Roman Scandals: Flying Under the Radar

Boy, they had it good back in the old days, back before we had this curious combination of sexual awareness and sexual prudishness that we have nowadays.

In the old days, if you were sexually prudish, you weren't sexually aware. And if you were sexually aware, you weren't prudish. Which meant that if you weren't TOO stinkin' obvious about it, you could get away with a hell of a lot. And they did.

Take the 1933 film Roman Scandals which slid just under the institution of the notorious Hayes Code in 1934. Roman Scandals is basically a sex fantasy about slavery in ancient Rome. Although the fantasy is focused mainly on the sex, there are some great little bondage scenes, including the undoubted highlight of the film, a dance set-piece whose central prop is a what appears to be a gigantic three-layer cake decorated with chained naked slavegirls (all the slavegirls who are naked coincidentally have ankle-length tresses that conceal their naughty bits but still leave plenty of curvy bits exposed).

Naughty bits, no! Curvy bits, yes! Long tresses make nudity palatable in 1933.

Dancing girls perform on the floor around it the slavegirl-bedecked cake, a slavegirl is stripped of her tunic, much to her delight, and the same slavegirl performs a dance of submission atop the "cake" for a brutish type (who subsequently hurls her to her doom).

These women are wearing clothes, but there's no doubt about the bodaciousness of their bods. Those pre-Hayes Code moviemakers certainly knew how to drape a womanly figure,

Most notably, Roman Scandals features a long, ogling shot of each and every slavegirl chained to the cake. This wasn't the blink-and-you-miss-it school of DiD scenes, this was a long, lascivious gander at bodacious slavegirls in chains. First you get to see their faces...

...then you get to see their bods. In long, slow, lewd-o-vision...

When Roman Scandals isn't extolling the virtues of bodacious blondes, nipple jewelry(!) and bondage, it's a comedy starring Eddie Cantor, about a wistful young boy-man from Oklahoma who fantasizes his way into ancient Rome, where he almost immediately comes within a hair of getting killed and is enslaved instead. (Funky fantasy, eh?)

All right, it's not like her nipples are PIERCED or anything, but that jewelry is definitely hanging off her breasts right where her nipples go. It's nipple jewlery, all righty. Who'd a thunk it, in 1933?

There's a plot to kill the emperor by his wife, and Cantor is soon embroiled in it. The story is formulaic and sappy by modern standards, and the score is intrusive, loud and not particularly fun to listen to. It's that peppy big band music that has a certain relentless effervescence to it. Kind of a happy death march -- "You VILL laugh, you swine!"

Cantor appears in blackface during the film, demonstrating that even with Tom Green and Carrothead, we're still ahead of the old days. All in all, it's not a film I enjoyed watching, except as a historical artifact demonstrating how hot American culture was running before the bluenoses took over and ruined things for everybody.

For those who think the present is the bottom of the heap in terms of tastelessness, we have one word for you -- blackface.

While presenting what appears to be a lightweight fantasy bagatelle the filmmakers were able to indulge in extravagant bondage and fetish fantasies. Ma and Pa Kettle might not have known exactly WHY they thought Roman Scandals was so funny ("That Eddie Cantor, what a card!") and maybe the slavegirls were a little scantily clad, but after all, that was the way things were in the ancient world. Look at all those nekkid statues they kept carving all the time!

Also appearing in chains were (left) the emperor's favorite slavegirl, singing as she's cuffed,
and this cutie chained to a chariot.

Meanwhile choreographer Busby Berkley, writer George S. Kaufman (and about half a dozen others) and director Frank Tuttle are just rocking out in a gleeful, fetishistic frenzy. You sense sexually sophisticated, intelligent minds at play here, pushing the envelope on what could go under the radar of America's bluenoses at the time.

A slavegirl vamps coquettishly when rowdies strip her of her top, them performs a lascivious dance for her cruel master,
collapsing at his feet in a pile of sinuous curves. No, you never see her breasts. This IS 1933, nipple jewelry or no.

Tuttle and his pals were in part beneficiaries of the fact that color technology didn't exist at the time. Flesh just isn't as obvious or as shocking in black and white. Could you imagine the bondage birthday cake/slavegirl dance scene flying under the bluenoses' radar if the flesh on all those slavegirls had actually looked like ... flesh?

OK, imagine if the cuties in Roman Scandals had been naked in color, like the ones above.
I don't think these babes are slipping under anbody's radar, ever.

And awareness of bondage as a sexual fetish was undoubtedly also much lower at the time, if it existed at all in the mainstream. Combined with the ready-made opportunities for bondage scenes that the slaveholding Roman society presented, it's no surprise that Roman Scandals was such a bondage-fest. Like the Bible movies that King Vidor made, it was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

The bondage babe layer cake, with dancing slavegirls in front. How could you miss an opportunity like this?

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