BOOTLEG FILES 602: “A Free Ride” (the oldest surviving extant pornographic film made in the United States).
LAST SEEN: It can be found on Wikipedia.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It was included in at least once porn anthology and a documentary on erotic cinema.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The difficulties in releasing this type of film back in the day.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Eh, you can watch it online for free.
One of the most historically significant films in the development of the American cinema is also one of the most mysterious and obscure. And if you never heard of the silent short film called “A Free Ride,” do not consider yourself ignorant – this is not the kind of film that you will see in a college film appreciation class or in a TCM showcase.
“A Free Ride” is believed to be the oldest surviving extant hard-core pornographic film made in the United States. Whether it is America’s first hard-core porn film is impossible to know – historical data on the genesis of the clothing-free genre of cinema is scant. Indeed, we have no clue who made this film, where or when it was made, or which actors appeared on camera. And the fact the film survived is a minor miracle, considering that the vast majority of films made during the silent cinema era are considered hopelessly lost.
From its opening credits, we are aware that the makers of “A Free Ride” were not eager to be identified. The film is identified as being directed by “A. Wise Guy,” photographed by “Will B. Hard” and authored via intertitles by “Will She.” If anything, it is nice to know that Seth MacFarlane-style toilet humor was in full play by our great-grandfathers.
“A Free Ride” opens with the intertitle that proclaims, “In the wide open spaces, where ‘men are men’ and ‘girls will be girls,’ the hills are full of romance and adventure.” We then see two women walking along a rural road. A man in an automobile – a 1912 Haynes 50-60 Model Y Touring Car with the steering wheel on the right-hand side, to be precise – pulls up and offers to give the women a lift. They decline, but he is persistent and they join him in the front seat of the car, with the admonishment, “If you promise to be good.”
Needless to say, he makes no such promise – and the driver is quickly fondling the women’s breasts. “What a beautiful dairy,” proclaims an intertitle during this groping frenzy.
The next intertitle reminds us, “When youth meets youth, a party is on.” The car comes to a stop as the man gets out while requesting to be excused. He goes into the bushes, unbuttons his fly and urinates. At first, we don’t see his penis – his hand is covering his member while his pee flows out. The women back in the car exclaim, “Oh, isn’t he wonderful?” and we cut back to the man, who give us a quick full-frontal view of his rather admirable endowment.
The man returns to the car and the women then excuse themselves, going into the bushes to pull up their dresses for a pee session. The man states, “Oh baby” and pats them on their bottoms when they return. He then offers them a bottle of booze and everyone enjoys a gulp.
The man asks one of the women if he can speak to her privately. The two got back to the bushes, and they begin to kiss and passionately embrace. He fondles her and pulls up her dress, she rubs his crotch, he reciprocates, and then her vagina comes into full view. (And you thought silent movies were strictly the Keystone Kops and D.W. Griffith rewriting the Civil War?) The pair give each other hand jobs – he vigorously rubs her vagina, she extracts his penis from his pants and yanks at it furiously.
The second woman wonders what is happening and goes out to investigate. Spying this delightful display, she quickly disrobes and pleasures herself while playing voyeur.
The man pulls down his pants and gets the first woman on the ground, where they begin to really go at it. The camera offers us a surprisingly detailed close-up of what is taking place – there is no pantomime here. The second woman then wants to be part of the fun and the man obliges by sodomizing her. The cast then engages in a threesome, and the intertitle refers to the man as a “hound for punishment” – he is seen grasping his hands on this hat-covered head in a mix of angst and ecstasy as one of the women performs fellatio. The film reminds us that “all’s well that ends well” as the highly satisfied trio return to the car and drive off into nitrate oblivion.
“A Free Ride” – which also carried the title “A Grass Sandwich” on some prints – was made in such great secrecy that we can only speculate on its history. Most film scholars place its production in the mid-1910s, owing to the vehicle in the film, but Oscar-winning scholar Kevin Brownlow wondered if the film was made around 1923 because of the hair style sported by one of the women. The male actor wears a conspicuously phony mustache in the film, which might suggest he could have been identifiable in some circles during his day – after all, why would an unknown man have to disguise himself in such a blatant manner? No one has been able to identify the women in the cast, or determine where this film was made.
Equally mysterious is how the film reached its initial audiences. While it is known that adult-level films were being made in the early years of the silent film era, no respectable theatrical exhibition circuit would allow films featuring clear views of a penis and vagina. “A Free Ride” was probably distributed in an underground manner to settings that catered to an all-male clientele, such as gentlemen’s clubs and at so-called stag parties; there is a theory that the film could have been screened in brothels, but there is no evidence that such established doubled as nontheatrical film venues. How long the film was circulated is unknown, but it is easy to assume that copies were widely duped and passed around for years by anyone who had the ability to make unauthorized film prints. The surviving copy that is available appears to be at least a third-generation dupe, so we can assume the film’s creators made little or no money for their illicit effort.
“A Free Ride” was barely known to the wider public until it was included in the 1970 documentary “A History of the Blue Movie.” The film was the center of attention in 2002 for the opening ceremonies of New York’s Museum of Sex, one of the few cultural establishments that highlighted its historic significance. “A Free Ride” is apparently too graphic for YouTube, as the site does not offer the entire nine-minute short for viewing. However, Wikipedia has the full nine-minute version on its website – thus providing a level of encyclopedic blessing to a film that has long been considered worthless by the cinematic academia.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
Listen to “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with new episodes beginning on September 11.