Transfer: Very Good
Label: Alive (Germany)
Region: 2 (PAL)
Released: January 16, 2009
Genre: Documentary / Biography
Synopsis: Unauthorized-styled portrait of Hedy Lamarr, cinema glamor goddess and inventor of an especially influential device.
Special Features: Disc 1: Bonus Short Film “Eric Root: Hollywood Hairdresser” (13 mins.) / Disc 2: Bonus Film Ecstasy / Ekstase (1933).
Produced 5 years after her death in 2000, this expose of Hollywood glamour goddess Hedy Lamarr draws primarily from a 1970 interview with a German TV crew and interviews with surviving friends and colleagues to peel back the myth of the actress being nothing more than a silver screen beauty.
Born Hedwig Kiesler in Austria, the film and stage actress was rechristened Hedy Lamarr by MGM bigwig Lous B. Mayer when the pair happened to share the same liner en route to the U.S. Lamarr fled Nazi Austria and immediately landed film roles that exploited her unmistakable sexuality, and during WWII she was part of the Hollywood Canteen, a locale where troops on leave could literally mingle with famous screen stars, dance, and maybe share a quick kiss.
Starting in 1938 with Algiers and ending in 1945 with Her Highness and the Bellboy, Lamarr was MGM’s property and appeared in a steady wave of films before going independent, often producing films and forging the future of her own career, but it was Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) that proved to be her greatest success, immortalizing Lamarr as a lethal love goddess who robbed Samson of his strength and led to the fall of a civilization – all told in glorious Technicolor and with one of cinema’s greatest love themes by Victor Young.
And yet in spite of the film’s success, freelancer Lamarr starred in just a handful of films before permanently retiring from acting in 1958, and like peers Greta Garbo and fellow émigré Marlene Dietrich, become a recluse until supposedly dying in poverty.
Hedy Lamarr: Secrets of a Hollywood Star seeks to break several myths through interviews (Lupita Tovar, Mickey Rooney, Kenneth Anger) which also reveal a woman on the run, as one of many Jewish talents fleeing Nazi Europe; fleeing the constricts of the studio system where morals clauses could and often did mandate studio-blessed dates, marriages, births, and abortions; and moving from California to New York City, and eventually settling in Florida where she lived a quiet life.
In the 1970 interview – the doc’s major archival source material – Lamarr is content to have stepped away, having accomplished career highs and perhaps done what she could as an independent woman seeking higher creative ground in what was pretty much a male-dominated industry. She also gave birth to a son – Jimmy Lamarr Loder – whose lineage wasn’t confirmed until decades later, and who didn’t see his mother for 40+ years because she literally banished him for what seems cruel and nonsensical.
Lamarr didn’t die a pauper, but she wasn’t rich, nor lived an extravagant life, and yet avoided people much in the way Elvis shrouded himself and ducked in and out of cars to avoid being recognized. The actress also proved to be an inventor, collaborating with composer George Antheil after a chance meeting and patented a system that permitted torpedoes to avoid detection using a variable frequency system, which remains in use today.
A series of peculiar store thefts brought her name into the public eye, and she launched numerous lawsuits to gain control of the films she produced – The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships aka The Love of Three Queens / L’amante di Paride (1954) is apparently still unavailable in its uncut 3 hour form – and sued Canada’s Corel Corporation for the unlicensed use of her image on their manuals and branded P.R. material. (Corel probably thought she had long passed away, and ultimately settled for $5 million, which enabled Lamarr to invest and live out her retirement.)
Structurally and aesthetically, Secrets is a bit of a mess, as directors Donatello Dubini, Fosco Dubini, and Barbara Obermaier rely on bridging interviews with trailer extracts that flare into red-blue or red-green tints, and her life story unfolds in a series of chapters that sometimes lack cohesion, but part of the problem may stem from the filmmakers trying to stitch together what feel like independently shot interviews with the 1970 footage functioning as the main skeleton; most of the time the interwoven comments work, but things get clunky around the middle.
Perhaps the main problem is the innately dour dramatic curve that follows the classic picked-from-obscurity fairytale; some striking revelations; and then the sad, semi-tragic finale that punctuates the life of a glamour goddess. Lacking any triumphant return to film and a paucity of film footage post-retirement, Lamarr’s final years could be summarized in a few minutes. What ultimately resonates is her immortal beauty, independence, her creative mind, and a legacy of glamour that remains untouched in Hollywood history.
Like Georg Misch’s rival documentary Calling Hedy Lamarr (2004), Hedy Lamarr: Secrets of a Hollywood Star remains unavailable on home video in North America. A German Region 2 disc sports the doc with a 13 min. short film Eric Root: Hollywood Hairdresser (2006) and some DVD-ROM content, plus a second disc with Lamarr’s career-making Ecstasy / Ekstase (1933), the Czech film by Gustav Machaty which featured the actress in a nude lake swim / forest run.
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review