(4/10) Science fiction meets British bedroom farce in this 1949 comedy about a robotic woman and her real-life blueprint, who turn the life of a penniless playboy and his butler on end. This Charlie’s Aunt with robots tries to make a feminist comment on the male gaze, but it all gets confused within the casual sexism and the conventions of the romantic comedy. Probably one of the most costly sci-fi films of the forties, and the money shows, but unfortunately the pacing is off and the director isn’t able to break free from the original play’s static setup. Very well acted and occasionally quite funny.
The Perfect Woman (1949). Directed by Bernard Knowles. Written by George Black Jr, Bernard Knowles, Basil Boothroyd. Based on a play by Wallace Geoffrey and Jeannie Frances Mitchell. Starring: Patricia Roc, Stanley Holloway, Nigel Patrick, Miles Malleson, Pamela Devis. Produced by George Black Jr. and Alfred Black for Two Cities Films. IMDb score: 5.9
British filmmakers had more or less shunned science fiction since H.G. Wells’ Things to Come (1936, review), which wasn’t so much a flop as it was an extremely expensive undertaking that didn’t quite thrill movie-goers and critics as much as the studio had hoped for, ruining the studio that made it. But in the late forties science fiction again slowly raised its head. We got the crazy comedy Time Flies (review) in 1946, and 1949 gave us both the proto-James Bond movies about special agent Dick Barton and another comedy, The Perfect Woman.
The plot of the film was perfectly summed up by New York Times critic Bosley Cowther when the film premiered in the United States: ”This brash little British-made item describes the adventures of two silly chaps who take on the job of road-testing a mechanical woman for a squirrelly scientist—only instead of sallying forth with the robot, they sally forth with the scientist’s playful niece, who has secretly substituted herself for the robot. And, oh Percival, do they have a time, in the bridal suite of a fashionable hotel, especially when they find out that the young lady is real!”
The silly chaps in question are Roger Cavendish (noted stage and screen actor Nigel Patrick), a penniless man about town applying for the job as a robot tester, and his butler Ramshead (beloved comedian Stanley Holloway, whom Stephen Fry seems to have used as a blueprint for his famous butler Jeeves. They even look like twins.). The absent-minded scientist is played by the great Miles Malleson, lord of absent-minded doters, the role as his niece Penelope is played by minor British film star Patricia Roc, and Olga the Robot, almost an exact copy of Penelope, is played by Pamela Devis. If there is one thing you can not fault this film for, it is the actors. Patrick is perfect as the highly irritating and shrill dandy, and Holloway’s dry remarks and underplayed humour is spot-on. Malleson can play the role of absent-minded professor in his sleep and Roc does a good job as the live woman pretending to be mechanical. Unfortunately she doesn’t get much to work with in the blandly written role as the sheltered Penelope. The highly physical role of Olga the robot is done with perfection by Devis, not surprising, since she was a dancer and choreographer, who later did choreographies for a number of films. The rest of the cast consists mainly of capable British stage and screen bit-part actors.
There was a plethora of very intelligent robot fiction on the market by 1949, by authors like John Wyndham, Lester del Rey, Eando Binder, F. Orlin Orlin Tremaine, and not least Isaac Asimov, many of whom dealt with the blurred line between programming and intelligence, between life and mere existence, the old Frankensteinean question of what it is to be human. Science fiction films, though, lagged far behind in this respect. Robots in films and serials were mostly portrayed as huge, clunky, box-shaped, programmable killing machines. One of the few exceptions to this rule is the female Maschinenmensch (see picture above) in the form of actress Brigitte Helm in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1928, review).
Although the box or buckethead robots of yesteryear in films serials like The Master Mystery (1919, review) or films like Gibel Sensatsii (1935, review) weren’t specifically gendered, they were always presumed male. When speaking of these deadly machines one always tends to speak of iron men or mechanical men, even though one can presume that none of them actually had a metal penis hiding inside those iron trousers. This is also true when we are speaking of literature. Isaac Asimov said that he gave his early robots male-sounding names even though he thought of them as gender-neutral. It wasn’t until the lack of female robots in his stories was pointed out to him that he started giving some of his androids female names (in effect making them gynoids). When authors and filmmakers have created female robots, there has always almost been a specific reason (read: male sex fantasy) to make them female.
The idea of creating the perfect woman out of inanimate material is almost as old as literature itself. In the Greek myths sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with his statue, and the gods bring it to life, and Zeus creates the first woman, Pandora, out of Clay. In Kalevala Ilmarinen creates himself a perfect woman, and in a sense one can even view Eve as an ”artificial” woman – she is made out of raw materials from Adam, whereas Adam himself is an original creation of god. An early female robot was Olimpia in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman (1814), where the protagonist falls in love with a beautiful but soulless automaton. Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam wrote The Future Eve in 1886, where a man hires an inventor to replace his beautiful, but melancholy wife with a copy that lacks his own wife’s ”unwanted” mental characteristics. In Lester del Rey’s Helen O’Loy (1938), a domestic robot develops feelings for her human master. The Maschinenmensch in Metropolis can represent many things, but one of the characteristics that sets her apart from her human ”twin” Maria is her sexuality, and the way she uses her sex appeal to lead men astray only to ultimately destroy them. This is a theme that is abundant in stories if female robots, who are almost without exception portrayed as ”perfect women” in the eyes of a male beholder. More often than not they turn on the male they have seduced with supernatural power and cruelty, often with a more or less misogynist tang.
The idea of the ”perfect woman” as portrayed in this particular film, though, is more in line with Hoffmann’s Olimpia. As the absent-minded Professor Belman explains, Olga doesn’t speak, doesn’t eat, doesn’t need maintenance, doesn’t have a will of her own and obeys every instruction given to her. Neither is Olga, it seems, programmed to do any sort of complicated tasks like cooking or cleaning. Exactly what purpose this beautiful young woman, who doesn’t speak, doesn’t do any housework or have any will of its own, ultimately is meant to serve, is never specified in the film, but I do confess that one certain activity sprang to mind when Pamela Devis was first presented in her ”mechanical leotard”, and I don’t think I was the only male viewer that immediately saw the creation as a sex toy. In that sense, the premise of the film is extremely misogynistic. But that’s not the whole truth.
Another use of the female robot in science fiction is as a blank canvas on which the male desires are painted. The perfect woman, in this sense, is the version of a woman that is, in fact, not a woman, but rather a mirror image of the male need and lust, a vacuum where the male agent may play out all his fantasies without fear of embarrassment, denial or any sort of obligation to his partner. It is a fantasy in which the woman is simply an object of desire and not in any way an equal partner. Depending on how this idea is tackled within the story, it may not necessarily be a misogynistic story in and of itself. Hoffmann’s The Sandman used the automaton Olimpia to highlight the protagonist’s distorted female ideal and his longing for something he new wasn’t real. The protagonist plays along with the charade, half-believing and half-doubting the realness of Olimpia. And while she becomes even more real for him, other women in his life are seen more and more like automatons, while he himself professes to wish to have dreamt about becoming a marionette. The book deals with proto-Freudean notions of the subconscious, desire, fear, lust and self-image.
Although The Perfect Woman alludes to the idea that the perfect woman is one who shuts up, does as she is told, looks pretty (with the allusion to ample sex), the whole point of the movie is that the living, breathing blueprint for the robot takes its place and plays along with the charade, all the while misbehaving when no-one is looking. Penelope obeys all the commands given to her, but in such a way that it causes the two silly chaps a lot of trouble. The final word of the film is naturally that a living, breathing woman with a mind of her own is to prefer to a robot who obeys every word of her husband. Well, thank you for that piece of profound wisdom, dear filmmakers.
One of the problems with the film is that it takes a raunchy premise (what would you do with a robot sex toy?) and fails to do anything with it. Yes, the trio ultimately end up in bed with the scantily clad robot (the actual robot, mind you), but then it’s become a wrestling match as the damn thing breaks down. Through the movie there are some meek double entendres, which fail to be very funny most of the time.
Most of the humour derives from the two silly chaps trying to deal with awkward situations when they try to hide the fact that their escort is a robot (and the pleasure that the decidedly non-robotic escort gets from from observing these situations and doing her best to confuse the men even further). And in this the film momentarily succeeds. Ultimately the film is a classic door-swinging bedroom farce, a speciality of the British theatre. It is, in fact, an updated version of Brandon Thomas’ 19th century play Charley’s Aunt, with the exception that the aunt is a robot rather than a man.
There are some interesting themes that the film toys with, especially the male gaze. When first discovering the robot (actually Penelope) the men go about touching her face and arms, feeling the softness of the material, they lift up her dress to inspect her legs, and so forth. Later, when they are about to put the robot ”to sleep” in the suite, they undress her and are surprised to find rather racy lace underwear. We also see Penelope’s misgivings during these inspections, when the men aren’t watching her face. This is, of course, a metaphor for the way men are often ”judging” and ”inspecting” women, often when the real object of the evaluation is out of ear-shot. There is also a recurring running gag concerning the meaning of words, double entendres and misunderstandings. Olga/Penelope reacts on certain commands, like, sit, stand, up, down, kick, slap, right, left, and so forth. So whenever there are other people around the two silly chaps must either slip in these words in the conversation to make Olga/Penelope act naturally, or avoid them to prevent her from sitting when she should be standing. Much of the comedy is based on the times when they fail. But the film is full of other word-plays and misunderstandings, that hint at meanings below the comedy facade.
The problem is that there are a bit too many interesting notions and ideas, but few of them are ever taken to any conclusion. The end of the film is naturally predictable, as comedies like this go, and all’s well that ends well. There is, however, the nagging feeling that there is a really good gender satire hidden away somewhere between the all the puns and screeching aunts and bumbling bellboys. But of course the film destroys any such notions at the end when Penelope for some reason that dumbfounds me, falls in love with the man who has been ordering her around and prodded her all day long. What possible reason would she have to fall in love with him? Really?
The best parts of the film are the interactions between the three main characters. Writers/producers Bernard Knowles and Charles Black should have cut out some of the uninteresting supporting characters and irritating secondary plots and plot twists, that constantly interrupts these proceedings, from the stage play that the film is based upon. There’s a potentially funny duo of a Italian hotel clerk and an German bellboy who are ultimately completely irrelevant to the plot and also fail to make much real comedy out of their predicaments (by no fault of the actors). The sub-plot of Cavendish’s aunt coming to visit the ”newly-weds” is what ultimately gives the proceedings any sense of urgency, but it feels extremely contrived: what aunt would actually insist on visiting a newly married couple in their bridal suite? All the time we spend with the aunt and her equally irritating friends only serve to stop the film in its tracks and mess up the pacing.
The direction by Bernard Knowles is highly professional, but ultimately quite dull. The film is based on a play written in 1948 by Wallace Geoffrey and Jeannie Frances Mitchell (under the pseudonym Basil Mitchell) that had had some success at West End, and unfortunately the theatrical origins are on display in the very static setup: most of the film takes place in two rooms: the Professor’s lab and the bridal suite, which gives the film a sense of standing still. This is a bit surprising as Knowles was originally a cinematographer, who, among others, worked with Alfred Hitchcock on numerous occasions before he moved to Hollywood. Knowles directed the sci-fi film Spaceflight IC-1: An Adventure in Space in 1965. Cinematographer Jack Hildyard later won an Oscar for his work on the classic The Bridge on the River Kwai.
One of the few actors of this film to have much else to do with science fiction is the inimitable comedian and character actor Miles Malleson, whose name might not be familiar to one and all, but whose face and rotund figure will resonate with almost all movie lovers. Not all of Malleson’s over 130 films were of the best quality, but he always stole every scene he was in, whether it was against Conrad Veidt in the classic Theif of Baghdad, or in one of the handful of cheap Hammer horror films he appeared in. In 1951 he appeared in another British sci-fi comedy, The Man in the White Suit (review), starring Alec Guinness, in 1962 he played a Dr. Miller in The Brain, the first British film adaptation of Kurt Siodmak’s novel Donovan’s Brain, and in 1964 he had a substantial role as the Dymchurch Registrar in an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon.
David Hurst who plays bellboy also played Ambassador Hodin in the Star Trek episode The Mark of Gideon in 1969. Art director J. Elder Wills designed Hammer Films’ Spaceways (1953, review), and makeup artist Tony Sforzini worked on Val Guest’s 1962 movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Hair stylist Vivienne Walker did hair for Cyborg 2087 (1966) and designed wigs for the monsters in the sci-fi classic The Thing (1982). Production manager F. Sherwin Green worked as producer for The Day the Earth Caught Fire and the TV series Space: 1999 (1975-1977). Special effects man James Snow also did special effects for the James Bond space movie Thunderball (1975).
The Perfect Woman (1949). Directed by Bernard Knowles. Written by George Black Jr, Bernard Knowles, Basil Boothroyd. Based on a play by Wallace Geoffrey and Jeannie Frances Mitchell. Starring: Patricia Roc, Stanley Holloway, Nigel Patrick, Miles Malleson, Irene Handl, Anita Sharp-Bolster, Fred Berger, David Hurst, Pamela Devis, Jerry Verno, Johnnie Schofield, Philippa Gill, Jerry Desmonde, Dora Bryan, Noel Howlett. Music: Arthur Wilkinson. Cinematography: Jack Hildyard. Editing: Peter Graham Scott. Casting: Maude Spector. Art direction: J. Elder Wills. Makeup: Tony Sforzini. Production manager: F. Sherwin Green. Sound editing: Jim Groom et.al. Special effects: John Gow, James Snow. Visual effects: Syd Howell, Bryan Langley. Produced by George Black Jr. and Alfred Black for Two Cities Films.