Sunday, February 03, 2008

Amazon Women in the Mood

The second movie in the 50 Sci-Fi Classics box is:

Queen of the Amazons (1947)
Auteur/Perpetrator: Edward Finney, Robert Lippert
Star of Shame: None to speak of
Monster(s): Patronizing Colonel, Creepy Bug Professor, Man-Eating Lions

In Greek mythology, the Amazons were a nation of all-female warriors, supposedly located in what is now Turkey, near the Black Sea. They were an independent kingdom under the government of a queen, and some versions of the myth specify that no men were permitted to have, ahem, “encounters” with them, or even to live in Amazon country. However, no fools they, once a year the Amazon women visited the neighboring Gargareans to, um, shore up their numbers. (I’m sure the Gargareans had this day marked quite prominently on their calendars, or at the very least considered it a bank holiday. At any rate, I would expect that there was no mail delivery, so to speak.) Anyway, it should come as no surprise that the Amazons preferred female children, and the male children were either put to death or left in the wilderness to fend for themselves. It is also said that Amazons had their right breast cut off, so as to be able to use a bow and throw spears unobstructed (Marlon Brando has also supposedly had this problem); however, there is no indication of this practice in artistic depictions of the Amazons.

The Amazons have always captured the imaginations of fiction writers and especially filmmakers, for fairly obvious—if not sexist—reasons.

Which brings us to the 1947 movie Queen of the Amazons, which has little to do with the Amazon women of legend, and is actually one example of the “jungle picture” genre of the 1940s, which basically has lunk-headed white men going on safari amidst stock footage of exotic animals and natives and proving their superiority by indiscriminately killing anyone or anything they come across. In many of these movies, white women (the result of a plane crash or shipwreck) somehow end up as the benevolent and respected rulers of a tribe of natives, are perceived as “white she-devils” by party crashers from the so-called "civilized" world, and are taught to see the error of their ways and brought back to proper society. It would all be patronizing, sexist, and racist, if it weren’t all done in hilarious high camp.

Anyway, why Queen of the Amazons was included on a disc of science-fiction films is anyone’s guess, since there is nothing even remotely science-fictiony about it, but, there it is. Alas.

A globe (not the Universal logo, but a remarkable simulation) spins and we begin in India, complete with stock footage of elephants and other quintessentially Indian festoonery. It is apparently some kind of parade or celebration. Our heroes are introduced, and the first words out of their mouths are demeaning and patronizing: “It’s all very provincial, but things are like that in the Far East,” says Colonel Jones, as he, our heroine Jean (Patricia Morison), and a dithery old professor (of entomology—insects—complete with Coke-bottle glasses, who is along on this trip for no discernible reason) arrive at the airport. Apparently the natives are restless, and there is an undercurent of hatred for foreigners. (This was just as the British rule in India was ending, so it’s hard to imagine why....)

Wayne Monroe (who is played by an “actor” named Keith Richards—no, not that Keith Richards) meets them and says that “trouble is brewing.” Says the patronizing old Colonel, “Whenever the natives are nervous, they always hold a parade to take their minds off their troubles.” Any chance he could be trampled by a rogue elephant?

So why are they there anyway?

They are searching for Jean’s fiancé (and the Colonel’s son) Greg Jones, who disappeared while on safari a month earlier. He was last seen in India, and she will not rest until she has found him. Wayne, in classic understatement, points out that “The English and the Americans aren’t very welcome here right now.” Some people are so sensitive when it comes to imperial domination. But I digress...

They make it to the hotel where Greg was last known to have stayed, and they check in. They ask the hotel clerk if he had seen Greg, which sets in motion a chain of intrigue, Well, events, anyway. Wayne philosophically points out, “Searching for a man in a country of this size would like like looking for a needle in a haystack.” Maybe a rogue elephant could be rented...with volume discounts for multiple tramplings...

Meanwhile, a be-saried Indian woman watches them from behind a potted plant, and caches the eye of Colonel Jones. And, well, she’ll be sorry, all right... she also catches the corrective lensed eyes of Professor Dithers (he is unnamed, actually), but then she vanishes. Sari, wrong number?

The party go up to their rooms, and the desk clerk makes a phone call to a person only seen in shadow, and who looks rather like Lou Costello’s silhouette. Ironically, he is not the most poorly drawn of the characters in this movie! The desk clerk tells Mr. Shadow that a party is looking for Greg Jones. Mr. Shadow ominously tells him to “detain the party.” It’s not a very threatening line, and if the same ominous voice had said “Wash my car” or “Iron my slacks” it would have about the same effect.

Jean is visited in her room by the sari-clad Indian girl, who says her name is Tondra. Tondra asks Jean if she is looking for the lost safari. Tondra says, “Moya told me of lost safari and lone white man.” This gets Jean’s attention, as you could well imagine. Wait...who’s Moya? Ah Tondra’s husband, who leads many safaris. Tondra then sets up a clip which is a flashback to his last safari, which involved several men being eaten by a tiger, hopefully not one of his most successful ones. Jean is skeptical that that was Greg’s safari, for some reason, and asks Tondra to bring her husband over so she can grill him. Tondra declines, citing “Too much danger.” Apparently, the tiger told Moya to keep his mouth shut. Anyway, Jean makes it worth Tondra’s while by giving her what looks like 20 cents. Maybe that was a lot of money in 1947 India.

There is more stock footage of elephants and an elephant tug-of-war—and the Colonel narrates it all patronizingly. The Colonel chides Wayne for disappearing into the marketplace while there is so much unrest. Professor Dithers asks why Wayne went to the marketplace to rest. One longs for a whole heard of rogue elephants to go on a trampling spree.

Meanwhile, in Jean’s room, Tondra brings her husband over. Tondra asks if Jean has a picture of her fiancé and, instead of the wallet size snapshot would expect, she takes out a leather folder and presents an 8x10 publicity photo. Moya recognizes him, and says he wasn’t in the last (i.e., tiger-eating) safari, but the one before that, where they were hunting ivory. (Great theme safaris they've got. I would actually look for something along the lines of being mauled by a bear.) They were last seen going to Kybo, in Africa. At that point, a gun pokes out of the curtains, unseen by anyone, and shoots Moya. The gun then withdraws ve-e-e-ery slowly, though no one actually sees it. Mr. Shadow is then seen on the phone taking to the desk clerk, mentioning that a man has been killed and to call the police.

The Colonel, Wayne, and Professor Dithers run up to Jean’s room and the Colonel is of course worried that “It’s a good thing no one heard that shot. With all this unrest, if the police get wind of this, there will be trouble.” There already has been trouble. And would you knock it off with the unrest already! That they say this while standing over the body of the dead Moya is even creepier. But they're too late: the Colonel looks out the window and points out “The natives are rioting already.” I’m guessing that referring to Indian citizens as “natives” probably doesn’t do a lot to endear him to them either.

They agree to flee the country, and catch a clipper to Africa and then a riverboat to Kybo, and a whole new bunch of locals the Colonel can be patronizing and demeaning to. This provides as good an excuse as any to start the first of many in a long long long series of cutaway shots to stock footage of crocodiles, birds, and other African wildlife. Wayne, meanwhile, decides to be gloomy gus and tell Jean that she’s wasting her time filling herself with false hope. Why did they bring him again?

The ship’s bell rings and, in a very weird moment, Jean pantomimes the ringing of the bell. “Now, you know what that means!” she says. I actually have no idea but I’m suddenly really scared.

They arrive in Kybo. The Colonel tells Jean that he has spoken with the commissioner (who?) and the commissioner (who?) has forbidden them to go into the back country without a guide. The Colonel then says, with a completely straight face, “Unfortunately, the only man available is Gary Lambert—and he hates women.” Does he put that on his resume or in his advertisements?

We then cut to our hero, Gary, shooting targets, with a festive bandanna tied around his neck, and bearing a raven on his shoulder. Seriously. It's Barnaby Rudge all of a sudden... The raven’s name is Jimmy (seriously), and is very smart. In fact, smarter than any of the human characters.

The commissioner (ah!) approaches Gary and tells him there is “another confounded party arriving.” Gary was under the impression that the commissioner wasn’t allowing any more expeditions while the natives were “so upset.” Wait—these natives are upset, too? In India, and in the remotest areas of Africa? Is there some kind of native network that natives from around the world access?

The commissioner fills Gary in on the plot of the movie thus far, and Gary is quick to stress, “You know how I feel about women on safaris.” And—I am not making this up—he consistently pronounces it “sa-fairies.” Hmm... That could explain rather a lot, now couldn’t it. The commissioner suggests Gary meet with Jean. “I don’t want to meet her. I haven’t met one once who wasn’t a blasted nuisance.” He then asks the commissioner if he wants to come with him and sing show tunes in a karaoke bar. (OK, not really, but you’d expect it at this point.) Jean then overhears the last parts of this conversation and shuts Gary up by drawing her gun and nailing all the bullesyes on his target. (With a tiny handgun that sounds like a cannon.) That oddly endears her to him.

There is then stock footage of natives dancing and playing music. “Did they know we were coming?” asks Professor Dithers. Why did they bring him?

Gary has warmed to Jean rather quickly. He says they are almost ready to set out, they just need a cook. “I’ve been trying to get Gabby, who’s the best cook in these parts.” Well, its the middle of nowhere, so he probably doesn’t have a lot of competition unless Bobby Flay lives in the next village.

We then meet “Gabby,” who looks like the love child of Peter Lorre and Lou Costello. He recites some poetry about women—“Men must work and women must weep”—as he peels potatoes. Upsettingly, his constant companion is a monkey. I can see why he's considered the best cook around; nothing makes the mouth water like seeing a monkey involved in the food preparation process. He meets up with Jean and Gary, and immediately launches into more misogynistic arias (what is it with these people?). The monkey’s amused, anyway.

The commissioner—whose suit is almost as ill-fitting as his accent—tells Gary that Greg Jones (the guy that they are looking for) was actually sent out into the jungle on a mission to find and stop a band of ivory poachers. Greg—I mean, Gary—then sends his bird to fetch the commissioner a match. "That's quite a smart bird you've got there!" Not that smart; he's in this movie.

They then set out on the safari with what looks like 90% of the population of Africa. The Colonel’s narration says that it will take them two days to load the boats for the safari. Huh? Two days?! How much crap are they taking?!

While waiting for the contents of a Newport mansion to be loaded onto their boats, they watch stock footage of native dancers. “That, my dear, is the origin of all modern dancing,” says the Colonel. Oh, good; it’s been a while since he said something demeaning and patronizing. He then describes the native children. “When they’re small children, long bamboo shoots are forced into their flesh. The more pain they can bear, the more respected they are.” Listening to the Colonel would have about the same effect.

“This is the end of the river, the great falls of Africa,” says the Colonel’s narration. “Yes,” adds Wayne, “but like all other beautiful things, it has its drawbacks.” I see, but-- wait! Why is Wayne responding to the voice-over? Is the narration voice-over narration or is the Colonel’s character speaking it? Wayne then adds, “This is as far as we can go by boat.” Jean then asks, “Oh, you mean this is the end of the line?” Didn’t she hear the Colonel say that this was the end of the river? Does the Colonel have a voice only Wayne can hear?

“Nothing serious had happened since Moya was killed, but we sensed that we were getting closer and closer to danger,” intones the Colonel’s narration—or intones the Colonel. I have no idea. But, either way, I suppose traveling into the very depth of the African jungle would have something to do with it.

Gary the Misogynist Bird Man leads them to a tribe of friendly natives, and asks them for help in procuring “40 boys and one good head man” (no comment). The chief says that he will send Tonga, the chief’s best head man. “But first we have welcome dancers for you.” Well, stock footage of them anyway.

In one of the most upsetting moments of the movie, Professor Dithers is getting down with his bad self while the music is playing, and he spies a vaguely androgynous native woman sitting under a tree and proceeds to leer at her. The Colonel says, “Remember, Professor, you’re supposed to be interested in insects,” to which the Professor responds, “But you find them in the strangest places.” I have no idea what that means, but as vaguely sexual innuendo, it is deeply upsetting.

The stock footage continues.

The Colonel says they went to the marketplace to buy the rest of their supplies. Wait—they took two days to load their boats and they still need more things? Jeez. I thought I took a lot of crap when I went travelled.

The stock footage continues.

Tonga tells Gary, “It’s mighty big job to get 40 boys for you.” (Yep, uh huh...dum dee dum...the ceiling needs painting...) It turns out the boys are afraid of “voodoo,” which is not African, but never mind. I suspect it’s a euphemism anyway....

“What’s the voodoo this time,” asks Gary. “What are they afraid of?”

“White woman,” says Tonga.

“I can’t say that I blame them.”

Would you cut that out!

To clarify, the “white woman” is the “queen of the she-devils.” A “white goddess.” They all seem amused by this idea, as, meanwhile, Gabby’s monkey and Gary’s raven have an altercation.

There is more stock footage of dancing.

That night, Jean visits Gary at his tent, eager to ask him about the “Amazons.” They then ask Tonga to tell them everything he knows about the white she-devils. “They know everything. They voodoo.” Ah, well, that was a help. Upon further pressing, Tonga explains, in fractured jungle-movie-native English, that long time ago boat in big storm, men try to get in boat, but captain wouldn’t let them. Only women saved. Women make camp in jungle, now she devils. Ah. Reason number one why “women and children first” may not be the best strategy.

There is then a lot of walking punctuated by stock footage of animals. Some deep deep padding, as Gary and Jean take turns looking through a telescope at the same spot and see wildly different animals.

This reverie is interrupted by Tonga running up and handing Gary a gold coin. “That’s Greg’s!” shouts Jean, who should get a job grading rare coins if she can tell that. She remembers that the year on it was 1921. I guess it's a good thing they only minted one coin in 1921.

The Colonel’s narration then gets all melodramatic. “It seemed as if an evil force were trying to impede our progress,” citing a series of “minor mishaps.” I guess it’s an underachieving evil force if the worst it can do is inflict some minor mishaps.

That night, Gary tells Jean that one of the native boys, Bombo (seriously), confirms the existence of the white she-devils, and that they are holding Greg captive. It is at this point that Gary is attacked by a lion. And not a female lion, it should be pointed out. Everyone has a gun, yet no one uses it, using instead a torch to drive the lion off. Wayne is the one who saves Gary, yet all Gary can say is, “Would that it had been anyone but you.” Jeez, what a dink. He should have just let the lion eat him. Wayne confides in the Colonel—in garbled, barely learned dialogue—that he suspects that someone in the safari is trying to keep them from reaching Greg.

Gary and Jean then share a moment. Gary points out that he is along on the sa-fairy to try to find the ivory poachers. Jean is upset that Gary didn’t come along because of her. Gary thought that she was engaged to Greg, and she is. He asks if she would be interested in him if she didn’t love Greg. He presses the point—and does he think he’s fooling anyone? “Now you’ve got me so mixed up,” she says. But she brought the whole thing up!

The next morning, one of the natives finds a bare footprint in the sand. Shortly thereafter, Wayne turns up dead. Yes! One down, four to go. Another footprint is found nearby. “That footprint was meant to look like a native’s, but it was made by a white man” says Gary. How can he tell? “Whoever made that print was accustomed to wearing shoes.” Huh? (It should be pointed out that all the natives in the sa-fairy are wearing some kind of footwear.) “As far as we know, the only white men in this area are in this camp. And one of them is a murderer.” And there the follows all the requisite staring back and forth at each other.

More stock footage, this time of kitties. (It’s lion country, apparently.) Oh, and swarms of locusts. This gets Professor Dithers’ attention, who is suddenly carrying a net. The Colonel is unsure if the locusts or the lions are the greater danger.

Bad luck continues to follow them as Bombo is run down and eaten by a lion. Gary thinks it was foul play. Was the lion acting alone?

There is a bit of a lull as the natives have a ritual revenge lion hunt, interspersed with ritual lion stock footage.

They move on and get nearer to the forbidden territory overseen by the white goddess.

We then cut to the she-devil realm, where the long-lost Greg is painting a gorilla while the white goddess, Ziti (sorry, Zita), is practicing her archery. She is dressed as one would expect a jungle goddess to be dressed, by sexist Hollywood filmmakers. She climbs on his lap (while he’s standing up), and it turns out that he is not a captive and, in fact, is in love with Rotini (I mean, Ziti—Zita), not having been quite as deferential to the memory of his fiancée as she has been to his. One of their pet kitties—Tawny, the lion that attacked Gary—comes back with a bullet wound, alerting Penne to the fact that outsiders are approaching.

They withdraw to their hut which looks like it could very well be the sunroom in a vacation home on Key West. Where did they get elaborate rattan furniture, carpeting, and tapestries? Is Ernest Hemingway in the next room? They send a welcome detachment to bring Gary, Jean, and the Colonel to the camp to meet with Rotelle.

Meanwhile, Rigatoni’s personal valet, another scantily clad Amazonian named Sugi (really), and she are talking about how beautiful Ronzoni is. Greg comes in and seconds that motion. They all then laugh uncomfortably. Greg says that he is about to go to a council meeting (a council meeting? in the jungle? they are she-devils!) and that he would like her to hold the safari party there until he returns.

Linguine comes out and immediately accosts the safari threesome. “Why are you attempting to enter my territory? Everyone in the jungle knows that strangers are not welcome here.” Well, I guess that explains why there is no visitor’s center. Gary, looking as foppish as ever, confronts her, and Lasagna, in her bizarre jungle accent, makes reference to her “worriers” who are eager to kill potential invaders, perhaps by whining them to death. She also points out that Greg is not a prisoner, although he is at a council meeting (six of one, half dozen of another...).
They are led into the Key West vacation house, where she offers them food and refreshments (she does blow hot and cold, doesn’t she?). Gnocchi is surprised that the sole purpose of the safari is to find Greg.

Over dinner, Fettucine explains to the Colonel (who, you know, is dying to say something demeaning and patronizing) how she ended up as the white goddess. The ship she was traveling on sank, and she and her mother washed up on shore, Her mother was a great leader, and she was brought up to also be a great leader. Ah. That was thorough. The Colonel is quick to ask if there are any white men (I would have thought that would have been Gary’s first question). Greg is apparently the only one; and you think it's any shock that he doesn’t want to leave? Spaghetti says that she had always wanted to invite other white men to settle there, but hadn’t gotten around to it. But, now that some of their girls have reached, um, marrying age, they’re looking to, um, have some more men around. The Colonel takes out a cigar and asks if it’s OK if he stinks up the place.

Fusilli asks to speak to Jean alone. Farfale tells Jean that Greg is in love with her, and Jean’s jealousy takes full reign. Jean is upset, probably because they went through all the trouble to find him. Penette tells Jean that should could easily have her killed—she ads that, according to Greg, she is “half savage.” Ah, yes, but which half? I’m guessing it was the half that took acting lessons.

At that point, two women carry in Professor Dithers, who was chasing bugs when he was caught by the women. They unceremoniously dump him on the floor, and the only regret is that there wasn’t something large and sharp protruding upward.

Ricotta is obsessed with not having to conform to “conventional barriers of society” and, when confronted by Gary, she suggests that something has “passed” between him and Jean. “The lonely nights you spend in the jungle are somehow different than the nights you spend anywhere else.” Yes, being menaced by creatures. She points out that she knows everything that happens in the jungle. “Your safari wasn’t out two days before the jungle underground told me you were coming.” Jungle underground?

Gary confronts Mozzarella about the ivory poaching, and asks for the name of the operation’s leader. She asks for protection and it is at that moment that the real ringmaster of all the misfortune enters: it is Gabby, the Peter Lorre/Lou Costello monkey guy, who has a gun and a deeper less grating voice. In fact, it turns out (surprise) that he was Mr. Shadow in India. He was a partner with Parmesan and knew about Greg, but “I didn’t think you’d sell me out for him.” Monkey Guy was behind the lion attack on Greg, the killing of Wayne, and the killing of Bombo—but we saw Bombo being eaten by a lion. Was it monkey guy in disguise? He then orders everyone killed.

While being led out, Gary has Professor Dithers make his one contribution to the safari: falling on the ground, and he takes advantage of the distraction and overtakes the native guards. Riots break out, and the good natives battle the bad natives—they can only be told apart because the good natives appear to be wearing khaki shorts; the fight is kind of like shorts vs. skins. The village is set on fire, and the Colonel and Gary have a shoot out with the natives, while Professor Dithers is busy looking at bugs. At that point, Greg returns and has a strangely hostile reunion—in the middle of a gunfight—with his father The Colonel (forgot about that).

Meanwhile, inside the hut, Monkey Guy is holding Jean and Pesto hostage and reciting his poem about men working and women weeping (jeez, do we need that callback?). He is about to shoot them, but decides it would be more fun to hurl a spear at them instead. He grabs one and throws it at Risotto—but misses. Then he grabs a machete from the wall as Gary enters. He throws it at Gary, and also misses. Some bad guy; he couldn't hit the broad side of barn (or the barn side of a broad...). Gary then throws his gun at Monkey Guy (and misses), then jumps over a table and they have a long drawn out fist fight. It’s rather hard to follow, as Monkey Guy’s stunt double is six inches taller and 30 pounds lighter than he is and looks exactly like Gary’s stunt double. You have to wait for the closeups to figure out who is where.

Some race of warriors; the women just stand there watching until finally Sugi saves the day by entering and blowing a poison dart at Monkey Guy. He falls to the floor and dies just as he lived: clutching a monkey.
There is a cut to some time later and a double-wedding ceremony—Greg and Prosciutto and Gary and Jean—which, um, is a tad abrupt. The ivory poaching has been stopped, and Provolone says, “I’m leaving my wild jungle life behind me.” That was a trifle facile! And who gets in the upsetting last line of the movie? Yes, Professor Dithers: “Wild life! Ha ha! You should see one of our night clubs.” I wish they’d find a night club and beat him over the head with it.

They all laugh and...

Fade out.

So, why be the benevolent ruler of a race of jungle natives when you can join society and be a housewife! And isn’t it a bit creepy that Jean just gives up Greg after a day? Or that he had given her up the minute he found the white goddess in the jungle—all the while Jean was putting her life in great danger to try to find him? And why was Creepy the Bug Professor along anyway? It’s not like his expertise in entomology was any great help. All he did that was useful was fall down. And what about the other Amazon women? What’s going to happen to them? Was Sugi promoted to goddess? I also wonder if it was supposed to be a secret plot twist that the Monkey Guy was Mr. Evil all along. But then, since it's actually given away on the movie poster (see top of post), I guess it wasn't. The whole ending was kind of a “Captain Kirk enforces the Prime Directive to not interfere in other culture by interfering and destroying other cultures.” But at least it didn’t end with the Colonel saying something demeaning and patronizing.

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