And here’s Miss Hedy…
When it comes to Hedy Lamarr, it’s easy to zero in on her beauty and go no further. However, this woman had plenty more going for her than just a gorgeous face, and we in the twenty-first century wouldn’t be where we are today without her. 2017’s Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story ably delves into the life and times of this multi-faceted woman, albeit with a few flaws.
Narrated mostly by Hedy herself via a taped interview with Fleming Meeks, the film moves along at a nice clip, which is fitting, seeing as Hedy’s life was like a steeplechase. It features interviews with her children and grandchildren, James Loder, Anthony Loder, Denise Loder-DeLuca, and Wendy Colton, as well as various friends of hers, such as her manicurist, Manya Bruer, and people who had been influenced by her, like Diana Kreuger.
Hedy was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914, in Vienna, Austria. Her mother was hoping for a boy, and instead she got Hedy.
As a child, Hedy was always very curious and loved to tinker. Her family still has in its possession a music box she took apart and put back together at the age of five to see how it worked. Hedy was constantly asking her father questions about science, and as a teenager decided to pursue it as a career. However, her dream was shut down cold by her beauty–everyone who saw her couldn’t get past it. It’s said that whenever she entered a room, people would stop talking.
At first, Hedy parlayed her beauty into posing for nude photos (yes, Bombshell shows some of them). She also made several short films in German, and then in 1933 came the Austrian-Czech film, Ecstasy. Audiences found it scandalous, because Hedy goes skinny-dipping in one scene. She has to run naked through a field because a mule has trotted off with her clothes. It was touted as the first film to feature nudity (it wasn’t), but it’s more likely that it was the first feature film to show an orgasm.
Also in 1933, eighteen-year old Hedy married 33-year old Fredrich Mandl. Mandl was a munitions dealer, and sold arms to the Italian government, as well as to the Nazis. Although Hedy was able to pursue her love of science because of Mandl’s connections, she felt trapped by the marriage and increasingly troubled by Mandl’s business connections. She decided to get the heck out of Austria, and according to Bombshell, pretended to be the maid one night and sneaked out through the kitchen door, riding away on a bicycle as fast as she could.
Hedy went to London, where she met Louis B. Mayer. Mayer tried to persuade Hedy to come to MGM, but she balked when he told her she would have to leave her clothes on. However, it didn’t take her long to reconsider, and she booked passage on the same ocean liner as Mayer. That night at dinner, Hedy went to the dining room dressed to the nines, which caused her fellow passengers to goggle. Mayer knew he had something, and signed her immediately. He also wasted no time in changing Hedy’s last name from Klieser to Lamarr at his wife’s suggestion.
Hedy’s star rapidly ascended. Her first American film was Algiers, but what really did it for her was playing Karen van Meers in Boom Town. She was a trend-setter right from the beginning, too–no sooner did she get to Hollywood than women were parting their hair down the middle and sporting extra-lush eyelashes just like Hedy.
A major chunk of Bombshell delves into Hedy’s scientific accomplishments. Even though she worked very long hours at MGM six days a week, she spent as much time as possible at her inventor’s table. She even had a miniature lab set up in her dressing room for the long waits in between takes.
When the war came, Hedy was buzzing with ideas, and she wanted to do more than just sell war bonds and dance with servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen. One of her ideas was Coke concentrated into a cube like Alka-Seltzer that could be dissolved into any glass of water. Theoretically, soldiers, factory workers, or whoever could take these cubes anywhere and have a nice, refreshing Coke. Only problem was, Hedy failed to take into account that water’s hardness or softness made a big difference in whether or not the cube dissolved.
Hedy’s major, and I mean major accomplishment, is frequency hopping. Radio-controlled torpedoes were becoming a thing, and she wanted to figure out a way to give the Allies an edge. One night Hedy was messing around with a Philco Magic Box, which was a very early remote control for the radio, when she had a revelation: Since torpedoes were controlled by a radio frequency and easily jammed, then why not have the frequency change every few seconds?
Hedy and a friend, composer George Antheils, put their heads together and used a player piano mechanism as a means to switch between frequencies. They got a patent and submitted their idea to the Navy, but it was dismissed, stuck in a vault, and labeled “Top Secret.” Hedy was accused of having smuggled the idea out of Austria when she fled from Mendl, but the Nazis didn’t have anything remotely close to Hedy’s idea.
Bombshell inaccurately states that Hedy wasn’t taken seriously because once again, her beauty got in the way, which is only partly true. Historian Richard Rhodes said that the Navy didn’t have the technology necessary to implement frequency-hopping during the Second World War. Plus, they were suspicious of ideas coming from outside the Armed Forces. Hedy herself said she was highly insulted that she was called an “alien” and told to go sell more war bonds.
Hedy’s invention languished in a vault until 1962 and the Bay of Pigs, when it was built into sonobuoys and used to alert planes of submarines. Unfortunately, Hedy didn’t know she could have profited from her invention being used, and she was never honored for it until the nineties. By then, the Web, cell phones, and GPS were all in their infancy, and all of them use Hedy’s technology. It’s estimated to have a value of thirty billion dollars.
After the war, Hedy’s career was on a downward trend. Hollywood loves youth, and especially during the mid-twentieth century, any actress over thirty-five was either put out to pasture or relegated to character parts. Since Hedy’s career was built on her being a screen goddess, there really wasn’t anywhere for her to go. She tried being an independent filmmaker, which didn’t pan out. She made the smash hit, Samson and Delilah with Cecil B. DeMille, but after that she became a parody.
Hedy’s personal life was on the turbulent side as well. She married six men in total and divorced all of them. She was a good mother, but fell out with her twelve-year old son, James Loder, who was put in military school and moved in with a different family. Ever trying to stay young and vibrant, Hedy took what she was told were vitamin B shots, except they were really meth, and she quickly became an addict. She also got caught shoplifting (yeah, go ahead and think of Winona Ryder), but was let off because she claimed it was an oversight.
Always, always, Bombshell emphasizes Hedy being stopped cold by a society who saw her as a goddess and nothing else. She was expected to be beautiful and dumb, but never beautiful and intelligent. She could never tell if people loved her or were dazzled by her beauty. It affected her marriages and other relationships, and later caused her to make some unhappy choices. I find it interesting that for someone who disliked people not looking past her beauty, Hedy was unwilling to allow herself to age. Then again, it was the brand that she was given, and she had to do with what she got.
In her last years, Hedy became a recluse due to too many botched plastic surgeries, and wouldn’t even see her children, although she talked to them on the phone. That’s incredibly sad. She died in her sleep on January 19, 2000 of heart disease.
Bombshell moves quickly, but it’s also film history gold. Aside from a few errors, it’s authentic to a fault, as most of its contributors are people who were connected very closely with Hedy. Her second son, Anthony, reveals a lot of her personal papers and family artifacts. I’m very much interested in seeing what else Alexandra Dean does in the future, because her documentary style is interesting.
Besides the frenetic pacing, the only thing I found a trifle annoying and distracting was the animation sprinkled throughout the film. Sometimes it’s effective, such as when it’s used to illustrate what frequency hopping looks like, but at other times it feels a little infantalizing. Seeing lightbulbs appear over Hedy’s head, for instance, is fun but unnecessary, especially considering Hedy’s story isn’t exactly G-rated. Unfortunately, though, animation is becoming a thing with some documentarians. It always makes me want to run headlong into Ken Burns’s robust and dignified catalogue.
I think the most valuable thing about the film is that it allows Hedy to speak for herself. She summed up her life best in a favorite quote:
“People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Love them anyway. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish alternative motives. Do good anyway. The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think big anyway. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway. Give the world the best you have and you’ll be kicked into the teeth. Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
Thank you, Hedy. The world owes you more than it knows.
For more of the beautiful Hedy, please visit Samantha at Musings of A Classic Film Addict. Thanks for hosting, Samantha–it was fun! We’re heading over to the Claude Rains Blogathon tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all…