Jack and Rose in Titanic. Jack and Ennis is Brokeback Mountain. Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca. All of us have an onscreen kiss that captivated us and stands out in our memory. Later, it would shape your perception of the tender act. You may even have tried to reenact it.
As A.O. Scott put it in an article for The New York Times Magazine, titled A Brief History of Kissing in Movies:
“Cinema may not have invented kissing, but I suspect that over the course of the 20th century, movies helped make it more essential. What is undeniable is that movies—Hollywood movies especially, but far from exclusively—made kissing more visible. They established a glamourous iconography and an elegant choreography for an experience that, in real life, is frequently sloppy, clumsy, and less than perfectly graceful.”
But the first onscreen kiss was just as awkward as first kisses tend to be in real-life.
The first onscreen kiss
Thomas Edison is responsible for many of the innovations in the movie industry, so it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that he’s behind the first onscreen kiss, too.
The Kiss was one of the first films shown commercially to the public. Based on its title, it’s not surprising that it was also the first film to feature a kiss. A mere 20 seconds long, the film was shot in 1896 at Edison’s Black Maria studio in West Orange, NJ.
Short as it is, The Kiss sparked a torrent of disapproval. The Roman Catholic hierarchy called for censorship. Newspaper editorials called for police to shut down theaters that screened it. But, Pandora ’s Box had been opened. Not immediately, but within the next few years, kissing worked its way into other movies, including The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899) and The Kiss (1900)—movie titles weren’t exactly original back then—as well as another Edison short, filmed in 1900, this one friskier than his first.
By the turn of the century, everyone but the most conservative influencers and, of course, the Church, stopped pretending like they were so offended. And then, kissing became so much more than just a kiss.
“Kissing was permissible as a hint at ‘the sexual act’ that could not be directly represented; and in the movies, thanks to the enhancements of lighting, makeup, close-up, and decoupage, it was an even broader and more suggestive hint than it was onstage,” Scott writes. “A movie kiss was also, for a long time and under various formal and informal censorship regimes, a substitute for everything else.”
The first onscreen sex scene
Thirty-seven years would elapse between that first kiss and the first onscreen sex scene, and even then, it didn’t come from a Hollywood-produced movie. Though it does feature one of its most legendary actresses.
The 1933 Czech-Austrian romance Ecstasy was one of Hedy Lamarr’s first roles. The sex isn’t even the most progressive aspect of the scene in question. That would be this: Lamarr’s character achieves orgasm. Neither actor’s face is shown, however. Nor, for that matter, are they even shown naked. There is nudity, though; Lamarr skinny-dips throughout a fairly lengthy scene.
Unlike The Kiss, Ecstasy didn’t exactly inspire a wave of imitators. Sex has long been a means for Hollywood to push boundaries, but those moments have come at irregular intervals over the last 85 years and often fell flat until their gravity became more apparent. Or, rather, we caught up.
There’s Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller, North by Northwest, which features, arguably, one of the most sexually charged non-sex scenes in film history. At the end of the movie, Cary Grant’s character suggestively invites his new wife to the upper berth of the train, and the train immediately enters a tunnel. Hitchcock later described it as “probably one of the most impudent shots I ever made.”
In 1982, Personal Best, a box-office flop starring Mariel Hemingway, became one of the first mainstream movies to depict a romantic relationship between two female leads. And eight years later, Henry & June, the story of a love triangle starring Uma Thurman, became not only the first movie assigned an NC-17 rating but the first one (of three) to be nominated for an Academy Award (Best Cinematography). (Wild at Heart, one of the other two NC-17 movies, was also nominated for an Academy Award in 1990.)
It would be a reach to say that by the time Brokeback Mountain debuted in 2005, it was just another love story. There were other films before it that featured romantic relationships between male leads, but none were as straightforward in their depiction. For that reason, Brokeback is the exception here, because its box-office success felt like a turning point rounded in real time.
Other notable onscreen firsts
If this article draws a picture that describes screenwriters and movie directors as our moral compasses, that should end here, because, while movies can be considered art, they’re also products. And for that reason, the audience has held the upper hand through much of the last 125 years.
Island in the Sun (1957) is widely credited by historians as featuring the first onscreen interracial kiss. But that kiss ended up on the cutting-room floor. What made it into the movie is a passionate embrace and some serious cheek-rubbing. Another decade would pass before the actual first interracial kiss found its way into a movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and even then, it was shown reflected in a mirror.
The first same-sex kiss? It came a lot earlier than you’re thinking. The 1927 silent movie Wings depicts two combat pilots vying for the affection of the same woman—when they’re actually way more into each other. Not only was it somehow spared a box-office death, Wings went on to win the Academy Award for Best Production. (The next year the academy merged that category with another and named the new one Best Picture.)
If only it had modern-day marketing behind it.