Combustible Celluloid
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With: Anthony Loder, Mel Brooks, Jennifer Hom, Wendy Colton, Fleming Meeks, Richard Rhodes, Jeanine Basinger, Peter Bogdanovich, Anne Helen Petersen, Diane Kruger, Stephen Michael Shearer, Robert Osborne, Denise Loder-DeLuca, Roy Windham, Manya Breuer, Guy Livingston, Tony Rothman, Danijela Cabric, Nino Amarena, Michael Tilson Thomas, Guy Livingston, Arthur McTighe, Lodi Loder, James Loder, William J. Birnes, David Hughes, Maj. Darrel Grob
Written by: Alexandra Dean
Directed by: Alexandra Dean
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 88
Date: 03/09/2018

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Heavenly Body

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This moment of women rising up and taking control of their own empowerment is the perfect time to release a documentary about Hedy Lamarr. She was a woman of two extremes. She was arguably the most beautiful woman ever to grace the silver screen, so much so that even gorgeous people like Vivien Leigh and Myrna Loy tried to copy her look. At the same time, she was also brilliant, perhaps a genius, and her mind was always working on inventions and other ways to solve problems. The main thesis of Alexandra Dean's documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is that no one, men especially, could believe that these two things came in the same package.

The documentary is an attempt to right this wrong, but also to cast a tragic light on this life. Lamarr's inventions were ignored, and then she also grew older, out of her looks. She opted for plastic surgery, and even suggested ways of improving that technique, but eventually she came to look like a surprised ghost. Finally, in the late 1990s, she granted a long phone interview to Forbes reporter Fleming Meeks, and his tapes provide the narration for the movie. The movie provides detailed explanations of Lamarr's inventing prowess and some of her achievements, including what is arguably her most lasting one.

Very simply, during WWII, she was concerned with the problem of torpedos that were launched into the ocean and frequently missed their targets. So she came up with the idea of a radio-controlled torpedo that could be guided. The problem was that if the enemy came upon the correct radio frequency, it could be jammed. So she invented an idea for frequency-hopping, switching frequencies every split-second, so that the signal could not be tracked. Though she never received payment for this idea, it was used in later years, and then adapted for today's Wifi and Bluetooth technology.

Everything is in place for a great documentary, and yet Bombshell is only a very good one. For one thing, it doesn't offer many movie clips of Lamarr's films, even though two of them are free and in the public domain (Algiers and Edgar G. Ulmer's The Strange Woman). Perhaps this is because Lamarr's career isn't really a major one. She made few classics and no real masterpieces. She caused a scandal by appearing nude in Gustav Machaty's Ecstasy (1933), her biggest hit was probably a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle, Samson and Delilah (1949), and she was teased for a camp classic called White Cargo (1942). ("I am Tondelayo!"). Instead, Dean offers quite a bit of unrelated stock footage to illustrate the time period, rather than Lamarr herself.

And those times were tough. Lamarr kept trying to marry, six times, all failed, and became a drug user; some of this stuff just seems to be mentioned, as if in passing. As the documentary goes on, however, it is blessed with plenty of stills and some home movie footage, sharply defining Lamarr's decline. It also uses talking head interviews, notably Lamarr's children and grandchildren — her granddaughter Lodi Loder seems to have inherited Hedy's looks — as well as a shocking appearance from a briefly adopted son who was quickly given up. We also get movie experts like Peter Bogdanovich, Jeanine Basinger, and Robert Osborne (who was also her friend). Diane Kruger is here, offering some comments and narrating some of Lamarr's letters. And, for fun, so is Mel Brooks, seemingly because of a Hedy Lamarr-related joke he included in Blazing Saddles.

So, I am recommending Bombshell, to anyone who still can't believe that beauty and brains can go together, or to anyone who is looking for a possible female role model. But I feel that a two-part life like this one deserves something a little more epic, something more awe-inspiring, perhaps a long-form treatment like O.J.: Made in America, or maybe a magnificent biopic (though who would play Hedy?). Especially in this day and age, she's more than just trivia.

Kino Lorber released a nice Blu-ray edition, which looks great, even though the quality of its source material varies wildly; the old Lamar film clips are a bit fuzzy, while the new interviews are sharp. It includes two audio mixes (5.1 and 2.0) and optional subtitles. Extras include short interview outtakes with Gillian Jacobs, Mel Brooks, and Robert Osbourne (less than 2 minutes each), an interview with the director (about 3 minutes), and a trailer.

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