Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 8: 1915 Nudity on the Screen

Of all the films ever issued under the Thanhouser trademark during this era, none created more attention than Inspiration, a five-reel Mutual Masterpicture released on November 18th, starring Audrey Munson as a girl model. An article in Reel Life Note gave information concerning the impending release:


Bohemia! How many stories and plays have been written, how many lives ruined or glorified in its alluring name! The struggling artist, the beautiful model, the pathos, the glamor, the fascination of it all! Who is there does not sigh for the carefree happiness of Bohemia - unmindful or unacquainted with its tears? No writer's romance of New York's artistic Bohemia could ever surpass in pathos, or in real joyousness, the life story of Audrey Munson, the beautiful artist's model, who is the leading subject for the Mutual Masterpicture, Inspiration, produced by Thanhouser and to be released November 18th. The picture, with only a few alterations, tells the story of this wonderful girl, whose beauty of face and form has made her an ardently sought after model of the most celebrated sculptors and painters.

New York had not been as kind as New York might be to the little girl, who had come here alone to its portals, asking only for a chance to make an honest living and take advantage of its many opportunities. Lower and lower grew the little pile of savings, until one day, when her horizon seemed threatened with a devastating hurricane which would sweep her away with it - the clouds showed their silver lining in a quite Bohemian sort of way. The girl was struck by an automobile as she crossed the street near Washington Square, the rendezvous of artists. In the machine were several men, one a sculptor in search of a model. When they learned that the girl was not hurt and then that she was looking for work, the artist, though somewhat skeptically at first, asked her to come and pose for him. He did not realize what a treasure he had found in the thin, hungry-looking little girl. When the knowledge that she had really found work at last forced itself into her consciousness she was another person. Her vivacity and beauty, chased away by fear and loneliness, came back. When the artist came into the studio the first day she was engaged to pose for him, he was dumbfounded. Audrey Munson, as an artist's model, had been "made."

Miss Munson's first great pose was for "Evangeline," the famous statue by Daniel Chester French, which is now placed in front of Longfellow's home at Cambridge, Mass. Note Next she posed for the "History" of Allan Newman, which is atop the State Capitol of Florida. As the weeks grew into months, the beautiful model found that her fame had gone out into the land of Bohemia through no effort of her own. When competitions were announced for art work for the Panama-Pacific, her time became so occupied posing for the sculpture work and paintings that she had little time for anything else. Among those which appear at the exposition at San Francisco are Daniel Chester French's fine contribution, "Genius of Creation;" Adolph Weinman's "Descending Night;" the figures of the "Fountain of Eldorado," by Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney; the "Fountain of Earth," by Robert L. Aitken, and many others. From her popularity with the artists for this great exposition, Miss Munson is known as the Panama-Pacific Girl.

Her face and body is also the model for many of New York's most attractive works of art. She is seen in the figure on the Firemen's Monument, on the Pulitzer Memorial, the Williamsburg Bridge and the Municipal Building. The wonderful Maine Monument at the entrance to Central Park at Columbus Circle is adorned with her beauty carved in stone. Carl Heber is using her as the model for the fine heroic figure which will adorn the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. Audrey Munson will not admit that the love tale which runs through the Mutual Masterpicture Inspiration is true - that she has fallen in love with the artist for whom she first posed, and that she is going to the exposition to see herself as she adorns the beautiful buildings there with him - her husband Note - before she starts work for Mr. Heber. "On the contrary, I am going into vaudeville," she smiles.

"And leave Bohemia?" you who have only seen that land through the eyes of writers of novels or artists of the stage ask with a catch in your voice. "No, not to leave Bohemia for good," she replies. "Once you have lived there you cannot get away from it. I am going out so that I may broaden my scope and get a new grasp on life. Then I shall return, a much better model, I hope."

Inspiration, the Mutual Masterpicture, marks Miss Munson's first essay into the land of the silent drama. Those who have seen the graceful poise, the natural simplicity, the sweet understanding of the Audrey Munson of Inspiration and the Audrey Munson of real life, only hope that it will not be her last. "Inspiration," says she, "inspiration! There is nothing which could make me happier in the world than feeling that I had really given someone an incentive to do some splendid thing. It would not necessarily have to be a work of art. I have seen my dreams most unexpectedly realized in my opportunities to be a model for many of America's wonderful artists. I should be happy just to know that I had made a little newsboy on the street want to do the square thing by his fellows, or that some broken, foreign woman felt like taking up her work again with a smile when I had paused to talk with her. It is wonderful to think that we may all be inspirations to someone, sometime."

Seeking to generate publicity the Thanhouser Film Corporation distributed stills from the picture, showing Miss Munson nude. As hoped for, a controversy was generated, as told by The Morning Telegraph: Note

Thanhouser Defends the Nude in Picture Plays. Believes That Films Should Be Allowed the Opportunities for Liberal Interpretations that Other Arts Enjoy; Inspiration a Test Case:

With publication of scenes from Inspiration...has come an avalanche of comment on the status of this kind of subject in moving pictures. This is the production for which Mr. Thanhouser engaged specially Audrey Munson, known as the Panama-Pacific Girl and nationally famous for her endowment of physical charms. In the photographs which have been given out for publication she appears a number of times, and not in various stages of dishabille, but altogether in the nude. The scenes show her in an artist's studio, and as she stands on the dais near the figure of her which he is modelling it is only the head of luxuriant hair that tells which is the figure and which is the subject. The production was staged by George Foster Platt.... In such hands there is no doubt but that the most delicate subject will find a diplomatic treatment.

When interviewed on the subject, however, Mr. Thanhouser had this to say: "It is all so laughable to me in view of the inconsistencies of the various statements which have come to me. I shall not discuss Inspiration as a picture, but more the class of picture which Inspiration represents. I think the time has come when nudes should be as acceptable in motion pictures as they are in sculpture and paintings. To me it resolves itself merely into a matter of treatment. Nudes have been displayed in paintings and in all branches of art since time immemorial; yet September Morn Note brought down a storm of criticism. The critics' best argument against it was that it was not a frank nude - that the posture of the figure gave it a suggestive interpretation which robbed it of its artistic beauty. That same figure differently treated would not have called for any comment at all. It appears to me that the realm of the motion picture today is as much one of the art of ocular appeal as of dramatic vein. I long for the day when a Fountain of Ceres or a Birth of Venus will find reproduction in motion pictures on the same basis as on canvas or in sculpture. It is with this appreciation of the element of art that I undertook to produce Inspiration, and I want to take the emphatic stand now that it is my purpose to follow this with many more of its kind.

"I think that where it is so absolutely unquestionable that Audrey Munson is the object of admiration of the artistic world, no untoward motive can be ascribed to displaying those same beauties in motion pictures. I stand for a broad, liberal interpretation of all things relating to art, be they film, stage, canvas, stone or bronze. I should feel very much behind the times if it were revealed to me that art in the film is to be restricted by limitations by hypocritical prudery. I do not want to be understood as favoring the indiscriminate display of physical charm solely and purely on the ground that the model carries artistic value. Not that. For I realize that motion pictures meet the eyes of people who are not expected to hold an esthetic viewpoint on such matters. It is my conviction that in Inspiration I have furnished a good illustration of what my ideal in this class of work is. I believe that no man who has the advancement of this art industry at heart will fail to appreciate the motive in this production. It is purely from the standpoint I have here expressed that Inspiration is offered."

Inspiration will be in five reels, and Audrey Munson is supported in it by a competent cast, which includes Thomas A. Curran, George Marlo, Bert Delaney, Carey L. Hastings, Ethyle Cooke and Louise Emerald Bates.

Inspiration went on to become a success, and many were the reports of packed theatres. The picture remained in distribution for the next two years. What Inspiration was really like may have been told by an article in The Moving Picture World, September 9, 1916, which did not mention the film by title:

Read what an old friend of The Moving Picture World has to say about puffed pictures. "Several days ago at the solicitation of a - - representative I screened at my theatre the picture known as - - . After sitting through five reels of this 'bunk' my opinion, as expressed to the - - representative, was about as follows:

"The photography in your picture was very good indeed and some of the settings artistic and well carried out as to detail, but the picture would be greatly improved if it were cut from five reels to one, billed as a scenic, and simply mentioning the fact that - - posed in many of the scenes. As a picture which was supposed to have a story it is absolutely bad. If - - has any dramatic ability there is no evidence of same in the picture, and her support was so absolutely bad as to make it almost a burlesque."

"We earnestly hope that these lines will meet the eye of nervous press agents and of reviewers to whose minds every film is a masterpiece if it is advertised in the paper they are working for. With this type of intelligence in the the exhibiting ranks whom do the puffers imagine they are deceiving?"


Copyright © 1995 Q. David Bowers. All Rights Reserved.