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In the 1944 romantic comedy The Heavenly Body, Hedy Lamarr got a second shot at working with debonair comic actor William Powell, with whom she had done some of her better screen work in the 1942 drama Crossroads. Although the second teaming -- in a film about an astronomer (Powell) at odds with his young wife (Lamarr) over her new devotion to astrology -- promised to showcase the leading lady as a comedienne, the title and publicity capitalized on her reputation as one of the world's most beautiful women; in the '40s, plastic surgeons reported that she was the star most female patients wanted to look like.
The Heavenly Body was particularly timely, with a plot revolving around a popular craze, astrology. Although astrology had been practiced since the days of ancient Egypt, it had enjoyed a particular revival of popular interest since the '30s, when the London Sunday Express carried a natal chart of the newly born Princess Margaret. The American Federation of Astrologers had been founded, as the American Federation of Scientific Astrologers, in 1938 to encourage serious study of the stars as keys to human psychology and behavior. Even timelier was a key plot element, in which a character was discredited by the revelation that she was a ration hoarder, a reference to government rationing of food and other crucial supplies during World War II.
The film actually came about because Lamarr had turned down studio head Louis B. Mayer's first choice for her. As notorious for the films she refused to make -- including Casablanca (1942), Gaslight (1944) and Laura (1944) -- as for the one's she actually made, she had, wisely as it turned out, refused the role of a Chinese wife and mother fighting the Japanese occupation in Dragon Seed (1944). The film went to Katharine Hepburn, while Lamarr moved into her role as Powell's astrology-addled wife in The Heavenly Body.
For Powell, the picture was the first feature he had made in two years. He had been forced to cut back on his film work during the '40s because of health problems, including chronic ulcers and his recovery from rectal cancer. To make matters worse, in 1942 his first two wives, Eileen Wilson and actress Carole Lombard, had both passed away. His marriage to the younger Diana Lewis and the support of his friends helped him get through, but he had had to curtail his filmmaking. Since Crossroads, he had only played a cameo, as himself, in The Youngest Profession (1943). After The Heavenly Body, he would return to familiar territory as Nick Charles in The Thin Man Goes Home (1944).
Working with screenwriter Harry Kurnitz, who had also written Powell's I Love You Again (1940) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), he got to play the kind of angry befuddlement and slapstick comedy his fans enjoyed. For The Heavenly Body, he played out a comic battle with a garden hose and a scene in which he grows increasingly drunk while trying to entertain a group of dancing Russians. The latter, which revolved around his character's getting drunk for the first time, was something of an in-joke, considering his identification with the role of the hard-drinking detective Nick Charles.
Even though The Heavenly Body was a substitute for another film, MGM and producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. were not about to waste Lamarr on an inferior product. She was photographed by Robert Planck, who had been glamorizing everyone from Norma Shearer to Joan Crawford since arriving at MGM in 1940, and costumed by Irene. To help hone her comic talents, the studio borrowed director Alexander Hall from Columbia, where he had gotten strong performances out of Loretta Young in The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) and Bedtime Story (1941), Robert Montgomery in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen (1942). When shooting dragged on, and Hall had to return to Columbia for another film, Vincente Minnelli took over, adding his particular approach to glamour to the picture.
The Heavenly Body opened to respectful, though hardly enthusiastic reviews. The Variety critic nailed the film's main selling points with "The camera has been particularly good to her [Lamarr] in this one, and her clothes are plenty eye-appealing." That was enough to please audiences, if not Lamarr. Although she wrote kindly of Hornblow's production in her memoirs, she would leave the studio a year later hoping to find better projects than those MGM was offering.
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Director: Alexander Hall
Screenplay: Michael Arlen, Walter Reisch, Harry Kurnitz
Based on a story by Jacques Thery
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, William Ferrari
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: William Powell (William B. Whitley), Hedy Lamarr (Vicky Whitley), James Craig (Lloyd X. Hunter), Fay Bainter (Margaret Sibyll), Henry O'Neill (Prof. Stone), Spring Byington (Nancy Potter), Morris Ankrum (Dr. Green), Connie Gilchrist (Beulah Murphy).
BW-96m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller