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Monday, December 31, 2007

Catwomen of the Moon

This a great example of B-grade sci-fi movies. It combines recycled props, low-budget effects, second-tier acting and a strange plot. It would have been right at home as an episode in the original Star Trek series. Catwomen must have developed somewhat of a fan base back then, as it was remade in 1958 as Missile to the Moon. It was adapted somewhat in 1956 as Fire Maidens of Outer Space. The catwomen must have found some resonance in 50s audiences.

Catwomen of the Moon (CWotM) is a sort of "sister" film to Project Moon Base. Even though they were being produced by two separate film companies, following two different moon-mission plots, they used many of the same props, sets and costumes in order to save money. The B-movie market was thin on margin, so any cost-savings was desirable.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A mission to the moon has five people aboard a rocket. Laird, the Kirk-like commander. Kip, the co-pilot. Helen, the typical lone female crew member is the navigator. Doug is the radio operator. Walt is the engineer. He's the "red shirt" of the bunch. While en route, the crew radio home some trite little messages. Helen's is cryptic. "Hello Alpha. We're on our way." She doesn't remember doing it. There is a pointless encounter with a usual meteor, which only provokes the love triangle between Laird, Helen and Kip. Near the moon, Helen picks a landing spot on the dark side, which no one could have known about. Once on the moon, Helen leads the crew to a cave. In the cave, they find an oxygen atmosphere, and are attacked by two giant spiders (puppets). The catwomen steal their space suits. The crew find the catwomen's "ancient civilization" city -- a mishmash of roman, hindu and buddhist motifs. The catwomen have been communicating/controlling Helen telepathically. Alpha, leader of the catwomen, induced the earth men to send the ship to the moon so they could steal it and travel to earth. The last lunar air pocket would run out soon. Once on earth the catwomen would rule via mind control of all the earth women and institute their own eugenics program. Walt, the typical greedy materialist red-shirt, gets greedy the catwomen's cave full of gold. One of the catwomen kills him there. The catwomen assigned to kill Doug, falls in love with him instead, spills the beans about the plot and dies for it. There are some struggles between the men and the catwomen. In the end, the catwomen are killed (off screen, thankfully) and the four earthlings rocket away.

Why is this movie fun?
Firstly, it's fun to see the family resemblance to Project Moon Base. The rockets (interior and exterior) are the same with minor modifications. It's fun to see low-budget shortcuts like wheeled office chairs with seatbelts, and spinning empty 16mm film reels sufficing for rocket gear.
Secondly, are the similarities with other works. The plot premise of aliens seeking to steal an earthling rocket so as to get to, and take over the earth, is reminiscent of Flight to Mars ('51). The civilization-of-women sub-genre gets a little boost too, with some familiar elements, and a few notable twists.

Cold War Angle
CWotM is more space drama than allegory. One could try to stretch the mind-control by villains and a plot to rule the earth into something Cold War, but that seems too long of a stretch. CWotM is more about women than war.

Familiar Props Patrol -- The spacesuits are yet another re-use of those in Destination Moon. The helmets, however, are mixed. The two metal "bell jar" helmets were used in the sister movie Project Moon Base. the three acrylic spheres appeared a few months earlier in Abbot & Costello's ...Go to Mars. In CWotM they had flat acrylic across the conical fronts which you could see steaming up with actor breath. The rocket models and interior set are the same as Project Moon Base. The cave spider puppet looks remarkably like that used in Mesa of Lost Women, except for the odd horn on its head. Mesa was too cheap of a movie to have created that spider puppet, so it must have come from an earlier film. I've just not found that earlier film yet.

Familiar Plot -- Despite the overall oddity, CWotM recycles two familiar sub-plots. The first is that of aliens who, despite being much more advanced than ourselves, want to steal one of our rockets so they can come to earth and dominate. This sub-plot appeared in Flight to Mars in 1951. The second is that of a group of mostly men discovering a "lost" civilization of beautiful young women. This sub-plot figured in several prior films: Tarzan and the Amazons ('45), Queen of the Amazons ('47), Mesa of Lost Women ('53) and Abbot & Costello Go to Mars ('53). It also shares elements of the "lost women" movies like Preshistoric Women ('50) and Bowanga Bowanga (Wild Women) ('51). More on that below.

More Lost Women -- CWotM shares several elements of the "Lost Women" sub-genre. There are a group of 20-something beautiful, trim women who live without men. They're supposedly an ancient race. They perform their special dance together. The lobby poster implied that they all craved men, but only one does. There is one, usually the leader, who persists in her dislike (if not hate) of men. An element which gets more use later, is their communicating telepathically. This made a small showing in Mesa of Lost Women but could be easily missed.

There are some notable differences, too, however. The catwomen are not dressed in typical Hollywood style, despite the movie's posters touting "Hollywood Cover Girls". Atypically, there are no blonds. No long flowing hair. No tight shorts or ample cleavage. Instead, the catwomen are in all-black leotards with a bit of gold (or red?) "yoke" around the neckline. We're still intended to appreciate their curvaceousness, as one slow camera pan of a catwoman from toe to head gives us. Still, the all-in-black look is such a departure from the usual Hollywood glamor motif, it's worth noting.

Feminism Editorializing -- A common undercurrent in "lost women" sub-genre is editorializing on feminism. The women's leaders are depicted as man-haters. Their culture doesn't need men. They are smart, but ruthless. The leader often wants to take over the (man-run) earth. A "good" woman feels love for one of the men. For that "sin" of rebellion, she is killed by the man-haters. In the end, they are killed. Since they dislike men and love, the loss of them is not mourned. Only the death of Lambda (the one who loved) is mourned.

Replete with Romance -- A somewhat odd undercurrent in CWotM is how often male-female relationships intrude on the story. The love-triangle between Laird, Helen and Kip gets an inordinate amount of attention. When confronted by an alien race bent on killing them, and one of their own crew-mates being under mind-control by the aliens, the big question on Kip's mind is, "Do you love Laird?" Perhaps this romance obsession is because the film was aimed at drive-in audiences (teens) who tend to be similarly obsessed.

In the end, CWotM is a perfect example of obtuse sci-fi B-movies. High art, it isn't. It is, however, a fun bit of obscuria. It might not be the first planet-of-women film, but it's a notable early one.


Terry said...

Enjoy your website. WOW-you have see a lot of sci-fi.
Do you know the name of a black and white sci-fi movie probably produced from the early sixties which was about some genius children from different countries who built the components for a spaceship so they could escape earth.
The surprise ending was that they were all born on the day of the detonation of the first atomic bomb. It is not children of the damned or village of the damned
I saw it on tv as a child a couple of times. I believe it is a British film.
Thanks for any help.

Nightowl said...

Glad you like my site. The movie you describe does not ring a bell (yet). But, I'm only up to 1963 in my quest. I'll keep an eye out for it.
You're right though, it's not village of the damned.