Sunday, 15 January 2012

Ecstacy and Her: On the potential military application of the player piano

With celebrity shoplifters in the news this last week, it behoves us to look back for a moment at the life of Hedy Lamarr. The actress once known in Hollywood as the most beautiful woman in the world was arrested several times for leaving a shop without paying for her items. Interviewed for the documentary about her life, Secrets of a Hollywood Star (2006, Barbara Obermeier, Donatello Dubini & Fosco Dubini), Kenneth Anger memorably recalls an occasion when she was caught stealing laxatives for her constipation. "It was very pathetic," sighs Anger, who befriended the actress in New York in the 1970s. 

On another occasion, when arrested again, several decades later, in Florida, Lamarr claimed that a transvestite of her acquaintance had framed her by stuffing the stolen goods in her handbag without her knowing. In 1966 Andy Warhol had made a short film, Hedy, in which Lamarr was herself played by transvestite Mario Montez and shown caught in the act of shoplifting by Exploding Plastic Inevitable dancer (later bit part actor in Knight Rider and Babylon 5), Mary Woronov, and put on trial before a jury consisting of all five of her ex-husbands. 

"And here is the best part," sings Montez vamping on Sinatra's 'Young at Heart' in a blonde wig, puffing on a cigarette holder, "You have a head start / If you are among the very - Kleptomaniac". The seventy minute film, which also stars Gerard Malanga and Ingrid Superstar, is notable for its music, provided by a then little known group called The Velvet Underground.

Born Hedwig Keisler in Vienna, 1913, she started acting in her teens and scored one of her first starring roles in Czech director Gustav Machatý's (1933) Ekstase. Viewed today, this wild and dreamlike film seems years ahead of its time, recalling Jean Renoir at his very best, even anticipating some of the surrealism of Alain Resnais, the chiaroscuro of film noir. 

Hedy herself is utterly bewitching. Years later, she would tell Kenneth Anger with a raised eyebrow that Hollywood taught her the easiest way to look sexy was to act dumb, but here she is headstrong and willful, possessed of a haunting melancholy, and fiercely independent. She would later claim she was paid nothing for the role and that she certainly wasn't told in advance about the nudity for which the picture soon gained notoriety. 

In the same year, she married the Austrian arms manufacturer, Friedrich Mandl. A prominent fascist, Mandl sold weapons to both Mussolini and Hitler, both of whom were guests at Mandl's lavish soirées. Kept a virtual prisoner in his house, Hedy escaped with the help of a British diplomat and fled, first to Paris, and ultimately to Hollywood. Practically as soon as she stepped off the boat she had a contract with Louis B. Mayer and a new name, Hedy Lamarr.

While Hedwig Keisler was growing up in Vienna and making her first steps in the movie business, the American composer George Antheil, was mostly in Paris. He lived for ten years above Sylvia Beach's bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, causing a series of minor riots in concert halls across Europe (one of which would become background action in a Marcel L'Herbier film) with his mechanical music for player pianos. "One day in the future," he once said, "we will make God in the heavens with electric lights." 

He returned to America in 1933, the same year as Lamarr, and by 1936 both were living in Hollywood. He was writing film scores for Ben Hecht and Cecil B. DeMille and reporting on soundtracks for Modern Music magazine, with a sideline posing as an expert on female endocrinology, giving advice to the "questing male" in the pages of Esquire. The story goes that Lamarr and Antheil met a cocktail party, she sought him out for advice on enhancing her "upper torso" through the use of hormones and somehow the conversation turned to munitions.

By 1941, Antheil and Lamarr were in possession of a patented method for launching submarine torpedoes without getting their radio guidance systems jammed by the enemy. The technique, which they dubbed 'channel hopping', combined the familiarity with high-tech weaponry Lamarr had gained at her former husband's side, with Antheil's intimate acquaintance with the mechanics of the pianola. 
She had the idea of sending out the tracking signal in rhythmic bursts, according to a coded sequence; he figured out you could use the mechanism from the inside of a player piano as the encoding device - the keyboard's eighty-eight keys allowing the torpedo guidance system to leap amongst eighty-eight different frequencies. 

Though the military insists Lamarr and Antheil's invention was never put into wartime service and the pair never made a penny from their patent, today Lamarr and Antheil's "channel-hopping" method is all around us. Long after the term of their patent had elapsed, the technique was recognised as an enormously efficient means of data compression. Now known by the term "spread spectrum", it forms part of working infrastructure of GPS, mobile phones, and wireless internet networks - even if few of these devices seem quite big enough to fit the insides of a player piano inside them.