Genre: Documentary / Biography
Synopsis: Family-authorized biography of famous glamour goddess Hedy Lamarr and her inventive mind.
Special Features: n/a
Unlike Hedy Lamarr: Secrets of a Hollywood Star (2005), Georg Misch’s 2004 documentary is built around the revelation of the famous actress’ co-creation (with composer George Antheil) of spread spectrum frequency hopping, an alternating frequency system designed & patented during WWII to ensure radio-controlled torpedoes couldn’t be jammed by the Nazis.
It’s a fact that remained a secret until her later years, and as Lamarr’s son Anthony Loder explains, although the technology wasn’t ‘officially’ implement by the U.S. Army, over subsequent decades it proved vital to future forms of current communications, including cellular and Bluetooth signals.
Signals and phones are Misch’s chosen linkage device between interviews, and although it helped establish a novel narrative structure, the whole endeavor comes off as contrived, if not a little precious. By coincidence, Loder runs a cellphone company, so most of the interviews consist of subjects filmed separately in their homes talking to each other in a sort of conference call where aspects of Lamarr’s life – her career, marriage to Loder, retirement, life in Florida, and main invention – are discussed.
Intercut with these segments is footage of Loder driving to Hollywood where he hopes to make his foray into film by crafting a dramatic biography of his mother. There’s a fake casting session that has actresses introducing themselves and reflecting on Lamarrisms that may reside in themselves, and towards the end actress Lilyan Chauvin (Silent Night, Deadly Night) reads fictional lines in a dialogue Loder never had with his mother.
Loder does visit a few people who knew or were descendants of his mother’s friends & associates, whereas daughter Denise Loder DeLuca remains at home, as are some of the friends with whom Lamarr largely engaged through long telephone conversations.
Setting aside the film’s structural issues, the real problem is in being a family-authorized doc. Many of the sharper criticisms voiced by interviewees in Secrets are wholly absent, and way too much time is spent on Loder trying to reconnect with his now-dead mother through fragments of ephemera, friends, and a quest to make a film that seems like a device concocted purely to drive the doc’s narrative than a genuine endeavor.
There’s also the preposterous (and seemingly contrived) theory by journalist / Lamarr confidante Hans Janitschek that the actress’ film career was a cover for her real role as a spy, which spawns a forced ‘lighthearted moment’ and runs contrary to the frank and grounded observations he provides in the factually superior Secrets doc. Janistschek, hair stylist Peter Shen, and Florida friend Arlene Roxbury are the only interviewees who reappear in more traditional (and lengthy) segments in Secrets, so Misch’s doc offers a different angle on Lamarr’s life and invention, and her children’s attempt to reconcile emotions with their often absent mother and her toughness.
(The Secrets doc also features an interview with estranged son Jimmy Lamarr Loder, who never enjoyed the closer mother-child relationship of his siblings, and later sought proof of his blood lineage before launching legal action for a piece of Lamarr’s estate. Secrets’ trio of directors don’t offer any judgment on Lamarr Loder, but his views add another dimension to the complexities of the less than ideal family life of a Hollywood star. Anthony Loder adds his own sharp thoughts on the inherent cruelties of studios who ruined lives by pushing child and adult stars to work beyond physical and legal limits.)
Calling isn’t a terrible doc; it’s just misconceived. The filmed and intercut interviews feel sterile because they consist of the most boring form of filmed action on Earth: watching people talk on the phone. The only time the film warms up is when Tony and Denise scatter their mother’s ashes in Vienna’s forest, and Tony visits the son of a painter and the daughter of director Edgar G. Ulmer (The Strange Woman).
The Ulmer encounter is fleeting in moments and content because Misch isn’t interested in Lamarr’s film history, hence no discussion and minimal use of film clips, especially Lamarr’s The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships aka The Love of Three Queens / L’amante di Paride (1954) which began production with Ulmer as director.
All of the Lamarr clips show the actress as a ghostly presence who wakes up, gazes, and hangs around a ringing phone, and although her interview extracts are used from a 1970 ZDF/ORF interview, it’s very fragmentary; the bulk of that black & white Q&A forms the anchor points in the rival Secrets doc. Calling does make strong use of clips from rare live TV appearances which show Lamarr on What’s My Line and The Steve Allen Show during the 1950s, and there’s rare home video footage of Lamarr during her final years at home.
Calling is a work built around the actress’s SSFH invention, but surrounding that delayed main point are rehearsed teleconference vignettes that are admittedly artfully shot and edited, but give the doc a staged veneer, lessening the film’s impact, and arguably the intended tribute to a glamorous star with a curious, creative, inventive mind.
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review