Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sex (1920)

The act of sex—the physical joining of at least two persons for erotic purposes, to put it in the least-sexy way possible—is neither a moral nor an immoral thing. It is a biological thing. Almost all organisms are equipped to do it, to some degree; almost all species must do it to persevere. Sex is a fundamental part of being an animal, and we humans are animals like all the rest.

But we are also social creatures. And the complex societies we build are sustained in part by our ability to define, codify and control our fundamental drives. Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not skip out on thy wife. Breach the bounds of society, polite or otherwise, and you’ll face the consequences.

Sex is a celebration of those consequences. Released in 1920, it looked ahead to a decade of flappers, Jazz and gin-soaked sin that would push against convention a little harder every year—an attitude the wholly opposes. Despite its provocative title, Sex is the most conservative movie I’ve seen in a while—more conservative than many silent films, including some that predate it.

Sex stars Louise Glaum as Adrienne Renault, featured performer at a spicy New York nightclub. Adrienne’s act sees her descend from the rafters in the centre of a giant spider web. Clad in a fuzzy hat and more webbing, she stalks and consumes her male prey in a fashion that the audience is meant to find dangerously appealing.

Adrienne is playing a vamp: a ruthless seductress. As played by Glaum, she is a vamp behind the scenes as well: the senior party girl in those inevitable, nightly meetings between lightly dressed show girls and their tuxedoed male admirers, most of whom have left wives at home. That these girls prey upon married men (or are preyed upon by them) does not bother Adrienne. Confronted by the wife of one wealthy playboy who no longer comes home at night, she replies, “You haven’t been robbed—you’ve merely lost something.” It’s an accurate, brutal line, and the movie’s best.

Were Adrienne the antagonist of the film, she might have been allowed to continue her evil ways, slipping in and out of the story, chewing scenery and wrecking homes with glee. But alas, she is the protagonist. She must face her comeuppance. And so she will: in a succession of defeats and humiliations so predictable—so nearly mechanical—that they repeat upon her exactly the abuses she delivered to other women before her. It’s not easy being the centre of a morality play.

The film’s big turn—which, in a more humanistic story, would not have been required—sees Adrienne abandoning her freewheeling ways for the life of a devoted wife. We are told that she has fallen hopelessly, honestly in love with a man she married for money. This seems dubious. It is, however, possible.

What I found harder to accept was that Adrienne would be so lacking in self-awareness. When her own husband begins to drift, she acts with little more insight than the wife she herself humiliated at the start of the film. Her strategy is no different: find the nightclub hussy, condemn her, then plead the moral high-ground. Could a woman like Adrienne have even considered visiting the other woman’s home before her sense of irony kicked in? Does true love make one so stupid?

What’s fascinating here is the degree of repetition. Not only does Adrienne become a victim just like the woman she once victimized; her husband also barges in on their confrontation just as the first wife’s husband did when she confronted Adrienne. This scenario, played the first time as farce, leaves the realm of drama entirely when repeated: becoming instead a piece of pedagogy. The laws of society, in this film anyway, form an unbreakable, perpetual-motion machine—a wheel that is always coming around. When we learn, late in the film, that a couple Adrienne drove apart have been reunited, we can reasonably assume the same happy ending for Adrienne, some day. Because every point on the wheel comes around, given time.

What of the men in the film? They are galling, pathetic creatures. Caught red-handed visiting their mistresses, two husbands angrily accuse their wives of spying, as though the women had no good reason to be suspicious. It is telling that the only marriages we see in Sex depict men with unlimited license married to women whose worth is measured in loyalty. The women with the real power—the unmarried showgirls—represent pride before the fall. A female’s best hope for happiness, as near as I can tell from Sex, lies in landing a man who won’t cheat.

Louise Glaum was an interesting choice to play this role. She’s not very pretty really. And when she’s introduced to us in that silly spider costume it really does seem like a costume, not the second skin you might expect it to be if worn by one of New York City’s most famous club queens. Only once she sheds this look for the plainer wares of the kept wife does she seem well-cast. Like Adrienne, she might play the bad girl for a while, but she was always the heartbroken wife in waiting. So it goes for all women, or so the film encourages us to believe.


Where to find Sex: 
Sex is available on DVD through Alpha Home Entertainment. My special thanks to Caren Feldman, of Caren’s Classic Cinema, who hosted a screening of the film this past weekend.

Director Fred Niblo helmed several more notable silent films, including Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925); Blood and Sand (1922); and The Mysterious Lady (1928).

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