Anyone who is even casually familiar with Hedy Lamarr’s movie career is probably familiar with dark references to “that weird movie” she made as a teenager that sparked a scandal across pre-World War II Europe — and almost cost the actress her Hollywood career.
How times change. Today that “weird movie” is shown uncut at film festivals and on the Turner Classic Movie cable channel, and its artistic merits seriously debated by cineastes and film scholars.
Today we celebrate her “scandalous” appearance in Ecstasy. Vienna-born Hedy Kiesler while still an actress in her teens earned dubious early fame on the back of a Czech-made movie that had the sensational effect of stoking international libidos.
We are referring, of course, to 1933’s “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.
As a result Louis B. Mayer had trouble figuring out what he had with Hedy Lamarr. As the unchallenged head of MGM, Mayer was long used to guiding and supervising the careers of countless American beauties — many from the sticks with minimal education –through the professional intricacies of “MGM University.”
But Hedy was not just another good looking, star-struck babe from regional America. By the time she sat in Mayer’s Hollywood office for the first time — at the age of 23 — she had spent years leading the life of a sophisticated European aristocrat.
When Mayer asked his new ‘discovery’ how she liked Hollywood so far, Hedy surprised him by frankly stating that she was rather let down, writes Stephen Michael Shearer, author of “Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr.”
Usually Mayer was answered with gushing words of appreciation by his young hopefuls. But with Hedy he was confronted with a lady of class, and her response threw him.
She was born in 1914 to a solidly bourgeois family that prized culture and the arts. Her father was a bank manager in Vienna. Her mother, a frustrated concert pianist, instilled in her only child a love of music.
By 16, Hedy was already embarked on movie bit parts in silents produced at Vienna’s Sascha-Film Studio. Stage parts followed, including a Berlin stint at the school run by theatrical producer Max Reinhardt (where she met another young student by the name of Otto Preminger).
Then that fateful journey to Prague in 1932.
She was offered a part in an Czech art film movie involving full frontal nudity and scenes showing Hedy in the throes of intercourse with her young lover.
Mayer was appalled by the film. But before he would convey his view in person to Hedy, she –at the ripe age of 19 — had married an enormously rich Viennese arms merchant, and quit acting. Hedy was Fritz Mandl’s trophy wife, and the couple lived super-lavishly.
There was the sumptuous 10-room Vienna apartment. Also, the seven servants, the nine chauffeured autos and the the country home called Castle Schwarzenau. Luxurious dinner parties for at least 30 guests were the norm. There were two butlers and a large roster of servants to cater these events. Dinner was served on golden plates.
And, on one occasion, Mayer — on a European talent-scouting jaunt — turned up as one of those dinner party guests. He was fascinated by Hedy’s beauty (who wasn’t then?) but was turned off by her inability to speak much English. Also, Ecstasy was much on his mind.
Cut ahead years later to a luxury hotel suite in London. Mayer was sitting as tall as he could at his desk, opposite Hedy. By this time she was in her early 20’s, and had freed herself from the gilded but stifling marriage to Mandl, a control freak on steroids who was given to fits of jealousy.
She wanted back into acting, and was interested in trying her luck in Hollywood.
You’re lovely, my dear, but I have the family point of view, enunciated Mayer.
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.
Nonetheless Mayer, typically, used the occasion to make Hedy a low-ball contract offer. She was insulted, and turned him down flat. Mayer, who liked feisty women, later reconsidered, and came up with an acceptable offer: $550 per week with options over seven years.
On Oct. 4, 1937, Hedwig Kiesler disembarked at Los Angeles’ Union railroad station. The once naked “Ecstasy” heroine was conservatively dressed — wearing a light-colored, three-quarter length skirt and matching jacket. She was carrying a corsage of flowers.