BBC Culture

Pushing the envelope: 10 movies that broke film taboos

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Christian Blauvelt is deputy editor of BBC Culture.

  • First swear word

    Many mistakenly believe that Rhett Butler’s final line in Gone With the Wind – “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” – is the first use of profanity in a Hollywood film. It’s not even the first time “damn” is used in that movie – someone refers to “damn Yankees” earlier on. Fourteen years before Gone With the Wind, in 1925, King Vidor’s silent war movie The Big Parade features a character shouting his rage against the enemy in a title card: “Goddamn their souls!” Joseph Strick’s adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1967 is the leading contender for the first film in which the f-word is spoken, though it was mouthed silently in the action film Sink the Bismarck! in 1960. (MGM)

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  • First sex scene

    An 18-year-old Austrian actress, Hedy Lamarr, burst onto the big screen in the Czech film Ecstasy in 1933. Two scenes in particular caused a sensation. In the first, Lamarr swims naked in a lake. In the second, she has sex with a man, in what is believed to be the first depiction of intercourse in a non-pornographic film. The camera is closely framed on Lamarr’s face during the scene, but her character is clearly in the throes of passion – cinema’s first sex scene is also likely its first depiction of female orgasm. (Alber Deane)

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  • First explicit gay character

    Homosexuality was arguably present in Hollywood and European films of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, but was only suggested in highly coded, oblique fashion. Underground experimental films, never meant for mainstream theatrical exhibition, could be more explicit. Even still, 20-year-old Kenneth Anger, one of the most prominent experimental filmmakers in the US, was prosecuted on obscenity charges after he made Fireworks in 1947, a movie about a closeted gay youth. The case went to the California Supreme Court, which ultimately acquitted Anger, ruling that the film was art and not pornography. (Mystic Fire Video)

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  • First interracial kiss

    The Hollywood production code instituted in 1934 forbade the depiction of interracial relationships. But several films began to challenge the code in the 1950s. Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss (1955) may feature the very first kiss between a white woman (Irene Kane) and a black man (Jamaican-born Frank Silvera). Silvera, who had very light skin, was not actually playing a black character in the film, and it is doubtful much of the audience at the time would have been aware he was of African descent. Island in the Sun, from 1957, came closer. It featured a romance between a mixed-race Caribbean girl (Dorothy Dandridge) and a British colonial official (John Justin), but rather than kiss, they merely nuzzle each other’s cheeks. It may be then that The Crimson Kimono (1959) is the first Hollywood movie to feature a true interracial kiss: between Japanese-American James Shigeta and Victoria Shaw. (AF archive/Alamy)

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  • First toilet flush

    Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho did not feature any nudity during its iconic shower scene – but another occurrence in the bathroom of the Bates Motel was just as transgressive: the first ever flushing of a toilet in a Hollywood film. A WC had appeared before, most notably in 1928’s The Crowd, but it had never been flushed. Audiences would have to wait another 10 years after Psycho for the first-ever glimpse of a man sitting in the loo, in Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970). (Paramount Pictures)

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  • First naked woman

    The lost film Inspiration (1915), about an artist looking for the perfect female model to be his muse, may have been the first non-pornographic depiction of the naked female form on screen. From the mid 1930s, only documentaries about indigenous peoples could smuggle naked women past censorship boards in the UK and US. Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom changed that in 1960, when Pamela Green’s character briefly exposed a breast. Though Ingmar Bergman had included female toplessness in Summer With Monika in 1953, as had Jean-Pierre Melville in Bob le Flambeur (1955), no English-language director followed suit until Powell, whose career was nearly ended by the controversy surrounding Peeping Tom. The first major Hollywood studio film after the end of the production code to feature toplessness was Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. (Astor Pictures Corporation)

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  • First uncut shooting death

    Hollywood’s production code established in 1934 that a shooting death must be filmed in two shots cut together: a shot of the gunman firing, then a shot of the victim falling. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, an Italian Western, broke that rule in one of its early scenes: the camera is placed behind Clint Eastwood’s character as he shoots a group of opponents in rapid succession and they fall in unison. It established the ‘first-person shooter’ effect, in which the audience shares the perspective of the person holding the gun, increasing our identification with the violence onscreen. (Moviestore collection Ltd/Alamy)

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  • First blood-soaked shooting

    A few shooting deaths with visible impact wounds were staged by directors in black-and-white films– most notably Alfred Hitchcock, for a particularly gruesome shooting death in Foreign Correspondent (1940). But they were rarer in colour films. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) changed all that when it showed a victim of the duo’s killing spree shot in the face. The film famously ends with Bonnie and Clyde riddled with bullets, their clothes ripped to shreds by the impact. Movie violence would never be as tame again. (Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy)

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  • First naked man

    Filmmakers have always been much more reluctant to show male nudity than female. And even when directors did include full-frontal shots of unclothed males in the 1960s – such as in Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life and John Frankenheimer’s Seconds – most censorship boards had the films re-edited before release. Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969), an adaptation of the DH Lawrence novel, may be the first film with extensive male nudity – notably, a naked wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates – to make it past the censors. (AF archive/Alamy)

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  • First real death

    Images of actual deaths had popped up in newsreels over the years but among the first major documentaries to show a killing was Gimme Shelter (1970), an account of The Rolling Stones’ disastrous free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway in 1969. The climax of the film is the death of Meredith Hunter, an African-American man who attempted to storm the stage clutching a revolver. Alan Passaro, a member of the Hells Angels, the biker gang contracted to provide security at the concert, is then seen stabbing Hunter several times in the back. The footage was used in Passaro’s subsequent murder trial – he was ultimately acquitted on the grounds of self-defence. Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger is considered among the first narrative films to feature footage of an actual death: a condemned man being executed by firing squad. (Photos 12/Alamy)

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