Queen of Outer Space (1958)

Directed by Edward Bernds
Written by Charles Beaumont and Edward Bernds
Based on Queen of the Universe by Ben Hecht
Starring Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eric Fleming, Dave Willock, and Laurie Mitchell

What comes to mind when you think about mid-century sci-fi films? Leaden dialog? Clunky robots? Space ships? Misogyny? Queen of Outer Space is not everything you think it will be, but it is in many ways a perfect stereotype of the space adventure genre. At least of one disreputable branch of it.

To understand why this film is so childish, you have to look at its environment. Science fiction films had been around from the earliest days of cinema, and space travel was especially about the effects. Driving on planetary rings, making the Moon cry: the delight of seeing the impossible is a big part of the attraction. But what about those that craved “not possible yet”? Another sort of science fiction appeared on screens, a more procedural approach that emphasized scientific achievement and human drama.

(I recently read a book that claimed the first science fiction movie “not made for children” was in the mid-1930s. In fact, the earliest I’ve seen that can indisputably fit this derogatory anti-description is Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon from 1929, which focuses on then-current realism about rocketry and centers on a love triangle. There are undoubtedly earlier examples that I haven’t viewed, as well as more that I have under less obnoxiously phrased criteria.)

Films like Rocketship X-M (1950) were rightly lauded for turning the science and engineering into the challenge and source of tension. They aren’t everyone’s cup of tea though. While there’s always room for prestige science fiction, the bread and butter of the genre is fun: action, aliens, and adventurous attire. Fare like Buster Crabbe’s 1930s serials of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon kept the wild energy of silent space fiction alive in the talkie era. Shows like 1954’s Rocky Jones, Space Ranger brought a stripped down form of these to the Howdy Doody generation.

Why this abbreviated history of science fiction films? Legend has it that the plot of Queen Of Outer Space was first laid out by Ben Hecht at a party as a joke, lampooning the tropes of space adventure movies. Whatever the truth of that tale, the film absolutely plays as a tongue in cheek distillation of mid-century science fiction. It’s not the sort of comedy one might expect from Edward Bernds, who’d directed several Three Stooges films. (It’s a pity that Bernd’s did not direct the Three Stooges’ own space parody Have Rocket—Will Travel!) Rather, it’s the sort of stylistic parody that’s difficult to tell from the material it’s targeting. To recognize the wink in the production’s eye, you need to know enough about the films of its time to recognize that it’s a heightened example of the genre.

There are no children in this movie. I assume they’re busy making more masks.

The plot is exactly what you might imagine. Male astronauts arrive on Venus and are captured by women. They learn that there are no other men on the planet, which is ruled by Queen Yllana (Laurie Mitchell) and her council—all of whom conceal their faces behind amazingly awful masks. Where are the men? They’ve largely been killed for nearly killing everyone in the last war. The surviving men (not shown) work on a space station (not shown) designing weaponry for Queen Yllana’s forces.

The Queen’s plan is to destroy the Earth before the men of our planet bring war back to Venus, but she does not have the full support of her people. There is a resistance movement seeking to depose Yllana and return the men, and they will join the Earth men to accomplish their goals. These women are led by the scientist Talleah (Zsa Zsa Gabor), who as the only woman on Venus over 40 is allowed to wear a full-length dress.

There’s an awful lot of running about until the finale, in which Earth is saved and the Queen is killed trying to save her planet-destroying nuclear ray gun. There are a few things that happen along the way that I want to talk about. The first concerns the central focus of this site. On the run from the Queen’s guards and radar, Talleah and her companions (a few Venusians and the astro-men) take shelter in the obligatory gold-rich cave. The youngest man, Lt. Larry Turner (Patrick Waltz), wanders deeper into the tunnel and is surprised when a leftover prop from World Without End drops on him. It shouldn’t have surprised him; this movie includes quite a few effects and sets from that one, as well as props and costumes from Forbidden Planet.


What lands on Turner is, of course, a spider. It had seen better days, and a little more screen time, in Bernds’ World Without End. Here it lands on Turner, who gamely attempts to make it look like he’s struggling with the immobile prop. He’s quickly saved by a disintegration ray, and the incident is quickly forgotten about, but don’t worry—the prop will return in Bernds’ Valley of the Dragons! But for now there’s more running around to do!

Space spider from outer space!

The other point to discuss has more to do with the plot of the film and with 1950s science fiction at large. The leader of the Earth men, Capt. Neal Patterson (Eric Fleming), is of course immediately romantically attached to Talleah. Queen Yllana also admires his rugged and manly presence, despite her general contempt for men. One of the early attempts to escape involves Patterson cozying up to the Queen and attempting to play on her attraction to him. It goes so poorly that he finally cries “You’re denying men’s love!” and rips her mask off.

If you’d put your money on “the man-hating Queen is ugly”, you’re right. Sort of. She has radiation damage contained to her face. The interesting thing about this is not the superficial damage but what Prof. Konrad (Paul Birch) surmises. Konrad had earlier deduced that they were on Venus because the air was breathable (meaning that the gravity was basically the same as Earth’s) and he recognized a plant, so his intelligence can’t be questioned. What he says is that the radiation damaged her brain as well. So at the very least her judgement has been clouded since before she led the uprising against the men.

The radioactive weapons of Venus only effect the face. And brain.

On the face of it (sorry) this appears to undermine the “ugly man-hater” narrative device by giving a deeper reason for her actions. Unfortunately, it also takes away quite a bit more. Being opposed to war and suspicious of men is now a symptom of a diseased mind rather than being a pretty understandable reaction to a devastating war. This is somewhat ameliorated by the sentiment of the other women that she wasn’t wrong, but she just went too far—and they’d like some men back now, thank you very much.

It’s hard to tell what this movie thinks about anything. Clearly it finds science fiction movies cliche-riddled, horny, and preposterous. It also gleefully presents a platonic ideal of the films it’s drawn from. That means it’s also cliche-riddled, horny, and preposterous—only more so. Because it’s not an overt comedy, it becomes the ne plus ultra of misogynist 1950s science fiction. Maybe that’s only because no one made a movie of the book World Without Men, in which men are eradicated by an evil lesbian conspiracy.

The Venusian ladies are introduced leg-first.

Queen of Outer Space is super entertaining. It’s frustrating and insulting, indulging in the worst elements of the genres and exploiting the leggy potentials of a large female cast. The film tries to have it both ways, lampooning the genre while being completely submerged in it. In this attempt it largely fails. While some critics of the era recognized its humor, it’s now generally considered to be “so bad it’s good”. If that’s what it takes to get people to watch it, that’s probably good enough. It’s a perfect insincere movie to watch in our post-ironic times.

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