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Ron Briley: Review of Ruth Barton's "Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film" (Kentucky, 2012)

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of "The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad."

Described as “the most beautiful woman in the world” during her Hollywood film career from the late 1930s to the 1950s, Hedy Lamarr is less well known today among film fans, with the exception of viewers who enjoy Turner Classic Movies. Nevertheless, Lamarr is the subject of three recent biographical studies, perhaps due to her long overlooked status as an inventor. During the Second World War, Lamarr joined with avant-garde composer George Antheil to develop a patent for spread spectrum communication and frequency hopping -- an innovation necessary for wireless communication from the pre-computer era to modern times. Ruth Barton, a lecturer in film studies at Trinity College Dublin and the author of several books on Irish cinema, is a scholar who employs archival film research coupled with an exhaustive examination of secondary sources to create a profile of Lamarr as a European émigré who was never quite comfortable with Hollywood and her adopted country. While acknowledging that Lamarr’s 1966 controversial autobiography Ecstasy and Me, which focused upon her love life and six marriages, contains elements of truth, Barton seeks to understand Lamarr as more than just a sex symbol.

Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, which was then still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was the only child of an affluent and cultured Jewish family that attempted to assimilate into Viennese society. As a young woman she displayed a passion for the theater and failed to complete her secondary education. She gained considerable notoriety when she appeared nude in the art film Ecstasy (1933) directed by Czech filmmaker Gustav Machaty. Barton notes that Hedy’s private life and many of her early Hollywood films were similar to the plot of Ecstasy. A beautiful young woman is married to an older man, but she is finally able to discover passion with a younger lover. Hedy’s career in German and Austrian film was cut short by her marriage to Austrian munitions maker and fascist sympathizer Fritz Mandl, approximately twenty years her senior. Although Hedy was allowed a generous expense account, Mandl controlled the movements of his young wife. With World War II looming on the horizon and her husband concentrating upon politics and business interests, Hedy was finally able to escape Mandl, fleeing to Paris and eventually Hollywood where she signed a contract with MGM and Louis Mayer.

Fearing for her life with the rise of European fascism, Hedy joined the Jewish emigrant community in Hollywood. As Hedy was apolitical and not involved with anti-fascist activity, there is a tendency to not perceive her as part of the film capital’s Jewish émigré community. Barton, however, argues that to understand Lamarr, as she was now known in Hollywood, it is essential to recognize that she was part of this community and always considered herself somewhat of an outsider in the United States. According to Barton, the Viennese Jews who migrated to Hollywood were part of a cultural elite associated with the theater, art, and classical music. On the other hand, writes Barton, “In America, they found themselves in a society that defined itself through its embrace of populism, notably in cinema, radio, and dance hall entertainment” (68).

When Lamarr arrived in Hollywood, she was only twenty-three years of age and spoke little English. But she was considered beautiful and exotic, and these qualities dominated the roles which she was assigned by MGM. In her first Hollywood film, Algiers (1938), Lamarr portrayed an Algerian femme-fatale opposite Charles Boyer. Essentially, Lamarr’s part called for her to do little but look beautiful. Barton notes that Lamarr was not a particularly good actress; she criticizes MGM for not developing Lamarr’s talents and casting her in stereotypical exotic roles such as the native girl Tondelayo in White Cargo (1942). Barton argues that Lamarr did have somewhat of a gift for comedy, as displayed in Comrade X (1940) with Clark Gable, but MGM failed to develop her potential in the comic genre.

While not a political activist, Lamarr demonstrated her allegiance to the war effort by entertaining servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen. Also, her invention of the spread spectrum communication and frequency hopping had military applications which were not fully realized until after World War II. While many Jewish immigrants in the film colony would become caught up in the post-war Red Scare, Barton finds no evidence that Lamarr was concerned with the blacklist and the political controversies that engulfed Hollywood. Instead, Lamarr enjoyed her greatest commercial film success opposite Victor Mature in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949). However, she was unable to follow this role with other good parts, and Lamarr’s film career was over by 1958.

Although Lamarr would live until 2000, her final decades often read like the script for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). Lamarr’s five failed American marriages produced three children (one adopted) who were somewhat estranged from their mother. Lamarr was constantly pursuing film projects that never materialized, and Barton describes her behavior as erratic. She was arrested for shoplifting in Hollywood but acquitted. Lamarr then moved to New York City where she lived as somewhat of a recluse before eventually settling in Florida. Although Lamarr claimed poverty and was involved in many law suits, Barton argues that with some astute investments Lemarr was not as poor as she often appeared.

Following her death in 2000, Lamarr’s ashes were spread in the Vienna woods, and she was finally able to return to her beloved homeland. Barton finds that the tragedy of Lamarr’s life was that she was caught between two cultures. To assimilate in the United States, Lamarr had to act American and deny her Jewish cultural background. Barton concludes, “It was this disjuncture-- between her inherited identity, with its emphasis on artistry and the expression of intelligence, and her need to assume a new identity, including the particular associations that comes with being an actress in America -- that would shape her Hollywood career” (61). However, our awareness of her gifts as an inventor allows Lamarr to at least be perceived today as more than just a pretty face. The fascinating life of Hedy Lamarr is well chronicled in this fine scholarly biography by Barton.