One of those odd bits of trivia that has seeped into public consciousness lately – there was even an episode of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow TV series built around the factoid – is that the wireless communications technology upon which all manner of mobile devices depend was invented by Hollywood movie star Hedy Lamarr. In fact, people know this who would be hard pressed to name any of the films that made Lamarr famous … and this clips and talking heads biodoc gives relatively short shrift to a career that essentially consisted of four or five varieties of camp, from the notorious Austrian Ecstasy (famous for a nude romp and a breathy orgasm) to the likes of Algiers (following Boyer into the Casbah), White Cargo (as boot polished island princess Tondelayo), and Samson and Delilah (second only to Gone With the Wind at the 1940s box office, but seldom revived even in fun). Glamour stills and snippets of gorgeously-shot cinema establish that she was indeed one of the world’s most beautiful women in the ‘30s and ‘40s, with a distinctive centre parting – what a shame her Hollywood career found her in middlebrow MGM or deMille tosh rather than let loose on screwball comedy or film noir.
Writer-director Alexandra Dean as much as admits that Lamarr’s lasting star rep is based on jokes – she interviews Mel Brooks, who did a gag about her name (which wasn’t her own – she was born Hedwig Kiesler) in Blazing Saddles and reminisces about boyhood fantasies of taking her on a date a ‘feeling her up under the table’ which sound a hideously wrong note this season. Groucho Marx’s cruder remark, re Victor Mature’s Samson, that he avoids films ‘where the hero’s tits are bigger than the heroine’ is not rehashed, but we do get a glimpse of Lucille Ball parodying Tondelayo, and comments to the effect that Ms Lamarr was not best pleased at becoming a punchline. The meat of the doc isn’t the showbiz, but the science – though Dean at least raises the issue that some suggest Lamarr didn’t hit on her big idea (‘frequency hopping’) but smuggled it out of Austria (where her industrialist father’s laboratories might have been working on it) and took credit, before settling on the much more nuanced story that the wartime patent, which was to do with a gadget for detecting enemy submarines, was the result of a sudden burst of hobbyist enthusiasm in collaboration with the composer Georges Antheil.
The subsequent story is that she turned over the process to the Navy, who basically told her she’d do more for the war effort by selling kisses for bonds and sat on the whole thing, eventually employing the tech in more and more sophisticated ways … while the patent expired and Lamarr found herself unable to cash in on the sort of breakthrough that these days would found a Microsoft. At the same time, she was becoming tabloid fodder through brief marriages, drug problems, plastic surgery and the ignominy of being fired by Bert I Gordon from Picture Mommy Dead and replaced by Zsa Zsa Gabor, who so far as we know never invented anything. Late in her life, she made a rambling autobiographical phone call to the Wall Street Journal’s Fleming Meeks, which was recorded and at least gives this film her actual voice amid those of relatives, biographers and experts. Ironically, I’ve seen two films this month which chronicle a life that ended in shambles with posthumous vindication thanks to the widespread adoption of a radio/radar-related invention – the other is Simon Rumley’s biopic Crowhurst. The flip of association, whereby Lamarr’s first search result in the group consciousness of the world isn’t Harvey Korman seething in Blazing Saddles but as the mother of WiFi, is strong and strange enough to justify this feature-length study. Next up, I suspect, will be the awards bid film biopic.