Lure of the Forbidden

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Almost 40 years before Ana met Christian, there was The Story of O, as sold in this vintage Italian movie poster.

I’m not sure how the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon happened. It’s a mystery to me how this exercise in juvenile erotica found its way into supermarkets and other retailers across America. In my long and checkered literary career, I have been an erotica-for-hire writer, and out of curiosity read 50 Shades. I was appalled, not because of the salacious subject matter, or because the depiction of women might set their cause back a couple generations, or even because the writing lacked sophistication. I started flinging 50 Shades around the room because of the presentation of Christian Grey as a dominant. Kids out there trying this writing thing at home: your characters have to be consistent, and no dominant male acts like Christian Grey acts in this story—it is a cloistered adolescent female’s imagining of what a dominant male would be like as he is “tamed” by a girl who in real life would bore the guy stupid in a couple of dates.

The writer in me applauds E.L. James for capturing lightning in a bottle and selling a gajillion copies of her B&D trilogy. Somewhere there’s another book waiting to be written called “Revenge of a Wallflower” where we learn about E.L.’s upbringing and long-ago snubbing by a bad boy who dumped her after a couple of dates and thus the 50 Shades phenomenon was born.

However, I’m not really here to talk about 50 Shades of Grey. We’ve heard enough about it all month. As I sit here and write in the pre-dawn murk of a frozen Friday the Thirteenth, this picture is about to shatter box-office records in these United States, riding a wave of hype that goes far beyond merely trailers on TV. There are 50 Shades tie ins across the straight-laced retail world; 50 Shades of nail polish, 50 Shades hairstyles; 50 Shades shoes. It’s being pitched on QVC and via email, and I get the feeling that somewhere, one-time movie flakmeisters like Russell Birdwell and A-Mike Vogel are beaming. Today’s blockbuster is the latest in a long line of pseudo-kink that promises the forbidden, lures you inside, and then laughs all the way to the bank as you stumble out of the theater wondering how you had been hoodwinked.

In my misspent youth, the X on a movie poster always enticed me. Of course, I’m far too young to have seen in first-run the films I’m going to mention. But…

Midnight Cowboy, starring my “twin brother” Jon Voight, proved to be an interesting picture but not the Dante’s Inferno of naked flesh that I envisioned.

Emanuelle was my first exposure to simulated sex, but today has a sanitary sweetness about it.

The Story of O offered a more realistic dominant-submissive story than what you will see this evening. In fact, save yourself 40 bucks and rent The Story of O. If Ana had a worldly grandmother, it would be the girl code-named O.

Last Tango in Paris was utterly boring and seeing dissipated Marlon Brando naked upset my stomach.

I won’t waste your time relating my frustration at Crown International sexploitation pictures that swindled me, like The Teacher and The Stepmother. Only A Clockwork Orange felt like an X to me even as a kid, and that wasn’t because of the sex but rather the ultra-violence.

There’s a sucker born every minute, and I was it. Finally I gave up on pictures that were sold as smut but never fit the bill and saved my money by avoiding Nine 1/2 Weeks until I could rent it on VHS for a buck. All I remember about it now is that it unspooled so slowly that I knew where the name came from. It was also relatively tame and I couldn’t understand much of Mickey Rourke’s dialogue because he’s a mumbler. (I spared myself entirely the experience of yet Another Nine 1/2 Weeks.)

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

From Showmen, Sell It Hot: Baiting the lure with “It” way back in 1932.

Greenbriar blogger John McElwee wrote a fantastic coffee-table book about showmanship in Hollywood’s Golden Era in which he examines the production of classic pictures and the ways they were sold to the masses by people like A-Mike Vogel. In Showmen, Sell It Hot! there’s a chapter called Titillated to Distraction detailing the lure of the forbidden in Hollywood’s naughty pre-Code years of the early 1930s. I’m reminded looking at McElwee’s work that in terms of attitudes about sex, America hasn’t come very far in 80 years. We were spawned of Puritans after all, making forbidden sex practices repugnant and therefore all the more irresistible.

As documented in Showmen, the 1932 feature Bird of Paradise “promised island beauty Dolores Del Rio au natural and indeed delivered via nude swim scenes.” Other examples by the author: “’Give me a job—at any price,’ says Loretta Young to Warren William in a teaser ad for Employees’ Entrance, and by February 1933 customers knew Warner Bros. wouldn’t let them down. Hold Your Man bade audiences to ‘Learn how to do it in one easy lesson,’ with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow more than capable instructors.”

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

This still from Virtue showing Carole Lombard and Mayo Methot appeared in the risqué movie magazine, Film Fun. As per usual, the picture itself didn’t sizzle.

The Carole Lombard of Fireball fame posed with Mayo Methot for a lingerie shot that remains today pretty suggestive as they were hyping the 1933 Columbia picture Virtue. It didn’t matter that Virtue was bland stuff; by the time a healthy American male found this out, the theater already had his money.

An ad for the Barbara Stanwyck picture Baby Face depicted Missy Stanwyck in a provocative pose beside an ad line that read, “She used everything she had … to get everything men had … She stopped at nothing and made ‘It’ pay.” And audiences knew what ‘It’ was, even in 1932. In all caps below the credits was a sobering warning: PLEASE DO NOT BRING YOUR CHILDREN.

I don’t know how many of you will queue up to see 50 Shades of Grey today or over the weekend, but if and when you do, be aware that you are carrying on a proud tradition that goes back as far as the motion picture itself. You have been summoned into the dark to see forbidden things. Enjoy whatever salacious moments you can wring out of this picture, because odds are you will return to the open air a little worldly wiser … by feeling hoodwinked yet again.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

One more from Showmen, Sell It Hot: Joan Blondell was a nice girl selling naughty, pre-Code style. I can’t figure out, is she leaving a little or a lot to the imagination? Or is her expression merely saying, “Look out, people! Your wallets are being lightened!”

4 comments

  1. I was around age twelve and light years away from sexual exploits when I saw 91/2 WEEKS. Even then I was like “this is that forbidden ‘dirty movie’ I’ve heard about?”

    The hype around 50 SHADES is just that, hype. Anything becomes exciting if you talk it up enough. (Also, I love that shot of Joanie.)

  2. Bigger box office than Avatar, Titanic, GWTW adjusted for inflation? I’m so out of the loop on this book and movie. I’ve read some of the hype and have certainly seen the teasers for the movie…uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, oh no no. I couldn’t tell you if this is good casting or bad. I haven’t seen the leads in anything else but he seems a little young to be a worldly billionaire. I guess for fans of the book and bondage, it’s worth a look-see and that will drive the dollars but after Valentine’s weekend, will it lose steam? I’ll get around to viewing it later. Maybe. But for straight up erotica, see Belle de Jour with Catherine Deneuve and ask yourself what’s inside the box?

    As for me I prefer a great sex scene with chemistry to an entire movie about sex. The train scene in Risky Business, most of the sex scenes in Henry and June, the chess game in the first Thomas Crown, the stairs in the second, the powerful sex scene in Don’t Look Now, and the best ever movie kiss between Grant and Bergman in Notorious.

  3. I just went out to dinner with hubby last night to catch a Valentine’s dinner before the next New England blizzard. We were surrounded by tables of giggling young women (probably barely over the 17 age limit to get into “50 Shades” without chaperone) celebrating their experience of either going to the movie or having just seen it. We tried not to let their childish prattle spoil our sushi. My own preference is to catch a pre-code, listen to the dialogue, and figure out what double entendre I missed on the first viewing. I never tire of “Baby Face,” and Michael Curtiz’s vehicle for Kay Francis, “Mandalay” is irresistibly trashy. Or the adolescent prurience of the early Warner’s Busby Berkeley numbers, during which hubs said, “Yeah, Busby was doing some serious drugs and drink in the bathtub when he came up with that one.” Did Fifty Shades invent sadomasochism — listen to Jean Harlow’s cries (of pleasure) in “Red-Headed Woman” when she seduces Chester Morris and then lets her slap her around. She’s also not some ego-less female “everywoman,” as she ends up in the end getting not her “just desserts,” but her sexy French chauffeur (Charles Boyer) and the booty (the money kind) of her elderly spouse. These ladies all end up “on top” and not just in a sexual way.

    Some of the post-codes can be more sexually disturbing in their implications, without all the displays of legs and lingerie; watch Basil Rathbone’s charming stalker in “Confession.” What is going on in Jane Bryan’s sexual psyche when he kisses her during a “music lesson,” and she stares at the white glow of a ceiling lamp? As evil as Rathbone is in this one, he is infinitely more appealing than doughy and virtuous Ian Hunter, who can’t bear the thought of Kay Francis being soiled by another man.

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