Friday 27 September 2013

The Extases of Censorship

‘Extase’ (1933) was a notorious and tarnished film even before any copy made its way from its Czech origin to American shores. The heavily talked about scenes of a near naked Hedwig Kiesler aka future scene legend Hedy Lamar and confronting close-ups of Lamar’s face during orgasm became legend amongst the Hollywood community and underground film enthusiasts. But the illustrious films journey into US cinemas was not as quick and easy as many eager filmgoers would have wished. In the dark days of Hays code censorship and with the MPPDA now under the direct and unwavering eye of conservative Catholic Joseph Breen, every scene and piece of dialogue was monitored. Kisses were shortened, double beds were torn apart and any implication of adultery, pre-marital affairs or, in the most part, passionate sexual relationships were removed from the screen. Along came ‘Extase’ around this period with its adulterous leading lady, nudity and blatant examination of female sexuality – a seemingly hopeless case.

The film was officially premiered on January 20, 1933 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Later that year filmmakers attempted to sell the movie to American exhibitors. As the industry was still operating under a Precode, self-censorship form of the Hays Code, it should have been easier for the film to be seen by audiences who were as this time enjoying such controversial and risqué films as ‘Female’ (1933) and ‘Bitter Tea of General Yen’ (1933), right? Well not quite, the Catholic Legion of Decency – a powerful organisation aimed at reducing immoral content in films and who later was instrumental in altering the Pre-code system – condemned the film as “morally objectionable”. A year passed and films entered a stricter, controlled style that would govern filmmaking for the next few decades.

Joseph Breen
Two years after the films European release Samuel Cummins attempted to import the film into the US. Upon its entry customs sprang into action seizing the film and burning it before Cummins had the chance to launch an appeal. Determined he then tried to push through a heavily edited version – created originally for release into Germany – with the nude bathing scenes and hints of adultery removed. This version was allowed into the country by customs officials.
In 1936, a US distributor attempted to have the film given the seal of approval by the Hays Code which would allow the picture to be given a country-wide release. After ten months of lobbying they were refused. Breen even came out against the film commenting in a memo to Hays that it was, “highly – even dangerously – indecent”. His official reply to the distributor was:

“I regret to advise you that we cannot approve your production Estase that you submitted for our examination yesterday for the reason that is our considered unanimous judgement that the picture is definitely and specifically in violation of the Production Code. This violation is suggested by the basic story…in that it is a [story] of illicit love and frustrated sex, treated in detail without sufficient compensating moral values.”

In December 1940 after five years of debates and struggles ‘Ecstasy’ was finally released to US viewers…without the seal of approval. Its distribution now came down to the discretion of state censor boards whose opinions were widespread and varied; for example, New York allowed the film while Pennsylvania completely banned it and others either restricted viewings or demanded cuts.

 The film was now available - perhaps not in a wide release or in its original form – to US viewers but the movie would not be rid of controversy. Lamarr’s first husband, wealthy munitions manufacturer Friedrich Mandl, heavily objected to the film and his perception that it exploited his young wife. He attempted to buy as many copies of the film as possible during their marriage from 1933 to 1937. It was another attempt at a kind of independent censorship but thankfully for film history and the future career of Lamarr which flourished perhaps somewhat from her controversial role, he was unsuccessful.

The film is now available through both legal and illegal means on the boundless entity that is the internet. It is strange in an era of high technology and quick and simple communication from country to country, to understand the concept of having a feature film completely blocked from entering a nation. Foreign films are becoming less foreign. Today almost nothing is off limits, filmmakers are allowed the privilege to create what they choose and show what they choose. Whether this is a positive step for movie production or not, it surfaces the most interesting and controversial question of all – the question of censorship itself.

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