Cobra Woman (1944) Directed by Robert Siodmak. Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Sabu, Lon Chaney, Jr. (70 min).
Can Tollea impersonate her evil twin, High Priestess Naja, and perform the sexy Cobra Dance? What more do you need to know about this Technicolor camp classic? “Among the exotic treats: a rumbling volcano, a pet chimp, ominous gong sounds, forest-glade love scenes, human sacrifices, Naja’s handmaidens in their high heeled pumps, her imperious writhing during what is supposed to be a demonic dance” (Pauline Kael).
World War II was a heyday for escapist entertainment. Universal studios specialized in this genre, with its monster movies, Abbot and Costello films and Arabian Nights tales. Producer Walter Wanger speculated that films like Cobra Woman, with their scantily clad girls and despotic villains, appealed to teen boys, and would inspire them to enlist in the Army in hopes of fighting Nazis. Matthew Bernstein wonders, “Were audiences responding to its fantasy, to its Technicolor, to its physical comedy, or to its peculiar combination of these elements?” (Bernstein and Studlar 12).
The director of Cobra Woman is Robert Siodmak, a German émigré director best known for his late 40s film noirs, like The Killers, and Criss Cross. He and his brother Curt had been enjoying the artistic café society of 1920s Berlin, when they, and a group of friends who worked in movies, Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, etc) Edward G. Ulmer (Detour), Fred Zimmerman (High Noon) and Eugen Schufftan, who won an Oscar for his cinematography (The Hustler) decided to make their own film, Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday). The success of this film aided the careers of all involved, and Siodmak ended up working at the premiere German film studio, UFA. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Siodmak, who was Jewish, fled along with many of his talented colleagues, to France. He made films in France until 1940, when he and his wife continued their exile to the U.S.
In Hollywood, his European reputation meant nothing, as few of his films reached America. Preston Sturges got him his first American film for Paramount, a light comedy called West Point Widow. The studio was thrilled with him. Producer Colbert Clark told him, “You’re about the only imported genius I’ve ever met who does what he’s told. You’ll do all right, here.” To which Siodmak replied, “I don’t argue because I don’t care. This picture isn’t good enough to be known as a Siokmak picture.” (Alpi 110). In 1943 he moved to Universal, where he would stay for seven years, making his most famous films. He paid his dues at the studio by making Son of Dracula and Cobra Woman. He was aghast at being assigned the Dracula film with Lon Chaney, Jr., as Count Alucard (Dracula spelled backwards) lurking around the Louisiana swamps, perhaps an Ann Rice/True Blood inspiration. But, Siodmak’s wife advised him, “Look! They’ve been making these films for 20 years and know exactly what to expect from a director. If you’re a little bit better than the other directors, they’ll take notice, and it will lead to better things” (Alpi 113). This atmospheric, well-reviewed sequel included characterizations that bore a closer resemblance to his later film noirs than Tod Browning’s original Universal film of Dracula (1931).
Siodmak seemed to enjoy directing the lurid Cobra Woman. It was his first color film. William Howard Greene, a Technicolor pioneer, contributed to the flamboyant atmosphere, and “the plethora of rubber snakes, sequined sarongs and plaster palm trees give the film the tongue in cheek ambiance of a Tiki bar” (Alpi 116). He recalled his star affectionately, “She couldn’t act from here to there, but she was a great personality, and believed completely in her roles; if she was playing a princess you had to treat her like one all through lunch, but if she was a slave girl you could kick her around anyhow and she wouldn’t object—method acting before its time, you might say” (Alpi 116).
Or, as Montez said herself, telling her sister, Lucita, “The first thing a young lady should do for being an actress is to believe she is the most beautiful and important of all the women who live on Earth. In other words, behave as if you were a queen. Do not be afraid in front of any of the directors, not even how exigent and ill-tempered they could look to you. Remember, my dear Lucita, it is the public and not them, who has the last word” (Guillen)
This escapist adventure in extravagant Technicolor, would seem to be the polar opposite of Siodmak’s later dark thrillers, throwing every South Seas adventure cliché into a bubbling pot. “The ‘B’ film’s most glorious hour (and 12 minutes)” (Reid 52) …even though it was considered to be an “A” picture at the time. Siodmak considered it to be “silly, but fun” (Greco 9)
Maria Montez was born Maria Africa Vidal de Santo Silas, the daughter of the Spanish consul to the Dominican Republic. After running away from convent school, she had a brief marriage at 17 and then went to New York City where she became a top model for photographers and illustrators. Universal Studios quickly signed her at $150 a week and changed her name to echo that of famed courtesan Lola Montez.
Cast at first in small roles in B pictures, she decided she deserved far better, and “her temper, and fantastic bargaining ability were soon the talk of the Universal lot” (Dickens 59). She had a small part in That Night in Rio and some other decorative roles, but she was becoming a popular pin-up girl for WW II GIs and was given the part of Scheherazade in Arabian Nights. With that film, she became one of Universal’s “Queen of Technicolor”, and her gift for self-promotion kept her in the news. She married Jean Pierre Aumont in 1943, and her daughter was born three years later. After the war, her colorful fantasy films seemed out of date. Her last Hollywood film was released in 1948. Worried about keeping her weight to 125 pounds, she did yoga (considered quite eccentric at the time) and took hot saline baths. It was in one of these baths that she had a heart attack and died at 39.
“Pathetically unskilled at acting (or singing or dancing for that matter) she nevertheless became immensely popular in a string of glossy-cheap but highly profitable color adventure yarns, often starring fellow camel riders, Jon Hall, Sabu and Turhan Bey” (Katz). There were a number of Latina heroines in American films, some like Montez and Dolores del Rio acknowledged for their ethnicity (del Rio was Mexican). Others like Margarita Cansino, were anglicized. Her name was changed to Rita Hayworth, and her Latina roots obscured. Montez played authority figures, not doormats, sexy sirens of varying nationalities. “I am proud of who I am, I play proud characters, and I cannot play women who are pushed or laughed at” (Hadley-Garcia 117).
To post-war audiences, particularly gay men, Maria Montez became a thrilling icon of glamour in midst of tawdry surroundings. Underground filmmaker Jack Smith published a famous essay, “The Perfect Film Appositeness of Maria Montez” in 1962. He built an altar and prayed to her, calling her The Miraculous One, and her films inspired his own. Michel Guillen quotes Gary Morris from Bright Lights Film Journal: “Smith’s own standards for art let him refashion Montez and the whole ethos of tinny Orientalia, low-budget intrigues, and what he called Universal’s ‘cowhide thongs and cardboard sets’ into Dionysian revels that were both wild camp and subtle polemic in upsetting an overflowing apple cart of norms: heterosexuality, narrative, social and sexual and aesthetic repressions.” Smith wrote, “But, I tell you Maria Montez Moldy Movie Queen, Shoulder pad, gold platform wedgie Siren, Determined, dreambound, Spanish Irish, Negro? Indian girl who went to Hollywood from the Dominican Rep. Wretch actress–pathetic as actress, why insist on her being an actress–why limit her? Don’t slander her beautiful womanliness that took joy in her own beauty and all beauty–or whatever in her that turned plaster cornball sets to beauty. Her eye saw not just beauty but incredible, delirious, drug-like hallucinatory beauty” (Hoberman and Leffingwell 26). Montez is the epitome of Susan Sontag’s definition of “camp” the glorification of style over substance. After a screening of one of her films, Smith told a friend, ‘The Miraculous One was raging and flaming. Those are the standards for art.’
This is pretty racy fan magazine photo from the early 1940s
She plays opposite Jon Hall, who rose to fame in the island fantasy, The Hurricane, in which he and Dorothy Lamour, both wearing sarongs, survived a special effects deluge. He’s not much of an actor and is perhaps an example of the wartime leading man shortage. Jeffrey Richards believes “there was still Miss Montez, whose thespic ineptitude did at least have the result of making the clean-limbed and very dashing Jon Hall look like the greatest actor ever to appear on the screen” (Richards 272). He spent much of his career either in a loin cloth or in Bedouin robes. He played Ramar of the Jungle on tv in the early 1950s, and then invested his profits from the show in a business which rented out underwater camera equipment to film makers.
Sabu Dastagir was born in Karapur, Mysore, India, –so far—the only Indian actor to make it big in Hollywood. He was an orphaned stable boy at the court of an Indian maharaja. Discovered by documentarian Robert Flaherty, he played the title role of Elephant Boy. Sabu was completely at ease with the giant beasts, and a natural in front of the camera. He was cast, in what we would call a hybrid film, part fiction (based on a Kipling story) and part documentary. Sabu and his older brother returned to London with the Flahertys to finish filming some scenes. They arranged for his schooling, and the studio became captivated with their young star. “The first night, the London premiere, will come. (Yes, Sabu will be there). And then, as the film unfolds, the miracle must happen—Sabu must capture his audience, and the audience must—or will it?—take the little Indian boy to its heart” (Flaherty 136)
The film was a huge success, and in a miracle of social mobility, Sabu then became an international movie star. He played the title role in the extravagant 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad, and also Mowgli in a live action version of The Jungle Book. In 1944, at the age of 20, he became an American citizen and joined the Army, where he served as a combat tail gunner. Like many child actors, adult success eluded him for the most part and his post war career was less exciting, although he had a marvelous role in Black Narcissus. Michael Guillen quotes post-colonial critic Gayatri Gopinath, who describes Sabu as “nothing more than an anachronistic emblem of Orientalist and colonialist fantasies of perpetually childlike, effeminized ‘native’ men.” However, in many of his films, Sabu was not just a sidekick, but the more active hero, often much more effective than the romantic lead, distracted as he was by the heroine’s charms. Sabu, too, died young of a heart attack, at 39.
Playing the mute henchman is Lon Chaney, Jr. His father, Lon Chaney, inaugurated Universal as the studio of monster movies when he starred in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera before moving to MGM. He did not want his son Creighton to become an actor, and Creighton did not want to trade on his father’s name, or be compared with him, but the studio insisted he be called Junior. His two most remembered roles were as Lenny in Of Mice and Men, and in the title role of The Wolf Man, as the tortured werewolf Larry Talbot. He is the only actor to have played all four of Universal’s classic monsters, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man and The Mummy. He appeared in at least 195 films, often low budget, and usually as the villain. Some of them were good films, like High Noon, but most of his acting career apparently caused him more frustration than satisfaction.
I’m always wary of classic films that skirt—or overtly display–racism in their treatment of non-Western cultures. But, I feel like we all get a free pass with Cobra Woman. There is no real place evoked by Cobra Island. The place is a melting pot, with Hispanic, White, East Asian and South Asian inhabitants. Sabu speaks in a weird, invented grammar that has no relation to any known language. In fact, Cobra Island is more reminiscent of one of those original series Star Trek episodes, when Captain Kirk lands on a planet with papier mâché rocks, scantily clad natives and angry mountains. Cobra Woman has a chimp in a sarong, although s/he is a rather lethargic performer, hulking Lon Chaney, Jr., an aging Queen, played by Mary Nash, (who was Katharine Hepburn’s beleaguered mother in The Philadelphia Story). There is a lot of really terrible acting, a dubious rubber snake, and one spectacular, padded shoulder sequined cobra high priestess gown, designed by Vera West. Some people find their escapist paradise in Star Wars, or the Shire or at Hogwarts. Cobra Island is a magnificent fantasy from a less demanding era.
Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz, Elephant Dance by Frances Hubbard Flaherty, Introduction to Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film by co-editor Matthew Bernstein, Hispanic Hollywood by George Hadley-Garcia and “The Perfect Film Appositeness of Maria Montez” by Jack Smith, from Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool: The Writings of Jack Smith, edited by J. Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell, Memorable Films of the Forties by John Reid, File on Robert Siodmak in Hollywood 1941-1951 by Joseph Greco, This entry no longer exists: theeveningclass.blogspot.com/2007/10/triple-billmaria-montez-sabu-jack-smith/, Robert Siodmak by Deborah Lazaroff Alpi, “Maria Montez” by Homer Dickens, January, 1963 Films in Review.