A Look at the Golden Age of Porn

Imagine if you will, a modern day version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. A lavish production that jumps locales, it’s punctuated by smart, funny writing and beautiful cinematography. What film are you picturing? It’s probably not an adult film, but that’s exactly what this is: The Opening of Misty Beethoven. Yes, this Radley Metzger film is as smart and well made as it sounds. It also happens to be pornographic.

Sometimes considered the high watermark of The Golden Age of Porn, Misty is perhaps the finest example of what the genre was capable of at the time. But as I’ve recently discovered, it’s called the Golden Age for good reason. It’s a period with shockingly good films that could match mainstream films. And the parallels to beloved precode films are numerous.

Specifically, the films of this time include smart comedies more mature than you’re likely to ever find in theaters. Metzger’s films are tightly packed with literary dialogue, for those paying close enough attention. In another one of his films, The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, the title character is consistently interrupted by a poll taker who asks her comically absurd “deep” questions. When finally asked why she’s there, the poll taker replies “I’m here to give the film socially redeeming values.” Two other films, Blonde Ambition and Jack and Jill feature parodies of famous works (Gone with the Wind and Romeo and Juliet, respectively) that would send any audience into laughter.

While it may seem shocking enough that these films have plots, the plots are often quite ambitious. Take Off is an adult version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The ageless leading man is seen through the ages in a series of vignettes, including a Casablanca-style scene. In Misbehavin’, God and the devil make a bet to see if someone will marry for love or money. While these ambitious plots may not always play perfectly, the attempt alone is admirable and impressive. And it’s also a sign that the films could have achieved even greater things if they were given time to grow.

And that is one of the many parallels to be found with precode films. In both cases, it’s clear that the films were bound to reach even higher levels if not brought to a close by standards outside of their control. In the meantime, they were taking big chances and making the most out of limited budgets. And in regards to taking chances, unpredictability is the flavor of the day in these golden age films, just like precodes. It always feels like anything is possible at any time, and neat happy endings are never guaranteed.

Some of these golden age films even have plots that could have been at home in a 1930s precode picture. Wanda Whips Wall Street echoes Female, with Veronica Hart in the Ruth Chatterton role as a ruthless businesswoman. Another film, Tropic of Desire, hits on the kind of gritty dark side of things you’re most likely to find in a precode film. The film takes place at a brothel that’s home a stopping point for World War II soldiers. In a surprisingly emotional scene, one of the girls learns that her husband has been killed in the war. In a film filled with period music and settings, it’s a dramatic and realistic touch.

While precodes were brought down by the implementation of the production code, video tapes brought an end to the Golden Age of Porn. With product needed faster and cheaper, there wasn’t any time left for budgets or grand plots. The quality quickly plummeted, as the medium demanded something different.

It’s impossible to know where these films would have gone next, but with more time and bigger budgets, the films would have likely reached bigger heights. And these films had an important place. At their peak, they were adult in the best sense of the word: smart, clever, mature films.