Free from the Casbah: Hedy Lamarr – the Most Beautiful Woman in Films

To be honest, this introduction feels particularly hard to write, because the underlying subject can’t help but inspire anger and sorrow in me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m among the throng of film lovers who adores movies from the Golden Age of Cinema. My early experiences with Frank Capra initiated me into my lifelong affair with classic movies. I too succumb to the magic of polish and gleam and glamour, a spell so expertly constructed and woven that we forget or ignore or deny what was at the heart of the industry in that time and place: stars were not people, they were products to be bought, sold, loaned, rented, molded, branded, chewed and spit back out. As though this isn’t obvious, women were exponentially more vulnerable to the gender and power dynamics of this time in regard to exploitation. This isn’t even counting the perpetuating of ideology that was fundamentally racist, sexist, misogynistic, and a whole host of other -isms. It was a system that hurt countless people, masqueraded others who actually needed help, and protected transgressors no matter the crime.

In the meanwhile, the system also created stars and icons and artists to live on for decades (perhaps centuries) to come, produced some of our culture’s finest motion pictures, and made people a ton of money and Hollywood the dominant film capital of the world (for better or worse).

Recently, Ms. Lamarr has received some much-deserved professional reappraisal, not only for her film work, but as an under-appreciated mathematical and scientific mind.

To ring in my return, I have selected a piece on an actress little-known to younger generations – Hedy Lamarr, also known as the “Most Beautiful Woman in Films.” Recently, Ms. Lamarr has received some much-deserved professional reappraisal, not only for her film work but as an under-appreciated mathematical and scientific mind. You read that right: By day she acted across Charles Boyer, Robert Taylor, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and James Stewart, but in her free time, she was an engineer and inventor.

I suspect she may again garner earned attention with the release of Alexandra Dean’s directorial debut, the documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017). 

Christened the “most beautiful girl in the world” by MGM, actress Hedy Lamarr debuted to American audiences in Algiers (1938), solidifying her star persona as a breathtakingly beautiful yet reticent exotic silver-screen siren.

In case you’re wondering, YES, she was that beautiful. One picture wouldn’t do her justice. Before that, however, we’ve got to get down some basic historical context.

Cross-examining an array of fan magazines, as well as a wide spectrum of critical reception, reveals how critical and popular discourses distinguished between the value of Lamarr’s constructed persona, as both a sensational newfound symbol of exotic Continental beauty and a debuting actress in the Hollywood marketplace. In consideration of the more recent recognition of Lamarr’s contributions to the scientific and technological communities, this examination of Hedy Lamarr’s star persona, in her smoldering, accented mystery, provides a unique and relevant illustration of how academic discourses evolve beyond the delimiting and divisive artificial constructions of the studio system.

In case you’re wondering, YES, she was that beautiful. One picture wouldn’t do her justice. Before that, however, we’ve got to get down some basic historical context. Specifically, we need a brief overview of the Hollywood studio system and perhaps, a few Lamarr films I’d recommend.

In the Ida Lupino piece, I already spoke pretty extensively on the studio enforcement of the Production Code, but if you thought the Code was a nasty piece of work (it still is), then let me introduce you to the studio system. Essentially, by the 1930s, people had realized film was a serious business with greater reach, longevity, and profitability than originally conceived upon its birth.

Enter vertical integration

This means that only slightly more than a handful of studios dominated the three primary phases of the film industry (i.e. production, distribution, and exhibition). The majors, as they were called, included Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and RKO – some of which are still around, whether in name only or not – and they ran every segment of the process. For example, 20th Century Fox could produce The Mark of Zorro in 1940 with their contracted star Tyrone Power, and then distribute it to Fox theaters (a guaranteed place of exhibition). In today’s terms, that would be if Warner Bros. produced Justice League (instead of four different production companies), still distributed it, but only either to Warner Bros.-owned theaters or charged non-WB theaters extra to screen it from a pre-arranged package of films they sold. It wasn’t a fair system, but it lived on until the government more or less broke it up at the end of the 1940s (Paramount Decrees).

Now, you think this is questionable, as monopolies and vertical integration are essentially illegal, wait until you get a glimpse at the underbelly. 

Together, we enter the star system

Nowadays, the basic structure in place involves the relationship between an agent, perhaps independent or through an agency, with an individual actor/actress and upon attaining fame, things like managers and publicists, etc. arise. The actor may sign a contract for a single film, or a set of films, like the many Chris-es of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With an agent, there is a middle person who can negotiate and works for the actor, not the studio. But that didn’t really emerge as a standard until after the fall of the studio system. If you saw the last Coen Brothers’ film Hail, Caesar!, then you got a little peak through the character of Eddie Mannix (inspired by the real-life “studio fixer” Eddie Mannix), but if you saw Sundance-nominated documentary Girl 27, you saw some of THE WORST that system wrought (even into the present). I’m going to try to put this in the plainest words possible.

The stars of the Golden Age made their way to Tinseltown from across the United States, and from across the world. Some came because they wanted to be actors, dancers, singers, or fell into the profession because they started as extras or stunt people, or were “discovered” at diners and malt shops as the fairy tales go. Whoever they were and wherever they came from, they signed a contract. There were exceptions, of course, if they had enough leverage from careers on stage or overseas, but exceptions are not the standard. Once you signed a contract, you were basically an indentured servant. Maybe they tested you out with a six-month contract, but the real prize was a seven-year commitment, where they owned you. From there on, you had job security and studio protection, as long as you followed their orders, made the movies they threw your way, and lived the studio life. You got famous enough, became a star, then any mistakes, scandals, or cases of disobedience could be swept under the carpet. We’re talking underage girls, lavender marriages, inescapable closeting, drug addiction, barely-functioning alcoholism, forced abortions, the casting couch, escort parties, sexual harassment and assault, murder… the list could go on and on, trust me. When you get down to the bare bones, people were products.

Lamarr (née Kiesler, 1914-1985) was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary to an assimilated Jewish family, a heritage she kept secret throughout her life before she was “discovered” by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer in his fortuitous excursion to London in 1937. Mayer offered the young actress a six-month contract for $125/week, which Lamarr refused. In a strategic move, Lamarr traveled aboard the same transatlantic ship with Mayer, where, through her relationship with Mrs. Margaret Mayer as well as calculated demonstrations of her physical appeal to the male passengers, she eventually garnered a seven-year contract at an initial salary of $550/week with incremental increases. Two stipulations were required, that Lamarr change her name from the German-sounding Kiesler, and she agrees to English lessons.

Four years prior, Lamarr, at the age of 18, swam her way into global consciousness with the sensational Czech picture Ecstasy (1933). Featuring numerous scenes of a nude Lamarr, the film is considered the first non-pornographic film to show sexual intercourse (as well as a female orgasm). The film’s reputation and Lamarr’s association with its uninhibited European sexuality would come to characterize her contradictory on-screen persona in the conservative, heavily-regulated cinema of Hollywood.

Upon arriving in America, Lamarr would be off the screen for almost a year before her American film debut. After repeated attempts to attach Lamarr to different film projects failed, MGM finally loaned out Lamarr to an independent producer for her first Hollywood film, Algiers (1938), starring the French romantic leading man of the American screen, Charles Boyer.

The romantic melodrama, set in the capital of a North African country of Algeria, follows the exotic adventures of the notorious French thief Pepe Le Moko (Boyer). After escaping his final heist, Moko finds himself trapped in the city’s immense fortification, known as the Casbah. Meanwhile, Moko is also the center of an intensely destructive love triangle, between his Algerian mistress Ines (Sigrid Gurie) and the newly-arrived Parisian beauty Gaby (Lamarr). In the end, his pursuit of freedom and of his passionate love for Gaby results in his demise. The film cost $691,833 to make, grossing $951,801 with a net profit of $150,466, and a future cumulative earning of $2.4 million in U.S. rentals alone (401n44). For her work on Algiers, Lamarr earned her contracted weekly salary of $550/week, while Mayer received $1,500/week (with a “neat $950-a-week profit”) (Shearer 66-7).

Media identity and misinformation

From Screenland to Motion Picture Magazine, the fan discourse surrounding Lamarr’s breakout year is predominantly visual idolatry, from star-centered advertisements to stunning photographic coverage.

In the September issues of both fan magazines, each includes full-page advertisements for Algiers and a lengthy personal interview or detailed research article. Motion Picture features an advertisement where Lamarr’s image dominates the top third of the poster, with the words “Worlds of Exotic Women!” printed above her head in a large, bolded font. Further into the issue, an article entitled “Hedy Goes to Your Head” argues that the actress’s interview abstinence made her a greater mystery to the press. Present during a prolonged session of publicity shots for Algiers, Surmelian extensively describes her physical perfection – her “languid figure,” “shock of dark brown hair,” and mysterious eyes. He also compares her to Marlene Dietrich, who drew similar fame from Morocco (1930), also an exotic romantic melodrama set in North Africa.

Screenland instead published a considerable, if heavily romanticized and poeticized account of Lamarr’s life and career, entitled “Hollywood’s One Real Glamor Girl.” The male author described her beauty as “not synthetic,” rather Lamarr was “born with it,” found in her “leisurely gait” and “calm” demeanor, her “starry lashes” and “famous European beauty.” The writer’s use of idolatrous language embodies the characterization of Lamarr’s star persona. For example, he compares Hollywood’s first exposure to Lamarr to idolaters “hasten[ing] to lay gifts at her feet,” elevating her to the level of a goddess and a marble idol of beauty. From there, he constructs a complex timeline of “tragedy, mystery and romance” that is “so fantastically interwoven in her [Lamarr’s] young life,” that “her screen portrayal [in Ecstasy, 1933] almost created an international crisis [on a level with Helen of Troy].” The writer soars to supreme heights by expounding upon legends claiming Lamarr’s beauty almost led to blows between German dictator Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Like Motion Picture, Screenland provides a descriptive list of Lamarr’s “breathtaking” traits but also catalogs the actress’s specific, detailed measurements.

Interestingly, both fan magazines briefly present Lamarr’s struggle to be taken seriously as an actress. Screenland writes, “Hedy Lamarr readily disproves the theory of the beautiful being dumb. No keener brain functions behind so beautiful an exterior,” which displays Lamarr’s awareness that her beauty as well as its presentation figure greatly into critical, fan, and artistic receptions of her work as an actress. Furthermore, Schrott, while acknowledging her intelligence and sophistication, regresses back into focusing on her exterior, providing the reader with her measurements as well as supporting the stereotypical contradiction between beauty and brains. In contrast, Motion Picture chooses to use Lamarr’s own words: “We European actresses have to fight harder in Hollywood… I have much more to learn… I want to earn my salary. I take my work very seriously. It means everything to me.” Moreover, they articulately declare that Lamarr wants “meaty, difficult assignments, and not vapid roles that merely require one to be beautiful. She doesn’t want to be typed not even as a glamour girl.” Although brief, the recognition of Hedy Lamarr’s oft-ignored intelligence and ambition will resonate with future re-evaluations of her career contributions outside of cinema.

Critical reception of Lamarr’s performance in Algiers, spanning the New York Times and Chicago Tribune to the Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor, also reveals the conflicting treatment of the actress and star.

On one side of the spectrum lies the Chicago Tribune, whose reviewer praised the excellent acting but still prioritizes Lamarr’s beauty: “She is a ravishing creature and an assured and able actress. All things to all men she could be.” From The New York Times, the reviewer commends “rewarding” performances, however, accompanying the editorial is a dominant publicity photograph, six inches in length, of Lamarr wearing a fashionable turban to highlight her exotic European beauty. While the film and Lamarr were generally received well by the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, the more conservative publications of the Christian Science Monitor and Wall Street Journal gave Lamarr reviews ranging from negative to scathing. The Monitor found Lamarr’s performance in Algiers to be “disappointing,” whom they referred to as “just a pretty girl.” Similarly, the Wall Street Journal accuses of her of “the cardinal sin of the continental performers–overacting,” while acknowledging that Lamarr is “beautiful to look at.”

In a prior Monitor article, the author addressed Lamarr in the context of major studio’s concentrated search for new “imported” talent: “The efforts of the studios to prepare other ‘glamour girls’ to take the place of Miss Greta Garbo and Miss Marlene Dietrich–the unending search in every Hollywood studio, year in and year out–seems at times almost pathetic.”

Daugherty writes in reference to the publicity and promotional fervor surrounding Lamarr as the next exotic “it” girl, comparable in their unique beauty and commanding on-screen presence and prowess. The value distinction, exemplified by the interaction between these critical and fan discourses, illustrate the characterization of Lamarr, as star persona and actress brand, that would follow her throughout her career. Fundamentally, the contemporary analysis establishes Lamarr as an exotic glamour goddess, representing the ideal European beauty and the sensationalism surrounding imported “personalities,” but also the woman-of-few words, too mysterious, aloof, and other to garner roles outside the constructed persona.

The biographical re-evaluation

The final portion of this analysis is three-part: 1) examining how Lamarr was initiated into fame through rebellion against sexual taboos, comparable to Marilyn Monroe in the early-1950s, 2) deconstructing the popularity and decline of Lamarr’s career, and 3) exploring the shift in public perception of Lamarr upon discovery of her technological inventions and scientific contributions.

At the time of her discovery, Mayer was aware of the scandalous film, Ecstasy and in cooperation with the studio, Lamarr professed embarrassment and loathing for the film, denying that she willingly participated in the film, however, Mayer and MGM publicity still relied upon public foreknowledge of the scandal, mentioned in several reviews of Algiers as well as fan magazines.

In her article “The Body as Art” (1991), published in the Journal of Popular Culture, Kathryn Benzel examines the power of still photography in constructing the star persona of Marilyn Monroe. Like Lamarr, Monroe, although typecast in “dumb blonde” roles, skyrocketed to national recognition after she frankly stated in an interview that she had posed for nude photos in 1949, which were later featured in calendars and dawned the cover of the first issue of Playboy Magazine in 1953. [A conversation in its own right.] The photographs in question, in addition to her role assignment at Twentieth-Century Fox, solidified her persona as a sex goddess, defining a new form of sexuality for the decade. Henceforth, for better or worse, Ecstasy was also Lamarr’s gateway to Algiers and Hollywood fame, through which Lamarr would be typecast between raw European sensuality and cold, mysterious other, alluringly at odds with American morality.

However, by the 1950s, with the return to conformist gender norms and her increasing age, the demand for Lamarr decreased.

In the provocatively-titled CineAction article, “High-Class Whore: Hedy Lamarr’s Star Image in Hollywood,” Jan Christopher Horak, film scholar and Director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, places Lamarr’s career popularity and decline within an ideological context that shifted in the postwar era. Attributing her market value to the “apparent contradiction in embodying vamp and European princess simultaneously,” Horak characterizes’ Lamarr’s roles of the 1930s and 1940s as sexually-aggressive women who “exude strength and expresses [a] woman’s need to fulfill her own desire while appearing morally ambiguous in American middle-class eyes.” In the immediate postwar cinema, this character type adapted easily into the realm of the film noir with the femme fatale, such as found in her performances in Crossroads (1942), The Strange Woman (1946), Dishonored Lady (1947), and A Lady Without Passport (1950).

Viennese actress Hedy Lamarr (1913 – 2000), regarded by many as the most beautiful woman in show business, circa 1945. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Retirement and the long battle afterward

However, by the 1950s, with the return to conformist gender norms and her increasing age, the demand for Lamarr decreased. MGM did not renew her contract, and aside from her brief comeback as the biblical “whore” Delilah in the Technicolor hit Samson and Delilah (dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1949) in which she is punished for her whorish behavior, she more or less retired in the mid-1950s.

Lamarr’s later life was plagued by personal tragedy, misfortune, Garbo-like seclusion, and strange events – six marriages which ended in divorce, a ghostwritten but supposedly mostly fictional autobiography, several dropped shoplifting charges, failing eyesight, two lawsuits (including one against Warner Bros. for a comedic character in Blazing Saddles), a failed attempt to return to the screen followed by a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, disastrous plastic surgery, an alleged addiction to pills, estrangement from her children, narrowed communication only via telephone, and a nasty battle over her $3.3 million estate. Lamarr passed away of heart failure just nineteen days into the new millennium, at the age of 85, in Altamonte Springs, Florida. Her ashes were spread, according to her last will and testament, in Vienna.

Contribution to Science

Finally, in the last fifteen years, Lamarr’s contributions as a scientific mind and important inventor have begun to be recognized by the respective communities as well as the public.

Correspondent to her almost year-long absence from the screen, in between signing her contract with MGM and her debut in Algiers, Lamarr experienced significant free time, making two to three films per year. In this spare time, during the early-prewar-1940s, the actress and American composer George Antheil developed the concept of “frequency hopping,” whereby “a radio transmitter and receiver [were] synchronized to change their tuning simultaneously, hopping together randomly from frequency to frequency,” therefore, the “radio signal passing between them cannot be jammed.” With this substantially new use for a pre-existing technology (the radio) as well as a revolutionary new solution for a pre-existing problem (jamming), Lamarr and associates hoped to “apply that knowledge to… frequency changes between a ship or an airplane and a torpedo.” The inventors would submit their finding to the National Inventors Council in late-1940, and through the next year, refine and finalize their design and patent application for a radio guidance system for torpedoes. Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy rejected the proposal while the Patent Office awarded them the patent in 1942, although, the Navy is alleged to have gradually and covertly adopted the system (and later acquired the patent) without the permission or recognition of Lamarr and her partners. From then on, Lamarr’s war effort turned more towards the public sphere, with rallies and war bond fundraisers, and morale appearances. However, her technological contributions are now essential to the modern workings of mobile phone service, Bluetooth, GPS, and Wi-Fi.

Evidenced by the presence of Rhode’s book, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (2011), as well as Lamarr’s induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014, the Google tribute for her contributions in 2015, and Alexandra Dean’s documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017), the star construction is now merely one facet of Lamarr’s complex persona.

Hedy Lamarr, in her unique and oft-ignored intelligence, becomes a symbol of innovation in the world of science and technology, and is, in fact, more than just the “most beautiful woman in films.”

In conclusion, unlike the personas of Garbo and Dietrich, Lamarr’s could not talk, laugh, or sing, only smolder in suggestive silence; she could not bend sexual norms with negotiated androgyny or unconventional sexuality, only seduce in accented silence; and, as embodied by her breakout year of 1938 – for critics, she was not an actress, and for fans, she was only a star. However, illuminated by recent academic re-evaluation, Hedy Lamarr, in her unique and oft-ignored intelligence, becomes a symbol of innovation in the world of science and technology, and is, in fact, more than just the “most beautiful woman in films.”

Recommended: Ecstasy (1933), Algiers (1938), Come Live with Me (1941), H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), A Lady Without Passport(1950), and many many more!

This long-form was originally published in 24 Frames of Silver, written by Elise Williamson titled: Free from the Casbah: Analyzing the Persona of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in Films.