This week sees the release of Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story – a documentary about the Hollywood icon whose contributions to communication technology have been largely overlooked. Louis B. Mayer may have sold Hedy Lamarr as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ in 1938, but the documentary’s tagline – ‘Icon. Immigrant. Inventor.’ – reminds viewers that her Hollywood appearances were not half of her achievements. These – and the legends surrounding them – could fill volumes, so the exploration of Lamarr’s career – cinematic and technological – and her performance highlights (ORWAV is a film site, after all!) is a summary that barely scratches the surface.
Bombshell’s release is timely: #TimesUp and #MeToo dominate the cultural and film business narratives, and women are still vastly underrepresented in STEM fields. Lamarr’s contributions to the latter have been under-recognised for decades, and her experience in both European and Hollywood film production highlight limitations and sexist treatment still faced by actresses today.
Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, was born in Vienna in 1914 to a Jewish family. In the late 1920s director Max Reinhardt discovered her talent and took her to train in Berlin’s theatres. After returning to Austria to find work as a script girl and actress, her first starring film role was in early 1933, when she appeared in the pre-code drama Ecstacy under her real name. While a success in Europe, the film was an unpleasant experience for the eighteen-year-old Lamarr. Director Gustav Machaty’s actions were documented in a 1938 issue of Liberty magazine:
When Lamarr applied for the role, she had little experience nor understood the planned filming. Anxious for the job, she signed the contract without reading it. When, during an outdoor scene, the director told her to disrobe, she protested and threatened to quit, but he said that if she refused, she would have to pay for the cost of all the scenes already filmed. To calm her, he said they were using “long shots” […] and no intimate details would be visible. At the preview in Prague, sitting next to the director, when she saw the numerous close-ups produced with telephoto lenses, she screamed at him for tricking her. She left the theater [sic] in tears, worried about her parents’ reaction and that it might have ruined her budding career.
The film industry’s hostility to women is no new phenomenon. Indeed, a determining factor in her 1937 Hollywood rebranding and name change was the fact that she wanted to distance herself and her brand from this exploitative role.
After Ecstacy, Lamarr worked in theatre until her first marriage to arms dealer Friedrich Mandl, who wooed her insistently in her dressing room and won her over despite her parents’ objections. However, within four years his controlling personality and connections to Mussolini and Hitler led Lamarr to flee the marriage – by some accounts disguised as a maid, by others on bicycle at midnight, and by others disappearing after a dinner party where she wore all her jewellery – and move to Paris. There, she met Louis B. Mayer and bought a ticket on the same boat he was taking to America, using the voyage to convince him of her star power. She landed in the States with a lucrative seven-year contract and a starring role in Algiers (1938), which made her an overnight sensation.
Her Hollywood career was built largely around playing European and otherwise ‘exotic’ femme fatales in films such as Tortilla Flat, Boom Town, Comrade X, Come Live With Me, Ziegfeld Girl, The Conspirators, and Experiment Perilous opposite the likes of James Stewart, Clarke Gable, and Spencer Tracey. Possibly her most famous performance was in Sampson and Delilah (1949), which was nominated for five Oscars, winning two (Colour Art Direction and Colour Costume Design). As the titular Biblical temptress, Lamarr won both accolades and a Sour Apple for ‘Least Cooperative Actress’ (the Hollywood Women’s Press Club’s moralising award is now a thing of the past).
Lamarr’s biographer Richard Rhodes, whose book Hedy’s Folly was the basis for Bombshell, stated that – despite her tendency to play the aforementioned ‘exotic’ beauties, she distinguished herself among the other European émigrées working in Hollywood due to a chameleon-like ability to fit the starlet image. She moulded herself, as many immigrants do so well and so resourcefully, to the linguistic and cultural patterns expected by American audiences.
While silver screen stars achieve immortality through the preservation of their works, Lamarr’s most unique legacy – a frequency-hopping technology which forms the basis of modern wireless communication – has long been overlooked. According to some sources, she took up inventing to alleviate the boredom of the unchallenging, uninspiring roles available to her; encouraged by her creative (and sometimes romantic) partner Howard Hughes, she tinkered with everything from carbonated drinks to the shape of airplane wings.
In 1942, Lamarr received a patent for this frequency-hopping technology, designed to make allied torpedoes resistant to tracking or signal jamming from Axis forces. Unfortunately, the US military did not implement this innovation until the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, as they were not accepting technologies from outside the military in World War II. However, this breakthrough and its implications for spread spectrum technology turned out to be stepping stones to much of today’s wireless technology, including secure Wi-Fi connections, GPS, and Bluetooth. There is a strong chance that you are reading this article over a Wi-Fi service – a service that would not exist were it not for Lamarr’s innovation and experimentation. Recognition, however, was decades late – she and her partner George Antheil were only posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
Despite being awarded a star at the centre of the Walk of Fame, Hedy Lamarr sank into drug addiction (partly due to her studio regime) and reclusion in her later years. Her legacy as a silver screen icon, however, has never faded, and her personal inspired characters from DC’s iconic Catwoman to Marvel’s Agent Carter villain Whitney Frost. Now, with the release of Bombshell, one can hope that her legacy as one of the foremost inventive minds of the twentieth century will become cemented in the popular imagination.
Top Five Hedy Lamarr films (in chronological order):
Lamarr’s first Hollywood picture was an adventure drama nominated for four Academy Awards. As an untested actress, Lamarr largely landed the part based on her looks, which were a subsequent selling point for the film. Old Hollywood fans can watch Algiers online for free since it is in the public domain: Walter Wagner Productions neglected to renew their copyright in 1966. However, the film’s most enduring contributions may be as inspirations to the Casablanca scriptwriters, who initially wanted Lamarr for Ilsa Lund, and to the creators of Pepe Le Pew, who drew upon Charles Boyer’s performance.
Comrade X (1940)
Clarke Gable leads this comedy-drama, which is one of the first American films to openly criticise Nazi Germany (at this point, the US had not entered the war), though its portrayal of Soviet Russia still focuses on its ‘backwards’ elements (after Russia’s entry into World War II, portrayals of Soviet Russian tended to emphasise the country’s heroism). Gable is an American journalist living in the USSR and writing satirically unflattering stories under the name ‘Comrade X’; when discovered, he must marry his valet’s daughter (Lamarr) to get them both out of the country. Its hijinks earned it an Academy Award nomination for Best Story.
Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
While co-star Judy Garland does much of the singing and dancing in this classic musical, Lamarr portrays one of three central showgirls intent on making it in Florenz Ziegfeld’s demanding revue. Interlocking story arcs show her progression through the company alongside that of Garland’s and Lana Turner’s characters. Watch it for the impressive dance numbers and a relatively happy ending for Lamarr’s trademark European beauty.
Tortilla Flat (1942)
The original Steinbeck story is reworked to have a happier ending in this film, but its characterisations and setting are still distinctly Californian. Lamarr plays Dolores Ramirez, a Portuguese settler who captures the heart of Daniel Alvarez (John Garfield) but is unsure of his intentions and motivations due to his history of idleness. As usual Lamarr is not given much of an acting challenge – she is still playing the beautiful European émigrée. However, it is a solid (if sanitised) Steinbeck adaptation.
Sampson and Delilah (1949)
Perhaps Lamarr’s most enduring work, this gorgeous Technicolor picture is old Hollywood spectacle at its most sumptuous. Cecil DeMille commence a painstaking pre-production process in 1935, and its special effects were innovations at their time. After a lengthy search for a leading lady, Lamarr was cast; she earned accolades for her ‘more than skin-deep’ performance and ‘gazelle’-like gracefulness. This film is also notable for featuring one of Angela Lansbury’s early roles as Delilah’s sister and Sampson’s intended bride – this may not be Biblically accurate, but it makes for compelling storytelling.