Weed & Feed

One of the earliest posts on this blog was about how I once used a weed whacker to hack down all the poor grass in my yard instead of buying a lawn mower.

As I outlined in the post, that strategy was…ill-advised.

Though I do now mow my lawn properly, I’ve mostly stayed out of the war raging between the weeds and the grass.

The weeds are winning and it isn’t even close. 

But a few weeks ago Lowe’s had the entire Scott’s Four Step Lawn Care program on sale.  For those who aren’t familiar, the Scott’s program essentially consists of four bags of specially formulated weed and feed that you spread onto your lawn at eight-week intervals starting in early spring. 

Right then and there, I decided to enter the war on weeds.

I went a step further and drew up a complicated battle plan; the front yard is filled with bare patches, while the back yard is overrun with weeds.  I decided to first plant some additional grass seed in the front.

If you plant new grass seed, you aren’t supposed to use Step One of the program, as the powerful weed killer will also kill your new seedlings.  So in addition to Step One (which I would use on the back yard only), I bought a small bag of booster fertilizer for the front yard.

I planted the seeds, drew up a calendar for application, stacked the bags in the garage and went about my life for the next few weeks.

This past weekend, I implemented Step One.

How did it go?

Nearly five years after my weed whacking episode, my do-it-yourself lawn care skills have barely improved.

First off, I completely forgot about not putting Step One on the front yard.  I spread it everywhere, killing off the seedlings that were just beginning to sprout.

The special bag of booster fertilizer remains forgotten on the bottom of the stack of the four step program.

Next, my distribution of the granules was uneven at best.  Despite the package directions insisting that one not use a hand spreader, well, I used a hand spreader.

(By hand spreader I mean a small spreader that you carry and crank to spit out the granules, rather than the kind with wheels that you push.)

Some of the granules clumped together and jammed the tiny hole of the hand spreader.  Nothing would come out, and I would shake and bang the spreader until the clump broke free, suddenly releasing a wild stream of the granules onto the lawn.  As I made my way down the lawn, there were patches with no weed killer and then big orange piles of the stuff. 

This seemed…not good.

I adjusted the setting to the widest opening, so the granules poured out even faster, but the thing continued to jam.

I put on gloves and broke up all the clumps, but then when refilling the spreader, a huge pile of weed killer spilled out all over the grass. 

I used a rake and a broom to smooth out these piles as best I could.

Once I’d applied the whole bag, I put everything away and glanced again at the directions.


According to the directions, one bag could cover a yard the size of two tennis courts.

My lawn is roughly the size of one quarter of one tennis court.  And I used the whole bag.

I’m no expert (obviously), but this seems like it will not turn out well for my lawn.

I swept and raked off as much as I could, and warned all the neighbors to keep their dogs off my lawn for…well, the decade or so.

In the end, this seems like your classic good news, bad news situation.

Good news:  Pretty sure all my weeds will be gone in a few weeks.

Bad news:  All the grass might be too.

Good news:  Probably won’t need to apply steps two through four this year.

Bad news:  Already paid for them.

As I said in last week’s blog on clichés, you win some, you lose some.

The Other Love (1947): “Rage Against the Dying of the Light”

Years before Bette Davis scored a Best Actress Oscar nomination playing Judith Traherne, Barbara Stanwyck knew the leading role in Dark Victory was a winner.  Despite starring in the Lux Radio Theatre version of the play, she couldn’t convince David O. Selznick or Jack Warner that she could play a woman in the prime of her life cut down by disease.

Eight years later, she finally got the chance in The Other Love.  Stanwyck plays Karen Duncan, a world famous concert pianist who is sent to a Swiss sanatorium to treat a serious lung illness.

In Dark Victory, Judith discovers her fate when she accidentally discovers her case file stamped with “prognosis negative” on her doctor’s desk.  It is a brutal moment of reckoning.

For Karen Duncan, the truth comes slowly.  It is in these moments when the film—and Stanwyck—shine brightest.

On her first night in the sanatorium, a white orchid is delivered to her room.  Thinking her handsome doctor sent the flower, she is pleased and elated.  She then discovers that the flowers were sent by “a man who died months ago to a woman who died yesterday.”  That is, the front desk forgot to cancel the standing order for the daily flowers that were sent to the previous occupant of her room.

Dr. Tony Stanton takes her cigarette lighter away and forbids smoking.  While searching around in his office, she discovers a drawer overflowing with the confiscated lighters of the dead.  

She hears a patient coughing and a look of pure horror crosses her face.  Lost in an employee-only area she sees nurses wheel away a body.

Despite Dr. Stanton’s constant assurances, death surrounds her.

Because it is the 1940’s, Dr. Stanton does not tell her the full extent of her illness, and that it is possibly terminal.  Instead, he gives her rules she is not to question.  She can’t smoke, she can’t drink, and worst of all—she can’t play the piano.

She can never have too much exertion.

Though she follows them, she chafes against the restrictions.

After an ordered month in bed, Karen is set loose from the sanatorium for a day’s shopping in the village.  By chance she meets Paul Clermont, an attractive race car driver who flirts with her and invites her to dinner.  Though she refuses, when she returns to the sanatorium, she is overjoyed at the normality and believes she is on the road to recovery.

Dr. Stanton—who unbeknownst to Karen has just met with a specialist who pronounced her case all but hopeless—forbids future visits to the village, chides her for getting too much excitement, and pours her a tonic to calm her.

Mistaking his concern for jealousy, Karen throws the glass into the floor so that it shatters.  (Editor’s note:  There is no move I love more in the 1940’s than female stars smashing glassware in fits of temper.  Stanwyck gives a fine example here, but Joan Crawford in Humoresque sets the standard.)

The doctor’s restrictions have become chains.

His concern is understandable—her life is in the balance, and his job is to keep her alive.

But her job is to live.

Karen puts one of her own records on the turntable.  For a moment, she just stands there, listening to the music she once made that she can no longer play.  As if to prove to herself that she is well, she goes to the piano and begins to play.

Her inability to keep up with her own recording shatters her.

She sneaks away from the sanatorium and finds Paul Clermont, the impulsive, attractive man she met in the village.  Knowing nothing of her illness, he sweeps her away into a whirlwind romance of drinking, smoking, and gambling.

We are supposed to see Karen’s action as reckless, that she is putting her small chance of recovery at risk.  But when she sits at a piano playing and smoking, it is clear she is a woman who understands she only has so much time left.  

Death stalks her.  Paul gives her a white orchid, bringing up the ghost of the first night at the sanatorium.  And after Paul kisses her passionately, she loses her breath and rushes from the room.

For the first time, she begins coughing, huge wracking coughs she cannot control.  Coughs like the ones she heard from the dying in the sanatorium.  

“Oh, please, God, no. Not now.”

She lays her head on a table.

“Oh, please, God, no,”  she says.  “No, not now.”

Dr. Stanton, who cares for her as more than just a patient, eventually tracks her down and shows up on the scene by lighting her cigarette with the lighter he took from her.

In the end she returns to him and the sanatorium, chastened and significantly weakened by her escapades.  The doctor brings her back from the brink of death, and they marry.

At the film’s end, she is wrapped up in blankets in their cozy little cottage while the doctor plays the piano badly and she speaks of a future that will never come.  She has gotten past her petulant tantrums, and waits patiently for death.

Reader, I hated this ending.

In Dark Victory, Judith gave up a shallow life for a deeper one when she accepted the terms of her brain tumor.  Though she could not defeat the tumor, she lived her life and died on her own terms, with a dignity that gave her a victory even over death.

Karen Duncan’s death did not feel like acceptance.  It felt like surrender.

I once read that when the great cook Julia Child lost her sense of taste, she lost her will to live.  I do not believe that the great pianist Karen Duncan would live in a world where she could not play piano.

Exist, yes.  But not live.

Better to die after a final concert, pouring her heart out into the piano one last time.

I didn’t want her wrapped in blankets while her doctor-husband played mediocre piano.  

She would die, there was no outrunning her fate, but I did not want her lighter to end up in that doctor’s box.  

Rather she fling it over a cliff, and herself after it.

“Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Avoid Clichés Like the Plague

It was a dark and stormy night when I sat down to write this, the Great American blog.  It wasn’t going to be easy, but you know what they say—no pain, no gain. 

A few minutes into the writing, I began to think of all the other things I could be doing instead.  Instead of sweating away at my keyboard, I could take the path of least resistance.  Instead of dyeing eggs this Easter, perhaps I should dye my hair.

Everyone knows blondes have more fun.

But then again, the grass is always greener on the other side, so I put my nose to the grindstone.  Even if I wanted to have my cake and eat it too, at the end of the day, you can only succeed by grinding it out and putting your blood, sweat, and tears into your work.  Success takes the stairs.

I turned away from the window and got back on track.

I wracked my brain for a topic, one that could stand out amidst the crowd.  In these modern times, everyone is running so fast and is so busy being busy that they never stop to smell the roses or read the blogs.  I didn’t want my ideas to fall on deaf ears.  I wanted something that would revel a tried-and-true nugget of truth, that would speak to people of all walks of life, from the blue-collar workers of real America to the academics in their ivory towers.

I would wait for an idea to come to me.  After all, good things come to those who wait.

I was definitely going to have to think outside the box for this one.

I just hoped my final blog wouldn’t be filled with clichés, which are so hard to avoid.  After all, clichés are clichés because they’re true.

Then the clouds parted and the sun came out.

Little did I know that right at that exact moment, my neighbors were preparing for an epic Easter Egg hunt.  Several kids were running around the yard looking for eggs, screaming like banshees and having the time of their lives.

Never a dull moment around here.

Perhaps I should throw aside my work and join them?  After all, all work and no play makes Melanie a dull girl.

In the nick of time, I was spared from making a terrible decision.  All of the sudden, there was a mass exodus from the yard into my neighbor’s bathroom.

Oh well, I thought, realizing my time to join the hunt had passed. 

When it’s all said and done, you win some, you lose some.

Easy come, easy go.

Yet every cloud has a silver lining—in the end, they hadn’t cooked the eggs long enough and they all ended up with salmonella poisoning.

Turns out that rose was full of thorns.

But don’t worry.  After an uncomfortable twenty-four hours or so…

They all lived happily ever after.

Notorious: Hollywood’s Longest, Sexiest Kiss

Cary Grant.  Ingrid Bergman.  Alfred Hitchcock.

Combine any two and you’ll find a good film.  Indiscreet (Grant and Bergman).  Spellbound (Bergman and Hitch).  North by Northwest (Hitch and Grant).

But only in 1946’s Notorious do you get all three.   

The title refers to Bergman’s character Alicia Huberman, the cynical daughter of a convicted German traitor with a reputation for hard drinking and easy virtue.  

T.R. Devlin (Grant) is a government agent who offers her a job as an American spy who will infiltrate a group of Nazis that once associated with her father.

Neither Devlin nor Alicia know the exact nature of their assignment when they head down to Brazil.  While awaiting their instructions, they begin a passionate love affair.  Alicia is head over heels, but Devlin is more reserved as he considers her checkered past.

Hitchcock showcases the depth of their passion in one of his most famous scenes, an extended kiss that outsmarted the censors and was all the sexier for its restraint.  In 1946, the censors still insisted on putting their fingerprints all over Hollywood’s films.  “Scenes of passion” were severely restricted and kisses could not be too long.  To get around this, Hitchcock shot Bergman and Grant interrupting their short kisses with conversation.  They talk over dinner plans, they touch faces and ears, then stay glued to one another as they cross the room to answer the telephone.  They never kiss for more than a few seconds, but Hitch manages a three minute scene that was absolutely sensational for its time and still holds up today.

It is after this scene that Devlin gets his devastating orders—Alicia is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), a friend of her father’s and an older man who once lusted after her.

It is here that the cat and mouse game between Alicia and Devlin begins.  She wants him to intervene with his superiors, to insist that she is not the kind of woman who would sleep with a man she does not love.  Except that before him, she was exactly that kind of woman.  Devlin wants her to refuse the assignment to prove her love for him.

There is passion but not yet trust between them, and neither expresses their wish to the other.

Alicia accepts the assignment with resigned stoicism, and the deeper she delves into Sebastian’s inner circle, the more she and Devlin mistrust their love.

Devlin must force the woman he cannot admit he loves into the arms of another man, and Alicia goes because she sees helping America as redemption for her past.

Hitchcock ratchets up the tension when Alicia must steal a key to the wine cellar and pass it off to Devlin during a party so he can search for evidence of a Nazi weapons stockpile.

The plot thickens further still when Sebastian’s mother catches onto Alicia’s deception and begins slowly poisoning her.  

Will Devlin rescue her before it’s too late?

It’s a sin to spoil the ending of a Hitchcock film but this one satisfies as much as any he ever made.  

Notorious is the most romantic of Hitchcock’s films.  Unlike Rebecca, the hero and heroine are on equal terms with one another, and are perfectly matched—or will be, if they can only learn to trust one another in love as well as work.  

It’s been a long time since I first watched Notorious in a film studies class in college, and I’d forgotten just how damn good it is.  Not an inch of fat to cut, or a single false note.  It draws you in from the opening scene and doesn’t let you go until the final credits.

No matter how addicted you are to your smartphone, you won’t even glance at it until Hitchcock releases you from his tale of suspense and romance.

When I wrote about Rebecca, I posited that I was looking forward to the Netflix remake, as I’d long thought that as good as it was, it was ripe for a modern take unshackled from the strictures of the production code.

The Netflix remake was not the movie I wanted, and it made me think that Hitchcock’s films are so good they can’t be bettered.

That’s certainly the case with Notorious, which would entail filling Hitcock’s, Ingrid Bergman’s (who really runs away with the film) and Cary Grant’s shoes.

Who would dare even try?

I’m shocked to say that this classic is available for free in its entirety on YouTube.  Watch it before it’s gone.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Back from the Dead

Who’s turning all these tables?

I’m talking about records.

Can you believe that vinyl sales are booming?

Neither can I.  But I read it on the internet.

Where truth reigns.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, in the first half of 2020, more vinyl records were sold than CDs.

This technology has been outdated since my birth, surpassed by cassettes (my preferred nostalgia machine), CDs, and now digital streaming.  You can’t make curated playlists.  You can’t download them onto your phone.

You can’t even play them in your car.

So who’s buying them?

Audiophiles, sure.  But audiophiles have always been around, and I can’t imagine there’s been a six-fold increase in the number of people who insist that records are the best way to “experience” music.

It’s not pandemic related.  This steady increase has been going on since 2010, and sales are at their highest levels since the 1980’s.

“It’s the hipsters,” my friend Scott suggested. 

That would seem right if all this vinyl was being bought in second hand shops, as hipsters dug through old classics.

But I’ve seen records at Barnes and Noble, and Target.

That’s right, Target.

Not exactly the epicenter of the counterculture.

And the selection at B&N and Target is downright bizarre—I could understand buying a vinyl version of stone cold classics like Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, the Beatles’ White Album, or Johnny Cash’s Live At Folsom Prison.

But are people really breaking down the door to get a vinyl copy of the Pretty Woman soundtrack? 

And the Frozen soundtrack is not exactly an exercise in nostalgia.

Are there ten-year-olds running around saying, “Hearing Let It Go on vinyl is just a much more immersive experience.  It takes me right back to when I was nine and first heard Idina Menzel’s voice.  There’s just no comparing the quality to an MP3, man.  Now can you pass me my goldfish crackers and sippy cup?”

Of course, vinyl and CDs combined are still just a drop in the bucket compared to streaming, the juggernaut that has devoured nearly all music sales.  Neither vinyl nor CDs can compete with having nearly every song ever recorded available with the tap of a button and a ten dollar a month subscription.

I don’t have any records, and I still haven’t fully embraced streaming.

Instead, I’m still growing my CD collection.  Forty years from now, when it returns from the dead, I’m gonna look like a genius.

At least, that’s the plan.

Five Years of Blogging

Thirty years of scribblings…

Exactly five years ago today, I hung my shingle out on the internet.  Over the past five years, I’ve blogged with varying amounts of regularity, shooting for at least a post a week.

When I started, I wasn’t sure how long the blog would last, but I had an idea that I would take to it.  For while it’s been five years of blogging, I’ve spent most of my life putting words on paper. 

The earliest notebook in the photograph above is a diary I started on Christmas Day, 1990, at nine years old.  I’m a sporadic diary keeper at best, and most of the paper in the stack are novels and short stories.  The diaries are mainly commonplace books where I collect quotes and ideas.  This blog has become the record of my daily life.

Over the past five years, I’ve written 160,000 words across over 700 posts.

To take a quick trip down memory lane, here are links to some of the highest viewed posts in the blog’s history.

2016 – Movie Night At the Cheswick

Eulogy for movies nights at our local cinema.

2016 – Dear Michael Phelps

Growing up with the king of the pool.

2017 – Epic Quests for Rings

Lacey Chabert is the Tom Brady of Hallmark movies, which aren’t that different from watching a football game.  A personal favorite, and an opinion I still stand by.

2017 – The Girls in the Stacks

Who says nothing exciting ever happens in libraries?

2018 – Whole 30 Fail

I try the Whole 30 diet so you don’t have to.

2019 – Night At The Airport

How I nearly ended up on a terrorist watch list.

2020 – Stella Dallas: Barbara’s Four-Hanky Smash

Barbara Stanwyck’s Oscar that got away.

2021 – The First Divine Feud: Bette and Miriam

If you thought Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were rivals, you should’ve seen Bette and Miriam Hopkins. They did all but pull one another’s hair onset. Actually, they probably did that too.

And the most viewed post in the five-year history of this blog?

2020 – Double Indemnity: The Crown Jewel of Film Noir

Even in a bad wig, never bet against Barbara Stanwyck.

Time is the most precious thing we have. I appreciate you giving me some of yours. Hidden diaries have their uses, but writers need readers to complete the circle of creative life.

Thanks for being here.  See you Sunday.

Swing Time: Dancing With the Real Stars

Every expert has gaping holes in his knowledge.  High school English teachers who’ve never read Hamlet, wine connoisseurs who’ve never tasted Veuve Clicquot, TV critics who’ve never watched Breaking Bad.  

They’re not frauds.  There’s just too much for anyone to watch, read, and do it all.

And me?  I had the audacity to dub myself an “amateur classic film historian” without having seen a single Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers collaboration.

No longer.

Swing Time is a frothy confection that goes down smooth and doesn’t ask much of the viewer but to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.  Astaire and Rogers do all the work for you.  It is the fifth of the ten movies they made together, and the one that made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. 

Astaire plays John “Lucky” Garnett, a dancer and gambler who must earn $25,000 to regain the approval of his future father-in-law after he is late to his own wedding.  Broke but confident, Lucky and his friend hitch a train to New York, where they immediately meet Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), a local dance instructor.

Lucky immediately falls in love, and soon he is doing everything he can to not earn $25,000 and a ticket back to his forgotten fiancé.  Penny eventually returns his affections, and a series of contrived plot twists keep them temporarily apart before the inevitable happy ending.

The plot is silly and merely an excuse to get Fred and Ginger dancing.

No one is complaining.  Not me, and not the audiences of 1936, who were well acquainted with the particular charm that is Fred and Ginger on the dance floor, so much so that the film set an all-time record for opening day ticket sales at Radio City Music Hall.

After their first nine films together (made over a six year period; the tenth was a reunion made a decade later), Ginger moved on to more dramatic roles and eventually won a Best Actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle.  Fred kept making musicals and found new dance partners—Rita Hayworth, Paulette Goddard, Lucille Bremer.  Some may have had superior technique, but all paled in comparison to his collaborations with Ginger.

If you want to understand their enduring magic, you don’t need to watch all nine films.  You don’t even have to watch all of Swing Time.

Less than a quarter of the way into the film, Fred’s character is pretending not to know how to dance so that Ginger’s Penny will teach him.  After his bumbling around, she declares him a hopeless case and advises him not to waste his money on lessons.  Overhearing this, her boss fires her on the spot.

To save her job, Fred promises to illustrate how much he’s learned in just ten minutes with Ginger.  She’s annoyed and skeptical, but he leads her into the number “Pick Yourself Up” and they glide and tap around the dance floor in perfect sync.

Except for two quick flash reaction shots of Ginger’s boss (unusual in an Astaire/Rogers number, but absolutely necessary for the plot), it’s all one long take.  

The filmmakers—and Fred and Ginger—are confident enough to let the dancing stand for itself.

No close-ups of their feet or faces, no cuts to cover a misstep.  Fred and Ginger go out there and tap dance their hearts out.  It’s full of joy, and fun, and whimsy.

For us.  For Fred and Ginger, it took an exceptional work ethic, a persistence for perfection, and dozens upon dozens of grueling takes.

Their genius is that you don’t see the labor.  You see charisma, originality, and a magic that goes beyond technical mastery into something that can never be duplicated.  

Despite their long careers apart, the two are first and forever linked together.  There is a combined Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Wikipedia page (an honor not showered upon such famous Hollywood screen duos as Bogart and Bacall, Myrna Loy and William Powell, or Joan Crawford and Clark Gable.)

So it was no surprise that when Fred Astaire won an honorary Oscar in 1950, it was Ginger Rogers who presented it to him.

And when they were announced at the 1967 Oscars as the “undisputed king and queen of the musical” no one disagreed.

No one ever will.

Hedy Lamarr: Cursed by Beauty

Born Hedwig Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, Hedy Lamarr’s life is one too strange for fiction.  At twelve, she won her first beauty contest.  She began her film career in Austria, starring in the film Ecstasy when she was only eighteen.  The film was little more than pornogrpahy, and the controversy stirred up by Kiesler appearing completely naked and portraying an orgasm became something of an albatross when she later wanted to be taken seriously.

At nineteen she became a trophy wife to a possessive Austrian arms dealer who tried to buy up and destroy every Ecstasy movie print and succeeded only in driving up demand for the film.  In 1937, with Europe on the brink of war and her husband selling ammunition to the Nazis, Kiesler fled him and Austria.

In London she met studio head Louis B. Mayer, who was looking for cheap talent among the Europeans hoping to get out of Dodge before the bombs started dropping. Kiesler fit the bill, and the MGM contract was the Jewish actresses’ ticket to America.

Rechristened as Hedy Lamarr and promoted by Mayer as “the world’s most beautiful woman,” Lamarr started her American film career in Algiers (1938) opposite Charles Boyer.

In Ziegfeld Girl, 1941

She starred in a string of MGM films that, like Algiers, are not well remembered today.  She’d gone from trophy wife to trophy actress—her roles emphasized her beauty, and she was treated mostly as a gorgeous decoration.

After a long day at the studio, Lamarr did not socialize.  She spent evenings in her little laboratory at home and invented things.

That’s right—Hedy Lamarr, who was never given anything more interesting to do on screen than wear a heavenly crown, showcase clothes, and whip Samson (as Delilah) had an extraordinary intellect.

She helped her friend Howard Hughes solve an aeronautics problem by redesigning the plane’s wing to function more like a bird’s wing.  She invented a dissolvable coca-cola tablet that could be added to water.

By this time, the United States had entered World War II.  More than anything, Lamarr wanted to help America defeat the Germans.  She felt that the key to breaking Germany’s back was to destroy its U-boats.

Torpedoes were the weapon of choice against submarines, but they were difficult to control once launched.  The best known way to control them was by radio, but the enemy could often easily jam the radio waves controlling the torpedo and knock them off target.

If you could make a torpedo that couldn’t be jammed, you could succeed against the U-boats.

Hedy Lamarr, “the world’s most beautiful woman” had an idea how.

Together with musician George Antheil, Lamarr developed a secret communication system whereby the torepo and the ship could communicate through constantly changing frequencies that were nearly impossible to jam.  Called “frequency hopping,” Lamarr got the idea from the new radio station dials.

Hedy Kiesler Markey’s (aka Hedy Lamarr) Patent

By 1942, Lamarr and Antheil had received a patent for their frequency hopping idea.  They donated their patent to the National Inventors Council, put together to develop ideas to help America win the war.  Lamarr considered quitting Hollywood and joining the council to play her part in the war.

Can you guess what happened next?  Did the U.S. military put Lamarr’s technology to use?  Did American torpedoes designed by a starlet sink German U-boats?

Of course not.

This is Hedy Lamarr’s life in 1940’s Hollywood, not one of her films.

The military dismissed the patent and filed it away in a cabinet in the back of some dusty room.  The Navy rejected it outright and told Lamarr that if she wanted to help the boys she should utilize her real talents.

Hedy Lamarr had invented a way to sink U-boats.

And the Navy told her to sell kisses for war bonds.

Lamarr did sell war bonds, an astounding twenty-five million dollar’s worth in ten days.  

Selling war bonds

Lamarr kept acting, but her heart wasn’t in it.  

Photographers complained that despite her beauty she was difficult to shoot because she seemed unable to convey emotion through her eyes and had only one expression. 

Perhaps it was because Lamarr herself believed, “Any girl can look glamorous, all she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”

She gained a reputation for being temperamental and difficult onset.  The vapid roles bored her.

The Hollywood history book on Hedy Lamarr is that she was beautiful but not a particularly good actress.  After watching her films, I think the truth is that we’ll never know if Lamarr was a good actress, because she never got a role juicy enough to truly test her.

Though Lamarr cursed her beauty for this, she shoulders some of the blame.  All of the great Hollywood female stars of the studio era (Crawford, Stanwyck, Davis) fought tooth and claw to avoid bad roles and secure good ones.  They understood that for things to happen they had to make them happen.

Lamarr had her chances—Warner’s wanted her for Casablanca but MGM refused to loan her out.  She made fatal career mistakes—passing on roles in Laura (1944) and Gaslight (1944).

Ingrid Bergman became a legend off Lamarr’s bad judgement.

She had a decent ten year run, ending with Samson and Delilah in 1949, her last good film.  She made roughly thirty films, forgotten to all but the most ardent cinephiles.  

She went through six husbands.  Divorces and excessive spending left her broke.  She cursed her looks but despaired as she aged and lost them.  She tried to recapture the past with increasingly excessive plastic surgery.  She became a punchline, mocked and ridiculed by those who had once worshipped her beauty.

Later in life she was arrested twice for shoplifting.

How was a woman to compete with the “world’s most beautiful woman” when that woman was her younger self?

As Robert Osborne says in the 2017 documentary Bombshell:  The Hedy Lamarr Story, “the only thing that would have solved the problem is if she’d died young.”

Hedy Lamarr is gone, and her films have mostly faded.

But her invention lives on.

Though they were not used in World War II, the U.S. military eventually found Lamarr’s patent in that dusty filing cabinet, and by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis her torpedoes were in wide use.

Today, her frequency hopping techniques serve as the foundation of modern day GPS systems, WiFi, Bluetooth, and cell phones.

Hedy Lamarr’s invention impacts everyone of us everyday.

This is her legacy. More important than any film.

In 2014, Lamarr was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

In 2017, her story was finally told on film in Bombshell:  The Hedy Lamarr Story.

The tragedy of Hedy Lamarr is that while she had the heart of a Renaissance woman, her uncommon beauty locked her into the narrowest of paths.

Lamarr’s beauty opened many doors, but none that led to happiness or satisfaction.

She had great beauty but lacked the charisma of the greatest actresses.

She had an extraordinary mind but lacked wisdom.

And we all owe her a debt of gratitude.

All Pandemics Do

If you ask me, I’d say I’m fine.  That no one I know has died, that no one I love has gotten horrifically ill.  I have a job that I can do from home, and a nature suited to long stretches alone.  I’ll say I’ve gotten used to things the way they are.

And I believe I mean it.

But then I started having the dream.

I’m with my friends Esra and Susan.  We’re having Sunday brunch at The Yard in Shadyside.  Our plates are piled high with eggs and bacon and we’re drinking from the bottomless Bloody Mary bar.  And we’re not just having brunch, we’re celebrating.

We’ve had dinner but never Sunday brunch at The Yard, and I hate Bloody Marys.  Yet there I am, living it up.

For months the dream at The Yard recurred.

This pandemic will end, my subconscious tells me.  All pandemics do.

The dreams expanded.  My best friend’s husband making us all chicken wings in his new Ninja fryer.  We’re eating them around their patio fireplace while the kids show off their soccer moves.

Sitting in a cool, dark movie theater with a bucket of popcorn.  I’m always watching the second Twilight movie. (Don’t ask me, ask my subconscious.)

It’s the first cold day after a hot summer, and I reach into a coat pocket and find a crumpled-up mask.

“Remember these?” I ask a blurry companion.  In the dream they were a memory.

This pandemic will end.  All pandemics do.

I’m in a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at PNC Park, watching the Pirates win a Wild Card game.  Rowing down a stretch of the Allegheny river.  Hot dogs at Carnivores.  Fourth of July picnics.  Coffee dates, late-night real-life conversations, and rainy days reading at the library.

I wake up and it’s all the same, but every day the dreams get closer.

Except for the one about the Pirates winning a Wild Card Game.

We’ve got a vaccine, but not a miracle.

This pandemic will end.  All pandemics do.

It won’t be long now.

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.”

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.”

Thus begins the letter Stefan Brand opens in 1900 in Vienna, on the eve of a duel where he will lose his honor if he flees and his life if he attends.

Though Stefan has little regard for his life these days, he has never had any regard for his honor.  He has no time to read a lengthy letter, especially written in a hand he doesn’t recognize.

And yet.

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.  I have so much to tell you—and perhaps very little time.  Will I ever send it?  I don’t know.”

Could you resist such an opening?

Fueled by cigarettes and cognac-laced coffee, Stefan reads through the night, discovering a fantastic tale of unrequited love.

The letter tells the story of Lisa Berndle, a young girl with a childish infatuation with Stefan Brand, a talented pianist.  Lisa falls in love with his playing, which she can hear late at night through the walls of her apartment.  Though still a young man, Stefan is much older and sees the shy Lisa only once.  His talent and looks bring a parade of women to his door.

It is perhaps understandable that he would not remember her as a child.

Yet even after her family moves from Vienna, she never forgets him, and even turns down a respectable marriage proposal because her heart belongs to Stefan, even if he does not know her name.

Years later they meet in Vienna and spend a wonderful night together.  Stefan is everything Lisa knew he would be—attentive, charming, and romantic.  Yet Stefan must leave the next morning for a musical tour, and he soon forgets her in the sea of new woman clamoring for his attention.

Until the letter, he never knew that the woman loved him so deeply, or that their wonderful night together resulted in a child.

He still does not remember her.

Years later, they meet again and he has a vague recollection of her and Lisa is prepared to throw her entire world away—her caring husband, the stable life she has built for her now ten-year-old son—for Stefan.

He lures her away with romantic words and promises.  Lisa thinks it is true love, but for Stefan, he is executing his standard seduction routine.  

He has had hundreds of romantic nights with a beautiful stranger.

Lisa has had just one.

It is nearly impossible to develop an entirely original plot line, but I believe Letter From An Unknown Woman manages it, and it is worth watching for that alone.  It is a gloomy tale of an extraordinary unrequited love. Lisa bears Stefan’s child and pines for him her entire life, and Stefan barely remembers her face and—even after the letter—cannot recall her name.

Joan Fonatine walks a tightrope as Lisa—we have to sympathize with a woman who has not outgrown a childhood fantasy and is too naïve to recognize her lover for the womanizer he is.  Veer too far one way and Lisa is so air headed that you want to shake her and tell her to wake up.  Veer too far the other and Lisa could take on the air of a celebrity stalker.

Fontaine plays it beautifully.  There are shades of her character in Rebecca here—a trusting younger woman, a mysterious older man.  But unlike Maxim in Rebecca, here Stefan never redeems himself—he is the callous cad the audience always knew him to be.

When she finally realizes that she means nothing to Stefan—that he doesn’t even remember her—the heartbreak is palpable.

But the film does not play him as a villain—that would be too easy—but as a man who had everything come too easy to him too early in life.  He does not appreciate his female admirers, just as he does not appreciate his talent.  

The tragedy of the film is that Lisa sees too clearly the life they will never have together, and Stefan never sees it at all.

If you’re interested, the entire film is available for free on YouTube below.