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COBRA WOMAN (1944)
|"Give me that cobra jewel!"|
Director: Robert Siodmak
Starring: Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Sabu, Edgar Barrier, Mary Nash, Lois Collier, Lon Chaney Jr, Moroni Olsen, Samuel S. Hinds
Screenplay: Gene Lewis and Richard Brooks, based upon a story by W. Scott Darling
Synopsis: Harbour Island prepares for the wedding of Ramu (Jon Hall) and Tollea (Maria Montez). A young friend of the couple, Kado (Sabu), encounters a stranger, Hava (Lon Chaney Jr), who is apparently both blind and mute – but who, once the boy has left him, drops his pose of blindness to seek out and watch Tollea. As she sits by the water, Tollea is joined by Ramu; the two swear eternal love. Tollea then speaks worriedly of the guard that her foster-father, Mr MacDonald (Moroni Olsen), has placed upon her house. Ramu examines two puncture-like scars on Tollea’s wrist, commenting that perhaps Tollea’s mother, of whom she has no memory, might have been able to explain their origin. A little later, the mission bell begins to ring, and nervous bridegroom Ramu sets out for the church with Kado, MacDonald and the priest, Father Paul (Samuel S. Hinds). A shocking discovery is then made: at Tollea’s house a guard lies dead, fang marks on his throat – and of Tollea there is no sign.... Kado finds a flute that he recognises as belonging to Hava; it comes apart to reveal a poisoned forked prong. As the frantic Ramu searches for Tollea, MacDonald remarks sadly that he won’t find her on the island. Later, MacDonald reveals to Ramu that Tollea is of the Cobra People of Cobra Island. He explains that many years ago he was shipwrecked on Cobra Island, captured, and brutally tortured. Upon regaining consciousness, MacDonald found himself mysteriously set out to sea again on his boat, aboard which was also a baby girl, who he raised as his own daughter. Despite MacDonald’s dire warnings, Ramu sets out for Cobra Island, not realising that Kado has stowed away. Landing near the towering cliffs of Cobra Island, Ramu camps, and that night has his life saved by Kado, who kills a panther with a blow-dart. The next morning, Ramu and Kado make the dangerous climb over the cliffs. In the city of the Cobra People, Tollea learns the truth about herself from the island’s queen (Mary Nash), who is her grandmother. The queen tells Tollea that she is one of twins but that, as she was not immune to cobra venom, her younger sister, Naja, was appointed High Priestess in her place while she, Tollea, was condemned to die. The queen adds that she has had Tollea brought back to the island to save its people from the cruelty of Naja. Meanwhile, Ramu looks on in astonishment as a girl who he takes to be Tollea, elaborately dressed and attended by handmaidens, makes her way to an enclosed and guarded lake to bathe. Climbing over the walls, Ramu swims to the girl and takes her in his arms, kissing her passionately. The girl struggles free and returns to shore, where Ramu demands an explanation. Smitten by the handsome stranger, Naja (Maria Montez) answers evasively. Ramu is confused by the girl’s attitude but reassured by the twin wounds on her wrist, and kisses her again. Insisting that she must go, Naja tells Ramu to meet her in the same place that night, then runs away, ordering her attendants to say nothing of what they have seen. Ramu, however, is captured by the guards as he climbs back over the walls and taken to the city, where he is imprisoned awaiting execution....
Comments: For me, the New Year always brings with it a host of new or resuscitated projects and obsessions – most of which, to be frank, rarely outlive January. One that is, if you’ll pardon the expression, proving to have legs is my attempt to plug some of the gaps in my collection of killer snake films; an effort encouraged by the capture of a long-elusive copy of Cult Of The Cobra occurring synchronously and serendipitously with a cable screening of Cobra Woman. The always-capricious movie gods were, I felt, smiling upon this particular venture.
Now, to be frank, the inclusion of Cobra Woman in this set of films is a bit of a cheat. Despite all the snake-referencing and the pervasive snake-motif in the decor, it is by no stretch of the imagination a snake film in the usual sense: there’s only one real snake on display here, and it doesn’t even get to bite anyone! In fact, Cobra Woman doesn’t fit any of the usual criteria for inclusion on this site, not even those that squeak in as “fantasy”. There’s no magic, no myths, no stop-motion monsters; just people in ridiculous costumes on ridiculous sets speaking ridiculous dialogue in ridiculous accents.
However, if we are prepared to accept as the definition of “fantasy” a film in which not one single aspect of character or story or setting belongs to any kind of recognisable reality, then “fantasy” this certainly is. In fact, Cobra Woman is one of the great cinematic jewels in the diadem of camp, studio film-making as escapist entertainment taken to its most ludicrous extreme.
There’s very little point in talking about the plot of Cobra Woman, but such as it is, here goes: twin sisters separated in infancy battle it out for the rulership of an island kingdom, surrounded by a lot of pidgin English-speaking natives, a papier-mâché snake, an angry “fire mountain” and a comic relief chimp. Little effort is made to flesh out these bare bones. Cobra Woman’s one real claim to fame, script-wise, is its central good twin/evil twin gimmick. Although Lionel Atwill, Boris Karloff and George Zucco had all faced off against themselves in genre films before this, Cobra Woman is the earliest example I can think of, of this phenomenon occurring on the distaff side.
Even so, little is actually made of the film’s central premise. The bulk of the film’s action could have been lifted from any of the serials that even this late in the game, made up part of any good matinee program: the various characters spend much of their time running around and getting sequentially captured and rescued, these episodes being enlivened by the occasional fist-fight or dramatic swing upon a rope. (I will give Cobra Woman this: it may be the only “jungle adventure” in the history of the cinema whose climax is that a volcano stops erupting!)
These episodes are linked by a screenplay that can’t even be bothered thinking through its own back story. We hear about the infant Tollea failing her High Priestess exam by not proving immune to cobra venom (she is condemned to death for this, which under the circumstances would hardly seem necessary!), and hear also about the capture and torture of MacDonald, and his subsequent regaining of consciousness upon his own boat, upon which he also finds a baby girl. The means by which not one, but two miraculous escapes from death row were achieved remain blithely unexplicated.
"Wait.... I thought you were the evil one!"
Being left to plug the gaps for ourselves, we can only infer that the queen, the twin’s grandmother, somehow arranged them. Another mental leap is required for our heroine’s name: “Tollea”, you would think, is hardly what a Scottish sailor would come up with, left to his own devices. Like a cabbage-patch baby, Tollea must have come with her own certificate of authenticity.
(One more inference lurking in all this is that the girls weren’t named until after the cobra venom ceremony: calling the High Priestess “Naja” is the one remotely clever thing on display here. “Tollea”, conversely, must be native-speak for “loser”.)
If we are going to compare this film to a Saturday serial, it must be admitted that even by these undemanding standards, Cobra Woman’s good guys are a pretty lacklustre bunch. Ramu, our bare-chested, two-fisted hero, actually contributes nothing but a little assistance to Hava during the climactic brawl; Tollea’s confrontation with Naja ends not with the bitch-slapping we’ve all been eagerly anticipating, but with Naja’s accidental death without a hand being laid on her. Subsequently, Tollea’s attempt to rescue the condemned Ramu and Kado fails dismally when, upon being confronted by the cobra around which, as “Naja”, she is expected to dance, she faints dead away; and it is left to Koko the comic relief chimp to actually save the prisoners’ sorry asses.
To make things worse, it is then Kado, not Ramu, who saves Tollea from the cobra, and Hava who disposes of Martok, the evil “law-giver”. Ramu, left to his own devices, can’t tell Tollea and Naja apart, not even once he knows for sure he’s dealing with twins. Kado, conversely, takes one look and rightly pegs Naja as being “pretty like Tollea, but with a mean face”. (To be fair, Martok, who is in love with Naja, can’t tell them apart either: Tollea is able to fool him by tagging each sentence she speaks with Naja’s catch-cry, “I have spoken!”) Heroism as Informed Attribute© is certainly nothing unusual, but you’d go a long way to find a more uninspiring pair of heroes than Tollea and Ramu. In fact, their one outstanding characteristic, as we shall see, is their utter selfishness in the name of love.
"Oh, darling! I can't wait to run away with you and completely abandon everyone who's depending on me!"
There does, however, come a point at which applying normal forms of cinematic judgement to something like Cobra Woman becomes an exercise in futility, albeit an amusing one. Here, as so often, the devil is in the details: in all sorts of ways that its creators never intended, Cobra Woman is idiotically entertaining. Just try, for example, to figure out the structure of the ruling family on Cobra Island, or the actual hierarchy of power operating there. Naja and Tollea’s grandmother is “queen of the island”, but no king, prince or princess is in evidence. The queen is no more than a figurehead, held in utter disregard by her granddaughter – until Martok presses Naja to marry him, and she objects that such a thing is impossible without the queen’s consent. When said consent is not forthcoming, Martok murders her: so much for that.
The issue of who might perform the marriage ceremony is never touched upon. When Tollea, posing as Naja, tries to stop Ramu’s execution, the jealous Martok insists that it is his business, not hers: “Enforcement of the law is my concern; religion is yours!” – an odd distinction, where all the laws seem to stem from the religion. (Perhaps the “execution of all strangers” statute is the one exception....although there is never any attempt to explain why MacDonald was tortured but not executed, while Ramu is to be executed without torture. Except, you know, IITS©.)
As High Priestess, Naja is all-powerful, relieving both her boredom and her sadism by slaughtering her followers with impunity, and justifying her excesses with the line, “It is the Cobra tradition! I have spoken!” Yet when the queen is imploring Ramu not to interfere with her scheme to replace Naja with Tollea, it is made clear that most of Naja’s games, including the selection of two hundred sacrificial offerings to “the fire mountain”, are made up on the spot. (“She says ‘go’ and they die without question!?” Ramu objects, not without justification.)
Loopiest of all, however, is the queen bringing Tollea back to Cobra Island to challenge Naja’s High Priestess-ship on the grounds that she, Tollea, is the eldest and therefore High Priestess by right of birth. It is already been made quite clear that immunity to cobra venom rates higher than primogeniture in the Cobra ritual. If so, on what grounds is Naja to be challenged? If not – why the heck wasn’t Tollea High Priestess in the first place??
Considering the gravity of the situation, Naja decided to wear one of her more understated outfits.
The lengthy Tollea/queen and queen/Ramu scenes highlight another delicious idiocy of Cobra Woman: the range of accents on display here, and completely inappropriate way they are dispersed. First of all there is the queen herself, who speaks not just perfect English, but perfectly English English – ’cos, you know, she’s a queen. Mysteriously, her granddaughter, Naja, speaks with an impenetrable Spanish accent....and still more mysteriously, so does Tollea, despite having been raised from babyhood by a Scotsman, with help from an Irish priest. Ramu, on the other hand, whose origins and presence on Harbour Island are never touched upon, speaks with an American accent, his Indian name notwithstanding.
All these characters do, at least, get to speak their language correctly. Beyond this – below this, we might more truthfully say – there is no “native tongue”, as such: everyone else is forced to speak pidgin-English of the humiliating “fire mountain angry!” variety; even Kado, who has been educated at “Father Paul’s school”. This is not without its amusing side, as it gives us such touches as Naja’s handmaidens, who speak pidgin-English with Brooklyn accents; and the performances of Lois Collier as Veeda, who intermittently forgets that she’s supposed to be leaving out all her prepositions, and Edgar Barrier as Martok, who doesn’t seem to have ever been clearly directed as to whether he was supposed to be leaving his out or not. The one sad and unfunny exception in all this is Hava, with Lon Chaney Jr, scant years after his twin triumphs in Of Mice And Men and The Wolf Man, already reduced to the embarrassment of mute henchmen roles.
And as go the accents, so too go the skin tones: all the leading citizens on both Harbour and Cobra Islands, which we take to be situated somewhere in the Indian Ocean, are, of course, Caucasian, whether “native” or not; and the higher up the social scale, the paler the skin.
(For the record, Maria Montez was born in the Dominican Republic of a Spanish father and a Dutch mother, and Jon Hall in California of an American father and a Tahitian mother; both of them thus sufficiently “exotic” in the eyes of whitebread Hollywood to be condemned to spending their careers trapped in sarong-draped epics like this one.)
THRILL to the seamless special effects!
More dubious still are Cobra Woman’s uneasy religious underpinnings. When we first meet Ramu and Tollea, we find that they are in the habit of doing Ruth-and-Naomi with one another, with the “And thy God, my God” part falling to Tollea. The suggestion here seems to be that both of them are recent converts to Christianity, but given the prominence of “Father Paul” in the affairs of Harbour Island, this seems unlikely: if there is any form of native religion left on Harbour Island, it never rates a mention. (Given her upbringing, you would expect Tollea’s feelings of religious conflict, if any, rather to be between Scotch Presbyterianism and Irish Catholicism, than Christianity and Paganism.) Later on, this ostensibly religious reference turns out to be nothing more than a way by which Ramu can tell the difference between Tollea and Naja.
Or does it? When Ramu is brought to the queen, she begs him to sacrifice his love and leave Tollea on Cobra Island, for the benefit of “thousands of souls who need her more than you do”. Ramu’s immediate reaction is to shrug off the fate of the islanders as none of his concern – but when Tollea has been instated as High Priestess at the end of the film, Ramu departs quietly and leaves her there. So he thinks. Halfway back to Harbour Island, Ramu again discovers a stowaway, Tollea justifying her desertion of her people (who have, within a twenty-four hour period, lost their queen, their law-giver, and two High Priestesses!) with another recitation of Ruth-and-Naomi. Given Ramu and Tollea’s “true love” – yecchh! – we’re supposed to acquiesce in this monumental piece of selfishness, but it leaves a pretty sour taste in the mouth. Evidently Father Paul’s teaching of Christianity never got up to the part where, just occasionally, you’re supposed to give a crap about someone other than yourself.
Hmm. Well, we seem to have wandered into some unnecessarily murky waters here. Sorry. Another instance of my terrible habit of trying to find substance in fairy-floss. But just because I have trouble parking my brain in neutral, that’s no reason why you should. Because Cobra Woman is, indisputably, fairy-floss; fairy-floss par excellence; a glorious example of Hollywood film-making at its most flimsily fabulous. Don’t think about it: just settle back and let your eyeballs and your sense of humour feast. The eyeballs come first. This is one of those films where in the opening credits the words IN TECHNICOLOR are almost as prominent as the names of the cast, and with good reason. Between them, the art direction and costume design of this film could induce retina burn.
"She who laughs at my wardrobe...DIES!!"
With a plasterboard volcano spitting in the background and plasterboard palaces looming in the foreground, Cobra Woman takes place in a world not merely of fantasy, but of drug-induced phantasmagoria. We hardly have time to wonder, as Maria Montez parades around before us in an ever-increasingly outrageous collection of outfits and head-dresses and high heels, where the “primitive” people of Cobra Island get their materials....let alone their designers. Cobra Woman is a film that holds pride of place in the camp lexicon, and no wonder: the unapologetic extravaganza that is Maria Montez’s wardrobe is truly its own justification.
(Speaking of the film’s costume design, I must not let this review close without mentioning its attempt at sparing the delicate feelings of the 1940s movie-goer: Koko the comic relief chimp, whose prominent role in the action of this film speaks volumes for the abilities of his human co-stars, is forced to perform while wearing a nappy! Oh, it’s an exotic nappy; paisley-patterned, no less; but you just know that it had its origin in the same mind-set that, around the same time, insisted upon Tweety Bird putting on feathers.)
And it is here that we reach, not just the highlight of Cobra Woman, but The Apotheosis Of Maria Montez as, in a prelude to the selection of the next round of ritual sacrifices, Naja performs – The Cobra Dance!!
There are hardly words adequate to describe the demented splendour of this sequence. Naja’s ceremonial dance plays like a deliriously camped-up cross between Barbara Stanwyck’s hip-swinging performance to “Drum Boogie” in Ball Of Fire and Rita Hayworth’s mock-strip to “Put The Blame On Mame” in Gilda (and was, unmistakably, the inspiration for Divine’s stage-act in John Water’s Female Trouble).
As Naja twists and writhes and booty-shakes around her stage, dodging the frenzied lunges of her consort, the king cobra, and melodramatically singling out victims for the next round of sacrifices to “the fire mountain” – all of them attractive young women, we note – Maria Montez’s performance reaches a level of kitsch for which, even to this day, no adequate form of measurement has been formulated.
After the disappointment of Little Timmy And The Shebangs, Las Vegas welcomed Naja And Her Cobrettes with open arms.
The icing on the cake here is the ritual gesture that the native Cobra Islanders make in response to their High Priestess’s gyrations, raising one arm and kind of wriggling their wrist: they’re certainly supposed to be making the universal symbol of the snake here, but the ultimate effect is a suggestion that Naja’s followers consist primarily of a gathering of extremely effete Nazis.
(We learn via Martok that one of the accusations against Ramu is “laughing at our faith”. If that’s a capital offence on Cobra Island, it’s a wonder there’s anyone left standing.)
In comparison to Naja’s solitary splendour, what ought to be the other highlight of Cobra Woman – the confrontation between the two Montez-es – is a distinct letdown. Everything we know about the good twin/evil twin mini-genre – not to mention the usual workings of the male mind – leads us to expect a knock down, drag ’em out cat-fight when Tollea and Naja finally meet. What we get instead is a minor verbal altercation that terminates with disappointing abruptness when Naja, lining up her sister with one of the spears that she likes to keep handy, forgets herself and backs a little too close to an exceedingly low balcony. The only compensation for this lack of a pay-off is that this scene is the source of the all-time immortal Maria Montez “line” – “GEEV MEE THAHT COBRAH JOOL!!”
(Fond as I am of this line, I must say that the moment in Cobra Woman that always pushes me over the edge is that which sees Edgar Barrier shrieking in high-pitched hysteria, “HE KILLED KING COBRA!!!!”)
Cobra Woman as a strange nexus of a film, a prime example of the cross-currents extant in the heyday of the studio system; of the strange bed-fellows that could be created by forced studio assignments, and of the trials by fire that numerous individuals were compelled to undergo before finding their individual voices.
"GEEV ME THAHT COBRAH JOOL!!"
At the production level it reunited some of the talents that together produced The Wolf Man three years earlier: producer-director George Waggner and star Lon Chaney Jr, both of them taking a considerable step down here, and working with screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s brother, Robert (who, curiously, would later return to the good twin / evil twin device in The Dark Mirror); while Richard Brooks – yes, Richard Brooks: The Killers, Storm Warning, Crossfire, The Blackboard Jungle, In Cold Blood---- THAT Richard Brooks – paid some dues by co-writing the screenplay.
Cobra Woman was also the third re-teaming of Maria Montez with Jon Hall and Sabu, and her second with Edgar Barrier, after her two previous Technicolor pageants, Arabian Nights and White Savage (the latter also written by Richard Brooks!).
As for Maria Montez herself---- Well, what can we say? An actress she wasn’t, but she was unique. We need not dismiss her for her lack of talent. These days the film world is flooded with individuals cast for their vapid good looks, not their acting ability, and who bring with them none of La Montez’s singular compensations. If the career she carved for herself was limited in both scope and duration, it has nevertheless ensured her a permanent niche in the enduring world of Hollywood legend. Of Ms Montez, then, and her inimitable spangles-and-cardboard epics it can be most truly said----
They don’t make ’em like that any more.
Want a second opinion of Cobra Woman? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.