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Sorceress


We here at Teleport City are no strangers to sword and sorcery films, and chances are, if you are here reading this, neither are you. In the 1980s, when I was going through my formative years and had a friend with satellite TV (back when that meant you had a huge NASA sized satellite in your back yard), I don’t think there was any genre we loved more. That’s because the sword and sorcery movies of the 1980s are perhaps the purest distillation of a ten-year-old boy’s mind that a ten-year-old boy could ever hope for. Yes, yes, I know. Ten year old boys were too young to watch such filth. We were also too young to read Heavy Metal magazine, know who Sylvia Kristel was, and have opinions about the best Playmates. Get with the times, ya squares. Sword and sorcery movies were great because not only could you stay up late and watch the R-rated ones, but even the PG ones were full of everything we wanted: monsters, gore, and big-boobed chicks wearing tiny fur bikinis, if they were wearing anything at all. And if that represents the purest distillation of a ten-year-old boy’s mind, then the movie Sorceress represents a sort of cask strength version of that particular spirit. Because Sorceress asks the question, “Sure, what if you had all that, but also the heroes are hot, naked twins?”

Granted, Barbarians asked that same question, but it answered with twin bodybuilders Peter and David Paul. They aren’t really my type. My taste in lads runs to leaner and more athletic rather than big ‘n’ beefy. But Sorceress… now Sorceress answered the question in the curvaceous forms of Leigh and Lynette Harris, twin sisters from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who appeared together in Playboy magazine and then continued to appear together in the imaginations of lascivious young lads for years to come. You should all regret that I was only ten or eleven when I first discovered their existence, because had I had my way, I would have made a pretty good movie starring them with Mary and Madeleine Collinson, the equally large-breasted, equally nude twin sisters from Hammer Films’ Twins of Evil. I think the title would have been something like Getting Naked…Lots! Also We Fight Robots. I reckon I can go ahead and throw Peter and David Paul in there as well. I’m nothing if not fair minded, after all, and Peter and David had breasts at least as big as the Collinsons and Harrises.


Honestly, I don’t think I ever saw Sorceress during its initial run on cable. I’m not sure what happened, really. It must have been on HBO at some point, sandwiched between Beastmaster, which was followed by Conan the Barbarian, then followed by Beastmaster. My friend Robby and I rarely let something this important slip through the cracks, but I guess no one is perfect. We did, however, know who Lynette and Leigh Harris were, thanks to the stack of Playboy magazine his dad kept hidden… IN THE TOY ROOM! God bless that man. Sure, he kept the harder stuff, your Oui, your Hustler, hidden in his bedroom closet, but he was understanding enough to store the Playboys right there on the metal utility shelves next to Robby’s piles of Battlestar Galactica guys and tauntauns. Good issues, running from the late 60s, through the 70s, and into the early 80s. March, 1981. They appeared in other issues, but March 1981 was the one we had. And that one I remember vividly. The “twins” issue, though for some strange reason, the centerfold was just one woman. But it was in that magazine that we discovered the buxom Harris twins. And dare I say we discovered a little something… about ourselves. I guess not knowing that the twins had also made a sword and sorcery movie was for the better. Had I seen something that awesome at that age, I might have exploded or coughed up my own skeleton.

Of course, there’s a long, sordid, and often laughable history of Playboy Playmates trying their hand at acting, which is why Playboy was happier to shell out lots of money to get established movie stars to pose nude instead. But it seems like every nude model, like every musician, really wants to be an actor (the same way every actor seems to want to record an album). And it says a lot about the acting chops of most Playboy Playmates that the most successful of them was Julie Strain. Oh wait. She was Penthouse, wasn’t she? Well, I bet she showed up in Playboy at some point. So I guess the most successful Playmate turned actress is… I don’t know. Jenny McCarthy, maybe? I suppose Anna Nicole Smith was a success in a certain way, for a little while anyway. Was Pam Anderson in Playboy? I guess so. Wow. There’s just too many of them littering the landscape to keep count. Look, to be honest, pretty much after we worked our way through the stack of from the 60s and 70s, I lost track. Playboy always had a thing for blondes, and I’ve always had a thing for brunettes and red heads. And frankly, once the era of silicone breast implants took hold, I just couldn’t relate. Pretty much all of the other Playmate-actresses crashed and burned, though Andy Sidaris did what he could to support them for a time.

But even aside from Lynette and Leigh, for the moment, Sorceress is a weirdly “important” cult movie. It was the first film for Jim Wynorski (working here as a writer), who would basically become a one-man exploitation film factory shortly thereafter. It was the last film for Jack Hill, who’s storied career as a director and writer of exploitation films included Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Spider Baby. And Roger Corman was the producer, but it was like his eight millionth movie, and there would be like another fifteen million yet to come, so that’s not as much of a milestone. I think it might have been his first producer credit for a sword and sorcery (80s style) movie, which I guess is something. But it’s not like it was for Wynorski on his way in and Hill on his way out. I wouldn’t exactly call it a passing of the torch, though.


Traigon (Mexican television actor Roberto Ballesteros) is your standard-issue sword and sorcery bad guy. He has it on good prophecy that, in order to maintain his black magic powers and control of the realm, he must sacrifice his first-born child. Unfortunately for Traigon, his wife isn’t as keen on the deal as he is, and so she flees. But even once he catches up with the wily wench, Traigon’s woes aren’t over, because his wife has given birth to twins. Traigon needs to know which one was born first, lest he knife the wrong baby, but his wife remains steadfastly stubborn in her unwillingness to make the task of infanticide easy. And since a murderous wizard warlordly type guy can’t catch a break, not only does he not know which baby was born first, but then the guy from the cover of Aqualung appears to slaughter Traigon’s minions, then slaughter Traigon himself! So, movie over, I guess? Oh no, wait. Traigon has three lives and will reincarnate again in twenty years, at which time he will presumably pick up where he left off. In order to protect the twins, the victorious old hero, Krona (Martin LaSalle, who appeared in a number of superb horror films by Mexican director Juan Lopez Moctezuma), takes them from their dying mother, so that he may see that they are raised properly and schooled in the ways of war and wisdom. “But…” the mother says, “they are girl children!”

GIRLS??!!? But… girls can’t be doctors!

Naming them Mira and Mara, Krona leaves the twins with a local couple, instructing them to not only see that the kids learn how to fight, but also that they are raised as boys. If anyone finds out their true identities, the reborn Traigon will surely come to hunt them down. Twenty years pass, and in that time chaos reigns. Actually, no it doesn’t. Even though the forces of Traigon are still in control, well frankly, it looks like they’re running a decent enough kingdom. The cities are thriving, there is law and order, the strip clubs employ exceptionally attractive women. All seems well. Mira and Mara have grown in to buxom young lasses who think they are boys, and while they are whiling away the hours doing what all twenty year old boys do together (skinny dipping), they notice that they are being watched from the bushes by the single most horrific creature ever committed to screen: Pando the Goat Boy.


Pando (David Millbern, who despite this disturbing turn, has a perfectly healthy career, provided you accept that Ice Spiders and Chupacabra Terror are healthy) is an unholy union of Eddie Munster’s hair, Lee Van Cleef’s head, Robin Williams’ chest, and the legs of a guy I once saw at a nude beach. His legs were so hairy that they looked like a couple gorilla legs had been grafted to his body, and he let them remain natural and hirsute — but had shaved his ass completely smooth, so that it looked like he was strutting around in a pair of hair chaps. Mira and Mara don’t know what to make of this curious beast, nor of the mysterious third “horn” dangling between his legs, so they do what anyone would do when they catch a horny man-goat watching them swim naked: they kick his ass and send him scurrying back to the bushes.

Soon after, we find out that Traigon is back, and it’s time to look for those twins once more. This way, we can get to the sword and sorcery movie’s requisite scene of a village full of grass huts getting pillaged and put to the torch. Traigon has done pretty good at tracking down Mira and Mara quickly, which doesn’t say much for Krona’s skills as a hider of prophesied children. Luckily, a Viking (!) named Valdar (Bruno Rey, Santo vs. the She-Wolves) strolls by and rescues Mira and Mara from the marauders. Krona soon reappears as well, now charging Valdar with guarding the twins. You know, Krona, maybe you should watch the stinkin’ twins instead of always pawning them off on the first person you meet. What is Krona doing most of the time anyway? Entering Gandalf lookalike contests? Valdar has nothing better to do, so Mira and Mara tag along with him, clad in their “we’re just a couple of strapping young lads with big boobs, curvy hips, feminine faces, and sexy legs” disguises. It also turns out that Valdar is friends with Pando, so everyone makes up and marches off to a town crowded with the very soldiers they’re supposed to be avoiding. While there, we will get several more standard issue sword and sorcery moments — including the nude dancer scene, the bar room brawl scene, and the “wandering around the bazaar” scene — before Mira and Mara are captured. Valdar also picks up yet another new member for the gang, a young prince masquerading as a gambling barbarian.

So begins the game of escape and recapture, until finally the group is ambushed by a gang of monkey monsters throwing fruit grenades.


So let’s stop right there. You have sexy naked twins. You have a viking. You have Pando the bleating goat boy with an erection (you’d think someone would make him put on some pants). And now you have monkey monsters lobbing fruit grenades. Jack Hill… you, sir, know how to deliver.

Mara is captured, along with the prince guy, Erlick (Bob Nelson), and taken to Traigon and Traigon’s scheming mistress. When they discover Erlick is actually a prince — interrupting Traigon’s plan to cram a metal spike up the wayward barbarian’s butt — they devise some crazy scheme to get Mara and Erlick together, produce an heir, then have Traigon kill the kid. Or something. When Traigon explains to Mara that he is her father, she drops the desire to kill him for murdering her mother and the inhabitants of the village in which she and her sister grew up. Anyway, it doesn’t take much to get Mara and Erlick together. Ever since the girls discovered that they were girls, Mara has been struggling with the mysterious tingling she feels every time she looks at Erlick. Valdar is momentarily distressed when Mira starts writhing around in ecstasy while Mara is getting it one, but he soon figures out that it’s just that psychic sex bond all twins have. Pando, one assumes, was off in the bushes furiously polishing his third horn.

Mira uses the psychic link to lead them to Traigon’s castle, where Traigon unleashes his amazing green animation finger rays on them. Mara and Erlick, under Traigon’s dastardly hypnotic spell, seem undisturbed by the apparently death of their friends and sibling, and one of the monkey monsters is pissed that Traigon killed the other girl, upon who the monkey monster had designs. Hey, with Pando the goat boy lurching about, a hot and bothered monkey monster is the least of the weird things in this movie. Anyway, it turns out that Valdar and Mira aren’t dead; they just sunk down into the catacombs below Traigon’s castle. Does this mean, on top of everything he’s already done for us, Jack Hill is going to give us zombie sword fights, too? Indeed it does. Unfortunately, zombie sword fights always sound cooler than they actually end up being. What with one side being zombies and all.


Of course, everything culminates in the ritual Traigon is throwing to sacrifice Mara and get some sort of undoubtedly disappointing ultimate power. This battle is realized by a super-imposed…what is that thing? I might know if I had my Monster Manual with me. A lion-dragon-horse thing, that battles a superimposed lady’s head. f you ever saw the finale to Wizards of the Lost Kingdom — and Pando the Goat Boy help you if you have — then you’ll recognize the finale of this movie as well. Man, when a movie is so cut-rate that it steals special effects finales from Sorceress, you know you’ve strayed too far from the good and righteous path. The two gods or whatever they are supposed to be float on opposite ends of the screen and shoot beams at each other while a sword fight rages below and Traigon shrieks and capers about like all proper effeminate evil wizard-emperors should.

Hey, you know what? Sorceress is pretty awesome. Cheap and ridiculous, yes, but also packed with badly choreographed action, gratuitous nudity, goat men, monkey monsters, zombies, animated magic death beams, and cackling wizards. Jack Hill is a steady hand behind the camera, which means that this movie, unlike many others that would come from Roger Corman’s 1980s sword and sorcery factory, is actually well paced and pretty exciting. There’s always a lot happening, and most of it is pretty enjoyable. And despite the nudity and the violence, there’s something almost…wholesome about it. Sword and sorcery movies usually work in gratuitous nudity by throwing in rape scenes, lending them an unsavory and mean-spirited edge that takes the fun out of what should be a stupid and hilarious genre, and this movie has at least one such scene. But while Sorceress probably has more gratuitous nudity than many sword and sorcery films, most of it comes in relatively harmless scenes of clothes changing, skinny dipping, and sex between consenting adults.

The acting is also surprisingly better than you might think. Much of the cast is Mexican. I assume it was shot down south of the border somewhere, as many of Corman’s barbarian movies were. But the Mexicans are all old hands, and they perform with an admirable level of professionalism you can detect even through the dubbing (which, for the most part, is actually decent as well). Roberto Ballesteros, in particular, seems to be having a grand old time with all the hissing, eye bulging, and mincing about that defines evil wizard warlords.


As for the twins, they do radiate a certain charm. I know, I know. What set of naked twins wouldn’t radiate “a certain charm”? Leigh and Lynette are two in a long line of Playmates who would show up in a sword and sorcery film. Barbi Benton was in Deathstalker. Monique Gabrielle was in Deathstalker II. Rebecca Ferratti was in Gor and Outlaw of Gor. None of them come across as likable as the twins, though. I think that has a lot more to do with the director than it does with Leigh and Lynette, though. Jack Hill was an exceptional exploitation film maker, one who always made sure that he delivered everything fans of a certain genre expected, but was also capable of making a movie that was a little smarter than the others from the same genre. Only Jack Hill could have made a sexy cheerleader movie and somehow also make it a credibly feminist (well, for a 70s exploitation film) movie, with characters who not only got naked, but also had actual depth to them. Under Hill’s guidance, Lynnette and Leigh come across as likable, if not entirely skilled, performers.

The movie also handles the action well enough, certainly better than you get in a lot of other cut-rate barbarian movies. Everyone throws themselves into the fist fights and sword swinging with gusto. Even Leigh and Lynette take on the physical stuff OK, and by that I mean the fight scenes. Not exactly believable or graceful, but better than one usually sees in such productions. In general, Jack Hill helps the Harris twins be, in every way they need to for this movie, better than they need to be (since all they really need to do is take off their shirts). And the Harris twins, for their part, seem to really be trying to do their best.


After this movie, the twins disappeared almost entirely from movies, though not from public life. They appeared once more on screen, together and naked again, in an adaptation of Micky Spillane’s I, The Jury. That was it for Lynette. Leigh made one or two other small appearances before disappearing. Lynette went on to carry on the tradition of former Playboy Playmates marrying rich old men and inheriting their money. She got into some legal trouble when she failed to claim the money in her income tax, something she argued she didn’t realize one had to do.

This is one of those movies you might go into expecting to laugh at, and sure, Pando is easy to laugh at if he doesn’t make you run into another room and weep in the corner. But it’s also a really easy movie, at least for me, to enjoy the heck out of. It’s not polished. It sure isn’t Conan the Barbarian, but it’s also got some effort into put into despite being “just another dumb barbarian movie.” Even disregarding the naked twins — which few viewers will want to disregard — Jack Hill keeps the movie moving briskly, crams it with action, and really delivers one of the more entertaining entries in the genre.

Jack Hill grew up in the film business. Born in Los Angeles, with a father who worked as a designer for both Disney and Warner Brothers, Hill was more or less destined to go to the University of California film school that served as the incubator for the cinematic revolution that occurred in the 1970s. He was part of the group of young up and coming film students that included, among others, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola, in particular, was close to Hill. The two worked on student films together then later both became apprentices to Roger Corman. In 1963, Roger Corman wrapped shooting of his supernatural comedy The Raven a couple days early. Realizing that he still had horror icon Boris Karloff under contract for like another day or so, Corman figured he might as well throw together another movie and get the most out of having Karloff around. The movie was The Terror, starring Jack Nicholson (who was hanging around because he was a nobody who had also just finished working on The Raven). Making a feature film in under a couple days, from concept to the end of shooting, is a mighty task even for one as famously efficient as Roger Corman, so he tapped his two apprentices, Hill and Coppola, to help direct.


Roughly ten years later, Coppola was collecting an Oscar for The Godfather. Hill, on the other hand, stuck around in the B-movie market. His 1968 film Spider Baby is considered by many to be a classic of off-kilter… not exactly horror. Just unsettling weirdness. While Coppola was busy making The Godfather, Jack Hill was in the Philippines shooting two movies that would spark a whole exploitation genre and make a star out of struggling young actress Pam Grier. 1971′s The Big Doll House and 1972′s follow-up The Big Bird Cage helped define the “women in prison” movies that would flood grindhouse theaters during the rest of the 1970s, while the two movies also served s examples of the genre at its most darkly humorous sand satirical. It was, as I said, largely because Jack Hill was making exploitation movies, but he didn’t seem to be holding exploitation film making in contempt or regarding the source material as a reason to crank out a lazy, sloppy production. No matter how silly the movie was, Jack handled it with professional seriousness.

After doing their tour of duty in the Philippines for Roger Corman, Hill and Grier returned to the states and once again made a duo of genre-defining hits. Coffy and Foxy Brown are a little rough around the edges, a little more independent feeling than low-budget but big studio productions like Shaft and Superfly, but they’re also fantastic fun and set the template for the “chick on a rampage” style of revenge flick that gave so many struggling black actresses a chance to kick some cinematic ass. Shortly after that, Hill was back with Corman, who was producing his batch of cheap cheerleader sexploitation films like The Cheerleaders and Revenge of the Cheerleaders. Jack Hill contributed The Swinging Cheerleaders, and once again, there was a lot more to his movie than the genre demanded, though he didn’t forsake fulfilling genre expectations in favor of thinking what was doing was “important.” No, he just figured that if he was going to take the time to make a movie, even a silly cheerleader sex film, he might as well put some effort into it.


After The Swinging Cheerleaders, Hill made Switchblade Sisters, then seemed to retire. His wife wanted to immerse herself entirely in the study of meditation, and Jack wanted to write. Neither passion was well suited by a side career making quick grindhouse movies with Roger Corman. From 1975 until 1982, Hill wrote a couple screenplays but basically played it cool. Then, in 1982, for whatever reason, he came back to work one last time with Roger Corman, showing Jim Wynorski the ropes as Hill directed and co-wrote Sorceress. His years in the wilderness did little to diminish his desire to handle all his movies with professionalism, which is probably why Sorceress is a whole lot better than most other sword and sorcery films, and why its script, if a bit daft, is otherwise logically put together. Well, logically by the standards of the sword and sorcery genre. And as long as you don’t think about things like, “what the hell was Traigon’s cult doing while he was dead” or “so now that they killed Traigon, who was running a peaceful kingdom other than hunting down the twins, who’s in charge?”

It’s probably not the swan song a director would dream of, but as far as exploitation film swan songs go, Hill could have done a lot worse. Much of what’s wrong with the movie happened once it was turned over to Roger Corman. Although famously able to turn a profit on any old crap for much of his career, Corman was taking a beating in the early 1980s. Production of Sorceress had been a string of calamities that saw location shooting scheduled for Portugal, Italy, and The Philippines (with Cirio Santiago) before they ended up in Mexico. It took forever for the deal to get finalized, and once it was, the shooting schedule was cut short when Dino De Laurentiis showed up with his crew for Dune and seized the backlot. When Sorceress went into post-production, Corman was simply too tired and too broke to deliver on any of the special effects that the movie needed, and in fact, didn’t even bother to finish some of the most basic work. In several spots, dialogue and sound effects were never looped in. Animation was left out where people were supposed to be shooting beams and whatnot. Shots that were composed for matte paintings never got their mattes, meaning you could see equipment and the tops of sets. Jacki Hill was so exasperated by the experience that he took his name off as director and screenwriter, and he hasn’t directed since.

All that said, I still think the movie is fun despite the shoddy construction. Even when defeated by every setback imaginable, Hill never once throws int he towel or treats the film like the sinking ship that had everyone else lounging around and not giving a crap. Released in 1982, Sorceress was a pretty early entry into the sword and sorcery boom. Most of the movies that came after Conan the Barbarian didn’t attempt to mimic that movie’s profound sense of seriousness. They were more than happy to follow the lead of The Sword and the Sorcerer, which saw no need to handle the material with any sense of gravity.


Sorceress is somewhere in the middle. It has its comedic bits (the way the final battle between the heroes and Traigon’s zombie army pans out is pure goofball Wynorski), but it also plays things straight. Light-hearted, I guess you would say. That it isn’t filled with anachronistic one-liners and jokes is something of a small miracle. Writer Jim Wynorski would go on to become a prolific director of goofball genre movies, and almost everything he does is infused with a juvenile sense of humor. When he got to direct his own sword and sorcery film, Deathstalker II, he turned the entire thing into a comedy. That may have been for the best, mind you, but he’s maintained that tendency to yuk it up in most of his movies, which is why it’s no surprise that he eventually fell in with Fred Olen Ray, the two of them together accounting for 99% of the world’s movies about half-naked girls fighting space aliens and dinosaurs. Wynorski rarely seems to have much respect for his own material; Hill always seems to have respect for his material, no matter how dumb. The two of them together actually strike a pretty solid balance.

Wynorski found himself working for Roger Corman in 1980, after moving to LA from New York with dreams of getting into the movie business. Corman put the anxious young man to work making trailers. Considering that Corman’s mode of operation was, as it had been when he himself was a hungry young film maker at American International Pictures, to come up with a movie title and artwork before the movie had even been written, and sell the movie on the merits of its outrageous title and ad art alone, putting together coming attractions previews for Corman productions was a pretty important task. Eventually, Corman let Wynorski start writing screenplays, and it’s likely that he paired the man with Jack Hill because there was no finer director at Corman’s disposal for teaching a kid the ropes of making a solid exploitation film.


After working in that capacity for a couple years, Corman approached Wynorski with another offer. Kids loved hanging out in shopping malls, so a distributor wanted a movie about a killer in a shopping mall. Corman told Wynorski to write it, and if the script was OK, Wynorski would also get to direct. Taking the concept of “a killer in a shopping mall” in a somewhat unexpected direction, Wynorski turned in the script for, and soon got to direct, Chopping Mall, in which high tech security robots at a shopping mall go berserk and start butchering teenagers. Wynorski would stay in the director’s chair for something like 150 movies more — and counting.

Although Wynorski learned how to make a professional looking product during his apprenticeship with Hill and Corman, he doesn’t have the same sense of… seriousness isn’t exactly what I’m thinking. He likes to goof off and cram his movies with silly jokes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. His unwillingness to handle Deathstalker II with even an ounce of seriousness is what probably saved the movie from being as dreary and boring as the original Deathstalker – and if you can find it on DVD, Wynorski’s commentary is hilarious. These days, Wynorski seems to while away the hours making breast-themed spoofs of major motion pictures, including such direct to DVD hits as The Bare Wench Project, The Breastford Wives, and House on Hooter Hill. He’s also a dependable hand for silly Sci-Fi Channel movies like Komodo vs. Cobra and Bone Eater, among many others I’ve wasted a perfectly good Saturday afternoon watching for like the third time. All things considered, Sorceress is one of the best films in his filmography.

But wait, you might say to yourself — where the hell was the sorceress? Shouldn’t a movie called Sorceress contain at least one sorceress? Well, umm… hey look! Naked twins! Zombie sword fight! Pando the goat boy! Wait, Pando, what are you… no! Bad Pando! Bad!

Release Year: 1982 | Country: United States, Mexico | Starring: Leigh Harris, Lynette Harris, Bob Nelson, David Millbern, Bruno Rey, Ana De Sade, Roberto Ballesteros, Douglas Sanders, Tony Stevens, Martin LaSalle, Silvia Masters, William Arnold, Teresa Conway | Screenlay: Jim Wynorski, Jack Hill | Director: Jack Hill | Cinematography: Alex Phillips Jr. | Producer: Roger Corman, Jack Hill | Alternate Titles: Devil’s Advocate

women01

When Women Lost Their Tails


It’s hard for us today to imagine what life must have been like for the human race in a more primitive age. But the astonishing fact remains that there was indeed a time when a movie like When Women Had Tails could not only gain international theatrical release, but also merit a sequel. Thus was born When Women Lost Their Tails, a film which today comes to us as an archaic remnant of that ancient folk tradition known as the Italian sex comedy.

Having not seen When Women Had Tails myself, I can only give you a basic thumbnail description of its contents. It seems it told the tale of a gang of heartrendingly idiotic cavemen living together in a house built from a brontosaurus skeleton, and recounted how that group’s limited world was rocked to its very core by their first encounter with female kind, represented by Austrian born bikini-buster Senta Berger. Said female also apparently came with a tail attached — though, by the time we get to When Women Lost Their Tails, that appendage seems to have become a casualty of budgetary constraints. Now, I want to make clear that my referring to these cavemen as “idiotic” is not meant to reflect any kind of prejudice against primitive man on my part. After all, some of my favorite ancestors were cavemen. It’s just that, from what I saw in When Women Lost Their Tails, idiocy is the sole defining trait provided these characters by the film’s script. It is also, by the way, the source of approximately 100% of WWLTT‘s humor.

This last bit may sound woeful –- and, well, it largely is –- but, then again, you have to admit that idiocy is funny, and, as such, it would be hard to cram a 90 minute film to bursting with moron jokes and not have some of them stick. For instance, I liked WWLTT‘s idea that the cavemen have the ingenuity to invent things, but not the intelligence to figure out how to use them. Thus, when one of their number devises a slingshot, he ends up casting it off as a failure because he can’t work out the notion of aiming it away from his own face. We also see, at the film’s opening, that the group has built a stairway to get up into their brontosaurus house, but hasn’t yet figured out that they can also use it to get down. As a result, each day begins with them filing out their front door and each plunging ass-first onto the hard ground below.

Oh, and there’s also a chimp who capitalizes upon this last circumstance by using the force of the cavemen’s plummeting posteriors to crack open the cocoanuts he’s gathered. So, yes, this is a movie whose idea of funny involves a chimpanzee jumping up and down and cackling as goofy cavemen break cocoanuts by falling on them with their butts. I will not bemoan this point, as it was, as I said, made crystal clear during the movie’s very opening minutes. Kvetching about it after the fact would, I’m sure, gain me little pity. But it is certainly something that others should bear in mind when approaching this title.


Anyway, the cavemen’s inability so far to invent anything useful has resulted in them having very little to do. Crippling boredom ensues, and the only thing they can think of to stave it off is to take aimless “walks” back-and-forth across their patch of land and, on occasion, be “happy”, which simply involves all of them sitting down on a rock together and laughing for no reason. Breaking up the monotony further are those occasions on which they force themselves sexually upon Senta Berger’s character, Filli, who the gang seems to keep on hand for the express purpose of being a sex slave and all-around menial. Now, mind you, when I say “force themselves sexually upon”, I only mean that they force themselves sexually upon her in the most lighthearted and zany manner possible, as the montage that presents this practice is coyly inexplicit and accompanied by clownish music. What’s the matter people? Did you forget all about the early 70s, when rape could sit alongside capering chimpanzees and ass-flattening pratfalls as an acceptable subject for softball comedy — that is, just as long as there was a knowing wink in the vicinity and the audience was chronologically adult and drunk/stoned enough?.

Shot entirely on minimalist, cartoonishly stylized interior sets, When Women Lost Their Tails has the look and feel of a skit from a 1970s television variety show — though perhaps one of those post-family-hour variety shows that prided itself on being just a bit risqué, like maybe Cher. Given this, you could be forgiven for doing a spit take upon hearing of the mid-to-high brow credentials of some of those involved behind the camera. For instance, none other than Lina Wertmuller, who contributed to the first film’s screenplay, is given story credit here. Furthermore, director Pasquale Festa Campanille was not only responsible for writing the screenplay for Visconti’s The Leopard, but also bagged an Oscar nomination for his writing work on The Four Days of Naples. Granted, Campanile — unlike the art house sanctified Wertmuller — was also involved in plenty of crap in his day, but if you were to infer from that that, with WWLTT, he had no ambitions beyond making a movie about dopey cavemen farting around and having sex with a balloon-titted woman, you would be mistaken. But more about that later.

Also on hand on WWLTT‘s creative team, though perhaps only vestigially, is Ennio Morricone, who is given credit alongside Bruno Nicolai for the original score. As Morricone was the sole composer on When Women Had Tails, my guess is that this means that some of his themes from the earlier film were recycled for the second, and that Nicolai was brought in to provide whatever original music was needed. In any case, the end result is classic “hey, look-a mama, I’m-a a cheerfully sexist Italian movie from-a the early 70s” easy listening madness, basically boiling down to lots of wordless pop chorale work involving a mixed gender chorus ebulliently chirping out “Babba-dabba-dops”, “Doop-dibbity-dips”, and, of course, that old chestnut “Bap-Baya-badaya-bap”. So spritely is it, in fact, that it’s enough to waft one away on the power of its own buoyant dopiness, and in the process distract from what a truly bleak and cynical film When Women Lost Their Tails turns out to be at its core.


As it opens, When Women Lost Their Tails seems to find it’s heroine, Senta Berger’s Filli, on the cusp of an epiphany. It’s not so much that’s she’s becoming outraged at her circumstances, but simply that, more and more, she’s finding herself wistfully imagining a world in which romance might involve more than being raped on a regular basis by cavemen. As for those cavemen, life pretty much goes on as usual; with Filli on hand to do all of the actually productive labor, the men’s days are consumed with ever escalating demonstrations of their jaw-slackening stupidity, from playing misguided, backward games of “slap hands” to absent-mindedly urinating on their own doorstep.

And let’s meet these cavemen, shall we? And, in doing so, let me say that, although I wrote earlier that idiocy is these characters’ only defining characteristic, in the strictest sense that is not entirely accurate. For example, Grr is not just an idiot, but a grouchy idiot, just as Put (Lino Toffolo) is a tiny idiot and Uto (Francesco Mule) is a larger, red-haired and more monosyllabic idiot. Most curious out of all of these characters is Maluc (Renzo Montagnani), who is played as a broad gay stereotype, complete with limp-wristed mincing, fur-lined two-piece caveman togs and an affinity for quite literal pansy picking. This, of course, means that he is a broad gay stereotype circa 1972, though he also conforms to more modern gay typecasting in that he is also the female lead’s best friend and confidante, while being held at somewhat of a remove by the rest of the group. This characterization raises all kinds of troubling questions, due to the fact that, in the universe of When Women Lost Their Tails, the male characters seem to have only just recently discovered heterosexuality. Given that, combined with the other cavemen’s obvious perception of Maluc as being somehow “other” and the abundance of free time on these guys’ hands, you might wonder just how this crew had been employing their man parts in the days before Filli’s arrival. In any case, suffice it to say that, as the apparent inventor of gayness — and camp –- Maluc’s life in the prehistoric wasteland is a lonely one indeed.


By the way, the gang’s default alpha caveman, Grr, is played by Frank Wolff, a San Francisco-born American actor who, during the 1960s, appeared in countless Italian genre pictures, often in bad guy roles, and who also made early appearances in a couple of Roger Corman films. Like a lot of hardworking actors on the European circuit of the day, his work spanned a number of the era’s popular genres, from Eurospy films to Spaghetti Westerns, and included appearances in classics like The Great Silence and Once Upon a Time in the West. Sadly, When Women Lost Their Tails would be his last film, as, by the time filming on it was completed, he had committed suicide in a Rome hotel room. Unfortunately, due to its overall broadness, the film doesn’t offer much of an opportunity to assess Wolff’s skills as an actor, though he certainly does a good job within the limited parameters of his role. Making a living as a supporting player in these types of film couldn’t have been easy, and I imagine that the struggle to maintain any kind of standard of quality while keeping food on the table must have involved not a few severe body blows to the self image. So, with that in mind, I’m going to resist the temptation to project whatever feelings I might have had had I been burdened with playing Grr in When Women Lost Their Tails onto Wolff, and instead assume that whatever problems lead to him taking his own life were both varied and cumulative in nature.

Anyway, given the set-up, one might expect When Women Lost Their Tails to play out primarily as a tale of Filli’s search for true love beyond the narrow confines of the cavemen’s self contained little idiot world. It turns out, however, that the film has something very different on its mind. In fact, so different is its agenda that, once she has been introduced, we actually lose sight of Filli for large swaths of the film, despite the fact that Senta Berger’s bikini clad tumescence was one of the movie’s primary marketing points. (In fact, the U.S. one sheets for both the film and its prequel were comprised entirely of a single image of Berger in all her pneumatic, fur-clad glory.)

What WWLTT really has on its mind is revealed with the introduction of an interloper in the cavemen’s world, the fast talking prehistoric flimflam artist Ham, played by Lando Buzzanca. The trouble starts in earnest when Ham offers Grr a small stone which he refers to as a “cent” in exchange for a piglet Grr has caught. The cent, Ham tells Grr, is worth ten buffalo. For once exhibiting some practical sense, Grr excepts the cent, but then immediately asks ham for ten buffalo in exchange. Ham then explains that it doesn’t work that way. Once Grr has excepted the notion of the cent’s value and returned to the others with it, in effect introducing the ideas of commerce and private ownership into their little nook, things go rapidly downhill from there. Soon the group are at each other’s throats, with each man trying to claim ownership over everything in sight for the purpose of increasing his personal wealth, and displaying a covetousness that ultimately leads to the formerly communal dinosaur house having to be divided into five individual units and supplied with doors to protect the residents’ respective stashes.


So yes, quite surprisingly, When Women Lost Their Tails turns out to be — not just a movie about tits, funny animals, and Shemp-like Cro-Magnons — but also a pointed critique of capitalism, as well as perhaps a retelling of the story of man’s fall — albeit one in which the “paradise” lost is one in which men live in a state of staggering boredom and perpetual self-harming stupidity, and women one of endless toil relieved only by frequently recurring sexual assault. Toward the former end, the film goes about its business in just about the most bluntly didactic manner possible, even relying on sloganeering title cards (“Private property is the mother of suspicion”, “When money is involved, all men are perfectly unequal”) to hammer its points home.

Once having spent a good deal of time chronicling the hapless cavemen’s maiden voyage on the old “work, consume, be silent, die” express, WWLTT takes enough of a breather to remember that Senta Berger is the nominal star of the film and consequently brings her back into the action. Only now Berger’s Filli, rather than just being eye candy, is also part of the lesson plan. And so we get an episode in which Ham offers to “buy” a few minutes of her time, not from her, of course, but from the men. It turns out that Filli has no quarrel with this arrangement, as she is eager to sample something other than the usual “wham bam, thank you caveman” that’s she’s become used to. And Ham does not disappoint, wowing her with such newfangled human discoveries as foreplay and pillow talk in the course of his brief visit. Of course, this lead Filli to think that she has found true love. But, sadly, in the world that WWLTT is painting, Ham’s lovemaking skills are clearly born of salesmanship rather than tenderness.

From here, despite there being no let up in WWLTT‘s surface level breeziness, the ferocity of the allegory only intensifies. Ham, now having clearly made the group slaves both to his superior wealth and the promise of increased earnings, puts them to work building a purposeless prehistoric housing development — which he has dubbed “Eden Gardens” — on the land surrounding their home. In the course of this toil, little Put suffers a series of catastrophic (but funny!) accidents, steadily decreasing, according to Ham, his labor value with every limb lost. Finally it gets to the point where Ham insists on paying Put based on the weight of his disembodied head, which, with everything else having been gradually lopped off, is all that’s left of him. Later, a depressed Maluc pays Grr to push him off of a cliff, and Grr returns to the group giddy with the knowledge that even the act of killing a man can turn a profit.

Which, now that I think of it, makes me reconsider what I said earlier about Frank Wolff’s suicide. Considering that this was the fictional world in which he was immersed at the time, I really think I can understand what drove him to it. I really do.


Regardless of whether or not the viewer is in line with When Women Lost Their Tails‘ political viewpoint, I think he or she has to agree that it is a much more interesting film with it than it would be without. The cinematic landscape is littered with knuckleheaded sex farces set against a broadly satirical historical backdrop – with not an inconsiderable number set in the Stone Age among them. But, with When Women Lost Their Tails, what we get is like the lyrics of a Gang of Four song acted out within the context of a slightly naughty fanfic version of The Flintstones. If nothing else, it certainly makes for unique viewing, and offers enough in terms of audacity alone to keep one watching until the end. What makes the journey a bit rougher, though, is the queasy disconnect between the film’s superficial layer of lounge-pop marinated goofiness and the unutterably bleak take on the human condition that festers at its core. With its vision of a human race whose existence boils down to either blinding, almost protozoan idiocy on the one hand or vicious, self-devouring avarice and cynicism on the other — with nothing in the middle — it’s enough to make even the most misanthropic giallo seem like a Frank Capra joint by comparison, ebullient Bruno Nicolai score notwithstanding.

And, indeed, by the end of When Women Lost Their Tails, our crew of cave dwellers has made the journey all the way from not-so-blissful ignorance to bitter irony. Ham ends up selling Filli to a pimp, who, as he carts her off, thrills her with tales of what her new life as a “liberated woman” will be like, when she will be “free” to work and earn in the exciting new field called prostitution. And as the credits are about to roll, one of the cavemen takes a brief pause from his backbreaking toil to offer this parting shot:

“Now we’ve got to work all the time. We’re too tired to get it up, and the women eat all of the food we find.”

To which another chimes in:

“What kind of lousy life is this? If we never get laid, we never eat, and we never sleep, what the hell are we working our asses off for?”

Bobba-dobba-dip! Dooby-dibba-dip! Bap-bayaaaaa!

Release Year: 1972 | Country: Italy | Starring: Senta Berger, Frank Wolff, Lando Buzzanca, Renzo Montagnani, Francesco Mule, Lino Toffolo, Aldo Puglisi, Mario Adorf, Eiammetta Baralla | Screenplay: Marcello Coscia, Jaja Fiastri, Ottavio Jemma, Lina Wertmuller | Director: Pasquale Festa Campanile | Cinematographer: Silvano Ippoliti | Music: Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai | Original Title: Quando Le Donne Persero La Coda

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Sting of Death

Like many of my stories, this one starts out with a girl. Nice girl. Well, not that nice. Something of a catch. We were lying around in my apartment in some state of undress or other — not because we were in the throes of passion, but rather because it was Florida in August, and my air conditioner was broken. Such extreme heat and humidity can make one shed one’s modesty as quickly as one sheds pants or shirt. We were watching something dreadful and delightful, as we tended to do. In this case, it happened to be a low-budget exploitation film called Death Curse of Tartu. At the time, I was still young and not so wise in the ways of obscure movies as I am today, so I didn’t know anything about the movie, the director, or the robust little Florida film industry of the 1960s that produced it. But once the movie started playing on my epic 10-inch TV, something strange happened during the credits.

“That’s my step-mom!” my friend exclaimed.

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Beyond Re-Animator

In recent reviews, and as we continue to discuss movies based on the literary works of pulp horror/sci-fi author HP Lovecraft, the names Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon have popped up a lot. More specifically, the title Re-Animator keeps getting dropped into impolite conversation. The team of Gordon and Yuzna have enjoyed considerable acclaim from fans for their adaptations of Lovecraft material and for their ability to take Lovecraft’s work and make it something new without losing the essence of what made the story work in the first place. They did this in a number of ways, but probably the wisest decision they made was to confine themselves to the periphery of Lovecraft’s bibliography, selecting lesser known and all-but-forgotten stories rather than Lovecraft’s best known and most beloved. The first of the author’s story the duo chose to tackle was Herbert West, Re-Animator.

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Curse of the Crimson Altar

One of the many things that makes Lovecraft interesting, at least for me, is the discussion of why his writing work, if it does work for you (and despite my jokes about gambrel rooftops and fishmen, it does work for me most of the time). Everyone has their own reasons. Some can be agreed upon by the larger body of Lovecraft fans. Others are acutely personal. My example has always been my tendency to go backpacking in the wilds of New England, seeing firsthand how, even in our modern, developed world, civilization can vanish abruptly, leaving you surrounded by nothing but the night and woods. Even in those small states, the amount of land that gives way to untamed solitude is vast, and when you walk into the middle of it with nothing but boil-in-bag stroganoff and a headlamp to fend off the grip of the wilderness, it becomes a lot easier to believe Lovecraft’s tales of ancient things lurking in the mountains and foothills. You look up and realize how tiny you are. You look around an realize how vulnerable you are. Wolves, bears, and rutting moose are bad enough. I guess if I had to also deal with chattering crab monsters from space, I’d find them a lot scarier than I might have while sitting at home with a dram of Glenmorangie, reading The Whisperer in the Darkness. Because as has been pointed out to me in discussion, it’s not so much the monster as it is the isolation.

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Dagon

I have stared into the abyss of unspeakable madness, and in it I saw myself. I was taller, had darker hair, and was wearing a Miskatonic University sweatshirt, but other than that, the likeness was both striking and disheartening. His name was Paul, and he was the protagonist in Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. I didn’t like him at first, and then at some point during the movie, I realized that I probably didn’t like him because he was the protagonist I and many of you would be — confused, irritating, panicky, awkward — rather than the protagonist we like to assume we’ll be — manly, brave, competent, and possessed of 20/20 vision. Of all the unnameable horrors that are HP Lovecraft’s stock in trade, none is perhaps more terrifying than staring into the eyes of a spastic dweeb with ill-fitting spectacles and realizing with horror that, yep, that’s me.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

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Blood and Black Lace

Several years ago, I got a Netflix account. I did it for a variety of reasons, though the two biggest were the fact that the selection of movies at the average video rental store was abysmal and the price of a rental at the un-average video store was outrageous. Netflix — not to sound like a commercial for the service — offered an astounding number of titles, and because one of their main distribution centers is in Queens, the turn-around time for receiving new movies was lightning fast, provided the lightning is that ball lightning or swamp gas stuff that drifts slowly from Queens to Brooklyn over the course of a day and is often mistaken for a UFO or gnome. Let it be said right now that on my list of things to do before I die is see swamp gas or ball lightning, or at least photograph a weather balloon that could be mistaken for a UFO. But that is neither here nor there.

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Hare Rama Hare Krishna

When the idea was pitched for a “counter culture” theme for a B-Masters Round Table, I was both excited and apprehensive. On the one hand, it was a subject with which I had acute first-hand experience, which meant I wouldn’t have to rely simply on theory and supposition to extract some sort of a review from the material. I could ramble on endlessly about some obscure thing that happened to me back when I was sixteen and the world was new. I was, however, also apprehensive, as I am sometimes loathe to throw myself into public discourse regarding the counter-cultures with which I have some connection. Not because I’m ashamed, mind you. Hell, I’m still associated in some way with pretty much every loony thing I ever believed in or adopted as an identity. But I’ve read a lot of the “studies” about these things.

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Times Square

The chances were slim to none that any of Hollywood’s early attempts to depict the punk/new wave scene would be anywhere near on the mark, but that didn’t stop me and my friends from dragging our black clad, funny haircut havin’ asses to every single one of them. I think that we were flattered by these films’ failure to pin us down, as if that was somehow a testament to both our own uniqueness and the singularity of our cultural moment. The truth, of course, was that such misfires were less the result of failed effort than they were of the filmmakers’ halfheartedness in their attempts to cash in on what I’m sure they considered to be a fleeting fad. In any case, few of these movies were more destined to get it wrong than Times Square. A film whose promotion rode hard on both the vaguely punkish look of its two leads and a soundtrack choked with some of the era’s biggest names in radio-friendly new wave, Times Square was ultimately too confused in its execution and garbled by post-production mishandling to come off as clearly being about anything, much less a movement in music and style that, by 1980, was starting to look a bit confused and garbled itself.

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Godless Girl

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Cecil B. DeMille’s final silent film, The Godless Girl, had the misfortune of being released in the shadow of The Jazz Singer, making it a casualty of the rapid shift in public tastes from pictures that didn’t talk to those that did. As a result, it became something of a footnote in DeMille’s career, which is a shame. For people, like myself, who entertain a fairly narrow conception of the director based on his association with Bible-thumpers like King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, viewing it can be an eye-opening experience — because even though it is, in part, concerned with the spread of atheism among the young people of its day, it doesn’t quite come down on that topic in the way you might expect.

Though an “A” picture in its time (it was produced at DeMille’s own studio in Culver City for a cost of $722,000), The Godless Girl bares all the hallmarks of a classic exploitation picture, in that it boasts sensational content housed within the legitimizing framework of social concern. This is not to say that DeMille was disingenuous in that concern — as we’ll see, he put a good deal of effort into insuring the accuracy of the film’s didactic content. He was, however, an entertainer first and foremost, and a crusader somewhere below that, and it would have been a betrayal of his instincts to not present the lurid details of his expose in a manner as thrilling to his audience as possible. That said, those parts of The Godless Girl dedicated to presenting the harrowing conditions of Coolidge-era reform schools might come off as tame to those steeped in the conventions of modern prison movies (in my case, for instance, the last reform school movie I watched subjected its inmates to depradations that would have made Pasolini blush).

The incident that inspired The Godless Girl was reported in the Los Angeles Times in 1927 and involved the discovery, on the campus of L.A.’s Hollywood High School, of pamphlets for an atheist student group. Tensions subsequently erupted between Christian-identified students at the school and those associated with the group, leading to a noisome confrontation at one of the group’s off-campus meetings. DeMille and his regular scenarist, Jeanie Macpherson, set out to blueprint a film based on this event and, somewhere along the line, also decided that said film should serve as an expose of the nation’s juvenile reformatories. To this end, DeMille commissioned six month’s worth of research on the topic that involved extensive interviews and information gathering, and even extended to him hiring a young woman to go undercover as an inmate in one such institution. This resulted in DeMille being able to make the claim that, no matter how titillatingly brutal the depictions of reform school life in his film might be, they were all based on documented facts and eyewitness accounts.

As fascinating as The Godless Girl is for being a sort of proto-youth-behind-bars movie, for me its real interest lies in the atheism-themed hijinks of its first act. Given DeMille’s Christian preoccupations, we — looking back upon the film from these ostensibly more enlightened and tolerant times — might expect The Godless Girl to demonize and vilify those who would renounce God. But the surprising fact is that, while DeMille certainly doesn’t advocate the atheist position, he takes pains to present zealotry on the part of the film’s believers as being equally divisive and intolerant as that of the atheist students. In addition, he clearly takes the position that the apparent ferocity of these beliefs, as expressed by his characters on either side, is merely the product of youthful enthusiasm, and in no way cancels out those characters’ essential decency (and certainly doesn’t make them deserving of the punishment that is meted out to them). The end effect is of a plea for calm and understanding, as if DeMille is trying to assure the adult America of 1929 that, yes, the kids really are alright — and, as such, it’s an authoritative, mitigating voice that no doubt would have served the country well during the many youth-focused hysterias that would sweep it during the generations to come.

The film begins with high school student Judy (Lina Basquette), the leader of the atheistic Godless Society, distributing fliers throughout the school for one of the group’s upcoming meetings. These fliers, displaying a gift for deft rhetoric sure to win many converts among the Christ-preferring members of the student body, read “Join the Godless Society – KILL THE BIBLE!” Predictably, much uproar and consternation ensues among both the students and faculty, not the least on the part of young Bob, the president of the student body and one of the school’s most outspoken mouthpieces for imposingly waspy piousness. Bob is portrayed by a ruthlessly handsome young actor named George Duryea, who would not long after enjoy considerable success as a cowboy star under the name Tom Keene — a somewhat vanilla career lived out between the exotic bookends of this film at its beginning and Keene’s role as Col. Tom Edwards in Plan 9 From Outer Space at its close. Interestingly, despite their mutually-antagonizing viewpoints, there are obvious sparks of attraction between Judy and Tom, and Judy even appears to get noticeably turned on by the righteous fury that Tom beams in her direction. Of course, given that DeMille was more of a “big picture” director who left actors to their own devices, this randyness on Judy’s part could easily have been a result less of the text than of the inclinations of the particular actress assigned to play her.

In Keith’s review of The White Hell of Piz Palu, he remarked upon how the naturalism of the acting in that film contrasted with what one would typically expect from a silent film of its day. Lina Basquette, on the other hand, provides pretty much exactly what one would expect — and, if she doesn’t, it is perhaps by dint of her performance being anachronistic even for its time. Eye bulging, breast heaving, and elaborate, spidery hand gestures are her best friends here, sometimes to the extent that she is at odds with the other cast members, none of whom are slouches in the histrionics department themselves. On top of that, when called upon to express any type of passionate feeling on the part of her character — be it ideological fervor, furious indignation, or what-have-you — Basquette seems to fall back upon an exaggerated carnality as her guiding principle. And, lord knows, no one can express exaggerated carnality like a silent movie actress. After all, while the relaxed standards of later eras may have allowed actors to do and say nasty things, these actresses were required to exude nastiness on a molecular level. In the case of Basquette, this overheated comportment — along with the corresponding reaction to it on the part of George Duryea — gives the distinct impression that much pain could have been avoided had Judy and Bob dedicated those energies spent on petty religious squabbling to what was actually on their minds. Again, whether this was DeMille’s intention is another matter, but it still provides The Godless Girl with an amusingly steamy little subtext, accidental or not.

Anyway, the fateful evening finally arrives, and it is time for the Godless Society’s meeting, held “in a shabby hall on a squalid street… where little rebels blow spitballs at the rock of ages”. (Anyone who holds up silent films as an example of purely visual storytelling is forgetting just how much editorializing tended to sneak its way into the title cards.) It’s during this scene that we’re put on notice that the film’s sober subject matter is not seen by DeMille as necessarily requiring sober treatment — a rude wakeup call delivered by the comic relief stylings of Judy and Bob’s classmate Bozo Johnson (Mack Sennett regular Eddie Quinlan), who, over the course of this sequence, will do several pratfalls and have a monkey run up his pants leg. This monkey, of course, is part of Judy’s characteristically fiery presentation to the group, and is introduced to the assembled blasphemers as “your cousin” — a reference that was probably pretty edgy at the time, given that the Scopes trial was a very recent memory. Despite this scandalous talk, the Society’s meeting is clearly being conducted in an orderly manner, and well within the limits of the law. This places in unflattering contrast the actions of Bob, who shows up at the meeting with his own sizeable God squad in tow, all of whom come armed with crates of rotten eggs and are obviously spoiling for a fight. They get it, of course — after a brief stand-off, during which the devout demand that the meeting be shut down and Judy stands her ground — and soon the scuffle devolves into a full scale melee, at its height spilling out onto the rickety stairwell outside the meeting room.

The multi-leveled set that represents the stairwell is a truly impressive construction, and in this scene is the setting for the first of two breathtaking set pieces that bookend The Godless Girl‘s action. (If you thought that the subject matter of this film would put a damper on DeMille’s predilection for spectacle, you were wrong.) The frantically battling crowd ends up surging out along the entire length of the structure like one giant writhing mass, causing the railings to bulge ominously with their weight. Finally, an unintentional shove from Bozo sends one of the Godless Society’s young female members — identified in the credits only as “The Victim” (Mary Jane Irving) — plummeting from the uppermost landing to her death. DeMille makes the interesting choice of shooting the girl’s fall from her perspective, and presenting it as playing out unnaturally slowly, so that we see the horrified faces of the kids lined up along the stairway watching her as she passes (perhaps affording The Victim the opportunity to say a few quick goodbyes to her friends among the crowd as she goes by — though, since it was shot from her POV, I couldn’t tell you if she was waving or not.)

Once The Victim finally touches down, a distraught Judy rushes to take her in her arms. Asked by the dying girl for reassurance that there really is something on the other side after all, Judy is only able to deliver a series of deliriously overwrought facial expressions. Fortunately, there is a kindly old cop on hand to tell the girl — in a soothing Irish brogue, I imagine — that the J Man is indeed awaiting her arrival with open arms and, probably, a gift bag of some kind, after which the child blissfully shuffles off this mortal coil. With the crime established, and the law present, it is now time for Judy and Bob, as the instigators of the riot — along with Bozo, for his apparent part in the girl’s accident — to be carted off to the youth reformatory.

The reformatory — represented by a surprisingly convincing set constructed by designer Mitchell Leisen on DeMille’s back lot — is a bleak, castle-like structure of brick and mortar with an electrified fence neatly bisecting its yard to separate the male and female inmate populations — a clear visual reference to the divisions wrought by intolerance and zealotry that DeMille is seeking to decry. Here, Judy and Bob, obviously upper middle class kids accustomed to a not inconsiderable amount of creature comforts, step up to the hard slap in the face that the institution’s harsh, military style of discipline has to offer them. For Judy, of course (being, you know, a girl, and all) the first insults are the unflattering haircut and the sack-like clothing (though, I’ve got to say that the hats look oddly fashionable), followed by the lack of privacy and the frequent dressing downs from the shrewish wardens. For Bob, the Civil War-like uniforms and the borderline-emo asymmetrical shearing he gets are also an issue, but are no doubt eclipsed by the frequent, enthusiastic beatings he receives.

Fortunately for Bob, he’s not alone in his confinement, because Bozo is right there with him — which, actually, upon consideration, has got to be nearly as awful for Bob as it is for us. So Judy is clearly the winner here. However, she also ends up with a friend and confidante on the inside: a tough talking, Bible-toting blonde by the name of Mame. Mame is played by Marie Prevost, an actress who is likely known to readers of Teleport City more for having the ignominious circumstances of her death immortalized in song by Nick Lowe than for any of her actual screen performances. It seems that the talkies were not kind to Marie, and, in January of 1937, a lethal combination of anorexia and severe alcoholism lead to her death from malnutrition at the age of 38. As legend has it, some few days passed before her body was discovered, and when it was, the cadaver showed signs of being the subject of some postmortem noshing on the part of Marie’s pet dachshund. Contrary to that legend, the police report at the time indicated that the bite marks were assumed to be the result of the dog trying to rouse Marie, rather than eat her. But being that consumption of humans by domestic animals has always been such a favored subject of popular song, Lowe couldn’t resist that spin, and so, in his song “Marie Provost”, blessed the world with that evergreen couplet, “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner.” (As much of a fan as I am of Lowe — and that song, for that matter — I must say that I think it’s a little raw that, while making light of Marie’s pathetic demise, the singer didn’t even bother to get her name right.) Those sad facts aside, we can here enjoy Marie in her heyday. And I’m happy the report that, as the movie’s representative tough cookie, she’s blessed with all the best, colloquialism-riddled lines, variably referring to her fellow inmates as “Mama”, “Sister” and “Bimbo” while striking all manner of slouchy bad girl poses.

Back on Bob’s side of the fence, we see that one time-honored prison movie convention really is, in fact, time-honored, and that the boys’ wing of the reformatory comes complete with a sadistic head guard, billed only as “The Brute” and played by perennial silent movie heavy Noah Beery. In classic fashion, a battle of wills breaks out between Bob and The Brute, with Bob’s spirited refusal to be broken resulting in ever more severe beatings, blastings with the fire hose, and unwarranted stints in solitary. The Brute even delivers a crippling beat-down to Bozo, which, admittedly, is kind of awesome. Meanwhile, Bob and Judy’s separation has allowed for the nature of their true feelings for one another to dawn upon them, leading to a furtive tryst at the electrified fence. The Brute, unfortunately, is a witness to this meeting and, seeing it as an opportunity to forge new frontiers in bastardry, turns up the juice on the fence just as the two lovers are clasping onto its wires and gazing at each other longingly. Being that electrified fences are notoriously unsubtle, this incident leaves Judy with identical burns on each palm in the shape of a cross, something she chooses to see as a “sign” of some kind — probably related in some way to Jesus, and perhaps having something to do with the fact that she’s been making a halting journey toward Christian belief ever since setting foot within the reformatory walls.

Eventually an opportunity for escape arises when Bob gets the drop on The Beast during a scuffle in the solitary block. After locking the monstrous guard in one of the cells, Bob disguises himself as a laundry cart driver, collects Judy, and flees with her into the countryside beyond the reformatory gates. A brief, idyllic interlude follows in which the lovers enjoy their newfound appreciation for the simple fruits of freedom and the beauty of the open landscape before them. Both, we see, have undergone a shift in their beliefs during their confinement, with Bob coming to question his faith just as Judy is coming to embrace it, and the result is that each is now able to see and respect the other’s position free from the distorting influence of dogma. It’s a development that seems to indicate some confusion on the part of DeMille as to what his message is exactly, since the very harsh conditions that he’s decrying appear to be what has brought about the attitude of humility and tolerance that he is simultaneously making a plea for.

Of course, Bob and Judy’s liberty is short lived, and they are soon recaptured and returned to their prison, setting the stage for The Godless Girl‘s apocalyptic finale — a spectacular fire that consumes the reformatory as Bob struggles to free Judy, who is shackled to her bunk in a solitary cell. The fire effect here is achieved by the most analog means possible — i.e. by lighting the set on fire and forcing the obviously-in-real-peril-actors to struggle their way through it while being pelted by huge pieces of flaming debris from all sides. By reports, DeMille seemed to get a bit of a kick out of putting his actor in harm’s way like this, and was known to berate them when they objected to the notion of being killed in pursuit of his vision. Callous? Perhaps — but, hey, you sure can’t argue with the results. It’s a really riveting sequence, and you certainly have no trouble buying the looks of abject terror that play over the faces of Basquette and Duryea as it plays out.

Though our modern eyes might see The Godless Girl as containing, at best, the makings of a solid “B” type feature, DeMille clearly saw himself as making an epic, and the resulting two hour-plus running time of the original cut might come across to most as spreading the movie’s content just a tad too thin. Its final acts, after all, are largely comprised of prison movie tropes that have become all too familiar in the ensuing years — and the interest they hold pales in comparison to both the juicy subject matter and surprising even-handedness presented in the film’s opening moments. You have to wonder what this movie might have been like had DeMille not gotten distracted by his reformist crusade and instead tried to plot out a path to understanding between Judy and Bob that was less dependent on drastic dramatic interventions like sudden death and imprisonment. Chances are that, at the very least, audiences of today would get a clearer picture than the one hinted at of what popular attitudes regarding these — amazingly — still controversial issues were during the picture’s day. It’s a common assumption that attitudes in eras previous to ours were by their nature less “modern” than our own, even though the reality of our current era often renders that notion ridiculous. In light of that, The Godless Girl — just like any high school teacher worth his or her salt — might handily reminds us of the perils that lurk within the word “Assume”.

Release Year: 1929 | Country: United States | Starring: Lina Basquette, Tom Keene (as George Duryea), Marie Prevost, Noah Beery, Eddie Quinlan, Mary Jane Irving | Writer: Jeanie Macpherson | Director: Cecil B. DeMille | Cinematographer: J. Peverell Marley | Producer: Cecil B. DeMille