High Class Whores and Lowly Boxers

Hedy Lamarr as Sandra Kolter and Lana Turner as Sheila Regan in "Ziegfeld Girl" (1941)

"I find men terribly exciting, and any girl who says she doesn't is an anemic old maid, a streetwalker, or a saint". -Lana Turner

"A star can have anything; if there is something she can't buy, there's always a man to give it to her. Does this shock you? Well, I have no use for hypocrisy." -Hedy Lamarr


Hedy Lamarr as Eva in "Ectasy" (1933) directed by Gustav Machatý

"Hedy Lamarr was no mere pliant starlet, but an independent woman with her own agenda, which ultimately led to her downfall. Hedy Lamarr, nee Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, described in her so-called memoirs Louis B. Mayer's indignant and moralizing tone as he lectured her in a London hotel: "I saw 'Ecstasy'. Never get away with that stuff in Hollywood. I don't like what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around the screen."

In his mind's eye, the supposedly sixteen-year-old actress from "Ecstasy" would always be a whore, because in his patriarchal book of knowledge women could only be saints or sinners.

Hedy Lamarr fought for her career, never allowed herself to be taken in by the money-and-sex-machine Hollywood, and she was considered "difficult." They sold her as "the most beautiful woman in the world". Lamarr broke taboos and many women in the audience had their secret pleasure watching her, while the boys gawked. Within the logic of Ecstasy's narrative such independence is evaluated in a positive light, but a similar independence is coded pejoratively in Hollywood's moralistic lax Americana.

In her memoirs, Hedy Lamarr states that she was typecast as the "cold marble type", at least until she took her career in hand by producing her own films. Her temporary market value may have been based on the apparent contradiction in embodying vamp and European princess at one and the same time. But the new ideology of the post-war era ended the demand for high class whores a la Kiesler.

It became known that the "brainy beauty" had with the composer George Antheil patented a frequency hoping system (Spread Spectrum) in 1941, which could be used for remote control of torpedoes, but has now become the technological basis for all wireless communications. Since the patent expired before the government utilized it, the actress/inventor never earned a sou on an invention that is today worth billions. It was a bitter end for a woman who was filled with contradictions, neither Mary nor Magdalena, rather a multi-facetted, intelligent and not uncomplicated, modern woman.

Mayer loaned Lamarr out to Walter Wanger who was preparing "Algiers" (1938) for United Artists. In point of fact, filming had already begun in North Africa without an actress having been cast in the role of Gaby.

It was a lucky break for Lamarr, who suddenly found herself cast in a leading role next to Charles Boyer and Sigrid Gurie. The novice was working with some of the best technicians in the industry, including John Cromwell (director), John Howard Lawson & James M. Cain (script), and James Wong Howe (camera).

Lamarr plays a young Parisian woman who visits the infamous Casbah in Tunis as a tourist with her rich friends and there meets the thief, Pepe le Moko. Pepe and Gaby fall in love and learn that they grew up in the same Parisian quarter. He says: "What did you do before the jewels?" She replies: "I wanted them". Can desire be expressed any more tersely? When her aging fiance confronts her with the affair, she responds pointedly that her love is not a part of the bargain and his rights are validated through marriage. The exchange is clear; she gives her love to a man of her own choosing.

James Wong Howe's camera loves Lamarr's face. Light and shadow sculpt an image of a woman endowed with all the riches of class and pedigree, her eyes, lips and hair brazenly eroticized. White is the actress's color of choice, the color of luxury, the color that best sets off her jet-black hair. It is not known whether Howe saw "Ecstasy", but like Jan Stallich, he understands the photogenic intensity of Lamarr's physiognomy. She looks into the camera, virtually certain of her effect.

In her next comedy, Lamarr was allowed to play not only a "decent" girl, at least according to the script, but also a Viennese refugee. In "Come Live With Me" (1941), Johnny Jones must marry an American or be deported by U.S. Immigration. She finds a penniless writer (James Stewart) and pays him a weekly salary, if he marries her legally. A Hollywood love story. The film was a flop.

Lana Turner, Judy Garland and Hedy Lamarr in "Ziegfeld Girl" (1941) directed by Robert Z. Leonard and Busby Berkeley

Hedy Lamarr received billing above Lana Turner, Hedy plays Sandra Kolter, a refugee married to an exiled musician (Philip Dorn). When by chance she gets a job in Ziegfeld's show -an assistant comments "She looks better under wraps than all the others unwrapped".

In her first show number she is again dressed in white with stars afloat above her black hair, the camera cleverly highlighting her beauty while camouflaging her lack of dancing talent.

Turner's character chooses the path into the abyss by becoming a kept woman for a wealthy patron of the theatre. Sandra takes a path between the two: She returns to her husband after he becomes a successful musician and gives up the stage. But the happy end again cannot cover up the fact that she has probably committed adultery and that she uses men as a means to an end: "Men are easy to handle, if you are not in love with them."

Desire expressed in its most radical form best describes Lamarr's character in "White Cargo" (1943), in which she plays Tondalayo, the jungle girl in the Congo. She is the local prostitute, servicing every European man in the region, just as long as she receives trinkets and pretty clothing in return.

As in "Lady of the Tropics" (directed by Jack Conway and Leslie Fenton in 1939), Lamarr again plays an exotic woman of mixed race, but the Hays Office demanded that all references to her ethnicity be excised, since miscegenation was still a taboo in Hollywood.

With the help of masses of cocoa butter to darken her white skin, a tiny bra and the flimsiest of silk veils covering her lower body, Lamarr embodies a most primitive eroticism, which is further accentuated through high key light and shadows. Tondalayo asks her husband why he doesn't beat her ("Don't you love Tondalayo anymore?") or later she plays with a bull whip, it dawning on her that her marriage is keeping her from getting any more "Manipalava" (sex and money). American males were impressed, streaming to the cinemas in droves.

Her first line, "I am Tondalayo" became a household quotation. The role also bore a delayed fruit when Cecil B. DeMille screened the film years later and decided to cast Lamarr in the leading role in "Samson and Delilah".

Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr and John Garfield in "Tortilla Flat" (1942) directed by Victor Fleming

Lamarr supposedly turned down the leads in both "Casablanca" (1943) and "Gaslight" (1944), both roles going to her some time competitor, Ingrid Bergman. In point of fact, it seems that L.B. Mayer refused to lend Hedy to Warners, at least in the case of the former film.

A very similar scene introduces Lamarr's title character in "The Strange Woman" (1946), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Following a double exposure in which young Jenny, reflected in a pool of water, is transformed from a girl to a young woman, the camera follows her running through the fields to the town, where she gets tips from Lena, the local prostitute, on how to find a john among the sailors in port.

The studio's publicity pushed the evil woman angles, quoting a fire and brimstone preacher: "The lips of a Strange Woman drip honey, and her mouth is smoother than silk. But her fate is bitter as wormwood... sharp as a two-edged sword."

Hedy Lamarr celebrated her last major success in "Samson and Delilah" (1949). The film marries an Old Testament style, evangelical Christian moralism with the theatrical exploitation of unadulterated sex. Even before the film opened in the cinemas, DeMille worked overtime promoting the only barely clothed Lamarr as Delilah, with about as much style as a hawker in a circus side-show. The actress appeared on the cover of Newsweek, which proclaimed her to be a "sex symbol unequalled for pure muzzle velocity in the Western World", and placed her in the vamp tradition of Theda Bara and Jean Harlow.

She becomes the richest courtesan in Gaza. The tragedy is inevitable, especially in the moment when Samson reveals to her the secret of his strength. As in the Old Testament story, she symbolically castrates him by cutting his hair, his phallic power dissipates, and the spider woman triumphs. But what a fall.

Delilah is more fascinating, intelligent, and sexually alluring than every other female in the story, a fact that even Samson grasps and so eventually succumbs to her charms. Thus, while DeMille's primary narrative can do nothing but function in dualistic categories of Madonna and whore, Hedy Lamarr's Delilah transcends those parameters. Inscribed in the primary text is an ancient (and new) patriarchal spirit, defining any independent and consciously erotic woman as the devil's tool. But the fact remains that Paramount's biggest moneymaker of all time (up to that point) only achieved that feat by offering female audiences a positive experience, the spectacle of a woman stronger than all the men around her". Source: www.thefreelibrary.com

'She kept going down, down, down, like Eurydice, to the depths of the criminal world, the enfer of the film noir.’ -Molly Haskell

'There is no art in turning a goddess into a witch, a virgin into a whore, but the opposite operation, to give dignity to what has been scorned, to make the degraded desirable, that calls for art or character'. -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

John Garfield and Lana Turner as Frank Chambers and Cora Smith in "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946)

"Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn't any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her". -"The Postman Always Rings Twice" (James M. Cain)

Lana Turner and John Garfield on the beach during the filming of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946)


"In his essay “Body and Soul”, Leger Grindon identifies four fundamental conflicts that operate throughout the genre: body against soul, opportunity against difference, market values against family values, and anger against justice. These can be further reduced into a single fundamental conflict between the illusory goals a character is led to believe he wants, such as virility, opulence, and the respect of his peers on the one hand, and the goals the character actually needs to fulfill to be happy such as love, stability, and respect for himself on the other.

The parallels between film and boxing go back to the creation of the medium of motion pictures. One of Edison’s most popular exhibitions shown on his kinetoscope was footage of a sparring match between two prize fighters. Movie spectatorship and sports spectatorship are both forms of mass entertainment historically associated with the working class.

Hazel Brooks and Lilli Palmer, lust and love interests of John Garfield in "Body & Soul" (1947).

During Charley’s first championship bout Alice cheers him on ferociously as Peg shrinks away from the violence of the ring. By his last fight they have switched roles, and it is Alice who cringes and Peg who cheers as they both realize that he intends to renege on his arrangement to throw the fight.

Joyce Carol Oates, while ruminating on the misdirection of the protagonist’s aggression in the typical boxing film, notes that “The boxer faces an opponent who is a dream-distortion of himself”. Charley, and the audience with him, ultimately turns his back on the illusory promises of wealth and status and instead re-embraces the laudable goal of taking control of his own destiny and taking simple pride in his own skill.

Provoked by oppression and the possibility of poverty, Charley decides to become a boxer to help his mother avoid welfare, simultaneously satisfying a personal sense of masculine pride.

As a representation of ideologies of the time, "Body and Soul" associates women with family responsibilities and the burden of lack of economic opportunity. As a boxer, Charley quickly achieves success but debauchery eventually separates him from family values. “Marriage, domesticity, and family mean giving up the diversions of fighting (and) in order to cultivate his soul the boxer must take on attributes associated with the female, otherwise he will perish with his body”. -"Masculinity and Violence in American Cinema: Smoke and Mirrors in Body & Soul" by Will Northup (Standford University, 2010)

"Body and Soul" comes equipped with the standard noir tropes. Gangsters and femmes fatale populate this film, and it also features a bitter conclusion. Even though Davis finds that one thing worth living for by the film’s conclusion (your soul), it’s too late. He will surely die. As he so poetically remarks to Roberts, his crooked fight promoter, “Everybody dies.” This flippant, yet profound statement stands as a beautiful summary of the noir ethos in general. It’s existentialism of the highest order.

Charley Davis has been selling himself out, as well as those around him, for the entire body of the film. Only at the conclusion does he understand this, and fully realizes that the human spirit is priceless. Capitalism is repudiated in this film as an abhorrent ideology. Garfield’s life mirrored those of the noir characters he portrayed, and this is the environment that noir flourished in". Source: www.bobbywisecriticism.com

Shelley Winters packs a punch in 1954

John Garfield and Shelley Winters, co-stars in "He Ran All The Way" (1951) directed by John Berry

Shelley Winters avoided a direct confrontation with the HUAC, but during the hearings she quit Hollywood in disgust. As she told the San Francisco Film Festival years later, “It was all because of the Communist scare… I couldn’t stand what was happening.”

"Garfield’s face had always seemed to project worry, and in the way he combined everyguy authenticity with a bubbling neurosis, he presaged the Method actors like Brando and Dean who would follow him. In a way, he had outgrown this kind of role". (Noir City Sentinel)