Saturday, March 14, 2015

Stubs – Queen of Outer Space

Queen of Outer Space (1958) Starring: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Laurie Mitchell, Eric Fleming Directed by Edward Bernds. Screenplay by Charles Beaumont. Based on a story by Ben Hecht. Produced by Ben Schwalb. Run time 80 minutes. US. Color. Science Fiction, Adventure

I will admit that I was only interested in watching this film because of the title and because of its star, Zsa Zsa Gabor. I was hoping for camp, which meant my expectations were about as low as the budget was for this film. As we’ve written before, the 1950’s are a rich era for science fiction, either we were going into space and battling space aliens or else those space aliens were coming to Earth. The fact that I had never heard anyone speak highly of this film was a sign not to expect much and the film delivered on that front.

Queen of Outer Space opens in 1985, the not too distant future in 1958, and astronauts Capt. Neil Patterson (Eric Fleming), Lt. Larry Turner (Patrick Waltz) and Lt. Michael Cruze (Dave Willock) are assigned to escort Professor Konrad (Paul Birch) to the outer space way station that he fought for and designed years earlier. The crew, which we’re told was the first to circle the moon, is disappointed by their seemingly unimportant mission, but the men comply and conduct an uneventful (and overlong) launch.

Science was so much simpler in the 1950s.

As the spaceship approaches the station, beams coming from all different directions, and whose origins the men cannot discern, fire repeatedly at the space station. There are several misses and one beam even bounces off of it, before the beam finally hits and destroys the station.

Next the beam turns on the ship and Patterson attempts to outrun it, but the spaceship is hit, causing it to spin out of control, accelerating at a speed the onboard systems can track and the ship finally crashes into a snow and ice covered and unidentified planet.

Crashing landing on Venus.

The men are only mildly shaken up, except for Patterson, who has a cut on his head from falling debris. He isn’t hurt bad enough for it to qualify as a plot point. After determining the gravity outside is near Earth’s, Konrad declares that the air should be breathable (as if gravity and oxygen levels are somehow related.)

The men, without the need of space suits (convenient and saves money on costumes) venture out of the ship and are soon in a lush jungle-like environment, as if the tropics and the polar caps are close together. Konrad, based on the fauna, declares that they have landed on Venus. Contrary to all earlier hypotheses, some of which he came up with, Konrad now decides the planet supports life. But there is no one else or other animals around. They do set off some sort of electronic alarm, but no one approaches. They set up camp and take turns on watch, rather than return to the relative safety of their ship.

Professor Konrad (Paul Birch): "Yep, this is Venus."

The next morning, they are startled by the appearance of several armed women, dressed in bright dresses and high heels, who naturally speak English and inform the men that they are under arrest. The women take the men to a large city, populated entirely by women, many of whom deride the men as they are led into the palace. The men are brought before the masked Queen Yllana (Laurie Mitchell) and her council (also masked), who demand to know why the men have come to their planet.

Armed Venusians capture the Earthling crew.

Patterson describes the destruction of the space station by the strange beam and then requests assistance in repairing their damaged ship so they can depart. Yllana informs them that her people have been monitoring Earth for many years, enabling them to become familiar with earth forms of communication (explaining the English, I guess) as well as the planet’s penchant for extreme violence. Suspicious of the men’s explanations and believing they have come to destroy Venus, the queen announces that she and the council will meet to decide their fate.

Queen Yllana (Laurie Mitchell) and her council don't believe Patterson's story.

But unknown to Yllana, another member of the court, top scientist Talleah (Zsa Zsa Gabor), receives a secret report of the interrogation from her aid, Motiya (Lisa Davis).

Talleah (Zsa Zsa Gabor) is a top scientist on Venus. It's a formal planet.

Yllana meets privately with each member of the crew and is skeptical of Konrad’s assertion that no one on Earth believed Venus was habitable and that Earth would have no reason to attack the planet. When Turner and Cruze observe that the planet needs the stability of men, Yllana orders them all put to death.

While imprisoned in a bare room that serves as their cell, the men suspect that the space station may have been destroyed by the Venusians (duh), although Cruze cannot accept that women are capable of building sophisticated equipment. (This is really a very sexist movie, but more on that later.)

That evening, Talleah brings the men their dinner as an excuse to talk with them. She introduces herself as part of a growing group of women who have become disenchanted by Yllana’s dictatorial leadership. She explains that a decade earlier there were men on their planet who engaged in war with a neighboring planet that very nearly destroyed them. Disgusted by the violence, Yllana led the women in a revolt and all the men are kept on a small prison satellite in space. After Talleah’s departure, the astronauts decide to overpower Yllana and the other women by seducing them. (I guess you can’t hit a Venusian girl.)

Yllana grants Patterson an audience and they meet in her private quarters. Although Yllana initially admits to the loneliness of leadership, she soon presses to know the real reason for the Earth men’s arrival, insisting that the space station was an attack post. Patterson maintains the men’s innocence and demands to know why she does not respond to him as a man.

Queen Yllana makes a pass at Capt. Patterson (Eric Fleming).

Curious about her mask, Patterson snatches it off and discovers, to his horror (a la Phantom of the Opera), that Yllana’s face is horribly disfigured. She tells him they are radiation burns, the result of men’s wars. When Patterson recoils in revulsion at her face, Yllana orders him to be removed and immediately put to death. (That seems to be her solution to everything.)

The Queen unmasked. Not a pretty sight.

Learning of their punishment, Talleah arranges for the men to be smuggled to her laboratory. There she informs them she has learned that Yllana has also ordered the destruction of Earth with the same beta-disintegrator that destroyed the space station. Talleah and her sympathizers offer to help the men escape if they will assist them in destroying the disintegrator.

After narrowly avoiding capture by Yllana’s guards, the group flees outside, where they seek refuge in underground caves. When Konrad realizes the walls of the caves are made of gold, Talleah says the mineral has no value on Venus. The three astronauts end up in a make out session with their three Venusian companions, leaving Professor Konrad as odd man out. Bored, he wanders outside and quickly discovers that they are surrounded by the Queen’s guards, Patterson devises a plan to have Talleah, and her accomplices Motiya and Kaeel (Barbara Darrow), who have not been linked with their escape, to turn the men in. Once back inside, they can attempt to destroy the disintegrator.

On the run from Yllana's guards. Three Venusian women: Talleah, Motiya (Lisa Davis)
and Kaeel (Barbara Darrow). Four Earthlings: Capt Patterson, Lt. Larry Turner
 (Patrick Waltz) , Lt. Michael Cruze (Dave Willock) and Professor Konrad.

The plan succeeds and, while Talleah organizes more support, Yllana prepares to destroy Earth. Yllana takes the men to the beta-disintegrator to observe their planet’s demise, unaware that Motiya and Kaeel have successfully sabotaged the machine. When the disintegrator fails, Yllana is killed and Talleah leads a successful attack on her supporters.

The Queen is killed when the disintergrator fails.

Weeks later, under the auspices of the new Queen Talleah, the men’s ship has been repaired. But as they are making their sad goodbyes, the men receive a message from earth ordering them to remain until a rescue ship comes, even if it takes more than a year.

Zsa Zsa Gabor is an actress better known for her beauty and her antics, including marrying nine husbands and slapping an LAPD traffic officer, than for her acting chops. She was in the news so much that she is arguably the first reality star, but unlike today’s lot, she actually did something before becoming a “bad” celebrity.

Born in Budapest Austria Hungary during WWI, she was crowned Miss Hungary in 1936 at the age of 19. She came to the U.S. in 1941, but didn’t appear in films until Lovely to Look At (1952). She did a lot of her acting during the 50’s. It is interesting to note that in 1958 she appeared in this film as well as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Her more current roles in film and on television seemed to have been mostly playing herself. In Queen of Outer Space, Gabor is sort of wooden and gives the appearance that she is making the movie between parties, since her character is never dressed appropriately for anything other than a soirée.

Eric Fleming would have a much shorter career than Gabor. He appeared mostly in low budget films, but also co-starred with Clint Eastwood in the television series Rawhide from 1958 until he left the show in 1965. He would be killed the next year while filming High Jungle for MGM, when the boat he was in overturned and he was drowned.

Eric Fleming, Dave Willock and Patrick Waltz in Queen of Outer Space.

Dave Willock is worth mentioning, because outside of Zsa Zsa he’s probably the most recognizable actor in the cast. A character actor, Willock appeared in over 181 films and television shows in a fifty year career from 1939 to 1989. His first appearance was in Three Texas Steers (1939) and he appeared in Golden Boy (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), Spellbound (1945), Pat and Mike (1952), The Geisha Boy (1958) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) to name a few. He also appeared on plenty of TV shows, including the Lone Ranger, Mister Ed, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Alfred Hitchcock Show, Perry Mason, The Muntsters, My Three Sons, Gomer Pyle: USMC, Petticoat Junction, Dragnet 1967, The Beverly Hillbillies, Adam-12, Green Acres, That Girl, Police Story, The Streets of San Francisco and Lou Grant. If you’re of a certain age or watch a lot of old TV shows, then you’ve probably seen him before.

One cast member who doesn’t get a credit is Joi Lansing, a pin-up model and B-movie actress. She is seen kissing Larry before he goes on board the space ship and she stays next to the launch pad, during and after lift-off without her hair even getting mussed. She is obviously eye candy, but her character doesn’t get a name and she doesn’t get screen credit. Lansing’s career is full of uncredited parts, including appearances in Singin’ In the Rain (1952) and Touch of Evil. In the latter, she’s the blonde at the beginning of the film who dies in the car bomb explosion, after muttering the prophetic line "I keep hearing this ticking noise inside my head!"

Joi Lansing receives no screen credit for her small part in Queen of Outer Space.
 Like Zsa Zsa would also appear in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.

Director Eric Bernds began his career in radio before moving to Hollywood in the 1920’s, when the talkies became the rage, to work as a sound technician at Columbia Pictures. He established himself as one of the studio’s top technicians, working on several of Frank Capra’s films in the 1930’s. But Bernds wanted to direct and Harry Cohn reluctantly let him. He worked with the Three Stooges on their short A Bird In the Head (1945) and continued to work in the Columbia Shorts department for another seven years until resigning. During that time he also worked on the Blondie series of films, based on the popular amusement page strip, at the studio.

Bernds has the distinction of receiving an Academy Award nomination in error. The Academy nominated the story for High Society (1955), which Bernda co-wrote with Elwood Ullman, another veteran of the Columbia Shorts department. In reality, they meant to nominate the story for the musical High Society,  that came out what same year and starred Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelley. The story Bernds and Ullman wrote was for a Bowery Boys movie.

This film came about after famed Stagecoach (1939) producer Walter Wanger was released from prison for shooting agent Jennings Lang in the groin for having an affair with Wanger’s wife, Joan Bennett. After prison, Wanger could only find work at Allied Artists, a post World War II outgrowth of Monogram Pictures. In 1952, Wanger bought a ten page treatment for a screenplay written by the legendary Ben Hecht, called Queen of the Universe; a satirical look at a planet run by women, but nothing came of the idea. With the popularity of sci-fi space films, the project was revived several years later, with Wanger replaced by Ben Schwalb, who was then producing the Bowery Boys films.

Screenwriter Charles Beaumont was brought in, but he didn't think much of the Hecht story treatment, but Schwalb suggested spoofing the idea and had former Three Stooges screenwriter, and Bernds’ collaborator, Ellwood Ullman touch up Beaumont's screenplay. The project was also retitled Queen of Outer Space since the original title sounded too much like a beauty pageant. Although Ben Hecht is credited, it is likely he had very little, if anything, to do with the actual production, so don’t blame him.

Despite its title, Queen of Outer Space takes a very sexist view of gender relations. Women are treated like they’re only good for kissing (this is the 1950s), as long as they’re pretty. Talleah, who is supposed to be a renowned Venusian scientist, wants nothing more than to fall in love and have babies. Anytime the crew is surrounded by women, it quickly turns into a make out session. Even tubby professor Konrad gets in on the action at the end of the film when he too is surrounded by women wanting to kiss him. The list of discriminations can go on and on, so this is not the film to show to a woman’s studies group, except as an illustration of how bad things have been.

Shot in a couple of weeks, the film has that cheap feel to it. One can imagine more of the budget was spent on Gabor’s gowns than on the special effects. The sequence of the spaceship careening out of control is stock footage from another Allied Artist production, World Without End (1956). If the crew’s uniforms look familiar, it’s because they were also used in Forbidden Planet (1956).

Even with a run time of only 80 minutes the film has an inordinate amount of stock footage and scenes with little or no action, such as during the launch when all four actors lay on their backs in silence and try to emulate space travel by shaking their heads. Not great filmmaking. How MST3K missed this movie is beyond me. It is ripe for riffing.

This film is truly for the die-hard science fiction fan who feels that they have to see every film in the genre. Otherwise, this film is best left unseen.

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