The Cult of Actress Marie Windsor in Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)

*contains spoilers

As we are told at the beginning of Cat-Women of the Moon (1953), mankind knows little about the mysteries of space and has “hardly been able to penetrate the unknown secrets!”

This movie asks us “Why must we wait? Why not now?” as the voice of alcoholic actor Sonny Tufts (1911-70 pneumonia) narrates and says this movie will help reveal and unlock some of the secrets of the universe, or at least the civilisation that once flourished on the moon itself before the air ran out!

Actress and Queen of the B-movies Marie Windsor
A quad poster or a lobby card for Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
Sonny Tufts (left) after one of his arrests

Poor Sonny Tufts was once known as The Find of 1943 and The Star of Tomorrow before his marriage unravelled due to his addiction to alcohol which left a once promising career in tatters due to constant arrests for public drunkenness. The year he made Cat-Women of the Moon he also starred alongside fellow thirsty thespian Barbara Payton (1927-67 heart and liver failure) in the movie Run for the Hills (1953) which featured the pair living in a cave. It is not fondly remembered and neither is Cat-Women of the Moon which at least has a cult following.

Producer Al Zimbalist (1910-75) has helped forge another film which is a companion piece to his Robot Monster (1953) starring that hard-bitten and yet somehow incredibly magnetic, in terms of her beauty – Marie Windsor (1919-2000 congestive heart failure). She was known as the Queen of the B-movies in the 1950s and is the centrepiece of Cat-Women as she plays a woman astronaut on a trip to the moon with four male companions.

Marie has packed her compact which she uses during the trip from Earth, something which NASA astronauts apparently playfully copied when they gave first real female astronaut who was launched into space – a make-up kit as a joke. That astronaut was Sally Ride (1951-2012 pancreatic cancer).

Marie Windsor gave one of her best performances in The Killing (1956) trailer
Astronaut Sally Ride receives her make-up kit
Marie Windsor is on a different wave-length than the men in Cat-Women of the the Moon (1953)

“Hello Alpha… We’re on our way,” says Marie to no one in particular and almost in a trance on a radio relay back to Earth during the space voyage, while the men plug products on the air and plan to stamp first day cover envelopes they hope to sell as the first letters franked in space and on the moon. The men are typically always on the make in terms of money and women… One of them has also packed a revolver just in case they meet someone nasty on the moon! I wonder if there really has been a revolver taken into outer space – yet?

Marie Windsor had been working uncredited in movies since the early 1940s and is probably best remembered for her roles in the classic film noir The Narrow Margin (1952) and especially her great piece of acting – as well as being a piece of work in terms of her character – in Stanley Kubrick’s (1928-99 in sleep of a heart attack) The Killing (1956). In The Killing, Marie plays the ‘over it’ wife to a mousy Elisha Cook Jr. (1903-95 stroke) who instead gets laid on the side by her lover Vince Edwards (1928-96 pancreatic cancer).

Surprisingly, Marie was born in Utah and was a life-long conservative and Mormon who upon her death was buried in her home town. She apparently went to Brigham Young University and was crowned Miss Utah in 1939. She married twice and had one child. Perhaps it was her conservatism in Hollywood following her appearance in The Narrow Margin and her support of the winning presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969 congestive heart failure) … or just the choice to make Cat-Women of the Moon which saw her Hollywood career never raise above the B-level in terms of stardom. But Marie more than sufficed in many a B-movie appearance and had a presence and persona which is certainly distinctive.

Marie Windsor with actor John Garfield in Force of Evil (1949)
Marie Windsor was great as the bad girl in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
Another cult Windsor movie – Swamp Women (1956)

I will always remember her as a kid when she played the bad girl in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) as it was often screened as a midnight movie. Otherwise, I have a memory of her in the tv miniseries Salem’s Lot (1979) and its edited theatrical release where she says the word “telephone” rather strangely.

Back to Cat-Women and Marie is sexually harassed by a fellow astronaut, the gun-carrying Victor Jory (1902-82 heart attack), and she remarks about him and Tufts as both having a “strong mind (and) strong back”. Really, Windsor is the epitome of the strong woman on the screen which is shown in her most famous performance in The Narrow Margin. Whereas her characters were often unpleasant to say the least, in Cat-Women we see the good strong woman who must resist the advances of men despite her beauty because she is independent in both thought and what we also imagine is her domicile arrangements. Marie Windsor epitomises the modern woman in this movie despite the fact it was dismissed as a rotten failure just like Robot Monster… More than a failure as many may find its hour long running time just plain abysmal and intolerable. Yet it entertains – for some.

The Narrow Margin (1952) trailer
Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr. reunited for a scene in Salem’s Lot (1979)
Marie Windsor is surrounded by the cat-women who were played by the Hollywood Cover Girls

“What do you mean: ‘Alpha, we’re on our way?’,” asks Tufts of Windsor’s almost queer musing over the radio. Tufts also ponders the hypothetical prediction that all humans in space could go insane. Forget the fact that radiation alone could prevent humans ever reaching distant planets!

Cat-Women was directed by Arthur Hilton (1897-1979) who had been Oscar nominated for Best Editing the Robert Siodmak (1900-73 heart attack) movie The Killers (1946). However, the critical response which Cat-Women received ended that director’s career – just like Robot Monster ended director Phil Tucker’s (1927-85) career for a long spell – and Hilton would direct only one more inconsequential movie which was already in production when Cat-Women was being made entitled The Big Chase (1954) for poverty row producer Robert L. Lippert (1909-76 heart attack).

So, the astronauts land on the moon… and the men are getting a bit toey about Marie’s female intuition as they enter a cave she predicts is there after leaving the space ship.

“If she can guess a landing spot on the dark side of the moon… I guess she could guess a cave,” says a sexually spurned and bitter Jory to Tufts: “She knows.”

As they explore a cave, Tufts says, rather patronisingly to her as a woman: “If you’re tired, we can go back”. However, Marie ignores this male chauvinism and amongst the stalagmites and stalactites one of the astronauts removes his helmet only to discover they can breathe.

“Maybe we can bottle this stuff for sale,” says actor Douglas Fowley (1911-98) who is an actor well known for his wise-cracking character roles going back to the 1930s including many appearances in the Charlie Chan series.

The Stay film clip by Shakespeare’s Sister relates to Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
A beautiful shot of Marie Windsor
Douglas Fowley (second from left) in the psychic themed Charlie Chan in Treasure Island (1939)

Marie then says: “Why can’t we expect love and friendship instead of death?” just before giant spiders descend from the ceiling of the cave… It’s lucky they brought the gun after all!

“Isn’t it funny, I knew everything but this,” says Marie about her premonitions and the mystery which seems to shroud the moon… This is following her interminable screams which still echo in the cave well after the spiders have been eliminated… I guess basic training doesn’t help prepare a woman, or a man for that matter, for their natural fear of gigantic moon spiders!

The giant spiders in this movie resemble the ones encountered in World Without End (1956) which starred a young Rod Taylor (1930-2015 heart attack). That is regarded as a better movie and was made by Allied Artists in colour and Cinemascope when the studio was spending up big to help shake off their former Monogram Studios moniker. Allied Artists also made their most expensive film The Warriors (1955) aka The Dark Avenger with a slightly too old Errol Flynn (1909-59 heart attack) having a late swash-buckle as Edward the Black Prince (1330-76 dysentery) around the same time.

Rod Taylor battles a spider in World Without End (1956)
See the same spider in Queen of Outer Space (1958)!
The astronauts in Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) will do anything for a buck

The spiders used in World Without End possibly aren’t exactly the same ones used in Cat-Women but the ones from World Without End were used again by that film’s writer and director Edward Bernds (1905-2000) for his film Queen of Outer Space (1958). This film features a similar plot device as Cat-Women in that there is a civilisation discovered on a planet in our solar system and that it is ruled by a cruel woman. Not necessarily cruel but just slightly peeved is more the case in Cat-Women as there isn’t a moon man in sight… to either lay or kill. But I guess that’s another story! Who used up all the air on the moon is perhaps the question and the lesson to be learned in this film which led to the demise of that small satellite’s once thriving civilisation?

In Cat-Women, the ancient civilisation on the moon is a culture of which all that survives is the leader and the reported dance troupe of the Hollywood Cover Girls as moon women who can read each other’s minds as well as Marie’s. They also occasionally dance together in black leotards to pass the time. Marie meets these women and the leader says, rather like my good and beloved friend Jan after a few drinks: “You see, we don’t care” and adds to Marie: “And you are one of us” as mind-reading turns into normal out-loud conversation between the moon women and this pioneering female space explorer.

Howard Hughes decided to torture the makers of The Whip Hand (1951) with constant reshoots
The cat-women pose between the odd spot of dancing
If only Marie had been toting the gun in Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)

The leader of the moon women is named Alpha, which is not surprising in terms of Alpha males and females, while her underlings are called Beta and so on… She tells Marie that they can project their thoughts over long distances while another cat woman says sneeringly: “We have no use for men.” … and there is a plan for the cat-women to escape the moon on the spaceship and leave the men behind in the cave.

Who would have thought that food on the moon “tastes a little like honey-dew melon”, according to Marie, when she and the astronauts are offered a delicacy? Yes, the moon is a boring place for the cat-women, but is the Earth any alternative for them? The possible invasion by cat-women with their habit of disappearing into thin air may be disconcerting to Earth defence officials who have far more guns and ammo compared to pistol-packing Victor Jory. Or perhaps they just want to go into showbusiness or settle down and become a part of 1950s home-making domesticity! You see, when the moon ran out of air, there had to be a massive reduction in the use of human energy which led to the genocide of the male population. Some things are just worth conserving energy for!

The screenplay, which is now regarded as a camp classic, was written by Roy Hamilton (no info) who had a hand in the story of another cult item which is the rabidly anti-Communist Howard Hughes produced RKO movie The Whip Hand (1951). Hamilton also wrote a few episodes of Adventures of Superman (1953) but his career appears to have been more or less finished by the critical lambasting of Cat-Women. This seems unfair considering the guilty pleasure it has given bad movie lovers over the ensuing years.

Robert A Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1994) trailer
Project Moonbase (1953) had the foresight to use women in positions of authority
Autumn years … Writer Robert A. Heinlein and wife Virginia

It is reported that Cat-Women used the same costumes and sets as the disappointing but interesting Project Moonbase (1953) and some may spot that a couple of the space-suits – they don’t all match – are from Destination Moon (1950). Project Moonbase was based on a screenplay by Robert A. Heinlein (1907-88 in sleep from emphysema and heart failure) who is regarded as one of the fathers of modern science fiction writing. It was his only Hollywood screenplay and he was known for his creation of strong female characters which were inspired in part by his later life partner Virginia Gerstenfeld (1916-2003). Marie Windsor is one such strong woman in her only sci-fi appearance and Heinlein, who wrote the novella The Man who Sold the Moon in the late 1940s, is given homage in Cat-Women by the appearance of a sign which reads that the moon will be sold as a part of Los Angeles real estate. Project Moonbase sees a future with women in positions of authority and in that sense its futurist predictions have almost come true but the film is no classic.

In the wake of the failure of Project Moonbase, the prolific Heinlein took a long ocean voyage on a tramp steamer with third wife Virginia which helped form his later sci-fi works about sexuality and isolation on long outer space trips. Heinlein was a nudist and had an open second marriage and some of his works which have been adapted into movies are The Puppet Masters (1995), Starship Troopers (1997) and the recent classic Predestination (2014) starring Ethan Hawke (1970-). More of his works are currently in development.

A couple of space suits here in Destination Moon (1951) were used again in Cat-Women of the Moon
As you can see… with the suit on the right in this lobby card. The movie is in black and white.
Effects man Jack Rabin

Be clear that Heinlein had nothing to do with Cat-Women and its giant spiders and the original story which Roy Hamilton based his screenplay upon were created by optical and special effects man and producer Jack Rabin (1914-87) who worked up a head of steam doing effects and co-producing the early kind of feminist cult item Unknown World (1951) which is related to Godzilla vs Kong (2021) in terms of its journey to the centre of the Earth and the vehicle used to do it. Rabin was responsible for effects on other early sci-fi works such as Rocketship X-M (1950), The Man from Planet X (1951), Flight to Mars (1951) and Invaders from Mars (1953). This man seems to have been a pioneer, in terms of sci-fi, in Hollywood and his career stalled as a producer and ideas man after Cat-Women and his effects work on Robot Monster. He did do special effects on World Without End a few years later, which perhaps explains the appearance again of the spiders and he helped co-produce another sci-fi semi-classic Kronos (1957) and wrote the story for War of the Satellites (1957) for Roger Corman. He continued to do optical work for many years after this and ended his career with the Charles Band movie The Alchemist (1983).

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) trailer
Marie Windsor gets her star on the Walk of Fame
Beautiful and even elegant. The strong Marie Windsor.

Cat-Women also features the slumming talents of composer Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004) who also did work on Robot Monster and who was blacklisted at the time for being a suspected Communist. He went on the write the theme and suite for The Magnificent Seven (1960).

And that just about wraps it up as the Cat-Women are all shot and killed despite one falling in love with an astronaut while another tempts the greediest astronaut with promises of gold which is so common, the Cat-Woman don’t even bother to dig it up from beneath the lunar surface. I guess you can’t have Cat-Women of the Moon running around or disappearing into thin air on Earth with their psychic ability and their schism over the worship of men… So, they are treated fairly and squarely by the men of the 1950s and killed, leaving Marie Windsor as a survivor and an inspiration for future women in this delightfully daffy as well as barmy piece of forgotten sci-fi cinema.

1 Comment

  1. jameselliotsinger
    Permalink

    I love Marie who always gave 100% in her performances. Personally I liked the Catwomen remake Missile To The Moon more.

    Reply

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