Friday, July 21, 2023

Not Hedley but HEDY Lamarr: Screen Siren and Science Whiz

French poster for "Ecstasy"
 Hedy Lamarr? I’ve never seen Ecstasy, the 1933 Czech film (with certain similarities to Lady Chatterley’s Lover) in which she swam naked and allowed her face to suggest the joys of an orgasmic encounter. The film of course met resistance in many nations, including the U.S., where it was denied the seal of the all-important Hays office. That’s why its American release was limited to a few independent art houses.

 Back then Lamarr was still billed as Hedy Kiesler, the name with which she was born in 1914 Vienna. The only child of Jewish parents (though her mother apparently adopted Christianity early on), she quickly showed she had brains as well as beauty. Her father, who adored her, enjoyed talking to young Hedy about technology. But once she developed a passion for acting, she devoted her energies to advancing her stage and screen career. At 18, while playing the youthful Empress Elisabeth in a highly regarded Vienna theatre production, she attracted scores of admirers. One was 33-year-old Friedrich Mandl, a hugely wealthy munitions manufacturer with close ties to Mussolini                                                                        and later to Hitler.

Why exactly did she marry this domineering man, who made her give up her acting career in order to play the part of a dutiful wife? A 2019 historical novel, Marie Benedict’s The Only Woman in the Room, claims her father encouraged her in the marriage, as a way of potentially saving herself and her family from a rising tide of anti-Semitism. I have no faith in Benedict as an in-depth researcher, but she also posits that much of Lamarr’s later life in Hollywood was marked by her guilt over the fact that she was aware of, but had no way to stop, Hitler’s murderous plot against Europe’s Jews.

 But the marriage itself soon turned dangerous, with Hedy being treated by her spouse as a prisoner in her own home (by which I mean a castle or two).  She escaped to England, where she quickly cozied up to Louis B. Mayer, who was abroad looking for new talent. It was he and his MGM colleagues who gave her a new last name, promoted her as the “world’s most beautiful woman,” and starred her in exotic vehicles like 1938’s Algiers with Charles Boyer. The role of an exotic seductress became her specialty, in films such as White Cargo (1942) and Samson and Delilah (1949).

 The most unlikely aspect of Lamarr’s biography is the fact that, at the height of World War II, she joined with avant-garde composer George Antheil to support the anti-Nazi cause by developing a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. Her invention, which was patented but never accepted by the U.S. military, “used spread spectrum and frequency-hopping technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers.  (I’m quoting here from the evcr-useful Wikipedia, but I have no idea what I’m saying.)  Apparently their discovery has now contributed hugely to the rise of cellphones, so I’m not sure if we should be grateful or not.

 Meanwhile, as an American movie star of the Golden Age, Lamarr accepted the fact that her main function was to be beautiful. Though her invention didn’t help win the war, she sold a whole lot of war bonds by guaranteeing to kiss young soldiers if enough money was raised on the spot. But personal happiness remained elusive.  After six failed marriages, she lived most of her later life in seclusion. One oddity: her 1976 lawsuit claiming that the comic use of the name Hedley Lamarr for Harvey Korman’s character in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles violated her right of privacy.


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