The one time my father (gently) suggested I lose a guy was while we discussed 1940s Hollywood glamourpuss Hedy LaMarr and Boyfriend thought we meant Hedley LaMarr, the antagonist in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles played by Harvey Korman. BF didn’t know that “Hedley” was Brooks’ comic tribute to the screen siren. Hearing this, Dad raised an eyebrow, which in our movie-crazy family was code for, “Do you really want to be with a guy who doesn’t get the joke?”
Make no mistake: Hedy LaMarr (1913 — 2000), the raven-haired temptress whose alabaster skin and vermilion pout launched a million erotic fantasies, was no joke. That point is made most eloquently by Bombshell: The Hedy LaMarr Story, Alexandra Dean’s documentary rolling out in theaters nationwide over the next months and airing on PBS in May.
Apart from traffic-stopping looks (moviegoers audibly gasp when they see LaMarr on the big or small screen), she would in 1942 patent the radio-signaling technology that led to wireless communications, GPS and Wi-Fi. So if you’re reading this on your cell phone, say danke sehr to her.
In a sentence, the film’s theme is that men in power were so focused on LaMarr’s externals that they failed to see the depth of her intelligence. From husbands to Hollywood studio bosses to the U.S. Navy, recipient of her patent during World War II, LaMarr was taken for a lust object but not seriously. In today’s #MeToo culture, her story strikes a nerve,
She was born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna to Jewish parents. From the first, she was interested in how things worked. Her beloved father, a banker, explained to her how traffic signals and streetcars operated. At five, she took apart her music box to see how it made its tinkly sound — and then rebuilt it. She loved chemistry class. Were she 16 today, possibly she’d be a STEM student applying to MIT or Caltech. In 1929 Vienna, though, she deserted her studies and strolled into a movie studio where many were struck by the one-two punch of her sloe-eyed beauty and her streamlined physique, like that of an Art Deco hood ornament.
After working in a few German films, and studying with theater luminary Max Reinhardt — the first to name her the Word’s Most Beautiful Woman — Kiesler played the unfulfilled young bride in the Czech art film, Ecstasy (1932). On their wedding night, her screen husband unsuccessfully tries, and fails, to open the lock on the door of his house in order to carry her over the threshold. It’s a movie where all double-entendres are intentional. In the film’s most famous scene, she scampers, naked and fawnlike, through the woods after a nude swim.
The film earned her many prominent admirers. They included Fritz Mandl, an older munitions millionaire, for whom she became a trophy wife. Mandl forbade her to act, wanting her to charm his business associates. Bored by her hostess duties, she listened carefully to discussions about weaponry design. Reportedly Hitler and Mussolini were as charmed by her as she was repulsed by them. (Later, Hitler would ban her films and denounce her as a decadent Jew.)
Sensing she had no future with Mandl — and the Jews none in Austria — she escaped husband and homeland for London in 1937. She was 24.
In the English capital, Kiesler went to see Louis B. Mayer, studio chief at MGM. He liked what he saw and offered her $100 a week. She turned him down and booked passage on the ship carrying Mayer back to the U.S. Wearing couture gowns and what remained of her good jewelry, she swanned around making sure that Mayer saw all eyes were on her. He raised the offer to $600 a week. At his behest, she changed her surname to the less-German sounding LaMarr.
The actress’ gift for nonverbal negotiation was matched by her impact on screen. In movies like Algiers (1938) and Ziegfeld Girl (1941) she did a lot for the audience by just standing there and doing nothing. The documentary’s epigraph is the knowing LaMarr line, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” For her, looking dumb required considerable acting.
Within two years of her arrival in Hollywood, she showed Howard Hughes, her aviator beau, how to make the clunky rectangular wings on his planes more aerodynamic. By studying the gills of the fastest fish and the fastest bird, she drew a wing with a graceful replacement for his aircraft. In return, Hughes furnished her with an “invention table” for her home.
In 1941, mourning the loss of lives on a British steamship torpedoed by a German U-boat, LaMarr thought of how to foil Nazi interception of British naval communications. At a dinner party in Hollywood, the woman who had learned of the latest in German and Austrian technology as her husband’s hostess struck up a conversation with composer George Antheil. She shared what she knew about the design of remote-controlled torpedoes. Mandl had never gone into production with them because their signals were vulnerable to jamming.
LaMarr correctly believed the solution was to broadcast the signals on rapidly-shifting frequencies. After the dinner party LaMarr scrawled her phone number in lipstick on Antheil’s windshield. Together Lamarr (then married to second husband, Gene Markey) and Antheil developed a frequency-hopping system through which the transmitting and receiving stations of a remote-controlled torpedo changed at intervals.
In 1942, Hedwig K. Markey and George Antheil received U.S. patent number 2,292,387 and donated it to the U.S. Navy for war use. The naval brass condescendingly told the Hollywood star she could better help the Allied effort by selling war bonds, which she also did. But it would be a half-century before LaMarr got any credit for an invention on which others made billions.
About the same time LaMarr’s inventing career spiraled south, so did her movie career. MGM cast her in the campy White Cargo (1942) as the vaguely Egyptian temptress Tondelayo who, for unexplained reasons, plies her trade in the Congo. For salary reasons, she declined to co-star with Charles Boyer in Gaslight (1944), the film that would secure the stardom of Ingrid Bergman.
Innately entrepreneurial, LaMarr would go on to produce and star in her own movies before fighting for the female lead in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), her greatest commercial success, as a Biblical Tondelayo. She was 36, a few years past Hollywood’s sell-by date for any woman not named Katharine Hepburn.
She wed four more times, adopted a son, bore a son and daughter and applied her engineering savvy to a series of cosmetic surgeries, making sure that scars were hidden behind her ears or in the crease of a limb. In the late 1950s, the Navy dusted off her patent and it was the basis of reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Had she known, she might have renewed the patent which expired in 1959.
LaMarr knew nothing of this until 1990 when Fleming Meeks, a Forbes magazine reporter, learned of her contributions and wrote an article about them. She didn’t receive a nickel for her work until 1997 when a Canadian wireless communications company acquired the original patent rights from the actress in exchange for an undisclosed number of shares in the firm.
With talking heads who include Meeks, filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks, and the late LaMarr herself, Dean takes the sections of the actress’s Vienna, Hollywood and extracurricular careers and gracefully plaits them together into a compelling chronicle, furnishing engineering-for-dummies diagrams that explicate her sophisticated thinking. In what should have been her epitaph, the eminently quotable actress observed before she died that “Films have a certain place in a certain time period, but technology is forever.”