1950 March 14

Ingrid Bergman’s Affair Provokes Scandal and a Civil Liberties Crisis


Famed actress Ingrid Bergman’s adulterous affair with Italian film director Roberto Rossellini caused in international scandal and a civil liberties crisis in the U.S.  On this day, Senator Edwin Johnson (D-Colorado) delivered a vituperative attack on both Bergman and Rossellini and proposed a law that would require the U.S. Commerce Department to license actors, actresses, and film producers, and permit the department to revoke licenses if found guilty of a crime involving moral turpitude , OR publicly admitting to such conduct.

The 1934 Motion Picture Production Code (adopted on June 13, 1934) already exerted a heavy hand of censorship on American films. The proposed law would have extended government censorship to the private behavior of actresses, actors, and producers. Senator Johnson’s bill did not receive serious consideration in the Senate.

Across the U.S., public attacks on Bergman and Rossellini focused on the film Stromboli, during the filming of which the two began their affair and conceived a child. Both were married to other people at the time. The Birmingham, Alabama, Ministers Association charged that the film “tends to glorify adultery.” The Syracuse, NY, Common Council asked all movie theaters to ban all films starring Bergman or directed by Rossellini. Members of the Trinity Methodist Church in Los Angeles passed a resolution recommending a ban on any movie starring Bergman. Many critics attacked RKO Pictures for using the scandal to promote the film Stromboli.

The ACLU-affiliated National Council on Freedom From Censorship denounced the growing censorship efforts as “an outrageous and illegal denial of free speech and expression as guaranteed by the First Amendment.” Films, it argued, “must stand on what they show and stay, not on the personal conduct of the picture’s stars.”

Prior to the affair and the resulting scandal, the Swedish-born Ingrid Bergman was one of the most successful actresses in Hollywood. She is best-remembered for her role in the now-classic film Casablanca (1942). She also starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), with Cary Grant, and won a Best Actress Oscar 1n 1948 for Joan of Arc. Because of the scandal, she did not return to the U.S. until January 19, 1957, when she won her second Oscar for Anastasia.

The uproar over Bergman and Rossellini had many of the same qualities of hysteria, falsehoods, and censorship efforts as “McCarthyism.” Senator Joe McCarthy had just burst on the scene with a speech in West Virginia on February 9, 1950, in which he made reckless claims about alleged Communists working in the U.S. government. Senator Johnson denounced Bergman as “one of the most powerful women on this earth today” (which certainly was news to her, Hollywood, and the rest of the world). She and Rita Hayworth, he went on, were “Hollywood’s two current apostles of degradation.” Johnson attacked Rossellini as “vile and unspeakable,” and in an August attack labelled him a “Fascist libertine,” and an active Nazi collaborator” during World War II. (In fact, Rossellini had worked on films for the Mussolini government in the early 1940s, but his first film, Open City (1945) which brought him international recognition, was a powerful indictment of the suffering and repression by Nazi authorities in Italy during the war.)

It is a final commentary on Senator Johnson that, despite serving three terms in the Senate, his Wikipedia entry states that he is “perhaps best known” for his speech attacking Ingrid Bergman. He explained that his proposed law was only designed to put a “leash” on the “mad dogs of the [film] industry.” Given his rhetoric about Ingrid Bergman, it would seem that he was “mad dog” in this story.

Learn more: Ingrid Bergman and Alan Burgess, Ingrid Bergman: My Story (1980)

And don’t miss two great movies: Casablanca (1942) and Notorious (1946).

Visit the official Ingrid Bergman web site here.

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