In 1916, a celebrated artists' model named Audrey Munson appeared in her second film, Purity. Munson's film career and the film itself are little known. This essay shows that this particular film played a role, heretofore unacknowledged, in the development of National Board of Review policy governing cinematic nudity. Long thought to be lost (and the only one of her four films currently extant), the film features Munson in a dual role as the allegorical figure of “Virtue” and as a young woman who becomes an artists' model. She poses nude in scenes throughout the film. Accordingly, Purity challenged the board's efforts to minimize the appearance of the unclothed body on-screen, which it had recently pledged to allow under only the most “extraordinary” circumstances, in response to criticism of previous policies as inconsistently enforced. To censor the film might diminish its capacity to educate the moviegoing public about the fine arts and artistic labor, fulfilling a potential uplifting mission for cinema; to approve without modification would set precedent for allowance of the nude female figure throughout film, which board members opposed as dangerously provocative to vulnerable audiences, even as the same model/actress appeared, frequently in partial or fully nude poses, in public statuary throughout New York City. Purity and Munson's performance in the film provide previously uninterrogated evidence of the extensive anxiety around female nudity and the efforts to contain the female body and its image in the early twentieth century.
Cynthia Chris; Censoring Purity. Camera Obscura 1 May 2012; 27 (1 (79)): 97–125. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-1533457
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