Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Kasandra O’Connell, Head of the IFI Irish Film Archive, talks about erotic films from the archives as we launch the first of three months of seasons dedicated to excess, presenting examples of how cinema has taken on sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. January focuses on sex on film.

Sex in the Archives
Films with erotic content are as old as the medium itself, not long after the Lumière Brothers’ first public screening of moving images in December 1895, French filmmaker Eugene Pirou produced Le Coucher de la mariee (1896) in which Louise Willy performed the first strip tease on screen. Even the well-respected Georges Méliès was in on the act, being one of the first filmmakers to present nudity on screen in Après le bal (1897) which he advertised in his film catalogue as being ideal for bachelor parties (Robinson, 1993). The silent era of film was a time of great experimentation and discovery for viewer and creator alike and the success of these early risqué films encouraged the creation, in parallel with the mainstream movie business, of a lesser known, but almost as prolific industry producing erotic one-reel films for private consumption.

Le Coucher de la mariee

Having discovered a lucrative market for this suggestive material, by the mid-noughties directors in France, Germany and the United States had progressed to making one-reel films that included live sex acts with prostitutes, which were shown at bachelor parties and in brothels. The earliest surviving examples of these explicit films are Argentina’s El Sartorio (1907) Germany’s Am Abend (1910) and the American stag movie A Free Ride (1915). These one-reels were often bought by wealthy private collectors, who in turn commissioned more erotic movies and so fuelled a secret industry. Collections of this nature can be found in most affluent countries with a tradition of filmmaking and surprisingly some of the largest collections exist in predominantly Roman Catholic nations such as Mexico, France, Spain and Austria (Swanson, 2005).

Après le bal

Amateur Erotica
The IFI Irish Film Archive collections, however, are not renowned for their scandalous content and unlike many other national film archives we have no home-made or semi-professional erotica lurking in our vaults. Of our amateur collections the most provocative material we hold is from the collection of Lord Desmond Leslie. Lord Leslie, whose family estate is at Glaslough, County Monaghan, was a novelist, filmmaker, composer, Spitfire pilot and spiritualist (Daily Telegraph, 2001). Leslie was known as a bit of a philanderer and his love of women certainly translates into his filmmaking activities. One his films, Sally, features a kittenish young lady whom Lord Leslie met on a skiing holiday in 1955. He films her in various stages of playful undress while she strikes cheesecake glamour poses and the sequence finishes with her wearing nothing but a see through nightdress. The film while certainly suggestive could hardly be described as more than mildly erotic.

In the main the only time we encounter objections regarding the sexual content of films in our collection is when they are exhibited in foreign territories. The Archive sends Irish films to venues all around the world and we have to be mindful of the mores and restrictions in each country. In 2004, a significant cultural festival called ‘China Ireland’ proved very difficult to programme with China’s strict censorship laws precluding almost every modern Irish film from being shown. Things were taken to the extreme when a festival print of When Brendan Met Trudy was unceremoniously relieved of its sex scenes in Kuala Lumpar. The projectionist physically cut them out of the film and they had to be painstakingly re-inserted by Archive staff when the print returned from its travels. Occurrences such as these are uncommon, with little of the material in our collections giving cause for moral outrage, however our collection does contain two films that on their release failed to receive certificates from the Film Censor of the day. 

She Didn’t Say No
In 2001 the Irish Film Archive acquired a print of She Didn’t Say No (1958) thanks to research of American Academic Ann Butler. Based on Fermoy-born Una Troy's novel, We Are Seven, the film depicts the lives of the Monaghan family, six children and their unmarried mother Bridget, in the town of Doon, County Waterford. The children's various fathers are local men - who attempt to find a way to rid the town of their embarrassment.  

Although She Didn't Say No was scheduled to be produced in Ireland, permission was refused just weeks before shooting was due to begin and production was moved to Cornwall and Elstree Studios in the UK. According to Ann Butler, who under took extensive research into the making of the film while researching a biography about Troy, the film is disconcertingly based on a true story. In reality Moll McCarthy from County Tipperary was denounced by the local parish priest for fathering children by a variety of men and accused in court of being an immoral mother. Although she kept her children, her home was burned to the ground, leaving her fighting for compensation for many years. She was murdered in 1940 allegedly by Harry Gleeson, who was believed to be the father of her final child. The case caused great controversy at the time, with many believing that Gleeson, who was eventually hanged, had been wrongly accused.

The furore that occurred when the film received its first outing at the 1958 Brussels World Film Festival resulted in headlines denouncing the film as immoral and a slur against the Irish. The Irish Department of External Affairs called for it to be banned and due to this media and government outrage the film was never submitted to the Irish censor. The unconventional Monaghan family circumstances aside, the film itself is an enjoyable piece of whimsy and one wonders if the strength of feeling that prevented it being made or released in Ireland would have been so strong if it had not been based on such a controversial true case.

Lee Dunne
Several of the more controversial films in the Archive collections are adaptations of works by the Dublin author Lee Dunne, who has been described as ‘the most banned author in Ireland’ and deposited in the Archive by American/Irish film collector, Paul Balbirnie.

Lee Dunne

I Can’t I Can’t..., or Wedding Night as it was called in the USA, is a curious drama that is very much of its time (it screens at the IFI on January 22nd). It features popular British stars of the day Denis Waterman and Tessa Wyatt as a newly married Catholic couple unable to consummate their marriage due to the young wife’s fear of sex, which is a result of her mother dying in child birth on her own wedding day. The inclusion of topics that were generally off limits to Irish audiences, such as birth control, miscarriage and the sexual obligations of women within marriage, resulted in this film not being screened in Ireland after the year of its release until 2011, when the IFI Irish Film Archive accepted a print from Paul Balbirnie and screened the film as part of the IFI’s annual Open Day programme.

I Can't I Can't...

Paddy, Lee Dunne’s film adaptation of his controversial book Goodbye to the Hill was banned by the Irish censor due to its sexual frankness. As with I Can’t I Can’t... a copy of the film  was found in America by film collector Paul Balbirnie and it was added to the IFI Irish Film Archive collection. The risqué story depicts Abbey actor Des Cave as a sort of ‘Irish Alfie’ who spends most of his time seducing a succession of women around Dublin. No-strings sexual exploits including three-in-a-bed antics, whips and paid afternoon romps with Maureen Toal are the order of the day. Its carefree depiction of sex and on-screen nudity resulted in Paddy being refused a screening certificate when it was submitted to the Censor in 1970.


On acquiring copies of these films the Archive submitted them to the current Censor John Kelleher in order to allow them to be include in the Archive’s programme of screenings at the IFI. In 2006, Paddy was able to receive its Irish premiere when the Irish Film Censor’s office issued the film with a 12A rating, while commenting that ‘by today’s standards it is charmingly old–fashioned’ and that ‘it was banned in a different era, a very different time’ (Sunday Independent). She Didn’t Say No was presented with a PG rating in 2003 allowing it to be legitimately screened for the first time in four decades - surely a sign of changing Irish attitudes to sex on film. 

Kasandra O’Connell
Head of the IFI Irish Film Archive

Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is a three-month season dedicated to examining how cinema has taken on sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. January focuses on sex on film.

I Can't I Can't... will show at the IFI at 18.30 on January 22nd as part of From the Vaults, our monthly screenings from the IFI Irish Film Archive.

This article was originally published in Film Ireland.

Bibliography and further reading/viewing
Georges Méliès: Father of Film Fantasy - David Robinson (London: BFI/MOMI, 1993) 

Good Old Naughty Days - Polisson et Galipettes - DVD

Home Viewing: Pornography and Amateur Film Collections, A Case Study Dwight Swanson, 
The Moving Image - Volume 5, Number 2, University of Minnesota Press - 2005

Pornography - The Secret History of Civilisation - Marilyn Milgrom, Channel 4 Press, 2001

Leslie Obituary - Daily Telegraph -22/11/2001

Paddy Rides Again and Again and Again - Sunday Independent - 13/8/2006

Material relating to the She Didn’t Say No outcry can be found in the paper collection of the IFI Irish Film Archive, the originals are in the National Archives and National Library

Thanks to Ann Butler for her help in finding She Didn’t Say No and uncovering its fascinating history