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Hedy Lamarr
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Hedy Lamarr Profile
* Titles in Bold Will Air on TCM

"Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid."
-- Hedy Lamarr

Always glamorous and far from stupid, Hedy Lamarr is the only actress to date to turn stardom in an adult film into a major film career. Though rarely praised for her acting, she created an indelible allure that would make even the strongest Samson putty in her hands.

Hedwig Kiesler was destined for a simple, middle-class existence when she took matters into her own hands and dropped out of school to become an actress. She made her movie debut as "Young Girl at Night Club Table" in the 1930 German film Geld Auf der Strasse ("Money on the Street"). After two more small roles in German films, she made the picture that would make her an international sensation, even though many people couldn't see it, Ecstasy (1933). As a woman saddled in a loveless marriage whose passions are awakened by a young architect she not only appeared nude, but simulated orgasm. The film was a hot item among private collectors but banned in many countries.

What she might have done as an actress with her newfound notoriety is anybody's guess. Rather than capitalize on Ecstasy, however, she chose to retire from the screen to marry munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl. Obsessed with his wife's beauty, Mandl tried to buy up all existing prints of her famous film, only to discover that fans like Benito Mussolini couldn't be bought off. Instead he made his wife a virtual prisoner in their home. Faced with his growing possessiveness and his Nazi sympathies (Kiesler was Jewish), his wife snuck out one night, taking her jewels and a few of his most valuable designs with her.

Determined to renew her acting career, Hedy arranged a meeting with Louis B. Mayer in London, but when his offer of $150 a week for only a six month contract wasn't enough, she arranged to sail to the U.S. on the same boat as he. By the time they had landed she had a seven year contract for $500 a week and a new name, Hedy Lamarr, taken from the woman Mayer considered the screen's most beautiful star, silent siren Barbara La Marr.

Once he got her to Hollywood, however, Mayer didn't know what to do with Lamarr. With no assignments at MGM, she approached independent producer Walter Wanger about a role in his re-make of the French classic Pepe Le Moko (1937). Starring opposite Charles Boyer, she made her U.S. film debut in Algiers (1938), an international hit that made her a star with her clothes on.

Mayer was still unsure of how to package Lamarr for MGM's more family oriented image. After casting her as a Polynesian temptress in Lady of the Tropics (1939), Mayer decided to personally supervise her next film. He even hired Joseph von Sternberg, who had made Marlene Dietrich a star, to helm the picture, I Take This Woman (1940). Then Mayer decided he didn't like von Sternberg's work so he fired him and ordered the script re-written. By the time he got the film back into production, he had a new director (the much faster W.S. Van Dyke) and even a new leading man. Lamarr's original co-star, William Powell, was no longer available, so they had to re-shoot his scenes with Spencer Tracy. By the time the film finally made it to theatres -- where it died a slow, painful death -- studio insiders had dubbed it "I Re-Take This Woman."

Determined to salvage her career, Lamarr fought for a supporting role opposite Tracy, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Boom Town (also 1940). Mayer didn't like the idea, but couldn't think of anything else, and she scored a hit in the comic action film. That should have set her on a course similar to Dietrich's after the German star scored a comeback as the saloon singer in Destry Rides Again (1939), but it didn't. Mayer kept coming up with ludicrous roles for Lamarr like the South Seas nymphomaniac in White Cargo (1942). But she also got some decent roles, earning her best notices as a beautiful businesswoman who lures Robert Young from his staid Boston ways in H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941).

Few actors at MGM suffered as much at the hands of studio management. For each good role like the Portuguese cannery worker in Tortilla Flat (1942), Lamarr had to suffer through misconceived roles like the violinist turned showgirl in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), in which co-stars Lana Turner and Judy Garland left her in the dust. Little wonder she made some major career blunders, turning down the leads in Casablanca (1942), Gaslight (1944) and Laura (1944). At least she got a chance to work with Casablanca co-stars Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre on loan to Warner Bros. for the World War II espionage thriller The Conspirators (1944), but critics were so unimpressed that the film quickly picked up the unfortunate nickname "The Constipators." A better choice was a loan to RKO for the Gaslight-like thriller Experiment Perilous (1944), which many historians often cite as her best performance.

At the same time, however, Lamarr was making a major contribution to the war effort. In addition to selling bonds and touring military camps, as other stars were doing, she joined forces with composer George Antheil to patent the technology she had liberated from her first husband. The result was a radio guiding system for torpedoes that used frequency hopping to make it harder to detect or jam transmissions. The system is still used today in cell phone technology.

When Mayer cast Lamarr opposite Robert Walker in the title roles in Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945) only to use the film to showcase girl-next-door June Allyson, Lamarr decided it was time to take off on her own. That left her free to respond to Cecil B. DeMille's call to star opposite Victor Mature as the biblical temptress in Samson and Delilah (1949), her biggest hit and the top box office film of its year. By this point, however, Lamarr was building a reputation for temperamental behavior. The film's costume designer, Edith Head, would later say she was one of the few stars she didn't like working with, while crews took to calling her "Headache" Lamarr behind her back. She wasn't happy working on Samson and Delilah either, and when DeMille offered her the role of the elephant girl in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), she turned it down.

That decision practically ended her career. Although she was still beautiful and demonstrated a considerable comic flair opposite Bob Hope in My Favorite Spy (1951), Lamarr had a hard time finding other suitable roles. When she turned up as Joan of Arc in Irwin Allen's all-star disaster The Story of Mankind (1957), it almost seemed as if Mayer had come back to sabotage her career. In her last film, The Female Animal (1958), she played an aging star caught in a romantic rivalry with her daughter, former MGM star Jane Powell.

Lamarr's notoriety continued into retirement. Her 1965 autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, put her back into the limelight and brought her the chance to join other aging stars by switching to horror films. But when she was arrested for shoplifting, despite the fact that she was well off, she lost the leading role in Picture Mommy Dead (1966) to Martha Hyer.

In later years, Lamarr was always good for a quote (when given an award for her frequency scrambling device in 1992, all she could say was "It's about time!"), but she attracted more attention through her lawsuits. She decided the ghostwriters on her autobiography had made up salacious stories about her past and sued them. Then she sued Mel Brooks for naming Harvey Korman's character in Blazing Saddles (1974) "Hedley Lamarr." When the Corel Corporation used a sketch of her as cover art for their CorelDRAW software, she sued them for unauthorized use of her image. Even in death she made headlines, with her January 19, 2000 passing often called the first major star death of the 21st century.

by Frank Miller

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