A Solo for Three Voices

Just when everything seemed bleak and colourless like a sepia Kansas farmyard, David Melville Wingrove returns after a too-long absence to continue his series Forbidden Divas ~

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

A Solo for Three Voices 

“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” ~ Oscar Wilde

No, The Love of Three Queens (1954) is not a movie about a gay ménage a trois. It’s a lavish and multi-stranded folly that showcases Hedy Lamarr – its star and its producer – as three of the Great Women of History. She plays the saintly Genevieve of Brabant in the Middle Ages, the flighty Empress Josephine in the Napoleonic Wars and the sultry Helen of Troy in Ancient Greece. Just in case that is not enough, she also appears in a framing story…as a fresh-faced ingénue (Hedy was forty at the time) who embodies all three women for a wandering Italian theatre troupe.

The term ‘vanity project’ might have been coined specially to describe this film. A sophisticated lady with a famously high IQ (she dabbled in scientific research between movies) Hedy Lamarr rapidly grew tired of the decorative roles foisted on her by Hollywood. Meanwhile, she took little if any responsibility for her own disastrous choices – allegedly turning down Casablanca (1943) and Gaslight (1944), but saying yes to The Conspirators (1944) and Experiment Perilous (1944)! Like any other bored but ambitious leading lady, she took to producing her own films.

She tried this first in Hollywood, with a degree of success. The Strange Woman (1946) was the torrid tale of a scheming backwoods vixen, with George Sanders memorably miscast as a lumberjack. Dishonored Lady (1947) – about a fashion editor with an overactive libido – was a flop, as the clothes were not stunning enough to compensate for the lady’s lack of morals. Hedy’s career, briefly, looked doomed. But then Cecil B DeMille cast her as the Biblical temptress in Samson and Delilah (1949). Nobody, before or since, had worn peacock feathers with such aplomb! Hedy clearly felt it was her destiny to play the legendary sirens of the ages…

1949  Hollywood screen goddess, Hedy Lamarr stars in "Samson and Delilah" directed by Cecil B. De Mille.

Hollywood, as usual, did not see it her way. So Hedy packed her bags, moved to Italy and sank most of her fortune into a production company all her own. Its one and only product, The Love of Three Queens, exists under such a baffling array of titles (Eterna Femmina, L’Amante di Paride, The Knights of Illusion) and in such a bewildering diversity of cuts (from three hours to under 90 minutes) that it is actually quite hard to describe it as a film at all. It has far more the aura of an open-ended and ongoing project, like Walt Disney’s Fantasia or Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, only with a shade more artistic self-indulgence thrown in.

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The framing story (at least in the version now on DVD) opens with a bunch of gypsy-style caravans trundling through a scenic Italian landscape. A nameless and faceless narrator follows by horse-drawn carriage. He is, he explains, “compelled by beauty beyond a poet’s words, by mystic loveliness that bore the name Leala.” As his voice speaks these words, the shutters on one caravan swing open – and Hedy gazes out languidly at the passing scene. Might she not overhear this narration? Perhaps, be embarrassed by it? Then it strikes us that Hedy – in her role as producer – must have given her full approval to the script and instructed Marc Allégret (the credited director) to shoot it in this way and no other.

Well, nobody ever got to the top in movies by being modest. Hedy/Leala is the star attraction of the otherwise shabby Teatro Romani. We and the narrator follow to the nearest town, where the troupe is playing that night. By using a tawdry theatrical framework for its flights of artistic and historical fancy, The Love of Three Queens anticipates a far more famous film maudit of the 50s, the doomed Max Ophüls extravaganza Lola Montès (1955). Both films were mangled and recut to the brink of incoherence and neither, at the time, was given a wide release. The difference is that Hedy’s film never became a cause célèbre with critics, has never been revived or restored and remains unavailable in anything like its original form.

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As her character on that first night, Genevieve of Brabant, Hedy looks fetching but incongruous in a blonde wig. This episode – unlike most of the film – was directed by Edgar G Ulmer, who helped her play a sizzling femme fatale in The Strange Woman. Her role here is a character of unimpeachable (and well-nigh insufferable) moral virtue – a pious medieval lady who tends the fields with the peasants, while her husband is away fighting the Moors. A lascivious nobleman tries to seduce her. After she refuses, the rotter accuses her of “unchastity” to her husband on his return. The husband, inexplicably, believes the man over his wife and promptly condemns her to death. “This cannot be happening,” says Hedy, looking mildly perplexed. We in the audience know exactly how she feels.

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Faced with this unwieldy and unbelievable plot, Hedy and Ulmer soon fell out. He walked off the picture (or was fired) and is grudgingly listed as ‘Associate Director’ in the end credits. Indeed – judging from her performance – it seems Ulmer could control his star only by keeping her in a state of permanent hypnosis. Visually, though, his work brilliantly evokes the art of the Middle Ages; the stylised colour schemes and flat or foreshortened perspectives seem to recall a Brueghel painting. Oh, and poor wronged Genevieve does not die. She escapes into the wild and gives birth to an adorable blonde son. Her erring husband finds them, years later, living in a cave and weaving garlands of flowers to adorn their herd of tame deer.

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The next episode (made after Allégret took over) is a shorter and livelier affair. Hedy looks wickedly stylish as the promiscuous Empress Josephine – in a red-white-and-blue outfit of military cut, her bonnet festooned with white plumes and tricolore ribbons. Travelling the back roads during her husband’s Italian campaign, she dismisses one lover from her carriage (“I suppose in war these things happen”) and invites the next available solder to take his place. But she is not a heartless floozy, just a vulnerable and tender-hearted woman baffled by Naploeon’s manic desire to conquer all of Europe. In the end, he forsakes her for an Austrian princess who gives him a male heir. Standing at her window, she listens to each cannon in the 21-gun salute. Her face grows, subliminally, more tragic and resigned with every shot.

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It seems Hedy was a lot happier under Allégret’s direction. Her portrayal of Josephine is as heart-rending as her portrayal of Genevieve is becalmed. Her third role, as Helen of Troy, is in a more languid mode. But that’s only right for this version of the story, which makes Helen the bait in a ‘honey trap’ – designed by wily Odysseus to trick the Trojans into war. Realising the sordid way she has been used, Helen does not so much fall in love with Paris (Massimo Serato) as leave her husband Menelaus in disgust. Of her fabled beauty, she says: “What has it brought me save sorrow? Desired, not for myself, but that men might envy the one who had me.” We are tempted to wonder if Hedy wrote this dialogue herself.

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The Trojan War, when it happens, is quite bereft of heroism of any sort. Troy falls in a surprisingly graphic orgy of slaughter and rape; guffawing Greek soldiers suffocate a helpless man under a shower of grain. When Menelaus comes to strike Helen dead with his sword, she throws open her black mourning robes to reveal a lining of bright crimson. As if, knowing the savagery of the world, she had already draped herself in blood. “May the gods forbid that any mortal woman be as desolate as I!” He spares her, but we get the distinct feeling she would rather be dead.

On one level, The Love of Three Queens is a silly and overproduced costumed charade. Yet running through it – and holding it together, if anything does – is an intelligent woman’s baffled outrage at the male fondness for brutality, conquest and war. Hedy’s first husband (married when she was just 18) had been the Viennese arms tycoon Fritz Mandl, who sold bombs to both Mussolini and Franco. (If he had no links with Hitler, it was only because he was Jewish.)  He also tried to destroy all prints of Hedy’s landmark film Ecstasy (1933) because she appeared in a very discreet sex scene and, later, swam in the nude. Her efforts to escape this marriage led Hedy to America and, eventually, a Hollywood career. In this return to Europe, she was not just making a movie; she was, perhaps, settling a few old scores.

The scores, alas, did not settle in her favour. The Love of Three Queens sank into an oblivion from which it still has yet to surface. Hedy married again (for the fifth time) to Texan oil tycoon Howard Lee, who insisted they settle in Houston. “How anyone who has seen anything of the world can live in Texas is beyond me,” said Hedy after the divorce. She made only a few more films and died in poverty in Florida in 2000. The Love of Three Queens survives, in much-mutilated form, as the most fascinating of flops. Try to imagine Intolerance remade as a glossy high-fashion chick flick. It could never have worked. And who but Hedy would have had the nerve to try?

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David Melville

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5 Responses to “A Solo for Three Voices”

  1. Joseph Cornell was crazy about Hedy. He said she was one of those actresses whose presence kept the romantic aura of the silent cinema alive in the talkies.

    Oh and don’t forget Andy Warhol’s Hedy (1966) in which her shoplifting arrest is re-enacted. Mario Montez plays Hedy and Mary Woronov is the cop who nabs her. Jack Smith plays the judge in the courtroom scene.

  2. A marvellous review which makes one yearn to see the film, preferably in its longest version. I have to say, however, that The Conspirators and Experiment Perilous, though not on the level of Casablanca and Gaslight, are highly enjoyable films which made good use of Lamarr. She may not have worked with Curtiz and Cukor, but Negulesco and Tourneur, even in less than peak form, are far from being the worst alternatives Hollywood had to offer.

  3. Her advice for appearing beautiful onscreen — “Stand still and look stupid” — makes her an ideal art object and suggests her potential as a Rose Hobart type of found footage. Often in Three Queens she seems to have been inserted at random as a cutaway, measured by the foot and spliced in to unrelated material.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    My God, I’ve never even heard of the Warhol film! It sounds marvellous! Hedy would have made a fantastic Warhol Superstar in her own right. Just imagine her as the matriarch in BLOOD FOR DRACULA…

    It’s true she made a lot of mediocre movies…but the ones she produced herself are invariably fascinating. THE STRANGE WOMAN by Edgar G Ulmer is a masterpiece and one of the truly great melodramas of the 40s. DISHONORED LADY caused a scandal at the time because Hedy played a successful single woman with an active sex life. That film flopped and its director, Robert Stevenson, wound up working for Walt Disney. Ah, the irony!

    Perhaps the greatest tribute to Hedy is PUBIS ANGELICAL, a heart-breakingly beautiful novel by Manuel Puig that was based very loosely on her life. I love that book even more than KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN.

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