The Curious Case of "I am Curious"
“I am Curious (Yellow)” premiered in Boston on November 10, 1969 at the Symphony Cinemas I & II on Huntington Avenue, a now defunct art-house theater which operated in the late 1960s and 70s. “Curious,” a 1967 Swedish film by director Vilgot Sjöman, was the first part of a two-part series (“I am Curious [Blue]” was the second) that, according to the Criterion Collection’s synopsis, tells “the story of Lena (Lena Nyman), a searching and rebellious young woman, and her personal quest to understand the social and political conditions in 1960s Sweden, as well as her bold exploration of her own sexual identity.” That bold exploration— which included what the Boston Globe considered to be “without question the most explicit [sex scenes] ever shown on U.S. public screens”— resulted in the film being impounded by U.S. Customs in 1968 and held in seizure until 1969 when a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it fit for uncut screening.
No doubt intrigued by the film’s controversy and hype, Bostonians waited in lines extending onto Huntington Ave. for tickets to the two-hour film. But “Curious” would only run five times that day, as city police arrived at the Symphony Cinemas around 5:15pm and seized the reels from both theaters, leaving audience members for the 3 and 4pm shows literally in the dark. The ban came from Massachusetts Superior Court Chief Justice G. Joseph Tauro, who issued a 60-page ruling that labeled the film obscene—and therefore subject to state regulation—after it met the Supreme Court’s three criteria for obscenity as established in the 1957 case Roth v. United States (more on that shortly).
Judge Tauro’s November 1969 decision was viewed by some as an extension of an obscenity trial that had been held the previous summer against the same two men targeted in the “Curious” case: James Vlamos, the film’s distributor, and Scraphim Karalexis, the manager of Symphony Cinema. An hour after Judge Tauro’s decision, Karalexis and Vlamos sought a temporary injunction from a local Federal District Court to stop Massachusetts state authorities from barring the film’s screening until litigation had been fully completed. A week later the Federal court injunction was granted, thereby allowing Karalexis to screen the film without state interference. In its 2-1 decision the Federal court also stated that consenting adults, when properly warned by cinema management of the film’s potentially offensive content, should under constitutional law be permitted to view “Curious,” and that the Symphony Cinema was not in the wrong since they properly barred minors from attending.
However, citing the unexceptional and in no way unusual circumstances fueling the Federal Court’s interference in a pending state criminal prosecution, Boston District Attorney Garrett Byrne applied for and received a stay on the November 1969 injunction from the U.S. Supreme Court. As a result, “Curious” could not be screened until the Massachusetts judicial system had run its course, which many people in Boston mistakenly took as a sign that the Supreme Court had upheld Judge Tauro’s ban on grounds of obscenity.
Byrne v. Karalexis was eventually brought before the Supreme Court again in April and November 1970, and decided in late 1971. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that the distribution and screening of “I am Curious (Yellow)” in Boston theaters was legal since “widespread public distribution to an unwilling public” was never a fundamental feature of the case, nor were children unwittingly exposed to the material. The constitutionality of U.S. obscenity laws was not modified in the course of the trial.
To better understand Judge Tauro’s 1969 ruling, it’s worthwhile to take a look at the laws from which he drew his opinion. In 1957, the Supreme Court in Roth v. United States established a method for judging obscenity that was based largely upon the vague idea of contemporary community standards. The Roth decision set up a three-pronged test for sniffing out obscenity, stating that materials could be deemed obscene (and subsequently subject to regulation) if:
- The dominant theme of the work, as a whole, appeals to a prurient interest in sex;
- The work was patently offensive because it affronted contemporary community standards in its representation of sex;
- The work was utterly without redeeming social value.
Although Byrne v. Karalexis ended up centering more on the procedural niceties of state and federal court action than on censorship law, this ‘curious’ case was incremental in a larger judicial narrative that eventually brought about the 1973 Miller v. California case, a ruling which still dictates how materials are branded obscene in the United States. Miller, like Roth, set up a three-pronged test for obscenity. The difference with Miller, however, was that local standards and not national mores became the test’s primary emphasis. Distribution of materials in a state could be halted if three yeses appeared in response to these questions:
- Would an average person applying contemporary community standards find that the work as a whole appealed to prurient interest in sex?
- Does the work depict or describe in a patently offensive way sexual conduct specifically prohibited in a state’s law?
- Does the work, as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific vale?
Do you remember the controversy caused by the film “I am Curious (Yellow)”?
- “‘Curious’ ban lifted.” Boston Globe 29 November 1969: 3. Boston Globe Archive. Web.
- “Film is Obscene; Use of Word Isn’t.’ Boston Globe 13 November 1969: p. 1. Boston Globe Archive. Web.
- “Obscenity law still in doubt.” Boston Globe 29 December 1969: 18. Boston Globe Archive. Web.
- Byrne v. Karalexis, 401 U. S. 216 (1971).
- Driscoll Jr., Edgar. “‘I am Curious—Yellow’ is blue, boring and botched.” Boston Globe 10 May 1969: 10. Boston Globe Archive. Web.
- Karalexis v. Byrne, 306 F. Supp. 1363 (District Court, D. Massachusetts 1969).
- Micciche, S. “Quinn protests interference by US court in film case.” Boston Globe 18 November 1970: 25. Boston Globe Archive. Web.
- Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 93 S. Ct. 2607 (1973).
- Reed, Rex. “I am Curious (No).” The New York Times 23 March 1969: D1. The New York Times Archive. Web.
- Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 77 S. Ct. 1304 (1957).