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Hedy Lamarr/SAMSON AND DELILAH: Ahead of THE HUNGER GAMES?

Charles Boyer, Hedy Lamarr in Algiers
Charles Boyer, Hedy Lamarr, Algiers

Hedy Lamarr can be seen later this month on Turner Classic Movies: I Take This Woman (1940) will be shown on Saturday, April 28, and The Conspirators (1944) on Monday, April 30.

I Take This Woman was a troubled production that took so long to make — W.S. Van Dyke replaced Frank Borzage who had replaced original director Josef von Sternberg — that punsters called it "I Retake This Woman." Spencer Tracy co-stars as a doctor who marries European refugee Lamarr.

Jean Negulesco's The Conspirators has several elements in common with Michael Curtiz's Casablanca, including an "exotic" World War II setting (in this case, Lisbon), conflicting loyalties, male lead Paul Henreid, and supporting players Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Curiously, at one point Lamarr had been considered for the Casablanca role that eventually went to Ingrid Bergman.

Neither I Take This Woman nor The Conspirators did much for Hedy Lamarr's Hollywood career. Lamarr's biggest box office hit was Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (Victor Mature played Samson), which earned Paramount $11.5 million in domestic rentals in 1949/1950, or approximately $180 million in 2012 dollars* — which could theoretically represent a $360 million gross today, placing DeMille's epic ahead of Gary Ross / Jennifer Lawrence's The Hunger Games, Gore Verbinski / Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Daniel Radcliffe's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Michael Bay / Shia LaBeouf's Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man. (Studios have usually gotten 50-55 percent of the gross of domestic releases.)

Lamarr's best film performance, however, may well have been in a now largely forgotten 1941 romantic comedy-drama with James Stewart, Clarence Brown's Come Live with Me.

Among Lamarr's other notable films are:

  • Gustav Machatý's Ecstasy (1933), swimming naked and having — purportedly through clever editing — an orgasm in closeup.
  • John Cromwell's Algiers (1938), playing opposite Charles Boyer in a remake of the Jean Gabin vehicle Pépé le Moko.
  • Jack Conway's blockbuster Boom Town (1940) with Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, and Spencer Tracy.
  • King Vidor's Comrade X (1940), a poor man's Ninotchka, also with Clark Gable.
  • Robert Z. Leonard and Busby Berkeley's Ziegfeld Girl (1941), co-starring with Judy Garland, Lana Turner, James Stewart, Jackie Cooper, and Tony Martin in the second (or third or fourth or fifth) remake of the old warhorse about three girls on Broadway, Sally, Irene and Mary (1925).
  • Victor Fleming's Tortilla Flat (1942), with Lamarr as a quite improbable Mexican-American, though no more improbable than Spencer Tracy and John Garfield.
  • Richard Thorpe's White Cargo (1942), in which she plays the sultry native Tondelayo, opposite Walter Pidgeon.
  • Norman Z. McLeod's My Favorite Spy (1951), a spy spoof with Bob Hope.

Lamarr stopped making movies in 1957. According to a handful of sources, she came out of retirement for a cameo in the little-seen Instant Karma (1990), though in that film she is seen only in a brief clip of one of her old movies. She is the chief topic of the documentary Calling Hedy Lamarr.

Ingrid Bergman owes much of her stardom to Hedy Lamarr. In addition to the aforementioned Casablanca (1942), Lamarr also turned down Gaslight (1944), which earned Bergman a Best Actress Academy Award, and Saratoga Trunk (1946), one of the biggest box office hits of Bergman's career.

* Estimate based on average annual ticket prices according to the National Association of Theater Owners. Note: the year 1950 doesn't have a published average listed; as a result, I used an approximation (50 cents) taking into account the published averages for 1949 (46 cents) and 1951 (53 cents).

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