On Oct. 4, 1937, a 24-year-old Hedwig Kiesler disembarked at Los Angeles’ Union railroad station.
The once naked Ecstasy heroine (there’s our gal above) was conservatively dressed — wearing a light-colored, three-quarter length skirt and matching jacket. She was carrying a corsage of flowers. The newly christened Hedy Lamarr’s Hollywood movie career was about to begin.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, wondering today if Hedy Lamarr was indeed the most physically striking actress of Hollywood’s classic Forties period — so breathtaking beautiful onscreen that audience didn’t care whether or not she could act.
No question that Vienna-born Hedy arrived in Hollywood with, let’s say, a certain sexual oomph!
We are referring, of course, to 1933’s Czech-made “Extase” or “Ecstasy.” Directed by one Gustav Machaty, the movie tells the story of a luscious, young wife (Hedy) of a physically debilitated much-older man who cannot consummate their marriage.
The frustrated young bride goes skinny-dipping one day in the woods and is accidentally discovered by a virile construction worker (played by 27-year-old German actor Aribert Mog). The two are passionately drawn together…… Well, you get the drift.
What added zest to the project — besides its explicit love scenes — was the fact that Hedy at 18 was shown in long tracking shots running through the woods completely in the buff.
Those seeing the picture for the first time are surprised to see the somewhat zoftig figure she sported at the time. (We think she looked great. But after the movie was finished, Lamarr put herself on a diet.)
The movie scandalized much of Europe, and certainly not all of official Hollywood applauded her performance. At MGM we make clean pictures. We want our stars to lead clean lives. I don’t know what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around the screen, intoned studio mogul Louis B. Mayer. Nontheless, Mayer signed Hedy, and that’s how she came to be disembarking at Union Station in 1937.
Mayer was convinced that Hedy was just so darned good-looking, her youthful cinematic indiscretion would be “forgiven.” He was at least partially right. For much of her early Hollywood career, her performances essentially consisted of languorous stares in the direction of the nearest camera. For audiences, that seemed to be enough.
But Ecstasy was by no means forgotten. In his 1993’s A Siegel Film: An Autobiography, veteran director Don Siegel recalled being interviewed by producer Hal Wallis to work on 1944’s The Conspirators, a Casablanca derivative set in Lisbon (the cast included Paul Henreid, Sydney Grenstreet, Peter Lorre and Hedy).
Siegel found the source material, a novel by Frederic Prokosh, pretty dull but was enticed by Lamarr’s presence in the cast. Although Hedy had made many pictures, I kept thinking of “Ecstasy”, in which she appeared nude and beautiful, wrote the director. Alas, Siegel did not get the assignment (director of record is Jean Negulesco).
We took a look at one of Hedy’s more popular pictures from this exact same period — RKO’s Experiment Perilous, a costume drama with George Brent during which not one but at least three of the male leads repeatedly profess their abject love for Lamarr.
Director Jacques Tourneur backed up the script demands by showing bare-shouldered Hedy adorned with jewelry and strings of pearls — musing about her situation in the direction of camera.
Such attractive posing was also emphasized six years later when Hedy starred in MGM’s A Lady Without Passport, in which she cast as an international woman of uncertain past caught in pre-Castro Havana. Her male costar is an undercover immigration officer played by John Hodiak, who falls in love with Hedy after some extended plot preliminaries.
Hedy is a shady lady in Passport, who in one scene appears (at least to Frank) not above selling her considerable charms to get what she needs. Director Joseph H. Lewis makes sure to include the requisite number of closeups of Hedy — staring into the camera.