Friday, September 18, 2009

Queen of Outer Space (Allied Artists, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

We watched Queen of Outer Space as last night’s movie — one of the legendary bad sci-fi movies from the 1950’s, infamous for casting Zsa Zsa Gabor in the lead as Talleah, woman scientist and leader of a resistance movement on the part of the all-female population of Venus (that’s right, the planet Venus) against the planet’s evil queen, Yllana (Laurie Mitchell). But that’s getting ahead — way ahead — of the story! In a prologue that lasts almost 15 minutes before we see the opening credits (at a time when annoying “teasers” like that were far less common than they are now), we see the all-male crew of a spacecraft — Captain Neil Patterson (Eric Fleming, the “other” guy from the TV Western series Rawhide — in 1963 he was offered the lead in a Western feature being filmed in Italy, he turned it down, so the producers offered the part to the other male lead from Rawhide, Clint Eastwood … and the rest, as they say, is history), Lieutenants Mike Cruze (Dave Willock) and Larry Turner (Patrick Waltz), and Prof. Konrad (Paul Birch) — getting ready to fly Prof. Konrad to the space station in earth orbit which he was instrumental in getting authorized in 1963, 22 years before this film takes place.

In a spaceship that, due to the magic of stock footage, changes shape twice — from an oddly “fat” version of a V-2 rocket (apparently the makers of this CinemaScope film forgot to account for what a stock clip shot in the 4:3 ratio would look like squeezed through the anamorphic “decoder” lens through which CinemaScope films were projected) when it lifts off to an Atlas when it flies and, once it’s jettisoned its previous stages, to an airplane-like model that looks like the filmmakers bought it at a toy store. Alas, a series of beams of light flashing through space converge on the space station, destroying it utterly (sort of like the Death Star at the start of the first Star Wars) and then bee-lining for Our Heroes’ spaceship, only instead of blowing up it pulls it in like a tractor beam towards a field of snow where the spaceship crash-lands. (At this point we finally get to see the opening credits which tell us what this film is called and who’s in it.) Through the instruments on their ship, the crew members are able to find out that they’re on a planet with about 87 percent of the gravity of Earth and a similar atmospheric mix, so they can leave the ship without using spacesuits or oxygen supplies. Konrad also figures out that the planet is Venus and that all the conventional wisdom about it — that it’s much hotter than Earth, that its atmosphere is toxic, that it’s perpetually covered by clouds and that it has no moons — is incorrect, a difficult thing for him to admit since he largely determined the conventional wisdom.

In fact, once they get out of the snowdrift where they landed, the planet Venus looks so much like the set of Munchkinland from The Wizard of Oz, complete with brightly-colored rubber plants, I couldn’t help but joke, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” — only instead of little people, the entire population of Venus consists of women with drop-dead gorgeous figures, ample breasts and mini-skirts (almost a decade before they became fashionable back on Earth), the better to show off their luscious female attributes to the sorts of nerdy but still horny teenage straight boys that were then, and remain, the core audience for science fiction. (Earlier in the movie, as the space station slowly whirled around its axis in space, I had similarly hummed “The Blue Danube” as the tribute imbecility pays to genius.) The male crew members are captured by some of the women who populate Venus, and just when we’re thinking based on the examples of previous movies about all-male space crews landing on all-female planets, like Cat-Women of the Moon and Fire Maidens from Outer Space, that the women in charge of Venus had deliberately brought the men from the spaceship to their planet as a stud service to repopulate their race, writer Charles Beaumont (allegedly adapting an original story by Ben Hecht, though according to one contributor Hecht’s contribution was rattling off a story premise at a party where he was drunk, whereupon a producer picked up on it and put it into production, and when Hecht found out he sued and won both money and credit) throws us a curveball and announces that the Venusian Council, the five women with metal face masks (and what look like butterfly antennae above them) who rule the planet, has decided they’re the advance guard of an earth invasion force and sentenced them to death.

The means by which they’re to be executed is the “Beta Disintegrator,” a huge machine which casts those animated light beams across great swaths of space — and which, after they complete the relatively minor matter of disposing of the astronauts, they’re going to use pre-emptively to destroy the Earth itself rather than risk being vulnerable to Earth attack. (Since the Venusians have ray guns while the Earthlings are armed with World War II-vintage pistols, it doesn’t seem like the Venusians would have any trouble repelling an Earth invasion if we were damned foolhardy enough to launch one.) Alas for Queen Yllana, a number of her subjects like the idea that there are men around again — Venus’s native males were blamed for the nuclear war that nearly destroyed the planet and exiled to one of its moons, Tiros — and decide to help the Earthlings in exchange for help in overthrowing Yllana and the Council and establishing a pan-sexual republic, or something.

The essence of the rebels’ demands is conveyed by their leader Talleah when she says, “Men cannot liff vizout vimmin, and vimmin cannot liff vizout men” — which isn’t that bad a line in and of itself, but achieves camp hilarity in Zsa Zsa Gabor’s outrageously fractured delivery of it. Eventually, after several reversals and tricks — plus the big revelation that the faces of Yllana and the other four Councilwomen were permanently scarred by the nuclear war (ya remember the nuclear war?) and that’s why they’re so bitter against men — the rebels win, the Beta Disintegrator (a crude construction which looks like they made it out of plywood) is disarmed and the Earthlings are told that because of the damage to their spaceship, they shouldn’t try to leave Venus for at least a year, until another spaceship can be sent to take them home — and staying on Venus with all the hot babes is a prospect all those highly sexed space guys don’t mind in the slightest!

I’ll say one thing for Queen of Outer Space: it’s a far better movie than Cat-Women of the Moon and Fire Maidens from Outer Space, though that’s just damning it with faint praise. There are people in the cast who’ve actually heard of acting — and Eric Fleming comes damned close to doing it, while Laurie Mitchell as the villain queen steals the movie with her shrieking paranoia and quick mood-changes from forgiveness to vengeance when the astronaut who’s been assigned to seduce her in hopes that will change her mind about killing them recoils in horror at the sight of her real face. (I hadn’t realized this when I was watching the movie, but in retrospect the scene is clearly The Phantom of the Opera with the genders reversed.) The film is in color — nice, vivid, bright, primary-skewed color that’s a wonderful contrast to the dirty greens and browns that dominate today’s movies — and the print we were watching was in excellent shape even though it was panned-and-scanned, which only added to the camp value (especially in some early scenes in which disembodied arms at one side of the screen or the other carry on a conversation with the person in the center).

The sets and costumes were far above the norm for movies like this — probably because most of them were ripped off of other movies, and not just other Allied Artists (née Monogram) productions either: the costumes came from Forbidden Planet, a big-budget MGM sci-fi film from 1956 (and a flawed movie but still much better than this one!), while the sets were recycled from a previous Allied Artists lost-world production, World Without End, also from 1956. The director was Edward Bernds, not exactly one of the great names to conjure with in filmmaking history but at least a solid talent who knew what he was doing behind the camera — he was originally a sound man at Columbia and in 1945 they gave him an assignment to direct a Three Stooges short, a spoof of radio called Micro-Phonies, which Leonard Maltin and other Stooges connoisseurs (the fact that there are such things as Three Stooges connoisseurs is hard enough to believe!) consider their best ever. Even the T&A exhibition was repeated later on more than one episode of the 1960’s Star Trek.

The only real problems with Queen of Outer Space are the silliness of the script and the ludicrous casting of Zsa Zsa Gabor — though in a quirky way they actually reinforce each other and give the film whatever entertainment value it has. Since it’s a dumb concept to begin with, Zsa Zsa can’t weaken this film the way she did the 1952 Moulin Rouge (an excellent film except when she’s on screen), and the looniness of her almost incomprehensible Hungarian accent coming from a Venusian who supposedly learned to speak English from watching earth TV just adds to the delightful absurdity of the film as a whole.