Dishonored Lady (1947) starring Hedy Lamarr
I AM RATHER FOND of Dishonored Lady though it is more melodrama than noir.
Hedy Lamarr left MGM in 1945 and became a partner in the production company which made the noir The Strange Woman (1946) which we watched last week. That film went over budget and made limited profit. The company’s second effort Dishonored Lady (1947) was also way over budget and a commercial failure, possibly because Lamarr does not play a femme fatale in this one. The movie was intended to be grittier than it turned out but the evil censors from the Hays Office got in the way.
Production was meant to start in January 1945, but the censorious Office was still finding objections to a reworked script by April 1946. The censors probably contributed to both the significant cost over-runs (of $13m in today’s value above a budget of $13m) as well as inferior box-office. With The Strange Woman, you could see the cost over-runs in the action scenes, but there is little in Dishonoured Lady to justify a blow out of $13.5m.
EDMUND H. NORTH wrote the script for the classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and shared an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola in 1970 for their script for the war movie Patton (1970). For The Day the Earth Stood Still, North invented an “alien” phrase which grabbed the public imagination.
He was a major during World War II but later in life he also fronted for the actual Cowboy (1958) scriptwriter, blacklisted as a communist, Dalton Trumbo. My point is North was gifted and broadminded enough to produce an edgier script had his hands not been tied by the Hays Office.
Two good lines
“I’m mad about you in my own foul way.”
“I’ll never forget you when I saw you at that hall with a mouse in your hand.”
The Hays Office
EDMUND H. NORTH was a major with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II and he made training and educational films. After America’s entry into the war, Joseph I. Breen, chief censor from the Hays Office vetted films from the major studios, civilian independents, the government propaganda unit Office of War Information (OWI) and military communications units such as North’s USASC. Private, government and military filmmakers wanted a relaxation of the pre-war censorship code for the down-to-earth fighters but Breen resisted, saying moral vigilance was needed more than ever during war. Breen’s opposition did win some hard-fought concessions about language and more graphic imagery.
The Hays Code was the informal name for The Motion Picture Production Code, adopted in 1930 but not seriously enforced until 1934 when Breen became boss of the new Production Code Administration (PCA) and stayed for 20 years. The code was in place until 1966 when it was replaced by a ratings system. The code’s nickname was named after Presbyterian Elder Will H. Hays, who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945. The MPPDA was set up as a self-regulator and as a protection against government legislation and boycotts by groups such as Catholic Legion of Decency.
The code was devised by Jesuit priest Daniel A. Lord and Catholic Layman Martin Quigley. Professor Thomas Doherty, 1993, p172 said a witticism spread across Hollywood that cinema was
A Jewish-owned business selling Roman Catholic theology to Protestant America.
Other whispers were that the Censor Joe Breen was anti-Semitic, a charge Professor Doherty rebuts though he cites the Catholic Layman Breen writing to a friend in 1932.
“Ninety-five percent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the scum of the earth.”
Professor Doherty says such views expressed Breen’s culture shock on first coming to Hollywood and he did not show anti-Semitism in his job from 1934-1954.
Breen was however willing to publicly vilify homosexuals and progressives in a wartime swipe at the Office of War Information (OWI) which Professor Doherty cites on page 168
The (OWI) personnel was dominated by “short-haired women and long-haired men types.”
What asked Winn did he (Breen) mean by that.
“Pink,” Breen replied.
In the censorship code, homosexuality came under the heading of “perverse”, as did miscegenation (relationships between partners of different races). Neither could be portrayed nor discussed.
Breen obviously allowed filmmakers to breach the ban on homosexuals as long as it was a) by innuendo and b) disparaged.
As for the ban on miscegenation, it explains why Black Americans were denied lead roles in romance-focused Hollywood for decades.
Part of the interest generated by this film is the parallel between the plot and the life of the Lead, Hedy Lamarr.
She plays a Hungarian-American magazine fashion editor who is living the high life with associated sexual promiscuity, alcohol, and drugs. While Lamarr was in fact of Austrian origin it was probably considered more palatable to make her Hungarian. Austria was the nationality of Adolf Hitler and the war was only over by two years. Hungary had been a member of the Axis Alliance with the major players Germany, Austria, and Italy. However Hungary was having second thoughts during the war and Hitler invaded the country in 1944. The Soviet Red Army captured Hungary in 1945. By the 1947 film Dishonored Lady, the Cold War between former allies Russia and America was developing though the two countries were allies during World War II.
The viewer might ponder whether Lamarr who was a co-producer of the film worked with script-writer Edmund H. North to detail some of her recent history for her character Madeleine Damien. (Of course, Damien was the demon-child in The Omen film series (1976-2016) and there is little doubt there is some connotation of demon in Madeleine’s family name. There are a few unfortunate choices of words associated with the film. The alternative title, The Sins of Madeleine, is like Philip Marlowe’s manners in The Big Sleep – pretty bad. But Dishonored Lady is not much better.)
Just as Madeleine left her career to pursue art Lamarr left MGM in 1945, perhaps to make more artistic films with better parts for her. It was reported MGM staff had fed Lamarr uppers to keep her working and Madeleine discusses her pill dependency. (Lamarr was a non-drinker though she makes a good first of portraying a drunken Madeleine on one scene.)
Lamarr failed financially as producer. The Strange Woman was a limited success and Dishonored Lady a major loss. In later life, Lamarr seems to have become bitter she was not taken seriously as an actor or as the co-inventor of technology which would decades later lead to the discovery of wifi and Bluetooth. Despite her dismissal of her glamorous persona, both her productions The Strange Woman and Dishonored Lady have many references to her physical beauty. Instead of resorting in the 1950s to extensive plastic surgery which was apparently botched, Lamarr might have profited from taking on character roles.
The Hollywood Boy’s Club decided Lamarr was trouble and dubbed her headache, just as another forthright noir actor, director and producer Ida Lupino was called “Loopy” Lupino. Fast forward to modern times when Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson was considering Ashley Judd for a role in the 2002 film. Ms Judd said she had been sexually harassed by producer Harvey Weinstein whom she had rebuffed. Jackson said that Weinstein had warned him that the actress was a “nightmare” to work with.
TALL HANDSOME IRISHMAN DENNIS O’KEEFE is Lamarr’s romantic interest, a likeable rather staid character not usually found as a film-noir lead. This diversion from noir convention could account for some of the lack of success of the film. O’Keefe’s previous noirs included Hangmen Also Die! (1943) directed by Fritz Lang, T-Men (1947) directed by Anthony Mann Raw Deal (1948) also directed by Anthony Mann and The Diamond (1954) Britain’s first 3D film.
The last ride of a married couple
JOHN LODER plays Felix Courtland, a charming but selfish cad. At the time of the film Loder was married to Lamarr but the marriage was over by the end of that same year of 1947. Loder is quite good in the role as he shows positive and negative character traits.
British director Robert Stevenson was enticed to Hollywood in 1940 and, seven years later, did his first noir with Dishonored Lady. His noirs were all of a moralistic bent and most lost money. They were To the Ends of the Earth (1948) I Married a Communist (1949) My Forbidden Past (1951) and The Las Vegas Story, also 1951.
Stevenson put moralism to better use when he directed 19 films for Walt Disney during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He became the most commercially successful director in cinema history
Mary Poppins was a better fit for Stevenson than Madeleine Damien.
Viewers could follow the progress of the censor’s attitude to suicide in the three films so far in our series starring Hedy Lamarr. The producers had to change the ending to Algiers (1938) as the lead character, played by Charles Boyer, originally committed suicide. This was unacceptable to the Hays office even if Pepe le Moko was a criminal.
The ill-fated Ephraim (Louis Hayward) in The Strange Woman
In The Strange Woman 1946, lifeless dangling legs in front of a chilling noir scene showed the depiction of the aftermath of suicide became okay on the case of a drunk. In Dishonored Lady, Lamarr is suicidal before changing her lifestyle. She recounts how her promiscuous professional artist father committed suicide.
Natalie Schafer as Ethel Royce has a good cameo in the film. Schafer had a long career in theatre and film before taking on the role of Lovey Howell in the television sitcom Gilligan’s Island. Lovey’s husband Thurston was played by well-respected film actor Jim Backus. Whether the repetitive scripts were worthy of their talents is best judged by fans of the show.
“Television, although it wasn’t necessarily as creatively diverse as filmmaking can be, it was the lifestyle choice that I needed to make.” – Alec Baldwin.
Review by Bernie Dowling from Bent Banana Books.