Bad Girl in Bangor: Hedy Lamarr in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman (1946)

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The name Edgar G. Ulmer elicits images of the dusty roads of Detour and the empty pockets of its Poverty Row producers. He was a prolific purveyor of B-movie jolts, used to finding creative solutions to monetary limitations, but on occasion he was called up by the big studio boys, where the budgets were the least of his concerns. For The Strange Woman, out on a decent-looking DVD from the public domain label Film Chest, it was the leading studio gal Hedy Lamarr who gave him the opportunity. The Strange Woman was a salacious 1941 hit novel by Ben Ames Williams (who later wrote Leave Her to Heaven) about a poor, power hungry small-town beauty. Lamarr thought it provided an opportunity to, “do something other than merely be a clotheshorse or look pretty. I have always wanted to do character parts, and this gives me the chance I have been waiting for so long.” So she formed a production company, Mars Film Corp., with producer Jack Chertok, and secured distribution through United Artists. Lamarr met Ulmer on the set of The Wife of Monte Cristo (1946), when she was visiting her then-husband and lead actor John Loder. Ulmer and Lamarr had both trained with Max Reinhardt, and perhaps this slender bond led her to select him as the director. Their collaboration was combative and tense, though The Strange Woman ended up a modest box office success, with a reported $2.8 million in ticket sales. Unusually frank about how Lamarr’s character uses sex to get ahead, The Strange Woman is a nineteenth century variation on the pre-code jaw-dropper Baby Face (1933), in which Barbara Stanwyck climbs the corporate ladder on her back.

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Lamarr plays Jenny Hager, the ill-bred daughter of a drunk who notices she can get away with all kinds of mischief simply by flapping her eyelids. Growing up in an abusive household in Bangor, Maine, she uses her sob story and abundant physical charms to marry the old, rich merchant Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart). He is but the first stepping stone on her will to power, as she next swivels her hypno-eyes onto Isaiah’s son Ephraim (Louis Hayward), a shy academic she used to torture as a child. Through her canny business sense and manipulative wiles, she pits Ephraim against Isaiah, in a grab to secure the family business all for herself. The Poster family is just her bank account – for physical pleasure she is set on seducing John Evered (a miscast, aw shucks George Sanders), the strapping manager of the Poster logging operation. He is engaged to Jenny’s best, and only, friend Meg, but it’s of no concern to her. Jenny is only interested in her own immediate pleasure, regardless of the cost to those around her. She is a seductive sociopath.

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Used to week-long schedules and miniscule budgets while at PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), The Strange Woman offered Ulmer a months long shooting schedule, with elaborate sets and an experienced cinematographer in Lucien Andriot (The Big Trail), who had just finished working with Jean Renoir on Diary of a Chambermaid. The movie is centered around Hedy Lamarr’s face, which exudes a feral restlessness. It is a quality Ulmer went to great lengths to elicit. In his new critical study of Ulmer, A Filmmaker at the Margins, Noah Isenberg writes that Ulmer “purportedly used his baton to lash her ankles, whenever she missed a cue, trying as best he could to make her act like a tigress.” Edgar’s wife Shirley simply stated that “He really didn’t like her.” Whatever his personal animus toward Lamarr, it pushed her towards a performance of bold animal aggression, her eyes darting about like a cat distracted by a laser pointer. Occasionally the effort becomes visible, a labored intensity, but for the most part it’s raw and carnal – the kind of “character” acting she hadn’t been allowed to do since she came to Hollywood.

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Most of Ulmer’s effort seems to have gone into Lamarr’s performance, as the rest of the film is an effective but indistinguishable bit of invisible Hollywood craftsmanship. There is a concerted effort to identify Jenny with nature. In her childhood scenes she is shown playfully drowning Ephraim in a creek, her dainty foot pushing his head underwater. Later she urges Ephraim to attack his father during a whitewater rafting trip, while she secures John’s lust during a thunderstorm. These are thoughtfully laid out metaphors of her inhumanity, but they fail to convey the mad energy of her character. Instead they are distanced and coolly objective, a nature doc of a sociopath in the wild. This approach drains the film of energy, as the shoot seemed to do to Ulmer, who did not recall the film fondly, calling it “very difficult”.

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Isenberg reports that there were re-shoots of the childhood Jenny scenes ordered by executive producer Hunt Stromberg, which were directed by Douglas Sirk. At PRC they only cared about the film being on time and under budget, but here he had no control. Lamarr was the driving artistic force in the film, and while The Strange Woman may not be one of Ulmer’s crowning moments, it contains one of Lamarr’s boldest and strangest performances, freed of the demands of being a clotheshorse. She is a man-devouring force of nature, and once you are in her domain, there is no escaping her.

16 Responses Bad Girl in Bangor: Hedy Lamarr in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman (1946)
Posted By swac44 : May 6, 2014 2:51 pm
Posted By jbryant : May 6, 2014 4:16 pm

I discovered this one night by simply turning on TCM to see what was playing. Boy, was I glad I did. I knew absolutely nothing about the film going in, but regardless of Ulmer’s own misgivings, I loved it. The plot is so luridly great, especially for a film made under the Production Code. Sure, Hedy’s Hungarian inflections don’t make much sense for someone born and raised in Bangor, Maine, and yes, Sanders is miscast as a studly leading man, but I thought both were quite good. Hugely entertaining film.

Posted By joelnox : May 6, 2014 6:04 pm

Once I got use to the fact that the lead character has a Viennese accent and her father an Irish one when they are both natives of Bangor, Maine then I found much to enjoy in the film. Hedy, stunningly beautiful as always, plays a deeply conflicted woman well and though the film veers wildly from morality tale to lurid melodrama it is certainly more fun than a lot of more highly thought of films.

Posted By kingrat : May 6, 2014 7:42 pm

I’m glad to hear that reasonably good versions are now available. The print shown on TCM last time was not very good, as you might expect from a public domain film.

I liked the movie, too, though it’s not on a par with LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. And where else can you see George Sanders as a lumberjack?

Posted By Doug : May 6, 2014 8:21 pm

Reading this: “she is set on seducing John Evered (a miscast, aw shucks George Sanders), the strapping manager of the Poster logging operation. He is engaged to Jenny’s best, and only, friend Meg, but it’s of no concern to her.” pinged my “Twin Peaks” radar; Lynch had to study advanced geometry to come up with all of the varied romantic triangles in his show, including
Piper Laurie’s character Catharine Martell owning the sawmill and stepping out on her husband Pete with Ben Horne and possibly a few others.
I’m thinking that “The Strange Woman” might have worked its way into Lynch’s psyche in his youth.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : May 6, 2014 8:22 pm

two things intrigue me enough to seek this out,the publicity shot of Lamarr with the bull whip and the thought of Sanders playing a lumberjack from Maine

Posted By swac44 : May 6, 2014 8:48 pm

Bangor seems to be the kind of place that just attracts strangeness, just ask Stephen King, but there is that odd feeling that there’s nothing separating it from the wilderness, and the dark, unknowable forces therein. It’s a great setting for this story, it’s only a five-hour drive from where I live and I’ve been there often, but I can’t say I’ve ever encountered anyone who looks like Hedy Lamarr on my visits.

Posted By AL : May 6, 2014 10:41 pm

When Cohn wouldn’t let Rita do Delilah, Lamarr got the role and she was magnificent.

Posted By Nick : May 7, 2014 12:35 pm

David Kalat introduced me to this great film through his own DVD release, for which I’m thankful, but I can’t in good conscience recommended it these days over this new Film Chest disc. The difference in quality is quite impressive:

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film4/dvd_reviews_59/the_strange_woman.htm

Posted By swac44 : May 7, 2014 2:50 pm

Good to see the comparison, the Film Chest is clearly sharper and clearer in those screencaps. I don’t know much about the company, but they don’t seem to be dumping the same old PD transfers on the market like some companies I could name. Thanks for the link, Nick!

Posted By Bob Lindstrom : May 8, 2014 6:09 am

Regardless of the fringe acclaim lavished on him, to my mind Ulmer is like the broken clock that is, nevertheless, right twice a day. While a couple of his films are effective, the majority of his output is workmanlike at best; and to my eyes, his “folklore” films are nearly unwatchable. To say everything in this film is routine, and then credit Ulmer for Lamarr’s performance is utterly illogical.

Posted By Parallax ViewThe View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of May 9 » Parallax View : May 9, 2014 3:51 pm

[…] The Strange Woman might have been one of Edgar Ulmer’s rare forays into big-budget (any-budget, really) moviemaking, but that doesn’t mean he had an easy time of it, what with having to literally whip Hedy Lamarr into giving her fearsomely sensual performance, as R. Emmett Sweeney relates. […]

Posted By robbushblog : May 20, 2014 4:38 pm

I’m intrigued by the publicity photo at top, and by the fact that Hedy Lamarr’s face is in this movie. Sigh…..

Posted By Muriel : May 24, 2014 8:03 am

The bull whip publicity photo is straight from the novel.
Because Jennie was a sadist. The moral and redeeming ending of the movie is nothing like the novel, where Jennie was married for many years, torturing her husband and children, then struck her final blow after her death. In the novel, the character is relentless, even as she recognizes and regrets her cruelties, she forges ahead with nastiness and strange desires.

Posted By Edgar G. Ulmer – St. Benny the Dip (1951) – [Public Domain Movies] | mostly music : July 5, 2014 7:35 am

[…] Bad Girl in Bangor: Hedy Lamarr in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman (1946) […]

Posted By jill taylor : February 5, 2016 12:46 am

Without a doubt, one of the best movie with an equally good plot, I have ever seen. I stumbled across it and loved it.

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