How America’s First Film With Nudity Ended Up Banned in DC

The controversy behind the 1916 film "Purity" centered around its star, Audrey Munson

actress Audrey Munson
Actress Audrey Munson, star of "Purity."
Bettmann/Getty Images

Audrey Munson was a model-turned-actress before that was a viable career path. In a 2016 article at The Mary Sue, Maddy Myers looked back over Munson’s life and career, noting that she essentially created the template for supermodels in the early years of the 20th century. Munson’s likeness appears on a host of statues created during that time, including New York City’s Maine Monument.

Munson made the leap into onscreen work with 1915’s Inspiration, of which no copies have survived. The same can’t be said for her followup, 1916’s Purity. In a column at The Washington Post, John Kelly revisited Purity‘s scandalous reception in Washington; it’s the first of several columns Kelly has planned on Munson’s life and work.

Kelly notes that, in the film, “Munson played multiple roles, appearing as both an artist’s model and as mythic figures from antiquity captured on canvas and in stone.” He describes it as “the first mainstream American film to feature nudity” — and it’s there that the controversy began.

District commissioner Louis Brownlow intervened to stop a planned D.C. screening of the film, citing local laws against public nudity and contending that they applied to onscreen figures as well. Brownlow took issue with a number of genres of the nascent medium of film, stating his opposition in one interview to “so-called sex problem dramas, the ‘vampire’ type, and films that have absolutely no sex problem or vampire to them, but are simply disgusting in detail.” One can only imagine what he’d have made of Twilight.

A century after her heyday, many contemporary writers and artists have developed a newfound respect for Munson’s legacy. A 2018 article by Alexxa Gotthardt at Artsy points out that Munson wrote a series of articles in 1921 in which she “exposed salary discrepancies (between women and men, as well as between female actresses and artist’s models), and alluded to the inherent sexism of the art world in the early 1900s.” It’s one of many ways in which Munson was ahead of her time.

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