June 24, 2020

“What’s a nice girl like you doing on a rocketship like this?”: Women Astronauts in ‘50s Sci-Fi

Poster - Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond, 1929)
Last year I wrote about how, in spite of societal pressures to restrict women to roles as wives, mothers and homemakers, quite a few sci-fi movies of the ‘50s bucked the prevailing norms and featured strong, intelligent women scientists and doctors who were right there with the men battling all kinds of monstrous menaces. I purposely excluded women astronauts, as this was yet another robust category of sci-fi roles that went against the grain, and I wanted to give them their due in a post of their own.

Cinematic depictions of female pioneering astronauts got a very early start with Fritz Lang’s science fiction epic Woman in the Moon (aka Frau im Mond), which premiered in Berlin in October, 1929. Written by Lang’s then-wife Thea von Harbou, the silent movie tells the story of the first expedition to the moon.

A wealthy industrialist, Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch), becomes interested in Prof. Georg Manfeldt’s (Klaus Pohl) theory that the moon is abundant with gold, and starts planning for a trip to the moon to test the theory. The ship takes off with a crew consisting of Helius, Manfeldt, Walter Turner (representing a rival group of businessmen, played by Fritz Rasp), and Helius’s two assistants, Hans Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim) and Friede Velten (Gerda Maurus). After launch, they discover a stowaway in the form of a young boy, Gustav (Gustl Gstettenbaur), whom Helius had befriended earlier.

Lang took great pains to make his moon trip as realistic as possible according to the scientific knowledge of the day. The director brought in rocket expert Hermann Oberth to advise, and the result accurately predicted what many aspects of future space flight would look like. At a time when American Robert Goddard was experimenting with rickety-looking liquid-fueled rockets that could barely travel more than a mile high, Woman in the Moon depicted a multi-stage rocket launching from a pad, and the crew experiencing G-forces and zero gravity. The film is also famous for using the first launch countdown -- added for dramatic tension and adopted decades later by NASA.

The hard science fiction elements serve as a launch pad for more conventional human drama featuring a love triangle between the industrialist and his two assistants, espionage, blackmail, and betrayal. It’s not only remarkable that Friede is part of the crew of the first moon mission (and that the rocketship is named for her), but that she also takes heroic and poignant action to ensure the ship’s safe return to earth.

Gerda Maurus as Friede in Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond, 1929)
Okay, so Woman in the Moon didn't get everything right...

Such a passion for enlisting scientific expertise to ensure the most realistic cinematic spaceship ride imaginable wouldn’t be seen again for decades, until George Pal’s Destination Moon blasted off in theaters in 1950. Based on a Robert Heinlein novel (and co-scripted by the author), Pal’s film had libertarian, anti-government undercurrents amidst all the techno-razzledazzle. And it was definitely a “boys only” affair -- unsurprisingly, no women were selected for that mission. In contrast, the other quasi-realistic space picture that actually beat Destination Moon into theaters that year, Robert Lippert’s Rocketship X-M, featured a brilliant female scientist, Dr. Van Horn (Osa Massen), as part of the crew. To add further fuel to the competition, Rocketship X-M also set itself apart from Pal’s picture with a grim anti-nukes message (see my two part series on the race between Pal and Lippert to be the first to put a movie spaceship on the moon, here and here).

If the sausage-fest Destination Moon had been the only popular moontrip audiences saw that year, subsequent movie space flights might also have been largely male-only affairs. But Rocketship X-M captured a good share of the popular imagination, and Osa Massen’s dynamic, pioneering presence undoubtedly influenced a number of B moviemakers to add women to their spaceship crews.

Just like my previous post on women scientists in ‘50s sci-fi films, I’ve included a very select list of women astronauts -- please use the comments to add anyone that I’ve overlooked. Like last time, each entry lists the astronaut’s resume, her biggest screen moment, and, because the fifties weren’t exactly a high point of female empowerment, the biggest “cringe” moment of embarrassing sexism.

Rocketship X-M (1950)
Name: Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Osa Massen)

Resume: Dr. Van Horn is a distinguished chemist and assistant to moon mission commander and lead scientist Dr. Eckstrom (John Emery). Her research into “monatomic hydrogen” has resulted in a fuel concentrated and powerful enough to enable interplanetary spaceflight.

Biggest screen moment: SPOILERS! After a disastrous encounter with the savage remnants of an ancient Martian civilization that leaves two crewmembers dead and the navigator (Hugh O’Brian) injured and delirious, Van Horn and the pilot, Col. Floyd Graham (Lloyd Bridges) manage to lift off from the Martian surface. Lisa does her best to navigate the ship back to earth, but there’s not enough fuel left for a landing. She and Graham get on the radio and inform HQ of everything that went wrong with the mission -- and their theory about the Martians blowing themselves up in a nuclear war -- so that the people of earth can avoid future tragic mistakes.

Van Horn and Graham wax poetic under the light of the silvery moon.

Biggest cringe moment:
Early in the flight, the ship’s engines inexplicably power down. When the crew reports that they can’t find any equipment malfunctions, Eckstrom determines the problem must be with the fuel mixture. He and Van Horn get to work using pencil and paper (!!) to determine an optimal mixture to restart the engines. When their figures don’t agree, Van Horn adamantly insists that she hasn’t made any errors. In overruling her, Eckstrom becomes patronizing: “surely you’re not going to let emotion enter into this!” After she apologizes, he rubs salt in the wound: “[Apologize] for what? For momentarily being a woman? It’s completely understandable Miss Van Horn.” She refrains from saying “I told you so!” when the rocket accelerates exponentially and goes wildly off course, missing the moon entirely and hurtling toward Mars.

Additional notes: Massen, born in Denmark, was working as a news photographer and had plans to become a film editor when she was tapped for a role in a Danish crime film. She was quickly imported to Hollywood at a time when studios were recruiting waves of Scandanavian actresses in an attempt to find the next Greta Garbo. She worked mostly in B movies during the ‘40s, and television (of course!) starting in the early ‘50s. Her other sci-fi/horror credits include Cry of the Werewolf (1944) and a guest spot on the Science Fiction Theatre TV series (1955).

Flight to Mars (1951)
Name: Carol Stadwick (Virginia Huston)

Resume: Carol’s father was a respected physicist, and she has followed in his footsteps, becoming first assistant to the chief engineer and co-designer of the Mars rocketship, Dr. Jim Barker (Arthur Franz). Although she is a computational whiz with responsibilities for calculating navigational trajectories and fuel usage, she is also a whiz at pining hopelessly for Barker, who is more interested in spaceships than women.

Biggest screen moment: Unfortunately, Carol is a wash-out in the heroics department, as she spends almost the entire movie pouting over Jim. However, it’s a Martian woman who ends up saving the day. Alita (Marguerite Chapman) is Carol’s counterpart in the underground Martian civilization that the expedition discovers. She is also the daughter of a famous scientist and a formidable one in her own right. Alita steps in to assist Jim in repairing the ship for its return to earth. Moreover, when she learns that the Martian ruler plans to take over the ship once repairs are done and use it to invade earth, she devises a plan for the earthlings to stall for time while they secretly get the ship ready to blast off.

Virginia Huston as Carol Stadwick in Flight to Mars (1951)
Carol is not happy that shoulder pads have made a comeback on Mars.

Biggest cringe moment:
Mid-way in their trip to Mars, the crew members are sitting around ruminating about the mission, the cosmos, life, and the meaning of it all. When the senior scientist, Prof. Jackson (Richard Gaines) gloomily states that he expects the ship to be his coffin, the rest of the crew dumps on him for being so pessimistic. Carol passionately stands up for the professor: “He’s contributed more than any of us, a real wife, a home, two lovely grandchildren… I’d trade ten trips to Mars for that!”

Additional notes: Virginia Huston, like her character Carol, seems to have preferred marriage and family over career. She retired from acting in the mid-fifties after appearing in a baker’s dozen of movies and TV shows. Along the way, she appeared in the classic noirs Out of the Past (1947), Flamingo Road (1949) and Sudden Fear (1952), and also was Jane to Lex Barker’s Tarzan in Tarzan’s Peril (1951).

Marguerite Chapman kept busy during the 1940s making dozens of B movies. By the mid-fifties she was working almost exclusively in television, appearing in such classic anthology series as Lux Video Theatre and Studio 57. Her last film role was in Edgar G. Ulmer’s sci-fi cheapie The Amazing Transparent Man (1960).

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
Helen Salinger (Marie Windsor)

Resume: The film doesn’t waste any time on character backstories or preparations for the mission. Early on, we learn that Helen is the ship’s navigator on humanity’s very first mission to the moon. She’s apparently so good at her job, she can navigate a complex spaceship and attend to her looks at the same time (see her big cringe moment below).

Biggest screen moment: Alpha (Carol Brewster), leader of the ancient civilization of lunar Cat-Women, informs Helen that they plan on taking over the spaceship with her help and pilot it back to earth -- without the male crew members. When Helen, who is being telepathically manipulated by Alpha, objects that she’s only the navigator and needs the men to help operate it, Alpha’s second in command snickers: “Show us their weaknesses and we’ll take care of the rest.” Helen, staring off into space, responds, “It’s strange, I should care what happens to them… and yet I don’t!”

Marie Windsor as Helen Salinger in Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
“Calling all stations…clear the air lanes…clear all air lanes for the big broadcast!”

Biggest cringe moment:
At the outset, the film tries to generate suspense by showing the crew in their reclining seats suffering from the g-forces generated by the rocket’s take-off. When the ship reaches outer space and the crew start to move around the cabin, the first thing Helen does is to fish out a comb and hand mirror from a drawer and fiddle with her hair. When the mission commander (Sonny Tufts) asks her if the ship is on course, she perfunctorily replies “On course,” without looking at her console and without missing a stroke.

Additional notes: “Queen of the B’s” Marie Windsor’s dark hair and smoldering eyes made her the perfect femme fatale for crime dramas and film noir. Among her better known noirs are Force of Evil (1948, with John Garfield), The Narrow Margin (1952), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). Sci-fi/horror outings were rare, but after Cat-Women she played the enigmatic Madame Rontru in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).

The Angry Red Planet (1959)
Dr. Iris ‘Irish’ Ryan (Nora Hayden)

Resume: Dr. Ryan is a brilliant biologist and zoologist, and the daughter of a renowned scientist (being related to a prominent male scientist seems almost to have been a prerequisite for women scientists of ‘50s B movies).

Biggest screen moment: SPOILERS! “Irish” heroically comes through in a pinch not once but twice. First, she saves the ship from a giant Martian amoeba that’s enveloped it by suggesting sending an electric current through it. Then, after she’s single-handedly piloted the ship back to earth, she comes up with a way to save the life of the pilot, Col. Thomas O’Bannion (Gerald Mohr), who is near death after a portion of the amoeba has attached itself to his arm. Even though she is recovering from shock and exhaustion, she rallies, and remembers an old experiment she conducted with earthly amoebas, also involving electric current.

Nora Hayden and Gerald Mohr in The Angry Red Planet (1959)
O'Bannion helps Irish adjust the straps on her spacesuit.

Biggest cringe moment: During some downtime on the way to Mars, O’Bannion tries out his lounge lizard lines on Iris:
O’Bannion: "You know Irish, you’re the first scientist I’ve ever known with lovely, long red hair."
Ryan: "And you’re the first pilot I’ve ever gone to Mars with. And listen, my name is Iris, not Irish! I never know if you’re calling me by name or nationality!"
O’Bannion: "When I call you by name, you’ll know it!"
A few minutes later, Iris dabs some perfume behind her ears when she thinks no one is looking.

Additional notes: After Angry Red Planet, Nora Hayden’s career largely consisted of guest shots on TV series. She wrote and starred in her last film, The Perils of P.K. (1986), about a former movie star working as a stripper in Las Vegas who has dreams of reviving her movie career. The film had an interesting and diverse cast including Dick Shawn, Sammy Davis, Jr., Larry Storch, Louise Lasser, and Joey Heatherton, among others.

June 8, 2020

Monster Trading Cards: Special Accidental Monsters of the ‘50s Edition, Part Three

Sample trading card, Topps' Mars Attacks series
Another monster trading card set that I recall from childhood is Topps’ Mars Attacks series that was first launched in 1962. The series depicted the Martians blitz-invading the earth in an attempt to colonize it before their own planet blew up. Unlike H.G. Wells’ Martians who hid inside their war machines, Topps’ invaders were out in the open and in humanity's face. They were weird-looking humanoid creatures with skull-like faces, bug-eyes and exposed brains under their clear space helmets. Veteran comic artist Wally Wood contributed many of the designs and pulp magazine illustrator Norman Saunders painted the first set of cards.

In comparison to the Spook theater and Outer Limits sets, Mars Attacks was pretty rough stuff for an eight year old kid. Many of the cards depicted the Martians blasting, crushing, vaporizing and siccing giant insects on men, women, children and even family pets.

I didn’t collect the cards myself, because they wouldn’t have gone down well with my parents, but I remember some of my bolder friends sharing them with me -- either their parents were more laissez-faire or they were better at hiding their dubious treasures. I didn’t keep any, but they sure made an impression.

Still, Mars Attacks! (1996)

I saw Tim Burton’s film tribute, Mars Attacks! (1996), when it first came out, and apparently was one of only a handful of people who thoroughly enjoyed the gross-out humor -- critics and moviegoers were not kind. You had to have experienced the original cards to really get the movie.

Speaking of dubious treasures and tributes, here are the last two entries in the Accidental Monsters of the ‘50s virtual card set. Enjoy!

Accidental Monsters of the '50s trading card #5: Teenage Monster (1958)
Teenage Monster (1958). In 1880, a young boy is helping his father mine for gold when suddenly a meteor (portrayed by a 4th of July sparkler) shoots out of the sky and crashes nearby, killing the father and grievously wounding and disfiguring the boy. Seven years later, the “boy” has grown into a powerful, towering hairy beast with the mind of a child. Charles (Gil Perkins) lives with his mother Ruth (Anne Gwynne) in a remote cabin near the mine. Ruth is still trying to find gold, but also has to reprimand Charles periodically for killing unfortunate strangers who happen to cross his path.

When Ruth finally strikes gold and becomes wealthy, she makes the mistake of buying a house close to town, thinking she can still keep Charles hidden and pacified. With his teenage hormones raging, Charles kidnaps a young woman, Kathy (Gloria Castillo) and takes her back to his room. Ruth rescues her, but when she offers Kathy a sizable sum of money to keep quiet, the young woman realizes she has her own “gold mine” in the form of a loyal, harried mother who can be endlessly blackmailed. Kathy doubles down on her sinister scheme by befriending Charles and getting the impressionable brute to kill some of the townspeople who have done her wrong.

Fun facts: Teenage Monster has several connections to the classic Universal monsters: 1.) the Teenage Monster’s make-up was done by Jack Pierce, creator of the immortal make-ups for Universal’s Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man; 2.) Anne Gwynne started out as a contract player for Universal in the 1940s, most notably appearing in Weird Woman (1944) as Lon Chaney Jr.’s wife, and in House of Frankenstein (1944); Gil Perkins doubled for Bela Lugosi as the Frankenstein monster in the fight scenes for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).

4 out of 5 Pathos Points for Charles, who is severely let down by the two women in his life -- his loyal but feckless mother, and his sociopathic “girlfriend” Kathy.

Accidental Monsters of the '50s trading card #6: First Man Into Space (1959)
First Man Into Space (1959). Lt. Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) is a cocky, hotshot Navy pilot who lives life to the fullest and often flouts the rules. His brother, Cmdr. Charles Prescott (Marshall Thompson), runs the Navy’s experimental rocket plane program designed to test the limits of man and machine in earth’s upper atmosphere. Charles is leery of sending his brother on another flight, but is ordered by his superiors to let him fly, as he’s considered the Navy’s best test pilot.

Charles’ reservations are confirmed when Dan disobeys orders, turns on the afterburners of his rocket plane, and blasts through the upper atmosphere into outer space. After getting pounded by some sort of mysterious space dust, Dan loses control of the plane. Charles and a rescue crew find the wreckage in a remote part of New Mexico, but Dan is missing. The wrecked plane is encrusted with something that is impervious to X-rays. Charles’ alarm grows as strange reports come in -- first of cows with their throats slashed open and drained of blood, then of a blood-bank nurse killed in the same bizarre way. Charles soon realizes that Dan has paid a heavy price by becoming the first man into space.

Fun fact: This story of an American aerospace program was actually a UK production, originally released in the U.S. by MGM. For the special effects, the producers used the German-Austrian team of Karl Ludwig-Ruppel and Flo Nordhoff, who had teamed up for the previous year’s Fiend Without a Face.

3 out 5 Pathos Points to test pilot Dan for being the first man to test the cosmic Shake ‘n Bake coating, with less than optimal results.

June 1, 2020

Monster Trading Cards: Special Accidental Monsters of the ‘50s Edition, Part Two

Topps' Monsters from Outer Limits trading cards
In my last post, I reminisced about all the cool monster trading cards that companies like Leaf and Topps circulated during the 1960s. I remember collecting Leaf’s Spook Theatre cards (featuring mostly the classic Universal monsters), and Topps’ Outer Limits series.

For kids that took the original The Outer Limits show very seriously (count me among them; more often than not it scared the hell out of me), the Topps cards may have seemed like a joke. For one thing, they colorized stills of the show's monsters and made them look like fugitives from a Superman comic book. Secondly, the brief stories on the flip side had nothing to do with the actual episode the monster appeared in.

In spite of my snooty fanboy reservations, I collected quite a few and enjoyed them in a guilty pleasure sort of way until, like so many collectibles, they vanished into the swirling eddies of space and time.

Without further ado, here is the second set of cards in the virtual Accidental Monsters of the ‘50s series, my tribute to the fun, cheesy trading cards of my youth.

Accidental Monsters of the '50s trading card #3: The Vampire (1957)
The Vampire (1957). A research colleague of small-town doctor Paul Beecher (John Beal) has been experimenting with pills synthesized from vampire bat blood in an attempt to isolate primitive, regressive instincts in the brain. After his colleague dies, Beecher finds a bottle of the pills among the scientist’s belongings and takes it home to analyze. When Beecher gets one of his migraines, his innocent young daughter mistakenly mixes up his regular medication with the experimental pills.

As Beecher starts having black-outs, people around him end up dead with vampire-like bite marks on their necks. To his horror, the good doctor realizes that the black-outs and the deaths are not coincidental.

Fun fact: Director Paul Landres used the name "Dr. Paul Beecher" again for a minor character in his film The Return of Dracula, released a year later.

Pathos rating: 2 out of 5 points
2 out of 5 Pathos Points for Beecher not getting FDA approval for his new migraine treatment.

Accidental Monsters of the '50s trading card #4: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). Wealthy socialite Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes) has a drinking problem and a no-good, philandering, gold-digging husband problem. To add insult to injury, when she reports seeing a UFO and a giant alien out in the desert, she becomes the butt of the town’s jokes. Keenly embarrassed, Nancy coerces husband Harry (William Hudson) into driving her around the desert to find the UFO and prove she isn’t crazy.
When the UFO and the giant show up again, larger than life, Harry panics and peels out in the car, leaving Nancy to an uncertain fate. Nancy soon shows up again at her house, unconscious, but alive. The doctor and nurse attending Nancy are shocked to find that the comatose woman has started growing to gigantic proportions. Unaware of his wife’s condition and not wanting to be bothered, Harry takes up again with his girlfriend (Yvette Vickers) at the local tavern. When the 50 foot tall Nancy wakes up from her coma, there’s hell to pay.

Fun fact: Premiere magazine (now defunct) included the film’s iconic poster in its list of the “25 Best Movie Posters Ever.”

Pathos rating: 3 out 5 points
3 out of 5 Pathos Points for Nancy going after her no good cheating husband instead of running off with someone her own size -- the giant space alien.
 Coming Soon! Stay tuned to this site for the third and last installment of Accidental Monsters of the '50s.