“My mother always called me an ugly weed, so I never was aware of anything until I was older. Plain girls should have someone telling them they are beautiful. Sometimes this works miracles.”
“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 appreciate subtlety. I have never enjoyed a kiss in front of the camera. There’s nothing to it except not getting your lipstick smeared.”
“I’m a sworn enemy of convention. I despise the conventional in anything, even the arts.”
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria on November 9th. Her first film was “Geld Auf Der Strasse” (“Gold on the Street”) but it wasn’t until she appeared nude in the Czech film director Gustav Machatý‘s visually provocative masterpiece “Ekstasy” (“Ecstasy”) (1933) that she started causing ripples around the world. Ecstasy was banned in the U.S. because of that overly suggestive orgasm she so vividly reflects on screen
As Eva Hermann Hedy Lamarr plays a young girl who marries a much older rigid man obviously suffering from a compulsive disorder. He doesn’t show her any form of physical affection at all in his ordered world. Left with no passion, and no human contact, Eva feels cut off from the world and imprisoned by this loveless marriage. So she leaves and goes home to her father. While swimming in the lake, her horse runs off with her clothes! (thus the famous frontal nude scene as she swims and then runs for cover). Coming to her aide she meets a very sensual young man named Adam (Aribert Mog) and of course… there’s instant chemistry and the two fall in love.
In the 2nd controversial part of the film, Adam & Eva make love in what I think is one of THE most erotic images in early cinema, also one of the first on-screen orgasms. As Eva’s heaving body is framed by the camera’s visually erotic rhythm. Eva/Hedy manifests a look on her face of… well. that just says she’s experiencing ECSTASY.
But her husband has become grief-stricken and in a twist of fate discovers that his bride has become involved with the young man whom he fatefully happens to meet on the road one day… Outside the tavern where the young lovers dance and rejoice, the husband shoots himself.
There isn’t much dialogue, the film relies on the breathtaking visual narrative, as Eva journeys to find release from her conflicted life. When you look beyond the whole infamous nude swimming scene that not only caused a sensation here in America, it dogged Hedy for years, what’s most significant is how many dimensions Hedy conveyed without words.
In director John Cromwell’s marvelous film noir intrigue the beautiful Hedy Lamarr plays Gaby who falls for the romantic jewel thief Pepe Le Moko (Charles Boyer) while in the Casbah!
When Hedy made her Hollywood screen debut in Algiers (1938) she is photographed at a distance. As she approaches the camera hidden by the shadows of noir, it is when she slowly begins to walk off-screen and suddenly turns directly toward the screen that her stunning close-up became meteoric, and her mythological beauty was delivered to us with an intoxicating mystique. She was often typecast as the eternal vamp, the dangerous temptress, because of her mesmerizing persona.
Hedy had said, “My face is my misfortune… a mask I cannot remove. I must live with it. I curse it.”
Hedy Lamarr became known as the most beautiful woman in the world!
In White Congo 1942, Lamarr is Tondelayo a captivating temptress. The story is about a love-hate triangle in the Congo in 1910. Harry Witzel (Walter Pidgeon), is a station superintendent, Langford (Richard Carlson), is an English manager, and Hedy plays the beautiful Tondelayo. The two men fight over Tondelayo, who eventually uses her feminine wiles to lure in Langford. He marries her. But, she grows bored of him in a few months and pursues Harry. Harry refuses, reminding her of her wedding vows, so she obtains poison to get her husband out of the way. But Harry interferes and Tondelayo gets a taste of her own medicine.
Some of her motion pictures that have stirred me are, Lady of the Tropics (1939), I Take This Woman (1940) with Spencer Tracy, Comrade X (1940) with Clark Gable, Boom Town (1940) with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy & Claudette Colbert. Come Live with Me (1941) a comedy/romance co-starring James Stewart, and Ziegfeld Girl (1941) co-starring Judy Garland and James Stewart. Crossroads (1942) is a fabulous film noir co-starring William Powell and Claire Trevor. In Tortilla Flat (1942) Lamarr plays ‘Dolores Sweets Ramirez’ alongside Spencer Tracy and John Garfield. And My Favorite Spy (1951) with Bob Hope!
In 1944 there was The Heavenly Body, The Conspirators and Experiment Perilous co-starring George Brent and Paul Lukas, directed by the great Jacques Tourneur.
Aside from Ecstasy (1933) in my view perhaps her most intoxicating performances were in 1946 & 1947. Hedy appeared in two suspenseful films, one starring George Sanders, The Strange Woman (1946), where she plays a ruthless seductress. The wild Jenny Hagar born in New England in the early 1800s to a drunkard aspires for a life of luxury at any cost, driving Louis Hayward as Ephraim Poster to frenzied distraction, ultimately leading to a fateful end. George Sanders might be the only one who understands her free and strange spirit.
Hedy is intoxicating and multi-layered in Dishonored Lady (1947) she plays Madeleine Damien, alongside husband-to-be John Loder as Felix Courtland. She is a high-powered fashion editor who has a stressful job, gossiping chatter surrounding her, and bad luck with men. Nearing a breakdown, she goes to a psychiatrist, literally when she crashes her car on his property. Dr. Richard Caleb (Morris Carnovsky) advises her to quit her job, move, and assume a new identity and a ‘new soul’. She follows his advice, takes up painting, and falls in love with pathologist David Cousins (Dennis O’Keefe) who lives downstairs at the boarding house run by Mrs Geiger (Margaret Hamilton). But he finds out about her past when one of the men she dated before tries to frame her with murder.
Memorable Cecil B DeMille epic Samson and Delilah (1949) where this mesmerizing Philistine falls for the virile Samson (Victor Mature) but in the end she cuts off his, em… hair, yeah that’s it, hair. He is tortured, blinded, pulls down the temple around the people and well… never trust a dame who can woo the secret of your power off your lips especially when she has access to really sharp knives.
So U.S. Immigration Service Agent Peter Karczag (John Hodiak) is sent to Havana to address the problem of foreign nationals coming to the U.S. through Cuba. He goes undercover as a Hungarian who wants to illegally immigrate to the U.S. and uncovers a human trafficking ring and a concentration camp for refugees. At the camp, he falls in love with Marianne Lorries (Hedy Lamarr), who is also trying to enter the U.S. But if he does his job, she would be apprehended in the operation.
In Albert Zugsmith’s melodrama The Female Animal (1957) she plays an aging film star who competes with her daughter for the same man. The film co-stars Jane Powell and Jan Sterling.
Hedy Lamarr has played some of the most provocative women in her film career, yet her real life was just as filled with suspense and intrigue as that of her silver screen persona.
Before coming to the U.S. while living in Austria in the early 1930’s Hedy married weapons mogul Friedrich Mandl. He treated her as his trophy wife, taking her to meetings with business associates (where she strategically listened & learned a lot about weapons technology) and using her to throw parties for the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. Friedrich imprisoned her— literally not letting her out of the house, warning servants to keep a watchful eye on her. Eventually, after a few attempts at leaving (he wouldn’t let her outside alone), Hedy drugged one of her maids, stole her clothing, and was able to escape with all her jewelry to London in 1937. In 1938 she left London on the Normandie for America. On board she met MGM producer Louis B. Mayer who offered her a contract, insisting she work on her English accent and that she change her name (she was too much associated with the film Ecstasy). She chose Lamarr after silent film and stage actress Barbara La Marr.
She soon became a 1940s Hollywood sensation. MGM called her the “Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” In fact, later on, she would become the archetypal model for Sean Young’s role as Rachel in Blade Runner (1982) and as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992). In 1942 she was Hal Wallis’ first choice for Ingrid Bergman’s role in Casablanca.
She made a fiery entrance when she walked onto the screen in Algiers (1938) with Charles Boyer. She started doing light romantic comedies with the likes of Jimmy Stewart (Come Live With Me 1941), Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy & Claudette Colbert in (Boom Town in 1940).
In I Take This Woman 1940 Spencer Tracy’s character describes Georgi Gragore (Hedy)- Dr. Karl Decker: “She’s like something you see in a jeweler’s window. A single, flawless gem on a piece of black velvet. You take one long look and then you pass on.”
Hedy had 5 more husbands after Mandl. Bette Davis introduced her to one of her husbands, John Loder.
She wanted to be more than beautiful but they kept giving her the same roles with no substance. She hated that she was valued more for her looks than her intelligence.
While she was growing up, Hedy was privately tutored at home. Eventually, she went to a secondary all-girls school in Vienna, focusing on mathematics and science. She was always more interested in staying home and reading Scientific American than in Hollywood parties and gossip. She had a room in her house devoted to engineering and wanted to contribute to the war effort by developing secret communications technology. When she did go to Hollywood parties, she always gravitated toward the geekiest party-goers. This is how she met avant-garde pianist and composer George Antheil.
Together, they decided to address the problem the Navy was having of using torpedoes against the German U-Boats and Japanese subs. Radio guiding systems only had one frequency, which could be found and jammed easily by the enemy. Inspired by her radio’s remote control, she worked with Antheil to develop something she called “frequency hopping.” The idea was that the guidance system and torpedoes would synchronize themselves on continually changing radio frequencies. In 1942 they signed over the patent to the U.S. Navy, where it sat unused until 1958. The idea was ahead of its time and the technology simply didn’t exist during the war. When the patent was used Spread Spectrum Frequency Hopping became a critical part of developing technologies we use every day— wifi, GPS, and cell phone networks.
Hedy hated the Nazis and resolutely wanted to help the war effort. Despite her intelligence and knowledge of weapons technology, when she approached the Navy and wanted to help them win the war, they thought more of her celebrity and beauty and offered her a spot selling war bonds. She became one of the most successful sellers of war bonds, drawing crowds of 15,000-20,000 people in rallies all over the U.S. (people passed out and police had to control crowds when she attended a massive rally in Newark, NJ). She became a popular pin-up girl, and regularly worked in the Hollywood Canteen, serving food to, and dancing with, servicemen before they headed overseas to the war. But Hedy truly wanted to contribute to the technology that would win the war. Unfortunately, she didn’t fit the dominant war paradigm— she was beautiful and her “place” was that of entertainer and not a scientist. It wasn’t until the 1990s that she was recognized for her engineering achievements.
25 thoughts on “Hedy Lamarr: From Ecstasy to Frequency! A Beautiful Life”
A true renaissance woman if there ever was one
Fascinating woman. I find that I enjoy her performances in those “little” movies more and more these days. It’s a journey of rediscovery.
It’s so true. It’s easy to fall into the trap that she’s beautiful nothing else. But it’s the more nuanced performances that show how truly filled with emotional depth she was. I find her fascinating too!
So amazing i loved this article,she was an amazing actress and an amazing woman that had so much more then most thought about her. This was very greatly
Yes, she truly was an enigma of intoxicating gifts, so glad you liked the piece! Loved your Mildred Pierce article too! Thanks so much for joining us! Cheers Joey
PS From one Joey to another!!!! Cheers
How frustrating to have the smarts and enthusiasm to help the war effort in an important way, only to be flicked aside and told to mind her place. Argh! How annoying!
I realized, while reading your post, there are a LOT of Hedy Lamarr films I haven’t seen. I think I’d better get busy!
I had the same reaction. As I was delving into her work, I was like “wait! I need to see this film ASAP… still it’s the most obscure moody pieces that showcase her ability. And yes, it’s hard to fathom, the navy ignoring her contribution, and deferring her to the task of hostess. Reprehensible… We know there are so many brilliant women who had to shine in private….
Great stuff, Monstergirl. Many people would not be inclined to sympathize with “My face is my misfortune… a mask I cannot remove. I must live with it. I curse it,” but learning more about her background should convince her. It must be terrible to be so intelligent and never get credit for it. Now many people remember her only because of Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles.
You’re so right! The quote might come of sounding as if she was negative, but she was making a strong point, and she was a strong woman…
I guess that’s part of the mystique of ‘beautiful’ women who are taken for granted, objectified & ultimately misunderstood or suffer tragically because of an image that becomes something outside of themselves. Thanks Joe for your input! Always appreciated here…
PS: Yes! the Blazing Saddles reference does satirize her.. though I love that film, and particularly Madeleine Kahn’s Marlene cabaret routine… ” I’m Pooped!”
Oh, such an excellent tribute to such an amazing woman! I heard she was smart, but I had no idea! This is really nice. Thank you for highlighting her important work! It’s important we remember her in a way she would like to be known! Thanks for co-hosting such a great event!
Summer! I am so sorry I hadn’t responded or commented for the Anti Damsel Blogathon yet. I’m so glad that you enjoyed the piece on Hedy. But I gotta tell you, I LOVED LOVE LOVED your tribute to Kim Hunter as Dr Zira. What a fantastic, insightful and hilarious post. And so spot on about the importance of her character. “She is the rationality in the “madhouse”…” I didn’t realize she was one of the victims of HUAC. nefarious stuff, and I think you’re right. Go against the system in Planet of the Apes might have been pretty cathartic for her even if she was wearing the ape makeup… Thanks again for joining us, you made it that much better! Cheers Joey
And thank you for putting Dr. Zira on your wish list! The article is largely due to your excellent idea.
Great minds think alike!
Wonderful post! Beauty and brains… It’s not fair but I guess all we can do is marvel at what she accomplished. :-)
Wonderful Blogathon co-host!!! just like us two, beauty and brains! In many ways she had it so rough, because she/herself became drowned out by her image. Fascinating woman… watch some of her more obscure darker films. I think you’d love em! Cheers til next gif you fling at me or the other way around….!
Such an amazing woman. The kind that inspires me on a good day, and on others makes me wonder why I even bother.
She is quite astounding isn’t she!!!
I had no idea! And her quotes you included – whew – I can’t think of a single woman who’s never thought some of those things, but Hedy Lamarr? She is the epitome of beauty. I’ve always thought she was just striking! I had to do a double take in one of the photos (Samson & Delilah) you included because she looked a bit like Susan Hayward. You write so beautifully – as though she’s an old friend you’re talking about.
That’s what so ironic about her mystique, that to her, her beauty at times did eclipse the substance of her intelligence and strength. She is an intriguing and beautiful woman. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments! Cheers joey
Reblogged this on The Last Drive In and commented:
It’s Hedy Lamarr’s 101st birthday… let’s look at this beauty again…