Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
Directed by Arthur Hilton
Written by Roy Hamilton, Al Zimbalist, and Jack Rabin
Starring Sonny Tufts, Victor Jory, Marie Windsor, William Phipps, Douglas Fowley, Carol Brewster, Susan Morrow, and Suzanne Alexander
American society had changed during WWII. A shortage of men had brought women into the manufacturing workplace to help with the war effort, and with over 400,000 US casualties a lot of men weren’t coming back to reclaim those jobs. The men who prided themselves for saving the world felt threatened by the new independence of women, and their fear expressed itself in the repressive attitudes expressed as norms in television and films of the time. It can be difficult to recognize this in some of the more popular media, which comes off as merely dated. For your entry-point into seeing the reactionary misogyny of the time you need a clumsy and blatant display of it such as presented in the film Cat-Women of the Moon. As plot details are important to making this point, spoilers for a terrible 63-year old movie abound.
The movie concerns a group of astronauts making the first trip to the Moon. There was a lot of that going on in the 1950s, some of it striving to showcase the dangers of simply making the journey and others that were creature features in space. This is of the latter category, except that the monsters are attractive women in space tights. This small group of women are the remains of a once-thriving civilization that retreated underground as their atmosphere slunk off into space. There is still air underground because gravity is stronger on the dark side of the Moon.
Abandon all science, ye who enter here.
The cat-women of the Moon have been without men for a generation, which could be a rather long time if certain awkward dialog means what I think it does. It’s unclear whether the women were always in command, but it seems likely that they were since women are the only ones left after the mass purge to conserve oxygen. The cat-women have incredible mental powers that only work on other women. Their leader Alpha (Carol Brewster) influenced navigator Helen (Marie Windsor) long before the launch of Moon Rocket 4, teaching her celestial navigation. Alpha also encouraged Helen to date mission commander Laird (Sony Tufts), because he’s the main pilot. Alpha’s plan is to learn how to operate the rocket so that she and a few others can use it to get to Earth. There, they’ll control the world’s women and take over.
Okay, there’s a lot to unpack here. Easy stuff first. Alpha’s dismissal of men, and more particularly the outright man-hating of Beta (Suzanne Alexander), plays into portrayals that date back to at least the days of the women’s suffrage movement. Women aren’t demanding equality but trying to get rid of men. “We don’t need men!” Beta declares vehemently, just to underscore the point. (It’s also a code-friendly way to imply that they’re lesbians, another popular way to attack non-compliant women.) Not only are these women scheming to do away with Earth’s men, but the first part of their plan is to literally take their jobs! Yet these few alien women wouldn’t be dangerous if they couldn’t manipulate the good women of Earth. After all, mind control is the only explanation for women to want out of the house.
The more blatant misogyny above tends to distract from the low opinion the film has of Helen, but it is there and it’s not pleasant. Helen wouldn’t have made it into the flight crew on her own. Acknowledging that it would be impossible to arrange for an all-women team, Alpha states that they focused on getting Helen included by feeding her information. Clearly then, poor Helen would not have been able to master navigation on her own. Even the Moon women think she’s unqualified!
Digging deeper, Alpha’s choice of Helen’s lover demonstrates a further bit of absurd male fear. There are two men who can fly the ship, Laird and co-pilot Kip (Victor Jory). Laird is smart, thoughtful, and relaxed — you know, a wuss. Kip is paranoid, direct, and a stickler for procedures, so he’s dreamy. Picking Laird isn’t about learning from the higher ranking man, it’s the rejection of the man’s man for one that’s emasculated and easier to control. Whenever Helen is free from alien control, her ovaries pull her straight to Kip. The women’s agenda can’t stand against real men, who are immune to their mental powers and their charms. Just about the only thing the filmmakers left in the He-Man Woman-Haters bag of tricks is the one about feminists/lesbians/suffragettes being ugly. Gotta make the ladies sexy for the movies, right? Besides, poor doomed Lamda (Susan Morrow) has to demonstrate that even Moon women can be redeemed by falling in love with a man, and we can’t have our guys romancing any ugly chicks!
I don’t point all of this out because Cat-Women of the Moon is more sexist than other films. It’s assuredly not. Nor do I necessarily believe that the creators were even aware of a lot of what they were tapping into, outside of the most egregious efforts to make the women strident and masculine. This movie is simply so thuddingly obvious about its sexual politics that it’s a great primer for learning how to identify the overt and unconscious ways these themes are presented.
On to the bread and butter! I probably wouldn’t be writing about this film at all if it weren’t for the giant spiders. That’s right, plural. Not that there’s any danger of a mass attack; it’s pretty clear that there’s only one spider prop. It’s a floppy, furry puppet lowered onto its victims by string, waggling its legs randomly. These rather unconvincing space arachnids live in the cave that separates the cat-women’s underground world from the barren surface of the Moon. They’re the only other life around, and since the women don’t seem to fear them you have to wonder what the creatures live on. Each other, maybe.
What delights me most about the Moon spiders is how irrelevant they are. They drop in during the first trip through the caves and are never seen again. Nobody is injured by them, and the bullets used to slay them don’t create a shortage of ammunition. The damn things don’t even come back for the climax, which takes place largely off-screen in the cave. To all appearances the spider footage was added just so something onscreen would actually make use of the 3D print. That and spiders look great on promotional material.
Cat-Women of the Moon is badly written, bafflingly directed, and showcases the biased gender politics of its time — attitudes that are still espoused by many on the far right. It’s also a great deal of fun in the proper frame of mind. It’s the perfect mix of mediocrity, goofiness, and incompetence that makes it enjoyable for repeated viewings, alone or with like-minded crap aficionados. For maximum effect I recommend slowly lowering a shaggy spider prop onto your guests.