The Cult of Actress Maria Montez in Siren of Atlantis (1949)

*contains spoilers

“It is written in your stars you’ll be a queen,” said the actor Sabu (1924-63 heart attack) to the beautiful Maria Montez (1912-51 heart attack and drowning) in the movie Arabian Nights (1942) … In reality, Montez was ambitious and had a sense of destiny. She also was heavily into astrology and Arabian Nights would be the movie that would make her a star!

As for Arabian Nights, it’s a Technicolor mini-spectacle of the type that Montez would specialise in during a Hollywood career which would span less than a decade. She was not a great actress but she was a possibly fiery Latin beauty, who at the peak of her career, was Universal’s rival to 20th Century Fox’s Betty Grable (1916-73 lung cancer) and Columbia’s Rita Hayworth (1918-87 Alzheimer’s disease) as the top wartime pinup for lonesome wartime soldiers.

Arabian Nights (1942) helped launch its star
Maria Montez
A biography of Maria Montez

Born in Barahona in the Dominican Republic in 1912 (dates vary), her father was the Spanish consul there. Her real name was Maria Africa Antonia Gracia Vidal de Santo Silas which came from her diplomat father Ysidoro Gracia and her mother’s name was Teresa Vidal de Santo, who was the daughter of a Spanish noblewoman and a Dutch political refugee.

Montez was then convent educated in Spain before this second oldest girl of twelve children got quickly bored of life at home and married a wealthy banker, William McFeeters. She found the marriage unsatisfactory when her husband’s job in the army saw him leave home for long periods and they divorced shortly afterwards. in fact, it is said she met her husband at the New York docks and dumped him, having gone to America to became a model. She became quickly popular as a model and it was there that she was given a contract with Universal Pictures for $150 per week.

After some small roles in The Invisible Woman (1940), That Night in Rio (1941), South of Tahiti (1941) and Moonlight in Hawaii (1941), she graduated to Technicolor and her name had already been changed to Maria Montez, apparently after the dancer Lola Montez (1821-61 syphilis) and interestingly enough the pair both died at the age of 39.

Dancer Lola Montez
Boss of Bullion City (1940) poster
Maria in Boss of Bullion City (1940)
The few minutes that launched Maria’s career were in That Night in Rio (1941)

Standing only five foot seven inches tall, Montez could not sing or dance and arguably could not act either. But this diminutive performer had the determination to succeed to the point where she was known as The Queen of Technicolor at the height of her career. Other nicknames include The Caribbean Cyclone and The Cobra Woman.

Early in her career, Montez invented a fictional fiancée from the Royal Air Force named Claude Strickland as part of a publicity stunt around the time of her first success which was a western called Boss of Bullion City (1940). It was part of her plan to conquer Hollywood which included creating her own fan club and the buzz surrounding it. But it wasn’t until the Arabian Nights (1942), that finally Montez fit the role of movie star albeit a B-grade one… It goes to show what three-strip Technicolor could do – that luminous dreamlike colour process which was commonly used in the 1940s and even to this day.

White Savage (1943) poster
Maria and Jon Hall in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944)
Gypsy Wildcat (1944) lobby card

The casting of Montez, Sabu and Jon Hall clicked and the three of them appeared together again in another Technicolor film White Savage (1943). That one is ordinary when viewed today and even Arabian Nights suffers from being dated today. Montez and Hall were then cast in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944) with Turhan Bey (1922-2012 Parkinson’s disease) replacing Sabu. This one is rather run of the mill as well but they were all in Technicolor and filled a need in the hard times of World War Two. She then made Gypsy Wildcat (1944) with Hall which also doesn’t demand the attention too much but, hey, they’re not complicated and hard-bitten mysteries we’re watching here. The thing is about these movies is they probably played army bases and war ships and so the music drones on as if to drown out the post-traumatic stress or foreboding in the heads of the troops while others took note of Montez and fantasised. Hall also appeared again with Bey and Montez in Sudan (1945) which is probably their best movie in terms of hokum set back in B.C. as it is set around the time of the pharaohs with everyone dressed appropriately. Sabu would appear again in the delayed black and white production of the thriller Tangier (1946). Montez fails to pass muster in the kind of noir-ish Tangier as an actress without Technicolor and the film is forgettable apart from a climax where an elevator cable snaps and it plunges down into a hotel lobby.

Jean-Pierre Aumont marries Maria Montez
Tangier (1946) poster
Director Robert Siodmak

It was around 1942 that Montez fell in love with the love of her life the French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont (1911-2001 heart attack). Montez and Aumont had both divorced but they chose to marry in 1943. He related later that found living with the actress ‘strange’.

He said that their Hollywood mansion was “a strange house. You didn’t answer the phone or read the mail; the doors were always open. Diamonds were left around like ashtrays” This was probably akin to Montez’s life in the Caribbean as a child more than anything else. The staff at the home included an astrologer, a physical culture expert, a priest, a Chinese cook and two Hungarian masseurs. It was during massages that Montez granted audiences and she also became a favourite of the local Los Angeles press as a result.

It was shortly after her marriage to Aumont that Montez was lonely again as Aumont had to go to Europe to serve in the French army. It was around this time that Montez let fame go to her head as she fought with Universal for her name to be changed from Montez to Montes with an ‘s’ but she lost the fight. It was one of several court cases she contested during her career.

In one interview she said:  I have changed a lot in the past year. Now I am a star. I am nice.”

As for her acting talent, it may have been limited, but Robert Siodmak (1900-73 heart attack) who directed Cobra Woman (1944) said there was a kind of Method used by the actress.

If she played a queen, she’d “demand you’d bow before her” but if she played a slave “you could treat her very bad and she will not complain”. But the director said he wouldn’t cross her. Cobra Woman is one of her best movies and it stars John Hall and Sabu. It is considered a camp classic but it is more iconoclastic than that. In some ways it is a cheap masterpiece.

Cobra Woman is when Montez was at her most beautiful playing two siblings, one good and one evil. In terms of Technicolor, it hits the spot.

Technicolor ‘scientist’ Natalie Kalmus
Natalie Kalmus at work – planning I suspect!
Natalie Kalmus and husband Herbert (both on the right)

The Technicolor consultant on the movie was ‘colour scientist’ Natalie Kalmus (1882-1965) and it is her triumph. Natalie Kalmus was the wife of the inventor the Technicolor process Herbert Kalmus (1881-1963) and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Natalie was always a part of the crew of the early Technicolor movies. In fact, it was a part of the deal that if you used Technicolor film stock you had to use a Technicolor film consultant, chiefly Natalie Kalmus. She worked from 1934 through to 1949 when the consultants fell out of favour and other colour processes came into fashion. She has been sometimes credited as the co-developer of the Technicolor process itself and she had strong views about the balanced use of colour in film composition and often clashed with directors, cinematographers and set designers. This composition may come down to the colour of a scarf. Natalie would review costume selections, set furnishings and lighting as she wanted the best ‘palate’ for the Technicolor films.

Natalie Kalmus described her role as “playing ringmaster to the rainbow” and she saw she created the best visual environment to get the best performance from the actors. The science that Natalie worked with was one of the changing levels of “radiations” and the “vibrations” emanated by different colours and they could be presented individually or in concert. She even composed charts with colours categorised and defined by their respective effects.

Arabian Nights (1942) trailer
Early Technicolor logo
Cobra Woman (1944) poster

Just a hint of how intrusive these consultants could be and producer David O. Selznick (1902-65 heart attack) didn’t like them when they worked on Gone with the Wind (1939).

“The Technicolor experts have been up to their old tricks of putting all sorts of obstacles in the way of real beauty,” he said. And added that the experts should be for guiding technically on a movie and not for dominating the creative side of making pictures.

“We might just as well have made the films in black and white.”

If Natalie Kalmus made a masterpiece though, it’s Cobra Woman.

Director Siodmak only made a couple of colour movies in the 1940s and 50s, and so I gather that he really wouldn’t have been upset by the intrusion of Natalie Kalmus and possibly welcomed her into the picture. The same too would have been for the experienced cinematographers W. Howard Green (1895-1956) who had worked on Warner’s Technicolor film The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and George Robinson (1890-1958) who had worked on a couple of the earlier Montez Technicolor features.

The film clicks with Montez in evil princess mode making Cobra Woman one of the best examples of World War Two escapist entertainment. To say more would spoil it.

It was after she turned down Frontier Gal (1945) with regular co-star Jon Hall (1915-79 gunshot to head) that things started to go sour for Maria Montez. Universal suspended her and Yvonne de Carlo (1922-2007 heart failure) got the role. Tangier was filmed in 1945 with Montez pregnant with her daughter Tina Aumont (1946-2006 pulmonary embolism) and growing even more so as the production continued. In the end its release was delayed. Montez made one last film for Universal, the rather boring western Pirates of Monterey (1947) with Rod Cameron (1910-83 cancer). It would be her last Hollywood Technicolor movie.

Yvonne de Carlo in Frontier Gal (1945)
Pirates of Monterey (1947) lobby card
The Exile (1947) poster
Turhan Bey in Sudan (1946)

She did make on more film for Universal which by then was now known as Universal-International in which she appeared for barely ten minutes. Released in sepia tinted black and white in some cities The Exile (1947) starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909-2000 heart attack). Despite a secondary role Montez had a contract which stipulated she get top billing which must have left a few disappointed customers fuming after seeing the picture. It is a well-directed movie by Max Ophuls (1902-57) and in one scene Montez can be seen taking a hot bath, something which would figure in her early death a few years later.

Meanwhile the actress had given birth in to her daughter Tina Aumont who would also a become an actress and die relatively prematurely like her mother.

There would be one more film in Hollywood and that would be Siren of Atlantis (1949) which was an independent production before she and Aumont would move back to Europe. It was shortly before their departure that Aumont shocked the film community by telling the press that they would be getting a divorce. But the move to Europe saw them stay together until Montez’s death.

Siren of Atlantis is one of my favourite Montez movies and it stars Aumont alongside his wife. It succeeds despite the fact it is in black and white and tickles my fancy alongside Cobra Woman. I don’t know why it is so despised.

Maria with her daughter Tina
Tina Aumont also became an actress
Yes, it’s about a woman in Atlantis!

“It is a picture of which I am very proud,” said Montez. However, Siren of Atlantis has been called by others as “a calamity from a financial viewpoint.” As for the critics, it has been described as “ridiculous hokum” by Leonard Maltin and a “soporific adventure” by Steven H. Scheuer. I protest and say this film has charm despite the monochrome – or do I protest too much?

It is based on the 1919 fantasy novel L’Atlantide written by Pierre Benoit (1886-1962). The so-called Queen of the Desert or Queen of Atlantis is named Antinea in this story who rules over the lost city of Atlantis. The character of Antinea was supposedly inspired by the Berber queen Tin HInan (4th Century) who is buried in a tomb in the Sahara which survives to this day.

Benoit’s book was accused of plagiarism of Sir Henry Rider Haggard’s (1856-1925) novel She (1887) but the court case was dismissed as there were no proven translations of the novel Benoit could have possibly read.

One of the first film versions of L’Atlantide was the film of the same name by director Jacques Feyder (1885-1948). It ran almost three hours and one critic wrote: “There is one great actor in the movie and that is the sand” I have seen Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s (1885-1967) The Mistress of Atlantis (1932) and it is an ordinary movie despite the appearance of Metropolis (1925) beauty Brigette Helm (1906-96). Pabst made three versions in three different languages and one suspects he put his best work into his native German version. It is interesting that the script of The Mistress of Atlantis is similar to Siren of Atlantis and that the short running times are similar.

Silent film director Jacques Feyder seated centre
Brigette Helm in The Mistress of Atlantis (1932)
Antinea (1961) also known as Journey Beneath the Desert

And as for that film, Gregg G. Tallas (1909-93) takes great care editing and directing Siren of Atlantis although there are two other directors who are uncredited. One is John Brahm (1893-1982) who made some of the most beautiful to look at low budget black and white horror films for 20th Century Fox and went on to work in black and white television series. The other is Arthur Ripley (1897-1961) who worked for Mack Sennett and is chiefly known as a writer with few directorial credits to his name. It appears to be chiefly Brahm’s work as after the failure of Siren of Atlantis it was the credited Tallas whose career suffered as he directed the minor camp classic and ‘cheesecake’ movie Prehistoric Women (1950) and little else of note.

As for the screenplay, it is by obscure writer Rowland Leigh (1902-63) whose chief credit is the Errol Flynn movie The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) while Thomas Job (1901-47) appears to have died mid-production. Interesting is there’s work by well-known poet and hermit Robert Lax (1915-2000) although the dialogue is far from poetic and any elements of poetry in terms of love being spurned was already built into the original source material.

The clever editing is apparent in the opening mini-montage as Jean-Pierre Aumont wakes from a coma after he was found in the desert. Someone says of his ravings: “Atlantis the Lost Continent – that fairy tale!” … It is then that this film which captures L’Atlantide in a nutshell begins in earnest as he admits to killing his best friend in Atlantis over a woman. This friend is played by Dennis O’Keefe (1908-68 lung cancer) … It’s complicated but the wraparound scenes that the story uses at the beginning of the movie are kind of ingenious as the action moves deep into the desert beyond a mountain range where Atlantis remains forgotten and safe from modern intrusion as it has not sunk deep into the ocean as told by the ancient Greek poet Plato.

Cobra Woman (1944) trailer
Director John Brahm’s work is stamped on Siren of Atlantis
Director Gregg G. Tallas
Tallas’s other ‘masterpiece’ … Prehistoric Women (1950)
Siren of Atlantis (1949) lobby card

The producer Seymour Nebenzal (1899-1961 heart attack) invested almost two million dollars and Montez was to be paid $100,000 – she didn’t get it. It is said that she was paid about half and returned to the United States to sue the producer for the rest. She won the case but still got no more money from this notorious flop. The rest of her career consisted of five little seen European movies.

As for the rest of the budget it would appear to have been spent on the sets which capture the essence of the city in a strangely stage bound but almost surreal sense. The production’s designer Lionel Banks (1901-50) was well educated in black and white productions and died shortly after the movie’s release. It was his final film. Meanwhile set decorator George Sawley (1903-67) was also experienced. Again, it’s one of those recipes that just clicks, especially with repeated viewings, as those who are willing to accept the challenge and watch and become a part of this mythical stone city are somehow rewarded. It’s that sense of mythology with the lovers Montez and Aumont, the highly sexed queen and her handsome beau … It’s not mere escapism of the cinema as it existed back in 1949 as there is the noirish element of men driven to murder over sexual conquest… It’s the undercurrent of the sands… The riddle of the Sphinx! These are the elements which kind of spellbind me in this movie or otherwise zombify.

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1943) trailer
The chess scene in Siren of Atlantis (1949)
This moment from Siren of Atlantis reminds me of…
… This scene from Lucio Fulci’s Manhattan Baby (1980)
Maria poses for Siren of Atlantis (1949)

Others will eat popcorn and wonder what all the fuss was all about. Montez as the queen has the power of life and death if she is not sexually satisfied and will encase her former lovers in gold to become statues to line her hall of fame walkway for her amusement. Yet she ends up longing for something better which she cannot have. It is a late role for Montez but the cinematographers have captured her essence. Montez has long and slightly wavy black hair and a severe fringe as she is revealed in the signature scene from the book and the earlier films where she plays chess with Aumont and humiliates him and emasculates him by beating him in a speedy match. “Check… check!… checkmate!”

A nice shot from Siren of Atlantis (1949)
And another …
Jean-Pierre Aumont in Siren of Atlantis (1949)
That longing and aching feeling…

Who will end up encased in gold? Will Aumont return to the arms of Antinea the queen? The couple were still at the peak of their looks while some would argue Montez at 36 was too old to be the Queen of Atlantis… but one still would like to be chosen by her experienced queen and worn down into the desert sands as a sexual object until there is nothing left.

Maria Montez was told by one of her astrologers that the end would come sooner rather than later for the actress in terms of her death and it would happen suddenly. Shortly before her death, she had complained of chest pains and she was overweight. She took hot saline baths to alleviate the weight problem and possibly had a heart attack and drowned during one of these baths. Her two sisters found her with only her forehead bobbing above the water. She was pulled from the bath, dead. It was 7 September 1951.

Jean-Pierre Aumont at Maria’s funeral
Maria Montez International Airport in the city of her birth
Maria in the temple scene from Cobra Woman (1944)
A rare colour publicity still from Siren of Atlantis (1949)

After looking at her movies, you can see why people admired her briefly back in the mid-1940s and even today. The boys could see the colour of her nipples showing through her dress in Cobra Woman as well as the incredible costume and head dress she wears in the temple scene of the same movie. The movies may be a little lacklustre and perhaps even cardboard and emptily disappointing today while others are just plainly garish as if spoiled by the Technicolor consultant … But to watch Cobra Woman and Siren of Atlantis and they nail it somehow…. The former is an epic of phallic worship which is embodied in Montez crying out “King Cobra!” while the latter is a tragic love story of epic proportions encapsulated into 71 minutes which ends with a moment of complete inner despair and loneliness.

1 Comment

  1. Doug Schultz
    Permalink

    Her movies always provide a good time and an escape from 2022. Interesting life, sad she died so young. There is a boxset of her films coming from Kino Lorber studio classics.

    Reply

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