In the first part of Hollywood’s Golden Era when classic beauties such as Gene Tierney, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich and Merle Oberon ruled the screen, Hedy Lamarr was the fairest of them all.
In fact, her face became the inspiration for Walt Disney’s animators when they created the Snow White figure.
By any measure except critical acclaim, Lamarr had a successful career. She starred in blockbusters like Cecile B DeMille’s Samson and Delilah and the steamy White Cargo (that had her impersonating a woman of color).
And given the chance, she did hold her own against some of the most celebrated male actors of the day in more serious pictures. S
he starred opposite Clark Cable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Taylor , James Stewart, William Powell, George Sanders and Charles Boyer in a flurry of movies in her heyday in the 1940s.
Her acting ability was so admired in the creative community of Hollywood that the screenwriters for Warner Bros.’s Casablanca actually wrote the female lead, played by Ingrid Bergman, with Lamarr in mind.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, however, isn’t so much interested in what we do know about the screen siren but rather what we don’t know.
It turns out that Lamarr was as smart as she was pretty. She had a whole other persona as an inventor. And here I can see eyes begin to roll.
What did she invent, a new mascara brush? Actually, her invention was the stuff of hard technology and the foundation of everything from military communications to Bluetooth.
Throughout her life Lamarr was keenly aware of the power of her beauty. She used it to escape her homeland of Austria on the cusp of World War II, and then to secure an acting contract on her voyage to the U.S. from fellow transatlantic passenger Louis. B. Mayer, head of Hollywood’s biggest studio, MGM.
Eternally grateful to America for accepting her with open arms, she used her innate intellect and the engineering she was exposed to as the young trophy wife of Austria’s biggest munitions maker to invent a “ secret communications system,” which she received a U.A. patent for in 1942.
At the time the Nazis were winning the war with their armada of U-boats that were sinking the U.S. effort to provide Britain with war supplies.
The U boats were vulnerable to their own attack from torpedoes from Allied subs and torpedo-carrying planes. But the radio-controlled torpedoes frequently were jammed by the Nazi subs and sent off course.
Lamarr’s invention, which used frequency-hopping, was impossible to jam.
The U.S. Navy took one look at the invention, then at Lamarr in all of her Hollywood glamour, and summarily dismissed the idea as hair-brained, but not before appropriating the patent as their own, using the technicality that Lamarr was not a U.S. born citizen.
Fast forward 20 years when Lamarr’s patent has run out, and suddenly her invention is being used for Cold War surveillance and other military applications.
Ultimately, her frequency-hopping concept would become the basis for spread-spectrum communications technology, encompassing everything from cell phones to Wi-Fi networks.
The communications systems was not her only invention. When Hollywood pal and paramour Howard Hughes was looking for a way to increase the speed of his airplanes, she showed him how a windswept design of the wings would work, which he quickly incorporated. In return, he provided her unfettered access to his substantial engineering staff.
Director Alexandra Dean, with the assistance of executive producer Susan Sarandon, has created an insightful biopic of a fascinating 20th century figure.
Newly uncovered audio tape along with ample archival footage of Lamarr’s film career and original interviews with friends and family produce a rich portrait of this enigmatic subject.
While plenty of praise is rightly given to Lamarr, director Dean doesn’t hesitate to show her warts. Lamarr, as it turns out, was as covetous of her extraordinary beauty as everyone else, and toward the end of her life desperately tried to hold on to it, resulting in several disfiguring plastic surgeries. She died nearly penniless, holed up as a recluse in a Florida apartment.
Epilogue: After her death, Lamarr received some of the recognition that she deserved. She is one of the few women inducted into the national Inventors Hall of Fame.
However, she never earned a dime from her patent, which it has been estimated at a fair market value today of $30 billion.