The 1930s Nudism Racket

A vintage documentary look at the nudist lifestyle that is both enthusiastic and salacious.

Back in the 1930s, Roadshow movies became a popular alternative to the Hollywood mainstream. As the Hays Code imposed severe restrictions on what mainstream films could show, so this alternative circuit – closer to the travelling carnival that regular film distribution – stepped up with outrageous and salacious fare. Often hiring cinemas (which mean that the distributor took all of the box office take but also all of the legal risks) and constantly staying one step ahead of the law, these renegade film distributors, producers and directors specialised in the sensational and knew how to sell: white-coated doctors delivering sex education lectures, selling ‘educational’ books, gender-segregated screenings and more helped pull in the crowds, and films about venereal disease, loose women, drugs, childbirth and other forbidden subjects helped drag in the crowds. Sometimes, the hype outstripped the film and if audiences grew restless at feeling ripped off (especially if local authorities had forced the films to be edited before being shown), the ‘square-up reel’ was always on-hand – this would be a short reel of nudity that could be quickly thrown on to placate the audience, with any watching police or local busybodies having hopefully already left by this point.

1938’s The Expose of the Nudist Racket seems to be just such a film – clocking in at just under ten minutes (a minute and a half of which are the opening titles that make much of the novelty nature of the word ‘nudism’), this sets itself up as a documentary about the nudist ‘cult’. Of course, in reality, it exists simply to show as much nudity – including, surprisingly, brief frontal nudity both male and female – as it can squeeze in, with the emphasis on nubile young women who cynics might think are not actual nudists at all but professional glamour girls and strippers. The narration extols the virtues of the naturist lifestyle, though the film’s title is altogether more dismissive – literally dismissing nudism as a ‘racket’. In having its cake and eating it, the film is very much the precursor of the nudist films that began to proliferate in the 1950s and 1960s.

Nevertheless, this once outrageous reel of film now seems rather charming and innocent – audiences now are more likely to be offended by the narrator’s mockery of an overweight woman. Of course, we should remember that anyone posting this on most social media sites will find the clip restricted or removed and their account possible closed. So perhaps we haven’t really made much progress at all.

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