Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr, one of the Golden Age’s standout beauties, made an auspicious American screen debut opposite Charles Boyer in Algiers (1938), cast as a poor but now jewel-laden Parisian about to sell herself in marriage to portly, much-older Robert Greig. But in the casbah she clicks with Boyer, perfectly matched in their nonchalance and devastating glamour, soon smoldering together quite exquisitely. In the next two decades, Lamarr made mostly lousy movies, with even her most famous films fairly terrible. In Ziegfeld Girl (1941), a 40s version of Valley of the Dolls, she gives a sleepwalking performance. You wouldn’t be surprised if the film had a late-breaking revelation that showgirl Hedy was actually a vampire; she’s, at the very least, some kind of zombie. In White Cargo (1942), no better than a lesser Tarzan movie, she announces, “I am Tondelayo,” then primarily speaks of herself in the third person thereafter. As vehicles go, it was worthy of Maria Montez.
Samson and Delilah (1949) remains Lamarr’s best remembered movie, despite being a clumsy, slow, and dramatically anemic spectacle. It took five costume designers to clothe her Delilah, and yet she and co-star Victor Mature have similar hairstyles (and zero chemistry). This is a laughable love/hate soap opera, and, despite her stunning face and reasonable vitality, Lamarr gives an obvious and amateurish performance that is perfectly in sync with Cecil B. DeMille’s cardboard direction. And in what universe could Lamarr and Angela Lansbury be sisters?
Lamarr did get one exceptional role, as the independent career woman of MGM’s H. M. Pulham, Esq. (1941). She came through with an outstanding performance, proof that she was, after all, an actress as well as a goddess. Directed by King Vidor, this is a very fine and unusually mature drama, a modern-feeling and quite intelligent look at life’s choices. How many other Golden Age pictures penetratingly deal with self-fulfillment and mid-life crises? Not a soap or a melodrama, it’s a surprisingly probing examination of two lives, the title character (Robert Young) and the female lead, Marvin Myles (Lamarr). Does anyone on the planet look less like a Marvin than Hedy?
Young plays a young man from a privileged Boston family. He meets Lamarr when they are co-workers at a New York ad agency. They fall in love. Freed from being cast solely because of her looks, Lamarr delivers a smart, strong piece of acting that is consistently interesting and nuanced. Though she loves Young, she refuses to compromise herself to fit into Boston society. Young, too, was never better, honestly struggling with his character’s conventional and unconventional inclinations. He and Lamarr create a believably romantic yet complicated connection.
Handsomely mounted and sensitively written, H. M. Pulham, Esq. is a movie with genuine integrity without being full of itself. It never feels pretentious in its tackling of life’s big questions. Yes, it’s one of Vidor’s more underrated movies, but I think it’s most important as the film in which the ravishing Hedy Lamarr gave her one and only superb performance.