The Most Risqué Moments in Silent Cinema

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Pola Negri, one of silent cinema’s greatest femme fatales, would have turned 119 today. The Polish actress was known for her portrayal of exotic, strong women — but her big-screen performances were often overshadowed by her reported romances with the era’s biggest stars, like Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino (who she described as the love of her life). The vampy Negri had more than one run-in with censors, but the actress was hardly alone. Here are some of silent cinema’s most risqué moments — from the decade’s earliest nude scenes to real-life lovers’ screen-melting kisses.

“According to Edison film historian C. Musser, Spanish dancer Carmencita was the first woman to appear in front of an Edison motion picture camera,” writes the Library of Congress. “Six months before filming, she had been performing at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall in New York City since February 1890.” The film was intended for Kinetoscope, but the dance was considered too provocative for mixed-sex audiences since Carmencita’s dress exposed her legs and undergarments as she moved.

The first striptease on film — and one of the earliest porn/stag movies — comes from French photographer, pornographer, and producer Eugène Pirou, called Le Coucher de la Mariée. Cabaret performer Louise Willy recreated an act from her stage performances, undressing behind a screen while a man pretends to read a newspaper. Only two minutes of the movie have survived. It was screened in Paris in 1896.

Georges Méliès’ 1897 short Après le bal also featured one of the earliest nude scenes in film.

And 1903’s From Show Girl to Burlesque Queen featured more teasing and stripping.

Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos, aka Fatima, was one of the earliest popular belly dancers, performing at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Belly dancing was still referred to as “coochie coochie” or “hoochie coochie” back then. A nickelodeon kinetoscope was created of the dancer, but it was censored due to her gyrating hips.

Annabelle Moore, aka “Peerless Annabelle,” was another early dancer who was filmed for male audiences.

“[A] scene from the New York stage comedy, The Widow Jones, in which [May] Irwin and [John] Rice starred,” writes the Library of Congress. “According to Edison film historian C. Musser, the actors staged their kiss for the camera at the request of the New York world newspaper, and the resulting film was the most popular Edison Vitascope film in 1896.” The Roman Catholic Church called for censorship since kissing in public at that time was a big no-no. Newspapers called for police to take action at the theaters that dared to screen it.

Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 melodrama The Cheat had a sensational debut, featuring sadomasochistic scenes, rape, marital scandal, racist casting (Japanese-Americans protested the portrayal of Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa as a villainous stereotype), pushing all the censorship buttons.

Anders als die Andern (aka Different From The Others), released in 1919, is considered the first representation of male homosexuality in a feature-length film, the first film featuring a gay bar, and the first to portray homosexuality sympathetically. Censors banned the movie, limiting the viewing of Anders als die Andern to doctors and medical researchers. Prints were later burned by the Nazis, and only one fragmented copy survived.

D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East exploited the naive country girl’s life gone wrong narrative, featuring illegitimate babies, jerky playboys, sham marriages, and the most betrayal the director could fit into 100 minutes. The film was censored, requiring dozens of cuts. Some versions removed any suggestions about an unwed mother, while others axed scenes of women smoking and saucy intertitles.

The Queen of Sheba, Fox Studios’ lost 1921 Betty Blythe film (originally written for Theda Bara), was another first in nudity on the big screen. Blythe became a sensation due to her topless scenes, and the provocative photos of the actress revealing her barely there costumes were equally risqué.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1924 film Michael (aka Mikaël) is one of the most influential early works in gay cinema. A famous painter falls for his young male model, but a swindling countess complicates their relationship. The movie was banned in France and didn’t see an American release for several years later, retitled Chained: The Story of the Third Sex.

Flesh and the Devil‘s gay subtext, real-life lover leads (a swoony Greta Garbo and John Gilbert), and romantic affair narrative pushed a few boundaries at the time, but also helped make the movie a massive hit.