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A new documentary reveals the underappreciated intellectual contributions of ’40s film star Hedy Lamarr

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Alexandra Dean, director
Reframed Pictures
2017

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story begins with a quote from the notoriously beautiful actress: “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” This sets the tone for the rest of the film, as Lamarr wrestles with her public image as a Hollywood star, and sometime sex symbol, and her desire to be recognized for her inventiveness and creativity.

From here, we are thrust into the world of ambition and acting gigs that characterized Lamarr’s early life, first in Austria, where she was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914, and later in Los Angeles as a contract actor with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in the 1930s and 1940s.

The film revolves around a recently recovered interview with Lamarr conducted by the journalist Fleming Meeks in 1990. Near the beginning of the interview, she tells Meeks, “the brains of people are more interesting than the looks,” hinting at her internal struggle to be seen as an inventor while she simultaneously capitulated to external pressures to remain young and beautiful.

Throughout the documentary, the filmmakers tease viewers with hints of Lamarr’s interest in science and technology. In the taped interview with Meeks, for example, she mentions her enthusiasm for chemistry in high school and how she would perhaps have taken another path in life had she not been so pretty. The film compares what might have been with the realities of Lamarr’s life, placing it within the broader context of world events.

Lamarr married her first husband, a wealthy 33-year-old munitions maker whose clientele included Hitler, when she was 18 but left when she could no longer handle his controlling nature. “I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own,” she later wrote of the relationship (1). The film shares the apocryphal story of her departure, which allegedly involved slipping her maid sleeping pills, stealing the woman’s uniform, and fleeing the house on her bike.

Lamarr’s life was full of many such impossible-sounding stories. For the most part, however, her personal life, which included six marriages and multiple plastic surgeries, could be interchanged with the lives of many famous women of the mid-20th century. When Lamarr’s scientific and technological achievements come to the fore, though, the story becomes more interesting.

Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films/Kino Lorber

Lamarr’s frequency-hopping system is integral to modern GPS, secure WiFi, and military satellites.

Lamarr’s cleverness is first hinted at in Bombshell in a short scene in which the filmmakers describe her relationship with the eccentric aviation tycoon Howard Hughes. As she later recounted to Meeks, she designed an airplane wing for Hughes, inspired by the shape of bird wings and fish fins, that was intended to increase the aircraft’s speed. When she showed him the drawing, Hughes reportedly deemed her “a genius.”

But it was Lamarr’s work with composer George Antheil during World War II that solidified her legacy as an inventor. Together, they designed a communication system based on “frequency hopping,” which allowed for messages to be sent across multiple frequencies. Unless the enemy knew the exact sequence of frequency hops, the message could not be intercepted.

Lamarr’s pitch was denied by the National Inventors Council, a government organization established to vet inventions for potential military and national defense uses. The council members suggested that she could better serve the country by trading on her status as a celebrity to sell war bonds.

Her patented technology was eventually put to use in the 1950s, first by a contractor who worked on the sonobuoy, a small sonar-enabled buoy used to detect submarine activity and later in surveillance drones during the Vietnam War. It now appears in applications that include modern Global Positioning System (GPS), secure WiFi, Bluetooth, and military satellite technologies.

By 1990, Lamarr was rarely seen in public, but her time as a technological star was rising. She finally received recognition for her work on frequency hopping in 1997, accepting an Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award.

Do we ever find out who the “real” Hedy Lamarr was in Bombshell? We get a hint at the clever, inventive, and intuitive nature of her brilliance—a brilliance that was often clouded by circumstances beyond her control. However, we are left with the distinct impression that she could have shined so much brighter.

References

  1. R. Rhodes, Hedy’s Folly (Doubleday, New York, 2011).

About the author

The author is an historian of technology based in Cambridge, MA, USA.