When talking about the differences between films of today and films of the studio era one that’s always brought up is how studios conveyed so much through subtlety. With the implementation of the Hollywood Production Code, studios had to censor themselves, and get creative, with how they should romance and coupledom on the screen. Suffice it to say, movies could convey a lot of passion without being too passionate. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day I’ve decided to pay tribute to twenty classic seduction sequences where the journey to get into bed was just as good as the end result (so we know!). A few parameters: The scenes I included had to be from movies I’ve personally seen, and they’re all pre-1970 and within the studio era.
20. Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Much of our conception of love and romance comes from the movies. We dream of a first kiss (or more…) that’s as perfect off-screen as it is on. While there’s no plans for Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) and Don (Gene Kelly) outside of a date and a smooch, he still sets the perfect scene for her to be wowed into giving him a chance. He creates the perfect mood and setting because that’s what he knows about the movies. Singin’ in the Rain acknowledges our need for perfection in seduction, and where we’ve learned it from, by implementing it into the film’s own narrative romance.
19. Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953)
Like Singin’ in the Rain, this moment from William Wyler’s Roman Holiday is more cute than sexy. Reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) takes Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) to Rome’s Mouth of Truth, scaring her in the process. The seduction comes in their test of wills, who’s brave enough to stick their hand in; and also the lingering question of, if their hand is bitten off, what are they lying about? Ann’s giggling and clutching on Peck also enhances the passion, as her actions are taboo for a royal and about as close as these two will get to each other. Again, the seduction comes to little more than a kiss, but this best contains the memories Ann will have once she’s ruling a country.
18. Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Splendor in the Grass is all about sex and the actual horrors that come from attempting to live up to the societal expectations of when sex is and isn’t appropriate. High schoolers Deanie and Bud (Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty) are hopelessly in love, but “can’t do anything about it.” Bud’s got a slew of personal complications on top of his sexual frustration, while Deanie’s told by her mother that good girls don’t even think about such things (there should be no “good” girls in the world then). Everything in the movie may be about consummation, but our two characters get plenty of time to seduce each other…to a point. When Deanie and Bud go into her house after school, when the parents aren’t home, it’s a moment of fear (will they be caught) and excitement. Deanie, always the good girl, starts calling for her mother as Bud mocks her, before the two get down to kissing and canoodling on the floor. Bud gets a bit controlling in the middle, but mostly this is a real moment probably experienced by teens around the world; the fear of being somewhere you aren’t supposed to, and how far can you go before you’re caught?
17. Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
This was one of two last-minute editions to this list. I forgot this scene within The Philadelphia Story because you’re continuously wrapped up in the fast-talking shenanigans of Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Poor Jimmy Stewart, as the straight man, gets lost in all the screwball. But here, the everyman and the screwball queen come together to lay their cards on the table. For me, the best seduction scenes focus on wordplay, and how much double entendre can be packed into words. (Part of that could be my English major education.) Hepburn tries to act as the honeypot, so Stewart’s journalist, Macaulay Connor won’t write anything detrimental about her. Hepburn’s never been a character exuding sex, but as she opens this scene, leaning into Stewart’s face, cat-like, her intentions are clear. As the scene progresses, she walks around, leans against pillars, taunting and tantalizing. But, she doesn’t expect the power dynamic to shift. Stewart’s verbosity gets the best of him as he describes the type of woman Tracy is, and how no man, let alone the man she’s going to marry, can contain the “hearthfires and holocausts” within her. You wouldn’t expect such beautiful language in here, especially to describe a seduction.
16. Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
When talking seduction and A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s automatically assumed I’m mentioning the “STELLA” sequence. That scene’s definitely hot, and a great moment of a woman taking control, but I enjoy the morning after sequence following. Blanche (Vivien Leigh) goes to see Stella (Kim Hunter), who, by the look on her face as she lies in bed, has obviously had a good evening. (You see this in the morning after sequence of the conjugal rape sequence in Gone With the Wind). Blanche can’t fathom how Stella could go back to Stanley (Marlon Brando) after all his violence, and so Stella explains that, on their wedding night, Stanley ended up smashing all the light bulbs in their house with one of her slippers. There’s no explanation as to why he’d do this short of “Stanley’s always smashing things.” But, instead of being frightened, Stella admits she was “sort of thrilled by it.” You don’t have to watch any of this happen, just listen to Stella recount the story, with her dreamy smile, and you know the violent passion she’s talking about. Despite the fear of violence, the preceding scene puts Stella in control of Stella, negating the fear he brings to Blanche. He scares Blanche – which turns her on – but for him and Stella, smashing things is just foreplay.
15. Maggie MacNamara and William Holden in The Moon is Blue (1953)
The Moon is Blue is all about sex. Its frank discussions regarding virginity, spoken with frank candor by Maggie MacNamara, was the first shot across the bow for the Hollywood Production Code. With a movie so interested in talking about doing the deed, it’s almost a letdown at how no one actually engages in any of it. That’s not for a lack of trying as Donald Gresham (Holden) is intent on ensnaring virginial Patty O’Neill (MacNamara) with his charms. After an inauspicious meeting at the Empire State Building the two end up back at his office under the guise of looking for a needle and thread. Patty, green to the art of the score, really just wants to sew Donald’s button back on his jacket, but alone in the office Donald starts working it like only Bill Holden could. This is a moment punctuated by nuzzling, and Bill Holden made nuzzling look like the sexiest thing in the world. It’s a miracle Patty doesn’t succumb right there, instead going with Donald back to his apartment where he really has to wonder if the juice is worth the squeeze. But we’ll always have nuzzling in an office building!
14. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944)
Speaking of famous scenes, this not only showcased a bright new talent – 20-year-old Lauren Bacall – but also the beginning of a beautiful relationship (to paraphrase the film’s other star, and Bacall’s eventual husband, Humphrey Bogart). This scene is all about Bacall taking control, showing Bogart’s Steve who’s boss. Outside of the legendary “You know how to whistle” moment, Bacall’s Slim mentions the whole “it takes two” element of seduction, telling Steve a kiss is “better when you help.” Bogart’s face after Bacall leaves is pure bewilderment. Who is this woman who’s walked into his life? She certainly makes an impression on Bogie and the audience, seducing both in the process.
13. William Holden and Kim Novak in Picnic (1955)
The oldest form of seduction is dancing and if anyone could show he had…skills….it’s William Holden. Holden makes more than one appearance on this list and that’s because the man was sex on a stick! He was always paired with the apotheosis of beautiful woman and none were more beautiful than Kim Novak. His turn as an aimless drifter in Picnic didn’t work out 100% (Holden’s a bit too old), but his seduction of Novak’s buttermilk princess is flawless. The scene starts innocently as Holden’s Hal teaches Novak’s little sister, Millie (Susan Strasberg) to dance. Unfortunately, Millie’s youth and inexperience don’t make her a worthy plaything for Hal. (Picnic, based on a William Inge play, isn’t particularly subtle.) Fortunately, Madge (Novak) is looking to get in on the action. Madge and Hal’s courtship plays out on the dancefloor as he compels her to join in. Their smooth moves only show a hint of what they could do off the dancefloor.
12. Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932)
Opposites attract and that’s demonstrated best in Victor Fleming’s pre-Code jungle adventure Red Dust. Dennis Carson (Gable) and Vantine (Harlow) are two characters confined by circumstance; he’s a tough-talking owner of a rubber plantation and she’s a prostitute – pre-Code, folks! The seduction scene’s comedy plays up their differences and all the reasons their relationship is doomed to failure: he’s brash and stubborn, she talks too much and acts childish. But, they’re two characters with needs, and Dennis isn’t afraid to put aside his issues with Vantine and tell her, “you’re a cute little trick.” Later scenes show the raw sexuality between these two, as Gable has a problem keeping his hands to himself (not that you’d mind!). Pre-Code movies weren’t afraid to say that, sometimes, a kiss just isn’t enough.
11. Cliff Robertson and Sandra Dee in Gidget (1959)
Unfortunately the scene in question isn’t available on YouTube, and that’s a shame because my explanation for its inclusion makes it sound creepy as hell….and it is. Gidget isn’t just the story of a girl surfer (played by the darling Sandra Dee at her most tomboyish). It’s more about her sexual awakening, with surfing as a metaphor. The sequels and television show weren’t as creative, sadly. In the course of events, Gidget tries to show paramour, Moondoggie (James Darren) that she’s desired by men and goes off with the leader of the beach bums, Kahuna (Robertson). Kahuna, realizing Gidget’s angle, decides to teach her a lesson by showing her what seduction looks like! Remember those sweet, simple days when a grown man could pretend to seduce an underage girl to show her she truly doesn’t want to “go to far?” Well, that’s the sequence in Gidget. It’s uncomfortable and funny, mostly because of how uncomfortable it is. The thing is that Kahuna ends up being seduced by Gidget’s innocence, enough that he almost crosses the line. Thankfully, the movie’s way too innocent to turn into an after-school special and Gidget realizes what’s really important in life…surfing and Moondoggie (her loss because Robertson is WAY better than Darren). This makes the list for showing just how crazy classic films could get when trying to get romantical.
10. Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Here’s another pre-Code seduction scene that’s rather forward about it all, and it has another gorgeous prostitute (only this time played by Miriam Hopkins). Fredric March plays the man torn between his societal self and his id, a distinction that’s hinted at when Dr. Jekyll meets Ivy (Hopkins). He’s her knight in shining armor and she looks to repay him the only way she knows how. The way she grabs his hand, thrusting it to her knees, is shocking by its impertinence. Ivy knows Jekyll is bound to his gentility and tries to play the damsel in distress – a bit of comedy is her “I’m going to faint” moment. Hopkins’ swinging leg and cooing of “Come back soon” illustrates the first chink in Jekyll’s armor. He will be back soon!
9. Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967)
Would this be a list of seductions without the most legendary, the most iconic? Benjamin Braddock’s (Hoffman) seduction at the hands – or legs – of Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft) sticks in the mind from the minute you see it. Unlike other moments on this list, Benjamin is hip to the game Mrs. Robinson’s playing. She puts on sexy music, tells Benjamin her husband won’t be back anytime soon, and lifts up those gams! He’s terrified and intrigued all at once. This is a moment where Mrs. Robinson’s firmly in control of the situation and that chuckle says it all; Benjamin’s trapped. The infamous camera shot of Benjamin framed by Mrs. Robinson’s cocked knee tells you he doesn’t stand a chance. Much like Ivy’s leg in Jekyll and Hyde, that leg is all it took to create one of the most enduring shots in cinema history.
8. Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif in Funny Girl (1968)
If you can’t seduced your significant other through dancing, you can definitely do it through song! This is another humorous moment with a neophyte to the ways of the world. Fanny Brice (Streisand) can’t tell whether Nick (Sharif) is making advances on her, and she’ll be even sadder if he doesn’t. The lyrics to “You Are Woman, I Am Mad” are a taste condescending and Sharif isn’t a very strong singer, but this is all in the body language. Sharif exoticism works wonders here as he’s the confident conman who captures Fanny under his spell and teaches her the art of romance leading to her eventually becoming “Sadie, Sadie, married lady.” “Let’s kiss,” indeed!
7. Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
The chess sequence from The Thomas Crown Affair’s been parodied and lampooned any number of ways, but you can’t deny the sexuality that boils within it. McQueen plays the art thief to Dunaway’s agent trying to track him down, adding another dimension to the cat and mouse thriller. This is also another moment with a woman in firm control of her sexuality. She plays with McQueen, making him nervous. The way she caresses her neck and mouth seem controlled and off-hand as McQueen fumbles, looking like a little kid making funny faces. The added element of the chess game shows their romance for what it is: a game where someone has to “check” the other.
6. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944)
Flirtation, the first act of any successful seduction, and no one flirted better than Ms. Barbara Stanwyck. Double Indemnity was trotted out as one of the catalysts for saucier 1980s neo-noir, eschewing creative verbal foreplay for the down and dirty deed. But no amount of sex can make up for how sexy Stanwyck and MacMurray are as they dance around each other with their cunning linguistics. MacMurray’s Walter Neff has obviously run into several bored housewives looking for a little male attention while their husband’s out, but he meets his match with Stanwyck’s Phyllis. She doesn’t give him an inch as he starts flirting with her. Their legendary “speed limit” discussion lays out the mechanics of their burgeoning relationship; she tells him to control his “speed” but he isn’t keen to pay attention. When she reminds him she’s married “that tears it.” Unlike other movies where the woman will be back for more, you can already tell that Neff thinks Phyllis is the honeysuckle in the air that he can’t shake.
5. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946)
Alfred Hitchcock was the master at skirting the rules of the Production Code and he does it perfectly in Notorious. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman play a government operative and a spy, respectively, trapped in a convoluted plot with a slight bit of slut shaming for good measure (it was Hitchcock, after all). Devlin (Grant) and Alicia (Bergman) are hoping to spend “a night in” before everything starts off, but Devlin’s work gets in the way. Production Code protocol stated there could be no kissing last more than a minute, so Hitchcock had Grant and Bergman give each other quick kisses, about ten seconds at a time, allowing for almost two minutes of straight kissing. These slight pecks intensify their romance; they can’t keep their hands off each other and are practically glued to each other’s sides. Because of the close-up the audience feels intrigued and intrusive, like they’re witnessing something…notorious. Look at the way Bergman strokes Grant’s ear, or how Grant tries to talk with his mouth pressed to Bergman’s. If only these two were allowed that night in, who knows what would have happened!
4. Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier (1943)
You might not know it to look at him, but Joel McCrea is one of the masters of movie seduction! And it’s surprising to see, because the comedies in which he did all his loving are so frothy and fizzy you don’t immediately notice how intense his game is. The More the Merrier focuses on whether two members of the opposite sex, unmarried and unattached, can live together in the same house. Connie (Arthur) and Joe (McCrea) slowly fall for each other, but Connie’s got a significant other. The two’s date is a high point of the film, with Joe being a bit handsy throughout the evening – keep your eyes focused on Arthur’s wrap. Jean Arthur was an actress who never hid the look of pleasure on her face, and Arthur’s face conveys all the passion going on on that stoop.
3. Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot (1959)
If Marilyn Monroe couldn’t get your engine revving you must be dead inside! Some Like It Hot’s comedic status isn’t in doubt, but it’s also one sexy movie with a subplot involving Tony Curtis – openly mocking Cary Grant – trying to seduce the ditzy Sugar Kane (Monroe) by saying he’s a Shell oil heir who can’t get turned on by women. The movie already has a lot of queer readings associated with it, but this moment forces Monroe to show she can do anything, even turn a gay man straight! The scene cuts between the sexy and the comic, the latter tempering the flames of the former, by the focus is all on Monroe in a dress that had to make the heads of the Production Code blush. The kissing here is so passionate it causes Curtis’ “glasses to steam up” (proof you don’t always need to be in a car to get things rocking).
2. Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert in The Palm Beach Story (1942)
The Palm Beach Story is what inspired this list, the above scene in particular (which, sadly, isn’t available on YouTube). Unlike The More the Merrier, McCrea and Claudette Colbert – channeling Arthur – are a married couple struggling to make ends meet. Colbert’s Gerry decides it’d be easier for her husband, McCrea’s Tom, to achieve his dreams if they get divorced and she marries a wealthy man. However, these two just can’t say goodbye to each other. On their last night together, Gerry plans to leave in the morning, her zipper gets stuck. As she sits on his knee, eventually “falling” into his lap, Tom starts putting the moves on his wife with a few kisses to her back. Colbert’s arched back and closed eyes show that, much like Arthur, McCrea masters the little things that set the wheels of passion in motion. This is a scene where the passion comes through by the contact between the two of them, contact that’s rather mundane on the surface.
1. Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Earlier in the list we had Kim Hunter’s Stella talk about the type of man her husband Stanley (Brando) is, but the scene comes when he’s not at home. As I mentioned prior, this isn’t the moment the movie is best known for, but this is a definite pearl clutching moment. Marlon Brando makes his film introduction as Stanley with all the sexual potency in the world, and then some. Poor Blanche (Vivien Leigh) doesn’t know how to respond to him after he comes into the house, sweaty from a long day of work (appropriate!). Brando was the master of stage business – note his hand movements and the way he touches himself – and he conveys the lived-in quality to Stanley, taking off his jacket and, eventually, asking Blanche if he can change his shirt -it’s said t-shirt sales skyrocketed after this. The nineteen scenes above didn’t rely on skin, so it’s shocking to see Brandon take his shirt off like it’s nothing, which, for the character, it isn’t. As Blanche, and the audience, hold their breath, Stanley keeps the conversation going with Blanche before the cat scares her. That touch between Blanche and Stanley is the lightening bolt that kicks off the entire movie. Stanley’s seduced Blanche without doing a thing!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.