A Hollywood comedy lampoons a foreign dictator. That dictator gets peeved. A major studio has second thoughts about releasing the film to a wide audience. This scenario might make The Interview, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Sony Pictures come to mind. But in the best of Hollywood traditions, the recent ruckus over the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy is little more than a remake.
Past films have taken tyrants to task, and other studios have pulled the plug on productions for apparently political considerations. The Interview is just the latest in a long list of films that have had their public availability limited thanks to dissed despots or scissor-mad censors. Here are 10 previous films, both famous and obscure, that have been banned or drastically censored over the course of cinema history:
The Great Dictator (1940)
Charlie Chaplin’s comic turn as Adenoid Hynkel, a tyrant with an unmistakable resemblance to Adolph Hitler, may be the most famous film ever to poke fun at a foreign head of state. It also performed a similar service for the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, parodied as Benzino Napaloni by the actor Jack Oakie. Not surprisingly, the film was banned in Germany (where Chaplin’s films were already verboten), as well as in Japan, Spain, Peru and Argentina. It was also banned in Chicago, reportedly due to fear of antagonizing the city’s German-American population.
It Can’t Happen Here (1936)
This movie was based on Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 bestseller about a fascist takeover of the United States. Or it would have been. Production was already underway when MGM, which had bought the rights, decided to shelve the project, allegedly not wanting to anger fascist governments overseas. As the frustrated Lewis put it in a statement to The New York Times, “I wrote ‘It Can’t Happen Here,’ but I begin to think it certainly can.”
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel about German soldiers in the First World War, All Quiet won the Academy Award for Outstanding Production, the equivalent of today’s Best Picture nod. But its anti-war message did not sit well with the Nazi party in Germany, which not only picketed outside theaters but also released stink bombs and mice (some sources say rats) inside them. Shortly thereafter the film was banned in Germany. At various times it was also banned in Austria, Poland, Italy, France and Australia, largely because of its unromanticized depiction of war.
The Day the Clown Cried (1972)
This unreleased, possibly unfinished and much-discussed film stars Jerry Lewis as a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. The movie’s critics, few of whom have actually seen a copy, have depicted it as tasteless, maudlin or simply bad. Even Lewis, who also directed and helped finance the film, has said that watching it made him feel “embarrassed” and “ashamed” and that he was grateful he had the power to make sure no one else ever saw it—a rare instance of a film banned by its own creator.
The all-time horror classic may have spent more time on censors’ cutting blocks than its monster did on Dr. Frankenstein’s operating table, for fear that audiences would find it too shocking. It was edited in many parts of the United States and banned outright in Czechoslovakia, Italy, Northern Ireland and Sweden, according to the American Film Institute. Its 1935 sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, was reportedly banned in Hungary, Palestine and Trinidad, not to mention the state of Ohio. Despite the outcry, both husband and wife are now on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” films.
This silent and still-spooky interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, by the German director F. W. Murnau, was spiked soon after its first release because Murnau had failed to secure the rights to the book. Though he changed Dracula’s name to Orlok and moved much of the mayhem from England to Germany, Stoker’s widow sued, and a judge ordered the movie destroyed. Like the bloodthirsty count, however, Nosferatu proved difficult to kill. At least one copy survived, and in later years the film returned to movie screens and became an acknowledged classic.
Little Caesar (1930)
The pioneering gangster flick, with Edward G. Robinson as an Al Capone-like hoodlum named Rico, was censored across the United States and banned in Australia and parts of Canada. Though Rico gets his comeuppance at the end of the film in a blaze of machine-gun fire, censors apparently thought it glamorized the gangster lifestyle, a charge that has been leveled against movies in this genre ever since.
We the Living (1942)
This Italian version of Ayn Rand’s 1936 novel about life in Soviet Russia was banned and ordered destroyed by the Mussolini government. Although it was ostensibly about communism, its dim view of totalitarian regimes apparently hit too close to home. A producer managed to hide the film negatives, which resurfaced years later. According to the biography Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller, Rand later received $35,000 in compensation for the unauthorized use of her work, a portion of which she used to buy a mink coat. It was finally released in the U.S. in the 1980s.
She Done Him Wrong (1933)
Mae West was no stranger to censorship when she began her movie career. She had even been jailed for 10 days on obscenity charges for her role in a stage play, the unambiguously titled Sex. So she probably wasn’t surprised when this film was banned in Australia, Austria and Finland and hacked to pieces by censors across the United States for its sly sexuality and double entendres. Even so, it made a star of the young male lead, Cary Grant, and an even bigger one of West. It also provided what may be her most famous and often misquoted line of dialog: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”
Prizefighting Films (1910 to 1940)
Here's a rare case of an entire category of films being banned. In 1910, the African-American boxer Jack Johnson clobbered his white opponent, Jim Jeffries, in a fight for the heavyweight title. Apparently upset by that outcome, states and cities across the U.S. began banning films of live boxing matches. Two years later, the U.S. Congress entered the ring, making the interstate transportation of boxing films illegal. Though enforced only sporadically in later years, the law wasn’t repealed until 1940.