After Chickens and Trains: Sleuthing Silent Porn

Lila Gray

LOS ANGELES — In 1895, the Lumiere brothers introduced the world to film — short, dreamy sequences of ordinary life, workers leaving a factory, a goldfish swimming and most famously, “Arrival of a Train at a Station.” About a decade later, celluloid technology had been appropriated to film hardcore sex.

Celebrating the jump from capturing chickens to choking the chicken, Cinefamily screened 70 minutes of 35mm, vintage (sometimes hardcore) erotica last Friday, as part of its "History of Silent Porn" event that doubled as the release party for Black Francis (of The Pixies) and his co-collaborator Josh Frank’s new graphic novel “The Good Inn,” a semi-fictional riff on the advent of the reportedly first-ever, now-lost narrative porn of the same name, or “La Bonne Auberge” in French, from 1908.

“Most of what you’re going to see today was discovered in the attic of a pretty respectable, borderline aristocratic French family,” Cinefamily co-founder Hadrian Belove told the audience. “A family that, let’s say, was respectable enough that they refused to put their name on the re-release of the film.”

According to Belove, only 10 percent of all silent films ever made are left (the other 90 percent having perished forever), so “you can imagine how hard it is to actually find vintage erotica,” which was evidently relegated to musty attics or worse.  

Last week’s compilation included the first (extant) hardcore film, recorded while making the “legitimate” “Three Musketeers” movie from 1921 — nascent for the history of all film, but far more aged than the fabled “La Bonne Auberge.” Like many of the films screened, the tone was jocular and French. The title cards mimicked a naughty menu, prefacing the erotic amuse-bouches — have you ever wanted to see woman delievered on a platter? — to come with comically crass names and drawings.   

“A lot of the films you’re seeing tonight were made sort of as jokes. Like ‘it’s a party, why not turn on the camera?'” Belove said. “By about 1930, they started figuring out that you could actually make money off of these things and the entire tone shifted...."

So, sans primary source material and subjected to the elusive nature of silent film, how did Frank and Francis come up with the historical backbone of “The Good Inn,” which evokes authentic personages and events from the era? XBIZ caught up with co-author Josh Franks, who spent about a year researching the illustrated novel, and asked him.

What was the research process for "The Good Inn" like?

Basically there was really very little to find,” Josh Frank told XBIZ. “I tried to look for the actual histories of the first adult and pornographic filmmakers, but I couldn’t find anything. So I went on to Amazon and I found college professors’ books that they wrote on the history of film, like the ones no one will read unless you’re in school or you’re a professor. Because what I was looking for wasn’t the main stuff, I had to read every one of them.

So by reading all of these giant books, there’d be like a sentence, a paragraph. And I basically would go through them all and mark, after going through like 10 different crazy journals, about the history of film or of French film or the history of American cinema, I found these little mentions of like, ‘This guy started out making pornographic films, it’s called this.’ I could then find that film, and it turned out it was shot this year, and I would find out what the main studios [were that year] … I’d find these little needles in haystacks. It was just a lot of digging into the white lines between all the rest of the stuff.

I got my basics and then a lot of the fiction was created based just around what I could find. So if I could find something, I would use it. This could not have been written purely as a historical book, because I did have to fill in a lot. You know, sort of like Jurassic park, I had to fill in certain DNA. But it’s all from something.

Do you think more information about silent porn exists or is it lost for all eternity?

I think that it would take years of someone … it took a long time to find some facts. I mean, it can be done, I actually found like one or two books about – it’s called like “Black and White and Blue” or something — and it’s actually about early pornography and it starts in the late 1800s and goes up to the 70s or 80s. The first part, the late 1800s until the beginning of the 1920s, it’s just like four or five pages, but it was a really important four or five pages for me and it was good information. So I think someone could do it, but there’s a lot of holes to fill in.

What struck you the most about silent porn (especially compared to its contemporary equivalent)?

I think it was just the fact that these early people, that they were artists. These people were not trying to package something for retail or make a lot of money … at first. These guys were the same guys who were like taking the trip to the moon or making the first artistic films. They became like the stuff that we were seeing here, the sort of like ‘haha’ stuff. But at first, it started as an art. But I find it interesting that it takes someone like Lars von Trier to bring it back to the art, you know what I mean? To be like ‘Hey, having sex on film doesn’t mean it’s pornography.’

I think that back then, even though it was like ‘Oh no!’ the people who were doing it were having fun with it and they got the tongue and cheek of it back then. 

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