Controversial Movies That Were Banned In The US

One of the greatest exports of the United States is the film industry. We make a lot of movies, and even though many of them are super violent and very sexy, there are some movies that people believe crossed a line. Many controversial movies stir the pot for a little bit, create water-cooler talk at work, and then just sort of disappear, but that's not the case with the following films.

All of these films were banned in the US for a variety of reasons, and they're all contentious. Some of these movies were banned because they ran afoul of the Hays Code, others were a full-on affront to the morals of conservative America, and some of them are just absolutely wild.

Not all of the bans on these controversial movies have stuck - some of them are legit classics - but there are a few that most audiences have never and likely will never see.

  • Birth Control
    Photo: Variety (Mar. 1917) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Birth Control

    Birth Control is more than just one of the earliest onscreen depictions of family planning; it's billed as the story of Margaret Sanger, the nurse who opened the first birth control clinic in the United States.

    The film was screened privately but was banned in New York State "in the interest of morality, decency, and public safety and welfare" before it could be screened publicly. The only surviving synopsis of the film comes from New York State Supreme Court judge Nathan Bijur, who laid out much of the plot in his decision.

  • Anyone who's seen Häxan knows that it's closer to an ID TV reenactment of witchcraft than a real depiction of the black arts, but when it was released in 1922, it might as well have been a snuff film in the US. Directed by Benjamin Christensen, Häxan looks at the witch hunts of the 15th century, complete with Satanic rites, various ghouls, and naked witches frolicking with the Devil himself.

    Christensen didn't want to titillate audiences - quite the opposite, in fact. He was intent on exposing Western viewers to the myriad atrocities committed against women during an era that ran rampant with bloodshed and misinformation. 

    The film was banned in America immediately upon release in 1922 for its use of simulated torture, nudity, witchcraft, and Satanism, and it wasn't until 1967 that the film received an audience thanks to a jazzed-up score and narration by poet William S. Burroughs.

  • After the onset of the Hays Code in Hollywood, films were subject to the rules and regulations of the Motion Picture Production Code, which controlled what could and couldn't go in a movie. The code essentially made sure that films had some sort of wholesome or positive content, even if the film was a story about a ruthless gangster.

    Scarface is inspired by the life of Al Capone, and even with its Hays Code-assigned anti-gangster scenes and brutal edits of its depicted violence, the film was still banned on a state-wide level in New York, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, and Kansas, as well as in cities like Seattle, Detroit, Portland, and Chicago for its glorification of crime.

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  • This early Hedy Lamarr film tells the story of a young woman named Eva who marries Emil, an older husband who is attentive but doesn't care about taking care of his bedroom duties. Rather than stay in her loveless marriage, she begins a tryst with a young engineer named Adam.

    The film's overall sexual content (skinny dipping, adultery, etc.) is why this film was banned outright in the United States by the US Customs Service. The version of the film that the Customs Service viewed was destroyed, and the only version that was eventually released in the States was heavily edited.

  • The Birth of a Baby

    This educational film from 1938 aimed at teaching viewers about the realities of childbirth, and it would have if it hadn't been banned from US theaters for "noneducational" and "innocent" scenes of real childbirth by the Production Code Administration.

    The filmmakers attempted to appeal their case to local and state theaters for some kind of mainstream release. This led to a state ban in New York but a few screenings in the Midwest.

  • Two-Faced Woman is a classic George Cukor flop starring Greta Garbo as a woman who pretends to be her own non-existent twin sister so she can rekindle her relationship with her estranged husband. 

    Even though the film received a thumbs up from the MPPC, the National Legion of Decency slapped the film with a “C” - as in "condemned" - for its “immoral and un-Christian attitude toward marriage and its obligations: impudently suggestive scenes, dialogue, and situations: suggestive costumes.”

    The film was banned in cities across the United States, including Boston and Providence, before MGM pulled the original version of the film for reshoots. The updated version placed a scene in the film where the husband realizes he's being played and goes along with the scheme rather than thinking about having an affair with his non-existent sister-in-law.