When you do a DNA test, you realize that there is no American ethnicity that pops up on your chart, even if you, your parents, your grandparents, etc. were all born in America. This is because America is such a mix of ethnicities, there is no way to pinpoint what an American ethnicity actually is. America is the poster child, the face for the idea that all people are some sort of mix of ethnicities…all because several hundreds of thousands of people decided to leave their country of origin in search of a better life in a new place.
Today I would like to shine the spotlight on 4 of these fantastic immigrants, who also happen to be some of my favorite female classic film stars:
1). Hedy Lamarr– One of the most gorgeous women Hollywood has ever seen, Hedy proved she was also one of the most intelligent. Hedwig “Hedy” Kiesler became an actress in Austria and achieved fame, largely in part for her shocking and provocative nude scenes in the film Ecstasy. Considering her not much more than arm candy, Hedy’s powerful, titled husband thought nothing of letting her sit at the table while he talked shop with some very important people. But this beauty had brains, too. Realizing, from these conversations, that her husband was an arms dealer for the Nazis, Hedy drugged and impersonated her maid and fled into the night, happened to run into Louis B. Mayer in England post-escape, and ended up in America with a new surname and a film contract (as one does). Hedy had a quick, mechanically inclined mind and loved to invent things, some of which she patented. Wanting to do her part for the Allies in WWII, she and composer George Antheil (the bad boy of Jazz piano) developed jam proof radio guidance technology for torpedoes that, though shelved at the time, its components were later used to create WiFi and Bluetooth technology. Austrian-born Hedy did more to aid the war effort for America (with her invention as well as being one of the most successful war bonds salespeople in Hollywood) than many of America’s born and bred. It’s amazing to think what the war effort, film history, and modern cell phone technology would look like were in not for Hedy Lamarr’s arrival on American soil.
2). Marlene Dietrich– This awesome lady should be given credit not only for being a major star well into her 40s and a stage star into her 70s, but also for being a strong woman who spoke her mind and did exactly as she pleased. Born in Germany, she witnessed the evils of the Nazi regime firsthand and found it and them abhorrent. She was extremely political, financing many Jews’ escape from Germany as well as tirelessly performing for troops and selling war bonds. She also thumbed her nose at gender roles and made it popular and acceptable for women to wear pants (famously showing up at a film premiere wearing a tuxedo, top hat & men’s shoes).
3). Ida Lupino- Opinionated, take charge Ida is top of the heap when it comes to awesome ladies. Born in England, she started as an actress and went on to become one of the only female directors of the time (the 2nd, I believe, after Dorothy Arzner), paving the way for others to follow. She was very passionate about human rights and politics and her films all had daring (for the time) social themes such as unmarried pregnancy, rape, and the effects of polio (Ida herself had survived polio).
4). Mary Pickford– Once the most popular woman in Hollywood, most people these days don’t even seem to know her name. Despite this, she remains a pioneer of the film industry and the effects of her contribution radiate through the film community still today. Dubbed America’s Sweetheart, she was actually born in Canada, but became such an icon for American film that this moniker was completely appropriate. Mary Pickford was one of Hollywood’s first female movie stars to be named (silent stars started out unbilled and were only known by face); in fact her popularity was said to be one of the reasons this changed because so many people wanted to know who the “girl with the curls” was. She was one of the co-founders of United Artists, a group of “picture people,” consisting of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W Griffith, who sought complete control over the films they made and starred in- a gutsy idea at the time of the big studio systems who controlled everything including what films movies stars would act in and what directors would direct. She was a shrewd businesswoman and one of the highest paid actors of her time, making more dough than many of her male contemporaries. She was also a humanitarian, raising war bonds for WWI and creating the Motion Picture Relief Fund, an organization to help aging and down on their luck actors who could no longer make a living.
I think sometimes we forget how immigrants have built and enriched our society, how their contributions effect our everyday lives (thanks for the WiFi, Hedy!). I, for one, am very grateful.
Shearer, Stephen Michael. Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr. St. Martin’s Press, 2010.
Bach, Steven. Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend. Outpost Productions Inc., 1992.
Donati, William. Ida Lupino: A Biography. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013. Project MUSE,
Whitfield, Eileen. Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. The University Press of Kentucky, 1997.