Look beyond the lips

Bee Wilson

  • Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film by Ruth Barton
    Kentucky, 281 pp, £25.95, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 8131 2604 3

Compared with most actresses, Hedy Lamarr wasn’t very interested in acting. She was an intelligent woman, capable of great things, but, beauty aside, the greatness didn’t show up on screen. If you only knew her through her performances in Algiers, Ecstasy or Samson and Delilah, you would never have thought it possible that she was jointly responsible for one of the great inventions of the 20th century.

Ecstasy was filmed in 1932 in the countryside near Prague, and the avant-garde film director Gustav Machaty found it very difficult to elicit a reaction from his leading lady, the 19-year-old Hedy Kiesler. The film told a Lady Chatterley-ish story of a woman, Eva, who flees an unhappy marriage with a wealthy older man, and falls in love with a young engineer called Adam. Machaty had planned a close-up of the heroine’s face as Adam kisses her and wanted the audience to be in no doubt that she had indeed reached a state of ‘ecstasy’, in Eden, with her Adam. The trouble was that Hedy Kiesler couldn’t act. In the early takes, she just closed her eyes and hoped for the best. Eventually, Machaty produced a safety pin and attacked her with it. ‘You will lie here,’ he said. ‘When I prick you a little on your backside, you will bring your elbows together and you will react!’

After its premiere in Austria in 1933, Ecstasy briefly became one of the most talked about films in the world. In Vienna alone, 71,000 people went to see it in the first two weeks (or so the publicity posters claimed). Mussolini asked for a private screening at his home in Rome, where he is supposed to have gasped at the beauty of the lead actress. ‘It shouldn’t be called Ecstasy,’ the Neue Zeitung complained, ‘it should be called Scandalous!’ Apart from the scene of close-up ecstasy, the sequence that caused the most fuss showed Eva shrugging off the confines of paternalist authority by running naked through a forest and jumping into a lake for a swim. Her horse bolts, and she chases after it, still naked. Audiences went in hope of pornography but many were disappointed, judging by the catcalls and hissing at screenings from Berlin to Paris and New York. What they got was a lot of highfalutin symbolism involving horses and a glimpse or two of the upper torso of a shivering teenage girl.

Still, it was enough to launch Kiesler’s Hollywood career. In 1937, she arrived in the United States as a new person, not Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, the intellectual daughter of a Jewish banker in Vienna, but Hedy Lamarr, ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’. Her new surname was inspired by Barbara La Marr, a star of silent film. The ‘most beautiful’ tag came from Louis B. Mayer, who brought her to MGM with other Mitteleuropean émigrées such as Greer Garson and Ilona von Hajmassy (though the theatre director Max Reinhardt had already declared her the ‘most beautiful girl in the world’ back in Vienna). Mayer knew that much of the excitement surrounding Hedy was due to her being the naked girl from Ecstasy, who thanks to a pinprick on her bottom was believed to have reached a state of sexual arousal on screen. However, at their first meeting, he made it clear that she would be keeping her clothes on in future when being filmed. ‘Never get away with that stuff in Hollywood. Never. A woman’s ass is for her husband, not theatregoers.’

In Hollywood, Hedy covered up; her costumes were mostly chaste, high-necked affairs with lots of costume jewellery (designed in part to draw attention away from the fact that she was flat-chested by movie-star standards). The main exception was when she played Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, and wore a spangly bikini top, the better to cling on to the shoe-polish-brown chest of Victor Mature as Samson, in full, glorious Technicolor. Even with her clothes buttoned up, however, Hedy Lamarr carried the frisson of having once been prepared to strip naked on film. Even though few in America had seen Ecstasy, it continued to shape her reputation. Many of the titles of her films played on the notion that she was exotic, foreign and excitingly untrustworthy: Lady of the Tropics (1939); The Strange Woman (1946); Dishonoured Lady (1947); A Lady without Passport (1950). ‘You have the face of the West but your soul is full of Eastern smoke,’ someone remarks to her character, the lovely ‘half-caste’ Manon de Vargnes, in Lady of the Tropics. Lamarr seemed increasingly willing to play the ‘strange woman’ off-screen too. Ecstasy and Me: My Life As a Woman was her sensational and curiously titled autobiography of 1966 (her life as a woman: as opposed to her life as a horse?). It is a litany of sexual revelations that Lamarr almost instantly regretted, suing her publishers.

By the time the memoir appeared, Lamarr’s exotic strangeness had morphed into out-and-out oddness. As Ruth Barton writes in her new biography: ‘She lived out her final years as a virtual recluse, her sight seriously impaired and her once beautiful face destroyed by plastic surgery.’ Her main way of communicating with the world was through lawsuits (‘her favourite TV show was Judge Judy’). In January 1966, months before her memoir was published, she was caught shoplifting in a department store. A detective ‘followed her around the store as she helped herself to the goods, including a knitted suit, some panties, cheap make-up and eight birthday cards’. At a subsequent press conference, she seemed a confused, pitiable figure. There is more than a touch of Sunset Boulevard about Lamarr’s later life. After she was caught shoplifting, her son, Tony Loder, testified that ‘she was worried because she was not as beautiful as she once was.’ Loder and his sister, Denise, were the product of one of her six marriages, all of which ended in divorce (three fewer than Zsa Zsa Gabor, her near contemporary; one more than Judy Garland). Her first husband was the Austrian arms dealer Fritz Mandl, who was also a fascist; next, as her stardom dawned, a Hollywood screenwriter; then an actor, John Loder, father of her two children; next, a nightclub owner; a Texas oilman; and finally her own divorce lawyer. She spent her last three decades alone. In Florida, where she died in 2000, her most ‘enduring’ friendship, according to Barton, was with a police lieutenant and his family who lived next door and bought her the odd carton of cranberry juice.

Barton – a lecturer in film studies at Trinity College, Dublin, who has written three books on Irish cinema – argues that a biography of Lamarr can be a way of exploring ‘the consequences of leading a life that was based on an image, and how that life became increasingly fictionalised’. The film historian Jeanine Basinger divided the classic Hollywood female stars into three types: ‘fantasies’, who appealed primarily to men; ‘real women’, to whom women in the audience could relate; and ‘exaggerated women’ in the Bette Davis mould. Barton suggests that Lamarr falls into the ‘fantasy’ category and that her dreamlike image ‘threatened to overwhelm her reality’. It certainly threatened the lives of her children. Her daughter said that when she was packed off to boarding school, she missed her mother so much that she would save up her allowance to buy Hedy Lamarr paper dolls, complete with lots of different little outfits. She would look at the doll and ‘cry and cry and cry’ because however much it resembled her absent mother, ‘the paper doll couldn’t sing Austrian lullabies.’

Lamarr has been rather neglected, Barton suggests, in comparison with ‘equally difficult figures such as Joan Crawford or Bette Davis or Marilyn Monroe’. The book starts with a break-in at the Hollywood Wax Museum in 1973. Thirteen statues were destroyed, including those of Jean Harlow, Vivien Leigh and Hedy Lamarr. Some of the figures were remade, but Hedy Lamarr was ‘melted down and later replaced by Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft’. Barton does a spirited job of making the case for Lamarr as a significant member of her generation of ‘European exiles to Hollywood’ along with Peter Lorre and Ingrid Bergman. Carefully researched and zippily written, the book is the definitive companion to Lamarr’s films, from the glamour of Ziegfeld Girl (1941), in which Hedy sported a showstopping jewelled headdress, to the screwball comedy Comrade X (1940), set in the Soviet Union and co-starring Clark Gable, who brought out the best in her, eliciting glimmers of humour (they also starred together in Boom Town). Barton’s rehabilitation of Lamarr goes only so far, however. She is sharply funny about the actress’s life off-screen (‘Hedy’s disregard for the law was as remarkable as her frequent recourse to it’). And she freely concedes the limitations – and often risibility – of the star’s numerous identikit ‘exotic dame’ roles.

If Lamarr has been neglected, it is partly because watching one of her films is nothing like watching a Joan Crawford or Bette Davis or Marilyn Monroe film. In those there is a sense of heightened energy whenever the star is on screen, whereas Hedy Lamarr seems to suck out all the energy with her cold, mannered, intense performances. And yet she is so ravishing, you can’t look away. Her career is a test case for what it means to be nothing but a movie star: a pure face à la Garbo, as opposed to an actress or any other kind of performer.

Soon after her Hollywood films started to appear, there was a mad vogue for the Lamarr look, though it was not easy to copy without the aid of surgery (it has been said that Lamarr’s nose was the one most women chose when they went under the knife). There was a fad for turbans and jewels, for middle-parted brunette hair and for being photographed with slightly open lips. Disney’s Snow White, Barton writes, ‘having started out as a blonde, was redesigned as a brunette’. Once you know this, you realise that Snow White is uncannily like Lamarr, from the rosebud mouth to the strange, faintly European, little girl voice. (Lamarr’s look was also one of the main inspirations for the sinuous figure of Catwoman in Bob Kane’s Batman strip of 1940.) Barton notes that Vivien Leigh ‘was selected for Gone with the Wind … as much for her resemblance to Hedy as to Scarlett O’Hara’, and it is true that in still photographs Leigh and Lamarr look like peas in a pod; on film the similarity is less marked, because Leigh is animated where Lamarr is virtually static.

Even back on the Viennese stage, where she wasn’t hampered by speaking a foreign language, she hadn’t been much of an actress. In We Don’t Need Money (1931), Barton observes, she ‘expressed herself mostly by rolling her eyes’. Her first important Hollywood movie was Algiers (1938), a remake of the French film Pépé le Moko, set among the criminals of the casbah. Lamarr plays Gaby, a sultry, high-class beauty in evening gown and pearls who falls in love with the gangster Pépé, played by Charles Boyer. Both Boyer and the film’s makers worried that Hedy’s performance would hurt its chances. In the end, though, it didn’t matter ‘whether Hedy could act. The critics agreed with one voice that she could not. But, they gasped, she was beautiful.’ Time magazine called her ‘the smouldering, velvet-voiced, wanton-mouthed femme fatale of Algiers’.

With its North African setting and ambivalent male lead, Algiers was one of the main inspirations for Casablanca. Warner Bros wanted a ‘foreign girl’ for the part of Ilsa, and their first choice was Lamarr. Louis B. Mayer, however, wouldn’t loan her out from MGM, for which those of us who love Casablanca must be eternally grateful. Barton notes that it was ‘Hedy’s greatest missed opportunity’. But this is to assume that Casablanca would have had anything like its enduring charm if it had starred Lamarr instead of Ingrid Bergman. She’d have looked good in that white evening dress. She might have mustered an agonised mascara’d stare, given some approximation of being haunted by the past, but she was missing Bergman’s intelligent warmth and humour on screen, that gift for conveying different emotions with a tiny reflex of her eyebrows. If Lamarr had been Ilsa, I can’t imagine it mattering very much whether she and Rick got together again or not. Get on the plane – or not. It’s all the same to us.

Hedy Lamarr is supposed to have said of her stardom: ‘Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.’ Barton observes that ‘she never looked stupid,’ but she certainly did look blank. Other directors and actors after Machaty with his safety pin tried various tricks, sometimes cruel, to produce a reaction. In The Conspirators, Paul Henreid managed to get her to look flustered by telling her ‘that with the lights behind her I could see right through her negligée’. The director of The Strange Woman rapped her on the ankles and the knuckles with a baton. Barton suggests that her woodenness added to Hedy’s air of unreality: ‘If she was wooden, she was also unreadable, lending an ambiguous quality to the parts she played.’ In her early ‘exotic dame’ parts, this was an asset, signalling her foreign inscrutability. Reviewing Lady of the Tropics, the critic for Photoplay noted: ‘It’s still a moot point whether or not it makes any difference that the heady Lamarr can’t act worth a tinker’s expression of irritation.’ With time, though, the problem got worse. In the 1950s, she didn’t get so many parts, her plans to move to film production fizzled out, and she turned to TV, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Merv Griffin Show and others. The small screen can be more exposing than the big, however. ‘Hedy’s television appearances,’ Barton writes, ‘are notable for her look of bemusement. She often seems hardly able to believe what she is doing, settling for standing still as the action revolves around her.’

Her real talents lay in an entirely different direction. It was obvious to anyone who looked beyond the rosebud lips that Hedy was extremely bright. While shooting Ecstasy, she was required to act in three different languages for three different versions: German, Czech and French. She knew French already and learned Czech in a few weeks, becoming so fluent that she translated for the director on set. She never got much praise from her parents for such facility. Her mother, Gertrude, a musician, claimed that because of Hedy’s beauty she always ‘underemphasised praise and flattery, hoping in this way, to balance the scales for her’.

Hedy’s double life as an inventor lends an interest to her performances that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Behind the exotic dame schtick was someone whose mind was often on other things. Lamarr collaborated with the composer and pianist George Antheil (who in 1924 wrote the modernist Ballet Mécanique) on a radio-controlled torpedo system. She already knew a lot about remote-controlled torpedoes and other secret weapons from her marriage to the Austrian arms dealer. Her basic idea has since become known as ‘frequency hopping’. It involves sending a series of radio signals on different frequencies so that they cannot be intercepted or jammed, making it easier to launch a remote-controlled torpedo. Antheil worked out that changes in radio frequencies were analogous to musical pitch and the Lamarr-Antheil invention used 88 frequencies, the number of keys on a piano. The composer and the actress worked long hours throughout 1941 at Hedy’s villa figuring out the finer points with the help of ‘used matches and a silver matchbox laid out on her carpet’. They decided that the jumping frequencies could be achieved by perforated paper rolls, stamped with an elaborate sequence of changing channels. So long as the transmitter and the receiver were stamped with the same pattern, they could stay in sync and the message would be received. In August 1942, they were granted a patent for this ‘secret communication system’.

The navy turned down the proposal as unworkable. Lamarr and Antheil were rejected by the Inventors Council, too. Nor was the government interested in the unlikely pair’s next invention, an anti-aircraft shell designed to explode automatically, by means of a magnetic device, as soon as it was near a plane. Yet it later transpired that the Lamarr-Antheil system did in fact work. With some modifications – using electronics instead of piano rolls – it was installed on ships sent to blockade Cuba in 1962. Frequency hopping became a basic technology for military communications: it is used, for example, in the Milstar system that controls all US intercontinental missiles. But its civilian application is most significant. Spread-spectrum – in which signals are deliberately spread across a wide bandwidth to ensure privacy – is the basis of much of our current telecommunications system, from mobile phones to wireless broadband.

Over the past couple of decades, Lamarr’s films have been ignored, but her reputation as an inventor has risen. She and Antheil were not the first or the only people to devise versions of frequency hopping. A prototype of the system is mentioned as early as 1905 in Jonathan Zenneck’s book Wireless Telegraphy, and the Polish engineer Leonard Danilewicz was working on something similar in 1929. But it is still pretty jaw-dropping that Lamarr, who left school at 16, should have come up with the essential concept by herself. Inventors’ Day in Europe is now celebrated on her birthday, 9 November. In the 1990s, a software company, CorelDRAW, used Lamarr’s face in its marketing, in tribute to her invention. She promptly sued them for illegally appropriating her image. They reached a settlement of $5 million in 1999, the year before she died: this was the only money she ever made from her invention.

In the summer of 1942, just as her patent was being granted, Lamarr took the exotic dame act to new depths with the part of Tondelayo in White Cargo, which required her to oil up in a sarong as a ‘half-Egyptian’. A reviewer commented: ‘The role doesn’t call for words; it doesn’t call for acting ability. Tondelayo is simply a half-caste native girl whose indolent, erotic nature causes men to throw away pride and ambition for her love.’

Lamarr continued to tinker with inventions all her life, though none came close to the brilliance of frequency hopping. In contrast to her trance-like screen persona, she was restlessly creative. She mixed her own perfumes and designed jewellery. She wrote poetry and took painting classes. In her last years, Barton writes, she worked on an

‘attachment for … any size Kleenex box’ as a solution for used paper tissues. She had a proposal for a new kind of traffic stoplight and some modifications to the design of the Concorde. There were plans for a device to aid movement-impaired people to get in and out of the bath, a fluorescent dog collar and a skin-tautening technique based on the principle of the accordion. To the end of her days, she could perform devastatingly complex card tricks.

She just couldn’t act.