Wednesday, February 23, 2011

WILD WOMEN (1951)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, cosmological*

WILD WOMEN (aka BOWANGA BOWANGA and many other titles) seems to be the only work of Argentina-born writer-director Norman Dawn that has survived in the hearts of bad-movie lovers everywhere. I consider myself fairly well versed in the reputations of the great, near-great, and somewhat interesting ranks of Hollywood B-movies, but aside from WW nothing on the list of Dawn's credits is familiar to me.

The phenomenality here is like that of the earlier-reviewed TARZAN THE TIGER, being another tale of mysterious Africa-- wherein the biggest mystery is "where the hell did all these white native people come from?" This film, concerning a lost tribe of white (and permanent-waved) Amazon women, fits my uncanny-trope "exotic lands and customs."

Given the film's adventurous trappings, one might be tempted to call it adventure (even if the film's overall effect is comedy, particularly at the end). But structurally the focus is not the white-hunter heroes, whose only object is to escape being killed, but the Amazons, who, contrary to the poster above, actually do know what men look like and are seen to keep a few as slaves (though the scene with the tribe's men is just one of many time-killing "stock footage" shots). In my system, any time one is focusing more upon a monstrous being, or set of beings, one is dealing with the mythos of drama, or more properly melodrama.

I imagine talking about Fryean mythoi and Campbellian functions in concert with such an unremittingly cheesy flick probably sounds like the height of pretension. Let it be said that not for an instant am I claiming any *auteur* status for either Norman Dawn or his one semi-memorable creation, and I don't imagine anyone involved with the movie thought of it as anything more than cheese. But somehow, in the rush for exploitation, he did touch on a few more resonant ideas than did the majority of Hollywood "potted-plant" jungle-thrillers.

For example, whereas many such thrillers never vary from presenting as heroes the stalwart white-hunter type, Dawn does get some interesting comic mileage in that his two beefy male heroes are accompanied by a comedy-relief squirt (Don Orlando, whose career seems to consist of "funny Italians"). This shrimpy fellow naturally "comes up short" when he meets the Amazons of Ulama, who are tall enough to dangle Orlando's character above ground. As for the women, one of the beef-heroes describes them as being as "strong as oxen," which is a nice reversal.

The relative strength of the Amazon women is atypical for Hollywood. Previous Hollywood takes on Amazons (such as 1945's TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS) generally portray a group of hot babes who wave their spears about on occasion. Here, the Amazons are still hot babes, but they're babes who can fight. The Queen (Dana Wilson, who'd later marry Cubby Broccoli of JAMES BOND film-fame) doesn't bother to give the short guy a trial, but does order the two beefy explorers to prove their mettle in Amazon wrestling-matches. Surprisingly, given that Mrs. Peel is about 15 years away while Xena won't appear for two generations, one of the stalwart white-hunters actually gets his ass kicked by a leggy Amazon. The other stalwart guy saves the reputation of American manhood somewhat by winning his bout, but-- oops, now he has to marry the Queen, while Short Guy has to be sacrificed to the Amazons' fire-god. When the bridegroom protests, the Queen shows she's no slouch either, giving him a couple of good belts that put him on the floor.

Fortunately for the guys, one of the females decides to help them escape, and after the hunters scare off the Amazons with a fireworks display, off go the heroes and their new friend, singing a merry tune that, once again, shows how seriously Norman Dawn took this whole thing.

And yet, though the film is a silly piece of cheese, I like the Amazons' no-nonsense eugenics credo: "Weak man; gift to fire god! Queen take strong man!" Though the Amazons can barely be called a "society" in the true sense (though I do consider that they fit Campbell's sociological function), their group also symbolizes the female animal's desire to mate with the strongest to produce the strongest children. Thus, however dim its execution, Dawn's opus does reference the Campbellian cosmological function, which deals (as I read it) with all the things that go into making an orderly physical cosmos-- including crude eugenics.

I also think it's interesting that Hollywood B-flicks began playing a bit more with images of Amazons, pirate queens, and other fearsome females in the years after American men came back from WWII. But that's another story.

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