Roger Corman – Accidental Feminist

So, I’ve been pondering the Bechdel Test lately. You know the Bechdel Test, correct? Like it says in that link there, it’s a set of rules created by Alison Bechdel (and Liz Wallace) to determine gender bias in a film. Those rules?

1. The film has to have at least two [named] women in it,
2. who talk to each other,
3. about something other than a man. (Not limited to romantic relationships, for example two sisters talking about their father doesn’t pass)

Passing this test doesn’t make your film good, necessarily. And some really great films have failed the test. It’s there to point out whether a film (good or bad) has interesting women in it who interact with each other.

Since I watch a lot of movies, I ponder this topic a lot. This post, in fact, has been hanging around in my drafts folder since checking out Anita Sarkeesian’s video that came out before the 2012 Oscars. It’s no surprise to me that Hollywood still doesn’t like the idea of creating strong female characters that have their own motivations. It depresses me that it seems to be getting worse (with the possible exception of Pacific Rim? And I hear Gravity is good that way. Don’t know, haven’t seen either yet). For an example of that decline, compare the remake of Clash of the Titans to the original (not exactly a masterpiece to begin with. Thetis, the goddess played by the sharp and beautiful Maggie Smith in 1981, is completely missing from the 2010 version. The female love interest in the 2010 cast, Andromeda (played by Alexa Davalos), might as well be mute.

Surprisingly, though, both films pass Bechdel, thanks to Queen Cassiopeia having to go on about how great her daughter is.

(I also have serious problems with Sam Worthington [buzz cuts were so popular in ancient Greece] as Perseus in the remake, but that’s a different post.)

Contemporary movies aren’t my focus here, though. I want to talk about Roger Corman.

No, really. He’s one of my favorite mediocre directors, and, over the years, I’ve enjoyed watching a lot of his cheap and dirty science fiction flicks from the ’50s.

Gunslinger Poster

His westerns, too.

Alpha Reader and I watch the MST3K version Gunslinger now and then, and it pleases me every time that this sad little cowboy film actually passes the Bechdel Test. Our protagonist (Beverly Garland) takes over as town sheriff after her husband is killed. The antagonist (Allison Hayes) is the owner of the local saloon and a land speculator. The two women have several conversations involving their dislike for each other and the sheriff’s order that the bar close on time and the dancehall girls get out of town.

Gunslinger-1

The fabulous (and sadly short-lived) Allison Hayes facing down Beverly Garland’s loaded revolver. Two women pissed at each other, and it’s not about a man!

Don’t get me wrong, Gunslinger isn’t a good movie. The intrigue concerning the railroad is dumb, and the plot just wanders around killing people. However, it was made in 1956, and its two main characters are women. Badass women, in fact. That was pretty damned rare back then. (Still is, like I said.) (And I’m ignoring the actual titular main character because, well, he’s just boring)

For all of Roger Corman’s flaws (and, oh my, there are many), he wasn’t afraid to create strong female characters, at least at the beginning of his career. Besides Gunslinger, we also have such films as It Conquered the World, Viking Women and the Sea Serpent (aka The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent), and Swamp Women (aka Swamp Diamonds aka Cruel Swamp). Not surprisingly, two of those films also star Beverly Garland as our spunky hero.

She plays Claire, the wife of Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef) in It Conquered the World, taking on the giant cucumber from Venus with only a rifle for a weapon. The critter eats her, but damn, she shows more fire and vim than either her husband or his buddy Dr. Paul Nelson (technically the real hero, played by Peter Graves).

Beverly Garland gunning down the cucumber

Beverly Garland gunning down the cucumber (a phrase that never gets old)

It Conquered the World barely passes the Bechdel Test, when Garland and Sally Fraser (playing Dr. Nelson’s wife Joan) discuss washing the dishes (which, yeah, this is an example of why passing the test doesn’t necessarily mean anything positive). Joan is a standard fare B-movie housewife, but Garland brings her role to another level playing the momma bear ready to do anything to save her man and her marriage and put that damned cucumber in its place. She, and the character she plays, are again badass.

Finishing up the Beverly Garland trifecta, Swamp Women tells the story of a gang of criminals (Garland, Marie Windsor, and Jil Jarmyn) who escape prison (instigated by an undercover cop posing as another crook [played by Carole Mathews]) and go in search of their boyfriends’ hidden diamond stash. They kidnap Mannix (Mike “Touch” Connors) and his whiny girlfriend (Susan Cummings) along the way. Said girlfriend becomes alligator food and everyone fights to touch “Touch.”

Swamp Women

Swamp Women (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Well, it is in color. The poster got that right.

This is probably the weakest of these four films. Incredibly slow (one of those hour-long films that takes three to get done), creaky script, and just silly as all getout. Why do the women decide to cut off the legs of their jeans at one point so they’re all now wearing short shorts? Well, it sure doesn’t have anything to do with the plot.

One of many cat fights the viewer gets to enjoy.

One of many cat fights the viewer gets to enjoy.

But still, Swamp Diamonds (or whatever the hell you want to call it) passes the Bechdel Test, thanks to the diamond hunt. And in this film, we have not one badass chick but four! They can’t save the damned film from foundering, but not through lack of trying.

Finally, we have the only non-Garland film of the lot, but this one makes up for it by starring another favorite of mine from the Corman crew, Susan Cabot, plus many other women. Six Viking women. Six. *insert Count laughter here*

VikingWomen (16)

All aboard! (r-l: Susan Cabot, Betsy Jones-Moreland, June Kenney, Jonathan Haze (not an actual Viking woman), and Abby Dalton (I think))

All these women play a bunch of Vikings in miniskirts whose men disappeared at sea three years prior to the film starting. They decide, through an elaborate spear-throwing contest, to go hunting for those men, building a vaguely Vikingesque ship to do so. Susan Cabot plays the one brunette of the bunch, a cranky priestess who has a thing for Abby Dalton’s man. With the one guy left behind (Jonathan Haze again, playing the blond Ottar this time [known affectionately as Todd to all MST3K fans]) stowing away, they hit the high seas and meet the other titular character.

Apparently, she's not in this poster. No brunettes.

Doesn’t that look exciting and cool?

Yeah, well, turns out the fabulous!spectacular!terrifying! sea serpent is a sock puppet. It wrecks the women’s ship anyway, and everyone washes up on the same shore the Viking men did. There they’re captured by the dread Grimolt warriors.

Dreaded grimholt warriors--the leader gets to wear the poodle suit.

The dread Grimholt warriors–the leader gets to wear the poodle suit.

Much silliness ensues, but the women prove themselves way more badass than their men, the priestess ends up doing the right thing, and everyone gets to escape for home. The leader of the Viking men kills the sock puppet with a little sword, and said reptile kills the bad guys in its death throes.

Does Viking Women and the Sea Serpent pass the Bechdel Test? Just barely. There are three tiny conversations between the Viking women while they’re at sea. Slightly better than It Conquered the World with the added bonus that they don’t involve dishwashing.

What strikes me most strongly, though, is how much tougher the Viking women are compared to their men. Abby Dalton even has a couple of good lines concerning bravery and women.

“The gods are angry only at those who cower in fear. Vikings make their own fate.”

“What’s so terrible about a girl being a good hunter?”

When we finally meet the Viking men, they are the most pathetic bunch you’ve ever seen. Granted they’ve been held prisoner for three years, but still. So damned bland. This is who these strong, capable women have gone in search of and are willing to die for? I would have stayed home with feisty Todd, but that could just be me.

One of the characteristics of the Grimholts are how misogynistic they are in speech and deed. So many films from this era (especially in the B-movie neighborhood) have neutral and good guys spouting woman-hating garbage, too. (more often than not it’s more subtle, but it’s still there) But in Viking Women and the Sea Serpent, only the bad guys do.

So, there you have it: four examples of Corman accidentally doing feministy things.

Am I being an apologist for a man who apparently told the director of Galaxy of Terror to “milk the tits, Bob, milk the tits?” No, no I am not. Corman makes movies on the cheap for one reason only: to make money. He’s had a successful decades-long career doing so. He pretends that there’s an intellectual aspect to his films (he’s a fan of Freud… which, yeah, don’t get me started on that), but he’s also someone who insisted that there be a rape scene in Galaxy of Terror and then showed up on-set to make sure it was filmed the way he wanted (as graphically as possible).

Corman is not a friend of women. Most of his films are standard exploitation fodder that become only more grotesque as censorship loosened up in the ’60s and ’70s. I just find it interesting that in the 1950s, when most B movies would have only one token woman (if any) whose sole mission was to decorate the set and give the men someone to rescue, Corman’s women had their own motivation (connected to men as it might be) and were the directors of their own stories. He earns a couple points for that. Plus Beverly Garland and Susan Cabot!

Beverly Garland from another Corman film Not of This Earth

Beverly Garland from another Corman film Not of This Earth. Pretty sure this one fails the Bechdel Test, but Garland is still cool.

Susan Cabot WITH KITTENS!

Susan Cabot WITH KITTENS!

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