Actress-inventor Hedy Lamarr: Frequency hopping of a different kind in offbeat documentary
Shot in digital format, Georg Misch’s documentary Calling Hedy Lamarr – about the frequency hopping co-elaborator, Hollywood actress, and phone addict – has the look of a well-crafted low-budget movie and the feel of a quirky independent film.
That’s hardly the sort of approach one would expect to find in a documentary centering on one of the most beautiful, most glamorous, and most synthetic film stars of the 20th century. Yet Misch mostly gets away with it. What Calling Hedy Lamarr lacks in terms of style and depth of analysis is compensated for by an offbeat look at the cult of celebrity in American culture.
Remembering phone-addicted Hollywood star
In Calling Hedy Lamarr, several friends and family members of the Vienna-born actress (as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on Nov. 9, 1914) get together in a staged conference call.
Their topic of choice?
The performer who brought to big-screen life the likes of Tondelayo (White Cargo), Helen of Troy (Loves of Three Queens), Joan of Arc (The Story of Mankind), Delilah (Samson and Delilah), and, most notoriously, Eva Hermann (the adulterous wife enjoying a bit of skinny-dipping and a close-up orgasm in Ecstasy).
The callers – among them Lamarr’s son and daughter, a journalist, and the actress’ former South Florida neighbors ( but no celebrities) – reminisce about her film career, world-famous beauty, creative mind, unusual character traits, and numerous husbands and lovers (among the former, arms-industry businessman Fritz Mandl, actor John Loder, and screenwriter-producer Gene Markey).
Recollections range from the mundane to the bizarre. One friend, for instance, talks about one of Lamarr’s outings at a local fast-food place. Another recalls her sense of humor. And another yet says she may have been a spy. Lamarr’s children remember their mother more as aloof movie star than caring mom.
Actress herself is ‘Calling Hedy Lamarr’ highlight
Calling Hedy Lamarr’s phone conversations are interspersed with snippets – the documentary’s de facto highlights – featuring the actress being interviewed, guesting on television shows, and, while at home, doing a Sunset Blvd. send-up.
Also seen are a number of clips from her films, including Gustav Machatý’s succès de scandale Ecstasy and John Cromwell’s romantic drama Algiers, Lamarr’s first Hollywood effort.
But mostly, when people aren’t on the phone talking either with Lamarr – courtesy of some clever editing – or about her, the documentary keeps its focus on Anthony Loder, Lamarr’s son with London-born 1930s/1940s leading man John Loder (The Mysterious Doctor, The Brighton Strangler).
It’s left up to Loder to convey the ephemeralness of his mother’s fame, in addition to discussing his own failure at becoming a film celebrity.
One can only wonder what Hedy Lamarr would have thought of it all.
Calling Hedy Lamarr (2004)
Dir./Scr.: Georg Misch.
Hedy Lamarr & frequency hopping
 During World War II, Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil (The Plainsman, In a Lonely Place) patented a version of the concept of frequency hopping that was intended to make it more difficult for radio-guided torpedoes to be either detected or jammed. It doesn’t appear that the patent was put to practical use at that time.
Around since the late 19th century, the concept known as frequency-hopping spread spectrum is currently used in cell phones, wifi, certain “smart” bombs, and other devices.
More on Hedy Lamarr
Further down this post, readers can find a bit of unusual information about film star and frequency hopping co-patenter Hedy Lamarr. Immediately below, is a brief overview of her Hollywood career.
Following in the footsteps of Pola Negri, Vilma Banky, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Lil Dagover, Anna Sten, and Simone Simon, among others, Lamarr was one of the studio era’s numerous female “Continental imports,” most of whom, miscast in inappropriate star vehicles, failed to make it big in the American film industry.
Lamarr, in fact, was likely less experienced than most, having worked – as Hedy Kiesler – in only a handful of German-language releases of the early 1930s (e.g., Man braucht kein Geld, Storm in a Water Glass) and having been gone from the screen since the scandalous 1933 Austrian-Czechoslovakian co-production Ecstasy.
Nonetheless, in the late 1930s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer mogul Louis B. Mayer decided to bring the 24-year-old to Hollywood, along the way changing her last name to Lamarr – inspired by silent film actress Barbara La Marr, who had died at age 29 in 1926 and with whom Mayer had been infatuated.
Hollywood years: From ‘Algiers’ to ‘The Female Animal’
Hedy Lamarr’s first Hollywood movie, John Cromwell’s 1938 “exotic“ romantic drama Algiers, in which she inadvertently leads Charles Boyer to his doom, was a United Artists release for producer Walter Wanger – whose actress-wife, Joan Bennett, had just gone from sweet blonde to dangerous brunette to cash in on the Lamarr craze. (Coincidentally, while still a blonde, Joan Bennett was married to future Hedy Lamarr husband Gene Markey.)
Nearly all other Lamarr star vehicles of the period would come out of the MGM factory:
- The troubled, long-in-the-making I Take This Woman (1940) – a.k.a., in some circles, “I Re-take This Woman.” Filming began with Marlene Dietrich’s Svengali, Josef von Sternberg, at the helm, but “creative differences” led to his replacement by Frank Borzage. Shortly thereafter the project was stopped, mostly scrapped, and, nearly a year later, finally reshot by W.S. Van Dyke. Spencer Tracy co-starred.
- Jack Conway’s juvenile – and hugely successful – drama Boom Town, co-starring Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, and, once again, Spencer Tracy.
- King Vidor’s Ninotchka rip-off Comrade X (1940), in a relatively rare comedy role as a glamorous Soviet communist/streetcar conductor who finds all-American love and macho smugness in the person of Clark Gable.
- Robert Z. Leonard and Busby Berkeley’s lush, all-star musical Ziegfeld Girl (1941), a remake of Sally Irene and Mary, toplining Lamarr, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Tony Martin, James Stewart, and Jackie Cooper.
- Clarence Brown’s romantic comedy-drama Come Live with Me (1941), surprisingly effective as a Viennese refugee about to enter into a fake marriage with struggling writer James Stewart so she can remain in the United States.
- King Vidor’s socio-psychological drama H.M. Pulham Esq. (1941), another persuasive performance as a sophisticated woman of the world who almost ruins/liberates Robert Young, her “conservative,” do-as-you’re-told co-worker and husband of “proper” wife Ruth Hussey.
- Richard Thorpe’s Africa-set White Cargo (1942), as the “native” seductress Tondelayo, turning the heat on Walter Pidgeon.
- Victor Fleming’s Northern California-set Tortilla Flat (1942), based on John Steinbeck’s novel, and featuring a miscast that includes Lamarr, Spencer Tracy, and John Garfield as Spanish/Mexican-Americans.
- Alexander Hall’s The Heavenly Body (1944), another light comedy role, opposite William Powell and James Craig.
- Jean Negulesco’s World War II thriller The Conspirators (1944), a Warner Bros. release co-starring Lamarr’s fellow Central Europeans Paul Henreid and Peter Lorre, plus Sydney Greenstreet.
- Jacques Tourneur’s period film noir Experiment Perilous (1944), an RKO release with George Brent and another Central European, Paul Lukas.
- Central European filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer’s independently made period noir The Strange Woman (1946), a United Artists release starring Lamarr as the titular weirdo – in truth, a woman confident of her sexuality and eager to live life according to her own rules. George Sanders, Louis Hayward, and Gene Lockhart were her leading men/prey.
As the 1940s came to a close, Hedy Lamarr, gone from MGM since mid-decade, had her biggest box office hit: she was a memorable Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 Paramount release Samson and Delilah, opposite Victor Mature as the titular long-haired strongman.
Even so, her career slowed down in the 1950s following appearances in now largely forgotten fare like Copper Canyon, A Lady Without Passport, and My Favorite Spy. She was last seen on the big screen in Harry Keller’s minor drama The Female Animal, as an aging movie star vying with daughter Jane Powell for the body and affections of hunky extra George Nader.
‘Would you believe it I was once a famous star?’
In Stephen Birmingham’s August 1970 New York Times article “Would You Believe It I Was Once a Famous Star? It’s the Truth!” Hedy Lamarr is quoted as saying the following about her Hollywood years – while, capping it all, also offering her views on the institution of marriage:
“Which director did I like? I’ve forgotten which. Some of them were not so nice. When somebody isn’t accepted by me, it’s complete hate. One director never spoke to me, not even hello in the morning.
“Mr. Mayer never spoke to me. One day I said, ‘Mr. Mayer, why don’t you ever say hello to me?’ He said, ‘Why should I? You’re not my wife.’
“It was only because I wouldn’t sleep with him. I didn’t know anything filthy went on. Several actors were very much in love with me. But it’s the truth!
“I got the same salary [meaning, one assumes, as an MGM contract star], so what I wanted was the less to do the better. That’s why I did so many bad pictures. I don’t believe in marriage, either.”
Kleptomaniac movie star?
After her Hollywood stardom faded away, Hedy Lamarr would sporadically return to the spotlight for reasons unrelated to filmmaking. For starters, there were a couple of notorious shoplifting incidents, nearly three decades apart.
In 1965, she was arrested in Los Angeles for allegedly trying to steal a pair of $85 gold slippers at the May Company department store. Though later cleared of all charges, Lamarr, reportedly suffering from a nervous breakdown, ended up losing a small role in Bert I. Gordon’s B thriller Picture Mommy Dead. Zsa Zsa Gabor replaced her.
The follow-up shoplifting brouhaha took place in Florida in 1991, this time for $21.48 worth of laxatives and eye drops. Lamarr’s attorney explained that the alleged theft was actually a case of absentmindedness: the 77-year-old had been shopping with two other friends, and had in fact paid for the other items she had bought at the store.
Lamarr could have fought the charges, but preferred to plead “no contest” so she wouldn’t have to appear in court and face a barrage of tabloid reporters. Through her attorney, the quite wealthy former actress promised she would refrain from breaking any laws for a year and the charges were eventually dropped.
Rumors that Hedy Lamarr was a kleptomaniac seem to have no basis in reality.
Hedy Lamarr: Frequency hopping of the legal kind
Besides the shoplifting to-dos, another latter-day Hedy Lamarr oddity was the frequency of her hopping from one lawsuit to another.
In 1966, she filed an ultimately unsuccessful $9.6 million lawsuit against the Macfadden-Bartell Corporation and its subsidiary, Bartholomew House, as an attempt to prevent them from publishing her (purported) autobiography, Ecstasy and Me: My Life As a Woman. As it happens, the book had been penned by ghostwriter Leo Guild, with the assistance of Cy Rice, who had taped interviews with Lamarr.
As found in the New York Times, she alleged that Ecstasy and Me “contained accounts of adultery and perversion that were ‘false, obscene and libelous.’” But however upset she may have been, these were apparently the exact literary qualities that U.S. readers wanted: the “autobiography” became a national bestseller.
Also as reported in the Times, in February 1967 Lamarr – alongside the Ecstasy and Me publishing houses, Leo Guild, and Cy Rice – found herself at the receiving end of a lawsuit. Freelance writer Gene Ringgold claimed in federal court that the book plagiarized material from a 1965 Screen Facts magazine article he had written. Ringgold’s lawsuit demanded “all gains and profits derived by the defendants by their said action.”
‘Strangest ghost-writing assignment’
Writing for the Los Angeles Times in November 1967, Leo Guild – who had also penned the “autobiographies” of actresses Barbara Payton and Jayne Mansfield (with husband Mickey Hargitay); actor/comedian Bob Hope; entertainer Liberace; and “Hollywood Madam” Lee Francis – attempted to explain his profession:
“There are all sorts of ways of being a ghostwriter. Sometimes the star takes full name credit and the writer is truly a ghost. (Unless there is a suit as in the case of Ecstasy and Me, and the names are revealed in the courtroom.)”
Later on in his piece, Guild added that Ecstasy and Me was “perhaps the strangest ghost-writing assignment I ever had”:
“… Because there are still legal complications I cannot go into details. But to zero in on it, I wrote the book as a ghostwriter without the subject ever knowing I was writing it. The publisher signed me to write the book and Cy Rice did the interviewing on tape. The translated tapes were then turned over to me and copy sent daily to New York as I wrote. But it worked well, according to royalty statements from Macfadden-Bartell, the publisher.”
As mentioned in “Would You Believe It I Was Once a Famous Star? It’s the Truth!” Hedy Lamarr claimed that “not a penny of the book’s considerable earnings made its rightful way to her.”
Hedy Lamarr vs. …
In the early 1970s, Hedy Lamarr was still entangled in the Ecstasy and Me litigation, in addition to:
- A lawsuit against an Italian film company (possibly the Produzioni Cinematografiche Europee) “for her rights … to an unreleased film [probably Marc Allégret’s L’eterna femmina (1954)] in which she performed.”
- An alimony fight with ex-husband and Texas oil man William Howard Lee (“He made me co-sign his loans, it’s the truth!”) – from 1960 to his death in 1981, the husband of another Hollywood star of the 1940s, Gene Tierney (Laura, Best Actress Oscar nominee for Leave Her to Heaven, 1945).
A subsequent legal brawl pitted Lamarr against Mel Brooks’ Warner Bros.-distributed 1974 blockbuster Blazing Saddles, which features the scheming villain Hedley Lamarr (played by Harvey Korman). This particular lawsuit is supposed to have been settled out of court for a small sum.
And in the late 1990s, Lamarr, then in her 80s, waged a legal battle against the Canadian software producer Corel for using her image without her permission on their CorelDRAW boxes. An undisclosed settlement was reportedly reached in 1998.
The legal fighting continued even after her death at age 85 on Jan. 19, 2000, in a suburb of Orlando, Florida. One of her sons – whom she had adopted in the early 1940s and from whom she had been estranged since the 1950s – sued to gain control of her $3.3 million estate. He settled for $50,000.
Calling Hedy Lamarr was initially reviewed at the AFI FEST.
Originally in one single paragraph, Hedy Lamarr’s recollections about her Hollywood years were broken up into several paragraphs for easier online reading.
The May Company shoplifting incident, and Hedy Lamarr’s lawsuits against ex-husband William Howard Lee and the unnamed Italian film company are mentioned in “Would You Believe It I Was Once a Famous Star? It’s the Truth!”
Leo Guild’s Los Angeles Times article is called “Confessions of a Celebrity Ghost Writer.”
Images of actress and frequency hopping concept co-patenter Hedy Lamarr: MGM publicity / Mischief Films.
Charles Boyer, Sigrid Curie, and Hedy Lamarr Algiers image: United Artists.
“Hedy Lamarr Frequency Hopping of a Different Kind: Over Phone Lines & U.S. Justice System” last updated in May 2019.