We Need More Hedy Lamarr

12 Oct
Hedy Lamarr

What did Hedy Lamarr (above) really think of her films? What did she consider her best work? Reports vary from source to source. For example, an IMDb trivia item indicates that Lamarr thought her best work was in Cecil B. DeMille’s blockbuster, Samson and Delilah. Certainly, that was far and away her most popular film. Another obscure source hails the adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat as her finest offering. In her memoirs, Lamarr singles out Experiment Perilous as the film she in which she most liked herself (101); however, she also writes, “most critics agree” that her best work was in 1941’s H.M. Pulham Esq. and that she also “liked it the best” (92). She praises the script’s “three dimensional character” and declares that the finished product was a “triumph for both Robert Young and me” (92). In his Lamarr book, Richard Rhodes corroborates, citing Lamarr’s claim that H.M. Pulham featured “her favorite role” (180). Alas, neither Young nor Lamarr were singled out for awards recognition at the close of the year.

Remember that classic Saturday Night Live skit with Will Ferrell as a zealous cow-bell-ist in a presumed flashback to the recording of Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” The joke is that the record producer, played by frequent SNL host–and Oscar winner–Christopher Walken, extols, to Ferrell’s delight, “We need more cowbell.”

Well,  I think we need more Hedy Lamarr. Let me explain. I saw a YouTube clip recently that showed a girl who is  consistently encouraged to focus more on being neat. pretty, and feminine rather than engage in science and outdoor activities. Really? In 2014?

Of course, we also have tremendous peer pressure, and young girls feel compelled to live up to impossible standards of beauty seen in movies, TV, and advertisements. It’s a dilemma, for sure. After all, the media serve huge whopping doses of fantasy often presented as reality, but putting all the blame on the media or restricting what images of womanhood are released into pop-culture is not the answer. Who doesn’t want and need–or crave–a little fantasy every now and then? All this fuss.

The allure of old-time Hollywood movie stars, such as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable, was, well, their other-worldiness. We wanted and expected them to be better than us, to be  better looking, more romantic, and more dynamic. We live our lives in real time, and then we lose ourselves in the fantasy culture provided by the movies. To that end, the bosses at the Hollywood studios exerted a great deal of influence to cultivate the extraordinary images of stars both on and offscreen, the latter often as much an illusion as any spectacle unspooled on the silver screen. I’m not sure that stars were necessarily expected to be role models because there was something inherently fake about them, and that was generally well understood. Again, they were other-worldly, luminaries.

Enter Ms. Lamarr. Hedy Lamarr, nee Hedwig Eva Maria Kessler, was an Austrian born actress who came to America after making a splash in Europe with a tease of a film entitled Ecstasy (1933). She signed a contract with MGM, made her debut in the exotic Algiers (on loan to Walter Wanger at United Artists) opposite Charles Boyer, and was soon hailed as the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, no, the most beautiful woman in the world. Everybody said so. I once saw Lana Turner, no slouch in the looks department herself and Lamarr’s Ziegfeld Girl co-star, say in a TV interview that Hedy Lamarr was without the doubt the most gorgeous woman in all of moviedom, no question about it; however, the full-lipped raven haired  beauty with bedroom eyes was never content to rest on her good looks. Lamarr understood the power of beauty–and quite clearly traded on it–though she also understood its limitations:  “Any girl can be glamorous,” she once remarked. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid” (Rhodes 3). Easy for her to say, right? She was beautiful beyond compare, yet I don’t think anybody ever really considered her stupid.

Fortunately, and thanks to her father, Lamarr developed an insatiable curiosity about the way things worked and worked on a number of inventions in her downtime in Hollywood, turning her drawing room into a fully functioning workspace (Rhodes 3). By now, we all know, or we should all know, that during the WWII years Lamarr famously collaborated with composer George Antheil on the development of broad spectrum radio,  a patriotic endeavor for her adopted homeland, that ultimately led to today’s omnipresent wireless communication, that is, cell phones, GPS, etc. Indeed, the pair was granted U.S. Patent No. 2,292, 387 for their “Secret Communication System” (187), and that’s why we need more Lamarr, to remind school girls that major beauty AND major brains are not mutually exclusive. The main thing is for girls to not feel pressure to be anything more/less than who they are.  Lamarr was exquisitely beautiful, but at least some of that was luck, but her curiosity about how things work(ed) was also an undeniable aspect of her genuine self, and she never forgot that.

Anymore, Lamarr is not looked at, or back on, fondly in the same way as, oh, just about anyone: Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, or even Betty Grable.  There are at least two reasons for that. First, Lamarr was hardly a world class actress. Oh, she wasn’t the worst actress on the lot, but she lacked thespic gusto. She could be engaging, true, but she rarely seemed spontaneous. Maybe she wasn’t as comfortable acting in English as she was speaking it conversationally. Maybe her beauty contributed to a certain level of self-consciousness. Another reason why Lamarr isn’t as emblazoned as the likes of Hepburn et al  in our collective moviegoing consciousness is because she was rarely offered  plum roles. In the 1930s, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford reigned supreme among MGM’s actresses. In the 1940s, Greer Garson was the go-to woman for prestige pics, witness her six Oscar nominations between 1939 and 1945; nonetheless, in her day, Lamarr was one of MGM’s top draws although a great deal of her success no doubt came from the fact that she was often paired with high–higher–profile male stars, such as the aforementioned Charles Boyer along with Spencer Tracy, with whom she co-starred three times, (I Take this Woman, Boom Town, and Tortilla Flat), Clark Gable (Comrade X and the aforementioned Boom Town), James Stewart (Come Live with Me), William Powell (The Heavenly Body), Walter Pidgeon (White Cargo), and Bob Hope (My Favorite Spy) to name just a few.

A persistent myth is that Lamarr was once considered for Ilsa Lund, the Ingrid Bergman role, in Casablanca (itself perhaps influenced by Lamarr’s Algiers) though almost everyone associated with the 1942 classic insists that those claims are wildly exaggerated if not outright fabrications. Along those same lines, Lamarr reportedly had the chance to reteam with Charles Boyer in Gaslight, for which Ms. Bergman won her first Oscar. Alas, that scenario was not to be, though Lamarr acquitted herself admirably enough in RKO’s Gaslight-esque Experiment Perilous (long my grandma’s favorite Lamarr pic), co-starring George Brent and Paul Lukas. The movie’s shattering aquarium sequence is often credited with inspiring a similar scene in 1996’s Mission Impossible, btw.

Lamarr took control of her career when she formed a production company with Jack Chertok and Hunt Stomberg, the results of which were two starring vehicles, Strange Woman (which Lamarr insists at least broke even [120]) and Dishonored Lady (co-starring John Loder, her then–almost ex–husband). Today, both movies have their followers (I prefer the latter to the former), but neither did much to advance the star’s career. Indeed, in spite of meaty roles, both films can’t get around one of Lamarr’s weaknesses. She often doesn’t listen convincingly when she’s acting. She looks as though she’s pretending to listen while waiting to say her next line, and it keeps her at a remove from the audience’s favor.

She found her greatest box office success at Paramount in Cecil B. DeMille’s Technicolor extravaganza, Samson and Delilah.  The biblical epic was Lamarr’s first color picture, and she looks great…if also a little  bored. Unfortunately, despite the movie’s immense popularity, Lamarr was never able to capitalize on its success, and the remainder of her career–with the possible exception of 1951’s My Favorite Spy--is pretty much undistinguished.

Picture 13

That’s Robert Young on the left and Lamarr on the right. Per Lamarr, a reviewer for Time magazine proclaimed her a “revelation” in 1941’s H.M. Pulham, Esq.

One of Lamarr’s film highlights is 1941’s H.M. Pulham, Esq., which she identified as her best work in Ecstasy and Me, her scandalous 1966 autobiography. Lamarr’s star at MGM was so big at that time she snagged top billing over Robert Young, who actually portrays the titular character, aka Harry, but we’ll get back to him.

Lamarr plays Marvin Myles, a women’s products copywriter at a New York City ad agency. She’s bold, fun, 100% authentic and has an amazing work ethic with a strong sense of office protocol. She’s utterly delighted by her new co-worker, Harry:  Harvard man and WWI vet from a well-to-do Boston family.  Oh, he’s a pip of a guy, but he also doesn’t recognize just how much he’s been shaped by his conservative, privileged background. At the same time, he’s intrigued by Myles and willingly surrenders to her charms–and why not? Lamarr inhabits the role and makes a smashing impression. She’s quick-witted, light-hearted, and light on her feet as well.  She’s also slightly frazzled, especially after a productive day though she clearly gets a charge out rolling up her shirt sleeves, so to speak, and getting down to business. Lamarr has rarely shown this kind of confidence and vitality, that is, without seeming forced and phony. Alas, her character–as noted–is saddled with a masculine name, which seems a ridiculously unfortunate choice, a tired statement about women driven to succeed in a man’s world–one that still rears its ugly head in Hollywood from time to time.

As good together as Miles and Pulham are, they can’t escape their pasts. She’s not looking to be a wife, yet, and he’s a product of a traditional upbringing in which marriage and family automatically follow love and romance. Oh, don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything. Most of the story is told through a series of flashbacks as Pulham thinks back on the choices he’s made, including the choice to split from Miles and the whole of New York City in order to return to Boston, marry his childhood sweetheart, and manage affairs of the family.

Picture 14

Also, per Lamarr, no less than Cue rhapsodized that she was “startling in her understanding” of her H.M. Pulham, Esq. role (92). Again, that’s Young on the left and Lamarr on the right.

As wonderful as Lamarr is, and in spite of her top billing, the movie really belongs to Robert Young, whose performance will likely come as a surprise to anyone only familiar with his work on such TV shows as Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D.–for which he earned a total of 7 Emmy nods, winning twice for the former and once for the latter. I have to say that the first several minutes of H.M. Pulham, Esq. collectively rank as one of my all-time favorite opening sequences. In the beginning, Pulham is a middle aged fuddy-duddy though Young was still in his 30s at the time. He has an established routine, one that he sticks to with great rigor, and his every crisp, measured movement is timed to his internal metronome. So, we watch as he methodically eats his breakfast, dutifully folds his napkin, and purposefully times the morning jaunt to his Boston office. This guy even wears rubber overshoes during sunny weather. Midway, in one of the flashbacks, when Young plays at least a decade younger than his actual age, he’s so delighted with with his circumstances that he can’t wipe a silly grin from his face, nor can he resist spinning with joy as if he’s as light on his feet and in his movements as a trained dancer.  Really, just everything about Young’s performance, well, both leads’ performances, actually, is enough to inspire awe.

The stars aren’t the only draws as this Warner Archives (print-on-demand) classic showcases everything that was once wonderful about the old Hollywood system. First, the print itself is pretty much a model of black and white clarity.  The folks at Warner make no claims that their pressed-to-order discs are taken from pristine prints. Instead, they instruct consumers that the best possible prints have been used, but that can mean just about anything. In this case, the results are smashing. One especially startlingly seamless sleight of cinematic hand occurs when Mr. Pulham walks from the street into a florist stand in one uninterrupted take, all the more remarkable given the sharpness of the foot traffic seen through the shoppe’s plate glass window from the inside. Another clever bit juxtaposes an exterior shot with some kind of trompe-l’œil effect featuring the stately Pulham family manse. Another well-executed scene offers a peek of snow almost magically falling outside a skyscraper windowOn the other hand, the WWI scenes are clumsy and obviously faked. Still again, another fun sequence shows Pulham’s love letter-inspired reveries continually interrupted by the sounds and voices of his current circumstances. For a fairly conventional story, this one displays impressive cinematic flourishes.

Furthermore, though HM Pulham, Esq. hardly registers as an all-time classic in the collective consciousness of most moviegoers, let alone the Academy, the National Film Registry, or the American Film Institute, the project merited MGM’s top-of-the-line talent, a testament to the idea that consistency  in all things was  key to the success of the old studio system [1]. To begin, the material stems from Pulitzer winning author John P Marquand (The Late George Apley).  The director is no less than King Vidor, whose many, many credits include Oscar nominated work for The Champ, The Crowd, and, oh yes, War and Peace [2]; meanwhile, H.M. Pulham, Esq‘s  crisp black and white cinematography is courtesy of Ray June, a three-time Oscar contender for the likes of 1957’s superb Funny Face. Legendary art-director Cedric Gibbons, designer of the famed Oscar statuette  with a whopping 39 nominations and 11 wins, is credited for his contributions to the picture along with set decorator–and Oscar heavyweight–Edwin B. Willis. These two giants shared Oscars for the likes of The Bad and the Beautiful, An American in Paris, The Yearling, and Gaslight [3]. Even so, the makeup team, headed by Jack Dawn, fails Lamarr in the pre/post flashback scenes by unimaginatively turning her into Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein (or Yvonne De Carlo’s Lily Munster) with an obnoxious too uniformly streaked silvery-white hair to suggest that she has aged, yet she’s only 40ish for cryin’ out loud, but this was SOP in Hollywood back in the day as anyone who’s ever seen, say, Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance can attest.

Some of Hollywood’s most reliable actors and actresses round out the formidable supporting cast, and that includes, in no particular order, the great Van Heflin (Best Supporting Actor for the same year’s Johnny Eager), Ruth Hussey (a supporting nominee for 1940’s The Philadelphia Story), Charles Coburn (a three time Academy nominee, winning for 1943’s The More the Merrier), Bonita Granville (nominated for 1936’s These Three), Anne Revere (Best Supporting Actress for 1944’s National Velvet with two additional nominations besides), wiry Charles Halton (clearly a silver screen precursor to the late, great Charles Lane), and Leif Erickson [4]. Eagle-eyed viewers may also spot a young Ava Gardner as an extra in a nightclub scene.

In H.M. Pulham, Esq., Hedy Lamarr’s Marvin Myles teaches the eager, young title character a thing or two about life in the big city, away from the comfy confines of Boston and his seemingly charmed life. In real-life, Hedy Lamarr, in spite of her oft quoted disdain for glamour, teaches us–still–that beauty and brains are not mutually exclusive, and that’s a powerful message for girls who to this day sometimes feel pressured to be one or the other. Of course, Lamarr is hardly alone. All of us know women of all kinds, of all shapes and sizes, who accomplish wonderful and industrious things each and every day, but as that dolt from Microsoft recently demonstrated when he suggested that it’s best for women in the workplace to be quiet rather than ask for raises and trust that, in spite of of ongoing discrepancies in pay between men and women, karma will save the day and bring home the bacon, we need more. We need more bold women. We need more Hedy Lamarr.

Thanks, Hedy!

Notes:

Lamarr, Hedy. Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman. 1966. Greenwich: Fawcett, 1968.

Rhodes, Richard. Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the   World. New York: Doubleday, 2011. Print.

[1] The argument goes something like this: take a movie as well regarded as Singin’ in the Rain, which was nominated for exactly 1 Academy award (Jean Hagen, Best Supporting Actress). Of course, today film fans and academics are likely to rate Singin’ in the Rain as one of the very best, if not THE very best, musical of its era. How could the Academy be so shortsighted? Well, again, one argument is that during the era in which studios kept pumping a steady stream of films into the marketplace, Singin’ in the Rain was just one of MGM’s top offerings, the norm rather than the exception. Time is what has rendered it so special in our collective movigoer’s consciousness. The same can almost be said for H.M. Pulham, Esq., a handsome, well-executed movie that was made in an era in which such movies were the goal year-round rather than the stuff of which Oscar campaigns are set in motion during the  fall and holiday months. The difference is that time has not lent it a comparable mystique.

[2] After five nods, the director was finally honored by the Academy with a life achievement award. We also now know that Vidor directed at least a portion of the sepia sequence that opens The Wizard of Oz.

[3] Of course, this was the era in which department heads were often accorded credit–and awards–for work which they may supervised without necessarily creating themselves.

[4] Born William Y. Wycliffe Anderson, the prolific character actor enjoyed great success with TV’s High Chaparral in the 1960s; in his early Hoilywood days he was married to no less than Frances Farmer.

Official Hedy Lamarr website: http://www.hedylamarr.com/business/ 

H.M. Pulham, Esq. at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0033686/

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