Essay: Changing the Signals of Passion

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Humphrey Bogart was a brilliant smoker. He taught generations how to hold a cigarette, how to inhale, how to squint through the smoke. But as a kisser, Bogart was an awful example. His mouth addressed a woman's lips with the quivering nibble of a horse closing in on an apple. Better to study, say, the suave carnality of Gary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.

Everyone learned how to kiss from the movies. It is difficult to imagine what people did before Edison for instruction in the subject. They blundered through, no doubt, across centuries of bruised lips and chipped teeth, and the clumsy lunges that end with noses banging, or the woman accidentally mummphing a mouthful of beard.

With the visual aid of moving pictures, however, the lovers of the Western world could dramatically improve their technique. For the first time, it was possible for the masses to study, close up, the romantic style of the great masters. It may not have always been wise to imitate the ideal, of course. Rudolph Valentino, for example, favored a hyperbolic style, arching the woman back into a circumflex and doing semaphor with his eyebrows. He had the technique of a gifted and tormented periodontist. Nor is it always advisable for amateurs to try to reproduce the unforgettable scenes, like the one in which Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr tumble in the Hawaiian surf in From Here to Eternity. Those who attempt that on Cape Cod arise with abrasions on their shoulders and plankton in their sinuses.

Still, movie kisses have been one of the educational advances of the 20th century. Even the best scholars had something to learn, although in these matters academics are generally among the last to know. Early in the century, the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics published an entry on customs of kissing around the world. The author, Anthropologist Alfred E. Crawley, expatiated on the nose rubbing of the Maoris and the Sandwich Islanders, on the billing of birds and the antennal play of insects. "The kiss seems to have been unknown in ancient Egypt," the learned writer noted. "In early Greece and Assyria, it was firmly established." Then, in a gemstone of Victorian scholarship, Crawley remarked, "In abnormal forms [of kissing], some use of the tongue occurs."

The first movie kiss was recorded in a brief 1896 production called The May Irwin-John C. Rice Kiss, or simply The Kiss. Irwin and Rice, looking overstuffed and upholstered, he sporting a grand mustache, fastened onto one another for long seconds as the reel flickered on. Their kiss suggested not so much the heat of passion as a mishap involving dry ice or Krazy Glue. Still, The Kiss passed for erotica. It created a sensation and called down the eloquent wrath of a Chicago publisher named Herbert S. Stone, who wrote, "The spectacle of their prolonged pasturing on each other's lips was hard to bear ... Such things call for police interference."

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