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'Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story' Spells Out Her Extraordinary Impact Far From the Movie Screen
May 18, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

In an age when most news flashes turn out to be hollow grabs for attention, the one about Hedy Lamarr a couple of years ago was genuinely stunning.

Known for decades as a breathtakingly beautiful actress whose life had crumbled under the pressures of fame, Lamarr suddenly was reintroduced as a technology pioneer who patented a device that changed the course of naval warfare and paved the way for modern innovations like Wifi and GPS.

Stop the presses. For real.  

With a couple of years perspective, plus some newly discovered audio tapes, the PBS American Masters series puts all this together Friday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings) with Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.

Produced by Adam Haggiag and directed by Alexandra Drean, Bombshell suggests both the old and new portraits of Lamarr are accurate.

Her personal life was a wreck, with seven husbands, an often shaky career, a nervous breakdown, financial distress, several arrests and a long stretch as a recluse who wasn’t exactly embittered, but felt she had never been fully recognized for her real accomplishments.

This was, sadly, not an uncommon pattern for women fed into Hollywood’s cruel studio system. Like others, Lamarr was often assigned frustrating roles, fed pep pills to keep her working and given little or no support in coping with the gilded cage of movie stardom.

One of her specific frustrations was that she had an active, creative mind that most of the men around her seemed to consider a distraction and a nuisance.

One who did not was avant garde composer George Antheil, with whom she devised a system of sound communication called frequency hopping.

Lamarr had always been curious about the way things work, and the frequency hopping idea derived from the way sound is transmitted on radio frequencies and through player pianos. She and Antheil fine-tuned it in the early years of World War II, while they worked with America’s wartime Inventors Council.

They next tried to convince the Navy this system could help deliver torpedos more efficiently.  

While that was true, the Navy would have none of it – until the late 1950s, when Lamarr’s principle became the basis for standard equipment on all warships.

This created an awkward situation for Lamarr. Patents expire after 15 years, so the Navy said she deserved nothing for its implementation – and naturally didn’t mention that she could have applied for an extension. Bombshell notes, furthermore, that there is strong evidence the Navy had begun using it before the patent expired, and that she therefore was owed money she never got.

Bombshell also notes that the frequency hopping principle is today used in Wifi, GPS and other near-universal applications. It estimates the value of the technology directly derived from the device Lamarr patented lies somewhere north of $30 billion.

In extensive interviews conducted a few years before her death in 2000 at the age of 85, Lamarr sounded frustrated both by not getting paid and not getting credit.

That fed into her larger lifelong frustration over being seen as only a silver screen beauty, not a whole person.

In fact, she was raised to be smart. She was born in Austria and took after her adored father, an affluent financier who exposed her to high culture and nurtured all her curiosity about the world.

Her father died of a heart attack as Hitler was escalating his Jewish purges. At the same time, Lamarr herself had married a German munitions manufacturer who was rolling in money, thought Hitler’s policies were swell and would have been a huge Nazi favorite if he hadn’t had some Jewish blood himself.

Lamarr escaped that marriage by drugging a maid at one of her husband’s parties, taking the maid’s uniform and riding a bicycle to the train station with her jewels sewn into her coat.

She went to London, and with her father’s death decided to continue on to America and do whatever she could to bring Hitler down.

While she didn’t know a word of English, she spent the transatlantic voyage catching the eye of movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. She eventually became a star in the epic Samson and Delilah.

The rest of her career was checkered, and marked at times by her vision exceeding her reach. Movie people like Mel Brooks and Robert Osborne weigh in, along with one of her sons and granddaughters. The story they collectively weave leaves Lamarr somewhere between the image she didn’t want and the one to which she aspired.

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Mark Isenberg
This is a documentary you will remember and be grateful that Lamarr did not quit her night time tinkering with her pianist friend.Tell your friends.
May 18, 2018   |  Reply
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