Author Patrick Agan, among whose books are Clint Eastwood: The Man Behind the Myth and The Decline and Fall of the Love Goddesses, has been working on a biography of MGM star Hedy Lamarr, at one point considered one of the most beautiful women this side of Orion.
The Austrian-born “exotic” import was brought to the studio in the late 1930s, and would remain at MGM well into the following decade. Though hardly one of the greatest actresses to come out of either Europe or Hollywood, Lamarr possessed an undeniable charisma that made her thoroughly watchable in both biblical and modern tales, whether well cast or totally miscast, whether fully clothed or fully naked (as in Gustav Machatý’s scandalous 1933 Czech drama Ecstasy).
A temptress with a heart, Hedy Lamarr was a young adulteress in Ecstasy; an unwitting Angel of Death in Algiers; the Other Woman in H.M. Pulham, Esq.; a Russian agent who discovers democracy, Clark Gable, and baseball in Comrade X; a Spanish-Californian in Tortilla Flat; swarthy siren Tondelayo in White Cargo; Joan of Arc (!) in The Story of Mankind; and most famously, a perfectly coiffed Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s highly entertaining atrocity Samson and Delilah.
What does your Hedy Lamarr manuscript cover – Lamarr’s films, her private life, both? – and how did you become interested in Lamarr as a book subject?
My book is an unauthorized biography even though it contains many quotes given me by Lamarr when we were talking over many hours about doing a book entitled “Beyond Ecstasy.” My book covers everything, including the movies, the woman, and the myth.
Personally, I always thought of Hedy as being an available, an accessible love goddess, unlike the aloof images of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, who were both still huge stars when she got to Hollywood in the fall of 1937 – even though their gloss had been tarnished when they’d both been recently labeled “box-office poison.” Hedy had her work cut out for her.
Aloofness was something Hedy didn’t – couldn’t — project after the publicity surrounding her running around naked for ten minutes in Ecstasy. That picture made her a sensation long before she sailed past Ellis Island on the Normandie. In fact, she was barely off the ship before reporters surrounded her with questions about it. She must have thought she was getting away from it, as she was so upset she had to take refuge at the Plaza until her train left for California.
As a kid from a town in Upstate New York, I didn’t know from Ecstasy but I sure knew from Hedy when I saw her on The Late Show in Boom Town and The Conspirators. Frankly, I’d never seen anything like her, and when Samson and Delilah was re-released in 1959 I stayed in the theater for three shows.
I could say she was underrated, but what I really think is that she was underappreciated, most likely because of her beauty. Surprisingly modest in person, Hedy nonetheless had a great sense of humor which I think came across best in My Favorite Spy. [MGM head Louis B.] Mayer briefly pushed her as a new Garbo but it was quickly apparent that she had more to offer than copycat glamour. She had her own brand of style and, when she had the chance, of acting. When she got to Hollywood and made Algiers, everybody was copying her. [Joan Bennett, in fact, went from cutesy blonde to Lamarr-ish brunette at that time.]
As an European star during World War II she had a lot stacked against her, but she became a big star and a household name nonetheless. She deserves to be remembered.
Hedy Lamarr, William Powell in The Heavenly Body
What would you say was Hedy Lamarr’s forte as an actress?
As an actress, I think Hedy’s forte was surprise. True, the reason she got butts into seats was her beauty, but once they were there she let them know there was more to her than the languid beauty of Algiers, much more than just soulful eyes and a hairdo.
After all, this woman had studied with Max Reinhardt and had starred on the Viennese stage in Sissi, giving a remarkable performance. Hollywood just looked at the face and thought that anyone who looked that good couldn’t possibly have talent, but when she needed it it was there. Her pal Clark Gable first helped show it off in Comrade X [right].
Though it’s endlessly dismissed as a Ninotchka rip-off, the movie is a hilarious take-off on wartime prejudices and sensibilities, and Hedy surprised everyone with her comic sense. Stripped of glamour, she exuded a slap-on-the-shoulder charm she rarely got to exercise. She wasn’t funny again until the much calmer The Heavenly Body three years later.
Hedy Lamarr in Tortilla Flat
Do you have a favorite Hedy Lamarr film and/or performance?
As for a favorite Lamarr performance, I would have to say Tortilla Flat is right up there. Her performance as the Mexican girl, Dolores, was amazing in its simplicity and clarity, and Karl Freund’s cinematography brought out an earthiness that she’d never shown before. This was a girl who knew she was beautiful, but she also knew there was much more to life than that and wasn’t ready to settle for anything less than a faithful husband with a job. Hedy had to go to the front office to get that part. The chemistry between her and John Garfield is great. It was strong between her and Spencer Tracy, too, but for the wrong reason as she disliked him intensely. Whether Hedy and Garfield’s characters lived happily ever after remains to be seen, but we can easily visualize Tracy’s Pilon carrying on as usual, looking for a bottle of wine and a free place to drink it in.
Personally, I like Hedy as The Strange Woman where she chews up the scenery as she’s chewing up co-stars Louis Hayward and George Sanders. She produced it, hired her co-stars, helped design her costumes, and even oversaw the musical score, generally running herself ragged trying to make this a hit. She learned the hard way that putting your own money on the line wasn’t a good idea. Not being a major studio release [United Artists handled the distribution in the U.S.], it didn’t have the theater spread that would have made it a moneymaker.
And then there are two of the movies’ most famous temptresses, Tondelayo and Delilah. Hedy knew White Cargo [right] for what it was, and enjoyed her romp in the jungle. [Director] Richard Thorpe just stood back and let her go to town. Hedy’s biggest complaint was that she practiced her sexy dance all summer long and then it was mostly cut out by the censors.
Samson and Delilah was Hedy’s high water mark, giving her the superstardom she’d long deserved, plus [it was] in Technicolor. Mayer was nuts not to have put her in a color picture, although he did have one planned, Quo Vadis, which was cancelled by the war. Hedy was to play the slave girl Eunice, which was later played by Marina Berti [in the 1951 MGM release, starring Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr. Samson and Delilah was made at Paramount. By that time, Lamarr was no longer under contract to MGM.] It would have been a revelation for Hedy, as she exploded in color, but it took [director Cecil B.] DeMille to make that happen. The results were a breathtaking success as we all know, even out-grossing Gone with the Wind for a time. Hedy knew it was crucial for her and devoted herself to it. DeMille understood pampered beauties, since he’d practically invented them so he knew just how to tease, cajole, and encourage a terrific performance out of her.
I also think she was equally matched with Bob Hope in 1951’s My Favorite Spy. She combined sex appeal and slapstick in what was, oddly, her last major movie. DeMille wanted her for The Greatest Show on Earth, but Betty Hutton got that part as Hedy decided it was just too physical for her, and, she’d laugh, “all that dirt and noise and exercise. I said no.” Hutton claims she was the only one ever considered for the part, but I have proof to the contrary. In a strange way, Betty’s lucky. As the only survivor she gets to rewrite history any way she wants to.
And finally, I think she’s terrific in 1957’s The Female Animal, bringing a perfect poignancy at age 44 to aging movie star [Vanessa Windsor]. Like many an actress of her age, Hedy’s Vanessa had a habit of falling for the wrong man, in this case movie extra George Nader. Throw in Jane Powell as her adopted daughter and you have quite a stew of emotions. Hedy limned the responsibilities of the forties-into-fifties star perfectly, especially in the scene where she wants to announce her engagement to Nader and has to decide who to give it to, [gossip columnist] Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons. Like Scarlett at the barbecue choosing who’s to get her dessert, she pauses and says “this
story, I think this should go to … Hedda” – odd, considering that Hedda, unlike Parsons, had never been much of a Lamarr supporter. Sadly, Universal chopped it up and Hedy disowned [The Female Animal]. A flop but, seen today, a fascinating one.
What was Hedy Lamarr’s relationship with MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer like? Mayer was the one who brought her into the MGM stable, but once Lamarr was in, Mayer didn’t seem to know what to do with her.
First of all, L. B. Mayer had never met a lady like Hedy. Though notorious for her ten minutes of on-screen nudity [in Ecstasy], she was nonetheless from the Jewish aristocracy of Vienna and, despite her conversion to Catholicism, was a woman well out of his class. He was used to fashioning stars out of chorus girls and shopkeeper’s daughters – and the occasional Swedish shampoo girl – but he rarely got his hands on an opinionated upper-class lady. He loved the idea he was getting an international star for only $500 a week, but once he got home he was at a loss.
(By the way, Hedy [whose real name was Hedwig Kiesler] always took credit for her new last name, Lamarr, “la mer, the sea.” It was on a list that Mayer and his brain trust came up with on the Normandie, but she said she made the final decision.) [Mayer was a huge fan of exotic, dark-haired, silent-screen siren Barbara La Marr. La Marr, who led an unhappy life, died at age 29 in 1926.]
Hollywood was a comedown for Hedy after the life she’d lived in Europe, and Mayer was intimidated by that. He didn’t know how to handle her either personally or professionally, especially when she began haunting his office demanding a script. After meeting her fellow female stars, and her initial walk down the length of Mayer’s imperial office, she was sent home with little more than promises. L. B.’s secretary, Ida Koverman, became both her supporter and friend, probably because Hedy was bombarding her bosses’ office with phone calls and Ida recognized there was something to Hedy that her boss had yet to recognize.
At the same time Hedy was looking for a part, the [censor at the] Hays Office was declaiming Ecstasy [above] as a “story of illicit love and frustrated sex” whose only purpose was to “arouse lustful feelings in those who see it.” What a quandary Mayer was in! Stashing her away in Beverly Hills with [Budapest-born] Ilona Massey so they could learn English together proved a bad idea. Ilona quickly got [a supporting role in the 1937 Eleanor Powell vehicle] Rosalie, while Hedy fumed.
I think part of Mayer’s problem about Hedy was that she was out of place in the climate of 1938. European sex symbols were box office poison and here he was trying to launch one, renaming her after a tragic silent movie star to boot. Plus, he was very interested in her but she wasn’t about to play the doting daughter as other women did.
After a number of screen tests, L. B. loaned her to Walter Wanger for Algiers and the rest is history. Mayer not only shut her up, but he made money on the deal as well. She came back to the MGM lot as the most publicized movie star in the world, but he still didn’t know what to do with her. An American Cinderella was his answer – and that was a disaster despite Mayer’s obsessive interest in it.
He hired Josef von Sternberg, Dietrich’s Svengali, to direct Cinderella, now called I Take This Woman, but that quickly proved to be a mistake. Mayer’s movie factory was not a place where von Sternberg could leisurely shine, plus Mayer was insistent on advising von Sternberg on his “Hedy Lamarr picture” and this made the whole thing a disaster. Also, Mayer had assigned Spencer Tracy as Hedy’s co-star and their lack of chemistry was immediately apparent. After two weeks there were only a couple of Hedy’s close-ups that were salvageable. Von Sternberg was fired and Frank Borzage took over, but after a long and expensive production the picture was shut down to the tune of $800,000.
Before I Take This Woman was resumed, Hedy was in Lady of the Tropics but as good as it was, it didn’t match Mayer’s expectations and he thought of putting her in the ensemble cast of The Women, most likely in the Paulette Goddard part. Perhaps that would have been a good idea, as Hedy’s sense of on-screen humor could have been exposed before Comrade X.