Friday, April 8

Hedy Lamarr

I never quite got her.  I've always tried to understand the allure and came up short. Funny, too, because maybe I found something fascinating about her once but I'll be darned if I recall what it was. Perhaps it was the fact that she was European... so different from the American girl next door. Yes, I saw her beauty. She was occasionally referred to as The Most Beautiful Woman in Films and I never screamed what...????!!!!!  I could buy it. And yet, even the beauty unearthed some reservations in me.

The face was gorgeous... penetrating eyes, ruby red mouth, luxurious mane of dark hair, flawless skin, a striking profile.  That face had everything except a light that shone from within.  It was a hollow beauty.  Vacant.  Unwelcoming.  I saw a droll, weary, sometimes baleful countenance.  Here, let Hedy explain it to you: Any woman can look glamorous.  All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.  She could have been a statue (Venus, anyone?) for all the life that I ever saw her exude. For the most part, her manner was the same... restrained, seemingly unmotivated, bored by it all. I always wanted that European exotic look to be more combustible.  

All this came to her quite naturally.  Fortunately and unfortunately she brought it all to the movies.  If ever there was a person who got somewhere on looks alone, it was Hedy Lamarr.  Her acting talent was not particularly discernible to me.  She made only 25 American films, a few European and a trio of television appearances, the body of which reveals a nearly unblemished mediocrity.  

If you think I disliked her, I didn't.  Au contraire, there was that fascination I had for a spell.  She certainly deserves inclusion in this 40s tribute we're doing because she was part of Hollywood's Golden Age.  When we think of the great glamorous women of that decade, we would err to overlook Lamarr.

She also deserves inclusion in this little quartet I have lined up for you that started with the last posting on Hedy's Ziegfeld Girl costar, Lana Turner.  Hedy was a self-admitted nymphomaniac. It's unlikely that she was faithful to any of her six husbands and some probably ran away from the marriage out of sheer exhaustion.  On the other hand, her star glimmered as long as it did because of the men who sat in those darkened theaters dreaming of some of that exhaustion.  She bragged about her conquests and dished the dirt on who was good and who was not.

As if this weren't enough to get you started, let's blend in the fact that Hedy was a temperamental lass.  When she went into one of her Austrian fits, the rafters of those sound stages shook.  At one point she headed her own production company, making three films, and many said what an unreasonable, angry boss she was.  

She was an only child, born into wealth and privilege in 1914 Vienna.  She was a Scorpio... maybe that helps explains some things.  Her father was a director at a bank.  Her schooling came from tutors and private schools in Switzerland but she was too frivolous to give much attention to that, much preferring to drool over movie magazines.  Back in Vienna she got a walk-on in a film and that cemented it... an actress she would be.

Still a teenager, she persuaded her parents to allow her to go to Berlin to study with prominent Austrian-born director, Max Reinhardt, and for awhile she became his muse.  Through his connections she appeared in a rather nothing little film called Ecstasy (1933) but it made her world-famous because of two nude
scenes... one while swimming and another running through the woods.  It's been said she was the first actress to appear naked in a theatrical film.  It was banned in America because we have always had such a difficult time catching fleeting glances of naked women running through the woods.

Instead of going on to make European films, perhaps some important ones, Hedy married for the first time.  Fritz Mandl, then a successful, middle-aged munitions dealer, kept his teenage bride as a trophy and on a short leash.  Living in a castle in Salzburg and keeping a 10-room apartment in Vienna, hostessing lavish dinner parties, being kissed by Adolf Hitler and complimented on her looks by Benito Mussolini did nothing for her.

She wanted to leave Mandl but couldn't find the way until she disguised herself as a servant and fled to Paris where she divorced him.  While there a movie agent spotted her, went gaga over her smoldering looks, and took her to meet MGM head honcho, Louis B. Mayer, who was also visiting Paris.  He, too, was mesmerized by what he saw but was unsure how an actress who did nudie flicks would fit into that family setting at MGM.  Nonetheless, he offered her a six-week contract at $100/week which she declined.  She and the agent devised a scheme whereby she would be on the same ship that Mayer would be sailing on for his return to America.  By the time it docked, Hedy had a seven-year, $500/week contract. America, batten down the hatches.

Once on the Culver City lot, Mayer had nothing for Hedy to do except get to know the hair, makeup and costume people and begin perfecting her English.  She certainly attracted a lot of attention and everyone, it seemed, wanted to know who this dazzling creature was.  Quite a number of them found that out.  She came with a complete come-hither kit and everyone was talking about the new kid with the beautiful face and the easy manner.

When an offer came from United Artists to star opposite Charles Boyer in Algiers (1938), no one said no.  As the slinky beauty, Gaby, who lures a jewel thief in the Casbah into a life of passion and doom, she was irresistible to the public.  Those in America swarmed around the enchantress who did a nude European movie for a look-see.  (By the way, no one ever said come wiss me to the Casbah anymore than anyone ever said play it again, Sam four years later in the similarly-plotted Casablanca.)  It's doubtful that Boyer ever bedded Lamarr, despite her eventual success with many of her costars. Despite his movie reputation as a lothario, Boyer was deeply in love with his wife and apparently faithful to her.

In 1939 she married screenwriter Gene Markey the day after they met at a party. They adopted a son although the boy and Lamarr would one day have an unworkable relationship. Markey was divorced from Joan Bennett and after his two-year marriage to Lamarr, he tied the knot with Myrna Loy. 

MGM, now hearing from fans about finding something for Hedy at her home studio, quickly put her opposite Robert Taylor in Lady of the Tropics (1939).  It would be one of her many B escapist pictures not worth delving into here but one must get a sense of how the screen filled with pure, magical beauty in the closeups of these two.

I Take This Woman (1940) was a silly exercise about a doctor (totally beneath the talents of Spencer Tracy) and his ups and downs, if you will, with his mistress.  It was a part she would play often in her career.  The two did not get along so well... at least not on this film.  That would change in the future. They had two more films to make together.

That same year she made Boom Town, which turns out to be my favorite Lamarr role.  Maybe I enjoyed the contrast between her and costar, Claudette Colbert.  Maybe it's because Lamarr's character, another mistress, was more of a secondary role in a large cast that included Tracy and Clark Gable.  A saga that spans over 20 years involves two buddy wildcatters who become tycoon enemies and both love the same woman (Colbert).  It was a smash hit.

As the public clamored for more Gable-Lamarr, MGM hustled them into Comrade X, which turned out to be a rather fun little romantic comedy about  an American reporter in Moscow who is blackmailed into helping a local beauty escape.

Here's a paragraph to snap you out of it. This can't be all about movie-making and bed-hopping, y'know.  Hedy flirted with inventing things, having varying degrees of success.  One inevtnion that certainly took off, in 1941, resulted from an afternoon spent with her friend, composer George Antheil.  They were watching how paper rolls moved on a player piano and came up with an idea that was patented in 1942 whereby frequency used to guide torpedoes could no longer be jammed. That patent, by the way, led to the groundwork for such modern technologies as Bluetooth, GPs and Wi-Fi.   Hedy Lamarr!!! Can you imagine?  Our beautiful, minimally-talented MGM star with a tart of gold aids the war effort...?!?!  I've known about this for years and I'm still wrestling with it.  But for sure, good on you, Hedy. 

In 1941 she made Ziegfeld Girl with Jimmy Stewart, Judy Garland and Lana Turner, all of whom had more to do than Hedy who was simply decorative.  She then appeared opposite Robert Young in the engaging H.M. Pulham, Esq but she was miscast. 

The following year she, Tracy and John Garfield all played Mexican farm workers in John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat and all were miscast.  There was a lot of waiting around on this troubled production and the three of them got into some mischief.  With all said, in this comedy I found more merit than a lot of critics did. Lamarr's acting genes must have been tightening in the company of two brilliant actors like Tracy and Garfield.

Her films Crossroads, White Cargo (as Tondelayo), The Heavenly Body, The Conspirators and Experiment Perilous were all duds. Regardless of whether she or the studio was behind those choices, she took the hit.  People gossiped about what bad choices she made.  It was brought home when it became known that while she made all of those films, she turned down the title role in Laura and also  Gaslight, both 1944, and Saratoga Trunk in 1945.  Laura, of course, made a star of Gene Tierney, and Ingrid Bergman inherited both of the other roles. Hedy also had apparently been considered for Casablanca in 1942 as well.

In 1943 she married debonair British actor, John Loder.  They managed to make a go of it for four years and they produced a son and a daughter.  She claimed he bored her silly. Lamarr would be his third wife and he would acquire two more after her.  

After making the ridiculous Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945), she left MGM.  She was ready to go and she was pissed knowing that Mayer and the others had lost interest in her... never mind her promiscuous reputation and her hostile nature.  She formed her own production company and made three more misfires, The Strange Woman, Dishonored Lady and Let's Live a Little.  

Who should come to her rescue but Cecil B. DeMille who had another spectacle he wanted to make.  Samson and Delilah (1949) would give filmgoers a feast for the eyes with Hedy as the Biblical temptress. She and Victor Mature were a perfect match, on the screen and in their dressing rooms.  It is not only the film for which she is best remembered but it was also her favorite. Personally, again, I think that says a lot about her choices.  She had a difficult time with the autocratic DeMille and foolishly turned down his offer to star in 1952's The Greatest Show on Earth.  Betty Hutton thanks her and so do I.

Instead, she chose to work in a poor noirish piece called A Lady Without Passport and a western Copper Canyon, both 1950, and a ridiculous Bob Hope comedy, My Favorite Spy (1951).  She was then not seen by American audiences for six years, when she would only make two more films.  

In the early 1950s, she married a restauranteur, Teddy Stauffer, while on vacation in Mexico.  She stayed there for the nine-month marriage (her shortest) and then claimed that Mexico was bad for her children's health.  A year or so later she wed Texas oilman, Howard Lee, and enjoyed her longest marriage (seven years). Hedy always looked so good in oil.  When they divorced, he married Gene Tierney.

In 1957 she made her final two movies.  In an absurd fantasy film, The Story of Mankind, Hedy played Joan of Arc.  I am not making this up. Then in The Female Animal, she played blonde soprano Jane Powell's mother, if you can believe that.  It was beyond dreadful.

In 1963 she married for the last and brief time to an attorney.   She once said I must quit marrying men who feel inferior to me. Somewhere there must be a man who could be my husband and not feel inferior.  I need a superior inferior man.

In 1966, out of the limelight for some time, she was arrested for shoplifting but found not guilty.  She signed for a film but was fired on the first day because she did not show up. The same year, through a ghostwriter, she put out an autobiography, Ecstasy and Me. It was a raunchy thing and after everyone in Hollywood read it, they pronounced her dead and gone forever.  She later sued the ghostwriter apparently claiming the sordid stuff was his idea.

Ecstasy and Me opens like this... on a recent evening, sitting home alone suffering and brooding about my treatment at the police station because of an incident in a department store and being replaced by Zsa Zsa Gabor in a motion picture (imagine how that pleased the ego!) I found out that I had made and spent some 30 million dollars. Yet earlier that day I had been unable to pay for a sandwich at Schwab's Drugstore

In 1974 she sued Mel Brooks for the use of her name or a reasonable facsimile in the film Blazing Saddles without her permission. They settled out of court.

In 1991 she was again arrested for shoplifting and given one year probation.   One then didn't hear about her for years.  It seems that 1997 was a good year.  She sued a software company for using her likeness without permission and apparently won a three million dollar settlement.  Finally, after years of scraping by, she was in the bucks again.  Also that same year, she was finally honored for her wartime invention.  It's about time she said.
In the early 90s she moved to Florida where she would reside for the rest of her life.  In her last few years, even with all the money, she became a recluse, hooked on pills, talking on the phone and obsessed with losing her looks.  She died in 2000 in Florida at age 85 due to severe heart problems.

Next posting:
A queen of the Bs


  1. So interesting, what a life. ! 7 husbands like Liz:)

  2. Beautiful!incredibly beautiful! very close to perfection. But her acting!I like to quote a few words that somebody addressed to Marilyn Monroe ( God forgive him!)
    " The range of her expressions goes from A to B"

  3. Great article and I totally agree with the beginning part about how, although Lamarr is beautiful, her looks are a bit "empty". No light shining from within, unlike Marilyn Monroe, for example.

  4. I read that she went blind before she died..?