The Strange Woman (1946): Take Hold on Hell

The Strange Woman (1946Hedy Lamarr’s beauty hits me like Novocain. The word “stunning” shows up too often to modify things that are merely remarkable. But Lamarr literally stuns me, numbs my brain, and turns almost every critical bone in my body to mush. I’ll pay attention to camera angles later. Must. Look. At. Face.

I find it quite ironic that such a brilliant woman—the mother of modern telecommunications—should unintentionally exert a stupefying effect on those who gaze upon her. (She seemingly froze producers’ brains, as well, otherwise how do you explain White Cargo? Then again, that risible hokum was a box office smash, so perhaps the joke’s on us.) Lamarr is like a reverse Gorgon, paralyzing viewers with her physical perfection.

However, when I focus very hard to counteract the harmony of ratios that added up to produce Lamarr’s face, I realize that her beauty is just a piece of what makes her interesting to watch onscreen. She not only possessed a far-reaching mind, but could also summon a lot more acting talent that she’s typically given credit for.

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And, if you want to see beyond the glamour, The Strange Woman is the movie to start with. As director Edgar G. Ulmer said, “It’s the only picture where she really had to act.” Now, Ulmer was certainly exaggerating, but Lamarr’s portrayal of a conflicted seductress stands out as one of her most fascinating, layered performances. She’s not a villainess, a male fantasy, or the hero’s prize for good behavior; she’s a full-blown anti-heroine who carries the plot.

In the mid-1940s, Lamarr formed her own production company, Mars Film Corporation, a move that granted her far more control over The Strange Woman than she’d exercised over her previous studio films. Rather than choose a high-profile director to helm her first release, Lamarr personally selected fellow émigré Ulmer, who’d been displaying vast creativity on low budgets at the Poverty Row studio PRC.

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The Strange Woman adapted and sanitized a novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams (whose Leave Her to Heaven had offered a fierce, captivating role for Gene Tierney, another underrated and alarmingly beautiful actress). Set in Bangor, Maine during the early 19th century, the story follows Jenny Hagar, daughter of the town drunk, who leverages her looks and intelligence to marry well.

Shrewd Jenny wins over the townspeople with her outward piety, manipulates her husband’s son to commit patricide, and eventually builds a business empire for herself. When she marries her friend’s fiancé, her first taste of true love ultimately proves her undoing.

hedylamarrA florid example of 1940s noir-flavored costume drama, The Strange Woman cultivates the audience’s sympathy for its femme fatale protagonist. The title alludes to a Biblical proverb warning against temptresses, a verse also used in the film’s publicity campaign: “For the lips of a strange woman drop as a honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil, but her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.”

Yet, whereas the Bible refers to such female sinners as almost supernatural menaces, equating adulteresses with uncanny succubi, Ulmer and Lamarr set out to humanize the “strange woman.”

Her end may be as “sharp as a two-edged sword,” but her character also cuts both ways. The whole movie hinges on Lamarr’s performance, and she makes both extremes of Jenny’s nature, from heartfelt charity to merciless greed, plausible and compelling.

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You’ll notice plenty of material in The Strange Woman that would seem more at home in a pre-Code movie, including blatant sadomasochism and strong intimations of incest. In the film’s most analyzed scene, Jenny’s father, jealous of her lovers, decides to whip the Devil out of her, threatening, “This is one beating you’ll not like.” Instead of discreetly cutting away to another scene, Ulmer delivers subversive medium shots of Lamarr wearing facial expressions closely related to her Ecstasy collection, if you catch my drift.

hedylamarr12Before you accuse the film of needless titillation, this unhealthy corporal punishment confrontation provides the key to Jenny’s psyche. It exists to show us that her upbringing has irrevocably perverted her emotions, crossing the wires for love and hate, pleasure and pain in her mind.

In fact, at the end (Spoiler Alert!), Jenny causes her own death in a carriage accident, barreling towards her husband and his ex-fiancé, furiously whipping her horses. The excitement on her face, the angry thrashing of the whip, and the context of jealousy all echo the earlier scene with her father.

Damaged by the circumstances of her childhood, Jenny cannot escape the fury that her father took out on her and is doomed to propagate dysfunction. She’s not so much a “strange woman” as an all-too-familiar tragedy: a woman unable to heal from the wounds inflicted by an abusive father.

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To make the lasting impact of Jenny’s traumatic childhood even clearer, the film begins by portraying her as a precociously vicious child, an apt liar, and a total afterthought to her irresponsible father, who spends his time bumming grog money off of more affluent townspeople. Ulmer transitions from this kind of prologue to the plot in earnest when the young Jenny peers down at her reflection in the river, insisting, “I’m going to be beautiful!”

Her nearby father thoughtlessly throws his empty liquor jug into the water, shattering Jenny’s image. After a hidden cut, the water settles to reveal a glimpse of grown-up Jenny. The camera pans upwards and there’s Hedy, brimming with savage energy and determination. The presentation of Jenny’s passage from youth to adulthood—visually triggered by the careless discarding of the bottle—highlights the destructiveness of her father’s alcoholism.

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Throughout The Strange Woman, Ulmer’s love of sinuous camera movements, Baroque shadows, reflections, and expressionistic angles partner well with Lamarr’s slinky grace and the quietly diabolical intensity that she channels. In contrast to many glossy, talky, high-key Hollywood period dramas, this one didn’t try much to smooth the edges of a rough-hewn era.

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It went a million dollars over budget, but still taps into some of the Poverty Row rawness that infuses many of Ulmer’s films. He evokes a cruder time in American history when boomtowns were dangerous places filled with dangerous people and you did whatever you had to for survival. The stakes of Jenny’s social climbing, we know, aren’t frivolous. The tough faces of the sailors and lumberjacks, the muddy streets, the blazing riot fires in the distance, and the grunts of offscreen brawls all tell us that.

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Even in a halfway decent print, the candlelit night scenes really are dark. Those nocturnal exchanges anchor the film. Jenny talks her husband’s son into murder while gazing at her own proud beauty in the mirror, as though putting herself into a trance. She creeps over to kiss him, but not before looming in the foreground as he wrestles hopelessly with his conscience. Later, the night again becomes Jenny’s accomplice when she draws her final husband towards her simply by lying inert on a bed, like a spider waiting for a fly to get caught.

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If Jenny’s calculating side chills us, flickers of genuine kindness and generosity prevent the audience from condemning her fully. Sure, she might donate to the church primarily to boost her reputation, but the compassionate ease of her interactions with the poor leaves no doubt: she likes helping people, especially children, in need.

She’s not all bad. And her own badness torments her, as indicated by the tear she sheds in close-up while a thunderous evangelist rails against wicked women.

hedylamarr3Most poignantly, she refuses to desert her battered old friend Lena, a waitress with a less-than-pure reputation. When Jenny’s second husband orders her to turn Lena out of their house, she rebukes him: “You good righteous man! You hypocrite! Telling others what they must and must not do while you live in this house with me.”

The Strange Woman’s ambiguity, hinting that a woman can be both cruel and magnanimous, good and evil, puts a decidedly feminist slant on what could’ve been a mildly sensational sermon. On a visual level, the film sets up Jenny’s face as our primary emotional frame of reference; we’re encouraged to identify with her.

We feel through her, whether she comforts a hungry child or wordlessly ponders killing off her husband. Ulmer believed that directing really consists of pulling the audience into the thoughts and struggles of a character: “I’m trying very hard to give it a viewpoint: tell it from somebody I can feel for.” He and Lamarr certainly succeeded in doing so in The Strange Woman.

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By the time a radical preacher starts spewing fire and brimstone, we’re close enough to Jenny that we perceive the contradictions at work. “You cannot hide behind your beauty,” he howls. “Your beauty has made you evil. And your evil destroys itself.”

Try again, holy man. Beauty encourages those who perceive it to press the pause button on their brains and consciences, but you can’t blame the beauty alone. As long as anyone sees a beautiful woman as a target, an object, or, worst of all, a devil and not a person, can you really blame her for cultivating her erotic power and using her allure as a weapon? I sure can’t.

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The Strange Woman has fallen into the Public Domain, so you can watch it on YouTube and download it for free from the Internet Archive.

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Avant Glam: Hollywood Portraits and Surrealism

      

Which of these does not belong? From left to right: Joan Crawford by George Hurrell, Katie Holmes (apparently with a migrane) by Solve Sundsbo from the 2008 Holiday Issue of T Magazine, Hedy Lamarr also by Hurrell.

Today, whenever a magazine wants to channel the “classic Hollywood” vibe, the editorial staff thinks best to conjure up the era with an imitation of the Hurrell chiaroscuro paired up with a current celebrity, be it Angelina Jolie or Britney Spears, and act like they’ve captured the essence of the archetypal glam shot.

But something’s always missing. What exactly? Well, it does relate to the fact that they’re just not photographing stars with one iota of the charisma and untouchability they had in the olden days. “They had faces then,” declares Norma Desmond and she was right. Nevertheless, in my mind, it’s not just the they-don’t-make-stars-like-they-used-to attitude that accounts for why the homage so often falls short of the original.

No: there’s a subtle quality that makes many real old Hollywood glam shots so much more engaging, hypnotic and…for lack of a better word, trippythan their modern counterparts.

A subtly surreal texture infuses these images, beyond even the fetishist focus on the face or body that seems to exist in some kind glamorous limbo. Strange details, odd, angles, and inexplicable, looming shadows that call forth an uneasy tension between the star and something grim, dead, dizzily abstract, or just plain weird.

Now, please do note that I am not trying to say that surrealism influenced the photographers who sustained the Dream Machine with pictures like you’ll see below. That would be 1) obvious; 2) beyond the scope of this blog; and 3) pretty boring. Instead, I hope that the series of images I’ve put together will encourage you to reflect on the way of seeing and looking that classic Hollywood produced, which even I can sometimes take for granted but which I consider every bit as provocative, modern, and unsettling as avant-garde art. I used a lot of Hurrell shots because he was one of the most instrumental photographers in “branding” and perfecting the unique feel of the Hollywood glam shot, but I also threw in a few less-than-famous shots just to show how pervasive the aesthetic was.

These pictures seduce us, but don’t always ask us to realize how and why we’ve been seduced. They efface their own charm and wit. I think they deserve credit not just for their beauty but also for these visionary traits.

I went about coming up with this blog post by following a method that I’d describe as somewhat surrealist: I saw a few images of old time movie stars that slapped me across the face with their exoticism and eccentricity so I started searching for more and collecting files of the portraits that exuded that same surreal aura. I warn you: it’s an idiosyncratic collection more than anything else. A collage.

So, rather than write too much (too late!), I’ll let the pictures give you their thousand-words-worth.

Masklike

Clara Bow

(c. 1920s ? I chanced across this photo—such is the surreal nature of the Internet—and cannot find anything about it in any language I speak. The strangest thing, though, is that the star’s face serves as all the provenance I need. I believe that the mask is a commedia dell’arte copy, but am no expert.)

“Noire et Blanche”

(Man Ray, 1926; the woman is Kiki de Montparnasse who “starred” in Ballet Méchanique)

Handled

Carole Lombard

(I’d say very early 1930s, just by the Crawford-ish look that Carole had in that period, but I have no clue what the hands have to do with anything.)

Dora Maar

(By Man Ray. N.B. Dora Maar also did at least one surreal hand photo herself that’s worth looking at.)

Rapunzel meets Ophelia: Floating Hair

Veronica Lake

(George Hurrell, 1941)

“Woman with Long Hair”

(Man Ray, 1929)

Fur-Bearing Curiosities

Joan Crawford

(Also by Hurrell, 1932)

“Le Déjeuner en Fourrure”

(Object by Meret Oppenheim, 1936)

Stop the Clocks

Adele Mara as a human sundial

(c. early 1940s. Again, details are not forthcoming. Mara, though, is quite an interesting dame—sort of a poor man’s Rita Hayworth—about whom you might like to read.)

“The Persistence of Memory”

(Salvador Dalí, 1931)

Space-Age Glampots

Clara Bow

(George P. Hommel, 1929)

Lee Miller

(Man Ray , c. 1930)

Subtle Distortions

For this final comparison, I will need to wade again into the muddy waters of analysis so I will revert to my old wordy ways. No, please, please don’t close the tab! Don’t touch the keypad! Okay, take a long look at these images:

Betty Grable

(Frank Powolny, 1943)

La Fourchette

(André Ketesz, 1928)

Unlike the other pairs, the link between these two images doesn’t slap you across the face. So why did I put them together?

The essence of surrealism, for me, is looking at an ordinary thing and seeing how extraordinarily strange it is, how perverse and ironic its very existence. That fork that you may unthinkingly use to shovel food into your mouth acquires a melancholy poignancy, an alien mutilated grace, that you may have never suspected when you really focus on its ponderous shape, purpose, invention—its personality, its soul. Kertesz can’t be pigeonholed as a surrealist, but this photo certainly is surreal in my mind and in my eye.

Like the fork, Betty Grable is, in many ways, an ordinary object. When asked, in 1958, about the perks and travails of making movies, she replied, “It pays better than slinging hash, but it’s a lot harder.” Perhaps the word most frequently used to describe her was and is “wholesome.” She is not Rita Hayworth, whose beauty was almost supernatural to begin with. Apart from her shapely gams, she’s so unremarkable that putting her before the lens automatically de-contextualizes her small-town charm to a certain degree. She is the unexamined small-town girl suddenly stripped of her veil of blandness to become something wildly sensual and weird. Any attention paid to her strikes me as paradoxical.

Then there’s the fact that we must consider this picture as more than a two-dimensional abstraction, and rather as a common physical object. Its meaning is bound up with its conception as a cherished, but quotidian possession: probably the number one pin-up photo of World War II, it must have peered out from the walls of heaven knows how many bunkers, submarines, and shanties. Pretty trippy, huh? A fork is something that we all experience individually, but consider to be basically nondescript. (A few tines and a handle, c’mon people, you don’t sit around giving much reflection to the anatomy of a fork. I hope not, at least.) Similarly, the same ordinary image of Betty Grable took on thousands of fantasy existences in men’s… minds.

And, the crazy part is, the subtle distortions of these images hint at the many askew, divergent lives of what they portray. Both Betty and the fork cast shadows that differ from the forms that we know and love. The pointy tines on the dish and the long stem underneath, on the table, are split from each other in the Kertesz photo, creating a sense of divided or bent space. Betty’s shadow (the darker one, to the right), though, reminds me of something from the movie Freaks. Her famous gams meld into one grotesque limb. There’s even another lighter shadow to the left so that she, like the fork, has been fragmented.

The oddly distorted shadows, in both cases, stand out against mostly white remainder of the images: white plate, white tablecloth, white bathing suit… The sum effect, on me at least, renders the form of the photographed object distorted. Betty’s legs appear too long and her torso is made to seem disproportionate by the famous over-the-shoulder glance, like the fork stands out as too long and lean. A woman’s body. A fork. Both awaken when scrutinized with a gaze that provokes as much, if not more, as it is provoked. When slanted slightly, tilted, pushed askew, the commodified star, the universal fetish serves as a vehicle not for looking, but for seeing.

That is what Hollywood glam shots managed to do with almost uncanny frequency: open our eyes to a beauty that wriggles out of definition but manages to be instantly recognizable. How do we pin down this specific glamour, this religion of visual textures that mutates, shocks, and frightens with its ability to transform perpetually and refresh our vision and concept of attractiveness?

Not to push the “open eyes” metaphor to far, but that notable surrealist Buñuel cut open an eye onscreen in Un Chien Andalou to prove to us how easily images could take hold of us with brutal, warped fantasies. Often considered prosaic or repetitive, old Hollywood glamour shots, and instances of classic glamour in general, do more or less the same thing. Only, if I may say so, they’re way easier on the eyes.

Simone Mareuil with Buñuel’s hand

(From Un Chien Andalou, 1929)

Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson

(In a still for Rain, 1932)