BOOTLEG FILES 541: “The Strange Woman” (1946 drama starring Hedy Lamarr and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer).
LAST SEEN: The film can be found on YouTube and other online video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: A new DVD release is supposedly a digital restoration.
Few people would argue that Hedy Lamarr deserves to be enshrined among the most beautiful women to grace the silver screen during Hollywood’s golden years. But she was also among the most monotonous screen icons of that era. Film historian John Kobal correctly noted that Lamarr was “incapable of transcending roles and films which only her beauty made interesting.”
On two occasions, Lamarr managed to create a kinetic presence. In the 1933 avant-garde Czech art film “Ecstasy,” her willingness to bare her emotions and her clothing resulted in a startling production that bedeviled censors. In her 1938 Hollywood debut “Algiers,” her chemistry opposite Charles Boyer raised a run-of-the-mill drama into an intense romantic experience.
But for the first part of the 1940s, Lamarr’s screen work while under contract at MGM was a curious failure. Although the studio ensured that she would star in A-list productions opposite its top stars, Lamarr somehow seemed detached from her celluloid surroundings. Even Lamarr felt that her talent and time was not being used to its fullest. When her MGM contract expired in 1945, she took the bold step of becoming her own producer, teaming with fellow MGM exiles Jack Chertok and Hunt Stromberg to pursue the risky world of independent production as an avenue to re-establish herself as an actress.
Lamarr’s first choice in this new indie realm was an adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’ best-selling novel “The Strange Woman.” Williams’ overheated novel “Leave Her to Heaven” was successfully adapted into a hit film starring Gene Tierney, and Lamarr felt that lightning could strike twice with her. To direct this project, Lamarr and her producing partners took the bold step of hiring Edgar G. Ulmer, a prolific filmmaker that spent most of his career toiling in little-considered B-level fare. Today, film scholars recognize Ulmer as one of the most intriguing iconoclasts of American cinema – but back in the 1940s, he had little clout, and it was a considerable risk by Lamarr to have him behind the camera.
Ultimately, “The Strange Woman” never quite found its vibe. The film made a serious effort to push the Production Code-mandated boundaries of good taste with broad hints of lust, incest and religious hypocrisy, but the story was too broad to have a genuine emotional punch. Even worse, Lamarr’s talent could not fully embrace the complexities of her role. The resulting production is certainly strange, but for the wrong reasons.
“The Strange Woman” opens in Bangor, Maine, in 1824, when little Jenny Hager taunts the timid Ephraim Poster for not being able to swim. She pushes Ephraim into a stream and he almost drowns, but she quickly fishes him out and proclaims herself his savior in view of wise old Judge Saladine (played by Alan Napier, best known today as the butler Alfred on the TV series “Batman”). The judge’s daughter Meg inquires if Jenny can join her at boarding school – but the judge is dismissive over the idea of elevating Jenny, the daughter of a working class drunk, to a higher social level. Instead, he offers to hire little Jenny as a domestic servant, but she refuses – for her, its first class or nothing.
Years later and Jenny grows up as a free-spirited wench – Lamarr, at 32, is visibly too old to be the teenage Jenny, and it is unclear how her character developed a Viennese accent in Maine. Her father is still a drunk, but he has become physically abusive and regularly beats her. One line of dialogue vaguely suggests that Jenny enjoys these thrashings, but in this film she escapes a whipping and runs to the house of the town’s richest man, lumber merchant Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), who gives her shelter and then quickly decides that he should marry her. Thanks to Isaiah’s money, Jenny becomes a local philanthropist and is accepted as a social and moral force in town.
And, yes, Isaiah is the father of Ephraim, the would-be drowning victim. He grows up to be a handsome young man (Louis Hayward), but he is still something of a weakling. Jenny flirts wildly with Ephraim while Isaiah’s health deteriorates, but then she decides to pursue the virile John Evered (George Sanders, sporting bogus sideburns), the superintendent of Isaiah’s lumber operations. John is the sweetheart of Meg, the judge’s daughter (played as a grown-up by Hillary Brooke), but that doesn’t stop Jenny from turning on the charm. After Isaish is drowned in a canoe accident created by Ephraim, Jenny bars Ephraim from the family mansion and pursues John, who marries her. Alas for Jenny, a visiting pastor offers a wrathful sermon that forces her to acknowledge the wicked behavior and the wreckage she has brought around her.
It is difficult to watch “The Strange Woman” today without comparing it to Carol Burnett’s classic TV skits in which she skewered legendary Hollywood glamour queens with intense emoting and excessive plotting. The film utterly lacks subtlety – everything is played with such heavy brushstrokes that the characters become caricatures and their machinations become inane gyrations.
As a director, Ulmer is mostly focused on presenting Lamarr as the most beautiful human on the planet – and, in that sense, he succeeds brilliantly. The star never looked more glorious. But, at the same time, the material cruelly confirmed her limits as an actress. She clearly gave more attention to her costume and make-up than to her line readings, and her efforts come across as feeble.
Doug Krentzlin, in his review of this film on the World Cinema Paradise website, beautifully summed up the film’s deficits. “There are some fleeting moments when ‘The Strange Woman’ threatens to become a perverse kitsch classic, such as Jenny’s wicked smile as her father starts whipping her or her seduction of John Evered during a raging thunderstorm where, at the height of their passion, a bolt of lightning causes a tree to burst into flames,” he writes. “But such moments are few and far between, buried under tons of tedious dialogue as the characters talk endlessly about their desires and aspirations. The one interesting aspect of the story is how Jenny uses her newfound wealth to help those townspeople in need, but even this isn’t enough to make up for the screenplay’s defects.”
But back in the day, “The Strange Woman” was well received by the critics and turned a modest profit. Lamarr and her co-producers were emboldened by the experience to create another independent film, 1947’s “Dishonored Lady.” And “The Strange Woman” secured Lamarr her most famous Hollywood role – when Cecil B. DeMille screened the film, he immediately decided to cast Lamarr as the Biblical temptress in “Samson and Delilah.”
“The Strange Woman” fell into the public domain and many of the copies now available for home viewing are strictly adequate. A new DVD release from Film Chest promises an HD digital restoration, but that copy has more than a few scratches that muck up the presentation. The film can also be found for viewing on several online video sites.
Today, however, most people remember Hedy Lamarr as the punch line of a dumb “Blazing Saddles” joke rather than as major Hollywood star. Go figure!
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