J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Tribeca ‘17: Bombshell the Hedy Lamarr Story

Composer George Antheil was influenced by Igor Stravinsky, jazz, and industrial rhythms. He might sound like an unlikely collaborator for Hedy Lamarr, but instead of a movie musical, they worked together on some of the most disruptive technology of the last two centuries. Yes, that Hedy Lamarr. She was not merely an actress and sex symbol. She was also a patriot and an inventor. Alexandra Dean chronicles her remarkable life and work in Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (clip here), which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Okay, so she was married and divorced six times. You can definitely say the Austrian immigrant adapted to life in Hollywood. Her first husband, Friedrich Mandl was an Austrofascist rather than a National Socialist, but they still had very different political ideas. His embarrassment over her notorious nude scenes in 1933’s Ecstasy probably did not help their marriage much either. Regardless, as soon as Lamarr reached Hollywood, she ardently embraced anti-Nazi causes. However, when America, her beloved adopted nation, entered the war, Lamarr believed she had better ways to support the war effort than selling war bonds.

Lamarr always had an inventor’s mind and thanks to Mandl she knew a little something about torpedoes. Decades ahead of her time, Lamarr developed a “frequency-hopping” method of guiding torpedoes through submerged waters and signal-jamming interference that Antheil would help her refine into a deployable technology. Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy just didn’t get it. As a result, they mothballed technology that would eventually become they cornerstone of wi-fi and Blue Tooth communications systems. For real.

Dean’s approach is straight forward all the way, but that is how Lamarr’s fans would want it. Indeed, Bombshell is exactly the sort of classy package we expect from American Masters productions. For her one eccentric touch, she elicits occasional commentary from Lamarr-super-fan Mel Brooks.

In all honesty, Lamarr’s story is so fascinating, there is no need to dress it up. However, it leaves us wanting to know more about Antheil, who is arguably even more unsung than Lamarr, the box office icon. His compositions are richly, idiosyncratically intriguing, but not exactly the stuff of weekend pops concerts (check out his Jazz Symphony in particular). Indeed, it would be intriguing to examine the frequency-hopping invention at greater length from his perspective.

Regardless, it is not often you have so much science and Hollywood glamor in one film, so Dean makes the most of it. She does Lamarr and frequency-hopping justice. Enthusiastically recommended, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story screens again tonight (4/30) as one of the final screenings of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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