Judge Bryan Byun doesn't think anyone will disagree with him when he asserts that twice the Hedy Lamarr is twice the lusciousness.
"For the lips of a strange woman are sweet as honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil; but her end is bitter as wormwood, and sharp as a two-edged sword."—Proverbs 5:3-4
When she wasn't dramatically escaping from Nazis or inventing the technology that eventually led to cell phones and wireless networking, Hedy Lamarr was the quintessential movie star, one of the most popular and glamorous Hollywood actresses of the 1930s and '40s. Her notorious appearance in the 1933 film Ecstasy (in which the then-teenaged Lamarr appeared nude) began a love affair with the silver screen that lasted three decades.
Given Lamarr's popularity in her heyday, it's odd that most of her films—with a couple of exceptions (1949's Samson and Delilah being the most notable example)—have faded into obscurity. Hedy seems to be more famous these days as the co-inventor of spread-spectrum technology than as a movie star. Hedy's fans will be pleased, then, that VCI Home Video (under the Acme DVD Works label) has released two of her 1940s films as a Hedy Lamarr Double Feature.
Facts of the Case
Dishonored Lady (1947), the first of the two films on this single-disc release, stars Lamarr as Madeleine Damien, a fashion editor for a trendy New York magazine. When we first meet Madeleine, she's behind the wheel of her car, dead-eyed and oblivious to everything around her, including a suspicious policeman. Inexplicably, Madeleine steps on the gas and runs the car head-on into a tree. Luckily for her, the tree belongs to a psychiatrist, Dr. Caleb (Dennis O'Keefe) who recognizes Madeleine's act as an attempted suicide and decides to treat her.
As Madeleine's story unfolds, we discover the roots of her breakdown. It turns out that her spirit is slowly being drained away by a life of partying, promiscuity, and working in a male-dominated profession in which she must compromise her principles and schmooze with wealthy creeps like her magazine's major advertising client, Felix Courtland (John Loder, Lamarr's real-life husband at the time, which makes his appearance here as an oily, menacing cad all the more twisted).
Beneath it all, Madeleine's true ambition is to be an artist and to live a simple, modest existence. Under Dr. Caleb's orders, she quits her job, moves out of her Manhattan apartment, and begins a new life under an assumed identity. When she meets and falls in love with David Cousins, a handsome medical researcher (Dennis O'Keefe), it seems that Madeleine's fresh start is about to blossom into a happy ending. But as she soon discovers, the past is not easily shaken loose; there is an unwelcome visitor from Madeleine's old life, then a murder, and Dishonored Lady takes an abrupt turn from romance to courtroom drama.
In 1946's The Strange Woman, directed by B-movie legend Edgar G. Ulmer (The Naked Dawn, Detour), Hedy plays Jenny Hager, a young woman living in Bangor, Maine in the 1820s. Jenny lives in the 19th-century equivalent of a trailer park with her drunkard father and dreams of using her startling beauty to catch herself a rich husband who will take her away from her dreary, impoverished existence.
Enter Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), a wealthy businessman who's head over heels in love—or at least lust—with Jenny. The fact that Isaiah is at least twice her age doesn't stop him from maneuvering himself into marrying Jenny, who loves Isaiah's money but is romantically much more interested in Isaiah's son, Ephraim (Louis Hayward), who is the same age as Jenny. While using her husband's wealth to perform various good deeds, such as expanding the town's church, Jenny employs her ample feminine allure to seduce her stepson—and things only get more twisted from there.
What's most surprising about Dishonored Lady, given its sensationalistic title and melodramatic plot, is how fresh and vital it seems nearly sixty years later. Instead of settling into a conventional morality tale about the redemption of a loose woman, the film focuses squarely on Madeleine's self-actualization and search for an independent identity.
Given the societal mores of the 1940s, one would expect Madeleine's personal growth to come to a "natural" conclusion when she finds a nice guy to settle down with and gives up her wanton ways. Instead, Madeleine's quest is to discover herself and figure out what she truly wants from life. Dishonored Lady turns out to be a startlingly modern film that could nearly pass for a Lifetime TV movie. (Of course, the film does veer back toward conventionality in the final scene, but it's clear that Madeleine makes her choice as a healthy, independent woman.)
Dishonored Lady is so interesting as a character study that it's kind of disappointing when the film changes clothes in its third act and becomes a relatively routine courtroom drama. It's satisfying to see a couple of particularly loathsome characters get their just desserts, but it all seems like a needless distraction from the real story of self-discovery and empowerment. Still, for a film that is basically a low-budget trifle, Dishonored Lady is surprisingly watchable and relevant. (Keep your eyes peeled for a brief appearance by the future Mrs. Thurston Howell III.)
The Strange Woman provides a very different take on a similar theme. Jenny Hager doesn't have Madeleine's self-awareness, but in some ways she's far more complex—and disturbed. Following Jenny's life from childhood to maturity, we see her surrounded by weak, deeply flawed men who succumb far too easily to her charms. Even as a child, she understands the effect of her beauty and how it can be used to twist men around her finger. As a young woman, Jenny's attitude toward men seems to have only two settings: contempt and lust. Not unlike Gone With the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara, whom Jenny closely resembles, she manipulates and discards men with near-sociopathic callousness.
But, just as Dishonored Lady could have been merely another movie about a fallen woman redeemed by the love of a good man, The Strange Woman isn't a one-dimensional portrait of an avaricious spider lady. As ruthless as Jenny is in her dealings with men, she's just as sincerely compassionate when it comes to helping the needy. Unlike Scarlett, who was born to wealth, Jenny comes from the gutter, and she's never forgotten what it felt like. When she finally finds real love—or the closest approximation of love that she can manage—with a decent, ruggedly handsome logger (played, somewhat incongruously, by George Sanders), her endless internal struggle between the two halves of her nature explodes into a spiritual crisis—and inevitable disaster.
VCI's release of the Hedy Lamarr Double Feature is very much a mixed bag. It's great to see these neglected films released on DVD, but it looks as if zero resources were put toward restoration or cleanup of the original prints. Picture quality on each of the films is rather dismal, with washed-out, overly soft images and, especially in The Strange Woman, jumpy scene transitions and missing frames. Sound quality fares even more poorly, with muted, dirty audio tracks marred by pops, scratches, and at one point during The Strange Woman a jarring and inexplicable shift in the monaural sound output from the front speakers to the rear, lasting several minutes. I hesitate to give this title failing technical scores without knowing what efforts, if any, VCI made to clean up these films, but bad is bad.
The sole extra feature on the disc is Made in U.S.A., a vintage studio-produced newsreel-type short subject that celebrates Hollywood film production. While its connection to Hedy Lamarr or the two films on this disc is tangential at best, Made in U.S.A. is an interesting feature in itself and should be of interest to aficionados of Hollywood's Golden Age.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of the two films, The Strange Woman hits the highest highs and the lowest lows. While its psychological complexity makes for fascinating viewing, the film never quite transcends the inherent cheesiness of its B-movie status. Despite similarities between Jenny Hager and Scarlett O'Hara, Gone With the Wind this ain't.
For one thing, two of the lead actors—Hedy Lamarr and George Sanders—seem miscast in a film that's ostensibly about a rural Northeastern logging town. As terrific as her performance is—her intense screen presence dominates every scene she's in—Lamarr never shakes her Austrian accent, which is a little distracting since the actor playing her father has no such accent. Sanders, who would refine his "sleazy scoundrel" image in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (released the same year as The Strange Woman) and cement it a few years later as venomous Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, is never quite convincing as an Ordinary Joe with a heart of gold. And the film's bleak (and utterly contrived) conclusion trades the psychological complexity that preceded it for standard-issue moralizing.
Few would mistake Dishonored Lady or The Strange Woman for A-list pictures, and neither film completely transcends its melodramatic plot, but these aren't boring oldies, either; each is vibrant and thoroughly entertaining, with surprising thematic depth. Fans of Hedy Lamarr won't want to miss this disc; both films are excellent showcases for Lamarr's icy beauty and sturdy acting chops.
In view of the fact that no jury in the world would convict a woman this stunningly gorgeous, all charges against the Hedy Lamarr Double Feature are summarily dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• "Made in U.S.A." Short Subject
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