ByMark Newton, writer at
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

If you were on Google earlier this week -- and let's face it, you were -- you may have spotted a Google Doodle which celebrates the life of one of Hollywood's most iconic actresses.

Hedy Lamarr, an actress of the golden age of cinema, would have been 101 years old this week, although simply calling her an actress might be something of a misnomer. As well as appearing in films, Lamarr also applied her incredible intellect to a series of scientific and technological endeavors, which eventually earned her a place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame and practically every household in America.

Hedy The Actress

Even as an actress, Lamarr broke ground and took cinema in new, and sometimes controversial, directions. While working in Germany in the early 1930s, Lamarr (then named Hedy Kiesler) appeared in the Czech/German film, Ecstasy, which caused quite a stir at the time.

Although often inaccurately referred to as the first film to feature nudity, Ecstasy did probably feature the first cinematic scene of sexual intercourse and the first portrayal of female orgasm -- the latter of which confused many of the more naive and incredulous husbands in the world at the time. The film caused her career in Europe to skyrocket, with influential director Max Reinhardt naming her the "most beautiful woman in Europe," a view shared by many.

The film was particularly seized upon by censorship and religious groups in America. The Catholic Legion of Decency condemned it as morally objectionable, while Joseph Breen of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America claimed it was "highly — even dangerously — indecent." Due to this, Ecstasy was only released in America in 1940, and then only on a limited basis. Which version you could see, largely depended on your local censorship board.

Another individual not satisfied with the movie was Lamarr's first husband, Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy Austrian arms manufacturer and someone who, by all accounts, seems like a massive douche. Mandl was a prominent fascist attached to the Austrofacsist movement. He was opposed to Hitler, but only because he felt Austria should have its own fascist government and not share one with Germany. However, following the Anschluss between Germany and Austria in 1938, Mandl increasingly moved towards Nazism and, according to Lamarr's autobiography, even fraternized with Hitler and Mussolini at parties.

Lamarr and Mandl
Lamarr and Mandl

He was incredibly controlling of Lamarr, and apparently tried to sabotage her acting career (which was increasingly giving her independence) by attempting to buy up every copy of Ecstasy in existence. Lamarr would eventually have to escape from Mandl by, reportedly, hiring a maid that looked just like her, drugging the maid and stealing her uniform.

She fled to Paris in 1937 where she met American talent scout Louis B. Mayer. He suggested she change her name, as in America she was only known as "the Ecstasy lady." She decided to choose Lamarr in homage to the beautiful silent movie star, Barbara La Marr.

She moved to the US in 1938 and soon appeared in Algiers with Charles Boyer. The movie was a massive success, with many viewers and critics once again commenting on her beauty. According to one viewer, when she appeared on screen, "everyone gasped...Lamarr's beauty literally took one's breath away."

She would continue to star opposite some of the most famous leading men of the time, including Spencer Tracey and Clark Gable, but was invariably type-cast as the mysterious and exotic seductress. From 1950 onwards, her career began to decline with only the occasional critically acclaimed hit.

Hedy The Inventor

Lamarr's other, arguably now more famous and influential, call to fame was as a director. Her early inventions were an improved traffic stoplight and a tablet which dissolved in water to create a carbonated drink, although the outbreak of war gave her new inspiration.

Along with composer George Antheil, Lamarr wanted to contribute to the fight against Nazism by developing a jam-proof radio guidance system for torpedoes. They had discovered that the current radio guiding mechanisms used by the Navy to control torpedoes could easily be jammed, causing the torpedo to go off course. Using her knowledge of torpedoes -- gained from her first husband -- and Antheil's knowledge of frequency, they developed new frequency-hopping spread-spectrum technology. The device, which worked similarly to a piano roll, was patented in 1942, although it was never adopted by the military.

At the time, the Navy was not receptive to ideas coming from outside the military and also felt Lamarr and Antheil's design was too expensive and complex to introduce. Instead, Charles F. Kettering, a member of the National Inventors Council, told Lamarr she could better serve the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell War Bonds -- debt securities used to fundraise in times of war.

This Lamarr did with a sailor, Eddie Rhodes. At each fundraising event, Lamarr would call Rhodes onto the stage and agree only to kiss him once enough war bonds had ben purchased. The idea proved to be highly successful.

Although her invention was not used in World War II, by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, her frequency hopping technology was installed in US naval vessels. However, perhaps even more importantly, Lamarr and Antheil's invention paved the way for today's spread-spectrum communications technology, which includes GPS, Bluetooth, cell phones and Wi-Fi networks.

The patent of Lamarr and Antheil's invention.
The patent of Lamarr and Antheil's invention.

Their contribution was awarded only much later in Lamarr's life. In 1997, they received the EFF Pioneer Award (posthumously for Antheil) for making a significant contribution to computer sciences, while they were also both posthumously entered into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

Later Life

Unfortunately, much of Lamarr's later life was not filled with the achievement she enjoyed in the 1930s and '40s. From the 1960s and '70s onwards, she increasingly appeared in headlines for negative reasons, including a shoplifting arrest in 1966 (and then again in 1991). She also failed to return to the big screen, having been replaced in 1966's Picture Mommy Dead by Zsa Zsa Gabor. Indeed, her autobiography (which was partly ghost-written) starts with:

On a recent evening, sitting home alone suffering and brooding about my treatment at the police station because of an incident in a department store, and being replaced by Zsa Zsa Gabor in a motion picture (imagine how that pleased the ego!) I figured out that I had made – and spent – some thirty million dollars. Yet earlier that day I had been unable to pay for a sandwich at Schwab's drug store.

She would become increasingly secluded for the rest of her life, only really communicating with the outside world via the telephone.

However, despite the circumstances of her later life, Lamarr's career and brilliance in several fields certainly makes her time on this Earth one worth celebrating.


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