Ten X-certificate moments in silent cinema

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by noted silent cinema musicians Neil Brand and Philip Carli. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

There are more of these X-rated moments than you might think and people will have plenty of their own choices according to taste, shockability and squeamishness. By definition, all silent cinema is pre-Code and Will Hays was brought into the Hollywood fold as censor in the 1920s not just because of Hollywood’s own scandals, but because filmmakers were pursuing stronger, more adult storylines and nobody seemed to be taking the lead on what was acceptable. So, by way of giving the lie to the idea that silent cinema is somehow cinema in adolescence, here’s a list of some memorable times when the boundaries were pushed, in descending chronological order.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

And yes it was also released as a silent! A soldier grips the barbed wire during an attack, a shell explodes and only his arms remain hanging from the wire. One of many unforgettably horrific images from this great film.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

The brothel dance as the couples peel off to their various rooms is as easygoingly suggestive as you could want and easily more “real” than anything Von Stroheim could have dreamed of. Mind you, Louise Brooks would undoubtedly have made it into this list somewhere.

Joan Crawford and Norman Kerry in The Unknown (1927)
Joan Crawford and Norman Kerry in The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown (1927)

Having cut off his own arms for love of Joan Crawford (who can’t bear to be touched), murderer Alonzo (Lon Chaney) has to watch her responding sensually to the arms of a circus Strong Man (Norman Kerry) she has fallen in love with. Again, most Chaney films would qualify for this list, particularly the Tod Browning ones, for a whole different set of reasons. The Penalty, Victory, West of Zanzibar, all feature scenes or entire plotlines that would have trouble getting past the censor five years later. Meanwhile, Joan Crawford had already made at least one appearance in an extant pornographic film while still a struggling actress.

Captain Salvation (1927)
Captain Salvation (1927)

Captain Salvation (1927)

An X-certificate intertitle in which Pauline Starke screams at Lars Hanson “My step-pa ‘helped’ me once – a good thing the baby died!”

Flame of the Yukon (1926)
The Flame of the Yukon (1926)

The Flame of the Yukon (1926)

A fiery end for the villain in this movie (if memory serves) who is set alight by a kerosene lamp thrown at him, the flames only being quenched when he falls to his death.

Behind the Door (1919)
Behind the Door (1919)

Behind the Door (1919)

With memories of WW1 still fresh in the minds of audience and makers alike, this uncompromising tale of a husband’s bloodthirsty revenge on brutal German submariners who raped his wife ends with the title “I tried to skin him alive but the sonofabitch died on me!”

Intolerance (1916)

DW Griffith gave Babylon the full treatment, including a bathing orgy with lovingly shot nudes. Even more so than was the case with Cecil B De Mille and scantily clad classical maidens, Griffith seems to have demanded jaw-dropping realism and sensuality from his cast.

The Cheat (1915)

Sessue Hayakawa brands Fannie Ward in unflinching close-up, because as he puts it, he brands “all his property …”

Hypocrites (1913)

Lois Weber’s film has a quite gorgeous “Naked Truth” wandering through most of the four allegorical reels. Although this was obviously intended to edify rather than titillate, audiences were unlikely to have been as artistically mature about this as Weber might have hoped. Mayor James Curley of Boston supposedly insisted that clothing be painted on her in every frame in order to get the film past the city censors.

An Interesting Story (1904)

A man gets run over flat by a steamroller in James Williamson’s An Interesting Story – OK, two cyclists inflate him back to life again, but think what a shock it would have been to audiences of the time!

For further reading, the authors recommend Kevin Brownlow’s superb Behind the Mask of Innocence and Matthew Sweet’s wonderful Shepperton Babylon.

By Neil Brand and Philip Carli.

Do you agree with Neil and Philip’s choices? Please share your suggestions below.

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7 thoughts on “Ten X-certificate moments in silent cinema”

  1. And of course, eight seconds of smiling topless girls [in color!] strewing flowers in front of the chariot procession, in Ben Hur. But that was just another day-shoot in Hollywood 🙂

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