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This is Not a Post About Gone With the Wind.

With all the hoopla and conversation here over the last week regarding Gone With the Wind, I thought it might be fun to take a glance at GWTW’s evil twin, Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1946 The Strange Woman.

It starts in 1945 when 20th Century Fox released a film called Leave Her to Heaven, based on Ben Ames Williams’ novel of the same name. A glorious Technicolor prestige picture with Gene Tierney, Cornell Wilde, and Vincent Price, it was a huge commercial success, nominated for several Oscars of which it won one. In Hollywood, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Bring on the clones!

Enter independent producer Hunt Stromberg, with a fistful of the rights to Williams’ other bestseller The Strange Woman. Both books dealt with conniving ice bitch women who destroy the people around them. You have to wonder what happened to poor old Williams that led him to become such a misogynistic writer, but in any case Hunt Stromberg had cleverly gotten a hold of not just any book by the same author as Leave Her to Heaven, but practically a remake of it—same story, different time period.

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Meanwhile, in the depths of Poverty Row, Ulmer was cranking out a PRC quickie called The Wife of Monte Cristo. Ulmer cast British character actor John Loder in a supporting role—and as it just so happened, Loder’s wife at the time was Hedy Lamarr. Both Ulmer and Lamarr were from Vienna, both were former students of Max Reinhart.

This was round about the time that Lamarr’s contract with MGM was due to expire. Hunt Stromberg offered her the lead in The Strange Woman, which was to be her first film away from MGM. She accepted but stipulated that Ulmer be the direct.

So, why did Lamarr ask for Ulmer? The results speak for themselves—this is a great performance from Lamarr in a vehicle built around her. For many critics, this is Lamarr’s greatest performance. But of all the people she could have demanded, how could she know that this was the man for the job, who hadn’t worked with a decent sized budget or A-list actors in over ten years, who was completely out of touch with the way the mainstream film industry had changed since the dawn of the talkie era, who had spent these last years making movies for peanuts that were destined for bottom-of-the-bill runs, and who had in fact never previously directed her?

There are two things actors fear the most: being typecast, and looking bad. The last thing you want to do is to be too firmly established in the public’s mind as a negative image.

There were plenty of femme fatales in 40s movies—and Jenny Hagara, the Strange Woman, is as fatale as a femme gets. Hedy Lamarr was smart enough to see what a tour de force for her such a complex and interesting character could be, but she still had reservations about how the script portrayed the bad side of Jenny. The alterations from Williams’ book helped soften the character, and certainly would have made Lamarr more comfortable playing such a meanie.

It’s not a hard leap to suppose that Lamarr wanted Ulmer to have an ally she could use to engineer the changes to the script she wanted. He was not only a trusted friend, he would also be beholden to her for the professional opportunity.

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The movie takes place roughly one hundred years before women had the right to vote. As a woman in this society, Jenny’s only inherent value is her sex. As a child, Jenny boasts that her beauty would buy her everything, and the friend she boasts to, goes on to be a prostiute. The primary difference between her and Jenny is that Jenny sells herself more dearly, and gains vastly more by making shrewd but no less loveless bargains.

The book jacket blurb reads “Seven men knew the truth about Jenny Hager!” Ben Ames Williams divided his story into seven sections. Each section was told from the point of view of one of these seven men, up until the point that Jenny destroys him, and then we move on to the next male character.

The resulting scale of the book was huge, epic. It spanned from Jenny as a four year old to her as a mature mother decades later. At some 540 pages, there was adapted fairly faithfully, but screenwriter Herb Meadow deleted the opening 70 pages, and stopped about 200 pages before the ending.

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The seven men of the book are reduced to four for the film. Herb Meadow’s script starts the movie as we see the ravaged shell of her father disintegrating. As originally scripted, we were to see young Jenny and her father talking about Jenny’s absent mother, who ran away with another man some time ago. Jenny consoles her dad, saying: “I’m going to take good care of you. I love you. I’ll grow up and be everything she used to be” Daddy doesn’t quite get what she’s getting at yet, and responds, “She stopped lovin’ me. That’s what it was. She simply did not love me any longer.” Jenny goes for it again, “But I love you,” she says, kissing him on the mouth. The she objects, “That’s not the way you used to kiss mommie. Kiss me the way you did her.”

Really? The movie version omits this?. It’s kind of amazing Meadow even tried to write such a scene. When you try to imagine actors actually playing this, in a 1940s era Hollywood movie no less, that you really have to admire Meadow’s audacity.

For all Jenny did to deliberately inflame her father’s passions, he struggled to control himself. Being a weak man, he managed to hold on only barely, becoming a cruel drunk driven by jealousy. He acted out on her with his fists what he couldn’t with any other part of his anatomy, and she took a perverse thrill in provoking such extreme reactions from him.

Only the barest glimmer of this unhealthy relationship survives in the film version of the story, but it has echoes throughout the movie. She repeats the Oedipal/incestual liaisons with the Poster family, Isiah and Ephraim Poster.

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Isiah (Gene Lockhart) is certainly old enough to be her father—and his first openly expressed thought is to adopt Jenny as his daughter. Then he skips right from she’ll be my daughter to she’ll be my wife. No sooner is she in bed with a man she considered like an uncle than she’s putting the moves on her new stepson, Eph (Louis Heyward).

That said, the film tweaks the story to diminish Jenny’s dark side and play up opportunities for Hedy Lamarr to appear sympathetic. Consider how Ulmer changed the riot scene, in a way that dramatically alters how Jenny comes across to the viewer. Herb Meadow wrote it in a way that mostly paralleled how it played out in the book—Jenny and Ephraim gradually become aware of the riot outside and go to see what the ruckus is all about. Ephraim becomes repulsed by the violence and wants to retreat, Jenny is attracted by the violence and inserts herself into the middle of things to protect her friend from the angry johns who think her whores stole from them.

But in the movie version, Ulmer sets it up so Ephraim is expressly tasked with getting the crisis under control. So he heads out, supposedly to be a big man, and Jenny tags along when she shouldn’t.

But here’s the kicker—the rest of the sequence hasn’t been changed. So when Ephraim actually gets to the riot, which he is supposed to be suppressing, he says and does nothing while Jenny takes charge of the situation. She is far more of a big man than any of the townspeople. It’s all a matter of context—her dialogue and actions stay the same, but how she comes across is very different if she is there out of a casual act of morbid curiosity or if she is there as arm candy for a man who is ostensibly charged with setting things to right. Whereas the novel and the screenplay use the sequence to emphasize Jenny’s sadistic and morbid side, Ulmer uses the opportunity to find heroic qualities in Jenny that, before him, no one else was trying to find in her.

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Watching the dancing fires in the distant horizon as the city burns, of course, put me in mind of Gone With the Wind. In fact, the very first time I saw this movie I immediately thought of it as a New England take on Gone With the Wind, partly because of scenes like this one and I’ll admit partly because Hedy Lamarr looks so damn much like Vivien Leigh.

Both stories deal with women who are underestimated because of the times in which they lived, in which the sphere of influence available for women was so restricted and small that society had no place for a strong, ambitious woman—such that those traits of ambition and power could only be expressed in problematic ways. Both women trade on their sexual allure to gain position, but prove to be much more than a pretty face.

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The two stories were written and filmed in a period of time clustered around the years before, during, and after Second World War. While we tend to think of the sexual revolution and women’s lib as being the 1960s and 70s, the fact of the matter is that sexual roles were undergoing wrenching transformation for decades before that. The right to vote came to women in 1920, and the flapper era was one of sexual liberation and freedom that in many ways parallels the 60s and 70s. By the 1940s, as all the boys were being shipped off to war, it was up to girls to keep the lights on at home, so there was a sudden rush of women into traditionally male jobs, with government propaganda aggressively touting these changing roles as essentially patriotic.

And as it happens, this is particularly true of Ms. Hedy Lamarr.

She made her first big splash back in 1933 in a Euro-sex flick called Ecstasy, remembered best today for Hedy Lamarr’s nude scenes. She wasn’t called Hedy Lamarr back then, though, she was just plain old Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler from Vienna. A few years after her nude debut, she and her scandalous notoriety emigrated to America where she easily landed a contract at MGM. Hollywood always has a place for a pretty girl willing to take off her clothes. It was Louis B Mayer who christened her with her new name, Hedy Lamarr the star.

Over the course of her Hollywood Life she managed to burn through six husbands–which put her in more or less the same league as Jenny Hagar when you think about it. But she was never comfortable with the sex bomb role. She once quipped that in order to be glamorous all you had to do was stand still and look stupid. And the trouble was, although she was plenty glamorous, she just wasn’t stupid.
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In 1940 she thought seriously about breaking her contract at Metro–not to go to another studio, not to become a free agent, but to quit acting altogether and go to Washington DC to join the newly formed National Inventors Council. She was, you see, an engineer.

As the story goes, she met scientist George Antheil at a dinner party, and allegedly approached him with a question about glandular stimulation. She was looking to increase her bust. Well, whether breast augmentation was the ice breaker between them or not, they quickly formed a working collaboration. Their mutual interest, aside from her chest, was … remote controlled guidance systems.

Betcha didn’t see that one coming! And neither would the Nazis, if the good guys could effectively steer torpedoes from a great distance. The big hang-up with something like that was, if you could use radio waves to guide an explosive device, then someone else could use the same radio waves to hi-jack the same explosive device. Not good.

So you’d need some way to insulate the radio control signal so that the intended transmitter and receiver remained in touch but were inaccessible to outside interference. Hedy Lamarr’s idea was to have the control signal skip around a range of frequencies. It would be safe from jamming or hi-jacking because the signal would be always on the move–as long as there was a secure synchronization with the receiver, jumping across the same frequencies in time with the transmitter.

Imagine you sit down to watch The Strange Woman on Turner Classic Movies, and some yahoo blots out the show because he knows you’re tuned to the channel TCM uses on your local cable provider and he’s blocking that channel. So, now imagine that TCM doesn’t come in on channel, let’s say channel 90, but instead starts at 90 and jumps to 22 to 115 to 53 to 81 and on and on. If you could somehow keep up, clicking away at your remote control furiously and maintaining synch with the show, you could watch the movie without being bothered that the signal was jumping all over the place. That was the basic idea, in a crude nutshell, but the trick was synchronizing the frequency shifts.

Lamarr and Antheil used player piano rolls to do it, and spread their control signals across a spectrum of 88 frequencies–same as the 88 keys on a piano. It was a simple, elegant solution, and with the help of Charles Kettering, director of research for GM and head of the National Inventors Council, they patented their device and showed it to the Navy… who promptly turned it down.

To hear Lamarr tell the story, their mistake was adapting ideas from the world of music into something with military applications. She felt the Navy brass was too narrow-minded to make the conceptual leap, and probably figured Lamarr was suggesting they actually install a freakin’ piano inside each torpedo.

There is also the possibility that the military was skeptical of an idea brought to them by a woman, a movie star, an Austrian.

At any rate, it’s certainly curious that in the late 1950s as soon as Lamarr and Antheil’s patent expired, suddenly the military decided the thing DID have potential, and rushed to adapt it to incorporate transistor technology. The ships sent to blockade Cuba in 1962 were using Lamarr’s invention to secure their communications. It’s still in use today in defense communication satellites–and you’ve used it yourself, most likely, since the same frequency-hopping technology is found in cell phones. All invented by the star of Strange Woman, and she never made a dime on it.

10 Responses This is Not a Post About Gone With the Wind.
Posted By Doug : September 27, 2014 12:57 pm

David, thank you for this post; I would love to know who painted the second poster, with its many interesting images.
“Ulmer uses the opportunity to find heroic qualities in Jenny that, before him, no one else was trying to find in her.”
Do you think that Lamarr perhaps wasn’t as concerned about her image, but instead knew that the character as written wouldn’t be acceptable to the public of that era? A girl could be Bad, that sells tickets…but not SO bad as to offend potential ticketbuyers?
It’s the same as with foul language-there isn’t a word or string of words found in today’s movies which wouldn’t have been said/used by those working in Hollywood back then.
But never on the screen.
I think that Ulmer and Lamarr knew just how much saltiness, how much ‘bad’ would be acceptable, and so they ‘rehabilitated’ the character just enough to make her somewhat sympathetic, coasting on the reputation of the book and, of course, “Leave Her To Heaven”.

Posted By Sunday Reads: Street Art, Fine Art, Women’s Art | Sky Dancing : September 28, 2014 11:29 am

[…] This next blog post from Movie Morlocks…damn I wish they would show this film on TCM again: moviemorlocks.com – This is Not a Post About Gone With the Wind. […]

Posted By Dale Call : September 28, 2014 11:55 pm

The story behind Hedy Lamar’s and George Antheil’s invention is one of the more interesting of WWII. George Antheil wasn’t a scientist, however, he was a composer with a flair for invention (and a great interest in endocrinology). One of his earliest avante garde compositions included several player pianos remotely controlled to play in unison. Hedy Lamar was a highly intelligent actress with a flair for invention – and the two of them ended up inventing something that has ended up being used in our lives every day. It’s a story made for Hollywood.

Posted By The Roundup: September 30 | The Frame : September 30, 2014 3:56 am

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Posted By jbryant : September 30, 2014 8:47 am

Yeah, Antheil wrote the scores for many notable films, including Make Way for Tomorrow, In a Lonely Place and The Sniper.

As for The Strange Woman, I stumbled on it about nine years ago on TCM and was blown away. The luridly great plot is pretty bold stuff for a film made during the height of the Production Code, and Lamarr’s performance is indeed her best (even if I’m hazy on why a character born and raised in Bangor, Maine, speaks with a Hungarian inflection). :)

Posted By kingrat : September 30, 2014 4:48 pm

The casting of Hedy as a native of Bangor, Maine is matched by the casting of George Sanders as a lumberjack.

Thanks for a very interesting article. The print shown by TCM a few years ago was not very good, and it would be nice to see a better version, if one exists.

Posted By jbryant : September 30, 2014 5:30 pm

kingrat: True about Sanders, but I have to say I found him surprisingly convincing as a studly type. Who’da thunk?

Posted By swac44 : September 30, 2014 7:43 pm

I first heard about this film back in the ’90s, thanks to a promotional review copy on DVD sent to me by … David Kalat at All-Day Entertainment! Glad to see your enthusiasm for this film hasn’t diminished, David, it’s a unique entry and one of my earliest Hedy experiences (after My Favourite Spy with Bob Hope, I believe).

Which reminds me, there’s a beautiful looking BD of Hedy in Samson & Delilah I need to watch…

Posted By Jenni : October 2, 2014 1:56 pm

I’ve seen Strange Woman but I think a film that is a lot more like GWTW is a British movie, The Wicked Lady, made in 1945. It was a box office smash over the pond, and starred Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, Michael Rennie,Patricia Roc, and Felix Aylmer.

Lockwood is like Scarlett, scheming to wed her cousin’s fiance(Rennie), and then falling in love with a highwayman(Mason). Roc is the sweet, put upon cousin=aka the Melanie character. Mason is a rogue, like Rhett. Aylmer is the devoted family servant, but not quite as canny as Mammy. See it if you get the chance!

Posted By muriel : October 6, 2014 5:20 am

I see little connection between Scarlett and Jenny. Jenny was a sadomasochistic psycopath. At least she was in the book. Jenni is correct, “The Wicked Lady” is a better comparison.
The reason the military could not use the invention was it’s relative clunkiness for torpedos. With the invention of the transistor, economy of size made it feasible. Just a circumstance of technology that delayed implentationof many an invention.

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