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A costume drama wrapped in a cloak of film noir, Edgar G. Ulmer's The Strange Woman (1946) stars Hedy Lamarr as a young woman who claws her way to power in 19th-century Bangor, Maine. The child of an alcoholic father (Dennis Hoey), Jenny Hager (Hedy Lamarr) understands the weaknesses of men, and quickly learns to exploit them. The first stepping-stone on her climb to independence is Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), a middle-aged lumber baron who has always had an eye for the fiery lass. Once Jenny earns his trust, she unties his purse strings and thus secures a place for herself among high society folk. Not content with her comfy life as the wife of an ailing businessman, Jenny seduces Isaiah's son Ephraim (Louis Hayward) while he's home from college, and subtly persuades him to murder his father (while canoeing down a rapid river). After the deed, Jenny coldly shuns her would-be lover, "You can't come into this house, you wretched coward. You killed your father." Jenny appoints John Evered (George Sanders) to run her late husband's business affairs, and soon he too is drawn into her web of deceit. But John is not an emotional weakling such as Jenny's previous conquests, and the strange woman's elaborate plots slowly begin to unravel.
The driving force behind The Strange Woman was Lamarr herself, who sought to escape from the control of the major Hollywood studios and show her creative and financial independence. Lamarr sought a more serious role... something dark and mysterious to enhance her image. She recalled in her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman, "I had the producers...and I had the money. Plus which I had several releasing companies eager to distribute."
Producer Jack Chertok had worked primarily in studio-sponsored short films, such as MGM's Crime Does Not Pay series (which he originated in 1935). Executive producer Hunt Stromberg was also an MGM alumnus, best known for producing the Thin Man series of films. Even though these producers carried a fair amount of clout, the budget for The Strange Woman was limited. It required a director capable of squeezing the most production value from limited resources. For this task, Ulmer was highly qualified. Although the budget was small in comparison with the typical MGM film, it was extravagant for Ulmer, who had directed a series of films at the "Poverty Row" studio P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation). The Strange Woman is Ulmer's most lavish production and the economic constraints under which it was made are barely apparent.
For Lamarr, the multi-dimensional role of Jenny Hager provided the opportunity to demonstrate her range as an actress. "Now that I was making a picture for myself I decided to open up the role the way I always wanted to -- to go out and research this type of girl in the flesh, in her native habitat, and then play her the way she is, with real-life motivations."
Lamarr prepared for the role by traveling incognito to the harbors of Boston. "I disguised myself as best I could with a blonde wig and conservative clothes, and I travelled alone...I wandered down to the white-sailed ships, curious about the girls in the dock area. I talked to several of them -- they seemed too refined, too normal. Then I roamed to another section of the bay, listening to stories of the poor fishing girls. Three days of this and I was researched in depth when I got back to Hollywood."
For the scenes of Jenny's childhood, Ulmer employed his daughter, Arianne Ulmer Cipes as a Hedy Lamarr look-alike. In an interview published in 1997, Cipes recalls that Lamarr herself had chosen Ulmer for the job of director. "When Hunt Stromberg wanted to do The Strange Woman, she was the one who demanded Dad." Cipes explains that Lamarr knew Ulmer from their youth in Vienna, then later in Berlin, in the social circle surrounding the theatre group of Max Reinhardt. The actress and director's paths crossed again during the production of The Wife of Monte Cristo (1946), which starred Lamarr's husband, John Loder.
Writer Tom Weaver asked Cipes if it was true Ulmer inflicted minor physical pain in order to coax a more convincing performance from Lamarr, reportedly pinching her ankle at key moments. "He wanted to get her emotional," Cipes replied, "and the only way that he really could do it was by physically 'breaking into her.' Sometimes people talk about my father as temperamental -- and he was. But a lot of it was premeditated. When he couldn't get an actor to break down and open up, one of his methods was to get them angry. Get them aggravated. Get them furious. And somehow their defenses would drop. Later he would kiss and make up and you'd have a big emotional thing. He had that nature; he was able to play people that way. This is one of the things that somebody who has real charm can do."
Lamarr, in her autobiography, recalls Ulmer's directorial style differently, suggesting that -- having toiled for so long at the low-end studios -- he was intimidated by A-list actors. "Edgar was just a bit afraid of me," Lamarr remembered. "I would walk through a scene, step by step, and know there was something wrong with it. Yet the director was timid about suggesting changes."
Eventually, a channel of communication opened between them, sparked by the filming of a seduction scene. "I said to Edgar, 'I feel like it's a seduction by Hedy Lamarr instead of by Jenny Hager.'"
"'Right,' he said, 'Jenny is immoral...Your approach, Hedy, is too delicate and subtle. Jenny wouldn't be subtle. She goes after what she wants directly and quickly. Let's try it. Don't be Hedy Lamarr -- be a tigress.'" But however much Lamarr tried, she simply wasn't a sexual predator. "We did the bedroom scene over and over so often I could do it now, twenty years later, in one 'take.' Anyway, it didn't work. I just wasn't a tigress. All the talent at my disposal couldn't make me one. Feeling we were heading in the wrong direction, in the middle of production we brought in fresh writers and I spent hours with them trying to rewrite Jenny's character, personality and morals. But when the budget started to hurt, we decided to do our best with what we had."
Rather than rely upon delicate characterizations, the filmmakers opted for melodrama. The Strange Woman's climactic seduction scene occurs in the midst of a violent thunderstorm. Jenny slowly approaches John. As she does, lightning strikes a nearby tree. By the time she reaches him, the tree is ablaze and she embraces him against a backdrop of thunder, lightning and flame.
Cipes remembers the gentlemanly behavior of Louis Hayward (who sent her her first roses), and the cool demeanor of George Sanders. "He was a very, very vain guy. My mother always says that he told her he would never live beyond 60, that he would commit suicide. And he did." Sanders died of a drug overdose in Spain at the age of 65. His suicide note is said to have read, "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck."
To help promote The Strange Woman, Lamarr embarked on a personal appearance tour. "There are always unpleasant experiences on these trips no matter how many press agents go with you to protect you," Lamarr wrote, "For example, in Chicago after a full day of publicity appointments, I came back to my hotel worn out. So I showered and stepped out of the bathroom to get a robe. I opened up the closet door and standing there was a teenage peeping Tom. He ran to the window and down the fire escape. They caught him and booked him. The papers were full of it. I didn't press charges because he was so young and frankly -- this was my secret until now -- he told the press that mine was the perfect body. ('I am in a position to know,' he winked brazenly.)"
Lamarr wrote that the personal appearances did little to sweeten the reviews of The Strange Woman. She quotes the Variety review as saying, "Hedy, more beautiful than ever, bit off more than she could chew...So the chewing was done by the other members of the cast, and what was chewed was the scenery."
Curiously, that quote appears nowhere in the Variety review, which was actually quite complimentary. "Miss Lamarr scores as the scheming Jenny Hager. Two-sided character obtains plenty of realism in her hands. Her capacity of appearing as a tender, administering angel and of mirroring sadistic satisfaction in the midst of violence bespeaks wide talent range." Variety's scorn was reserved for Sanders, "Sanders is out of his depths as a shy, backwoods character who becomes Miss Lamarr's second husband. Portrayal is indifferent and makes for a weak link that holds film back from overall sock rating" ("sock" being another word for "boffo").
According to Lamarr (whose memoir does not always reflect the historic facts), fans were dismayed to see the actress playing such a hussy as Jenny. "You are so cool and lovely off screen. You are my idol. Why don't you play a beautiful princess instead of a drunken wharf rat?" Another is quoted as saying, "You should have been content to produce the picture and let some little starlet with no morals play Jenny. We like you too much to let you get a reputation like that."
The Strange Woman was a success, earning an estimated $2.8 million at the box-office. Lamarr decided to maintain her independence, and collaborated with Stromberg on Dishonored Lady (1947) which, like The Strange Woman, was distributed through United Artists.
In 1949, Lamarr relinquished her independence and returned to the studio system. The film was Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah, whose femme fatale was not unlike the sexually conniving heroine of The Strange Woman. It seems Lamarr's attempt to change her screen image had succeeded.
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Producer: Jack Chertok
Screenplay: Herb Meadow
Based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams
Cinematography: Lucien Andriot
Production Design: Nicolai Remisoff
Music: Carmen Dragon
Cast: Hedy Lamarr (Jenny Hager), George Sanders (John Evered), Louis Hayward (Ephraim Poster), Gene Lockhart (Isaiah Poster), Alan Napier (Judge Saladine).
by Bret Wood