"As soon as they invented the camera, they were taking pictures of naked women," says film archivist Dennis Nyback. And who can blame them? Sexual orientation aside, when it comes to the big screen, most of us would rather look at a pretty little actress in lacy underthings than some hairy dude wearing sock garters and a man corset.
Underthings are the overarching theme of Nyback's current program-specifically, women's lingerie from 1915 to the '60s. Nyback, the intensely enthusiastic (OK, obsessive) film collector known for his offbeat pre-show lectures, used to run the Clinton Street Theater. He relocated to New York a couple of years ago but spends most of his time traveling the world, showing the rare vintage films he's gathered. He finds them in flea markets, garage sales, catalogues, occasionally even dumpsters. These days, he insists on checking them out before he buys. "The majority," he says, "are just not very interesting."
Luckily he's picked out the cream of the crop for this program. The earliest films here, Nyback speculates, were probably made by people connected to the mob. They would typically be shown at fraternal lodges like the Elks or Eagles-no dames allowed, by the way. The films were illegal to possess, which is hilarious considering how far from racy they seem today. The first snippet here shows a woman sitting in the sunlight and very, very slowly removing layer after layer of clothes until-gasp!-she's naked from the waist up. Then she checks her makeup in a mirror. That's it. They show naughtier stuff on Nickelodeon these days. "This is an EXCITING film," a placard warns the audience at one point-and it's true, too, if you're excited by enormous, unrevealing panties and knight-worthy bullet bras. But that's part of the charm of these films: They document a sweeter, more innocent time, when a bonnie lass could bare half a shoulder and devastate a roomful of goo-goo-eyed men.
Some of the best pieces included here are the "soundies," sort of early music videos played in bars with a nickel-fed machine called a Mills Pan-o-ram. Many of them, usually the most popular ones, were also illegal; these were listed in the back of the catalog for the bar owner's benefit. In What the Blushing Bride Wore, a peeping-tom barbershop quartet grows progressively more befuddled as the dancing bride strips off layer after layer of her trousseau. Even better is The Man Who Comes Around, sung by a lollipop-licking boy whose mommy gets some awfully familiar visitors after daddy goes to work. Then there's the over-the-top '30s dance number Dames, which peaks in an actual kaleidoscope of dancing girls.
Another highlight is the anti-instructional bit How to Undress in Front of Your Husband, starring Mrs. John Barrymore. For all the flesh revealed, they could've called it "how to undress in front of a junior-high gym class if you're incredibly shy." At the other end of the spectrum is Dixie Evans' great strip tease in the '50s-era How to Get to Hollywood, surely one of the most energetic performances of all time.
Sure, this is about as far as you can get from the likes of Ron Jeremy and Vanessa del Rio. But you can see that anytime. This stuff is rare, it's cute, and it's a lot of fun to watch.
Presented by Dennis Nyback. Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton St., 238-8899. 7 and 9 pm Friday-Tuesday, March 18-22. Additional shows 5 pm Saturday and Sunday. $4-$6.