Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Strange Woman (1946)

Director: Edgar Ulmer                                        Writers: Herb Meadow
Film Score: Carmen Dragon                              Cinematography: Lucien Andriot
Starring: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward and Alan Napier

Released through United Artists, The Strange Woman is an historical drama and one of only thirty or so films the stunning Hedy Lamarr made during her short career. Unfortunately this is a low-budget production led by Hunt Stromberg, former MGM producer, and helmed by low-budget director Edgar Ulmer. The screenplay is based on the novel of the same name written by Ben Ames Williams. The project itself came about from a partnership between Lamarr and Jack Chertok who was a producer of comedy shorts at MGM. Lamarr wanted to maintain some sort of independence in Hollywood at a time when few stars were able to be successful doing so. She was looking for the right dramatic vehicle and no doubt pursued this property after the success of a previous Williams film adaptation Leave Her to Heaven with Gene Tierney the previous year. Unfortunately independence came at a price, and low production values and the overly simplistic story line were unable to capture the same kind of magic that the earlier film had. Nevertheless, the film did make money, and led Lamarr to undertake a second production with Stromberg, Dishonored Lady, the following year.

The film begins in Bangor, Maine in 1824 at the general store owned by Gene Lockhart. Drunkard Dennis Hoey comes in demanding whisky, but has no money. Lockhart refuses him but kind-hearted Edith Evanson pays for it because she feels sorry for the man’s daughter, Jo Ann Marlowe, who will grow up to become Hedy Lamarr. In the tradition of characters like Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind, or Bette Davis in Jezebel, the young girl has an evil streak that is troublesome as she nearly drowns a boy and then takes credit for saving him. Alan Napier as the town judge offers the little girl a place in his home as hired help, but she flatly refuses in order to keep her freedom. Lamarr as a young woman intends to use her good looks and conniving ways to get a rich man to propose to her. Thus far Hoey has been able to chase off any man who comes near her, but when he has a heart attack and dies, Lockhart maneuvers himself into position to marry her to keep her off the welfare of the town. She marries him, but immediately sends for his son, Louis Hayward, the boy she almost drowned, and flirts with him to the infuriation of Lockhart.

The irony is, despite her wicked ways with men, Lamarr is determined to use Lockhart’s money to help the poor, give money to the church, and to try and make a better life for others than she had growing up. This is the strangeness of the title. When she thinks that Lockhart is dying, she makes her mind up to marry Hayward, but as soon as she sets eyes on George Sanders, the fiancé of her best friend, Hillary Brooke, she begins a new maneuver to make him her ultimate conquest. While Lamarr remembers the reviews for her picture as being less than complementary, she actually did a nice job. Reviewers at the time were more put off by the inappropriateness of George Sanders in the role of a relative innocent, something that definitely went against type and doesn’t really work in the film. Not that Louis Hayward is much better. In fact, other than Gene Lockhart and Alan Napier, most of the cast is fairly underwhelming. Director Edgar Ulmer has some artistic sense, but it’s difficult to know how much the use of the cheap sets make his touches look too obvious or whether that’s just the nature of his artistry. He makes nice use of tracking shots and overhead crane shots at times, but somehow they simply come off as clunky and distracting rather than an integral part of the picture, and the image of lightning striking a tree as Lamarr achieves her goal is melodramatic in the extreme. Still, The Strange Woman is worth seeing for the presence of Hedy Lamarr, despite its many weaknesses.

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