Ecstasy (Extáze) (1933), a Czech film directed by Gustav Machatý and starring the then-unknown actress Hedy Lamar (under her real name, Hedwig Keisler), was the first film to be blocked by the U.S. Customs Service from entering the United States, thus continuing the service’s earlier censorship of books and magazines in violation of the modern conception of the First Amendment and the presumption against prior restraints on expression.

In a simple story of an unhappy marriage the film showed Lamar in the nude while racing across a meadow and swimming. Another scene, revolutionary for its time, showed a simulated female orgasm, although only Lamar’s face was shown.

In 1935 Ecstasy’s American distributor, Samuel Cummins of Eureka Productions, attempted to import the film, but the U.S. Customs Service banned it as obscene and immoral. He appealed the ruling but found he had no physical evidence to offer the appeals court because Customs agents had burned the print. A year later, Cummins returned with a significantly reedited print, and Customs allowed it into the United States. For major distribution, however, the film still needed a seal of approval from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA); without it, it could play only in a handful of art houses. Some states and localities banned the film altogether, including New York state. Cummins’s company sought a court order that would force New York officials to show the film. However, in Eureka Productions v. Lehman (S.D.N.Y. 1936), a federal district court ruled that state officials could exercise their police powers and deny a permit for the showing of a film they believed obscene. Cummins had little success in state court as well. A state court reached a similar ruling in Eureka Productions v. Byrne (N.Y.S. 1937), finding that state officials did not have to issue a permit, in part because the film “unduly emphasizes the carnal side of the sex relationship.” The film had problems in other states as well. In June 1937, a judge in Nebraska ruled that the film violated the decency laws of the state. Nevertheless, Ecstasy’s success in limited release persuaded Cummins to again request MPPDA approval in order to book it into larger theaters. MPPDA’s refusal to approve the film led to a highly public battle, and such national magazines as Look ran articles on the censorship battle, ironically featuring the very nude photos of Lamar that were at the heart of the controversy. In 1940, after more than a dozen court battles, and significant cuts to the most controversial scenes, Ecstasy was at last granted a seal of approval.

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