on-screen kiss involving African Americans, the film was considered lost until 2017 where only 29 seconds remained, and in 2021 a new version was discovered in the National Library of Norway. However, it is enough to showcase a sweet and tender moment between the actors as they woo and kiss one another.
Another variation was The Kiss In The Tunnel (1899). Directed by G. A. Smith and starring his wife Laura Bayley, The film is a great early example of editing continuity within the narrative, blending footage of a train passing through a tunnel (an immersive “phantom ride” style) with that of a small storyline. Here, a couple waits until the carriage they’re in is plunged into darkness before they share a few cheeky kisses. The short was remade in the same year, with the same title, only this time by the Riley Brothers for Bamforth’s and is a lot slicker and a lot more passionate. Notably, the Riley Brothers utilised an aerial shot of a train passing through a tunnel in the beginning, with the train passing into the station as a finale.
My particular favourite canoodling is in The Kissing Couple (1899), and I cannot explain to you why. I believe it’s a bit more candid and less staged. There is an air of shyness from the woman and, as the pair separate, they giggle at one another. The man in the short is Victorian theatre and music hall own Walter Gibbons, who produced several of these up-close and personal vignettes.
Another example of suggestive filmmaking in the Victorian era – and there are several of these – is a woman undressing in the bedroom. Victorians undressing!? Unheard of. Well, seeing as they wasted little time in producing absolute pornographic photographs (that is no coy joke, there is literally nudity and sex in some photos) it is no surprise that the minute moving pictures were a hit, filmmakers wanted to be positively indecent.
One of the earliest surviving examples of a British erotic film is A Woman Undressing – otherwise known as A Victorian Lady In Her Boudoir. Produced in 1896, and filmed by Esme Collings, the film does exactly what it says on the tin. A woman in her bedroom strips down to her slip. It’s not explicit in the sense of our modern standards, but for the time it was definitely racy.
Later films would add a bit more to the plot – particularly a husband who is waiting to ravish his newlywed wife. This was first conceived in 1896 French short film Le Coucher De La Mariée (known as either Bedtime For The Bride or The Bridegroom’s Dilemma). It sees a man and woman embrace before he is banished behind a screen as she undresses her many layers for bed. The husband tries to take sneaky looks over the screen. The surviving footage is grainy, but the concept is simple and was made multiple times.
In 1898, Haydon and Urry’s The Bride’s First Night makes the acting over-the-top as the man gets increasingly excited over the scene unfolding before him. The Bridegroom’s Dilemma was replicated in 1899 by Georges Méliès. The film is lost, but there is a surviving flip book. However, it is worth noting that the famed French filmmaker added another woman into the mix, to help our bride out of her clothing. Oo-er.
Side note: An 1897 outtake survives from an unknown film by French company Pathe Freres, of a bedroom set collapsing on a woman. With the woman in her underwear and under the sheets, and there a chair behind a screen, one can presume that this was part of a large film of the same narrative.
Some may think a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking in the Victorian era, but it wasn’t as damned as some may think. Here in G. A. Smith’s film, 1900’s As Seen Through The Telescope, a man views a woman’s ankle through a telescope. That is not the spice, however; the action of another gentlemen stroking the woman’s leg affectionately is the allure here.
G. A. Smith had a penchant for pervy old men in his films, and one particular comedic short is his film Two Old Sports, which sees the titular pair look over a magazine with a somewhat seductive picture of an actress, and soon they are sharing jokes and laughing.
Finally, a bit of adultery. The Unfaithful Wife (1900) sees the titular spouse (played by a man) cheat on her husband with a soldier. When the husband returns – a police officer no less – the soldier hides behind a door. The comedic short, which sees the police as buffoons, was created by pioneers Mitchell and Kenyon. Bamforth company’s 1900 film Lover Kisses Husband sees a woman kissing her lover on the street, when the husband appears, he takes her place, and the lover goes to plant one on him instead. He is pushed into the water pump for his troubles.
All these shorts lead me to conclude that the Victorians weren’t as stuffy as you’d first think, and even in the 1890s they were having some sexy fun with cinema.
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