Saturday, November 9, 2013

The 100th Birthday of Hedy Lamarr, Or Perhaps the 99th or the 98th..

Inventor and actress Hedy Lamarr has often been described as an enigma. Indeed, even the year of her birth is a bit of a mystery. Most sources give 1913 as the year that she was born. In fact, it is the year given by her official website. Despite this more than one biography of the inventor and actress have given 1914 as the year of her birth (both Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Michael Shearer and Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film  By Ruth Barton do so). In 1966, when Miss Lamarr was arrested for shoplifting, 1914 was the year she told the Los Angeles police that she was born. Even Miss Lamarr may have contradicted herself with regards to her year of birth, however, as in Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman she claimed she was born in 1915. Of course, she also claimed that much of the material in her autobiography was fabricated by ghostwriter Leo Guild, even suing to halt the book's publication, giving us reason to doubt much of the book's veracity.

Sadly, the year of Hedy Lamarr's birth may remain one of the many mysteries about her, which leaves anyone wishing to celebrate the anniversary of her birth with a bit of a conundrum. Given the number of sources that cite 1913 as the year of Miss Lamarr's birth (her official website among them), I have decided to treat it as such, which as far as this blog is concerned makes this Miss Lamarr's 100th birthday. Too, I must admit I find it appealing to think that the two most beautiful women of all time (Vivien Leigh was born 5 November 1913) were born only days apart!

Regardless of the year in which she was born, Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. She began studying piano when she was only 10 years old.. She made her film debut in a bit part in Geld auf der Straße in 1930. This was followed by a more slightly more substantial part in Die Blumenfrau von Lindenau (known in English as Storm in a Water Glass) in 1931. She was still only a teenager when she studied acting under the legendary stage director Max Reinhardt. Mr. Reinhardt may have been the first person to name Hedwig Kiesler "the most beautiful woman in the world", which he did so when speaking to Viennese  newspaper reporters.

Hedy Kiesler would appear in two more films (Die Koffer des Herrn O.F. in 1931 and Man braucht kein Geld in 1932) before starring in one of her most famous films, Extase (in English, Ecstasy) in 1932. The film proved controversial upon its release. Not only did Hedy Kiesler appear nude in the film, but it may well be the first non-pornographic film to portray sexual intercourse as well as a woman in the midst of orgasm (although the film only focused on the actors' faces). Extase proved to be a source of a good deal of controversy, with even Pope Pius XI condemning the film. The film would prove even more controversial in the Untied States. In 1933 the Legion of Decency gave it a "C" rating, making it one of the earliest foreign films to be condemned by the Legion.  In January 1935 the Department of Treasury banned Extase from importation into the United States. Regardless, for ten months in 1936 an American distributor started an effort to get Extase approved by the Production Code Administration (the PCA). The PCA's head, Joseph Breen, called the film "highly—even dangerously—indecent" in a memo and informed the distributor that the PCA could not approve it. It would not be shown in the United States until 1940, and even then in edited form. Even then some local censorship boards demanded even more cuts to the film while others, such as Pennsylvania's censorship board, banned it altogether.

Whether the controversy of Extase would have had an impact on Hedy Kiesler's career is difficult to say, as not long afterwards she married armaments manufacturer Friedrich Mandl. He more or less forbade her from pursuing her acting career. As might be expected, Miss Kiesler found herself miserable in the marriage and in 1938 she left Mandl. She eventually fled to London, where she met the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer. Mr. Mayer was in London on studio business, and the two met at a dinner party.  She later sailed to the United States aboard the Normandie, on which both Louis B. Mayer and his wife Margaret were sailing home. While aboard the ship Mr. Mayer offered Hedy Kiesler a contract with MGM. Stories very as to whether it was Mr. Mayer or his wife who gave Miss Kiesler her stage name, the name by which she would become best known, Hedy Lamarr. The surname was taken from late Silent Era star Barbara La Marr, who had died from tuberculosis when she was only 29.

Hedy Lamarr made her American film debut in Algiers in 1938. The film proved to be a success and very nearly established Miss Lamarr as an American movie star over night. She proved to be one of MGM's most popular stars in the Forties, as well as one of the sex symbols of the era. According to Richard Rhodes, author of Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, men serving overseas during World War II voted her the most desirable film actress of them all. While at MGM she made some of her most popular films, including Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Boom Town (1940), Tortilla Flat (1942),  and White Cargo (1942). Disappointed with the quality of scripts she was receiving, Hedy Lamarr left MGM in 1945.

Miss Lamarr's departure from MGM may not have necessarily improved the quality of the roles she received, but it also did nothing to diminish her success. From the late Forties into the early Fifties she appeared in such films as Dishonoured Lady (1947),  Let's Live a Little (1948), Samson and Delilah (1949), and My Favourite Spy (1951). During the Forties Miss Lamarr had been a very prolific actress, making 18 films from 1940 to 1949. With the Fifties, however, her career slowed considerably. The Fifties would see her make only a few films, including My Favourite Spy, I cavalieri dell'illusione (1954), Loves of Three Queens (1954), L'eterna femmina (1954), and The Story of Mankind (1957).  Her final film was The Female Animal in 1958. She made very few television appearances, only appearing as a guest star on All Star Revue, Shower of Stars, and Zane Grey Theatre.

While Hedy Lamarr was one of the most famous actresses of all time, her most lasting contribution to the world would be in a field not generally associated with the bright lights of Hollywood. Quite simply, Miss Lamarr was not only an actress, but also an inventor. And one of her inventions would revolutionise the world. It was in 1941 that Miss Lamarr had an idea for a new torpedo guidance system. She took her idea to her neighbour, composer George Antheil, who had utilised automated control of pianos in his composition Ballet Mécanique. The two of them developed a means of frequency hopping that utilised a piano roll of the type used for player pianos to shift or "hop" between 88 different radio frequencies. It was on 11 August 1942 that Miss Lamarr and Mr. Antheil were granted US Patent 2,292,387 for their "secret communication system. Ultimately the United States Navy would not implement Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil's invention during World War II, arguing that the equipment necessary for it would be too bulky (George Antheil argued that it could be small enough to fit inside a watch). The  Navy would eventually utilise Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil's invention during the blockade of Cuba in 1962.

Miss Lamarr and Mr. Antheil's patent for a "secret communications system" would be rediscovered in the Fifties, when various companies were developing CDMA or code division multiple access, a channel access method used for GPS and the basis for various channel access methods used by mobile phones (such as cdmaOne, CDMA2000, and WCMDA). As a result much of the technology we take for granted today, from mobile phones to Wi-Fi to GPS, might not exist had it not been for Hedy Lamarr! Sadly, neither Hedy Lamarr nor George Antheil would make any profit from their patent.

Of course, here it must be pointed out that Hedy Lamarr was not simply an actress who happened to have an idea for a new torpedo guidance system that would ultimately change the world. She was very serious about inventing, and she even had an entire room in her home devoted to inventing, including a drafting table, tools, reference books, and so on. Among her inventions was a anti-aircraft shell fixed with a proximity fuse that would use radar to detect the target and detonate at a predetermined distance away. She also developed a cube that when mixed with water would make a cola-type soft drink. She also invented a better box for facial tissues (such as Kleenex) and a new sort of traffic light. Unfortunately, none of these inventions would be put into mass production.

As one of the best known film stars and sex symbols of the Forties, Hedy Lamarr would even have an impact on pop culture in the form of a well known comic book character. The creators of Batman Bill Finger and Bob Kane based the character of The Catwoman on a combination of Bob Kane's cousin Ruth Steel and actress Hedy Lamarr, with a bit of Jean Harlow thrown in for good measure. Other than The Catwoman's personality, it would seem Jean Harlow contributed little to the character. Anyone examining of illustrations of The Catwoman from the Golden Age of Comic Books might well notice she looks a good deal like Hedy Lamarr. . Both had oval shaped faces crowned by a head of long, wavy, dark hair. Both also had smouldering eyes (well, Catwoman's eyes were as smouldering as Golden Age comic book illustration would allow) and full, pouty lips. Despite changes in artists over the years (as is well known, Bob Kane employed many ghost artists), Catwoman would continue to resemble Hedy Lamarr until the Sixties when Julie Newmar played the character on the television show Batman.

Hedy Lamarr was often noted for her beauty. Indeed, she was called "the Most Beautiful Woman in the World" for a good reason. It has not been particularly often that she has been noted for her acting talent. I suspect much of the reason for this was that she was typecast early in her career as the beautiful, exotic seductress, a role she played in film after film. That having been said, she could play other roles and play them very well. She was quite convincing in the role of Madeleine Damien, a magazine editor with a double life as a party girl at night, in Dishonoured Lady. She also gave a very good performance as the title character's self reliant coworker Marvin Miles in H. M. Pulham, Esq. (1941). I think she also did quite well in what may be her most famous role, that of Delilah in Samson and Delilah (1949). In what could have merely been yet another seductress role, Miss Lamarr gave the character of Delilah considerable depth.

Of course, I have to wonder if Hedy Lamarr would not be better regarded as an actress had she not performed in more comedies. The comedies she made often gave her an opportunity to play roles beyond beautiful mystery women. She was delightful as an Austrian refugee who makes a marriage of convenience with a poor writer (played by Jimmy Stewart) in Come Live with Me (1941). She was also quite enjoyable as a beautiful, European princess who falls for a New York hotel bellbory in Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945). Miss Lamarr also gave a good performance as as Lily Dalbray, the beautiful spy and love interest in the Bob Hope movie My Favourite Spy.  In many of the dramas in which Hedy Lamarr appeared she was used as little more than window dressing and in yet others she simply played another variation on the beautiful seductress. In her comedies, however, she was given a chance to shine.

While Hedy Lamarr remains one of the most celebrated beauties of all time, as one of the best known actresses of her era, there can be no doubt that her greatest contribution to the world was her invention of frequency hopping with George Antheil. It would provide the basis for modern spread spectrum technology, technology that is used in everything from CDMA (Code division multiple access, used in many mobile phones), coded orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (COFDM, used in WI-Fi networks), Bluetooth, GPS, and so on. Eventually Miss Lamarr would be honoured for her invention. In 1997 the the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave her their Pioneer Award. She also became the first woman to ever be awarded the Invention Convention's BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award. Today it is quite possible that Hedy Lamarr is better known for the invention of frequency hopping than she is as a film star.

In the end whether it is Hedy Lamarr's 100th birthday or her 99th birthday perhaps doesn't matter. She was much more than the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. She was a talented actress with the intelligence to develop something without which the modern world we know would not be possible. There can be no doubt that Hedy Lamarr would have been remembered if she had only been a famous film star. Her motion pictures are still watched and enjoyed by millions today. That she also invented frequency hopping with George Antheil, something which led to the spread spectrum technology on which we rely so much today, has insured that she will be remembered for years to come as a woman who truly changed the world.

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