Anyone who is even casually familiar with Hedy Lamarr’s movie career is probably familiar with dark references to “that weird movie” she made as a teenager that sparked a scandal across pre-World War II Europe — and almost cost the actress her Hollywood career.
How times change. Today that “weird movie” is shown uncut at film festivals and on the Turner Classic Movie cable channel, and its artistic merits are seriously debated by cineastes and film scholars.
That “scandalous” appearance was in a 1933 movie titled Ecstasy. Vienna-born Hedy Kiesler while still an actress in her teens earned dubious early fame on the back of this Czech-made film – that had the uplifting effect of stoking libidos worldwide.
The movie’s European title is “Extase” Directed by one Gustav Machaty, the movie tells the story of a luscious, young wife (Hedy) of a physically debilitated much-older man who cannot consummate their marriage.
The frustrated young bride goes skinny-dipping one day in the woods and is accidentally discovered by a virile construction worker (played by 27-year-old German actor Aribert Mog). The two are passionately drawn together…… Well, you get the drift.
At the time it was made “Ecstasy” was conceived as an “art film.” Dialogue was kept to a minimum. Music and cinematography were emphasized.
What added zest to the project was the fact that Hedy at 18 was shown in long tracking shots running through the woods completely in the buff. Those seeing the picture for the first time are surprised to see the somewhat zoftig figure she sported at the time. (We think she looked great.) After the movie was finished, Lamarr put herself on a diet.
What caught world attention were her love scenes with costar Mog (with whom she actually was having an affair at the time). To put it mildly, they were highly realistic. Both were “winging it,” Hedy later confessed.
Although female nudity had been shown onscreen before Ecstasy, it is said that the movie shows for the first time to mainstream audiences a woman in the throes of sexual intercourse.
As a result, “Ecstasy” was publicly condemned by Pope Pius XI, and didn’t open in the U.S. until 1936, after which it was promptly “condemned” by the National Legion of Decency.
An “Ecstasy” screening her parents attended at the Berlin debut of the movie did not go well. At his first glimpse of his naked daughter, Hedy’s father bolted from his theater seat, announcing, “we are leaving.” Grabbing his wife by the arm, Emil Kiesler did just that.
Worse was the reaction of Hedy’s first husband, Fritz Mandl, an enormously rich munitions merchant she married at just 19. After a private screening, the outraged, control-freak spouse vowed to buy up all prints of the offending “Ecstasy” including the original negative. “I don’t care how much I have to pay.”
After laying out several hundred thousand dollars in his quest, Mandl gave up the futile effort. (Mussolini for one refused to sell his private print of the picture.)
We saw Ecstasy uncut a while back on TCM. It holds up really well, and not just for sensational reasons. It could be argued that Hedy never looked more appealing.