We first meet Hedy Lamarr as the punchline to a joke. Over and over in Blazing Saddles, sinister developer Hedley Lamarr is mistakenly called Hedy. He gets very angry, and our parents laugh. We don’t know why. Who on Earth is Hedy Lamarr, and why is her name so funny?
Poke around on the Internet, and you learn that she was an actress, famous in the ’30s and ’40s, and also the inventor of a kind of frequency-hopping intended to make it harder for Nazi ships to jam the homing mechanism of allied torpedoes. Though never implemented during World War II, the concept later became fundamental in the early development of cellular technology. So Hedy is upgraded from punchline to historical curiosity. Neat!
As it turns out, Hedy Lamarr was an iconic beauty of Hollywood’s golden age, and there really wasn’t anything funny about her at all. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler—oh, I see, that is funny—she started acting in Germany and Czechoslovakia before fleeing Europe, disguising herself to escape her industrialist husband, a Nazi sympathizer who threw cocktail parties for Hitler and Mussolini and was probably not a great guy to be married to, especially for a Jewish beauty like our Hedwig.
And Hedy was a beauty. There are plenty of well-known Golden Age icons, like Rita Hayworth or Joan Crawford, who were lovely but dangerously short on sex appeal. For me, the list of Studio Era icons with real fire, charm and charisma is short. Very short, in fact. Let’s see if it tries your patience:
That didn’t take long, did it? To that list, I think I’ll have to add Hedy Lamarr. The other day, TCM happened to be showing The Conspirators, a spy thriller starring Ms. Lamarr and Paul Henreid, better known as The Other Guy From Casablanca. Lamarr plays a femme fatale who’s trapped in a loveless marriage to a Nazi—hey, art does imitate life!—whom Henreid brings to justice in a casino in Monte Carlo.
The climax of the film is unintentionally hilarious. Henreid pulls his gun on the Nazi, and is leading him out of the hotel when four or five Nazi thugs pull their guns on him. Then the Portuguese police show up, pull their guns on everybody, and all hell breaks loose. Everyone runs in opposite directions, pistols drawn, as though there wasn’t a gambler in the room who wasn’t also a secret agent.
Not a bad movie, really.
As madness engulfs Monte Carlo, Lamarr stays cool. Although I’d heard her name for years, I’d never actually watched her on film, and I was shocked by her beauty. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I learned that the film that made her famous was called Ecstasy. Shot in Czechoslovakia in 1933, it’s an erotic morality tale about a young divorcee who learns how to have fun lying down. It’s most notable for two scenes—both of which, thankfully, are online.
In the first, Lamarr is skinny dipping when her horse, distracted by an attractive young filly, sprints off with her clothes. Bare-ass-naked, Lamarr chases the horse across the countryside, pursuing it until she runs into the strapping young working man whom she will fall in lust with. It’s the cutest meet-cute I’ve ever met.
Though less thoroughly benippled, the ensuing sex scene is crackerjack. Lamarr and her stud kiss a bit, lie down, kiss some more, and then he drifts downward out of frame—what may be the earliest use of what would become an incredibly tired way of signifying oral funtimes. But while the camera would normally pan up and away, here it lingers on Lamarr, and we get to watch her go through the range of facial expressions induced by this rather intense blue collar orgasm. For her performance, Wikipedia tells us adorably, “The authenticity of passion was attained by the film director’s off-screen manipulation of a safety pin strategically poking her bottom.”
Take a look. It’s pretty hot stuff.
Once she got to Hollywood, Lamarr was too sexy to ever play your average leading lady, and got trapped in ridiculous roles like Tondelayo, the island temptress of White Cargo, whose catch phrase was “I am Tondelayo. I make tiffin for you?” It’s not quite, “Why don’t you come up some time, and see me?” but Lamarr sells it hard.
If you’re still wondering why Lamarr is best-remembered as a punch-line or a curiosity, a glance at her IMDB page should explain it. She turned down the lead in Casablanca—a B-picture which no one, including its stars, thought would be a success—and her career died slowly. She died broke, spending her last years suing people like Mel Brooks for using her name, but she is worth remembering—not just as a gag, not just as an inventor, but as a woman whose beauty was so electric, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with it.