old hollywood

What Was the First Modern Nude Scene?

Jayne Mansfield in Promises! Promises! Photo: Noonan-Taylor Prod./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

For a very long time in Hollywood, it was impossible to show nudity onscreen. Although movies in the silent era included fully naked bodies, from 1934 to 1968, censors monitored every studio film closely for explicit content, flagging costumes that were too revealing or shots that were too leering. But by the early 1960s, a few stars were willing to test the nude taboo.

One of them was Marilyn Monroe. Monroe filmed two nude scenes — one for 1961’s The Misfits and one for 1962’s Something’s Gotta Give — but neither made it into theaters in one piece. The first scene was cut and the second was a mere fragment of an unfinished movie, her last before she died. The Misfits moment was unscripted, a spontaneous impulse that arose during a love scene between Monroe and Clark Gable. The actress was shrouded in bedsheets when she dropped the covers, flashing the cameras in front of her. This scene didn’t make it into the final print, but according to a recent Deadline report, the footage was salvaged by producer Frank Taylor, whose son Curtice has kept it in a locked safe since 1999.

The Something’s Gotta Give scene was a little more intentional. Monroe’s character Ellen is supposed to swim nude, as a means to entice her estranged husband Nick from his hotel room. The footage of Monroe skinny-dipping in a pool is now available in multiple YouTube clips, but the movie never screened for era audiences, since Monroe was fired and then died before filming wrapped.

Either scene would’ve made Monroe the first American star to go nude in a Hollywood movie in decades. But in Monroe’s absence, it was Jayne Mansfield who shattered the long-standing tradition. Like Monroe, Mansfield was a buxom blonde with a complicated reputation — but unlike Monroe, she craved the industry’s constant spotlight, and frequently used her body to get it.

While onscreen nudity certainly existed before 1962, it had been outlawed in the U.S. for decades under the Production Code, a set of guidelines that governed Hollywood films from 1934 through 1968. The code forbade nudity — along with abortion, queer relationships, and many other topics — from all mainstream U.S. movies, which is why the Golden Age of Hollywood still enjoys such a squeaky-clean reputation, despite its many scandals.

It was against that backdrop that Mansfield made her topless debut in the 1963 swingers cruise-ship comedy Promises! Promises! The actress was in a bit of a career slump at the time. She hadn’t had a hit since 1957’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and her longtime studio was getting fed up. Fox dropped her contract after yet another dud, the 1962 historical riff It Happened in Athens. It appeared audiences were growing tired of Mansfield’s ditzy blonde shtick, or maybe they were just sick of her. Mansfield had always been famous for her crass publicity stunts, which often involved her “accidentally” losing her clothing. At the 1953 premiere for Underwater!, she had posed for endless photos in a tight bikini that eventually popped open in the pool, stealing the spotlight from the film’s star, Jane Russell.

Those blatant headline grabs had launched Mansfield’s career, landing her a star-making role in the 1956 comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, and they also made her distinct from her blonde-bombshell rival Monroe, who generated tabloid fodder without really trying. Mansfield was trying — she wanted those stories and, as one Saturday Evening Post headline put it, she would “do anything for publicity.” But that shameless attention-seeking also earned Mansfield plenty of animosity, particularly in the early 1960s, as she floundered professionally.

Shortly after Monroe’s 1962 death, The New York Times ran an article explaining why each “successor” to Monroe was an inadequate replacement: Ava Gardner was too reclusive, Kim Novak too serious, Natalie Wood too slight. But the newspaper reserved some of its meanest comments for Mansfield. “Jayne Mansfield, whom 20th Century Fox was building as a Love Goddess nominee, suffers from too much publicity and too few roles,” The New York Times wrote. “She has become rather a caricature — like Mae West — and alienates the segment which takes sex seriously.”

If she was already a caricature, it made sense for Mansfield to seek out the absurdity of a sexploitation film. Promises! Promises! was a translation of Edna Sheklow’s 1960 play The Plant, about two couples on a cruise ship who swap partners in a drunken haze, and then have to figure out who fathered which pregnancy. Actor Tommy Noonan purchased the film rights after nearly starring in the stage show, planning to write, direct, produce, and act in the movie.

Noonan would’ve known as well as anyone the risks of including a nude scene, even within the context of this racy plot. The Production Code included specific clauses banning “complete nudity, in fact or in silhouette,” as well as “indecent or undue exposure,” and that language had helped keep the screens clean for nearly two decades. Some producers had tried to skirt it — particularly Howard Hughes, who marketed both The Outlaw and The French Line on Jane Russell’s barely concealed chest — but actual nudity was still the domain of foreign films like And God Created Woman or the low-budget “nudie cuties” that played in grindhouses. Hollywood had come a long way since its heady pre-code days, when naked bodies were more commonplace, particularly in silent films like 1915’s The Hypocrites.

But a code violation didn’t carry the weight it once did, because by 1963, the entire system of censorship was running on life support. The administrators who enforced the code had historically relied on distribution to keep wayward producers in check — if a movie did not meet their standards, the code arbiters would deny it a “seal,” the literal stamp of approval that ran in the opening credits. When the major studios adopted the code, they had all pledged not to run films missing seals in their movie theater chains; since those studios owned and controlled the vast majority of theaters, it effectively shut any violators out of mainstream circuits. This integration of production and distribution ended in 1948, after a trust-busting decision from the Supreme Court ordered RKO, Paramount, Fox, MGM, and Warner Brothers to divest from their theaters. Those cinemas were free to book whatever they pleased, eliminating the code censors’s key method of enforcement. The 1952 Supreme Court ruling in Burstyn v. Wilson — which granted film First Amendment protections — as well as the exit of longtime code chief Joseph Breen in 1954, further transformed the system into a shell of its former self. In other words, there had never been a better time to push boundaries.

Mansfield’s nude scene arrives fairly early into Promises! Promises!, soon after the couples have settled into their cabins. Her screen husband Jeff (Noonan) has just been to see the ship’s medic about his sperm. When he returns — in high spirits, after receiving a placebo from the doctor — he finds Sandy (Mansfield) stepping out of a bath, where she was just cooing the song I’m in Love under a blanket of bubbles. She appears in the doorway, patting down her torso with a towel that does nothing to obscure her chest. The shot lingers for a few seconds before she closes the bathroom door to dress. (According to Raymond Strait’s gossipy Mansfield book Here They Are, the actress consumed a magnum bottle of champagne before shooting the scene.)

As the crew filmed, a photographer for Playboy took extra shots to run in the magazine, pocketing them for the eventual publicity campaign. Despite Mansfield’s name, Promises! Promises! was a B-film to its core, shepherded by an actor-turned-auteur who was not quite a household name and who harbored no artistic pretensions. The movie entered markets without MPAA approval or studio backing, which meant it had to rely solely on advertising. You can guess what the publicity team focused on.

Playboy published its behind-the-scenes images in the June 1963 issue, promising “The Nudest Jayne Mansfield” on the cover. Enterprising movie exhibitors were only too happy to join in the ogling. According to Boxoffice magazine, a theater manager in Phoenix hatched a stunt with his assistant that involved a pair of donkeys. The two men rode around on the animals with signs reading, “Everyone’s going to see ALL of Jayne Mansfield in PROMISES! PROMISES! at the PORTOFINO except ME — and you know what I am!” Boxoffice claimed this asinine donkey joke resulted in a 600 percent increase in business.

But in many cities, the exploitative advertising and lack of MPAA approval were a liability, with censorship boards in Maryland, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and other markets attempting to keep the film out. When the Playboy issues hit newsstands, Hugh Hefner was arrested and hauled into Chicago court for “publishing and distributing an obscene magazine.” The city based its complaint on two “particularly obscene” images showing Mansfield lying naked on a bed with a fully clothed man.The case ended in a mistrial, letting Hefner off the hook.

Though Promises! Promises! made money, it was too crass and too indie to recoup Mansfield’s struggling stardom and her career never bounced back to its 1950s heights. Critics savaged the film, with Variety calling it unsuitable for “anyone whose mentality surpasses that of a 5-year-old.” But the topless scene did indicate where films were heading in respect to the policy against nudity. The following year in 1964, The Pawnbroker challenged the Production Code with a much more artistic — and much more upsetting — use of nudity through a Holocaust flashback sequence. The film had a celebrated director in Sidney Lumet and a serious method star in Rod Steiger, and due to this pedigree, it had more of a lasting impact than Promises! Promises! could, setting a precedent that would make it easier for movies to include nude scenes.

Mansfield once told a gossip columnist, “The real stars are not good actors or actresses. They’re personalities.” Whether you consider Jayne Mansfield more of an actress or, as the New York Times’s Larry Glenn dubbed her, a “love goddess,” she was undoubtedly a personality, and just the right one to breach this Hollywood protocol. Along with so many other rebels and rulebreakers, she helped usher in a new wave of sexually frank films, one topless scene at a time.

What Was the First Modern Nude Scene?