By Gregory Crofton
Was Hedy Lamarr Hollywood’s first feminist, or just one of its first female filmmakers? Lamarr’s story is unbelievably multifaceted. She was a screen ingénue, but more importantly she was an inventor and a self-financed film producer and director.
It was difficult to find the impetus to watch “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” (2017). Focusing on a Hollywood star from the 1940s, when we’re months away from 2020, is a challenge. There are of course fascinating lessons to be learned from Lamarr’s bizarre journey.
At just 18 years of age, Lamarr, an Austrian by birth, her given name was Kiesler, starred in the world’s first dirty movie, “Ecstasy” (1933). It contained nudity and a simulated orgasm. For some, because of the conservative ethos of the time, such a film might stifle a career, but that didn’t stop Lamarr.
Acting in an English-speaking country was work for Lamarr, but inventing things came naturally. Aside from being married six times, and developing one of the first ski resorts (Villa Lamarr) at Aspen, Colo., she suggested a more efficient wing design for the airplanes being built by Howard Hughes.
She worked on creating fizz-tablets so that military troops could drink Coca-Cola on the battlefield. Apparently water quality is different everywhere, which became an insurmountable problem.
Lamarr had better luck with radio waves, or frequency hopping, which allows things like cell phones and bluetooth to function. Spurred by the German dominance of naval warfare, Lamarr, with the help of a composer boyfriend who was an expert in player piano technology, was able to secure a patent in frequency hopping. Hopping a radio signal between frequencies prevented enemies from locating it, and that meant the signal couldn’t be jammed.
An immigrant to the United States who was extremely patriotic, Lamarr handed the patent over to the U.S. Army, which for years failed to use the technology, and failed to give her credit or pay her any royalties.
Intrigue abounds in “Bombshell.” The film hints that some of her inventions might be stolen from high-powered circles she routinely ran in, and fueled by an addiction to a form of meth. But it seems her frequent genius is a more believable story.
Even as she got older and decided to lead a hermetic life, one in which she embraced cosmetic surgery, Lamarr helped her doctors develop innovative surgical methods. She was a woman who never stopped creating.
Find this documentary streaming on Netflix.