Posted on April 21, 2009 - by Dave
WHAT IS A STAG FILM?
By Dave Thompson
Stag films. Blue movies. Smokers. Beavers. Coochie reels. Dirty pictures. Between circa 1900 and the late 1960s, if you wanted to see a film of other people having wild and uninhibited sex, those were the phrases that you kept your ears open for, in the hope that sometime, somewhere in the course of your normal day, you might overhear somebody… a work mate, a chance acquaintance, a face in the bar or a man at the barber shop… mention that a few of the guys were getting together that night, to watch a few.
The very mention of such things was loaded with a host of little triggers.
Men in masks and women in wigs – The Three Masketeers, as one 1930s movie punned appallingly. Fearful of being recognized by family or friends (which does make one wonder what sort of family and friends they had), the casts of these films frequently employed entire wardrobes full of disguises. Some donned a pair of sunglasses; others wore peculiar hats. Some went the Groucho Marx route, with spectacles, a false nose and moustache. Some picked up masquerade masks or even pulled ladies’ stockings over their heads. And, in one memorable movie, the lovers – a woman at her ironing board, a middle-aged man who was as simply stiff as one – spend so much time trying to keep their camouflage in place that it’s a wonder they accomplished anything else at all.
Black socks. Why did the men in these films so rarely take their socks off? And why were those socks so often black that their very mention quickly became another pseudonym for a sexy film? Someone would tell you they were off to see some black socks, and you knew instinctively that they weren’t talking about a baseball scandal.
The films were usually in black and white. And silent. A few hardy entrepreneurs toyed with color and sound, but it didn’t really make a difference, any more than 3D made a difference. The average onlookers were seldom searching for a master class in the latest movie techniques, and half of them didn’t particularly care if the film was even in focus.
Just so long as there was plenty of wriggling, oodles of close-ups, and a lot of shots of moist, yielding flesh, then the audience was happy. More than happy; it was boisterous, and often boastful as well, because there was always one guy in the room who’d done it all, and was only too happy to tell everyone else about it. Very loudly.
It was a communal experience, after all – a room full of guys stoked on alcohol and adrenalin, the air thick with smoke and heavy with voices. Some people called the films “smokers,” because that’s what a lot of men did while they were watching them, until the fog was so all-pervading that the screen was barely visible. Others called them “stags,” because that’s where a lot of them were shown, at the no-holds-barred, men-only parties thrown to bid goodbye to a friend on the eve of his marriage.
But they could as easily have been called “frat films,” or “dare-date films,” or “retirement bash movies,” or even “motor plant Christmas party entertainments,” for any occasion that brought a group of guys (and sometimes girls) together was an excuse to hire in some fellow and his 8mm reels, and then hoot and holler all night long… or, at least until you told the wife you’d be home.
And still we haven’t touched upon all the names that these little films have been known to travel under. “Blue movies,” because that color has been associated with the loudly ribald and obnoxiously obscene ever since it was first hijacked from the New England Puritan lexicon, where it contrarily denoted rigid moral and religious observance.
“Beavers” and “coochie reels,” because those words had slang connotations that could not be mistaken. In London in the 1940s, they were often referred to as “Charlie flicks,” a term derived from the same ingenious example of double rhyming slang that gives us the Masterpiece Theatre-esque insults “a right Charlie” and “a proper Berk.” Charlie Smirk was a jockey who rode for the Berkshire Hunt. Smirk rhymes with Berk, and Hunt, of course, rhymes with coochie.
Whatever once chose to call them, viewing such movies was a rite of passage, a young apprentice’s opportunity to prove to new workmates that he knew which end of a woman was up; a college boy’s chance to boast to his buddies about the gals back home who did all that and more.
But it was more than simply a meeting place for teenaged hormones and middle-aged testosterone. Today, when guys want to hang out together, and shout and drink and act like kids, they dial in a cable sports channel and do it at home. But what did they do in the years before cable, or if there wasn’t a game being broadcast that night? They went out to where the other guys were – the bar, the Elks, the VA post, wherever. And when the talking ran out, or they just fancied a change… “hey, how about we call up that feller with the films we had last Christmas, and see if he’ll put on another show for us?”
When Fred Flintstone hooked up with his Water Buffalo buddies; when Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton headed over to the Raccoons for the night; when the Moose moved together and the Oddfellows closed their doors, it wasn’t all funny handshakes and secret whistles at the door. They had a lot of fun as well, which is why a conservative estimate claims that, by the 1950s, “one-third of all adult males over age nineteen were members” of fraternal orders in America.
Neither is it any coincidence that, when the fraternal societies started to fade from everyday life, sometime around the late 1960s, the world in which their favorite films flourished commenced a similar decline. The forces that caused the end of one were much the same as those that killed another – expanding options, broader alternatives, competing attractions. Society was shifting, and its components shifted with it.
For the Elks and their ilk, that shift was the start of a long, slow and ultimately near-fatal decline, in prominence if not in importance. For the stags, on the other hand, it was the signal for a complete rebirth, out of the clubhouse and, via the peepshow arcades, into the theaters, out of the gutter and into the mainstream.