In 1934, Maureen O’Sullivan shocked movie audiences by appearing completely naked on the Big Screen. This was no quick flash where you were not certain what you had seen. She was swimming naked for almost 4 minutes in Tarzan and His Mate.
It turns out that there are stories withing stories surrounding this scene. For one thing, the woman swimming naked was not actually Maureen O’Sullivan.
Audiences should have been tipped off by the incredible amount of time the couple spends underwater and how well they both swim. Johny Weismuller (Tarzan) was also an Olympic swimmer. Of course, the audience was probably too stunned by the nudity to be paying attention to the couple’s swimming skills.
But Maureen O’Sullivan herself is no prude in the film. She spends a good deal of time wearing a very revealing loincloth that would have been considered obscene if not for the prior nude swimming episode.
It is not clear exactly how individual audience members felt, but it is clear how the “moral authorities” of the day reacted. The Catholic Legion Of Decency condemned the film and
various State agencies spoke of pulling it from the theaters. What finally happened is that there ended up being 3 versions of the film in circulation simultaneously. In what were considered the most conservative parts of the country, the film had Jane swimming fully clothed. In most parts of the country, she was topless. In a few select theaters (mostly in New York City) the totally naked swimming scene was left in the film in its entirety.
Somehow, with all the focus on the swimming scene, the parts of the movie with Jane running around in her loincloth got left in all the versions.
However, the Moral Authorities were not satisfied. This film lead to increased censorship of movies in the U.S. and it was decades before audiences saw this much flesh on screen again.
Viewing the movie from a modern perspective, the naked swimming scene still holds up as being beautiful and artistic. The only unrealistic part of the scene, in fact, is that Tarzan himself is not naked. It makes no sense that in the middle of the jungle Tarzan would swim with a loincloth on, while his mate cavorted nude. However, male nudity was completely taboo in 1934. Even today there remains a double standard about male versus female nudity, which many actresses have complained about.
So if you want to see what was the talk of the country in 1934, take a look at Tarzan and His Mate. Most of the movie is silly, but the swimming scene is still great.