The B-Movie Mystique: American Feminism at the Drive-In
The 1963 publication of Betty Friedans landmark work, The Feminine Mystique, is credited by many as being the beginning of the Second Wave of the Womens Movement. Through surveys and interviews, Friedan documented the growing dissatisfaction many women felt with the limitations of their role as housewives. Feeling trapped by the expectation that they be good wives and mothers, beautiful, charming, entertaining in bed as well as out, more and more women began speaking out, demanding more opportunities for personal development and self-expression. Friedan, it seemed, had her fingers on the pulse of society, and her willingness to name this discontent triggered a new wave of social change.
While Friedan was busy with her research, womens voices were being heard in another, less scholarly, venue. Unhappy and unfulfilled, women of the B-movies were staking their own claims, demanding their rightshowever sensational their meanswhile Friedan was interviewing women concerning this “problem that has no name.” Three particularly good examples of this “drive-in feminism” are Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), The Wasp Woman (1959) and The Leech Woman (1959).
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman
In Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Alison Hayes plays Nancy Archer, a disgruntled society wife whose husband is a flagrant philanderer and who makes a habit of drowning her sorrows in a good, stiff drink. Distraught by the most recent revelation of her husbands inconstancy, Hayes is racing down a deserted stretch of highway when she comes across an unusual object and a blast of bright light. Out of the light comes an extraordinarily tall, very bald manan alien of the Mr. Clean variety.
At first, Mrs. Archers claims of seeing “a satellite and a giant thirty-feet tall” are dismissed as little more than the drunken hallucinations of a woman who is known to have spent time in a mental institution. Swearing that she really did see the giant and determined to clear her name, she convinces her husband to help her scour the area. They do indeed find the giant and his satellite, and the giant once again makes his moves on Mrs. Archer. In a panicand hoping that he will be rid of his wife once and for allHarry Archer unloads a round of bullets and leaves the scene as quickly as possible.
But he wont be rid of her so easily. The giant deposits Mrs. Archer on her own rooftop, with strange blue-green radioactive scratches where her diamond necklace used to be. Dismayed by his wifes mysterious survival, Harry resolves to kill her by giving her an overdose of the medication prescribed by her doctor. When he enters her room, however, he discovers that his wife has grown to 10 times her normal size!
Deterred from killing his gigantic wife, but not deterred from his rendezvous with his honey, Honey, Harry goes into town to dance the night away with his paramour. When Nancy comes to, fifty feet tall and hanging by meat hooks (her doctors idea of an appropriate restraining device for a 50 foot woman, apparently), her first thoughts are of Harry. Realizing that he is not there for her in her time of need, Nancy rises to her full height and makes her way into town.
By the time she reaches Tonys Bar and Grill, Harry hardly knows what has hit him. Her giant hand descends on the bar, snatching her man from the arms of his lover. But the townspeople cant stand for the destruction she has wrought. Armed with his rifle, the sheriff guns Nancy down, taking Harry down with her. “At last,” the doctor intones, “she has Harry all to herself.”
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is, by all counts, camp. Director Nathan Juran (sometimes credited as Nathan Hertz or Jerry Juran) was especially well known for his poverty-row productions, including such sci-fi greats as Deadly Mantis and The Brain from Planet Arous. Although poor special effects, an over-the-top script and acting that is less than subtle does little to recommend Attack as any sort of masterpiece, its prescience in describing womens dissatisfaction (and the fact that it features a 50 foot woman in a chamois bikini) has kept it at the forefront of sci-fi “B” classics.
The feminist undertones of the 1958 film were made overt in a 1993 remake directed by Jim Wynorski and starring Daryl Hannah. Nancy, still the spoiled rich girl, is very much in love with her philandering husband (played by one of a seemingly endless supply of Baldwin brothers). Nancy Archer (Hannah) again has a run-in with a UFO. This time, however, the growth factor is exacerbated by anger, an emotion she is increasingly able to express with the help of her feminist therapist.
Great tributes are sprinkled throughout: Nancy orders a delightful dinner for two from “Arkoff & Corman Industrial Caterers,” and the local drive-in is showingwhat else?Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. When the time comes for Nancy to begin her Godzilla-inspired rampage through the city, her therapist does her best to curtail her. But Nancy will have none of it. “Ive tried, Dr. Cushing, Ive really tried to be all modern and adult and post-feminist and look what its gotten me. Well, now Im taking matters into my own hands.”
While I dont want to completely spoil the ending, let it suffice to say that it has more in common with King Kong than with the original Attack, and is much more satisfying.
The Leech Woman
The Leech Woman, like Attack, features a heroine who is unhappy, dissatisfied, and prone to drinking in order to drown her sorrows. Her husband Paul (played by Philip Terry), although not a philanderer, is none too subtle when it comes down to humiliating his wife (June, played by Coleen Gray), not only about her drinking habit, but also about how poorly shes aged. Theres some suggestion that she is older than he, but whatever her age, he throws what love and affection she has to offer back in her face, telling her in no uncertain terms that she is too old and too unattractive to warrant his attention. Unless, that is, she is interested in participating in his research. He hopes that his cutting-edge research on aging will one day result in a youth-prolonging agent that will make him rich. And when a mysterious old woman volunteers for his research, Dr. Paul Talbott thinks hes got it made.
The woman, Malla, is from the Nando tribe, deep in the heart of Africa. With the aid of a powder brought from her village by her mother, Malla has been able to slow the aging process. Now she wants to return to her people, and enlists Talbotts aid to return to her home. Talbott, convinced that the Nando have the key to his future, follows them, taking June along to use as a guinea pig.
Malla and the Nando tribe allow their white guests to witness the ancient ritual that reverses the course of time, allowing the old women of the tribe to briefly revisit their youth before they die. In a monologue worthy of Gloria Steinem, Malla explains the underpinnings of the ritual:
For a man, old age has rewards. If he is wise, his gray hairs bring dignity and hes treated with honor and respect. But for the aged woman, there is nothing. At best shes pitied. More often her lot is of contempt and neglect. What woman lives who has passed the prime of life that would not give her remaining years to reclaim even a few moments of joy and happiness and know the worship of men?
June understands this paradigm all too well.
Of course, the ritual has a complicating factor. Essential to the success of the ritual is the fluid drawn from the pineal gland. To acquire the pineal fluid, someone must die.
Once she has regained her youth, Malla explains that, having witnessed the most sacred ritual of the Nando people, Talbott and his companions must die. Talbott, trying to negotiate his return to civilization, offers to leave June behind as “collateral.” When June realizes that her husband will sacrifice her to save his own life, she chooses him as the necessary sacrifice so that she, too, can relive the joy of her lost youth.
Young and beautiful once again, her husbands guide sees a chance to run off with both the beauty and the substance. His delight is cut short when, in the midst of their escape, June returns to her former state, desperately in need of yet more pineal fluid to keep her young. One by one, the flies drop, men sacrificed to the vanity of a woman desperate to hold on to the shreds of dignity and self-respect that she assigns to her youth and good looks.
While the story could be dismissed as a tale of one womans shallow hold on reality, her desperate need to cling to the superficiality of beauty, and the excesses of narcissism and conceit, the key to the tale is the wholesale dismissal of women of “a certain age.” This film, while certainly a “B” film in both quality and intent, delivers one of the most concise and direct critiques of age-based sex discrimination in American cinema.
The Wasp Woman
The Wasp Woman, like The Leech Woman, is the story of a woman struggling with societys perception of her as an older woman. A Roger Corman production, The Wasp Woman is the story of Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot), an assertive, intelligent woman who is also CEO of her own cosmetics company. A beautiful woman, especially in her youth, Janice is also the companys primary model and public spokesperson. As the story opens, Cabot is told by her account executives that her companys sales are dropping. When asked how to reverse the downward trend, the executives suggest that she is getting too old to serve as the companys public face. Perhaps, they propose, its time for a younger model to represent the business to the public.
Starlin, a proud woman who has succeeded by her own efforts, resolves to prove them wrong. She enlists the aid of Dr. Zinthrop, a researcher specializing in the anti-aging effects enzymes extracted from wasp royal jelly, the substance produced by the queen and fed to the legions of baby wasps produced by the hive.
Now wasps are not particularly well known for their social graces, as we soon find out. “Second only to the black widow spider,” wasps cocoon their preyas well as their matesfor juicy eating later.
Dr. Zinthrop demonstrates the effects of his enzymes on a few guinea pigs, and Starlin is sold. She is eager to market this wonderous substance, and even more eager to test the enzymes herself. The effects are slower than she hopes, so she sneaks into the laboratory one night and injects herself with large quantities of the substance, hoping to speed up the process.
Of course, the consequences are not what Starlin had been hoping for. While briefly young-looking and vivacious, she rather quickly evolves into a hideous Wasp reminiscent of the original make-up for The Fly. At intervals, she is cursed with an enormous wasp head, little wasp claws and a thirst for blood.
The tragedy unfolds as the body count mounts. In her zealous quest for youth, Starlin has become a vicious killer (and, ironically, more unattractive than she could ever have imagined). William Holden (in Sunset Boulevarda much better film with a similar theme) said it best: “Theres no tragedy in being 50. Unless youre trying to be 25.” Unfortunately, this is a lesson Starlin never learns.
The Wasp Woman, like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, has developed a following over the yearsso much so that it was remade in 1996. While remaining true to the original concept, the remake benefits from superior effects, replacing the original wasp mask and gloves with a truly unique vision of what a half-human, half-wasp creature would look like.
The “B” Movie Mystique
“B” movies were made for one reason and for one reason only. Money. Low budgets and widespread distribution generated profits and whetted the appetites of drive-in audiences for even more low-budget thrillers. While not always the greatest in terms of execution, “B” movies were able to tap into social issues in a way more mainstream productions were not. No one was trying to win an Academy Awardalthough Im quite certain no one would have turned one down had it been offeredand this gave producers, directors and screenwriters a great deal of flexibility when it came to story. Looking to magazines, newspapers, friends and relatives for contemporary story lines and plot motifs meant that “B” movies, unlike their A-list counterparts, could easily utilize topics with “front page” social content. The success of Friedans book, published only a few years after these movies were made, is indicative of the extent to which womens dissatisfaction with unfulfilling homelives and careers cut short by social convention was being expressed. “B” movie filmmakers, along with sociologists and journalists like Betty Friedan, knew that there was something beneath the surface. Just below the surface of the sensational plot devices, outrageous papier maché masks, and rubber gloves that are part and parcel of the “B” movie phenomenon is a mirror. And in that mirror, sometimes we can see ourselves.