To be frank with you, I did not know much about Hedy Lamarr and her overlooked contribution before coming to learn about her significant invention a few years ago. While she was one of the most prominent Hollywood actresses during the 1930-40s, she later came to fall into obscurity after the 1960s, and I must confess that the first time I hear about her was when I watched “Blazing Saddles” (1974), which blatantly used her name for one of its many running gags. (“It’s not *Hedy*, it’s *Hedley*. Hedley Lamarr.”)
Illuminating her dramatic life as well as her forgotten genius, documentary film “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” tells us a lot of interesting things about Lamarr, who was not only beautiful as an actress but also quite brilliant as an inventor. While enjoying her considerable success in Hollywood, she invented a technology which turned out to be far more important than expected, but she was unfairly ignored just because of her gender and beauty, and it is often sad to watch how she was never allowed to go further during her life.
At first, the documentary examines Lamarr’s early life in Austria. Born as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, 1914, Lamarr showed considerable interest in science and engineering even when she was young, and her father, who was an affluent Jewish banker, was supportive of his daughter’s growing interest. At one point, Lamarr’s son showed an old music toy which young Lamarr once disassembled and then assembled completely, and you may be amazed to see that this old toy still works even at present.
As she grew up, Lamarr became more conscious of her beauty and how it could draw attentions from others, so she decided to be an actress. Although she was not exactly good in her very early films, her distinctive presence was evident even during that time, and then she became an international star thanks to the sensational success of “Ecstasy” (1933). In that movie, she showed her whole naked body during one particular scene, and that certainly caused lots of stir when it was released, but Lamarr soon came to bounce from her notoriety through a successful stage performance which reconfirmed her star quality.
Around that time, she married her first husband Fritz Mandl, a wealthy industrialist who had been associated with Hitler and Mussolini. While she enjoyed the luxuries of her married life with Mandl at first, she soon became tired of being a trophy wife while also being worried about the growing influence of fascism in Europe, and we hear an amusing anecdote on how she cleverly escaped from her increasingly possessive husband during one day in 1937.
Not long after the end of her first marriage, Lamarr moved to England and tried to restart her acting career. Although she did not speak English much, she was determined to get any good chance, and that was how she came to draw the attention of Louis B. Meyer, who was the head of MGM at that time. Meyer initially thought she was just one of many Jewish performers fleeing from Europe due to the rise of Hitler, but then he changed his mind when she fully demonstrated her star quality in front of him and others, and she soon gained another moment of fame thanks to the big commercial success of “Algiers” (1938).
While subsequently becoming one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood, Lamarr never gave up her interest in science and engineering. Her friend/lover Howard Hughes, who was one of the richest industrialists in US, was willing to provide a space for her ‘hobby’, and he was quite impressed when she later made a smart suggestion on the design of his new airplane in development stage. Thanks to him, she could meet a number of scientists and engineers, and she certainly had fun and excitement while meeting those experts.
Meanwhile, US came to fight in the World War II, and Lamarr came to promote war bonds just like many pretty Hollywood actresses did during that time. Although she was pretty good at that job, she wanted to do more than that for her new country which generously accepted her, and she came to have an ingenious idea on the technological improvement of navy torpedo. While it was possible to control torpedo via radio communication, the communication at a fixed radio frequency could be interrupted by enemy at any point, and she thought that this problem could be solved by ‘hopping’ among many different radio frequencies. With the considerable assistance from an avant-garde composer named George Antheil, she diligently elaborated on her idea, and then they submitted the final result of their collaboration to the US Patent Office.
However, her invention was simply disregarded by the US Navy and then taken away from her later, and her life and career went downhill not long after the end of the war. Although she became popular again thanks to Cecil B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah” (1949), that turned out to be a momentary rise in her later career, and she also struggled with drug addiction as well as a series of failed marriages. At one point, she could have become quite rich as the US military began to utilize her invention, but she unfortunately missed the chance of extending her patent right, and she eventually became a recluse mostly depending on welfare money.
During the 1990s, Lamarr was belatedly recognized for her achievement as receiving the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, and that was a small but nice consolation for Lamarr, who died shortly after the very beginning of the 21st century. Around the end of the documentary, we are told about how many modern technologies of our time including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are actually based on her invention, and you will agree that she really deserves to be recognized far more for that.
Directed and written by Alexandra Dean, “Bombshell: The Heddy Lamarr Stroy” is a modest but engaging documentary which will enlighten you a lot on its subject. After watching it, I came to admire Lamarr and her achievement more, and I also came to reflect on how much more she could have achieved under a better circumstance. She was clearly a woman ahead of her time, and I am certainly appreciating her contribution as posting this review on my blog via Wi-Fi right now.