2/10 In a nutshell: Surely one of the most inept productions ever to get a theatrical release, this Poverty Row film from bad movie giants Al Zimbalist and Jack Rabin steals its sets and props from other movies and throws science and logic out the window as it presents the first Amazons-in-space film. If you can forgive its ineptitude and fifties sexism, it’s a highly enjoyable so-bad-it’s-good movie. And there’s giant moon spiders.
Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, USA). Directed by Arthur Hilton. Written by Roy Hamilton, Al Zimbalist & Jack Rabin. Starring: Sonny Tufts, Marie Windsor, Victor Jory, William Phipps, Douglas Fowley, Carol Brewster, Susan Morrow. Prodcuced by Al Zimbalist and Jack Rabin for Z-M Productions. IMDb score: 3.6/10
In the fifties American manhood was threatened. When the men were off fighting WWII, women were called in to factories, retailers and institutions to take their place, and thus keep the wheels of society turning. In the process, many of them found that having a salary of their own greatly improved their freedom and made them independent of a male provider, which had been the norm up until then. As the men returned home, many women refused to let things slip back to the way it was before the war, and were backed up by a growing feminist movement. Suddenly women’s’ liberation was thing again, and companies that could hire women for a lesser salary than men, didn’t necessarily protest. But a lot of men felt threatened by the loosening of their control over women, and a lot of men dominated the media, the entertainment and the advertising industry, and this created a backlash, resulting in what we today loosely refer to as ”fifties values”, where great emphasis was laid on ”traditional” family values, Christianity, which stated that the man was the head of the family, chastity and female obedience. This was one of the driving forces in Hollywood behind an onslaught of ”Amazon Women” films, of which Cat-Women of the Moon is one of the best known examples.
The ”Amazon Women” subgenre follows a fairly rigid formula. In its truest form, the films depict a party of American men happening on some ”lost tribe” of women, who have either killed off or enslaved their men, and in gaining their freedom from the patriarchal yoke, they have lost their knowledge about love and become cold-hearted, calculating and ruthless ”bitches”, if you’ll excuse the expression. As the films posit it, the only reason they act in this strange way is that they simply haven’t felt the lurrve of a real man, a real American man, that is. What they really need is the strong, rough hand of a dominating bull, and they’ll suddenly realise that life is so much more pleasant if you let a man degrade and manhandle you a little bit. Slap and f*ck som sense in you, if you’ll permit. And those who don’t fall head over heals for these Adonises from Hollywood (often slumming alcoholic middle-aged B move actors past their prime) are simply killed off by the American liberators.
Another reason these films were so popular (and have remained a fairly lucrative subgenre, albeit better disguised these days) is the scintillating male fantasy of happening upon a society of porn star-beautiful women with no men around. Either there’s the possibility of kinky lesbian sex behind closed curtains somewhere, or then each and every one of these women are virgins ready to be ”plucked”. This was naturally never expressed as such in the fifties, but the hints are fairly obvious.
And of course one of the main aims of the films were to show how absolutely awful a society run by women would be, either in its inapt silliness or its cold-hearted cruelty.
The ”land without men” subgenre wasn’t new, though. Films depicting female tribes or a future with female rulers started to spring up as early as the twenties, but really took off in popularity in the fifties. Science fiction had been here before – the first film of this kind is probably the 1924 comedy The Last Man on Earth (review) (not to be confused with the fifties vampire film with the same name), about a future society where men are extinct, and several sci-fi serials showed the ruthlessness of female rulers in outer space.
So Cat-Women of the Moon is basically an ”Amazon Women” film based on the moon. In fact, the moon here almost feels like an after-thought. It is also one of the most inept science-fiction films ever made, and one cannot view the movie without feeling terribly sorry for all the actors involved. At least, at 65 minutes, it’s short, which is one of the few good things one can say about it.
Following the subgenre rules as set out above, the film concerns a team of five American astronauts partaking in the first flight to the moon. Unlike its predecessors, the film wastes no time on pre-flight tech-talk, character building or anything else. A short voice-over explains something utterly unimportant, we see a white rocket taking off against a black background and then meet the five travellers in the pains of acceleration G-forces, lying on flimsy lawn loungers in a cockpit apparently made from corrugated metal. These are the captain Laird Grainger (Sonny Tufts), who is a by-the-book kind of guy and is the boyfriend of navigator Helen Salinger (Marie Windsor), who isn’t afraid of talking back to the boys, the first mate Kip Reissner (Victor Jory), the romantic lead in the movie, who apparently has had a fling with Helen and is still in love with her, and is also a vigilante kind of macho gun-toting hero kind of guy, then there’s the young, innocent radio operator Doug Smith (William Phipps) and lastly crewman Walter ”Walt” Walters (Douglas Fowley), a jovial fella with a thin-shaven moustache who’s real intention for going to the moon is to get filthy rich.
The first thing you notice is that the astronauts are not weightless. The second thing you notice is that this is a very good thing, because the furniture in the cockpit is ordinary office furniture – they even have swivel chairs on rollers. With seat-belts, in which the astronauts occasionally strap themselves for some reason. If I was going to crash, I’d rather not do it while strapped into a chair on wheels. The stars outside the cockpit window are actually matted in, despite the fact that they are just stationary lights. They could have just hung a black drape with holes in it outside the window. But the upside of the matte effect is that sometimes it goes wrong and the stars appear in the grille of the radio as well.
I could go on, but by now you probably have an idea about what calibre of film we are dealing with here. The rest of the cockpit actually looks pretty good for a film like this, but we’ll get to that later.
It would bring me great joy to do a line-by-line rundown of the whole movie, but, really, it has to be seen to be believed. If, however, you want to read a hilarious shot-by-shot description I warmly recommend either checking in with Juli Kearns at Idyllupus Press, Nathan Decker and his editor Pam at Million Monkey Theater or Elizabeth A. Kingsley at And You Call Yourself a Scientist! Enjoy!
Now, I’m jumping ahead a bit to the scene where the team lands on the moon. The first legendary words of the first man on the moon are: ”It works.” It is not clear if he refers to the lift that took him down from the cockpit, the space suit, or the moon itself, but at least it works. The spacesuits actually look pretty good for a film like this, but we’ll get to that later. The team take a stroll down some moon rocks in front of what is very clearly matte paintings that are way too close to the actors to look realistic, but the paintings themselves are really impressive. Much too impressive for a film like this, but we’ll get to that later. Grainger explains that the moon has a permanently dark side and a permanently light side, which is not true, but who cares? He then demonstrates the danger of moving into the light side by taking one of Helen’s cigarettes (yes, she brought along cigarettes) and throwing it into the sunshine. The coughin’ nail immediately bursts into flames. First of all, if there is no atmosphere on the surface of the moon, it wouldn’t burn, simply turn into a blackened crisp. Second, the light side of the moon has an absolute top temperature of 123 centigrades (double that and you’ll get a rough Fahrenheit reading). Now I’ve been in saunas that hot (I’m from Finland, don’t ask) without immediately bursting into flames. Although I must confess that I sure got out of the sauna damn quick, or I would have started cooking. The point is that ordinarily the sunshine on the moon (although sometimes hot) doesn’t have any immediate adverse effects on people, and certainly doesn’t make paper and tobacco burst into flames.
The team enter a cave and find a dripping liquid, and conclude it is water. Because all liquids dripping in caves must be water, even on the moon. And, further, they conclude, there can’t be water without air, so there must be air in the cave. Yes. So how do they test if there is air? By lighting one of Helen’s matches, of course! Because nothing can burn if there isn’t oxygen! (Hold on, what about that cigarette that burned with a clearly visible flame just minutes ago outside the cave?) Yes, the match burns – ergo: the atmosphere on the moon must be breathable! Because there’s no chance of there being a highly toxic and flammable gas in the cave. And what does one do on the moon when the air is breathable? Well, just strip out of the million dollar spacesuits in the middle of a cave and throw them behind a rock. Yes. (They had to do this, because somehow they had to give the Cat-Women a chance to steal them.)
I want you to ponder for a moment, that all during this time, no-one in the team has really expressed any sense of wonder over the fact that they are actually on the moon. But I suppose it works. Nor do they seem to have any interest in, for example, collecting specimens or taking any sort of readings, or perhaps pictures. Did anyone even bring any sort of instruments, besides cigarettes and a gun? Yes, macho man brought a gun, because you never know. Which turns out to be a good thing.
Because next up are the moon spiders. You didn’t think the film would be complete without moon spiders, did you? Or, should we say, a stuffed spider puppet with a horn that descends slowly and out of sync from the ceiling, frightening Helen so that she runs and trips (because in these films women can never run without tripping). But the spider is easily taken care of by the men, as they all jump on top of it and stab it with knives. But no! As Helen trips, the same puppet portraying another spider comes descending on her once more! Tough guy Kip shoots it with his six-shooter. Again, just like nobody seemed surprised that there was breathable air on the moon, neither does anyone really seem too interested in the fact that there are giant, man-eating spiders on the moon, and that they have just has a close encounter of the third kind with not one, but two inhabitants of another celestial body. Or take something like a sample or even a picture of it (ah, sorry, no camera). Well, they might at least have taken a look at the things. But no, giant moon spiders are not interesting to these explorers. In fact, the actual reason for them going to the moon is never clearly stated. They do mention that it is ”a scientific expedition”, but none of them are ever identified as scientists, nor do they ever do or say anything remotely associated with science. Ah, and about that moon spider: I can’t say it look particularly good, but it does seem a little too elaborate for something they would have put together for this film, but we’ll get to that later. And I’m pretty sure those cave sets were left-overs from another film.
Anyway, I’m trying to make this as short as possible, but it is difficult. Next, the team encounters another matte painting, this time with a picture of something that looks like an ancient city in the distance. There’s a few oh-hum exasperations, but once again, this doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Cut to some really splendid (albeit a bit sparse) sets of something that looks like an ancient classical temple. And to make a long story short: Helen is hypnotised by the Cat-Women, who are women with slanted painted-on eyebrows, black hair in buns, dressed in sexy, black leotards, who look nothing like cats. The crew is first attacked by the women, but then invited to have dinner with them. All the men but macho Kip are seduced by the Cat-Women, and Helen is now their mental slave, as she is a woman, and they have a telepathic mind-control of sorts over women, but not men.
The queen, Alpha (Carol Brewster), explains that the seven women are all that remain of a once highly civilised … civilisation, but all the men have died because the moon ran out of oxygen. They have been watching Earth (they always do in these films, don’t they?) and singled out Helen. In her brain they implanted the knowledge of celestian navigation (ah, so THAT’S how there could be a female navigator on board!) and brought her to the moon, so she could bring them a rocket to take them to Earth, where they will enslave all men and rule the world.
Then a lot of things happen, none of which are very exciting. Young Doug falls in love with a sweet Cat-Woman called Lambda (Susan Morrow), and she falls in love with him. Alpha confronts her and reminds her that they are not playing house, but in the business of ruling the world. Lambda all but stomps her foot like a six-year old who’s told she has to clean her room, and replies ”But I don’t WANT to rule the world!” Grainger looks a bit drunk and flubs his lines, Walter ”Walt” Walters is accidentally called ”Doug” by one of the Cat-Women, presumably because there’s another character called Doug, and the actor that plays Walter ”Walt” Walters is actually called Doug, and this is very confusing, and there really isn’t time to do a retake just because someone calls one of the characters by the wrong name. Then Walter ”Walt” Walters is killed, but no-one of his friends seem to take much notice.
Instead Grainger and Kip fight over who Helen is REALLY in love with, by dealing with it like adults, that is: a fist-fight. However, Kip realises that Helen is actually controlled by the Cat-Women, and that he can break the spell over her by pulling her close and twisting her arm. Because all she needs is a good, rough man to give her a good bit of smacking and groping, and she’ll forget all about that silly women’s liberation stuff. And she really likes it when he hurts her, although she says no at first. Uh. Yes. Um. Good, healthy stuff, this.
Oh, and in between the Cat-Women perform a modern dance to Elmer Bernstein’s (yes, THAT Elmer Bernstein) trippy snake-charming flute music. A really bad modern dance. Not to entertain the guests or anything, because they are all sleeping (people sleep a lot in this film). But just for no apparent reason. Probably because it was supposed to be sexy. Which it isn’t.
Well, it all ends with a race between the humans and the Cat-Women to the rocket and…
… Lambda is killed by the other Cat-Women, and Doug kneels by her, as Kip and Grainger enter the frame. Granger fires his gun (whip-style from the hip, no less) out into the distance. He and Granger exit the frame, in pursuit of the Cat-Women. Then we cut back to Doug weeping over Lambda. And while the camera still focuses on Doug and Lambda, we hear another shot. Then someone shouts – like a voice-over: ”The Cat-Women are dead and Helen is all right!”
Did they just finish off the whole epic climax of the movie in a voice-over? Yes, they did. We’ll get to that later.
And then we cut back to the cock-pit, where Grainger consoles Doug, and they set off home.
***END OF SPOILER***
Ah. Now, that was a lot of fun, wasn’t it? As Bill Warren and Bill Thomas puts it in their book Keep Watching the Skies: ”While it is rarely dull, it is also so excruciatingly, stupidly bad as to plumb depths unheard of in science fiction films of the time”. However, I’d could point to a few that had previously plumbed even deeper, see my List of Awful Films. But the astounding anti-feminism and misogyny of the film is really difficult to bear, even as camp comedy. Kip breaks Helen’s feminist spell by roughing her up? Because that’s how you properly treat a woman.
The film is, I should say, more fun to watch than Mesa of Lost Women (1953), which I reviewed a while ago, because in all honesty, it isn’t quite as inept as that film. But it is nowhere as much fun as my favourite bad movie of all times, Robot Monster (1953, review), since that director, Phil Tucker, knew exactly what he was doing, and exactly how bad a movie he was making. It has none of the tongue-in-cheek humour and psychedelic touches and robots getting existential dilemmas. It just pushes on with a straight face while the actors look more and more desperate the further it goes.
Before we get to the actors, let’s straighten out that stuff I said we were going to get to later, because now it is later. First up, the cockpit. The reason the cockpit looks as good as it does, is because it was built for the film Project Moon Base (review), which finished just before the filming of this movie begun, but was released later, because that film actually had a lot of post-production and stuff to be done. Above I stated that the bunks in the cockpit were lawn loungers. But after some comparison it is clear that four of the bunks were actually the rather sturdy, welded bunks used in Project Moon Base. The fifth one, that I think Sonny Tufts is on during take-off, is a lawn lounger that doesn’t seem to be attached to anything.
The spacesuits were the same model of spacesuits that were first used in George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950, review), and then re-used in Flight to Mars (1951, review), and then used again in Project Moon Base. Two of the suits, that come with narrow bucket-like metal helmets seem to be lifted directly from Project Moon Base. There are two theories about the other ones. Theory one is that a lot of these suits were made for Destination Moon, because they were given to the marketing people, who wore them about town when they promoted the film (which is confirmed). But someone at the usually reliable Monster Kids Classic Horror Forum wrote that there was a company called Western Costumes that either 1) designed the original suits for Destination Moon or 2) were licensed to make them. The person who wrote the post seemed to be certain that you could order these suits cheap from Western Costumes, and they do seem to pop everywhere from a plethora of films to TV series, album covers and advertisements. The helmets for the three suits that were not lifted from Project Moon Base are of the plastic fishbowl type, and look much like the ones used in the TV series Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. But film historian Tom Weaver has pointed out that the Corbett helmets had a hinged ”door” in front, which these helmets lack.
Then we have the too-good-to-be-Poverty-Row matte paintings of the moon. Well, they were actually painted by the great space artist Chesley Bonestell, who did much work for George Pal. I doubt that Cat-Women of the Moon could afford Bonestell (and he wasn’t credited), so I would guess that these paintings are also left-overs from Destination Moon.
Then we have the moon spider. Now, above I wrote that I doubt that it was made for the film. My initial thought (and apparently the thought of a lot of people) was that it looks very much like the ones that were used in Mesa of Lost Women. But, those wonderful aficionados that actually research these kinds of things put me on the spot. According to John Johnson in his book Cheap Tricks and Class Acts, the two spiders have too many dissimilarities to be the same. Apparently the eyes and the tusks and the visages are totally different, and it is true that the Cat-Women spider looks more ”puppeteerable” than the ones in Mesa, that really just leapt onto a camera. Johnson writes that the spider puppet for Cat-Women was made by prop monster maker Wah Chang at Projects Unlimited, that made a lot of props for the TV series The Outer Limits at that time, and later for a whole bunch of science fiction films and series. Johnson goes on to quote Marie Windsor, who in the magazine Filmfax said that ”I do remember we had a lot of trouble trying to make the giant spider work”.
And finally we get to the final piece of impressive work in the film, the sets of the ancient lunar city, that look like they were ripped right from the production of a Marco Polo film or something. In fact, they were ripped from the expensive Gary Cooper flop The Adventures of Marco Polo from 1938, and had probably showed up in numerous films prior to Cat-Women of the Moon. That just leaves the cave sets, which could have been made for the film, but I suspect were also lifted from some other production.
Now, the thing is that despite all the good sets and mattes and suits that the film is able to lend from the right and the left, the film still looks like it was made on a shoestring budget. Nothing fits together and it just looks just like the filmmakers rounded up whatever they could find abandoned in some studio warehouse. When trying to decorate the sets, it seems they took whatever was on hand. Apart from the loungers and the office furniture, the cockpit is outfitted with a 16 mm film real that someone stuck to one of the walls. The walls of the temple are decorated with everything from some strange lizard’s head to something that looks like a big toilet lid.
However, a shoutout should go to set decorator Fay Babcock, who was one of the early women in Hollywood in that position (by no means the first, though). She was nominated for Oscars twice, for The Talk of the Town in 1942 and Cover Girl in 1944. The first prominent female set decorator in Hollywood was probably Julia Heron, who started working in that capacity in 1930, and was Oscar-nominated five times, and finally won one in 1961 with Spartacus. Carmen Dillon even advanced to art director and won an Oscar for her work on Hamlet in 1949.
Although inept, this is one of those films where you get the feeling that the filmmakers actually knew how things were supposed to be done, but simply didn’t have the time and money to do it. And despite the ill-matching sets, the lamest fight scenes I’ve probably seen on film, the botched ending (see the spoiler above) and the awful acting (we’ll get to that), the worst thing about it all is the god-awful script, written by Roy Hamilton, whose only other film credit is the sci-fi tinged crime/spy thriller The Whip Hand (1951) and a few TV episodes, including a couple of episodes of Adventures of Superman (1953-1954). The screenplay was based on a story treatment by the producers of the movie, Al Zimbalist and Jack Rabin.
Now, if Ed Wood is sometimes (wrongly, I think) called the worst director of all times, then Al Zimbalist must be the worst producer of all times. He single-handedly managed to produce Robot Monster, Cat-Women of the Moon, King Dinosaur (1955, review), Monster from Green Hell (1957), Tarzan, the Ape Man (1959, NOT to be confused with the 1932 original), Valley of the Dragons (1961) and Drums of Africa (1963).
Of course Jack Rabin doesn’t fare much better, although he mostly worked as visual effects creator, as on Robot Monster. But as opposed to Al Zimbalist, he worked on over 100 films and among them there are a few good ones as well. Rabin is otherwise known as the king of bad B movie visual effects, a really talented matte painter and as a guy who was able to turn out impressive FX on a shoestring budget. For a full list on all the sci-fi films Rabin worked on, see my review of The Neanderthal Man (1953, review). Rabin probably did the matte paintings that were not moon landscapes on this movie, and the one I can think of that isn’t, is the one shot of the ancient city.
The movie was directed by Arthur Hilton, who was a respected editor, even Oscar-nominated at one time, who tried to make it as a director in the beginning of the fifties, but seemed to give up in 1954 as the results were less than inspiring, and returned to his day job, although he did do a little TV directing on the side. He also edited the Lon Chaney Jr. film Man-Made Monster (1941).
The acting the film is mostly appalling. This is partly because of the awful script and dialogue, partly because there wasn’t much time for re-takes (it was filmed in five days), and partly because of the actors. Why someone had the idea to put Sonny Tufts in the film is beyond me. Tufts was a character actor of B crime dramas and westerns who suddenly shot to minor stardom during WWII, when all the big stars were serving in the war. Tufts escaped the draft because of an old football injury, and was suddenly cast as a leading man. When the big shots returned to Hollywood in the mid-forties, Tufts’ career started to decline, and he suddenly found himself the butt of jokes at talk shows. His failing career caused him to start drinking heavily, and although he was only forty-one years old when making Cat-Women of the Moon, he looks at least ten years older, has developed a good beer belly and and looks strangely absent in some shots, as if he is mainly focused on trying to stand upright. At one point in the movie he flubs his lines, which are filled in by Douglas Fowley. He did get a second chance when Billy Wilder cast him in a prominent role in the Marilyn Monroe film The Seven Year Itch in 1955, but he wasn’t able to make anything of it, and only got a handful of roles in B movies and TV series after that. His downfall was also sped up by drunken antics, such as biting strippers in their thighs.
Victor Jory was a well-respected character actor, who appeared in A films like Gone with the Wind (1939) and Papillon (1973), but mostly played heavies in B movies. This was probably one of the few times he got the chance to play a romantic lead, and even looks like he is enjoying himself on occasion, although it does seem as if the enjoyment wears off the longer the movie progresses. Jory also appeared in a few memorable episodes of Tales of Tomorrow (1952, review) and a number of other sci-fi series, as well as the film The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957), where he actually played the lead once more.
Marie Windsor had a long and successful career that lasted from 1941 to 1991. After appearing in mostly uncredited bit-parts in the forties, she rose to fame as a no-nonsense leading lady in a whole slew of B movies in the fifties, and was at one point called ”Queen of the B’s”. Windsor even appeared in a number of very well-regarded movies. The best known is one of Stanley Kubrick’s lesser known films, the noir The Killing (1956), about a race-track heist, where she had a fairly prominent role. The movie has a very impressive 97 percent ”fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.1/10 IMDb score, and is ranked as the 249th best film of all time by the website. She played the female lead in a couple of other critically acclaimed film noirs as well, although none of them necessarily rank as A movies. However, she later said she was more than happy to be the star of B movies, and much rather did that, than play bit-parts in A films.
In the fifties Windsor gradually shifted to TV work, and appeared on a number of high-profile series, like Lassie, Perry Mason and General Hospital. She also appeared in the sci-fi films The Story of Mankind (1957), and The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1963), where she again played the female lead. She had a small role in two episodes of the Batman TV series involving Otto Preminger’s Mr. Freeze in 1966.
Although she liked B movies, Cat-Women of the Moon was too much even for Windsor, and she refused to talk about the film for many years. According to Warren and Thomas she sometimes literally ran away when it was brought up. In later years, though, she took it with a laugh. To Tom Weaver, she divulged that the absurd ending of the movie discussed in the spoiler above was due to the fact that the film ran over budget and time. One day the producers simply walked in, ”pulled about six pages from the script, and said ‘Stop!'” William Phipps corroborates this story, and says that there simply wasn’t enough money to rent the studio even for another hour.
I don’t think that I have, at this time, seen another film with Marie Windsor, but I really, really liked her right from the start. One of the reasons is probably that she reminds me very much of Allison Janney, who I absolutely adored in The West Wing. There’s something about her eyes and mouth that bears a striking resemblance, and she has the same kind of take-no-bullshit spunk as Janney, although much of this is wasted on her role in Cat-Women of the Moon, as soon as she is first manipulated by the Cat-Women and later by Kip. Just like Victor Jory, she soldiers through the film like the true professional she is, never cracking up and just giving it her best all the way through, despite the drunkenness of Tufts, the ineptitude of her female counterparts and the mumbling of Fowley. Like Jory, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was awarded a Golden Boot for her work in westerns in 1983.
William Phipps, the ever-pleasant character that he is, looks utterly lost through most of the film, and like the rest of the cast probably wondered what he was doing there. He is well-cast as the boyish Doug, but it’s a far cry from his impressive turn in the lead of Arch Oboler’s post-apocalyptic low-budget epic Five (1951, review). Phipps had small roles in Invaders from Mars (1953, review), The Twonky (1953, review), and a prominent part in The War of the Worlds (1953, review). He also appeared in a bunch of sci-fi series. He soldiered on in a number of B movies in the fifties, and then became a sought-after guest star on TV, and made appearences on over 200 TV shows between 1951 and 2000. As I’ve stated before, I think it’s a shame that he was never cast in bigger roles in better movies, because I think he had more talent than he was given credit for. As of 2016, William Phipps, born 1922, has the distinction of being the oldest living actor to be primarily associated with science fiction, according to this list, and when writing this, he is the 22nd oldest movie star alive.
Phipps has spoken harshly about the production of Cat-Women of the Moon. According to Warren and Thomas, he said about the ending of the film: ”That’s the thing that really stays with me about Cat-Women, because I though then what I think now: ‘Boy, what a shitty way to end a movie!’” Phipps also commented on the office furniture in the cockpit saying he ”thought [he] working for Soupy Sales”. His second shock was the giant spider, which he thought would ”kill the film”, and asked himself what the sreenwriters were thinking: ”How did the spiders get to the moon?”, and further asked rhetorically: ”How can anyone put that in a movie?” Well, of you’re Jack Rabin and Al Zimbalist, apparently you can.
Western and gangster film henchman Douglas Fowley paints Walter ”Walt” Walters with his broadest and most colourful brush, because how else would you play the role of an astronaut out to find gold on the moon? This is when he is not filling out lines for Sonny Tufts. Fowley was by this time a noted character actor, remembered for his role as the cocky soldier clicking his false chompers in Battleground (1949), and for his unforgettable turn as the film director in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), where he desperately tries to make a former silent movie starlet speak into a microphone in a bush. He became a staple TV actor, as so many old B stars, appearing as Doc Holiday on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961) and Granpa Hanks in Pistols and Pettcoats (1966-1967). Fowley also worked as dialogue director on Cat-Women of the Moon, which is remarkable, as you often don’t understand what he is saying.
The rather talent-challenged Cat-Women were labelled as ”The Hollywood Cover Girls”, and Carol Brewster as Alpha has the largest resumé, of a whole 41 film or TV appearances, often as ”girl”, ”harem girl”, ”saloon girl”, ”party girl”, ”one of Frenchie’s girls, ”model” or ”dancer”. She tries very hard in what was without compare the biggest role in her career, although she is stuck with lines like ”Our generation predates yours by centuries” and ”We will get their women under our control and soon we will rule the world!” She had an uncredited bit-part in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and appeared in the John Carradine movie Hell’s Bloody Devils (1970).
Susan Morrow as Lambda even shows some signs of acting abilities, and in the past she actually had a couple of leading roles. She starred in the female lead opposite a young Charlton Heston (playing a Crow indian) in 1952’s Savage, and played the lead in the Z movies The Body Beautiful, Man of Conflict and Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders, all in 1953. She had prominent roles in some slightly higher-up-the-food-chain C movies, and then her career fizzled out in TV. Suzanne Alexander and Bette Arlen had similar career trajectories (without the leads), both with some 20 performances to their credit. Arlen also doubled as dance choreographer on the film, and it seems the dance routine was put together in the studio parking lot the morning before filming. It’s the kind of thing the girls in my elementary school would put together for Christmas shows, only slightly worse. The other three Cat-Women only have a handful of film roles, and it is probably safe to say that the Cat-Women weren’t signed because of their acting abilities. They do, however, have other protruding attributes.
While we’re at the topic: it remains unclear why the Cat-Women are called Cat-Women. They don’t look like cats, and they never refer to themselves as Cat-Women. They don’t seem to have any cats around, either. Considering the only animals seen in the film, they would be better off called Spider-Women, but we had just had spider women in Mesa of Lost Women the same year. Nobody ever calls them Cat-Women, except Kip at one point refers to them as such in a derogatory comment, perhaps Victor Jory’s noble attempt to get the phrase into the film at least once. To be fair, this was not the first nor the last time that a film’s title had nothing at all to do with the actual content of the film.
Cinematographer William Whitney and editor John A. Bushelman later scored some renown on TV, both getting Emmy nominations, Bushelman for sound editing, though. Believe it or not, but art director William Glasgow was Oscar nominated in 1964. He also worked on The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), the cult classic It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Curse of the Faceless Man (1958) and Invisible Invaders (1959).
The special effects were, as mentioned, done by Wah Chang, in collaboration with Willis Cook, who also worked on Jack Rabin’s underground adventure Unknown World (1951, review) and the Ray Harryhausen classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review). Rabin and Zimbalist worked the visual effects, along with frequent Rabin collaborator David Commons on titles and optical effects.
Wah Chang started as a model builder for Disney, creating maquettes that the animated characters were based upon, and worked on Fantasia, Pinochio (both 1940) and Bambi (1942). He also got into stop-motion animation, and directed and produced his own shorts. He later started designing creatures and props for film and TV, and also created and filmed other special effects, sometimes through his company and sometimes by himself. Unfortunately it’s hard to find information on exactly what he did because of the way he often worked through a company (as is often the case with effects), and thus sometimes remained uncredited, but this at least is known:
Chang did the spider puppet for Tarantula (1955, review), stop-motion work for Monster from Green Hell (1957), the scorpion puppet for The Black Scorpion (1957), stop-motion puppet for Kronos (1957), and designed the iconic time machine for George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960). He worked on Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), Master of the World (1961) and Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962), as well as The Power (1968), Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) and Planet of the Apes (1968). Chang also worked extensively on the TV series Land of the Lost (1974-1977), for which he designed and built most of the dinosaur puppets. In addition to this, he created some of the iconic creatures and props for the original Star Trek series, like the Salt Vampire, Balok’s false image, the Romulan bird of prey, and the famous Gorn from the episode Arena, as well as the original tricorder, and most famously the communicator. His work mostly went uncredited, and thus he never achieved the acclaim he should have during his active years. His company Project Unlimited won the Academy Award for the special effects for The Time Machine, but because of the way the credits were submitted to the Academy, his name was not among the recipients (he did receive a plaque at the ceremony, though, as someone apparently informed the Academy that he had been left out). Film historian Bob Burns later told the Los Angeles Times that this didn’t bother Chang: “He was the most humble, gentle man I’ve ever known in my life,” Burns said. “He never boasted about anything he did, and he just did remarkable stuff.” When the Star Trek cult gathered speed, though, he started gaining wider recognition for his work, and in 1984 he received the George Pal Memorial Award by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.
The one thing does does stand out on this film is the score, a trippy, flute-heavy composition by the great film composer Elmer Bernstein, who avid readers of this blog will remember also worked with Zimbalist and Rabin on Robot Monster. In his book Film and Television Score 1950-1979 Kristopher Spencer cites Bernstein from an article in the magazine Music from the Movies. In it, Bernstein explains that like a lot of liberal Hollywood people, he was at this time in his career, if not blacklisted, then at least graylisted: ”Robot Monster and Cat-Women were done during a period when I was under a political cloud and those were the only films I was offered to do. But I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of trying to help a film, and I had as much fun working on those films as I did on The Ten Commandments.”
Surprisingly the film got a rave review by Variety when it premiered, making you wonder if the reviewer had even seen it. Variety calls it an ”imaginatively conceived and produced science fiction yarn”, and go on to say that the ”cast ably portray their roles”, and continues: ”Arthur Hilton makes his direction count in catching the spirit of the theme, and art direction is far above average for a film of this calibre. William Whitley’s 3-D photography provides the proper eerie quality.” Very odd indeed. Oh, and yes, it was filmed in 3-D, but with such a flat composition as this film had, one asks oneself why. There’s really no effects designed to come at the audience, and very little use of depth. The New York Times short review kept things pretty neutral, but ended the review on a negative note: ”At any rate, being hep cats as well as moon maidens, they try to get their hands on the visitors’ rocket ship, hoping to come down here and hypnotize us all. Considering the delegation that went up, it’s hard to imagine why.”
I had a really hard time putting a rating to this film. Judging purely by technical and artistic merits, this film should get 0-1 stars. But on the other hand, this is one of those campy cult favourites that are a lot of fun to watch. Erich Kuersten (one of the best reviewers on the planet) of Acidemic Journal on Film and Media gives it a glowing review: ”On the intellectual side, if I understand Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman today, it’s only because of movies like Cat-Women of the Moon, which taught me to love the seams of the simulacrum; the glue on the aluminum (sic) siding spaceship; the lounge chair beds right by the instrument panels. Watching it I get the feeling as if space is a giant slumber party where someone is always awake and someone is always asleep, keeping the crew rooted in a place neither unconscious nor conscious.
Cinema and viewing, especially late night semi-conscious viewing, is just like that!
And in watching the characters throwing themselves into the path of the spider, you feel unmoored from the limits of narrative and into the 4th wall freedom of post-modern awareness.”
And yes, there is that. But on the other hand, the film has none of the crazy, shoestring visual surrealism and style that Ed Wood added to his films, nor the wonderful, dreamlike sense of childlike innocence that marked Robot Monster. Warren and Thomas write that its ”total childish artlessness” makes this ”harmless but silly film very entertaining”. Nevertheless, there is at the film’s core a deep-rooted sexism and misogyny that cannot be ignored, which for me dampens some of the viewing pleasure. However, the film avoids that one cardinal sin of being boring, so for that it deserves to stay off my List of Awful Movies. Two stars it is.
For some strange reason, the film was remade in colour in 1958 as Missile to the Moon.
Cat-Women of the Moon. Directed by Arthur Hilton. Written by Roy Hamilton, Al Zimbalist & Jack Rabin. Starring: Sonny Tufts, Marie Windsor, Victor Jory, William Phipps, Douglas Fowley, Carol Brewster, Susan Morrow, Suzanne Alexander, Bette Arlen, Roxann Delman, Ellye Marshall, Judy Walsh. Music: Elmer Bernstein. Cinematography: William P. Whitley. Editing: John A. Bushelman. Art direction: William Glasgow. Set decoration: Fay Babcock. Makeup artist: Harry Thomas. Moonscape paintings: Chesley Bonestell. Sound: Lyle Willey. Special effects: Wah Chang, Willis Cook. Visual effects: David Commons, Al Zimbalist, Jack Rabin. Prodcuced by Al Zimbalist and Jack Rabin for Z-M Productions.