The film cost a million francs to produce and was financed by the nobleman Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who beginning in 1928 commissioned a film every year for the birthday of his wife Marie-Laure de Noailles. When it was first released, there was a storm of protest. The film premiered at Studio 28 in Paris on 29 November 1930 after receiving its permit from the Board of Censors. In order to get the permit, Buñuel had to present the film to the Board as the dream of a madman.
On 3 December 1930, a group of incensed members of the fascist League of Patriots threw ink at the screen, assaulted members of the audience, and destroyed art works by Dalí, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy and others on display in the lobby. On 10 December, the Prefect of Police of Paris, Jean Chiappe, arranged to have the film banned after the Board of Censors reviewed the film. A contemporary Spanish newspaper condemned the film as “...the most repulsive corruption of our age... the new poison which judaism, masonry, and rabid, revolutionary sectarianism want to use in order to corrupt the people.” The Noailles family pulled the film from distribution for nearly 50 years. In 1933, it was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, but the film did not have its official United States premiere until 1-15 November 1979 at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco.
In the final vignette, the place card narration tells of an orgy of 120 days of depraved acts (a reference to the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom) and tells us that the survivors of the orgy are ready to emerge. From the door of a castle emerges the Duc de Blangis, who strongly resembles Christ, with his long robes and beard. When a young girl runs out of the castle, the Duc comforts the girl, before taking her back into the castle. A scream is heard and the Duc emerges again, his beard mysteriously vanished. The film suddenly cuts to its final image, with the scalps of the women flapping in the wind on a crucifix, accompanied by jovial music. It has been suggested that this, along with scenes of violent expression earlier in the film as the lovestruck protagonist is manhandled along by two enforcers, may suggest that the film's message is that sexual repression, whether propagated by civil bourgeois society or by the church, breeds violence. This scene is alluded to in the opening sequence, which is an excerpt from a short science film about a scorpion. There we are informed that the Scorpion has five prismatic articulations, culminating in a sting.
The film's illustrations were created by Luis Ortiz Rosales.