High Class Whore: Hedy Lamarr’s Star Image in Hollywood

Jan Christopher Horak. Cineaction. Volume 55. 2001.

Although I have spent over twenty years writing about German-speaking film émigrés who went to Hollywood after 1933, due to the anti-Semitic campaigns of the Nazis, Hedy Lamarr was for me not much more than another pretty face, this despite the fact that she was certainly one of the most successful in that group. It was only after Filmarchiv Austria in Vienna asked me to contribute to a monograph on the making of Ecstasy (1933) that I began to reevaluate her American career. The more films I watched, the more I read about Hedy Lamarr, the clearer it became to me that there was a discrepancy between the publicity (and historiography) surrounding Lamarr and what I was seeing on the screen. In trying to account for that discrepancy and her immense popularity in the 1940s, I realized that the producers had been caught in an ideological bind: how to take advantage of the public scandal surrounding her debut, yet still abide by Hollywood’s conservative moralistic codes. Lamarr, on the other hand, was no mere pliant starlet, but an independent woman with her own agenda, which ultimately led to her downfall.

The Scene of the Crime

Her first nude scene pretty much sealed her fate as an actress. Indeed, it was only a matter of time before the industry realized that her market value had evaporated. In the land of I Puritani, they had her number. Hedy Lamarr, nee Kiesler, described in her so-called memoirs Louis B. Mayer’s indignant and moralizing tone as he lectured her in a London hotel:

“I saw Ecstasy,” Mayer opened. “Never get away with that stuff in Hollywood. Never. A woman’s ass is for her husband, not theatergoers. You’re lovely, but I have the family point of view. I don’t like what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around the screen.”

Even if the exact quote is probably fictitious, the point of view expressed matches other descriptions of the mogul of Metro Goldwyn-Mayer: Convinced of his own overwhelming importance, Mayer saw himself as a father figure to his MGM family and the guardian of American morality. In his mind’s eye, the supposedly sixteen-year-old actress from Ecstasy would always be a whore, because in his patriarchal book of knowledge women could only be saints or sinners. Neither a name change, nor the attempt on the part of MGM to turn her image into that of a sophisticated lady would ever counteract that first impression.

That the Austrian refugee was able to stay on the A-list of Hollywood stars for at least ten years after her arrival in the United States in 1937 was due to her physical attractiveness and her intelligence, but also a function of Zeitgeist. Hedy Lamarr fought for her career, never allowed herself to be taken in by the money-and-sex-machine Hollywood, hired lawyers and went to court when necessary, was considered “difficult.” They sold her as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” the woman men dream of, an inflation of adjectives elegant and sophisticated modifying her. Yet, in contrast to other starlets of her ilk, Lamarr consistently played strong, independent women who knew what their value was in the marketplace of erotic exchange, and were not afraid to bargain. Seldom did she go down on her knees before a man without already having an eye on the prize, rarely did she put her own desire behind that of a male partner. Lamarr broke taboos (on the screen and in the gossip columns) and many women in the audience had their secret pleasure watching her, while the boys gawked. If the 1940s brought with them a degree of emancipation for women, due to the social upheavals of World War II, the post-war social order demanded that women return to the kitchen (both on cinema screens and in Ohio). The capitalist economy needed to adjust itself, by propagating an image of virginal, dependent women, happily found in the home with their children. Hedy Lamarr’s star persona was no longer in demand, a world-class star reduced to fodder for gossip columnists.

For better or worse, Ecstasy stuck to Lamarr from the dizzy heights of her entrée into Hollywood to the long good-bye of her “has been” film career. The first announcement of her arrival in New York, a glowing review of Algiers, her many obituaries, all mentioned Ecstasy in the first paragraph. Of all German-speaking actors exiled by Adolf Hitler, Lamarr had by far the most successful career, surpassed only by Marlene Dietrich. Marlene, in contrast to Hedy, was able to translate her star image/power into an even longer Hollywood presence, possibly because her persona was defined by roles in The Blue Angel and Morocco, while Lamarr’s star image was function of a non-filmic discourse centered on her behavior as an actress. In short, she had taken off her clothes at a time when no selfrespecting actress did that.

Of course, Lamarr contributed to the moralistic discourse surrounding her reception as a star by claiming to have been an innocent victim of unscrupulous film producers. A queen of Hollywood gossip, Hedda Hopper, reported early in Hedy’s career:

Hedy’s eyes filled with tears when she mentioned Ecstasy … The last scenes were taken first in the studio. Then she was taken on location and it was there she was told what she had to do. She fought against it hard and long. This so enraged the studio officials they threatened to make her pay the whole cost of the picture and declared that they would see to it she never got another. What could she do? What would you have done? Just what she did. What weapon has a 16-year-old girl to fight with against such odds? With a feeling of shame and disgrace she went home and said nothing about it.

Hedy regurgitates this little melodrama in most subsequent published interviews, e.g. in 1949 when she wrongly names fellow Austrian refugee William Szekely as the blackmailing producer. In her memoirs she accuses director Gustav Machaty of threatening to make her pay for the lost production costs. Not until the late 1970s does she admit that her driving ambition caused her to accept the role in Ecstasy, even though she would have to undress for the part. Cameraman Jan Stallich substantiates her eagerness to please: “As the star of the picture, she knew she would have to appear naked in some scenes. She never made any fuss about it during the production.”

Ironically, while Ecstasy’s contemporary reception produced a scandal narrative of a sexually aggressive woman, a modern feminist view perceives the cinematic image of an innocent woman (and mother) in search of love, and disappointed; Eva, an apparition of nature, a biblical woman an sich, in most significant ways Louis B. Mayer’s ideal image. Simultaneously, many character traits unite Lamarr’s role in Ecstasy with her later Hollywood star image. Even though she appears as inexperienced and innocent, Ecstasy visualizes the process of her emancipation, her declaration of independence from her father and her impotent and pedantic husband. Since he cannot respond to her unconscious desires as a woman, she learns to define and acknowledge them. When she leaves her true lover, it is an act of freedom and maturity, reflecting her choice to take responsibility for her husband’s suicide. Within the logic of Ecstas/s narrative such independence is evaluated in a positive light, but a similar independence is coded pejoratively in Hollywood’s moralistic lex Americana.

In her memoirs, Hedy Lamarr states that she was typecast as the “cold marble type,” at least until she took her career in hand by producing her own films. Studio publicity machines subscribed to the image of the untouchable, incredibly beautiful glamour girl, a viewed reproduced in most subsequent film historical literature. Superficially, the stereotype seems plausible and its circulation accounts for some of her popularity. But it doesn’t explain her fall from audience grace. Wasn’t Grace Kelly equally aloof in the 1950s? In point of fact, Lamarr was surprisingly often cast in narratives of independent, sexually aggressive women of questionable morality. Her temporary market value may have been based on the apparent contradiction in embodying vamp and European princess at one and the same time. But the new ideology of the post-war era ended the demand for high class whores à la Kiesler. Her career’s downward spiral careened into the gossip columns, the narrative of a fallen film star’s troubles supplying a moral Hollywood ending (featuring heavenly justice) to the story of the girl who dared.

In contrast to today’s mainstream, TV-formed journalistic practice, which measure a one-night stand with a celebrity in the currency of a million dollar book contract, publishers in Lamarr’s day demanded private lives at little or no cost. She failed to make a substantial amount of money by selling her story. Not that she didn’t try. Her memoirs netted her as much as $80,000, but also the public contempt of a judge who called the book pornographic. Had Lamarr’s autobiography been published with a steady editorial hand a few years later, she might have been celebrated as a pioneer of women’s liberation, a reception accorded Louise Brook’s equally frank Lulu in Hollywood.

The last half of her life was a vicious circle of bad husbands and daytime television courtroom scenes, in which she appeared as either accuser or defendant. She wasn’t rehabilitated in the press until the late 1990s when news of honorary prizes suddenly appeared. It became known that the “brainy beauty” had with the composer George Antheil patented a frequency hoping system (Spread Spectrum) in 1941, which could be used for remote control of torpedoes, but has now become the technological basis for all wireless communications. Since the patent expired before the government utilized it, the actress/inventor never earned a sou on an invention that is today worth billions. It was a bitter end for a woman who was filled with contradictions, neither Mary nor Magdalena, rather a multi-facetted, intelligent, and not uncomplicated, modern woman. A woman ahead of her time.

On the Road to Culver City

Hedwig Kiesler was born in Vienna on 9 November 1914. Her father, Emil Kiesler, was born in Lemberg (at the back-end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), but like many Jews in the steti moved to the capital to become director of a bank, the Vienna Banking Association. Her Budapest-born mother, Gertrud Lichtwitz, came from the Jewish haute bourgeoisie, allowing Hedy to grow up in Vienna’s fashionable 19tn district in a privileged and cultured environment. It remains a mystery why Lamarr never breathed a word of her Jewish heritage once she got to Hollywood, but one can speculate that she was merely following L.B. Mayer’s dictum that a Jewish background was to be denied in public at all costs. After attending a public high school in Vienna and a private finishing school in Switzerland, Kiesler experienced her film debut in the Austrian film, Money on the Street (1930), following it up with Storm in a Waterglass (1930).

She took acting classes with Prof. Arndt in Vienna and Max Reinhardt in Berlin, where a contract from Russian emigre Alexander Granowsky led her. In The Trunks of Mr. O.P. (1931) and His Majesty King Ballyhoo (1931), she played supporting roles, but failed to attract the attention of European reviewers. However, when the latter film was screened in German in several New York City cinemas, Kiesler garnered favorable mention in the press. She is “the girl, who neatly demonstrates that German and Austrian movie actresses need not necessarily all be Marlene Dietrichs.” Whether the reviews actually produced an offer to go to Hollywood seems unlikely, but during the production of Ecstasy, Lamarr was quoted: “I refused an offer to Hollywood. I don’t want to become the slave of film, but rather want to make films or take breaks when I feel like it.” Apparently, even at a tender age she was quite sure of herself.

However, Ecstasy, which she shot with Gustav Machaty in the summer of 1932, catapulted her to fame. While the film immediately encountered the rage of the censors, the ensuing scandal initially did her little harm. She was engaged by the Viennese Theater in der fosefstadt to play the title role in “Elisabeth of Austria,” but then Fritz Mandl appeared on the horizon. On 10 December 1933, she married Friedrich Alexander Maria Mandl and retired. Mandl was a Viennese arms dealer and a friend of the German National-Socialists, at least until 1938 when the Nazis forced him to exile in Argentina. An often-repeated false rumor has it that Mandl tried to buy and destroy all existing copies of Ecstasy. For three years Lamarr lived in a golden cage, only to flee to Paris and then London in the summer of 1937. Aboard the “S.S. Normandie” to New York in September 1937, L.B. Mayer broke down and gave her a contract, after she had rejected his first offer in a London hotel.

Eight months later she was still waiting for a film release on the Culver City lot-at least one project with Gustav Machaty assigned as a director apparently fell through-when Mayer loaned Lamarr out to Walter Wanger who was preparing Algiers for United Artists. In point of fact, filming had already begun in North Africa without an actress having been cast in the role of Gaby. It was a lucky break forLamarr, who suddenly found herself cast in a leading role next to Charles Boyer and Sigrid Gurie. The novice was working with some of the best technicians in the industry, including John Cromwell (director), John Howard Lawson and James M.Cain (script), James Wong Howe (camera). The film and especially Hedy Lamarr were a sensation. Mayer earned $12,000 on her three-week gig, receiving as an added bonus a new star with a much higher market value, without having to invest money in a costly star buildup. Sales of artificial pearls and turbans, popularized by Lamarr in the film, shot through the roof. A survey of Columbia students ascertaining their fantasy partner on a desert island revealed Hedy to be the flavor du jour.

Lamarr plays a young Parisian woman who visits the infamous Casbah in Tunis as a tourist with her rich friends and there meets the thief, Pepe Ie Moko. Taking Pepe’s subjective view, the camera caresses her jewels, pearls, and fur-lined jacket, but stops on her swollen, erotic lips. The first impression is erroneous. She is not a lady of the world, but rather a beautiful little shop girl who is going to marry a very much older and unattractive man for his money. Pepe and Gaby fall in love and leam that they grew up in the same Parisian quarter. He says: “What did you do before the jewels?” She replies: “I wanted them.” Can desire be expressed any more tersely? When her aging fiancé confronts her with the affair, she responds pointedly that her love is not a part of the bargain and his rights are validated through marriage. The exchange is clear; she gives her love to a man of her own choosing.

James Wong Howe’s camera loves Lamarr’s face. Light and shadow sculpt an image of a woman endowed with all the riches of class and pedigree, her eyes, lips and hair brazenly eroticized. White is the actress’s color of choice, the color of luxury, the color that best sets off her jet-black hair. It is not known whether Howe saw Ecstasy, but like Jan Stallich, he understands the photogenic intensity of Lamarr’s physiognomy. She looks into the camera, virtually certain of her effect. Mayer defined Lamarr as the “most beautiful woman in the world,” but the woman on screen was always also available to the highest bidder. Gaby’s jewels are photographically reproduced with the same love as her lips, both signifying market value in terms that Gaby understands. Her beauty allows her to remain master of her own fate.

The Lady In White

In 1939 Hedy Lamarr is ubiquitous in America’s public consciousness. No less than nine fan magazines place her on their covers. L.B. Mayer, however, is unable to translate the intense publicity into immediate box office gold. The production of her first MGM film, / Take This Woman (1940) stretches over eighteen months, her second film, Lady of the Tropics (1939), is released first. Both films are box office failures and the end of Lamarr’s career is again in sight. Fortunately, she wins back L.B.’s mercurial heart with Boom Town (1940), having fought for fourth billing behind Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Claudette Colbert, and convincing Mayer that she and not another actress should get the part.

Lamarr plays Karen Vanmeer, the beautiful and intelligent consultant of John McMasters (Gable) with ambitions to become his next wife. In her first scene, Hedy wears a white, silk top with flowing, wide cut black slacks, her red lips shine in a close-up as she takes in the view of McMasters. She works for (and possibly sleeps with) his aging competitor, but she is ready to switch horses. Left alone, they talk of mares and horse racing, but on the screen we see her strutting in the stables. The end of the scene makes evident that she is hardly his inferior in verbal combat. Just as she has left her first husband to join the oil king, she will leave him to become McMaster’s partner, while he increasingly neglects his own wife. Karen’s under-cooled erotic energy is however purely utilitarian in scope, since she is interested only in money and power. From the point of view of the audience, though, she is morally suspect, because she is willing to break up a marriage to achieve her goals, even if she finally withdraws of her own accord.

The same year, Hedy stars in Comrade X (1940), which is likewise a financial success. Some sources characterize the film as a poor imitation of Ninotchka (1939), just as some critics have described Lamarras a bargain basement Garbo. Yet, the story of a Soviet streetcar driver and her aging father (Felix Bressart) is a much more openly anti-Communist propaganda tract than Lubitsch’s film, utilizing the symbols and signs of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi film. Not only are German Nazism and Soviet Communism visualized as equally vicious totalitarian systems, especially through the character of Emil von Hofer (Sig Ruman), the story could have played equally well in a Third Reich setting, with Hitler taking Stalin’s place on the wall, the Gestapo subbing for the GPU. Since both the producer, Gottfried Reinhardt, and the writer, Walter Reisch, were exiled Austrians, it is likely that they hoped to also communicate an anti-Fascist message.

More interesting in the context of this essay is the fact that a strong, independent woman is marked here not as a prostitute, but rather equally pejoratively as an uncompromising Communist ideologue. Not only does she carry a masculine name, Theodore (because the law requires all trolley drivers to be male), but she also demonstrates a very male drive. When the American journalist McKinley Thompson searches her out on a tram, she is wearing a man’s uniform and belligerently bumping into a truck that is driving too slow for her taste. She is the one who actively takes his arm and leads him on a march through the city, all the while lecturing intelligently on the value of Marxist-Leninism. Furthermore, it is she who initiates the first erotic contact by kissing him, while he pretends to be disgusted with American women who want to be treated as sexual objects. She replies: “You are the first American man with a soul; it has a strange effect on me.” While the sexually aggressive women in other films get rid of their husbands/johns out of avarice, Theodore has sent two husbands to a gulag, because of their political unreliability. Of course, Theodore is turned around by the end of the film, but only because her leader has betrayed her and the movement, and the main ideological thrust of the film is aimed at sexual politics: women who display male behavior are unnatural, whether in a Communist or capitalist system.

In her next comedy, Lamarr was allowed to play not only a “decent” girl, at least according to the script, but also a Viennese refugee. In Come Live With Me (1941), Johnny Jones must marry an American or be deported by U.S. Immigration. She finds a penniless writer (James Stewart) and pays him a weekly salary, if he marries her legally. A Hollywood love story. However, the film introduces her as the mistress of a wealthy, married publisher, and it is evident that he is the one paying for her luxury apartment, maid, and fashionable clothing, since as a refugee without visible means of support, she would hardly have had the financial wherewithal (even if the script mentions a father who has been murdered by the Nazis and left a small inheritance). Not until the last minute does she decide to stay with her legal husband, so that the happy ending is over-determined. Furthermore, Johnny cannot completely eliminate the scent about her of the adulteress and kept woman, causing her character to be perceived by the audience with no small degree of ambivalence. The film was a flop.

According to her own statements, Lamarr had to beg L.B. Mayer to give her a supporting role in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), because he was angry with the actress for having forced him to take her to court, in order to stop her from appearing in a Broadway show. The leads were played by James Stewart, Judy Garland, and Lana Turner, although Lamarr received billing above Turner. Hedy plays Sandra Kolter, a refugee married to an exiled musician (Philip Dom). When by chance she gets a job in Ziegfeld’s show-an assistant comments “She looks better under wraps than all the others unwrapped,” the husband forces her to choose between him and the money. She leaves and starts an affair with the male star of the show. In her first show number she is again dressed in white with stars afloat above her black hair, the camera cleverly highlighting her beauty while camouflaging her lack of dancing talent. While the Garland character becomes a star of the Ziegfeld stage (remaining asexual), Turner’s character chooses the path into the abyss by becoming a kept woman for a wealthy patron of the theatre. Sandra takes a path between the two: She returns to her husband after he becomes a successful musician and gives up the stage. But the happy end again cannot cover up the fact that she has probably committed adultery and that she uses men as a means to an end: “Men are easy to handle, if you are not in love with them.” Once again Lamarr’s character exudes strength and expresses woman’s need to fulfill her own desire, while appearing morally ambiguous in American middle class eyes, because the exchange sex and money is ever present.

Desire expressed in its most radical form best describes Lamarr’s character in White Cargo (1943), in which she plays Tondalayo, the jungle girl in the Congo. She drives every white man on an African rubber plantation in 1910 crazy, until the foreman, played by Walter Pidgeon, kills her with her own poison. She is the local prostitute, servicing every European man in the region, just as long as she receives trinkets and pretty clothing in return. As a creature of nature and a “mulatto,” Tondalayo is unencumbered by the social mores binding her European clients, her relationships to all men defined a simple equation of sex for money, so that she is incapable of understanding her marriage to the Englishman, Langford, in anything but such terms: “You give me many things. Tondalayo stay a long time.” As in Lady of the Tropics, Lamarr again plays an exotic woman of mixed race, but the Hays Office demanded that all references to her ethnicity be excised, since miscegenation was still a taboo in Hollywood, even if it was those origins which account for her behavior in the narrative.

As a foreign exotic, Lamarr played against her type as sophisticated lady. With the help of masses of cocoa butter to darken her white skin, a tiny bra and the flimsiest of silk veils covering her lower body,Lamarr embodies a most primitive eroticism, which is further accentuated through high key light and shadows. On the other hand, her image of a woman for sale is consistent with previous films, insinuations of sadomasochism are apparent. For example, Tondalayo asks her husband why he doesn’t beat her (“Don’t you love Tondalayo anymore?”) or later she plays with a bull whip, it dawning on her that her marriage is keeping her from getting any more “Manipalava” (sex and money). American males were impressed, streaming to the cinemas in droves. Her first line, “I am Tondalayo” became a household quotation. The role also bore a delayed fruit when Cecil B. DeMille screened the film years later and decided to cast Lamarr in the leading role in Samson and Delilah.

Lamarr supposedly turned down the leads in both Casablanca (1943) and Gaslight (1944), both roles going to her some time competitor, Ingrid Bergman. In point of fact, it seems that LB. Mayer refused to lend Hedy to Warners, at least in the case of the former film. Instead she played a short time later in Warner Brothers’ The Conspirators (1944) and Experiment Perilous (1944), the latter a loan-out to RKO which she called her favorite film role. Similar to Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, Lamarr portrays a Victorian wife, Alida, who is psychologically terrorized by her husband, because of his fear of the female sex. Alida loses control over her life the way no other Lamarr character ever does, and must rely on another man to rescue her. Hedy noted: “It is a theme that fascinated me, with reverse English. I was often the victim of a husband, but it was my own strength that broke the bonds.” Under the direction of Jacques Tourneur, one of the few first class directors to work with Lamarr, her character remains a tragic figure, bathed in the light and shadow of film noir, until the final moments of the film catapult it to a happy end. Black, not white is her color in this film. However, the construction of the matrimonial couple, older man and innocent young woman, harks back to Ecstasy, especially the fact that Alida is also marked as a child of nature. The opening sequence in particular, in which Alida as a young girl runs through the fields of Vermont, could have come straight from Ecstasy.

A very similar scene introduces Lamarr’s title character in The Strange Woman (1946), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Following a double exposure in which young Jenny, reflected in a pool of water, is transformed from a girl to a young woman, the camera follows her running through the fields to the town, where she gets tips from Lena, the local prostitute, on how to find a John among the sailors in port. Just as the film begins in nature and ends literally in front of a cat house, so too can the film never quite decide whether Jenny as a woman is a force of nature or a street walker. Without a doubt, though, she is a strong-willed woman who guides her own fate from the beginning to the end. First she seduces a wealthy old businessman (Gene Lockhardt) to marry her, even though she has previously had an affair with the man’s son. Then she tries to talk the son into murdering his father. After the husband actually dies in a boating accident, she convinces the son that he was at fault, driving him to suicide. Next she seduces the husband’s bailiff, John Evered (George Sanders) even though he is engaged to her friend. The studio’s publicity pushed the evil woman angles, quoting a fire and brimstone preacher: “The lips of a Strange Woman drip honey, and her mouth is smoother than silk. But her fate is bitter as wormwood…sharp as a two-edged sword.”

She therefore seems to fit the known stereotype of the self-serving femme fatale, but demonstrates thoroughly positive characteristics against the grain, representing repeatedly the interests of the town’s poor, giving freely of her money and time. When Evered, her second husband, wants to kick the aging prostitute, Lena, out of their home, Jenny screams: “In what way is she different from us? More honest. You good, righteous man, you hypocrite. Telling others what to do, while you live in this house with me.” Here, then, the film equates illegal with marital prostitution, even if only in a secondary clause. The quote could have been from Lamarr herself. In her memoirs she writes: : “A star can have anything; if there is something she can’t buy, there’s always a man to give it to her. (Does this shock you? Well, I have no use for hypocrisy.)”

The story has to lead to a just conclusion with god-sent punishment. Not only is Jenny infertile and unable to present her beloved husband with a son, she dies in an accident that she herself caused. Interestingly, Lamarr had bought the story herself and produced the film independently. The Strange Woman supposedly made a bit of money, although its critical reception was divided.

The Long Good-Bye

With the end of World War II and the return of American servicemen, women were evicted from the workplace to make room for their future husbands. Simultaneously, Lamarr’s star begins to fall. In the same year, 1945, as she does not renew her contract with MGM (she had in fact made only one film for them since 1943), she begins producing her own films, albeit with B-FiIm independent producers: Hunt Stromberg, Jack Chertok, Eugene Frenke. After the merely modest at best success of The Strange Woman, she tries to bring her image to line with the times’ more passive type, however with little success. Dishonored Lady is a paradigmatic film for the peace, visualizing as it does the transformation of a sex-and-career obsessed woman into a well-behaved hausfrau.

In the film’s first scene, in which Madeleine Damien suffers a car accident, it is made clear to the audience that she is close to a nervous breakdown, because-contrary to her nature as a woman-she is manicly running the advertising department of a high-powered New York fashion magazine and nymphomatically switching her male partners in bed (especially if it is professionally advantageous). Men admire her beauty, fear her for her intelligence, and because “she thinks like a man.” “I pay my own way, and make my own rules,” she says, but the line is hardly meant to be understood positively. On the contrary, the psychiatrist who finds her after the accident and treats her, diagnoses her malaise as having repressed her true nature as a woman, which will only reappear after she has given up her job and previous life. After a quick one night stand with a wealthy client, she moves to Brooklyn, takes a new name and becomes a painter. She meets a doctor and promptly falls in love, but before a happy end is in sight, her “dark” past is exposed in a murder trial, in which she is the accused. The pejorative connection established between unbridled sexuality and professional success is addressed specifically to a female audience, while promulgating monogamy with a husband (who will care for her) and children. It was an obvious invitation to American women. Dishonored Lady flopped, possibly because the central character was drawn too negatively over large stretches of the film.

In her next film, the comedy Let’s Live A Little, Lamarr tries a little harder to reinvent her star image more towards the passively “feminine.” Even though she is a psychiatrist, she allows a male patient to make sexual advances to her without protest, and then falls in love with him. Dr. OJ. Loring is subsequently willing to give up all her other patients and concentrate on her man, while he must decide between her and his (professionally active) fiancée. The happy end has been pre-programmed, the narrative just another parable of evolving postwar gender relations.

Hedy Lamarr celebrated her last major success in Samson and Delilah (1949). The film marries an Old Testament style, evangelical Christian moralism with the theatrical exploitation of unadulterated sex. Even before the film opened in the cinemas, DeMiIIe worked overtime promoting the only barely clothed Lamarr as Delilah, with about as much style as a hawker in a circus side-show. The actress appeared on the cover of Newsweek, which proclaimed her to be a “sex symbol unequalled for pure muzzle velocity in the Western World,” and placed her in the vamp tradition of Theda Bara and Jean Harlow. Despite the Biblical setting, lewdness was the order of the day.

Once again Lamarr portrays the sexually aggressive woman who stubbornly follows her own desires. In her first scene she sits on a wall and throws figs at Samson (Victor Mature), but he only has eyes for the blonde, passively un-erotic and too well-behaved sister, Semadar (Angela Lansbury). That the darkhaired Samson prefers the blond Shickse to Delilah’s Jewish beauty may speak volumes about the ethnic component of the gender discourse in Hollywood cinema. As Samson and Delilah race through the desert in his chariot, she grabs his strong pectorals and seems close to orgasm; later she tells a competitor (Samson’s childhood sweetheart who in her deep religiosity should be the role model for all the female characters) that she loves Samson as “man of flesh and blood.” However, she cannot get his attention, even though she is willing to use any means at her disposal. She becomes the richest courtesan in Gaza. The tragedy is inevitable, especially in the moment when Samson reveals to her the secret of his strength. As in the Old Testament story, she symbolically castrates him by cutting his hair, his phallic power dissipates, and the spider woman triumphs. But what a fall. Delilah is more fascinating, intelligent, and sexually alluring than every other female in the story, a fact that even Samson grasps and so eventually succumbs to her charms. Thus, while DeMille’s primary narrative can do nothing but function in dualistic categories of Madonna and whore, Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah transcends those parameters. Inscribed in the primary text is an ancient (and new) patriarchal spirit, defining any independent and consciously erotic woman as the devil’s tool, while subservient women are supposedly the ideal. But the fact remains that Paramount’s biggest moneymaker of all time (up to that point) only achieved that feat by offering female audiences a positive experience, i.e. the spectacle of a woman stronger than all the men around her.

Lamarr never again received a comparable role in a big budget film. In Copper Canyon (1950), a western, she plays a character who is only a shadow of her former star image, even if the superficial signs are the same. As Lisa Roselle, she is madam of a whorehouse in the old West, shortly after the Civil War. It features a typical western narrative, pitting monopoly capitalists against the workers, copper mining magnates from the North against southern miners. It is indeed just a variation on the proverbial rangers-versus-sheepherders, mixed with an equally stereotypical post-Civil War narrative. At first Lisa seems to be independent enough, rebuffing the advances of an oily deputy sheriff, but it turns out that she is in cahoots with the bad guys (northern mine owners). Only after she falls in love with the southern hero, a former officer of the Confederacy (Ray Milland totally miscast), does she begin to act nobly. He, however, mistrusts her with good reason, and it is only after she throws herself at his feet in subservience that she is allowed to ride off into the sunset with him. Her transformation may or may not be credible, but it hardly matters, because she merely serves as a love interest in a western, addressed to a mostly male audience, who apparently did not shun the film.

In the 1950s, Hedy Lamarr was seen in only a handful of films, appearing more often in the pages of the gossip columns. Extended stays in Mexico, Italy, and Houston, due to various husbands and lovers, distanced her from Hollywood in terms of geography and, more importantly, access to its power base. Her films were either independently produced in Rome or low budget Hollywood studio pictures, in any case at the margins of the industry. Even television appearances, a haven for many film actors less than fully employed) were rare. Fortunately, Lamarr lived long enough to be honored for her film career, e.g. her hometown of Vienna organized a major retrospective in 1999. With her death on 21 January 2000, a reevaluation of her life and career has begun. Certainly, she was never a great acting talent, but for a brief period she enjoyed the kind of film career only few film actresses achieve. And in terms of her earnings, the true measure of success in America, she belonged to the privileged few.

As recent research into film stars has demonstrated, the construction and nurturing of a star image is a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon. It is dependent on the conditions of production in the film studios and their attached publicity departments, the on-screen persona, made up of individual roles that gel together in the public sphere to a composite picture, the off-screen image, based on studio gossip and publicity, available biographical facts, the star’s reception in the press and among audiences, as well as the cultural, social, and political context. In this essay I have advanced the notion that Hedy Lamarrwas successful in the 1940s, because her star image of the independent, sexually aggressive woman who sees gender relations in terms of a marketplace of desire, spoke to contemporary female audiences, while her extreme physical beauty attracted male audiences. While Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s publicity machine successfully advanced a particular star image, Lamarr on her own by the late 1940s and all of the 1950s was responsible for her own publicity and as a consequence much more susceptible to the whims of the press.

Thus it seems likely that Lamarr’s career went into eclipse for both internal and external reasons, i.e. the changing context of reception and the evolving structure of the Hollywood studio system. Whether another studio was willing to put her under contract or she wished to remain independent, as she claimed in her memoirs, is unclear, but the power of the studios was waning in any case by the 1950s. It is also possible her reputation as being too independent and difficult was catching up with her. In any case, Lamarr seems to have had a penchant for burning bridges: in 1933 when she converted to Catholicism; in 1937 when she left her husband; in 1950, when she sold all of her worldly possessions in a very public auction, demonstratively leaving Hollywood in order to move to Mexico; in 1955, when she moved to Texas. However, the external difficulties could have been overcome, but the film industry had moved on, a relic of the pre-World War II era, a victim of capital’s planned obsolescence for the film industry actors, thus keeping the cost of productions down.

Her star image was out of synch with changing social mores and fashion. The 1940s heyday of fiery brunettes (see also Joan Bennett) had once again given way to a regime of passive blondes. With the arrival of Marilyn Monroe, the blond par excellence, American males once again fell prey to their intense mammary fixation. As early as 1938, a magazine writer had noted that Lamarr’s breasts were a bit too small, her backside a bit too large. Her European accent may have also been a factor in her falling stock, given the fact that both Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman suffered a similar drop in popularity in the late 1940s/early 1950s, both only recovering at the end of the decade in character roles. Certainly Lamarr might also have been able to segue into character roles, but the barely forty-year-old Lamarr probably thought herself too young for that.

Today all that remains are her films, many of which are available commercially on video, while most of the rest play regularly on television. As has been demonstrated here, most are better and more interesting than their reputation suggests, if only due to the presence of Hedy Lamarr. On the screen she remains not only intensely beautiful, but also consistently intelligent, making her modern once more.