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.