The Washington Post
In 1916, “Purity,” the first mainstream American film to feature nudity, was banned in D.C.
On the morning of Oct. 3, 1916, a group of prominent Washingtonians took their seats in the Garden Theater, a movie house at 425-433 Ninth St. NW. The crowd numbered about 200, filling only a quarter of the auditorium.
Tom Moore, the manager of the Garden, had invited the attendees, each of whom was active in some area of the city’s affairs. Guests included the Rev. Randolph H. Mckim, an Episcopal clergyman; Rabbi Benjamin L. Grossman of Adas Israel synagogue; and Father F.J. Hurney of Mount Pleasant’s Shrine of the Sacred Heart.
Mrs. Anton Heitmuller, wife of a leading real estate broker, was there. So were representatives of Washington’s artist community, including a Mr. Mcdonald and a Mrs. Tompkins.
These grandees were about to watch a film called “Purity,” which starred one of the most famous women in America:
Audrey Munson, a model from New York who posed nude for sculptors and other artists. Her body was said to be perfect in every respect — and endowed with a charming pair of dimples in the small of her back.
Munson had inspired statuary across the country, including a fountain by Herbert Adams
installed in Washington in 1912 to honor Sen. James Mcmillan.
In “Purity,” Munson played multiple roles, appearing as both an artist’s model and as mythic figures from antiquity captured on canvas and in stone.
Often, Munson was unclothed. “Purity” was the first mainstream American film to feature nudity. For weeks, ads for it had been appearing in Washington newspapers. But just as “Purity” was about to open, it was banned.
Before the lights dimmed and the silent movie began, Moore addressed the crowd. “We boast of our liberty, our fairness, that no one is convicted without a hearing,” he said, “and yet here is a film play, termed by critics and artists an art classic, [condemned] by a man who has never seen it. I have asked you here this morning to view ‘Purity,’ to place either your endorsement upon it or condemn it.”
The man who had condemned “Purity” was Louis Brownlow, a District commissioner, one of the presidential appointees who ran the city in the days before home rule. He’d missed an earlier VIP screening — one attended by Maj. Raymond Pullman, chief of the District’s police force — and he’d miss this one, too. Busy with a prior engagement, Brownlow had sent the District’s insurance commissioner, Charles F. Nesbit.
“Purity” was supposed to have opened on Oct. 1 at another theater Moore managed, the Strand. Two years earlier, that Ninth Street NW picture palace had been renovated, its foyer floored in Pompeian marble, its side walls swathed in damask silk. For “Purity,” the 20-piece Strand Symphony Orchestra was to play specially arranged music.
But the opening had been postponed. Though Brownlow hadn’t seen “Purity,” he decreed that public nudity was prohibited in Washington, whether on the stage or on the screen.
Brownlow insisted that he had nothing against motion pictures. “No man has a deeper appreciation of their possibilities,” he told a reporter. But too many “questionable” movies were being released. These included “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.”
Moore hoped that by screening “Purity” for an influential audience, he might win over the community, open the film and recoup the thousands of dollars he’d paid to show it.
The film was directed by Rae Berger. It was shot in Santa Barbara, Calif., and released by American Film Manufacturing. “Purity” had a Washington connection. It was written by Clifford Howard, a former clerk for the District commissioners who during his years in D.C. had been a leading figure in the capital’s literary scene.
Howard wired his comments to the Washington Times: “It is a sad commentary on the intelligence and judgment of Washington police that they should condemn a picture for containing reproductions of the world’s most famous works of art while they pass pictures exploiting crime, immorality and human depravity,” he said. “They balk at a [film] whose purpose is to present the beautiful and poetic in art.”
Howard said his film took inspiration from the words of Saint Paul: “Unto the pure all things are pure.”
Said Howard: “When we find a jury of policemen condemning the nude in art as immoral there is but one conclusion to be drawn as to their mental and moral status, and the community subject to the dictates of this type of guardians is surely to be commiserated.”
Meanwhile, at the Garden Theater, the lights went down and the projector started to spin. The film was about to begin.
All this week I’ ll be writing about “Purity” and Audrey Munson, a forgotten figure in the history of American film and a tragic example of the perils of celebrity. First up: Clifford Howard, author.