Although the early pioneers of the movie world had flirted with nudity and sex during the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’, a number of off-screen scandals had caused a public outcry over the immoral shenanigans of the new superstars, and brought about the formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s censorship board, headed by Will Hays. By 1934, a number of subjects had been declared off limits for film-makers… and nudity was top of the list. In Britain, too, nudity was a major no-no. When the British Board of Film Censors was first formed in 1912, the only two things that were absolutely forbidden to be shown on screen were depictions of Jesus Christ and nudity. In the wake of such strict controls over the image of the naked body on screen, it’s therefore quite surprising to discover that a number of naturist documentaries were produced during the 1930’s. These films didn’t play in ordinary cinemas of course, but were reserved for private clubs, ‘roadshow’ screenings (a form of exhibition where maverick film-makers would roll into town, set up a screening of ‘adults only’ films, and split before the authorities could close them down) and distribution in less prudish European nations. Among the best known of these pioneering films are This Nude World, Elisha – Valley of the Nudes and Unashamed. These films followed a similar ‘educational’ approach, setting themselves up as serious documentaries (or at least docu-dramas) about the nudist lifestyle, more as an excuse for the amount of bare flesh being displayed than through any genuine desire to inform the public. This high-minded excuse would carry the genre forward as the rules regarding nudity began to loosen.
It was during the 1950’s that the nudist film really exploded onto the screen. The breakthrough came in 1953, when the American film Garden of Eden was passed by the BBFC, after their original ban of the film was made redundant by over 180 local authorities, who approved the film for showing – some with a ‘U’ certificate. The same film was the subject of a 1957 court case in America, where it was established that nudity per se was not obscene. Suddenly, the floodgates were open: audiences flocked to see, for the first time, breasts and buttocks, as naked as nature intended. Sexual organs were still banned, but this hardly mattered. Film-makers in the USA and the UK began to churn out dozens of ‘candid investigations’ into the world of the naturist club. After Garden of Eden quickly came Diary of a Nudist, How I Lived as Eve, Nude Scrapbook, World without Shame, Nudist Memories, Search for Venus and dozens more. Interestingly, these films – which a few years earlier had been completely forbidden – were now being shown in the UK with ‘A’ certificates (the then equivalent of ‘PG’), meaning that showings could be attended by accompanied children! The reasoning behind this was that if the films had been awarded ‘X’ ratings, then it would be seen as an admission by the BBFC that such material was sexually provocative. By passing them for all ages, the censors could ensure that no precedent had been set for the inclusion of nudity in non-naturist films (and that restriction was fiercely enforced for several more years).
The ‘plots’ of these films were pretty similar – shy, hung up girls (it was nearly always a girl, though some films had hung-up men being converted) visit a nudist colony, cast off their clothes and become born-again sun worshippers. To keep with the documentary feel, most films had a narrator, telling us with breathless enthusiasm about how wonderful naturism really is. Meanwhile, the characters sat around the pool, played volleyball, or strolled about with handbags, beachballs or newspapers held incongruously in front of their groins – while bare breasts and buttocks had been given the seal of approval, genitalia was still completely forbidden. This was, of course, all necessary to placate the censors, who might have been forced to allow nudity on the screen, but who certainly intended to make sure that nothing as unseemly as sex crept into proceedings. No nudity was allowed outside of the actual naturist area (be it beach or camp) – and no kissing, fondling or groping could be contemplated. Admittedly, this fitted with the official ethos of the nudist organisations, who have long denied that there could be any sexual element to strutting around in the nude. The naturist film-maker was always careful to maintain an air of authenticity and respectability to his film. A popular trick was to gain the approval of a bona fide naturist group, as in Ramsey Harrington’s The Nudist Story which proudly states that it has been made “in association with the British Sun Bathing Association” – so you know it must be serious! However, it should be noted that the main cast members of these films tended to be young, nubile glamour girls, and anyone attending a nudist camp would attest to the act that the actual patrons rarely looked like that.
Many film-makers started their careers working on naturist movies. Death Wish director Michael Winner’s first film was Some Like It Cool, which was so popular that it was still gaining bookings in the early Seventies! Top glamour photographer George Harrison-Marks also had a huge hit with Naked – As Nature Intended, starring top model Pamela Green (previously only available on celluloid in Harrison Marks’ 8mm glamour films). In America, cult movie director Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman (later to become President of The Adult Film Association Of America) started their careers making ‘nudies’ such as Daughter of the Sun and Bell, Bare and Beautiful (the latter starring Burlesque queen Virginia Bell in a story involving gangsters and naturist camps!). Doris Wishman, who startled moviegoers in the Seventies with two films starring the 73 inch bosomed Chesty Morgan and the extraordinary Let Me Die a Woman, was America’s most prolific nudist film-maker, producing films like Nature Camp Confidential and Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (films showing well-known strippers in naturist settings were always popular). When the market for straight-forward ‘nudist camp’ films began to decline, she injected new life into the genre with Nude on the Moon, where two astronauts jet into space to discover that the moon is a tropical paradise, full of topless beauties who like nothing more than to – wait for it – sit by the pool or play ball! In a spoof on the claims of authenticity often found in nudist films, the movie was approved by ‘The National Moon Bathing Association’! Such twists became more and more common-place in the early Sixties, as the public gradually became bored by the straight documentary approach, and censorship began to relax more in its attitudes to nudity. The arrival of storylines in the films heralded the move away from straight-forward naturist films and the birth of the ‘nudie-cutie’. Russ Meyer led the way in 1959 with his groundbreaking sex comedy The Immoral Mr Teas, and others quickly followed. These films were the forerunners of the soft-core sexploitation films that emerged during the mid Sixties, and gave cinemagoers the opportunity to finally see bare breasts and a plotline in the same film.
Soon, the naturist film was in terminal decline. The only real reason that most people had queued to see the films in the first place was because there was no other way to see nudity on the big screen. Now that it was available elsewhere, no-one wanted to sit through what was, more often than not, a fairly tedious travelogue just for a vicarious thrill. By the middle of the decade, naturist films were all but dead. A few stragglers still popped up, along with re-issues of golden oldies, but in general, the public now wanted their nude action strictly within the confines of a fictional storyline. By 1967, the genre had been reduced to being used as a joke by the Carry On…team. In Carry On Camping, Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw take their girlfriends to a holiday camp that had been featured in a nudist film they’d seen at their local cinema (Nudist Paradise, in reality the first British made film in the genre but here seen with added footage of a topless Gilly Grant)…only to find that in real life, campers had to keep their clothes firmly on! In the same year, naturism had a brief revival in The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield, a somewhat scurrilous – though thoroughly entertaining – ‘documentary’ with the recently deceased star visiting nudist hotspots around the globe as she explores ‘the topless craze’. And it was in the Mondo movie that naturism had its cinematic home from now on. Once worthy of being the subject of entire films, the nude lifestyle was now just another ‘bizarre’ custom to be gaped at by thrill-seeking audiences…and even then, it came pretty low down the list of subjects for the film-makers to train their cameras on, unable to compete with the incredible series of bizarre attractions that these films discovered.
During the 1970’s, there seemed little room for naturist cinema, other than as a nostalgic curio. After all, who was going to watch a film about naked people in a holiday camp, when mainstream American cinemas were showing the likes of Deep Throat? In the mid-Eighties though, the widespread use of home video made it possible for small producers to make films that were aimed at specialist audiences. Shooting on video is considerably less expensive than using film, and also gives the producer the ability to be able to target a more selective audience. The first shot-on-video naturist film was Educating Julie, a British production which more or less follows the same lines as the films of the early Sixties, but with an updated approach (i.e, you can see genitals!), and the trend continued with films like Perfect Exposure, Alison Over the Moon, and others – usually from naturist filmmaker Charlie Simonds – dealing with the joys of naturism within a fictional setting. Most video productions, though, tend to be straight-forward documentaries that would have little appeal to any would-be voyeurs. Tapes like the Naked USA series, Naked Africa (made by former pop star Beau Brummell!), Let Yourself Be Free, Nude Beaches of the World, Wake Up to the Sun and others are in many ways simply holiday guides on video, aiming to inform the viewer about the various facilities and activities to be found in their chosen location.
There are still some films which are aimed primarily at nonpractising viewers, though. Nudes A’Poppin’ for example documented the events at Indiana sun club Naked City’s ‘Nudist Contest’, where we’re treated to go-go dancing, strippers (it’s kind of strange to see a woman seductively removing her clothes for an audience of completely naked people), sky-diving, lingerie modelling and body painting. Similarly, It’s a Nude World had at least one eye on the ever increasing audience for soft sex on video, while American videos like Tits/Ass were aimed more at swingers than sun worshippers, with hard-core group sex included amongst the naked beach romping. In Britain in the 1980s and 1990s, nudism was an easy go-to form of censor-friendly titillation, and increasingly became the subject of TV documentary makers, who seemed to find the nudist lifestyle almost as fascinating as the exploitation filmmakers of the 1960s had, and who were happy to use titles like Diary of a Teenage Nudist to pull in an audience of people who probably didn’t have a genuine interest in the clothes-free lifestyle. But even these documentaries have started to dwindle in number, as broadcasters become more prudish and less keen to be seen to be exploiting nudity for ratings.
Curiously, the nudist film does seem to have entered a sort of public consciousness, even among those who are too young to even know that such films ever existed. At least two different UK TV commercials have satirised the genre, and comedy sketches and satires have referenced the films too. Iconic titles like Naked – As Nature Intended and Take Off Your Clothes and Live still seem oddly daring, and the films themselves have been dusted off for DVD reissue. Admittedly, their appeal today is camp rather than erotic – but the nudist film deserves to be remembered as both pioneering and very much of its time. And perhaps we need a return to the simple joys of nudist film making to shake off the po-faced moralising that has beset our modern film industry. Nudist camps, exhibitionists and naturists alike – let’s start filming!