Big Screen

The Progressive Era coincided with the birth of motion pictures. This burgeoning art form was quick to capitalize on the public discourses surrounding gender, labor, immigration, and urbanization which also informed brothel dramas of the Progressive Era. Stories about prostitution and sex work were produced not only by legendary filmmakers like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, but also by sociologists and reformers who sought to use the medium’s popularity and immediacy to further their causes. Films like Shoes (1916) and The Cheat (1915) also demonstrate the remarkable contributions to cinema made by such neglected figures as Lois Weber (a female director often compared to Griffith in both quantity and quality of cinematic output) and Sessue Hayakawa (an actor commonly considered to be the first Asian-American movie star and an early male sex symbol).

As Kevin Brownlow notes in Behind the Mask of Innocence: Films of Social Conscience in the Silent Era, early cinema “revealed the corruption of city politics, the scandal of white slave rackets, the exploitation of immigrants” and “were made to a pattern which had proved its commercial value on the popular stage” (2). Early cinema borrowed heavily from the brothel drama thematically and structurally. Indeed, some of the plays represented in the anthology Sex for Sale were adapted for film: A Shanghai Cinderella was filmed as East is West in 1922 and again in 1930. The film clips, images, and other materials on this page reveal the degree to which early cinema was conversant with the brothel drama. On the screen as well as on stage during the Progressive Era, sex was for sale.

– Tory Lowe

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