Top Ten Hedy Lamarr Films
Hedy Lamarr was commonly known as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” When the Viennese actress made her US debut in the movie Algiers, it was said that audiences gasped when they first saw her face. Before that, she had gained international attention by scandalously appearing nude in the controversial Austrian film Ecstasy. Most likely because of this early controversy, Hedy became best known for playing femme fatales and exotic beauties. At the height of her fame, she was considered to be the epitome of glamour and it has even been claimed that the design of Disney’s Snow White was inspired by her.
But, unbeknownst to the general public at the time, Hedy Lamarr was a lot more than a pretty face. Today she has become known not only for her work as an actress but, also, for her work as a brilliant (largely self-taught) inventor. Privately, Hedy was constantly dabbling in the sciences and considered inventing her hobby. She even helped Howard Hughes redesign his airplanes to be more aerodynamic while the two were dating. But Hedy’s most pivotal invention was the idea that is known as frequency-hopping spread spectrum. This game-changing technology was developed by Hedy alongside composer George Antheil with the intention of it being used for Allied torpedoes during World War II. However, her invention ended up having a much bigger impact than that, laying the groundwork for both Bluetooth technology and Wi-Fi. Later in life, Hedy was finally recognized for her scientific achievements, but she had mostly retreated from public life by that time. In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Indeed, it seems the full impact of Hedy’s influence on modern technology is only now being fully realized and if hearing about Hedy’s legacy as an inventor has also made you curious about her legacy as an actress, you’ve come to the right place.
Keep in mind that I chose the order of the top ten films by considering their importance in Hedy’s overall career, as well as the size/importance of her role in them. I also took into account their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover that your favorite Hedy Lamarr film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
Top 10 Hedy Lamarr Films
- Samson and Delilah
- H.M. Pulham, Esq.
- Ziegfeld Girl
- The Strange Woman
- Experiment Perilous
- The Conspirators
- Tortilla Flat
- Dishonored Lady
- Copper Canyon
1. "Samson and Delilah" (1949)
The single most successful film of Hedy’s career, Samson and Delilah is also the movie that she continues to be best remembered for. Directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille, the movie is a lavish retelling of the famous biblical story with Hedy and Victor Mature in the title roles of Delilah and Samson. The film is also partially based on the historical fiction novel Judge and Fool by Vladimir Jabotinsky, which expanded on the story of Samson and Delilah (one of the novel’s biggest contributions to the movie is the added backstory of Delilah being the sister of Samson’s wife). DeMille had actually been interested in doing a filmed version of Samson and Delilah since at least 1935 (he even had historian/screenwriter Harold Lamb write a film treatment for it), but other film projects kept it on the back burner for over 10 years. For the role of Delilah, DeMille had envisioned an actress who would be a combination of Vivien Leigh, Jean Simmons, and Lana Turner. After seeing Hedy in the movie The Strange Woman, he knew she fit the bill perfectly. Originally, DeMille wanted Burt Lancaster or bodybuilder Steve Reeves for the part of Samson but, when they both fell through, he choose Victor Mature on the strength of his performance in the film Kiss of Death. Unfortunately, DeMille did not end up getting along with Mature on set. Mature was terrified of many of the film’s special effects (sword fights, wild animals, wind machines, etc) and DeMille quickly grew frustrated with the actor’s hesitation. Despite the troubles behind the scenes, the film turned out beautifully in the end, winning well-deserved Oscars for both Art Direction and Costume Design. DeMille had even intended on filming on location in Israel but, unfortunately, the Arab-Israeli War ended up making that impossible.
2. "H.M. Pulham, Esq." (1941)
Adapted from the novel by John P. Marquand, H.M. Pulham, Esq. tells the story of Harry Pulham (Robert Young), a born and bred Bostonian who lives a highly regimented life with his wife and children as a respected member of proper New England society. In preparation for his 25 year college reunion, Harry is roped into writing up bios for all of his former classmates. So, he decides to start by writing his own. But as Harry looks back at his life since college, he begins to realize that he has become dissatisfied with the predictable and conventional nature of his current life. This train of thought causes him to question whether he has really found true happiness or if he may have, unintentionally, let it slip by. Is he really living the life he wanted or just living the life he was expected to have? The answer to these questions ultimately hinges on Harry’s feelings towards a former work colleague from New York City: the beautiful and vivacious Marvin Myles (Hedy). At the time H.M. Pulham, Esq. was made, the book it was based on was massively popular so, there was a great deal of pressure to get the story right. Dramatic, romantic and complicated, this is a movie that gives no straight answers with a plot that never turns out quite the way you expect it will. The film was written and directed by prolific director King Vidor, who actually co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Elizabeth Hill Vidor. Hedy, for her part, gives one of the best performances of her career as forthright career woman Marvin Myles and her performance was singled out by many reviewers at the time. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that H.M. Pulham, Esq. has often been cited as Hedy’s personal favorite of her career.
3. "Algiers" (1938)
Hedy’s very first American film was, also, the movie that made her into an instant star. An American remake of the French film Pepe Le Moko (which is itself based on the novel of the same name by Henri La Barthe), the story of Algiers revolves around notorious international jewel thief Pepe Le Moko (Charles Boyer), who has taken up residence in a labyrinthian section of Algiers known as “the Casbah”. So far, the lawlessness and maze-like nature of the Casbah has kept Pepe protected from the authorities (even when they know he’s there). However, when Pepe finds a kindred spirit in the beautiful Gaby (Hedy), a visiting tourist and fellow French native, the Casbah starts to feel less like a sanctuary and more like a prison. Very successful when it was first released, Algiers ended up having a big influence on the screenwriters of Casablanca. The leading role of Ilsa in Casablanca was even written with Hedy in mind, but when MGM refused to loan her to Warner Bros for filming, Ingrid Bergman was cast instead. Hedy’s costar in Algiers, Charles Boyer, was, actually, instrumental in getting her cast as his leading lady. After meeting her at an industry party and listening to her worries about never being cast in anything, he lobbied heavily for her to be cast in the role of Gaby. When production started, Hedy was quite inexperienced (and still struggling with her English) so, she depended very much on Boyer and director John Cromwell to help her through. Watching the finished film, you would never know.
4. "Ziegfeld Girl" (1941)
This entertaining musical drama was intended as a spiritual sequel to the Oscar-winning 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld Girl, actually incorporates footage from The Great Ziegfeld in it, connecting it even more firmly into the universe of that earlier film. While The Great Ziegfeld told the life story of Florenz Ziegfeld, himself, Ziegfeld Girl focuses on the girls that were so iconic and essential to Ziegfeld’s shows. Hedy, actually, specifically requested to be cast in Ziegfeld Girl because, she believed it would be a refreshing change of pace from the steamy dramas she usually worked on. The film’s plot follows three of Ziegfeld’s newest showgirls as they each navigate the trappings of success, which will, eventually, lead them to either happiness or despair. Hedy plays the role of Sandra Kolter, a stunning woman married to a talented (but, struggling) concert violinist. While waiting for her husband to finish his audition for the Ziegfeld Follies, Susan is, unexpectedly, approached by one of Ziegfeld’s talent scouts. Needless to say, by the end of the day, Susan walks away with a job, but her husband does not, and her newfound career quickly begins to drive a wedge between them. Judy Garland plays the role of Susan Gallagher, a second generation vaudevillian who performs in an act with her father and has been actively trying to convince Ziegfeld to let them audition for the Follies. But, Ziegfeld Girl really belongs to Lana Turner, whose breakout role as Sheila Regan marked a turning point for her career. Sheila is discovered by Ziegfeld while working at her job as an elevator operator and her sudden change of fortune soon puts a damper on her relationship with her truck driver boyfriend, Gil (played by Jimmy Stewart). This film would, actually, prove to be Jimmy Stewart’s last performance before beginning his decorated military service in WWII. He would not return to acting until his iconic performance in It’s A Wonderful Life five years later.
5. "The Strange Woman" (1946)
Based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams, this 1800s-set film noir was, actually, produced by Hedy, herself. Set in 1820s Bangor, Maine, The Strange Woman stars Hedy as Jenny Hagen, a strong-willed and manipulative woman from the wrong side of the tracks. Raised by an abusive and alcoholic father, Jenny seeks sanctuary at the home of wealthy Isaiah Poster after a particularly brutal beating leads to her father dying of a heart attack. Both smitten by her beauty and sympathetic to her plight, Isaiah offers to marry Jenny to provide her with a better life. Jenny happily accepts since this had secretly been her hope when she chose to run to Isaiah’s home in the first place. However, Isaiah’s college-aged son, Ephraim, used to be Jenny’s childhood sweetheart and when he returns home from college, she encourages the flirtation between them to continue even after her marriage to his father. Then, Jenny meets John Evered (George Sanders), the foreman of her husband’s timber business and the fiancé of her friend, Meg. Jenny falls for John immediately, but with a husband and a lover already in play, this new attraction could lead to disaster for everyone involved, including Jenny. Without a doubt, playing complicated femme fatale Jenny Hagen provided Hedy with one of the best roles she ever had, resulting in one of her strongest performances. It is, also, a treat to see the usually villainous (or at least, sardonic) George Sanders have the rare opportunity to appear as a more sympathetic leading man. It was, actually, their performances in this film that ultimately convinced director Cecil B. DeMille to cast both of them in the epic Samson and Delilah.
6. "Experiment Perilous" (1944)
One of my personal favorites of Hedy’s career, this gothic drama is based on the novel by Margaret Carpenter and directed by Jacques Tourneur (best known for his work on the atmospheric horror film Cat People). Set in 1903, the film stars George Brent as Dr. Huntington Bailey, a psychiatrist traveling to NYC by train. While on the train, he happens to strike up a conversation with a sweet older woman named Cissie Bederaux, who is traveling to stay with her wealthy younger brother, Nick (Paul Lukas), and his wife, Allida (Hedy). Cissie mentions that she is secretly writing a biography about her brother and shows some concern about how Allida has been doing in her absence. She’s, also, oddly insistent that she doesn’t actually want to stay at her brother’s home so, Bailey suggests she get a room at the same hotel he will be checking into. Once they arrive in NYC, the two train companions part ways with the expectation that they might see each other at the hotel later. However, it’s not long before Bailey hears that Cissie died suddenly of a heart attack shortly after arriving at her brother’s home. Naturally, Bailey is suspicious, but after he, actually, meets Nick and the fragile Allida, he will be pulled much deeper into this gothic mystery than he ever intended. The always beautiful Hedy has never looked more lovely than in this stunning period piece and after becoming known for playing sophisticates and femme fatales, the delicate character of Allida is a welcome departure for her. The film’s title is, actually, taken from a line attributed to Hippocrates which is quoted in the film as: “Life is short, art is long, decision difficult, and experiment perilous”. One of the more memorable visuals of Experiment Perilous is the very distinctive row of aquariums Nick keeps in his home. In the film, it prompts a character to say “it looks like something out of Jules Verne”. In a hilarious coincidence, Paul Lukas would end up starring in the definitive film version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 10 years later.
7. "The Conspirators" (1944)
Based on the novel by Frederic Prokosch, this World War II spy drama stars Hedy opposite Paul Henried. Henreid plays the role of Vincent Van Der Lyn, a Dutch resistance fighter and saboteur (earning himself the nickname “The Flying Dutchman”), who is forced to flee to England to escape the Nazis. However, before he can get safely to England, Vincent has to first pass through Lisbon (a neutral country). Unfortunately, the lack of a German exit stamp on his passport immediately arouses the suspicion of German agents and Vincent’s fellow resistance fighters in Lisbon suspect that there might be a traitor in their midst, as well. Hedy plays the role of Irene Von Mohr, a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp who, it seems, may be a spy herself, but Vincent isn't entirely certain for which side. Quite a few cast members from the classic Casablanca made it into the cast of The Conspirators. The film features, not only Paul Henreid, but also Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet in major roles. Originally, even Ingrid Bergman was considered for the role of Irene, but it was Hedy who ended up winning the role this time. Strangely enough, celebrated author Ayn Rand was, actually, asked to help write some of The Conspirators' love scenes. However, it seems that only a few of her lines actually made it into the final film.
8. "Tortilla Flat" (1942)
Based on the novel by John Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat centers around a small community in Monterey, CA wherein most of the residents are direct descendants of the European/Spanish immigrants who had originally settled the area. Within this community there exists what the locals call “paisanos” (literally meaning “countrymen”). The “paisanos”, in this case, are effectively gypsies, living off the land with no property or major possessions to speak of. But, when one particular paisano, Danny (John Garfield), is unexpectedly informed that he has just inherited two houses from his grandfather, it doesn’t take long for his opportunistic friend, Pilon (Spencer Tracy), to take advantage of the situation. Pilon soon convinces/guilts Danny into letting more and more of their paisano friends move into his second house. However, when that house accidentally burns down, Danny ends up with more roommates than he ever expected. Meanwhile, Danny has, also, been trying his best to woo the lovely Dolores “Sweets” Ramirez (Hedy), a local girl who works at the cannery. But, Dolores is not a fan of Danny’s freeloading friends and Pilon is, most certainly, not a fan of her. Directed by Victor Fleming, this film version of Tortilla Flat varies a bit from the original novel, which is a little more episodic in nature (Steinbeck, actually, took his inspiration from the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table). The film takes the novel’s multiple plots and adapts them into something more cohesive with a more straightforward story arc. Surprisingly, the biggest standout in Tortilla Flat is, actually, an unrecognizable Frank Morgan who gives an endearingly moving performance in his Oscar nominated role as the Pirate. The Pirate is an elderly paisano who lives alone with only his pack of loyal dogs for company. Yet, the other paisanos know that the Pirate has been earning money for years but, mysteriously never spending it. The real story of what the Pirate has been doing with his money and why is unlike anything the other paisanos could have ever guessed.
9. "Dishonored Lady" (1947)
Based on the 1930 play by Edward Sheldon and Margaret Ayer Barnes, Dishonored Lady stars Hedy as Madeleine Damien, the art department editor of a successful NYC magazine who happens to have earned quite a party girl reputation, as well. After a nervous breakdown leads to a serendipitous meeting with a psychiatrist, Madeleine starts to realize how truly unhappy she is and that she’s turned into a person she doesn’t really want to be. So, in a sudden and drastic move, Madeleine cuts all ties from her current life and starts fresh by working as a painter in a small apartment under the name “Madeleine Dixon”. Madeleine falls in love with her new quieter life and even starts a relationship with her handsome scientist neighbor, David Cousins. But, Madeleine can’t hide from her old life forever and when it returns in violent fashion, it’s unclear whether her relationship with David can survive the fallout. Dishonored Lady, actually, marks the one and only time Hedy was given the chance to work opposite her then-husband, John Loder, who plays the role of Madeleine’s sleazy former paramour, Felix Courtland. The final filmed version of this movie ended up being wildly different from the play on which it was based and even the original first draft of the script. Many plot lines and scenes had to be omitted at the request of the Hays Office, which means that many of Madeleine’s party girl antics end up being only vaguely referred to. Originally, the story, actually, included another lover named Moreno, an affair in Mexico City, and even “unsavory” references to Madeleine’s family.
10. "Copper Canyon" (1950)
A rare Western in Hedy's career, Copper Canyon is set during the Reconstruction era in a small Western city that’s been dubbed “Coppertown” due to its nearby copper mines. Recently, a small number of Southerners (aka former residents of the Confederacy) have made their home in Coppertown to find work in the mine and start fresh. But, other residents of the town do not appreciate their presence. Many lost family members during the Civil War and, understandably, harbor a deep-seated hatred for the Confederacy. One of the most vocal and antagonistic of this faction is the sheriff’s deputy, Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey). He and his supporters still see Southerners as “Rebels” and have no problem doing whatever is necessary to communicate to any former Southerners that they are unwelcome and unsafe in Coppertown. Hedy plays the role of Lisa Roselle, a saloon hostess and gambler, who has been siding with her lover, Lane Travis, in this conflict so far. Ray Milland plays Johnny Carter, a vaudeville sharp-shooter and former Confederate soldier who claims to have been merely a corporal in the army but, may or may not have, actually, been a decorated colonel. Shot partially on location in Flagstaff, Arizona and the Vasquez Rocks National Park in Los Angeles County, this enjoyable Western features a charismatic performance by Ray Milland, who (like Hedy) was not an actor known for Westerns. The studio timed the release of this film to coincide with the release of the song “Copper Canyon”, which was a minor hit for singer Teresa Brewer. Longtime soap opera fans will probably recognize MacDonald Carey as Lane Travis from his more famous role as Tom Horton on Days Of Our Lives. Carey would play the lead role on the soap for almost 30 years until his death in 1994. His iconic voice-over is still used to this day before each episode: “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives”.
Honorable Mention: "White Cargo" (1942)
For my honorable mention, I decided to choose one of the most successful movies of Hedy’s career which, also, features one of her most famous roles. White Cargo is based on the play by Leon Gordon, which was itself based on the novel Hell’s Playground by Ida Vera Simonton. Told through flashbacks to 1910, the film tells the story of four men living and working at an isolated rubber plantation deep in the African jungle. These four men consist of the owner of the plantation, Harry Witzel (Walter Pidgeon), a doctor, a missionary, and Harry’s newest employee, Langford, who has just arrived for a four-year stint on the plantation. The three older men are convinced that Langford won’t be able to handle life in the African jungle and Tondelayo (Hedy) might prove them right. Tondelayo is an infamously amoral local woman previously banned from the plantation grounds who has recently reappeared. She, immediately, sets her sights on Langford, who is not yet wise to her seductive ways. A triangle of love and hate, eventually, ensues, creating a dangerous scenario for everyone involved. Tondelayo is the ultimate femme fatale role, a siren bound to doom anyone she zeros in on. Harry does his best to warn newcomers about her but, it’s useless. They all fall under her spell in the end. In the original play, Tondelayo is a native African woman, however, the censors would not allow a “mixed race” relationship to be portrayed onscreen. Therefore, Tondelayo was rewritten as a Middle-Eastern (specifically Egyptian/Arab) woman to avoid controversy. Adapted for the screen by the original playwright, the play White Cargo was originally placed on a “condemned list” that the Production Code maintained, designating sources that should not even be considered for film adaptation. Despite eventually being approved by the censors, the film still managed to make the Legion of Decency’s condemned list and was even banned in both Singapore and Trinidad.
And if you would like to learn more about the brilliant Hedy Lamarr, I recommend the book, Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Michael Shearer. Or if you’re a fan of historical fiction, check out the novel The Only Woman In The Room by Marie Benedict for an entertaining fictional take on the fascinating life of Hedy Lamarr.
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