Jack Smith Flaming Creatures 1963

  • Not on view

At midnight on April 29, 1963, the movie screen at New York’s Bleecker Street Cinema lit up with visions of men and women in makeup and dresses; draped white fabric and a tall vase filled with feathery blooms; and disjointed shots of lips, eyes, tangled limbs, and genitalia. These images were a part of Flaming Creatures, an experimental film by Jack Smith, which premiered that night. The police were called, and they seized the film. Soon after, it was banned in 22 U.S. states and four countries. Eventually, it came to the attention of Congress and the Supreme Court, as a part of a censorship battle then being fought in America. Detractors and champions took their sides. And Smith, the pioneering performance artist, actor, filmmaker, and photographer who was largely unknown outside of New York’s underground art scene, suddenly became famous.

Smith’s unconventional approach to his films was inspired by the melodrama and excessive glamour of Hollywood and B movies, and by such flamboyant forms of performance as burlesque. In Flaming Creatures, as in all of his works, there is no fixed narrative, the sets and special effects are low-tech and homemade, and non-professional actors populate the cast. Shot from above or from odd angles at close range, Flaming Creatures is composed of loosely connected vignettes full of humor, eroticism, and violence. We see men applying lipstick to their puckering mouths, the set appear to crumble in an earthquake, and a vampire in a blond wig suck the blood of an unconscious victim. Shots of bared body parts and fluttering eyes punctuate these scenes, set to a soundtrack of vintage music. Because of such scenes, and Smith’s DIY, freeform approach to making Flaming Creatures, the film went against the norms of both society and filmmaking—ultimately setting a radical new example that inspired other artists and filmmakers. Adding to its significance is the fact that it foregrounded the fluidity of gender, sexuality, and identity and celebrated their free expression, at a time when they were seen in more rigid terms.

Object number

If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).

MoMA licenses archival audio and select out of copyright film clips from our film collection. At this time, MoMA produced video cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. All requests to license archival audio or out of copyright film clips should be addressed to Scala Archives at [email protected]. Motion picture film stills cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For access to motion picture film stills for research purposes, please contact the Film Study Center at [email protected]. For more information about film loans and our Circulating Film and Video Library, please visit https://www.moma.org/research/circulating-film.

If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication, please email [email protected]. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to [email protected].


This record is a work in progress. If you have additional information or spotted an error, please send feedback to [email protected].