Spotlight On: Hedy Lamarr


Sadly today, most people know hew name due to the genius running gag in Blazing Saddles. But in her time Hedy Lamarr was known as one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Initially in her native Austria, Lamarr came to Hollywood when MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was taken aback by her beauty. With her talent and undeniable screen presence, Mayer had high hopes which she was able to live up to. Behind her noted looks lie a brilliant and ambitious woman rarely seen by others. During the Second World War she was devastated to see the fate of her beloved homeland and used her intellect to develop technology to win the war. Following the terrible tradition of Hollywood over time work for Hedy Lamarr dried up as she spent her final years in seclusion. Today, Lamarr is recognized as the enigmatic genius she was and perhaps more remembered for her contributions to science as well as her acting.

Algiers (1938): The star power of Hedy Lamarr was proven from the start with her American film debut. Despite being unfamiliar to US audiences she received second billing and instantly made her mark. A jewel thief Pepe (Charles Boyer) seeks refuge in a lawless city in the Algiers known as “the Casbah” It is here he meets Lamarr’s character Gaby, a captivating woman from Paris and the two bond in this strange land. Despite her novice status and shaky English language, MGM knew they had a star on her hand with this performance.

HM Pulham Esquire (1941): At the time of this production the novel which served as it’s source material was already a major best-seller so the studio had a lot riding on the film. With this in mind Hedy Lamarr was given the top billing in the ad campaign as a show of the faith they had in her. When preparing for a school reunion, upper-class Boston native Harry Pulham (Robert Young) is appointed to write the bios for his former classmates including himself. It is here that he realizes that despite his wealth and status Pulham has led an unsatisfactory life. This sparks a trip down memory lane as he remembers the feelings he once held for his former vivacious co-worker Marvin Myles (Lamarr). Realizing she may be the spark needed to reignite his life Marvin and Harry meet once again and are tempted into an affair. Ultimately they both realized what they once shared was now gone forever.

The Conspirators (1942): It goes without saying that Casablanca was one of the most successful movies of all-time. Wanting to capitalize on its success and brought back a number of its cast members for another war thriller, only they ultimately opted not to go with legendary actress Ingrid Bergman as the female lead and instead turned to Hedy Lamarr. In neutral Lisbon, Dutch resistance fighter Vincent Van Der Lyn (Paul Henreid) meets the beautiful Irene Von Mohr. Having survived Dachau, Irene was there as a spy….but for which side. Van Der Lyn wonders if this enigmatic woman could be the key to finding a traitor in the local resistance group.

Frequency-hopping spectrum spread (1942): As the Nazi war machine plowed through her beloved homeland, Hedy Lamarr wanted to help the American war effort. This desire to help went beyond merely selling war bonds (though she did sell MILLIONS in bonds in a few days) or volunteering with the USO like her colleagues. She learned that the radio controlled torpedoes used by the United States Navy were frequently and easily stopped by the enemy. Along with her friend the composer George Antheil, she set out to find a solution. Taking inspiration from the piano roll, Lamarr crafted a system of frequency hopping which would make it incredibly difficult if not impossible for the torpedoes to be detected or jammed. A patent was filed but sadly the military did not take her work seriously as they scoffed at an actress who was merely eye candy. But in the 1950’s her was rediscovered and over the years built upon. The idea Hedy Lamarr came up with has since served as groundwork for much of the advancement in radio and mobile communication which followed.

Streamlined aircraft: One of the biggest figures of 1940’s Hollywood was the eccentric wealthy producer/engineer/industrialist Howard Hughes. Of course Lamarr and Hughes ran in the same circles and bonded over a common love of movies and science. In 1990 it was discovered the extent to which the actress helped the billionaire in his work. Pointing out that the design of his airplanes did not lend themselves to speed, Lamarr encouraged him to look to nature for inspiration. Using the look of the world’s fastest birds and fish she noted the different aspects of their physical design and how it helped them move. Inspired by her designs, Howard Hughes began to implement them into his aircrafts.

The Strange Woman (1946): When she became disatisfied with being typecast as the exotic seductress for the big studios, Hedy Lamarr made the then unheard of move of founding her own production company. In directing her first feature, she made the brilliant but unconventional choice of Edgar G. Ulmer. While Ulmer is now respected as one of the most talented directors in film history, at the time he was a relegated to Poverty Row. Lamarr played the cold and manipulative Jenny Hager, who escapes her abusive father to live with the wealthy Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart). Poster falls for her, and seeing the chance to live in luxury she marries him while still making advances towards his son. Her ability to bend men to her will eventually catches up to her in the end. Many argue that this was possibly Lamarr’s greatest performance.

Samson and Delilah (1949): Her performance in the Strange Woman was so good that the great Cecil B DeMille cast her as the ultimate temptress in his film Samson and Delilah. While the blockbuster naturally takes most of the story beats from the Old Testament story, Delilah was given a backstory for Lamarr to truly flesh out her character beyond being the woman who betrayed Samson (Victor Mature). While the sword-and-sandal film is notorious for it’s troubled production it stands as the highest grossing movie of Hedy Lamarr’s career and the role she is most associated with.