Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) -***

     There were approximately 38 million men of working age in the United States in 1944. 11 million of them were under arms. And yet the nature of the Second World War required industrial production on a scale unmatched by any society in all of human history. The only way to meet the manpower needs of military and industry at the same time was to set aside longstanding prejudices, and to draw upon womanpower on a similarly unprecedented scale. As the war effort ramped up from the beginning of 1942 until its climax in the spring and early summer of 1945, more and more women entered the economy to do the work of men who were away from home fighting the Axis. The feminization of the American workforce was most obvious in heavy manufacturing, which had previously been virtually an all-male domain, but every sector of the economy was affected to some extent.

     It was only after the war’s end that the full ramifications started to make themselves felt, however. Although there were certainly plenty of Riveting Rosies who always saw their sojourn on the factory floor as a temporary arrangement, and were therefore happy to resume traditionally feminine occupation once their menfolk returned from overseas, there were plenty more who found that building ships and driving trucks and forging steel suited them. The latter women enjoyed the independence that came with a steady income of their own. They enjoyed the increased social opportunities that went along with spending their days outside the home, together with the mental stimulation of learning and practicing a trade. And they had come to value as highly as any man the satisfaction of a job well done. Why should they give all that up, just so that so that some demobbed GI could have it instead? The seeds of Second-Wave feminism and the sexual revolution were planted at that moment, even if it would take them almost 20 years to germinate.

     In the meantime, American men had some new things to think about. The US had done just fine for more than three and a half years with theoretically its finest specimens of manhood out of the picture. Indeed, it had risen under those conditions to its greatest world-historical challenge since at least the Civil War. Hardly sounds like the performance of the innately inferior, does it? Now the rational thing to do with that revelation was to begin questioning the validity of sexist cultural assumptions. But there was also an irrational response available, which was to freak the fuck out, indulging paranoid fantasies of a future in which women, if they weren’t stopped now, would decide that men were simply unnecessary, and push right on past equality into female supremacy. Inevitably, the United States on the whole chose the second option, and we’re still having variations on that same stupid fight today.

     But to return now to the immediate postwar period, pop culture played its usual role of sublimating society’s neuroses and anxieties by serving up a whole little meta-genre of stories about encounters between avatars of patriarchies past, present, and future, and alien populations in which females were the dominant— and sometimes the only— sex. Note that these topsy-turvy civilizations were generally portrayed very differently from their nearest and most obvious prewar antecedent, too. The Paradise Island of the Wonder Woman comics, in accordance with creator William Moulton Marston’s eccentric psychosexual and sociopolitical theories, had been a utopia superior in every respect to the squabbling polities of Man’s World, but the Amazons who came after the war were beset by all manner of dysfunctions that audiences were invited to read as the inescapable price for upending the “natural” order of things. Hollywood wasted no time at all in making itself at home with the premise, either. Queen of the Amazons, the earliest film on the subject that I know of, was ready for theaters by the end of 1946! Then in the 50’s, with the advent of space travel as the hottest new theme in motion pictures, came an excuse to enlarge the canvas significantly. Forget girl tribes, girl cities, and girl islands; from 1953 or so on, the state of the art in gender dystopias would be the girl planet. I can’t claim for certain that Cat-Women of the Moon was the original Girl Planet movie, but it was at the very least the standard-setter for the form. That should not be interpreted as a compliment, either to Cat-Women of the Moon or to its imitators.

     The world’s first manned interplanetary rocket has just taken off, carrying five intrepid but rather goony explorers to the Moon. Incredibly, however, not one of them appears to hail from either Brooklyn or Texas! Commanding the mission is Laird Granger (Sonny Tufts, of Serpent Island), a man with all the curiosity and imagination of a talented dromedary. Granger will spend most of the film butting heads with co-pilot Kip Reissner (Victor Jory, from The Man Who Turned to Stone and Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell), because of Reissner’s vexatious habit of thinking about stuff and adjusting his behavior accordingly. There would doubtless be even more friction aboard ship if the captain were aware that Reissner was carrying the torch for Granger’s girlfriend, navigator Helen Salinger (Marie Windsor, of The Jungle and Swamp Women), but there seems to be little prospect of Laird ever figuring that out for himself. Communications officer Doug Smith (William Phipps, of Invaders from Mars and Space Force) stretches the capabilities of screenwriter Roy Hamilton by having three personality traits— he’s young, dumb, and horny— but engineer Walt Walters (Douglas Fowley, from One Body Too Many and The White Buffalo) compensates by having just the one. He’s greedy, to the extent that his sole apparent interest in going to the Moon is the concomitant opportunity to get the jump on everybody else in laying claim to whatever might be up there that’s worth selling.

     And Salinger? Why, she’s the mysterious one. The first indication that there’s more to Helen than meets the eye comes when it’s her turn to talk to the press corps over the radio after the rocket’s successful departure from orbital space. She falls briefly into what looks like a kind of trance, and answers a reporter’s request for comment with the nonsensical nonsequitur, “Hello, Alpha. We’re on our way.” Then, during the final approach to the Moon, Salinger selects a landing site that she should have no way of knowing about, since it’s on the side that tidal locking keeps permanently pointed away from Earth. And finally, once the astronauts disembark to explore the alien world on foot, she leads them (much to Granger’s consternation, and even more to Reissner’s) unerringly toward the most interesting feature of the local terrain: a hidden cave that somehow acts as a natural airlock, trapping a pocket of Earthlike atmosphere below the lunar surface.

     There’s life down there, too, of at least two distinct forms. The first to make its presence felt is a species of man-sized spider, several of which attack the astronauts almost as soon as they doff their Destination Moon-surplus space suits to conserve the oxygen they’ll need for the hike back to the ship. Fortunately, the huge bugs are vulnerable to small arms fire. The other Selenite lifeform is less horrifying, but arguably even more dangerous. That would be the titular Cat-Women— which is to say a pack of magazine-ad models in skin-tight bodysuits, all of whom have had strange things done to their eyebrows. The astronauts don’t see the Cat-Women at first, although they know damn well it can’t have been any spider at fault when somebody steals their space suits. Nor does it seem likely that spiders built the city by the shore of an underground sea which confronts the explorers when they emerge at last from the other end of the cave. Even so, the place initially seems deserted, and everyone but the increasingly edgy Reissner is content to assume that it’s the ancient abode of a vanished civilization. Then Doug gets jumped by something he never gets a good look at, and Helen is abducted during the struggle.

     Salinger’s captors mean her no harm. In fact, she’ll soon learn that they’ve already done much for her benefit. As Alpha, the queen of the Cat-Women (Carol Brewster, from Hell’s Bloody Devils and Son of Sinbad), explains, Helen’s extraordinary aptitude for mathematics and physics, together with her ambition to apply those gifts in service of the space program, was imparted to her telepathically by Alpha herself across a quarter-million miles of interplanetary space. So, for that matter, was her uncanny foreknowledge of the Moon’s topography, and a hypnotic instruction to alert Alpha and her people by radio when the lunar rocket achieved escape velocity. Alpha did all that because her race is now facing the decisive phase of an apocalyptic crisis. Millions of years ago, their ancestors dwelled on the surface of the Moon, just as humans live on the Earth’s surface. But then their world began to lose its atmosphere, forcing the shift to a subterranean lifestyle. The Moon’s interior would not support nearly the population that the surface had previously, and drastic measures were necessary for the species to survive at all. Not even the organized slaughter of most of the Moon’s inhabitants (the nonchalance with which Alpha speaks of “controlled genocide” would be chilling in a movie made by people who gave a shit about what they were doing) could buy more than a few millennia, however, and now the Selenites have reached even direr straits. The last of the Moon’s men died off when the present generation of Cat-Women were but children (the implication seems to be that lunar lifespans are exceedingly long, so I suspect we’re talking about a matter of centuries here), and now Alpha and her followers are in the market for a whole new planet to call home— preferably one already inhabited by genetically compatible males.

     That much Alpha is prepared to reveal to the Earth men as well, once she’s ready to make contact with them, but there’s another part of her scheme that is for female ears only. Alpha isn’t just planning to relocate her people to Earth; she means to run the place after she gets there. Males are impervious to the Cat-Women’s powers of telepathic suggestion, but Alpha’s studies of mankind have shown her that they have other vulnerabilities to exploit. Thus it is that when the Cat-Women reveal themselves to Granger and the others, Beta (Suzanne Alexander) immediately sets about tempting Walt Walters with the Moon’s mineral riches, while Lambda (Macabre’s Susan Morrow) lays similar siege to Doug Smith’s libido. As for Granger and Reissner, Alpha has something even more insidious in mind. She’s going to have Helen set the two pilots at each other’s throats with jealousy over her affections. There’s one thing Alpha hasn’t reckoned on, however— the All-Powerful Penis. You see, once Lambda has really hit her stride romancing Doug, she quickly transitions from duplicity and dissimulation to doing it for real. And worse yet, from Alpha’s point of view, her hypnotic sway over Helen is broken every time Salinger experiences the touch of True Love. If Kip (but significantly not Laird) so much as takes her hand, Alpha’s brainwaves start bouncing ineffectually off of her like so many psychic ping pong balls.

     Incredible as this seems, Cat-Women of the Moon began life as something of a vanity project for its special effects maestros, Jack Rabin and Al Zimbalist, the latter of whom had broken into the production side of the business earlier that year with Robot Monster. I call that incredible, even though both men would enjoy long and eventually even somewhat distinguished careers, because it’s hard to imagine anything less flattering to one’s vanity than Cat-Women of the Moon. Indeed, on the basis of this film, you’d be forgiven for assuming that neither one of them had any ability at all, in any of the several capacities in which they each worked on it. Their story, from which Roy Hamilton developed his screenplay, is ludicrous. Their production is so comprehensively misbegotten that Cat-Women of the Moon, shot originally in 3-D, contains only two scenes that make even the most cursory effort to exploit the expensive and time-consuming gimmick. And the special effects which the movie was created to showcase are a sorry lot indeed.

     I’ll begin with the latter, since it’s what jumps right out at you in the absence of, well, things jumping right out at you, like they would in any self-respecting cheap-ass 50’s 3-D flick. By far the most visually striking things in Cat-Women of the Moon are the lunar landscape matte paintings— which is rather a problem, since those appear to have been hand-me-downs (along with the space suits and that ubiquitous V-2 test-launch footage) from Destination Moon. Under their own power, Rabin and Zimbalist can’t even manage to make the model rocketship for the flying sequences (which is virtually featureless apart from the Roman candle in its tail) resemble the detailed version for the closeup stationary shots in any way. The spider puppet, meanwhile, is one of the classic crap monsters of the era, although it isn’t until the thing starts moving that you fully appreciate its inadequacy. Even the aforementioned two serious attempts to create an illusion of depth— which are arguably just one attempt, really, since the exact same footage is shown twice— are merely quarter-assed counterfeits of the UFO crash from It Came from Outer Space.

     Nor are the other material aspects of the production any more impressive. The living spaces in the ancient city of the Cat-Women look like the banquet room and patio of a particularly tacky pizza-and-pasta restaurant. The effect is especially risible during the scene in which Kip Reissner spies on the aliens’ unexplained nocturnal dance ritual; it’s as if Sabatino’s fell on hard times, and the owners tried to spice things up with an erotic floor show. The rocketship interiors could more plausibly pass for the junk room at an accounting agency where some of the low-ranking employees have set up rollaway cots in anticipation of long overtime shifts during the tax-season crunch. Heaven alone knows how those unsecured wooden office chairs survive the stresses of liftoff, but my personal favorite bit of cockpit set dressing is the empty 16mm film reel hot-glued into a shadow box masquerading as a mainframe computer. The latter feature gives the spacecraft a real “fifth-grade talent show one-act” vibe. And then of course there’s the character design for the Cat-Women, which frankly makes one wonder if anyone in the costume or makeup departments had ever seen a cat in person.

     Cat-Women of the Moon starts to redeem itself, though, once you look beyond the stuff that had to be built, bought, or rented in order to create its fictional world— not because things are any better on the conceptual side, but because they suck there in such memorably illuminating ways. Even more than most of its predecessors on the gender-dystopia scene, Cat-Women of the Moon is like a window into the core of America’s first masculinity crisis. The key point is that this movie is not consciously a cautionary fable or a reactionary parable. If it had been, its creators would surely have tried harder to make all the pieces fit together. Instead, it’s something more like unwitting self-psychoanalysis, with all the unreconciled contradictions, unexamined assumptions, and unresolved incoherencies of its cultural moment put on display in raw form. Consider the Cat-Women as competitors to mankind for the domination of Earth. Somehow they know enough rocket science to turn Helen into the space program’s foremost navigator (note that Alpha’s telepathic pedagogy absolves Salinger of the “unfeminine” sin of being good at math), but not enough to build their own damn spaceship. Somehow it’s a foregone conclusion that Alpha would have the whole planet wrapped around her little finger in no time if she were ever allowed to set foot on Earth, but her entire plan falls apart the moment it runs up against four of the most hapless bozos this side of the Ritz Brothers. On a more general note, the conventional assumption that women are the irrational sex, ruled by their emotions and incapable of the self-discipline expected of men as a matter of course, is belied by the conduct of the male astronauts, all of whom are constantly roiling cauldrons of unchecked feeling. Case in point: after Reissner breaks Alpha’s hold on Salinger long enough for her to tell Granger what the aliens are plotting, he pushes on ahead and makes her confess as well to loving Kip in preference to Laird— upon which the two of them immediately fall into a fistfight over her, completely oblivious to the rather urgent “we’re being set up as a taxi service for the conquest of Earth” thing. Nor is that by any means the only example of the Earth men’s emotional incontinence. Granger spends the whole trip out ordering his subordinates not to do perfectly reasonable things, just because he’s empowered to do so, and braying about the importance of handling everything on this mission “by the book”— yet he ends up convincing no one of anything save his own insecurity in his position of command. Reissner treats his pistol like a blued-steel security blanket from the moment the ship makes landfall, and he responds to the overtures of the Cat-Women by pouting in a corner and pointedly refusing to eat any of the food he’s offered. (True, the aliens really are up to no good, but Kip is still acting like a child.) And Smith and Walters are such absolute slaves to their base impulses that it never once occurs to them that the Cat-Women might have ulterior motives for their belated hospitality. I usually end up siding with the space ladies in movies like this, anyway, but my God! Talk about making your opponents’ arguments for them! The one thing that spoils the fun a little is that the past several years have proven pretty conclusively that we’re not half as far beyond the attitudes revealed in Cat-Women of the Moon as I used to believe.



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