Actress and Inventor Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)
One of the most beautiful actresses ever to appear on the silver screen was also a brilliant inventor whose work—for which she did not receive a dime—is used by most Americans on a daily basis.
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, better known as Hedy Lamarr, was an Austrian actress from a Jewish family that fled to the United States on the brink of World War Two. She was slightly notorious for having appeared in the nude in Gustav Machaty’s Czech film Ecstasy (1933). Not only was she unclothed, but was photographed in a tight facial shot simulating an orgasm. As a result, the sanctimonious studio boss of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, put her in films, but never in the big productions.
Poster for Ecstasy (1933)
Still, Hedy did her best, starring in many films, but also making a unique contribution to the war effort. Working with music composer George Antheil, she developed an invention for producing an unjammable system for communicating with a torpedo that has been released. The method involved hopping across a broad spectrum of frequencies. In 1942, her invention was granted a patent, but never used during the war because the Navy thought they knew better. But by the time the patent expired in 1957, it was being used and is used today in Bluetooth technology and on legacy versions of WiFi.
Because Miss Lamarr did not renew the patent, she did not receive any remuneration for her invention. I just saw a thoughtful documentary by Alexandra Dean entitled Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017). Perhaps, in the end, Hedy was too smart for Hollywood—and Hollywood did not tend to reward actresses for their brains. She drifted through several marriages and several bouts of plastic surgery. But looks were never her problem. This woman had a brain, and that was unforgivable.
Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard’s ALPHAVILLE (1965). Courtesy: Rialto Pictures
I keep returning to a transitional point in my life that followed my pituitary tumor operation and my moving to Los Angeles at the tail end of 1966 to begin the rest of my life. My hero during that period was French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, who was married to the lovely Anna Karina. In all, she acted in seven of Godard’s features, most notably Pierrot le Fou and Alphaville (both 1965).
The latter film, one of my favorites, could only be described as Science Fiction Film Noir. In it, she plays Natacha von Braun, daughter of the notorious Leonard Nosferatu (alias Professor von Braun), chief administrator of Alpha 60, the all-powerful computer that rules the city of Alphaville.
On December 14, the Danish/French film actress died of cancer in a Paris hospital. It was hard to see an actress whose loveliness I revered when I was young come to an end.
Jean-Paul Belmondo Kisses Karina in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965)
I have several of the Godard/Karina films on DVD and will probably be viewing them again in the weeks to come. Somewhere, in those almond eyes, my own past is looking back at me. The most apt expression? The lines Karina says in Alphaville:: “Joli sphinx.”
It would be nice if all the people we have loved from near or afar can continue on with us as if in a cloud around our persons. But it is not to be.
Thomas Gainsborough’s “Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield” (1777-1778)
First, leave the portrait subject out of the painting and notice the quick brush strokes that form the tree, the stone wall, the landscape to the right, and the dark background. Now put in their midst this serene, quite beautiful, long-necked beauty that is Anne Thistlewaite, Countess of Chesterfield. It always amazes me to see women in paintings from other times that make my heart flutter. And it is most particularly the English protraitists of the 18th century that succeed the most in making me feel this way.
When I go to the Huntington Museum in San Marino, there is a large two-story gallery devoted solely to English paintings. So many of the women portrayed are so ethereal that I am in transports of admiration. I can almost begin to understand the way the French were in awe of English milords and miladies.
Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams
One of the most poignant things about watching old movies and television programs is that, quite suddenly, the veil of years disintegrates, sometimes leaving an image of inexpressible beauty. That happens when I see films with Louise Brooks, Mabel Normand, Marilyn Monroe, and now Edie Adams.
Sunday was a rare wet day in Los Angeles, so Martine and I spent it at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. While Martine watched some of her old faves, for three hours I watched nothing but the old Ernie Kovacs show. While she was married to Ernie, until he died in a spectacular car crash in West Los Angeles on my 17th birthday, she was in her late twenties and drop-dead gorgeous. The above picture doesn’t do her justice. In the earlier shows on the Dumont and NBC networks, she was cute and obviously in love with her tall Hungarian madman.
Although she had a long and distinguished career in showbiz after the accident, she is buried at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills next to her late husband.
As a child, I remember watching Ernie because, well, we were Hungarians; and Ernie was our hero. I recall Edie as being lovely. Years later, she still is in those old kinescopes.
As Portuguese writer and poet Fernando Pessoa wrote, “The feelings that hurt most, the emotions that sting most, are those that are absurd—The longing for impossible things, precisely because they are impossible; nostalgia for what never was; the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world’s existence. All these half-tones of the soul’s consciousness create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are.”
Bessie Love (1898-1986)
Once again it is Labor Day Weekend in the United States, and Martine and I have celebrated by seeing loads of films and seeing old friends at Cinecon 49 in Hollywood. Among the pictures we saw were:
- The Holy Terror (1937) with Jane Withers
- A Blonde’s Revenge (1926) with Ruth Taylor
- The Good Bad Man (1926) with Douglas Fairbanks Sr and Bessie Love, directed by Allan Dwan
- Transient Lady (1935) with Frances Drake
- Their First Execution (1913) by Mack Sennett
- Suddenly It’s Spring (1947) with Paulette Goddard and Fred MacMurray
Once again, I was impressed how beautiful many of the young actresses were almost a hundred years ago. Bessie Love in The Good Bad Man wasn’t much of an actress, but her beauty was heartbreaking.
Ruth Taylor (1905-1984)
Then there was Ruth Taylor with a small role in the Ben Turpin two-reeler A Blonde’s Revenge. It’s difficult to believe that she was the mother of Buck Henry.
Tomorrow, I’ll have to go in to work to help our computer consultant set up a new file server and seven workstations. But then, on Monday, Martine and I return to Hollywood and Cinecon for more movies.
I have found a definition of the Beautiful, of my own conception of the Beautiful. It is something intense and sad, something a little vague, leaving scope for conjecture. I am ready, if you will, to apply my ideas to a sentient object, to that object, for example, which Society finds the most interesting of all, a woman’s face. A beautiful and seductive head, a woman’s head, I mean, makes one dream, but in a confused fashion, at once of pleasure and of sadness; conveys an idea of melancholy, of lassitude, even of satiety—a contradictory impression, of an ardour, that is to say, and a desire for life together with a bitterness which flows back upon them as if from a sense of deprivation and hopelessness. Mystery and regret are also characteristics of the Beautiful.
A beautiful male head has no need to convey, to the eyes of a man, at any rate—though perhaps to those of a woman—this impression of voluptuousness which, in a woman’s face, is a provocation all the more attractive the more the face is generally melancholy. But this head will also suggest ardours and passions—spiritual longings—ambitions darkly repressed—powers turned to bitterness through lack of employment—traces, sometimes, of a revengeful coldness., … sometimes, also—and this is one of the most interesting characteristics of Beauty—of mystery, and last of all (let me admit the exact point to which I am a modern in my aesthetics) of Unhappiness. I do not pretend that Joy cannot associate with Beauty, but I will maintain that that Joy is one of her most vulgar adornments, while Melancholy may be called an illustrious spouse—so much so that I can scarcely conceive (is my brain a witch’s mirror?) a type of Beauty which has nothing to do with Sorrow. In pursuit of—others might say obsessed by—these ideas, it may be supposed that I have difficulty in not concluding that the most perfect type of manly beauty is Satan—as Milton saw him.—Charles Beaudelaire, Intimate Journals (trans. by Christopher Isherwood)