Filmmaking | Interviews

The Starlet and the Inventor

1 Jul , 2004  

Written by Benjamin Cole | Posted by:

Just who is the real Hedy Lamarr? Filmmaker Lisa Perkins attempts to answer this question with 'Secret Intelligence: The White-Hot Mind of Hedy Lamarr.'

Lamar may be known to movie buffs as Hedwig Keisler, her stage name when she appeared in the first feature film nude scene in the 1932 Czech film "Ecstasy." In scientific circles, Lamar may be remembered for patenting an invention during World War II for a radio-guided torpedo that was unjammable.

Sound hard to believe? Sound like a story you would have, or should have, heard before? Filmmaker Lisa Perkins thinks so as well, and aims to tell Lamar’s story while delving into questions of prejudice in her film "Secret Intelligence: The Red Hot Mind of Hedy Lamarr."

The Chicago-bred Perkins, who now lives in North Cambridge, recently received a $10,000 grant from the LEF foundation for production of "Secret Intelligence: The Red Hot Mind of Hedy Lamarr." The LEF funds will be used by Perkins and her producing partners Jim Wolpaw and Steve Gentile for travel expenses, equipment rental and film stock for interviews with engineers, cultural critics and old friends of Lamarr. A nine-minute trailer has already been shot, and Perkins said they hope to begin shooting the film as soon as possible.

NewEnglandFilm.com caught up with Perkins to talk about the film.

BC: First of all, why did you think Heddy Lamarr was a worthy subject for a film?

Perkins: Hedy Lamarr is usually remembered, if at all, as the WWII pinup girl who starred in "Sampson and Delilah" opposite Victor Mature. But as the 19-year-old Viennese starlet Hedwig Keisler, she created an international scandal by appearing in the first feature film nude scene, scampering through the woods naked in the Czech film "Ecstasy." That was in 1932. Within less than a decade, when the allies were losing the war at sea, she was to break a second barrier when she patented an invention designed to make a radio guided torpedo that was was unjammable.

Some would argue her inspiration for a "Secret Communcation System" has changed our world. In 1997, three years before she died, the Electronic Frontier Foundation honored Lamarr and her collaborator, avant-garde composer George Antheil, with its prestigious "Pioneer Award."

BC: It seems that Lamarr was somewhat of a contratictory person, going from being a groundbreaking actress and inventor.

Perkins: It seems to me that most people feel discombobulated on some level, however fleetingly, by such hard evidence that a beauty queen has what it takes to patent anything, let alone a technological breakthrough of such consequence. When I stumbled on this story, I experienced kind of a traffic jam of responses. The snarl of my emotions intensified by the thrill of knowing that — it proved that I’d found a terrific new subject.

Within the first week of research I realized that indeed this news has been fraught with skepticism of course, but also terrible confusion. The impulses to adulate and detract vie with an overriding tendency to bury the story, and the emotion it evokes, in the trivia pages. There, one learns, that the events that took enfant terrible Hedwig Keisler from an Austria rife with Nazi sympathizes to Hollywood stardom and the Inventors Hall of Fame are as improbable as some of her films. Over time, the details have become more sensational still.

BC: Do you address some of these issues in "Secret Intelligence?"

Perkins: "Secret Intelligence will separate fact from fiction as we search for the mind and spirit behin Lamar’s Hollywood persona, and the tell the story of the courage, anguish, serendipity and ingenuity that resulted in the 1942 patent. But the first order of business is to investigate the patent in the context of the history of secret communication since WWII, and air the uncertainties about the extent of which she really deserves credit. Could it all be a sort of urban myth?

BC: What do you hope the audience takes away from the finished film?

Perkins: The two lines of inquiry it pursues — Hedy’s life, and the history of her patent, meet my deeper interest in the tenacity of prejudice. Societies that regard themselves as enlightened often imagine that they have eradicated the prejudices of the unenlightened. Unseen prejudice is all the more dangerous and destructive. We hope both to attract the vast audiences tuning into the vacuous celebrity biographies made for A&E and the increasingly raunchy mainstream entertainment, and to challenge the PBS regulars by encouraging them to consider the extent to which prejudice is as commonplace, invisible and dehumanizing today as it was in the 1940s when it comes to the obviously enviable.

We want to encourage as many viewers as possible to wonder why, given Lamarr’s supposed achievement, there is so little interest in her character, or in anything beyond the ‘wow" that the news delivers. I want viewers to see that prejudice they deplore elsewhere sometimes runs unchecked. I want them to sense, viscerally the roots of prejudice we all carry and examine those roots with renewed interest.

BC: What will the LEF funds be used for specifically?

Perkins: LEF funds will help support travel expenses, equipment rental and film stock for interviews wit engineers, cultural critics sand old friends of Hedy.

Fortunately, LEF is interested in projects representing a convergence of disciplines, the unusually range of interests that converge in this story should attract a wide audience and expose viewers to ideas and information they might otherwise ignore. LEF’s mission statement — ‘to sponsor work that challenges its audience with new ways of perceiving the world’ also [coincides] with our larger ambitions for "Secret Intelligence."

Perkins was the associate producer of ‘Loaded Gun: Life, and Death and Dickinson,’ which aired on ‘Independent Lens’ in December 2003. It was also among five American films chosen for INPUT 2004, held in Barcelona.
Lamarr is one of several subjects Perkins and her production team have in the works, all of which are American men and women in the sciences and humanities, a mix of icons and relatively obscure characters that broke barriers and significantly altered the cultural scene.


Perkins was the associate producer of 'Loaded Gun: Life, and Death and Dickinson,' which aired on 'Independent Lens' in December 2003. It was also among five American films chosen for INPUT 2004, held in Barcelona. Lamarr is one of several subjects Perkins and her production team have in the works, all of which are American men and women in the sciences and humanities, a mix of icons and relatively obscure characters that broke barriers and significantly altered the cultural scene.