Awesome People In History: Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr in Let's Live a Little (1948) image from Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, when learning about history, you find things that surprise you.

Those of you who have heard of Hedy Lamarr almost certainly know her as one of the most glamorous and popular Hollywood actresses of the Golden Age, appearing in 32 movies between 1930 and 1958. Yet acting was far from her true passion; she once said of it, “Any girl can be glamorous, all you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” No, her real passion was science. She was an inventor, and one of her most important inventions is probably in the very device you are using to read this blog right now.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, her parents both came from Jewish families, though her mother had converted to Roman Catholicism. Growing up, she was always fascinated by science. Yet she was undeniably beautiful, and that was almost certainly why film producer Max Reinhardt, upon discovering her, decided to hire and train her. Her first runaway hit was the 1933 film Ecstasy, a film that was highly controversial for its explicit (for the time) sexual content. Her first husband, businessman Friedrich Mandl, was so upset he prevented her from leaving his private castle for four years. She would later say that she only escaped by disguising herself as a maid.

She arrived in Paris in 1937, where she met Louis B. Mayer (who we’ve met on this blog before). Mayer brought her to Hollywood, advertising her in his pictures as “The most beautiful woman in the world!” She soon was appearing in movie after movie, appearing alongside other Hollywood greats of the time such as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Soon, she was able to use her famous status to help her parents escape the Nazis.

Lamarr was almost always cast in roles that played up her physical appearance. She was a part of the Hollywood social scene, of course, but she didn’t like it. She wasn’t a drinker, and she didn’t like large parties. Deeply unsatisfied with the celebrity lifestyle, she turned to science as her escape in her spare time.

She developed a stoplight that was far more efficient than the ones that hung over America’s streets at the time, and then tried to use chemistry to develop a tablet that would turn ordinary drinking water into soda. The latter invention wasn’t nearly as successful, largely because it tasted terrible, by her own admission. Her most important invention, however, was a response to the outbreak of World War II.

Lamarr was fascinated by remote-control technology, and believed remote-controlled torpedoes could help the U.S. Navy in its fight against the German U-boats, making it easier for the torpedoes to hit their targets. The problem was that it would be fairly easy for the Germans to jam the radio signals. She wanted to figure out a way to overcome this problem, and so she talked about her ideas with pianist and composer George Antheil, one of the people in her social circle. In their conversations, Lamarr was inspired by piano rolls, the devices that allow novelty player pianos to play themselves. She and Antheil worked together on developing a similar device that would quickly switch between random radio frequencies, making it impossible for the Germans to jam. By the time they had figured out which frequency the Americans were using, the thought was, the American device would already have switched frequencies.

She patented her invention in 1942, and presented her idea to the U.S. Navy. The Navy said “Thanks, but no thanks.” They put the idea in their files and forgot about it. However, as World War II ended and the Cold War began, the need for a way to send radio signals securely became urgent, and the Navy pulled the designs out of storage and gave it another look. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the technology was being used on U.S. Navy ships to send messages that would be incredibly difficult for enemies to intercept.

Lamarr called her invention “The Secret Communication System”, but today it is known as spread-spectrum technology, and it is the basis for both WiFi and Bluetooth systems. Still, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that Lamarr would finally be publicly recognized for inventing the thing. She received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997. She died just three years later in Casselberry, Florida. Today, she is the only person who is memorialized both on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. It just goes to show that looks aren’t everything.

Once Again, Marvel Shows Us How It’s Done

Captain America Civil War image from Blastr

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was an absolute mess of a film, but what truly makes it an embarrassment is that Marvel Studios also decided to take on the “superheroes fight each other” storyline as well, and did a MUCH better job of it. I never set out to be a Marvel fan, having grown up with DC’s comics and TV shows, but Marvel’s made-in-house films have generally been consistently good, while it seems Warner Bros. just hasn’t figured out what exactly it wants its DC superhero movies to be.

The parallels between Captain America: Civil War and Dawn of Justice are actually quite interesting. In both films, the catalyst for the conflict between the heroes is the collateral damage that happens when our heroes throw down, and all the people who are hurt or killed in all those cool-looking explosions. In both films, the villain manipulates the heroes, provoking them to fight each other. Both films also pull double-duty, serving to introduce us to new characters that will be important in later installments of the series. It makes one wonder if Hollywood filmmakers are sending spies into each others’ studios.

Having said that, the biggest difference between these two movies is that Marvel clearly understood something that Dawn of Justice‘s filmmakers didn’t – to make us care about the conflict between our heroes, it has to be a personal conflict. Emotions have to be high, and we have to be invested in those emotions. We need to feel their struggle.

Civil War‘s story begins as we watch the Avengers doing what they do best – stopping the bad guys. However, in the process, new team member Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) accidentally kills and injures a number of innocent bystanders. She is consumed with guilt over this, while the rest of the team now has to deal with the fallout. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) wants the team to sign an agreement with the United Nations placing the Avengers under the supervision and oversight of an international panel, but Captain America (Chris Evans) feels very strongly that this would be the wrong answer. This issue divides the team, but what really gets them to turn on each other is the arrival of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who has a very complex and very personal relationship to Captain America. Cap wants to handle the situation his way, while Iron Man argues that this is neither the time or place for rash action. Sure enough, things take an even bigger turn for the worst, and Iron Man is sent in to try to arrest Captain America.

It’s a very human drama that pulled me in and got me on the edge of my seat, biting my nails to see who would win this fight, which is far more than Dawn of Justice did. Heck, even if the other film didn’t exist, this would still be an excellent entry in Marvel’s filmography. It captures that The Avengers magic and then twists it in ways that I didn’t expect. The story was enjoyable, the characters were believable, the drama was intense, and the script was pretty tight.

Also, Chadwick Boseman completely steals the show as Black Panther.

Having said all of that, there are a few gripes I have with this movie, and almost all of them had to do with the visuals. Here we have some of the most colorful costumed characters on the big screen gathered for this movie, and almost every scene is bland, washed-out, and boring-looking. They could hardly get any more generic in their visual style if they tried. This was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who had previously worked on the much more visually interesting Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so what gives?

Not only that, but the film used tons of shaky-cam effects. You know, the effect where they try to make action scenes more gritty and realistic by shaking the camera around like it was filmed by some bystander with a smartphone? As one tool of many in a cinematographer’s toolbox, it can effectively add tension to a scene. Yet cinematographer Trent Opaloch used it constantly, like a ten-year-old drowning his french fries in ketchup. Though, I guess he did cut his teeth filming District 9, so maybe too-much-shaky-cam is just what he’s used to.

Still, the editing of the action scenes was atrocious. Half the time, I couldn’t tell during the action scenes who was where doing what. I was lost, and that’s not a feeling you want from your audience. It is a testament to the film’s story, acting, and pacing that I was able to stay engaged in spite of these shortcomings. For all of Dawn of Justice‘s flaws, looking terrible was not one of them.

All in all, though, I highly recommend this movie. It is a great action movie with a gripping story and a conflict you feel invested in. It doesn’t overcrowd with too many characters, which is quite the achievement for a film with no less than 12 super-powered figures in it. By focusing on the internal struggles of just a few of the characters, it avoids trying to juggle too much. It may have shortcomings in the visuals department, but it more than makes up for it in practically anything else.