Word Screen Park
Kevin McMahon
Cobra woman A-Z

The anthology concludes with my own account of the 2001 screening at the Egyptian as part of the American Cinematheque's Delirious Glamour of Maria Montez festival.

 

BEGINNING

Cobra Woman, screen play by Gene Lewis and Richard Brooks; from an original story by W. Scott Darling; directed by Robert Siodmak; produced by George Waggner for Universal. At Loew’s Criterion.

That beautiful land of nowhere which Universal has carved out of the blue for the recently recurring caprices of Maria Montez, Jon Hall and Sabu again rocks to exotic music, the solemn boom of gongs and the rumble of the great Fire Mountain in Cobra Woman, which came to Loew’s Criterion yesterday. And again the submissive audience is witchingly rocked to sleep with as wacky an adventure fable as was ever dished up outside the comic strips. For the story of Cobra Island is being hissed through Universal’s glittering teeth—glittering, that is, in Technicolor. And anybody who doesn’t believe it can take a hike.

Cobra Island, we hasten to inform you, is ruled by a viperous doll who snake-dances in the sacred temple, surrounded by a bevy of night-gowned toots. She also sends levies of her subjects to be tossed into the fire and generally behaves so that no one will vote her the most-popular-girl in her class. So it is not in the least surprising when a hurry call is sent for her beautiful and gracious twin-sister to come home from someplace else and grab the throne. It is not in the least surprising—and not in the least out of line—that the good one should be accompanied by her ardent fiancé, Mr. Hall, himself appropriately accompanied by Sabu and a chimpanzee. And it is not in the least implausible—provided you’re with us up to now—that the whole kit-and-kaboodle should fight like wildcats before the island is finally freed.

Do you want to know any more about it? Do you want to know that Miss Montez plays dual roles--those of the good twin and the bad twin—without a trace of distinction between? Do you want to know that the Dance of King Cobra is howling honky-tonk and that the intelligence level of the whole thing is that of the chimpanzee? If you do, we solemnly counsel that you go to see the film. It is better than the funny papers, on which it was obviously based."(Bosley Crowther, "Snakebite Remedy," New York Times, 5/18/44)

COCTEAU

Incredible death of Maria Montez—heart attack in her bath, drowns. Jean-Pierre [Aumont] was out with the little girl. (Jean Cocteau, diary entry for 9/8/51)

DISCOVERY

Juvenile does not equal shameful and trash is the material of creators. It exists whether one approves or not. You may not approve of the Orient but it’s half of the world and it’s where spaghetti came from.

If Maria Montez were still alive she would be defunct. She would be unable to find work …. We lose them—our creatures.

Corniness is the other side of marvelousness.

I finish this article—a friend, David Gurin, came to tell me ‘I came to tell you, tonight I saw a young man in the street with a plastic rose in his mouth declaiming—I am Maria Montez, I am M.M.’ A nutty manifestation, true—but in some way a true statement. Some way we must come to understand that person. Not worth understanding perhaps—but understanding is a process--not the subject it chooses. But that process has a Maria Montez dept. as well as a film dept. and you bought this magazine for a dollar. (Jack Smith, "The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez," Film Culture, no. 27, Winter 1962)

DISSEMINATION

Peerless … classic … not a single sane moment. (Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, circa 1977)

NOSTALGIA

Cobra Woman: The wiggiest of World War II allegories (and source of half the Jack Smith Aesthetic) has a good Maria Montez battle a bad Maria Monetz for control of Cobra Island. Plus: Albert Dekker as the ultimate mad scientist in Dr. Cyclops, August 14, Film Forum 2, 209 West Houston Street, 727-8110. (J. Hoberman, "Listings," Village Voice, 8/20/91)

RETROSPECTIVE

Daughter of a Spanish diplomat and a Dutch refugee, Smith’s lifelong muse grew up in the Dominican Republic, acted as a teenager in Europe, modeled briefly in New York, and, in 1940, landed a contract with Universal more on the basis of her exotic beauty and flamboyant self-promotion than any discernible acting talent. Cast by producer Walter Wanger as Scheherazade in Universal’s first Technicolor production Arabian Nights (1942), Maria Montez enjoyed considerable, if brief, popularity in a series of follow-up vehicles, including White Savage (1943), Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, Cobra Woman, Gypsy Wildcat (all 1944), and Sudan (1945). Then the Montez career faltered. The temperamental star was relegated to black and white, replaced by Universal’s ‘Queen of Technicolor,’ Yvonne De Carlo. After starring in the independent Siren of Atlantis (1949), Montez left Hollywood for Europe where she appeared in several French and Italian productions, some with her husband Jean-Pierre Aumont. On September 7, 1951, she suffered a fatal heart attack while taking her daily reducing bath.

According to playwright Ronald Tavel, another Montez partisan who first encountered Smith in the intellectual Casbah that was the early ‘60s Lower East Side, Smith had been working as an usher at the Orpheum Theater in Chicago in 1951 when the publicity caused by Montez’s untimely death inspired the management to undertake an extended festival of her wartime films. ‘It was then and there,’ Tavel would write, that the 19-year-old Smith ‘became familiar with the star whom he has since referred to as The Wonderful One or The Marvelous One. He felt that all the secrets of the cinema lay in careful study of the woman ….’

The chief designer at Universal during the 1940’s, Vera West was credited with creating the costumes for the most successful Maria Montez vehicles. West left the studio in 1947 (as did Montez) and was found, several months later, drowned in the swimming pool of her Hollywood home. A cryptic suicide note explained that she was ‘tired of being blackmailed.’ (J. Hoberman, "Jack Smith: Bagdada and Lobsterrealism," The introduction to Wait For Me at the Bottom of the Pool, 1997)

THE SCENE

This is the pinnacle, the point. It happens twice—three times?—in the movie. It is a difficult problem: accounts of delirium invite scoffing. "It was so, for you" the reader retorts, implying "So much the worse for you." The words acquire the character of a rant, and the reader begins to disbelieve his author, with fatal results. The author has lost his head, lost his way. I suppose most pleasures are embarrassing. The stilted irrelevance of most art criticism comes from its attempt to argue the virtuousness of the object of the critic’s pleasure, and the viciousness of what he dislikes. And what can you say when the prompt of your pleasure, even to yourself, is conspicuous in its lack of art, ingenuity, skill … virtue, in a word?

Imagine within the frame of the screen, a stage: props, audience. The performers entered the stage: corps de ballet, male character parts, prima ballerina. The theater audience tittered at the sight of the stage throne: a cushion situated under the arc of an arching, gilded, plaster cobra.

The audience in the movie cried "Cobra! Cobra! Cobra!" Around me, the movie theater echoed with cries of "Cobra! Cobra!" The screen audience made the Cobra Salute; here and there arms flew up with fingers pinched together to a point, and executed a little wave.

Supers carried in an ornate box. Opened, out popped a big snake. Dialogue subsided, and the music became louder. A pastiche of the Ritual of the Elders section, and other sections, of Rite of Spring. Strangeness, expectation. It gathered momentum. The theater grew silent, waiting.

MM stood apart from the others, removed her robe. Revealed a glittering, tight gown of pale-pistachio and avocado square scales. It was hideous, outrageous, irreplaceable. The theater exploded in a universal shout of laughter.

The music acquired a steady pulse. MM swayed her hips, bent her arms, waved them up and down. Whoops of mock titillation rose throughout the theater.

MM attitudinized, struck poses for the two audiences’ admiration. Suggestion of introspection, vulnerability. The theater crackled with furious sorties of laughter, clapping.

There was an abrupt switch in tone: MM’s arm suddenly lashed out and she wiggled an obsidian claw at one of the spectators in the film. Outcry in the movie and in the theater. Goons grabbed the pointed-to person and carried him (her?) off, screaming. Screams in response. It was clear they were being taken to a horrible death. The import of the thing dawned on the theater audience. The images of open-mouthed screaming on the screen were matched by hundreds of open-mouthed howls in the theater.

MM lashed out again, another spectator was seized. Screams upon screams rose in volume, as the music became louder, more emphatic. And in the theater the howls became a continuous roar. It became so loud in the theater, that all around me I noticed head turning to head. The whispered exchanges added private giggles within the public uproar.

MM’s dance became more animated, her gestures more violent. The redoubled noise and stroboscopic flash stunned the theater back into silence. The camera pulled back to show her striding the stage, with a violent, grotesque gait, pointing wildly left and right. A renewed burst of laughter. The excellent sound system of the Egyptian Theater began to betray the shoddily recorded quality of the original. Audience members exchanged glances of astonishment, horror, which perhaps were not mock. The din became terrific. The music grew even louder. The montage accelerated, glimpses become briefer and briefer: claw, scream, scowl, abduction, leap …. The laughter, which had been the continuous roar of the ocean, became that of a wild storm.

MM began to spin. As she spun, her arms flew out in all directions. Throughout the theater, claques were now convulsed. It was not really laughter being produced, but a howl, a vocalise. One after another screen victim screamed, and disappeared. The audience began to loose track of the film. Tears blurred the montage, as the montage became a blur of images: pointing, gasping, howling, pointing--again and again, accelerando. At the point of physical exhaustion, out of breath the audience caught itself, steadied itself, anxious not to miss what comes next.

And on the screen MM collapsed: finale, silence, the number was done. Gasps. And then a roar echoed within the theater--raw, violent joy. Cascades of grateful applause. Cheers. Arms everywhere rose in the Cobra Salute, in imitation of the giant silvery-gray arms on the screen.

On the screen, a glimpse of outsiders who have been spying in. They are horrified: the shocking inhumanity of it all.

Such a response, it is perhaps not unjust. What are we to make of these rigid-arm salutes? The glee with which the mob greeted a scene of genocide? This is it, the crown of the whole film—the crown of perhaps the whole genre? In outline it seems shoddy, racist, dismal.

This screening went as the three or four other screenings I have attended went. I have never seen the Cobra Dance of Death fail. It is the one part of Cobra Woman the movie that fully meets the expectations produced by Cobra Woman the legend. There are long, dry stretches, that are strictly for connoisseurs, during which the silence of the theater becomes unnerving. An air of disappointment at how spotty the fun really turns out to be. Because so few have actually seen the movie, because it is so rare and unobtainable, during these scenes I can imagine the agony of the hosts who have cajoled friends to partake of it. And their relief when finally arriving at the Dance. Then they are vindicated, their friends hasten to whisper their thanks at being included in the party.

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