All captures, collages and comments in this post are by Brainscan. He also created the accompanying film clips in the members’ area.
The First three parts of the series are found as follows:
Part 1: 1932. Peak Pre-Code Talkies.
Part 2: The Other Pre-Code Talkies, 1929-1934
Part 3: 1927. The Swan Song of the Silents
The Early Silents
If you look at earlier films, you run into something of a pattern. Take the 1926 production of Faust and the 1925 production of Ben Hur.
In Faust, Camilla Horn appears very scantily clad,
and there was an uncredited actress topless in a street scene.
The exposure of uncredited actresses also occurs in two scenes of Ben Hur.
It seems D. W. Griffith started the whole thing in 1916’s Intolerance, in which a scene from Ancient Babylon shows off several uncredited actresses as a way to introduce some salacious content in some suitable form (Babylonians were bad, ‘mkay?)
The two problems with silent films are the scarcity of surviving movies – age and a catastrophic fire mean many are simply lost – and the poor quality of the prints that did survive. So Lil Dagover’s topless scene in Between Two Worlds is both brief and the dickens to work with because of print quality.
Her surviving still pictures give us a good idea of how attractive she was.
The real shame is with the movies made by Betty Blythe. She was attractive and not the least bit bashful both in posing topless
and in appearing in movies with very little on. 1925’s She is a wonderful example of how little she wore on screen, which she acknowledged by saying only her husband and her director could tell her what to wear. The quality of the print for She is horrid, but at least it survived.
The Queen of Sheba did not survive- at least no one has found a print – and all we’re left with is a host of production stills that show Betty under something we would scarcely call a wardrobe. She was quoted as saying she wore more than 40 outfits in that movie, but had she worn them all at the same time, they would not have kept her warm.
If we go back much farther we run into Angele Guys in J’accuse, Gloria Swanson in Male and Female, and Julia Faye in Don’t Change Your Husband, all in 1919.
and Gloria is in a bathtub
(but some strategic movement by her maids keeps her scene unrevealing).
And then there is Theda Bara in 1918’s Salome
and 1917’s Cleopatra,
both of which I believe are lost films, with only the above production stills to hint at what they might have been.
Finally, there are two actresses in these years that compete for the title of earliest sex goddess. Audrey Munson (“America’s first Supermodel”) and Annette Kellerman appear in movies where they play artist’s models or some such stationary and partially clad figures.
Munson in Heedless Moths (1921)
Munson in Inspiration (1915)
Munson in Purity (1916)
Kellerman in A Daughter of the Gods (1916)
But you have to go all the way back to 1900 to find an uncredited actress wearing what looks to be a body suit in The Temptation of St. Anthony to find perhaps the first on-screen semi-nudity. Again, the problem of lost films and of prints in really bad shape leaves only still photos to admire.
So, fine – even the earliest and best directors saw the wisdom of filming attractive women in various states of undress, all of which would lead to the revelations of the Pre-Code Talkie Era. Then along came enforcement of the Hays Code and what followed was a grim 30 years for those of us in the Funhouse and Other Crap readership.