This posting is my contribution to the Marathon Stars Blogathon hosted by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema and Crystal at The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood blogs. Please do visit and read the other postings!
The challenge for the Marathon Stars Blogathon was to watch 5 films featuring a star whom I’d only seen in up to 3 movies previously. I found it quite difficult to pick someone, since often as soon as I notice an actor I rush to see as many of their films as possible, promptly ruling them out for this particular blogathon!
However, I realised I had seen just two films starring Hedy Lamarr, and that she had made a favourable impression on me in both. She is on something of a hiding to nothing in Algiers (John Cromwell, 1938), which is almost a frame by frame remake of the great French drama Pépé le Moko, made only a year earlier – but she still gives a good performance. However, the film I had really liked her in was Come Live With Me (Clarence Brown, 1941), a bitter-sweet romantic comedy where she plays a Viennese exile in the US who gradually falls for awkward young writer James Stewart. That’s still probably my favourite of hers even after seeing the 5 new-to-me films that I’ve watched for this marathon, which covered a range of genres and were all highly enjoyable.
Hedy Lamarr was born in Austria in 1914 and trained in the theatre in Germany as a teenager, working with the legendary Max Reinhardt, before returning to Vienna to embark on a film career. She made her name by starring in the controversial film Extase, made in Prague, which led to offers from Hollywood. Lamarr tends to be described as a great beauty and her acting talent is too often overlooked, but her range of work shows that she was so much more than a pretty face. She is also now remembered as an inventor, after she was involved in pioneering a radio communications system which showed the way forward for today’s wi-fi.
Anyway, here are the details of the 5 films I watched for the blogathon.
Extase/Ecstasy ( Gustav Machatý, 1932): Not currently available on DVD, but available to watch at YouTube without subtitles. I believe a subtitled print is occasionally shown on US TCM. This controversial Czech-Austrian production was the film which made the 18-year-old Hedy Lamarr – then known as Eddy/Hedy Kiesler – into a star, so it seemed like a good place to start my marathon viewing of her roles.The film features nudity and was one of the first to show a sexual encounter between a couple, though it focuses on their faces during the scene, and got into a lot of trouble with the censors as a result, only getting a US release in a truncated form in 1940.
However, despite these controversies at the time of release, the most striking thing about the film now is its beauty, with haunting, atmospheric cinematography which owes a lot to the Weimar era. This should appeal to anybody who appreciates films such as Sunrise. The film has the same mood as Machatý’s earlier silent work, Erotikon, also about illicit love. Most of this film is silent, with melancholy music, but there is a small amount of post-dubbed German dialogue in the version I saw online, reconstructed by the Austrian Film Archive. I haven’t managed to find a print with subtitles, but fortunately I understand German well enough to follow.
Lamarr stars as a young bride, Eva, carried across the threshold by her much older husband at the start of the film. However, as she eagerly awaits for her wedding night, her husband, Emile (Zvonimir Rogoz) shows a complete lack of interest and during the succeeding weeks and months he completely neglects her. There are many shots of flowers wilting in their vases and other sexual symbols putting across the fact that Eva is lonely and frustrated – and Lamarr’s facial expressions in the many close-ups express this too. There are also many shots of insects all through the film, and I’m not always sure what the significance is of these. A bee pollinating a flower is clear enough, but there are also many flies looking threatening and disease-ridden.
Eventually Eva runs away and goes home to her father. While she is swimming in the nude at a nearby pond (the print I saw shows her through leaves in the trees, so that some of the nudity is obscured), her horse runs away. She chases after it, and is rescued by a handsome young engineer who just happens to be called Adam (Aribert Mog). Soon the young couple are involved in a passionate relationship, but Emile turns up wanting his wife back, and refusing to accept that it is all too late. The ending of the film is rather puzzling and doesn’t make a lot of sense, featuring a homage to workers which is beautifully shot but doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the movie.
The Heavenly Body (Alexander Hall and Vincente Minnelli, 1944): Available on DVR from Warner Archive in the US, and was also on YouTube at time of posting. This was the second romantic comedy Lamarr made with William Powell, and they are great fun together, even though the plot is very silly. The leering title actually refers to the stars in the sky. Powell plays a dedicated astronomer, Bill, who works at night and sleeps in the day, blithely neglecting his wife, Vicky (Lamarr).
She is persuaded by a neighbour, the dotty Nancy (Spring Byington) to take advice from an astrologer – much to the disgust of her husband. However, rather than ranting about how ridiculous horoscopes are in general, he’d do better to worry about the specific predictions which the astrologer in question, Mrs Sibyll (Fay Bainter) comes up with. She tells Vicky that it’s her destiny to break up with her husband and fall in love with a new man from afar – so, when air raid warden Lloyd (James Craig) turns up telling her to put that light out, she wonders if he is the one.
Even in a frothy comedy, it’s very hard to believe that anyone would consider breaking up their marriage for the sake of a horoscope. But, if you can avoid worrying about the plot too much, there is some amusing dialogue and Powell has some good bewildered slapstick scenes, especially one where his character supposedly gets drunk for the first time ever with some Russian visitors.
Lamarr wears a breathtaking succession of gowns by Irene, but doesn’t really get enough to do in this film – according to the imdb, Joan Crawford was originally offered the part and said later: “It was about a girl who stands around and does nothing. I told the studio to give the part to Hedy Lamarr.” Ouch.
Experiment Perilous (Jacques Tourneur, 1944): Available on DVD from Odeon Entertainment in the UK/region 2, and on DVR from Warner Archive in the US. It’s also showing on the US TCM on March 15 2016, at 2pm ET. With Tourneur as director, I wondered if this might be a noir like Out of the Past, made three years later. However, despite having atmospheric and shadowy photography by Tony Gaudio which at times gives a noirish atmosphere, it’s more of a Gothic melodrama. A spate of dramas made around this time featured marital terror, with the two versions of Gaslight and Hitchcock’s Rebecca being the best known.
Experiment Perilous is another in the same vein, bearing many similarities to Gaslight in particular. Based on a novel by Margaret Carpenter, it’s a period piece, set at the turn of the century, although this time the setting is in America. Lamarr gets top billing and her eerily quiet performance is probably the most memorable in the film, but George Brent actually has a lot more screen time, as the psychiatrist who becomes increasingly concerned for her. There is quite a lot of voiceover from Brent, which is another noirish element. The story partly unfolds in flashback, after Dr Huntingdon Bailey (Brent) meets a nervous elderly woman, Cissie (Olive Blakeney) on a train and she confides in him about the domestic troubles of her brother and his young wife. Cissie says she is devoted to Nick – so what is she so afraid of?
As in the original UK film of Gaslight, the sinister husband has a German accent, so war-time fears feed into the portrayal. Here, Paul Lukas takes the role of Austrian philanthropist Nick Bederaux, who finds a beautiful young girl, Allida (Lamarr) in the Vermont countryside, whirls her away to Europe to mould her, Pygmalion style, and then marries her. Lamarr manages to speak with hardly a hint of her own Austrian accent, but she looks very different here from her younger self in Extase. Here, it’s hard to believe that her sophisticated beauty is just a veneer and that underneath she is still a country girl who longs to run free in meadows full of daisies.
Lamarr, Lukas and Brent all give good performances, but the script is very weak in places and at times the story becomes increasingly hard to swallow. The film did get an Oscar nomination for its art direction, which was well deserved, with the Gothic house in particular looking amazing. But I’d have to say overall this struck me as a watered-down version of Gaslight.
Dishonored Lady (Robert Stevenson, 1947): This film has fallen into the public domain, so there are many cheap DVDs available and it is also available to watch free online. Since I came across this drama in a cheap ‘Femmes Fatales’ box set, I expected it to be a noir – but, although it certainly has noirish elements, for my money it doesn’t quite fit the genre. Overall it feels too sweet and contains too much comedy for that, partly because the censors insisted on cuts to the script, and maybe also because the director was Robert Stevenson, who went on to direct Mary Poppins. Anyway, I enjoyed this one and found it very watchable.
I didn’t realise until after seeing the film that it is adapted from a play based on a famous scandal in 19th-century Scotland, the murder trial involving Madeleine Smith. The case also inspired David Lean’s Madeleine and the controversial pre-Code Letty Lynton – a film which isn’t available anywhere because of a long-running copyright dispute.
Anyway, in this version the story is updated and brought to New York, where, at the start, brilliant but reckless Hungarian party girl Madeleine Damien (Lamarr) is working as an art director at a magazine. Although she is good at her job, she is under pressure because her bosses expect her to be “nice” to clients and advertisers.
Lamarr’s real-life husband at the time, John Loder, plays the sinister Felix Courtland, a major advertiser who pursues Madeleine relentlessly. I’d previously seen Loder as a handsome leading man in earlier British films, and was surprised to see him in such an unappealing role here, though he is very good as a charmer turned stalker.
After Madeleine comes close to a breakdown and attempts suicide, a psychiatrist persuades her to change her life completely. She takes on a new identity, moves to another area and starts work as an artist. Madeleine meets a charming young scientist, David Cousins (Dennis O’Keefe), and is soon enjoying unglamorous dates with him at local diners or helping him with his pet mice – worlds away from her glitzy nightlife in Manhattan. However, she is afraid that her past will come back to haunt her – and it does. I won’t give away any more of the plot. Lamarr has a chance to show her versatility in this film because Madeleine is almost like two different characters, and I also really liked Dennis O’Keefe, who reminds me a bit of James Cagney – this is the first film I’ve seen him in but won’t be the last.
Samson and Delilah (Cecil B. DeMille, 1949): Available on both DVD and Blu-ray in region 1/US, and also in region 2 in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. There’s no UK release, but it is available on instant video from Amazon.co.uk, which is where I saw it. I couldn’t resist watching this glossy spectacular after seeing the new Coen Brothers movie Hail Caesar, which spoofs this type of Biblical epic. Partly based on a novel by Vladimir Jabotinsky, the film follows the course of the Bible story, but expands on it. For instance, it turns Delilah into a jealous younger sister who is full of anger when Samson marries her older sister, Semadar (played by Angela Lansbury, who was actually 10 years younger than Hedy Lamarr!) The way this story unfolds makes Delilah’s love-hate relationship with Samson, and her determination to be revenged on him, slightly more believable, though some elements are still difficult to swallow.
According to the TCM article on the film, a host of famous actresses were auditioned for the part of Delilah before DeMille finally decided on Lamarr. Her beauty looks as striking as ever, but there’s no getting away from the fact that she is a little too old for the part. So is Victor Mature, also in his mid-30s, but Technicolor is maybe a little kinder to his hunky figure. His version of Samson is reminiscent of Tarzan in his feats of strength, and also at times reminded me of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, especially when he lies in wait to rob the passing Normans, er, Philistines, and give their money to the poor! I’ve also just come across a review which describes him as a superhero, an interesting modern take.
Anyway, the central couple look gorgeous and it’s easy to see why the film won Oscars for best colour art direction and costume. But it’s impossible to take their romance seriously for a moment, and the emotions are all wildly grandiose, as is DeMille’s narration. For my money the acting credits in this one go to George Sanders as the Saran of Gaza, a prince who is the rival for Delilah’s love. He if anything underplays his part, in contrast to just about everyone else.
Unfortunately, the fight with the lion is one of those scenes which is very difficult for a modern viewer to watch, because it’s so obvious that cruelty to animals must be involved. However, apart from this sorry sequence, the rest of this “cast of thousands” film is highly entertaining – and the spectacular Temple scene at the end is amazing, despite obviously being partly done with models. Overall, the film is no masterpiece, but it’s still dazzling.