Several weeks ago, in celebration of Valentine’s Day, The Magic Lantern Podcast posted an episode called “The Birds and the Bees,” focused on how we learned about sex at the movies. This episode made me recall some of the film experiences that were part of my own cinematic sex education. (Don’t worry – it’s not going to get too salacious…)
If you’ve read this blog for awhile, it comes as no surprise that I grew up at the movies, so learning about the birds and the bees while at the cinema was pretty much inevitable. You may also know that my brother is 12 years older than me, quite a difference, which figures prominently in my first encounter with on-screen nudity.
I can’t remember the film’s title (perhaps some of you can), but on this particular occasion, my brother took me to an R-rated Western. This was at our local movie house, The Town Theater in Forest, Mississippi. I suppose whoever was running the ticket counter that day probably knew my brother, knew that he was acting as my “guardian,” and didn’t think twice about it. All I can remember about the film is one scene involving a villain ripping the dress off a woman, exposing her breasts. (I want to say it was a dress the female character had just made for herself, but I could be mistaken.) In my mind, the bad guy was played by Anthony James (the guy working at the diner from In the Heat of the Night) or someone very much like him. The good guy (I have no idea who the actor was) tried to intervene, but got punched out by the bad guy and I think fell onto a pile of hay, suggesting that this entire scenario happened in a barn. The nudity didn’t last long, but it sure stayed in my memory for a long time. I knew even then there was something very wrong about this combination of nudity and violence, that the disturbing aspects of the scene far outweighed the excitement.
I was probably six or seven when this first instance of on-screen nudity happened (the MPAA ratings began in November, 1968 when I was six) and I was very confused. First, I had no idea they could show naked people in movies. I’d seen other Westerns before and had never seen this. Was this something new in Westerns? And was violence always a part of nudity in movies? I hoped not. Would my parents find out what I’d seen and forbid me from going to see Westerns? Or from movies period?
Sometime later (perhaps a matter of weeks or months) I found myself at the Town Theater on a Saturday afternoon for a horror double feature. I don’t remember the second feature, but the first was The Crimson Cult (1968) starring Boris Karloff (in one of his final films, and not a very good one) and Christopher Lee.
This film (also known as Curse of the Crimson Altar) contained a scene with Virginia Wetherell reading in bed. She hears a sound, drops the magazine and moves at the same time, briefly exposing a breast. (I revisited the film as an adult many years later and discovered that I had originally missed the film’s opening scene, which included partial nudity.)
This scene contained no violence and was immediately more interesting. Would it happen again in the same movie? In other movies? What were the rules? So now you could see naked people in Westerns AND horror movies… Obviously the rules had changed. Did everyone else know about this? Certainly my parents didn’t. If other kids were blabbing this top secret information to their parents it was only a matter of time before mine found out and I’d never be allowed to go to the movies again. I kept quiet.
Then something happened at the Town Theater, probably around 1971 or 1972. I can’t remember the title, but I know it was a horror movie. In a bedroom, a woman wearing a nightgown was looking alluringly at a man. (The audience knew he was the killer, but she didn’t know it.) Just as she began to remove the nightgown, the screen went dark. It wasn’t part of the movie; the film just stopped projecting.
Cries and moans of disappointment rose up from the audience. It took several minutes, but when the movie finally continued, it was well beyond the end of the previous scene and on to the next one. My friends and I thought we’d been gypped, but didn’t think about it much. Until it happened again. And again.
These weren’t R-rated movies, but some of them (I know now) were European horror films from countries where brief nudity wasn’t a big deal. But after the second time of the film “breaking” at a particular scene, we knew the theater was engaging in some censorship shenanigans, possibly due to complaints and/or pressure from someone in the community, I don’t know. (Remember, I lived in a small town.) But it happened with regularity for awhile.
I’ve mentioned before that I went to the movies just about every weekend. I didn’t care what was playing: horror films, Westerns, musicals, drama, science fiction… Whatever they were showing, I’d watch it. So when I went to see a movie called To Find a Man (1972) as a 10-year-old, I had no idea what Pamela Sue Martin and Darren O’Connor were doing in trying to find a doctor who would help them by performing something called an abortion. I knew enough to know that this was a pretty serious matter, but was confused by all the comedy in the film. This was very confusing. (I haven’t seen the film since 1972, but I wonder if Juno was somewhat modeled on To Find a Man.)
By this time, interesting movies started showing up on pre-cable TV. I remember seeing The Graduate (1967) on TV, probably around 1973 or so. I knew enough to know that I wasn’t going to see nudity on TV, but I also realized that all this talk about “affairs” and lines like “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me… Aren’t you?” weren’t typical for TV. Although the TV version contained no nudity, I was somehow more intrigued by this movie than the others previously mentioned. I think this was the first time I began to understand that the suggestion of sex could be as powerful (or even more so) than nudity itself.
As the late 60s turned into the early 70s, I saw more films that dealt with sexuality in ways I didn’t always understand, films like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Stand Up and Be Counted (1972), The Heartbreak Kid (1973), and many others. And those were just the “A” pictures.
The Town Theater screened plenty of “B” pictures, most of which were rated PG (or GP) but none of them grabbed the attention of me and my friends quite like the opening minutes of the low-budget action-adventure film Wonder Women (1973) directed by Robert Vincent O’Neill. No, this had nothing to do with the comic book character, but was a wild story of a crazy surgeon who lived on an exotic island with his own female martial arts bodyguards. The movie opened with topless women filmed swimming underwater in the surgeon’s swimming pool. Once they emerged from the swimming pool, an action scene began and you saw only their backs. This was a PG movie, so we figured they could only be shown topless while underwater.
Then something bizarre and totally unexpected happened. (The following includes a bit of a diversion away from the main topic, but I hope you won’t mind too much.) Many of you know that in addition to growing up in the South, I also come from a strong religious background. My mother and I attended a small church which had recently hired a new pastor. This pastor one day told us about two very interesting upcoming events. One was a new movie called Walking Tall (1973) that was going to be playing at the Town Theater very soon. Our pastor implored everyone in the church to go see the movie, even kids! He told us up front that it was rated R for good reason, but that we should all see it. Why? That brings me to the other event. Our pastor had invited his personal friend Buford Pusser, the man Walking Tall was based on, to speak at our church.
Everyone from the church went to see the movie. Well, mostly everyone; I’m pretty sure parents didn’t bring their very young children, but I saw lots of kids my age (11 at the time) there. My eyes were glued to the screen, but I was also cognizant that my mom was seated right next to me. When Brenda Benet walked into the bar during the first half of the movie, wearing a top that was completely see-through, my head just about exploded. There I was, watching a practically topless woman on screen, sitting right next to my mother and everyone from my church!!! But remarkably, I never heard anyone (including my mom) say anything negative about the experience. I think that everyone was so knocked out over Pusser’s passion for doing the right thing that they were okay about the nudity and violence in the film. (This suggests a slightly different topic I hope to cover in an upcoming post.)
L – Baker, R – Pusser
A few weeks later when Pusser appeared at our church, the place was mobbed; the whole town showed up. The man indeed walked tall (especially to an 11-year-old) and looked much rougher than Joe Don Baker had onscreen. I can’t remember what he said during his speech, but he indicated that his work in cleaning up that particular part of Tennessee was far from over. He gave our pastor a replica of the “big stick” that he used (similar to the one Baker wielded in the film) and departed to return home.
We were all saddened to learn a few months later that Pusser had been killed in an accident and that his car may have been tampered with.
Back to our main topic… In a pre-Internet world, you often didn’t know what might show up in a movie unless someone told you. Sometimes you’d be surprised and not always in a good way. For a young kid like me, a movie like Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973) was very confusing. Why was XXX in the title? Was it rated XXX? No, it was rated PG, but the film contained some disturbing sexual scenes that I didn’t understand. This wasn’t something you could go home and talk about with mom and dad, at least not in our house. As kids, we usually only had each other to talk to.
One person who helped me and some friends understand some of what was going on was my pastor. Now before I go any further, let me assure you that I’m not out to convert anyone. That’s not my job. I’m just telling my story and my story is this: our pastor was a young guy (probably only about 10 years older we were) with a young family. He loved and understood pop culture, especially movies and was always willing to listen to our questions, thoughts, concerns, and fears. I think that’s the key: he listened. Not only that, being a young guy himself, he understood. I’ll always be thankful for the relationship we had with him. He was probably the only adult we felt comfortable talking with about this stuff.
There were confusing and disturbing movies dealing with sex (even the PG ones), but there were also other movies that were lighter, suggesting sex as a beautiful thing to be enjoyed by two people without confusion, violence or danger. It was tough putting all these different types of movies together, trying to make sense of it all. I can only imagine how much tougher it is now with easier access than ever to movies (and more). In writing this I’m realizing that I could also do a separate post about learning about violence at the movies. Perhaps another time…
Thanks for reading (and thanks to The Magic Lantern from bringing all these memories back). Looking back, I’m so glad adolescence is over. Wow… There are more movies and more stories, but I’d love to hear yours.
Photos: The Magic Lantern Podcast, Live Science, Alex Bledsoe, Find a Grave, WRB Photography, The Film Spectrum, Cinemasterpieces, Temple of Schlock