Ecstasy (1933): “The Most Talked About Picture In the World”

With that tagline, who could resist?

Here is the original poster for the film. Provocative, isn’t it?

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Ecstasy, directed by Bohemia (now Czech)-born Gustav Machatý, was notorious by the time it hit the screens in the US, in 1935. It had been filmed in Prague, and had already been seen by international audiences; hence: the tagline. Ecstasy caused a firestorm of controversy, and when the print was sent to the US, it was seized by customs, due to its supposedly being “obscene”. Shades of James Joyce here. The obscenity was due to the fact that Hedy Lamarr, star of the film (then named Hedy Kiesler) has a scene where she runs through the woods, naked, after skinny-dipping, and you get some full frontal nudity going on. The US exhibitor pleaded his case for the film, and an edited version was cobbled together, taking out Hedy’s lady-bits, as well as adding a “moral” (along the lines of the “We don’t condone any of this” message added to the beginning of James Cagney’s Public Enemy, another pre-Code film which pushed the boundaries of what you could show)- basically making it clear that there was a divorce, and adding an ending that justified her behavior … as though wanting to be sexually happy (in your marriage, let’s not forget) was somehow shocking.

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The film does not judge her, and that’s what is so extraordinary about it. Perhaps that was the most shocking “obscene” thing of all, and the focus on Hedy Lamarr’s nudity was a smokescreen for that larger “disturbing” issue (rolling my eyes). Once the Code came down, women were put in their place, and “bad” girls were punished, or feared … separating women out into split personalities. The thought that a woman would love sex was not to be mentioned … and the sneakiest directors were able to get around the Code and suggest what they needed to suggest. I mean, Only Angels Have Wings, in 1939, is HOT – the scene between Cary Grant and Jean Arthur at the bar, where he invites her to “come up to his room” to see photographs … I mean, it’s not a coy film at ALL. But the words hide the true meaning – as opposed to reveal it. The Code films are full of euphemisms and metaphor, to trick the censors, but a discerning viewer will certainly get the message.

What is startling about Ecstasy is the lack of euphemism. There are some clever sight-gags – like her lying alone in bed on her wedding night, longing for him to come to her – and we see only his feet, in another room, and they suddenly sag – suggesting he has fallen asleep standing up.

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Hm. The man is sagging … what could THAT represent?? But again: this was not a tricky way to get around censors. It’s quite blatant what is happening, and the sight-gag is merely a clever storytelling device, a way to make the situation visual. (There is barely any dialogue in the film, either. Most of it is a very sophisticated pantomime.)

If you list the plot elements, it sounds silly and vulgar:

1. Man and woman on wedding night. She wants to have sex. He is not interested.

2. They are out to lunch, and he reads the paper, and she stares at all the dancing couples, and feels like she is missing out. Then she watches her husband kill a bee. It is upsetting to her.

3. Eventually, she leaves him and runs home to her father. She is upset. The father is a bit distracted because one of his mares is in the process of giving birth. She hugs the horse as the horse gives birth. I mean, duh.

4. Divorce proceedings happen.

5. One day, our heroine, living with her father, takes a horse ride. She comes across a pond and decides to take a swim. She takes off all her clothes and dives in. She swims and frolics by herself, as her horse grazes on the sidelines. Meanwhile, in a nearby field, a stallion in his pen sees the grazing horse … and begins to snort and stamp and flare his nostrils. He wants some SEX, his muscles ripple, he is a fearsome and gorgeous beast. The grazing horse takes notice (I mean, wouldn’t you?) … and basically bats her eyelashes at the stallion (I am not even kidding – the horse sequences are pretty amazing) and runs off to meet up with her potential lover … leaving our heroine naked and stranded in the pond. Panic! Our heroine runs out of the pond, naked, and so begins a chase. Hedy Lamarr chases her horse through the woods and fields. The horse ends up running into the middle of a surveying project – with lots of workers – and the head of the project, the head engineer, starts to run off after the horse. (I am never clear why he chases the horse for so long. Isn’t it enough to just chase the horse out of the middle of his work area?) Our naked heroine sees the man coming and she runs and hides behind a bush. Engineer-Man sees that the runaway horse has white overalls draped across its back … so he begins to wander thru the woods, basically looking for a naked woman who has obviously lost her clothes. He comes across the cowering naked Hedy Lamarr. Grinning, he throws her her clothes. She dresses. (I just have to say that I WANT her overalls.)

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She leads her horse away. She trips and sprains her ankle. Engineer-Man runs after her and takes care of her ankle. They do not speak. It is highly erotic, him massaging her foot as she lies there, passive. Then they sit together quietly – and whaddya know, Engineer-Man picks up a flower and gently scoops up a nearby bumblebee and places it in the flower. A stark contrast to her bee-murdering ex-husband.

6. The two part. She goes back to her house. She lies in bed, dreaming and fantasizing. There is a windstorm. She can’t stand it anymore so she goes out in the middle of the night and goes to his small cottage. She opens the door. He is sitting there, reading, and shocked to see her there.

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There is no dialogue. They embrace. He lies her down on the couch, and then descends from view (Huh. Where is he GOING, do you think?? I’m confused) – and the camera focuses on her face as she experiences ‘ecstasy’ for what is presumably the first time. Then she lights a cigarette. I mean, what else are you going to do in such a moment? He lies his head on her breast, and we fade out.

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7. The next shot is the two of them parting – and it is daylight. She is wearing the same clothes as the day before (those scrumptious overalls). They are happy, giggly, giddy.

8. She comes home, only to find her ex-husband waiting there for her. Awful. Now that she’s had sex, and had an orgasm, she wants nothing to do with that nincompoop. She has seen the light! (Again: none of this is played with too much euphemism or tricks. It is what it is. The amazing thing is how little she is judged for wanting to be pleased, for wanting pleasure. It’s presented in a pretty straight-forward manner.) But her husband feels bereft and ashamed – that his wife has basically fled the scene. He is not portrayed as an evil man, or a bad man. Just unimaginative, a little bit OCD (the way he corrects how she puts the toothbrush in the cup on the side of the sink), and not passionate at all. She needs more.

9. There ends up being an encounter between Engineer-Man and Ex-Husband – although Engineer Man does not know who it is. There is a careening car ride that gets a little scary. Ex-Husband is starting to seem very unstable. Poor guy.

10. Engineer-Man (who is also a stud, with hard shapely forearms, who also reads books, who also saves hapless bumblebees, who not only gets in the elevator but he also goes down – I mean, what more does a woman want?) and our heroine are going to get married.

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And after that, I will say no more … to avoid spoilers.

There’s an expressionistic feel to much of the film. Scenes take their time. There are long montage sequences where we see clouds moving in the sky, floating strands of grain, a tap dripping water into a well, the sun beating down … None of these things have a “point” in terms of plot, although they do serve important purposes: bringing about a certain mood, a certain dreamy quality. The film is told primarily from Eva’s point of view. She begins her marriage excited and eager. Once sex is denied to her, she begins to droop. The depression is acute, of course, and she feels left out of the joys of life (there’s a scene where she stares out of rain-streaked window at a couple embracing in a doorway, and there is such sadness in Eva’s face). But there’s another element of Eva’s psychology – and that, I think, is one of the things people found shocking back then. (Interesting thing: in the director’s commentary for Waking the Dead – my review here, the director said that some of the most hostile responses at previews were for the scene where she masturbates. She’s thinking of her boyfriend, it is a monogamous relationship, she is totally in love with him, and he is on duty – far across the country – and she aches for him. She masturbates. Wow. How DARE she? The responses were vehement. This is 2000? What the hell year are we in? She was called a “whore”, a “slut” – people didn’t like her, etc. etc. Are you kidding me? So I guess we haven’t come a long way, baby. I’m just saying.) In Ecstasy, the meandering montage sequences – of sunshine and grass and leaves and objects … begin to create a dreamy atmosphere, a non-literal energy … which adds to the feeling that she is now living almost completely in a fantasy life. She lies in bed, with bands of moonlight across her face, and she moves, just slightly … we get a small montage of the lit-up lace curtains, the shadows on the walls, the light through the slats in the window … and we begin to feel ourselves unhinge a bit, as she has. It is an erotic atmosphere, where sensations add up, piling, layering, until your entire being is ready for … whatever. Love, sex, climax, whatever – the great unknown to this character. She is on the verge. The scenes, which do not rush themselves, add to that sense of waiting, of being on the verge of something.

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Kim writes, in her piece on the film:

Gustav Machaty’s Ecstasy explains some simultaneously simple and convoluted facts of life. Women get bored. Women daydream. They desire sex. They enjoy sex. And if they find it, they’ll have sex, even if they’re a little scared, or the man is over-eager, or they’re afraid of the resulting guilt (which seems worse today — in this Miley Cyrus/virgin/whore/Hester Prynne/fuck me now let me throw a rock at you society). No rocks for Hedy, Ecstasy is actually nice to its sexed up lass.

How nice the film is to her is one of its most shocking elements.

Hedy Lamarr was not a big star when Ecstasy came out, but it did get the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who hated the movie, but loved her in it. He put her under contract, and the rest is history. But for years, only the edited version of Ecstasy was available, and it never got large distribution due to the controversy. Regardless, it was condemned left and right – similar to Baby Doll, another controversial film that refused to judge its “sexed-up lass” … it was condemned by the Catholic Church, and … you know … if people were to see this film they would immediately descend into degenerate behavior … whatever.

What’s fascinating about seeing the unexpurgated Ecstasy … is how kind it is. How … well … sweet. Again, by just describing the plot elements it might sound salacious but that is only because of the world we live in now, which is even more unkind to its sexualized young things. Hedy Lamarr runs through the woods of Bohemia, naked, and somehow it does not come across as objectification. It is a woman’s body. It is certainly erotic, and those scenes are quite beautiful … but it doesn’t have a dirty mind behind it, if that makes sense. Quite a revelation.

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Ecstasy drags in its second half, and I didn’t like the ending. I was also completely gobsmacked by the throngs of singing “workers” which suddenly made it seem like a propaganda film for Unionizing the world. What? Where did THAT come from? And where did she go?

Nevertheless, Ecstasy is obviously no longer “the most talked about picture in the world”, but once upon a time it was, and now, thank goodness, we all can have a look at it.

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I mentioned in my earlier post that people are shown in fragments throughout the film. In the beginning, the fragmented shots – his hands, her feet, whatever – end up making you feel the dissociation she feels from the wedding-night experience.

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There will be no sex had here, and so she splits off – becoming just her parts – and he, too, has split off into fragments – not a whole man at all. This fragmented filmmaking continues on throughout, even after she leaves him … but it takes on quite a different aspect with her lover (played by the wonderful Aribert Mog – who manages to inject humor, grace, sexiness, and manly concern – all into what could be an incredibly schmaltzy part) … we just see her knees, curled up on the couch. Or we see her hand, hanging over the edge of the couch. Or we see her face in acute close-up, we’re almost going up her nose, for God’s sake.

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What is happening here is not an increase in objectification and dissociation – but just the opposite. We are moving into her psyche … we are no longer observing her, we are her. So her knees curled up on the couch become objects, yes, but objects that are not separate from the whole … but a part of her. What we can’t see is hidden, not missing.

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Here are some screenshots.


ECSTASY (1933) dir. Gustave Machatý

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20 Responses to Ecstasy (1933): “The Most Talked About Picture In the World”

  1. george says:

    Sheila

    Enjoyed your take on “Ecstasy”.

    Hedy Lamarr doesn’t photograph as a nineteen year old, she seems more mature, especially facially. No point to that – just a personal observation.

    As to the reactions re the masturbation in “Ecstasy” and “Waking The Dead” I tend to believe that the hostile responses are due not to the act SUGGESTED but to the very provocative sensuality of the act VISUALIZED. I hope that makes sense. Let’s put it this way: I’ve seen several scenes of male masturbation in the movies and all are ludicrous – because the physical nature of the act is so. It is never erotic – can’t be – either to man, woman, or beast. But when women are shown to do it – that is a powerfully erotic image – and hence the vehemence against such. I think.

  2. red says:

    George – hmmm. It does make sense – but I wonder if there is more to it? . As a woman, I can say that … well, without getting too graphic … I like the opposite visual as well. Ahem. Of course men would find the private glimpse of a woman pleasuring herself to be totally erotic – that makes perfect sense … but I think the opposite is true as well. Maybe a straight man wouldn’t find it erotic – they might be more prone to see the silliness of it … because it’s familiar territory to them and they’re not aroused by it. Bah, I’m not expressing myself well!!

    I still think it has a lot to do with the fact that “good girls aren’t supposed to do that” – and that there is something taboo about a woman getting herself off without a man present. The sort of attitude like: “where the heck is the PHALLUS in the scene?” When women basically don’t need one – and that can be seen as threatening, or weird, or whatever.

    Thoughts??

    I agree with you about Hedy looking older. I love her kewpie doll face.

    I also love how after she emerges from the pond and goes running through the woods – her hair, miraculously, is no longer wet! Gotta love the movies!!

  3. george says:

    Sheila

    The appreciation of such visuals for men and women, well, perhaps I overstated the point, but not by much. The difference between a woman’s “like” and a man’s “whoa!!!” is substantial. I believe the respective pheromone levels will back me up on this point.

    As to ‘good girls aren’t supposed to do that”, I suspect such proscriptive attitudes are rare. In most cases it’s just cautionary advice mostly aimed at the young. Finally, the “threatening” aspect of “no man present” – perhaps threatening, slightly, mildly. A threat with candy? It might go like this:

    “Good girls aren’t supposed to do that AND enjoy it so damn much BUT at least it’s delightful to watch”.

  4. red says:

    The difference between a woman’s “like” and a man’s “whoa!!!” is substantial.

    Really? Not in my experience. So let’s just leave it at that.

    And as a woman, I can say, that yes – the sense of threat is real and not at all insubstantial. Not on a person-to-person level – but on a cultural level – and I do think that was part of why Ecstasy was so taboo and shocking. Not because of the nudity but because of her desire for sex. The fact that the comments about the masturbation scene in Waking the Dead were not “That was hot” or “wow, wasn’t expecting THAT” but – “God, she’s such a whore!” are indicative that something else is going on. You may not subscribe to that mindset – thank the good Lord above, and many men I know (most men I know) don’t subscribe to such prudish thinking – and yes, perhaps SEEING it is something very different – it makes it less abstract and therefore less mysterious. I definitely agree with that. But that doesn’t take away the fact that if you had a scene of HIM masturbating, odds are that you would not get “What a SLUT” comments. You might get “How silly”, or “I was embarrassed watching him” but that is VERY different in nature from calling someone a slut for masturbating – while thinking about her boyfriend. There is a sense of threat there. (This might go along with the whole “trolls” piece I linked to below … that the lowest common denominator of humans are quite often the loudest).

    In a funny way, I think the long meandering daydreaming scenes in Ecstasy are the most erotic and striking thing about it. The scenes don’t seem to be in a hurry to finish themselves, know what I mean? It isn’t a ba-dum-ching kind of energy. It lets itself just be, in those half-awake half-asleep moments … and it’s really quite unusual.

    Then of course we have a bunch of Aryan youths swinging hammers at the end, and who the hell knows what’s going on with THAT!!

    It’s been lovely talking to someone who’s actually seen the film! Thank you!!

  5. red says:

    Interestingly enough – the other scene which got bad reactions in previews for Waking the Dead – was when he breaks down at the dinner table with his family. It was mainly young men who responded to that one, with contempt for his crybabyish-ness – or whatever – the tears were really a hot button issue for a certain section of the audience. The director found that fascinating – he felt it was really important to keep that scene in – because he felt it showed the unraveling of a personality, and how much this man had lost when his girlfriend disappeared – but the violence of the responses really took him aback.

    An interesting cultural snapshot I think!

  6. Kate says:

    Wow. I have to see this movie.

  7. red says:

    Kate – hello, my phone-tag friend! I miss you, dammit!

    Yes – you have to see it! It’s very interesting! There’s no “me jujitsu too” moment, granted, but how many movies have something like THAT??

  8. george says:

    Sheila

    You’re right – this goes along with the “trolls” thing. However, opinions and comments (sluts and whores) of trolls cannot be taken as representative of society’s attitudes. That they alone should choose to comment makes complete sense. How many who thought such scenes were “hot” would bother to comment. I have never come across such attitudes and continue to find it hard to believe that such attitudes are anything more than a blip on the radar.

    As to comments re the man’s public “breakdown” in “Waking The Dead” – more understandable. I have no problem with the scene in its context but I can understand some
    discomfort and criticism. In an increasingly feminized and “sensitive” society it would be nice to see guys “suck it up” a bit more.

  9. red says:

    The attitudes of “slut” and “whore” are far more widespread and insidious than you might realize. You’ll just have to take a woman’s word for it!

    Kim Morgan’s piece goes into that as well. Which is one of the reasons why I think Ecstasy – with its KIND portrayal of sexual exploration from the female side, and its lack of demonization of her character – like, she isn’t murdered, or jailed, or suddenly “evil” – is rare.

  10. christina says:

    I saw this in a film appreciation class at my college and thought it was really beautiful. I loved how the images ended up feeling like a collage. At first it struck me as boring, because i kept waiting for something to happen, but once I got into it I thought it was really beautiful. The clouds racing across the sky and the curtains and stuff like that.

    I was really interested too in how modern she seemed. She didn’t seem melodramatic. It almost felt like her acting style would fit in today.

  11. red says:

    Christina – Yes!! I totally agree.

    There’s that one moment where she falls when she’s leading the horse away – and the music gets all melodramatic – as though she stepped on a damn landmine or something … but that, for me, was one of the only “period” moments in the thing. For the most part, it seemed pretty real to me, and her attitude on screen was very relaxed, very contemporary.

  12. christina says:

    I love her overalls too. :)

  13. red says:

    I think it’s a very funny moment, too, when he tosses her the overalls. I don’t know – it’s subtle. He sees she’s naked, and sure, he’s intrigued and turned on … but he sort of sees the whole situation in a glance (she was swimming and her horse ran away) and it’s amusing to him. He grabs the overalls and tosses them to her, averting his eyes, but there’s a smile on his face. I like that moment a lot.

  14. christina says:

    I like the bit when the father hugs her in the living room and there’s a portrait of the dead mother on the wall and he says something like, “I never understood your mother and I will never understand you” but he doesn’t say it in a mad way. It’s a tender moment.

  15. george says:

    Sheila

    I don’t want anyone thinking I’m some troglodyte. Of course the terms “slut” and “whore” are ubiquitous. My point is that they are rarely used re a women’s sexuality, whatever form. They have become generic insults and used quite out of context – ex. “that slut just dumped me” or “that whore is divorcing me”.

  16. red says:

    I don’t see you as a troglodyte.

    And yes – I get your point completely – but my point had to do specifically with the response to Jennifer Connelly masturbating – and how that is actually an insidious cultural thing, which DOES exist on a widespread level. You may not see it that way, but we’re talking about something rather subjective and I’m speaking from a woman’s point of view, that’s all -just sharing my perspective. Again, on an individual level – it might not be present as much (at least not if you’re the kind of woman who has great radar about hostile misogynistic men and can stay away from them) – but in a bigger picture, yes it is there. Examples abound.

    But to dovetail that conversation with Ecstasy: the expectation that a woman should be punished for being sexually adventurous is completely turned on its ear in this particular film … or with something like Baby Face, another pre-Code shocker, with Barbara Stanwyck … Even just a couple of years later, those characters would need to be domesticated somehow – either put in jail, or married or murdered – because you can’t just have the little ladies running around having all that sex willy-nilly!

    That’s why I think Ecstasy is an interesting piece – even with its flaws. It does not judge her for going after her own pleasure. It sees pleasure-seeking to be a valid and regular-old pursuit of women. I find that comforting and it’s nice to see her not be demonized for it.

  17. george says:

    Sheila

    Absolutely my final comment – I promise.
    It seems to me that all those pre-Code movies were quite successful, hence the need to save the movie goers from themselves. Therefore it wasn’t society in general that was squeamish re women’s sexuality, it was the Code that tamed those women. As for today’s movies, women’s sexuality is a given, I believe. It’s just how far you are willing to push the envelope to visualize that on the big screen.

    Now I’m going to go read about “Baby Doll”.

  18. red says:

    They were successful, yes, but in many ways they were successful because they blocked out huge swaths of reality – racial issues, women’s sexuality, homosexuality, nontraditional lifestyles, questioning of authority figures, etc.. I love the Code movies, but I disagree that it did not reflect a degree of squeamishness in the public at large. (The Self-Styled Siren has written some awesome posts about the Code.)

    And again: Kim’s eloquent piece about Ecstasy addresses some of the modern-day issues with way more aplomb than I can. Suffice it to say, I agree with her completely.

    Speaking of controversial movies showing female sexuality … onto Baby Doll!!

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