Our great-grandparents were rather less prudish than we might imagine. Decades before pornography became big business, naughty French people were making dirty films for the fun of it. In The Good Old Naughty Days, a collection of 12 silent films from the earliest years of the 20th century, nuns, priests, teachers – even a dog – play out sexual dramas in a wide variety of inventive positions, locations and logistical arrangements. And, unlike the stars of today’s films for the one-handed viewer, everyone looks like they’re enjoying themselves. Even the dog.
“The difference is money,” says Michel Reilhac, the French director and producer who put The Good Old Naughty Days together. “These films were made as a joke by people who had no idea of performing to the camera, and you can tell: the way they carry themselves is entirely natural. By the 1930s people realised that they could make money with these films and they became another thing entirely. The charm and innocence was gone.”
Reilhac doesn’t fit into the conventional image of a pornographer. A polite, courteous, almost lavender man, he seems the model of bourgeois propriety. He shares an immaculately smart converted warehouse in Paris’s chic 9th arrondissement with his wife and three teenage children, who are all about to leave for their second home in Kenya. But Reilhac’s film is more social history than pornography, showing an uninhibited side of working-class life from the beginning of the century not captured elsewhere. It gives us a relationship with long-dead people who would have otherwise only been represented by highly formal photo ]graphs, if at all. And since the average French man has always been able to look at naked women without exploding into fits of giggles or frenzied lust, The Good Old Naughty Days has been accepted in its native country as the valid historical document that it is.
The story of The Good Old Naughty Days begins in the attic room of what Reilhac coyly terms “the house of a very respectable family in Paris” – so respectable that the family have remained anonymous for fear of scandal being attached to their good name. Following the death of the patriarch, relatives discovered a stash of 30 one-reel dirty movies, dating back to the turn of the century, hidden in a secret cupboard in his study. None of the family had known about the existence of these films, which were hurriedly turned over to the National Film Archive.
“I was organising an international festival of film archives,” says Reilhac on how he heard about the old man’s private passion. “We had invited the French actor Pascal Gregory to do some programming and he wanted to screen a pornographic movie. It sounded like cheap provocation to me, but a friend mentioned these porn films from the silent days that were really funny. So I called up the National Film Archive and began to learn about this world that none of us knew about.”
The films have very little in common with conventional pornography and a lot to do with the frank but double-sided attitude towards sexuality in early 20th-century France. The crew of conventional films made the blue movies on their days off: they would borrow some costumes, a camera and a reel of film, find the nearest whorehouse and pay a couple of prostitutes a few francs to star alongside them in comic but extremely explicit sexual farces. The prostitutes’ fee made up the entire cost of the movie. One of the films, The Musketeer’s Dinner, features a French infantryman who has a meal in an outdoor restaurant before two waitresses decide to make his lunch a highly memorable one. It was made during the filming of a 1920 film, The Three Musketeers, in the Paris suburb of Redon, and its happy star would have been a jobbing electrician or a cameraman taking advantage of his boss’s day off.
The men and women who took part in the films were not professional actors. They had no concept of the camera as something that could make their image live outside of themselves – there is none of the self-consciousness that you might have expected because they had no idea that anyone would ever see these films, and they did not have the relationship with a camera that we have today. The most artful it gets is the way the women make themselves alluring by arching their arms behind their head and languidly reclining on sofas; a likely nod to Manet’s nudes of the same period. “The films give a perspective on our great-grandparents’ attitudes to sex, which were that it’s very much like eating and drinking,” says Reilhac. “Sexual desire was a natural thing, and whatever was at hand to satisfy that desire was fair game.”
The films poke fun at authority figures. In 1925’s Abbot Bitt at the Convent two nuns forget their sacred vows over a church altar; a youth spies on them through a hole in the wall and when Abbott Bitt arrives to discover this sacrilegious scene he starts buggering him. In 1920’s School Spanking a teacher finds novel ways of disciplining her girls, before the headmaster arrives to prove himself equally ill-equipped to restore order While lesbian scenes are often provided for the titillation of straight men in modern porn films, homosexual ones are rare. But these films were an extension of the clandestine world of the brothel, where society’s conventions were overturned. At a time when there was no formal concept of homosexuality as a lifestyle choice, most brothels offered young men as well as women. And the films show strong women in control, leading the way, and apparently taking as much pleasure as the men. Perhaps inevitably, the films were co-opted by the brothels themselves.
Knowledge of the blue movies filtered out through the prostitutes borrowed from the huge Parisian whorehouses that the vast majority of French men visited. The brothels were a legal and important part of society that was accepted if not necessarily talked about, and most men had two sexual lives: with their wives and with their prostitutes. As young men were expected to know what to do with their (in theory) virgin brides come the wedding night, elder relatives would take them to the brothel to receive their sexual education. There are letters from Marcel Proust to his grandfather in which the great novelist complains of his father’s refusal to fund his weekly visit to the whorehouse. The films were to provide an important function for those yet to be initiated into the sexual life.
“The films started to be shown in Paris brothels,” explains Reilhac. “We found printed programmes that showed how they were screened at regular hours in the waiting rooms – young men would find out how sex went by watching them before losing their virginity to a prostitute.” Wealthy private collectors, who in turn commissioned more dirty movies, bought some of the films – the grandfather of this respectable family house was one, as was King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who had a passion for women with enormous breasts. In this way the pornographic film industry was born.
The reactions to Reilhac’s film say a lot about the sexual mores of the countries it has been shown in. French audiences have been made up of couples and friends who have found the film hilarious, but in Spain it has been predominantly single men who have gone to see it in secret. “The word of mouth publicity that we were relying on didn’t happen there,” sighs Reilhac. “There was a shame element attached to it, which I think has to do with Spain being a Catholic country. The scenes with the nuns and the priest were a big problem because that was perceived as an attack on the church. I had to take out a sequence where the nuns were having penetration with candles. It is illegal to show a desecration of holy objects in Spain.”
In the UK the film will be released with an R-18 certificate, the designation hitherto confined to hardcore porn only available in licensed sex shops. This is the first time for over a decade that this sort of film has been given a mainstream cinema release. But the chief concern at early screenings here was over the welfare of a dog that provides a service to a lady of dubious moral fibre. “We had a screening at the Chelsea Arts Club in London,” says Reilhac. “Two women were very upset about the dog, and they kept asking if it was harmed in any way. I told them that as far as I could tell that little dog was very happy. Thank God I took out the scene with the duck.” Nothing is done to the dog; it is the dog that does the doing. Is something done to the duck? “Oh yes, most definitely.”