The prehistory of modern pornography is the classical American stag film, a body of clandestine short pornographic films produced during the first two-thirds of the 20th century. While the exact corpus of the distinctive stag film remains unknown, scholars at the Kinsey Institute believe there are approximately 2000 films produced between 1915-1968. Stag cinema is a form of hardcore film and is characterized as silent, usually filling a single reel or less, and was illegally made and exhibited because of censorship laws in America. Women were excluded from these private screenings that were shown in American "smoker" houses such as fraternities or other exclusive institutions. In Europe, films of the same kind were screened within brothels. There are no direct quotes or oral histories by participants of this underground cinema. The mode of reception of the all-male audience of stag films was raucous, collective sexual banter and sexual arousal. Film historians describe stag films as a primitive form of cinema because they were produced by anonymous and amateur male artists who failed in achieving narrative coherence and continuity within their diegesis. Today, many of these films have been archived by the Kinsey Institute, however most are in a state of decay and have no copyright, real credits, or acknowledged authorship. The stag film era inevitably ended due to the beginnings of the sexual revolution in the fifties in combination with the new technologies of the post war era, such as 16mm, 8mm, and the Super 8. American stag cinema in general has received scholarly attention first in the mid-seventies by heterosexual males such as in Di Lauro and Gerald Rabkin's Dirty Movies (1976) and more recently by feminist and queer cultural historians such as in Linda Williams' Hard Core: Power Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible" (1999) and Thomas Waugh's Homosociality in the Classical American Stag Film: Off-Screen, On-screen (2001).
German film Am Abend ("In The Evening"), Argentinian film El Satario, and American film A Free Ride or A Grass Sandwich, are three of the earliest hardcore pornographic films, produced between the years 1907 and 1915 that have been collected at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.
The United States
A Free Ride, also known as A Grass Sandwich, is a classical American stag film of the silent era produced around 1917-19. It is considered to be the earliest extant American hardcore pornographic movie, although this is highly unlikely and subject to debate. It depicts a motorist who picks up two women from the roadside and later engages in several sex acts with them. The film's director used a pseudonym and the cast remained anonymous.The Kinsey Institute has a print of the film in its collection.
El Satario, also known as El Sartorio, is the name of one of the earliest surviving pornographic films. It was supposedly produced in Argentina in 1907, and includes possibly the first use of extreme close-ups of genitalia.
- A Free Ride, USA, 1917-19
- Am Abend, Germany, 1910
- El Satario, Argentina, 1907-15
- Casting Couch, USA, 1924
- La Maîtresse du Capitaine des Meydeux (The Exclusive Sailor), France, 1924
- Le Ménage moderne du Madame Butterfly, France, 1925
- Buried Treasure, USA, c. 1930
- The Hypnotist, USA, c. 1930s
- Surprise of a Knight, USA, c. 1930
- Fun and Frolic in the Photographer's Studio, USA, c. 1940s
- While the Cat's Away, USA, c. 1950s
- A Late Visitor, AMG, USA, c. 1959
Themes in film theory
Williams argues that in many respects, "the primitive structure and explicit function of the stag film have persisted into the present, although in a much altered mode of reception".
- "Film Archive". The Kinsey Institute. Retrieved 20 March 2015.
- Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible". p. 58. Retrieved 18 March 2015.
- Janet Staiger, Bad women: regulating sexuality in early American cinema, U of Minnesota Press, 1995, ISBN 978-0-8166-2625-0, p.15
- Slade 2001, p. 9.
- Dave Thompson, Black and white and blue, ECW Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1-55022-791-8, pp.30–31
- Paisley Livingston, The Routledge companion to philosophy and film, Taylor & Francis, 2009, ISBN 978-0-415-77166-5, p.515