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