Thursday, October 22, 2020

Hubrisween 2020 :: Q is for Queen of Outer Space (1958)

In the far-flung future of 1984, three anxious astronauts are loitering outside their commander's office, waiting to find out what they're next assignment will be. Convinced it’s the pending prized expedition to Mars, all three are destined to be disappointed.

Shackled to another "milk run" shuttling the lauded Professor Konrad to his most famous creation -- Space Station-A, orbiting some 20,000 miles above the Earth, and unable to hide their frustration over this, Captain Neal Patterson (Fleming) and his crew are reprimanded by their Commander (Gaylord), who must remind them how every single mission is vitally important in the interest of Earth’s conquest of space. And this one has the utmost urgency, too. For it seems there’s some kind of trouble brewing up there, somewhere in the stars, and there’s no time for explanations; Konrad will just have to fill them in on the way, because they have to launch immediately.

Vital or not, while working through the pre-flight check for their impending blast-off, Lt. Mike Cruze (Willock), the ship's radio-man, is still bitching about this baby-sitting assignment before realizing Konrad (Birch) is already onboard and within earshot. And as Konrad assures him his mission is of grave importance, he tries to light a cigarette, is quickly stopped, and then gets an earful over how the slightest spark could ignite the massive liquid-oxygen tanks stored below. Totally pants'd, Konrad apologizes for this foolishness.

Meanwhile, the fourth member of our expedition is still down on the tarmac, where Lt. Larry Turner (Waltz) says goodbye to his girl, giving her the rigmarole about how he might never come back to the dashing blonde (Lansing). He then tries to vacuum her face off (-- sorry, I can’t quite call that a kiss). Up above in the cockpit, a spying Patterson orders his navigator to shut it off and get his keister onboard.

Once inside, they all strap themselves into their custom Barco-loungers and start the countdown. We then cut to some NASA stock-footage of an Atlas rocket launch and the expedition is soon underway. And as far as stock-footage rocket launches go, this one is pretty impressive -- but inside, the astronauts have either grown extremely constipated or aren't adjusting very well to the resulting G-forces.

When the ship safely reaches orbit, as they plot a course for the space station, Konrad finally begins to elaborate on his top-secret mission. Seems we’re not alone, universally speaking, and there are "deadly neighbors" lurking nearby -- meaning the Earth is in peril!

Almost on cue, Turner raises the alarm as his sensors indicate something is shooting at Space Station-A! On the monitor screen, the crew watches in helpless horror as each laser-blast comes closer and closer to the defenseless orbiter. And when this death-ray finally strikes home, the satellite explodes!

Then, the deadly ray turns on their ship! Evasive maneuvers prove fruitless as the vessel is soon caught in the beam. Luckily, it’s only a tractor beam this time, which seizes the ship and begins to violently tow it at a great rate of speed deeper into space. Unable to take the pressure, the passengers soon pass out as the ship rockets off toward the unknown...

Now, if you're watching the movie along with me, you, like me, are most likely seriously scratching your heads at this point because something seems awfully familiar about what we've seen thus far.

And then it finally hits you: Patterson and his crew are wearing the exact same space-uniforms, side-arms, and hats from Forbidden Planet (1956). And the interior of their ship looks an awful lot like the one used in World Without End (1956). Waitasecond! That IS the interior of the ship from World Without End! And by the time the ship launches, your head’s bleeding and your fingers are gorey stumps from all the scratching as you say, "Hey. That ship doesn’t look like the rocket that launched. In fact, it looks just like the rocket from Flight to Mars (1951)!"

Unfortunately, this will not be the last acute case of recycled footage and props déjà vu we’ll be suffering through while watching Edward Bernds’s Queen of Outer Space (1958).

In truth, the story of Queen of Outer Space's conception and production is probably a lot more interesting and harrowing than what eventually wound-up on screen. See, producer Walter Wanger had been making films since the silents, and his first big talkie was the Marx Brothers inaugural vehicle, The Cocoanuts (1929). And throughout the 1930s and '40s Wanger’s résumé blossomed further with many seminal films, including John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), and Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945).

When the 1950s rolled around, Wanger was soon interested in the resurgent science-fiction boom and commissioned a script from Ben Hecht, who had written for the likes of Otto Preminger -- Whirlpool (1950), Where the Sidewalk Ends, Howard Hawks -- His Girl Friday (1940), Monkey Business (1952), and Hitchcock -- Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), and served as an uncredited ghostwriter on everything from Gone with the Wind (1939) to The Thing from Another World (1951). And so, Hecht turned in a ten page treatment called Queen of the Universe; a satire about a planet run entirely by women and how badly they louse it up. And it was while Wanger was shopping this proposal around to several studios for financing when things first started to go a little awry.

Married to actress Joan Bennet back in 1940, their honeymoon didn’t last long as Wanger was convinced she was having an affair from the I dos on with her long time agent, Jennings Lang. And so convinced was Wanger of this infidelity, he started stalking them both until, on the afternoon of December 13, 1951, he took two shots at Lang with a pistol while the man was standing outside Bennet's parked car, hitting him in the thigh and in the groin.

Fortunately for Lang, and Wanger as well, the wounds were not fatal. Unfortunately for Wanger, he chose to shoot Lang right across the street from a police station. Pleading temporary insanity, Wanger wound up serving only four months for his crime of passion. But after he got out, the only studio that would touch him was Allied Artists -- formerly known as Monogram, one of the last stops on Poverty Row; and it was there that he got back on his feet with Riot in Cell-Block 11 (1954), which was based on his time in stir, and the Red Scare genre classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), both directed by Don Siegel.

As for Hecht's treatment for Queen of the Universe? Well, it eventually fell into the hands of Ben Schwalb, who had mostly produced animated shorts and Bowery Boy features for Sam Katzman over at Columbia. Turning Hecht’s treatment over to Charles Beaumont to expand it into a feature, the new scribe, who would go on to write a ton of episodes of The Twilight Zone, essentially junked most of the satire for some standard sci-fi fare of that era.

Still not satisfied, Schwalb wanted more laughs; and so, brought in his gag-man, Elwood Ullman, who, along with eventual director Edward Bernds, had collaborated on a ton of Three Stooges shorts.

Thus and so, with a script punched-up to within an inch of its life, shooting finally commenced. And as a former Columbia man, I'm sure it was Schwalb who pushed to recycle all those props and costumes to save as much money as possible. Add all that up, and it should be no surprise that Queen of Outer Space is kind of a big old sloppy mess. We've seen plenty of evidence to back that up already, but the best/worst is yet to come, Boils and Ghouls. I mean, We haven't even gotten to the planet of the Glamazons yet. So, read on: Bochino! Bochino!

Anyhoo, when that tractor beam finally cuts out, Patterson's ship and her unconscious crew silently drift on until seized by an unknown planetoid’s gravity, and then crashes into some snowy mountains (-- borrowing yet another sequence from World Without End). And when the crew finally recovers, they make a few startling discoveries: 

First, the radio has been destroyed in the crash, and second, they don’t need any pressure-suits because, wherever they are, the planet has sufficient oxygen levels and comparable gravity to Earth. (And if they find a half-buried Statue of Liberty, I’m stopping this review right now!)

Now, Konrad has a hunch as to where they might be but first wants to explore a little further so he can be sure. Thus, making their way off the peak, these explorers soon find themselves in a strange world of plastic alien vegetation. And then, after studying one plant, Konrad concludes they’re on the planet Venus (-- okay, What exactly is he a professor of?). But the rest of the crew protest that this is impossible (-- and for the record, so do I!). Also disturbed by a total lack of ambient sound, this soon changes when a deafening energy-discharge roars overhead. And though Konrad takes this as a good sign, meaning there must be some kind of intelligent life residing on Venus, Turner worries about those deadly little green men like he's read about in the comics.

Later, after making camp for the night, Cruze dozes off during his watch, allowing them to be surrounded by a pack of good looking legs in plastic pumps and mini-skirts. When the sentry wakes up, surrounded by a gang of ray-gun toting women, Cruze thinks he’s hallucinating at first but then goes for his gun, which is quickly blasted out of his hand and disintegrated. This commotion wakes everyone else up, but they're all quickly captured and hauled off.

And as they're marched into a great, matte-painted city, to the crew’s surprise, it turns out these Venusian women understand English. But this does them little good as, once inside, they draw an irritable crowd, who scream hateful epitaphs at them, until the most hostile locals are restrained before things get even uglier. When Patterson wonders aloud on what that was all about, Turner suggests they probably just hate men. And with that, Konrad makes an astute observation: Where are all the Venusian men?

Herded into a main tribunal chamber, they hope to get an answer. And while awaiting the arrival of the ruling council, the Earth men and Venusian women exchange much ogling at each other's various nooks and crannies. Now, being stuck on a planet with apparently no other men, slime-ball Turner feels he’s in heaven. But when Patterson asks Konrad to elaborate on that possibility, the professor professes that a civilization with no sex is no civilization at all. (Hear! Hear!)

Suddenly, several bejeweled masked women enter through a curtain and take their seats behind the dais. At the center, the mysterious Queen Yllana (Mitchell) orders the Earthlings to state their business. Stepping forward, Patterson apologizes for crashing on their planet, but, if given time to repair the ship, they’d be more than happy to leave. Unimpressed, Yllana goes ballistic and accuses them of being spies sent from Earth to prepare an invasion. Rebuffed and told they are here on a peaceful mission, the Queen says that’s impossible: the Venusians have been monitoring the Earth for years (-- that's how they know English), and find the denizens there very barbaric and belligerent; therefore, they must be neutralized and expunged from the galaxy with extreme prejudice!

Meanwhile, in the city’s science lab, Talleah (Gabor) stares blankly at some bubbling equipment when her friend, Motiya (Davis), brings word of the Earth-men’s capture. Here, Talleah insists she must talk to them, and then resumes staring. (Get used to that expression, folks. It's all she's got.)

Back at the tribunal, Yllana brands the Earth-men liars and spies; and if they won’t fess-up, promises them the horror of TORTURE! But first, she gives them time to think about it before answering. And so, in their holding cell, as the other men try to formulate an escape plan, Konrad expounds on the monstrously evil vibe coming off Yllana and believes she’s the one responsible for Space Station-A's destruction. But Turner scoffs, saying women could never invent, let alone aim, such a device. (Har! Har! Shoot him. Shoot him now.)

When the cell door slides open, Talleah brings both food and a quick Venusian history lesson: Translating from her thick accent, we can confirm they are indeed on the planet Venus. And it seems Venus had been at war with the planet Mordu, and this conflict nearly destroyed both worlds. Eventually, Venus won out but at great cost. And in the dire and deadly aftermath, the women, led by Yllana, took over the planet, sparing only a few men, who were then banished to one of Venus’s moons, while all the rest of the males were "disposed of."

Talleah then claims she wants to help them escape. Seems some of the girls aren’t very happy with this new society and want to bring the men back. She also warns that Yllana, who has nothing but hatred in her heart, has developed a new and even deadlier weapon; and if she gets her way, "Der Ert vil be destroyeded." -- I mean, The Earth will be destroyed! So, for all their sake, the Queen must be dethroned. But how?

Before they can figure that out, word comes that Yllana wants to have a private meeting with Patterson. Konrad feels this might be her Achilles Heel and tells the Captain to turn on the charm and schmooze the Queen into submission. Of course, when Turner thinks he should go, feeling he has more sex appeal (-- dear Flying Spaghetti Monster? Please let him get eaten by a giant plant or something), Patterson promises to do his best as he's escorted out. (You’d better mister. Der Ert is depending on your sex appeal.) Once he's gone, Talleah quickly devolves into a jealous snit.

Cut to the Queen's private chamber, where Patterson and Yllana play the game of Who’s Seducing Whom. Eventually, our hero gets the upper hand -- because even Queens can get lonely. When asked to take her golden mask off, she shies away and turns cranky again.

Queen Bi-Polar then turns on a view-screen, revealing her new Beta Disintegrator that will be used to destroy der Ert. (Dammit. Now she’s got ME doing it.) But with a little applied psychology, Patterson deduces some man once did something really bad to Yllana -- is this why she’s denying all love and substituting hatred? 

Her defenses broken, she swoons; and as he takes her into his arms, Patterson pulls the mask off -- but quickly recoils in horror!

Seems Yllana's face was burned and disfigured -- badly, by radiation during the war with Mordu and this has fueled her irrational hatred of men ever since. Asking if he could still love her, she tries to kiss him. When he winces and turns away, the Queen calls for her guards. 

And after he's dragged off, Yllana looks into a mirror and, in a surprising touch of pathos, breaks down into mournful sobbing at her hideous visage.

Once Patterson is back in the cell, the boys are sprung by Talleah and two of her friends. With only two days left before Yllana blows up der Ert, they formulate a plan to destroy the Beta Disintegrator with the help of Talleah’s rebels. And what follows is a hilarious Scooby-Dooesque chase scene as they try to avoid the Queen’s guards. (I’m telling you, Stormtroopers are more observant than these gals.)

Making their way outside the city, the fugitives take refuge in a cave. Safe for the moment, because the Queen’s sensors can’t detect them under all that rock, they explore deeper into the caverns -- where Turner is jumped by a giant spider. (WOHOO! Thank you, Giant Flying Spaghetti Monster! Go spider! Eat him! Bite his head off!) But Turner is saved (-- aw, poop!), and the spider is crispered with a ray-gun.

And yup, that spider was yet another recycled prop from World Without End. And that same unreasonable facsimile of a spider would be pressed into action yet again a few years later in another Edward Bernds highly pilfered sci-fi pot-boiler, Valley of the Dragons (1961).

That night, after they all pair-up (-- except for poor, lonely Konrad), while Turner and Cruze try to vacuum the faces off their girls, Patterson and Talleah make small talk. Asked why she came with them, she answers there is no life without love, or children, and was kind of hoping that maybe his men and her friends could maybe start civilization over some place else. Probing further, she asks if he ever had a girlfriend back on der Ert. When he says no, the conversation really starts to heat up as Patterson comments on her beauty; she’s glad he finally noticed; and then they start vacuuming each other’s face and swap some spit.

Alas, with all that necking and tongue-action, the unattended campfire starts to die down. Here, each man pulls rank, telling the other to get more firewood until a cranky Konrad volunteers and ventures outside -- and runs smack into a passing patrol! Trapped, they try the oldest trick in the book as the men give the girls their ray-guns back and fake their own capture. Amazingly, Talleah manages to get this bluff past the pursuing guards and demands to take the prisoners to the Queen herself.

Meanwhile, Yllana is vaporizing those who helped the ert men escape and admiring her giant, day-glow Tinker Toy set -- sorry, her Beta Disintegrator. Commanding her engineers to finish the preparations more quickly, because her irradiated blood is up, she then receives word of der Ert-men’s capture and orders they be brought to her quarters immediately. 

Once they're delivered, Talleah tells the rest of the guards to stay outside and takes the prisoners in by herself. Inside, Yllana gloats that she will force the Ert-men to watch the destruction of their world first, and then she will kill them all -- very slowly.

Not so fast, your Majesty! For when Talleah turns her ray-gun on Yllana, the revolution has officially begun! And with the Queen captured, they demand she suspend work on the Beta Disintegrator and to issue an order that all the men are to be brought back from exile. Not amused, Yllana can’t believe this degree of treachery and disloyalty, but Talleah reads her the riot act about peace without contentment is no peace at all (-- blah blah blah, we aren't getting any, blah blah blah etc. etc.)

After pitching a fit, Yllana throws herself onto her bed. But this was all a ruse as she secures a hidden ray-gun from underneath a pillow and manages to get one wild shot off before being overpowered and restrained. And once she's subdued, since their earlier ruse worked, Patterson decides to try another hair-brained idea.

Donning one of the royal dresses, Talleah then takes Yllana's mask and puts it on. Taking it in, Patterson swears they could be twins. (But I think that goulash-accent is going to give you away there, Einstein.) After restraining and gagging their captive and tossing her behind a screen, Talleah calls the guards in. 

But as she starts to order them around, Yllana manages to kick the screen over. With that, the guards free her and everybody’s captured again.

Now royally pissed off, Yllana orders them all to be taken to the Beta-Disintegrator chamber for front row seats and an unobstructed view of der Ert's destruction. As they're marched out, she offers Patterson one last chance to be with her. When he refuses, Yllana informs Talleah that she will die last.

Herded in front of a giant view-screen showing a tranquil and unsuspecting Ert, the men watch helplessly as the machine is powered up and primed to fire. But when Yllana punches the big red shiny button, the machine fizzles out!

Seems Talleah's fifth column is more widespread than we thought and has gummed up the works. And while the Queen rushes into the control room to try a manual override, Talleah’s cohorts jump the guards and a pretty hilarious melee ensues. 

This scrum-pile-up continues until the Beta Disintegrator violently overloads and self-destructs, taking Yllana with it (-- rather gruesomely, I might add), and all hostilities cease.

Several days later, after Talleah is installed as the new leader of Venus, the Venusian men are now on their way back down and der Ertlings ship has been repaired, meaning they will be leaving shortly. As Cruze and Turner resume face vacuuming their respective ladies, the new Queen asks Patterson, Why must they go. (Yeah, Why go?) The answer: Sorry, honey, duty calls.

But then Talleah receives some good news. Having established contact with der Ert, Patterson and his men are ordered not to risk a journey home in the repaired ship. Instead, a rescue party will be dispatched to retrieve them -- the catch being it'll take at least a year to get there. As everybody else resumes swapping spit, we then cut to Konrad, surrounded by five doting women that take turns kissing him on the forehead, who happily exclaims, "A whole year!"

Queen of Outer Space is one big vat of industrial-strength cinematic cheese. Government cheese. Chemically developed cheese with no natural products in it whatsoever. Cheese from a test tube of unknown origin, that’s Queen of Outer Space alright.

Unleashed in 1958, the absolute zenith of the "martini machismo" that had gripped the country that decade, this interstellar Battle of the Sexes is filled with so much innuendo, misogynistic ideals, and macho posturing it is absolutely hilarious to behold and endure. Things were so steamy the film was indicted by the National League of Decency over its themes and “suggestive costuming."

Apart from the sexual snits and mostly vain attempts at actual comedy and social commentary, the film is your typical Sci-Fi fair of the era of its origin. Sharing a lot of similarities, plot-wise, with the likes of Charles Lamont’s Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), Arthur Hilton’s Catwomen of the Moon (1953) and Cy Roth’s Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956), despite it’s recycled parts, this film still falls into a category I like to call Sanitized Science Fiction:

Awash in bright primary colors, every brightly lit room and death-ray is immaculately clean in this alien world. And though their technology is very aesthetically pleasing, it's not very practical or grounded in scientific feasibility. And, of course, all the Venusian women are long-legged beauties, wear mini-skirts and saddled with high heels.

The cast for the most part is fine. I always liked Eric Fleming's take on trail boss Gil Favor in the TV series Rawhide, and he delivers the goods as the square-jawed hero. And more importantly, he also treats his leading lady with kid gloves as Zsa Zsa Gabor was hired for her looks and nothing else, and her inexperience shows badly. 

Yes, she does look smashing in that dress slit-up to her nether regions but she couldn’t act her way out of a wet paper bag. When not choking on her accent, trying to get her lines out, watch and boggle as she just blankly stares at ... well, something, and then tenses up before delivering her next line. Luckily, the script doesn’t call on her to do a whole lot except fill out her wardrobe and swoon over Fleming.

Faring much better, Laurie Mitchell does a fantastic job with the highly damaged Yllana. I think there was a real and really interesting character there that could and should’ve been expanded upon. Alas, the script wimps out on her and she has to resort to the stereotypical shrilly villainess; but thanks to her performance, Yllana's ultimate and overly-grotesque demise still packs a wallop.

On the Warner DVD commentary, Mitchell claims she got along fine with Gabor, but other sources claim that the difficult star might’ve been more trouble than she was worth. According to a later interview with Bernds, most of the other Venusians were beauty contest winners; and when the crew paid too much attention to them the more "testy" his leading lady became. In fact, he stated Gabor was such a pain in the ass that Schwalb wound up in the hospital with stomach ulcers.

But aside from its temperamental star, the only real knock on the film is that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, else in Queen of Outer Space is recycled and it sticks out badly. The sets -- which seem constantly on the verge of falling over, the props, the costumes -- those aforementioned uniforms and most of those Venusian dresses were pilfered from Altaira's closet in Forbidden Planet; and even the script borrows heavily from everyone’s earlier work. Bernds own World Without End gets the hatchet the worst -- a pretty good film all by itself, and is one of the first [SPOILERS!] "Omigod, we’re still on Earth'' scenarios put to film.

Admittedly, I've danced around a couple of sore spots on the Battle of the Sexes this film brings to the surface and then pummels relentlessly. Yes, Queen of Outer Space is wrong, so very, very wrong in its portrayal of women but its portrayal of men as hormone crazed idiots isn't very flattering, either.

In the end, I believe everyone should be treated the same. Sure, we have a long, long way to go before this kind of equality is truly achieved, unlocked, and we all move to the next level; no one will argue against that. But if you use Queen of Outer Space as a measuring stick, you cannot deny that we have advanced things at least a teeny-tiny bit since 1958.

Well, if you don't know what Hubrisween is by now, Boils and Ghouls, I don't think I can help you. Anyhoo, that's 17 films down with nine yet to go. Up next, We face a choice between a painless surrender death or the horrors of a resistance death. Either way, we're still dead. Be there!

Queen of Outer Space (1958) Allied Artists / P: Ben Schwalb / D: Edward Bernds / W: Charles Beaumont, Edward Bernds, Ben Hecht (story) / C: William P. Whitley / E: William Austin / M: Marlin Skiles / S: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eric Fleming, Laurie Mitchell, Paul Birch, Dave Willock, Patrick Waltz, Lisa Davis

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