Now we’re talking “high culture”!
I like the 1950’s si-fi genre so I’ve been exploring the holdings at a great site, archive.org. They have tons of public domain B-movies (and very old A-films) plus lots of 50’s TV shows. It is a wonderful time capsule.
Among the 50’s Sci Fi films, my favorite so far is this epic. It was made in 1953, the year of the last 3D craze. I think it was also released in 3D (!). I think it is also on Alpha Video, but they don’t do expensive restorations. I suppose that the archive.org version as as good as it gets for right now.
Since 1953 was a half-decade before even the first low earth orbit satellite, there was no chance for them to get space travel even half-way realistic. They don’t even try — and that is all for the good. The complete lack of facts creates an opportunity for good story-telling that is not constrained by reality. Since the audience didn’t know anything either, they could gladly go along for the ride.
This gives them the freedom to explore the “final frontier,” as Commander Kirk would say. In this case, the spaceship is only a vehicle for the real adventure.This exploration is a metaphor for something entirely different.
On the surface, the crew is on the first rocketship to the moon. Inside that metaphor, the movie is all about the impending changes to the gender roles that didn’t reach full flower for at least another decade. This movie tells the story from the POV of the “establishment” as its dominant power position is just starting to erode. They can only sense and fear it, but they cannot control it.
The dominant males are played by the commander of the rocket, Sonny Tufts, a failed “A” leading man, and Victor Jory, his second in command. The woman is played by Marie Windsor, a great “B” actress. She is the navigator on the spaceship, the third highest-ranking officer. I read that she didn’t like this picture, so I hope that she eventually saw the meaning of this little movie in her lifetime.
The music was by Elmer Bernstein (not Leonard, who was busy with his “A” job with the Philharmonic) and you can hear the foreshadowing of his score for the great 1980 parody, Airplane!. For that one, the boys told him not to make it “too good” so he nailed it. He nailed this one as well.
Although the story is set in late 20th century, the story is told from a late 19th/early 20th century perspective. The explorers were dramatized in the style of the discovery of the North and South poles — not at all like real late-20th century space exploration.
Thus, the navigator has a very important role.The navigator on this spaceship was free to do the classical navigator’s job: she is unilaterally in charge of plotting the ship’s course.
I repeat: She is unilaterally in charge. Just like the old-fashioned explorers — from Columbus to the discoverers of the South and North Poles.
The idea is that the women are already beginning the long process of assuming their newfound power. Although the dominant males still outrank them, they can only accept the woman’s new authority. They are powerless to change or even question the course of their destination.
Our story opens as the crew is waking from sleep up when they are nearly at the moon.
The first action sequence establishes the male’s traditional role. There is some sort of low-budget fire aboard the spaceship. One of the support males must don some sort of suit (not a spacesuit) and go to the rocketship’s basement (!) to put out the fire using an ordinary fire extinguisher (!!). How quaint.
Meanwhile, the woman takes a mirror out of her desk drawer (the spaceship is furnished with ’50s style office furniture) and fixes her hair! (No touch-ups are needed for Miss Windsor, however).
That’s her first decision that we learn about. At the outset, she engages in typical ’50s behavior and it is not clear at all why she is even a member of the crew. Perhaps she is the eye candy.
We soon learn that she is the navigator and she has already decided where the ship will land. Wow! Wait until Houston hears about this! She has chosen a specific location on the dark side of the moon. This was a favorite site for si-fi writers since there was absolutely no information about what the hell was back there. (Even Kubrick and Dr. Clarke chose the dark side as the site of the Monolith).
It becomes very clear that men and women are speaking different languages. She doesn’t get involved in the typically masculine crisis that opens the film, but she does not confine herself to grooming. Hers is a new and different role.
We quickly learn that she has chosen the ship’s detination based entirely on the basis of some (currently undefined) intuitive sense.
She can’t put her finger it, but it turns out that she was guided to this site by the (resident) cat-people who live there. It is this woman-to-woman communication that the males are oblivious to. I suppose this is what they fear the most.
When they land safely, they begin exploring the surface of the moon.
They soon realize that they don’t need their spacesuits (!).
They take off their spacesuits (!!) and resume exploring the dark side of the moon in their street clothes (!!!). They have brought cigarettes and matches (!!!!) and Victor Jory has brought his gun (!!!!!). We learn that the dark side of the moon has a breathable atmosphere, a temperate climate, and ample light for the camera. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if it really were dark back there. They didn’t have the budget to bring enough lights to shoot a movie, like Kubrick did.
Next, they run into a giant spider. It looks vaguely like that octopus that poor Bela had to wrestle for Ed Wood. Perhaps it was a prop left over from another movie. It literally falls out of the sky and the girl is conventionally afraid of it. Victor Jory bravely shoots the prop, mortally wounding it.
This sets up what is the cornerstone of the movie. The men are now fearful of whatever unexpected dangers might be in front of them. They now want to retreat into safety. Sonny Tufts has had enough for the first day. Guess who is excited by the adventure.
Sonny Tufts: We don’t know what’s ahead.
Marie Windsor: I’ll tell you what is ahead: Adventure, discovery, knowledge! Isn’t that why we came? If you don’t want to go on with me, I’ll go on alone!!
Sonny Tufts: You’ll listen to me! I’m still commander of this expedition.
Marie Windsor: You’re not my commander! I know where I want to go and I’m going there!
Wow! Remember, this is 1953, sports fans. Even after being attacked by the prop, it’s the only the navigator who asserts the leadership role. Her new role is underlined by her dominant physical position in the ensemble and her body language. Watch how she is now in the center of the frame, in front of the males.
There is a remarkable contrast with the opening scene — where the males’ mastery over the physical crisis is now contrasted with their impotence after having been lured into this female stronghold.
To both serve both aspects of 1950’s history, the cat-women also try to be conventional. They serve the men food and drink, but the twist now is that the men are their captives. Poor Victor Jory is isolated from the group and sulks.
In the last act, the situation became desperate. As a result, the writers needed to board the soundstage to conduct an emergency EVA/ They rescued the males before the storyline that they launched in the first act of the movie could spin out of control, endangering the male egos of the 1953 audience.
That’s when the writers brought out the dancing girls. The cat-women are all dressed in black bodysuits even do a little dance number to entertain us. They are billed as The Hollywood Cover Girls, but the significance of that ensemble has been lost to history as far as I can tell.
The film tries to do a conventional romantic twist after the EVA. We are supposed to be concerned with which of the two leading males is Marie Windsor’s true love. As if we care at this point.
I can’t blame them; they would have had no idea how the story would end. I suppose the real ending of the cat-women’s story didn’t come until Commander Eileen Collins landed the Space Shuttle at Edwards AFB in 2005. Commander Collins wasn’t even born when “Cat-Women” opened and closed in theaters all across this great land of ours.
I didn’t realize that the seeds of that revolution had already taken root as early at General Eisenhower’s inauguration. This is not the same safe 1953 where Nancy Reagan was still serving coffee to the menfolk (c.f., Donovan’s Brain).
It is a snapshot of social change undergoing the early stages of evolution: a cultural archaeopteryx.