Hedy Lamarr, the woman many critics and fans alike regard as the most beautiful ever to appear in films, was born Hedwig Eva Kiesler in Vienna, Austria. She was the daughter of Gertrud (Lichtwitz), from Budapest, and Emil Kiesler, a banker from Lember (now known as Lviv). Her parents were both from Jewish families. Hedwig had a calm childhood, but it was cinema that fascinated her. By the time she was a teenager, she decided to drop out of school and seek fame as an actress, and was a student of theater director Max Reinhardt in Berlin. Her first role was a bit part in the German film Geld auf der Straße (1930) (aka “Money on the Street”) in 1930. She was attractive and talented enough to be in three more German productions in 1931, but it would be her fifth film that catapulted her to worldwide fame. In 1932 she appeared in a German film called Ecstasy (1933) (US title: “Ecstasy”) and had made the gutsy move to be nude. It’s the story of a young girl who is married to a gentleman much older than she, but she winds up falling in love with a young soldier. The film’s nude scenes created a sensation all over the world. The scenes, very tame by today’s standards, caused the film to be banned by the US government at the time.
Hedy soon married Fritz Mandl, a munitions manufacturer and a prominent Austrofascist. He attempted to buy up all the prints of “Ecstasy” he could lay his hands on (Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, had a copy but refused to sell it to Mandl), but to no avail (there are prints floating around the world today). The notoriety of the film brought Hollywood to her door. She was brought to the attention of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a contract (a notorious prude when it came to his studio’s films, Mayer signed her against his better judgment, but the money he knew her notoriety would bring in to the studio overrode any moral concerns he may have had). However, he insisted she change her name and make good, wholesome films.
Hedy starred in a series of exotic adventure epics. She made her American film debut as Gaby in Algiers (1938). This was followed a year later by Lady of the Tropics (1939). In 1942, she played the plum role of Tondelayo in the classic White Cargo (1942). After World War II, her career began to decline, and MGM decided it would be in the interest of all concerned if her contract were not renewed. Unfortunately for Hedy, she turned down the leads in both Gaslight (1940) and Casablanca (1942), both of which would have cemented her standing in the minds of the American public. In 1949, she starred as Delilah opposite Victor Mature’s Samson in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic Samson and Delilah (1949). This proved to be Paramount Pictures’ then most profitable movie to date, bringing in $12 million in rental from theaters. The film’s success led to more parts, but it was not enough to ease her financial crunch. She made only six more films between 1949 and 1957, the last being The Female Animal (1958).
Hedy retired to Florida. She died there, in the city of Casselberry, on January 19, 2000.
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