FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Despite the “second wave of horror” at Universal Studios in the 1940s, the bosses who succeeded the Laemelle regime invested most of their efforts in other genres. Some genres appealed to the 20th-century moviegoer’s yearning for exotic times and climes, usually far outside the civilized worlds of Europe and the U.S. A popular subgroup of such exotic adventures took place on isolated islands, in places like Tahiti and Pago Pago.
Most of these island-movies were ephemeral, but COBRA WOMAN is one of the few that’s kept some kind of cinematic reputation, even it’s of the “so bad it’s good” variety. It’s also a little better remembered today than most of the oeuvre of Maria Montez, who achieved stardom after the success of 1942’s ARABIAN NIGHTS. COBRA WOMAN featured an array of Technicolor sets and costumes, all under the aegis of A-list director Robert Siodmak, so Universal certainly wasn’t cheaping out on this particular bit of exotica. If COBRA WOMAN is “bad” at all, it would only be in comparison to less escapist fare. It’s a film full of romantic excess, and on its own terms it’s not so much bad as somewhat derivative.
The film begins on a particular South Sea island where young Tollea (Montez) has been raised from childhood. She’s soon to be married to a young white sailor, Ramu (Jon Hall, who had co-starred with Montez in ARABIAN NIGHTS and who would later play a guy named “Ramar” in a 1950s teleseries). On the eve of her nuptials, her sole parent, a Scottish skipper, descants on how he discovered Tollea as an infant foundling, smuggled aboard his ship after the skipper left the fabled Cobra Island. Despite having had a crusty old Scotsman as her father and mother, Tollea seems every inch the sarong-wearing South Seas siren, and apparently her future husband plans to settle down with her in her own territory rather than his taking her back to the States. As part of the package deal, Ramu also gets the equivalent of an annoying “little brother”—Kado (Sabu), who hangs around Ramu and the Scotsman whenever possible. It’s Kado who first encounters a mysterious stranger on the island, a mute giant named Hava (Lon Chaney Jr).
Prior to her wedding-day, Tollea disappears from her hut, and the man who was guarding her—against what, one never knows—is slain. The assailant leaves behind his murder-weapon: a two-pronged knife that leaves wounds on the victim’s throat like the marks of a cobra’s bite. This, and the skipper’s reminiscences about Tollea’s foundling history, lead Ramu to figure out that someone has abducted Tollea and taken her back to the place of her birth. With Kado tagging along, Ramu sets sail for the mysterious isle.
Before the rescuers can arrive, Tollea meets the person responsible for using mute Hava to abduct her: Tollea’s grandmother. (This means that she’s also responsible for the nameless guard’s murder, though everyone pretty much forgets that bit of collateral damage.) Grandma explains that Tollea is one of two twin princesses of Cobra Island, and that one of them was destined to become the high priestess of the cobra-religion. Both girls were exposed to cobra venom. The younger sister, Naja (also played by Montez, sporting a name that means “snake” in Hindu), survived the venom, but little Tollea became sick. Ordinarily this would mean that she would be slain out of hand, but the grandmother preserved the babe’s life by smuggling her aboard the Scotsman’s ship. Now, however, Naja has become a wicked and murderous high priestess, and Grandma, having read her Alexandre Dumas, hopes to replace a bad sister with a good one.
There’s certainly no shortage of wild incidents to keep the tension high. Kado kills both a panther and a cobra with a blowgun. Ramu runs across Naja while the latter’s taking a bath, mistakes her for Tollea, and proves himself so charming that Naja wants to ditch her high priest (Edgar Barrier) for the American stranger. Eventually the twins meet, proving that Montez couldn’t act playing either heroine or villainess. Naja dies, and Tollea is forced to stand in for her sister in performing the perilous Cobra Dance. The local volcano even blows its top when the ritual is botched, but then calms down when the good guys win over the bad guys. The cantankerous volcano doesn’t register as metaphenomenal, but the fictional religion of the island certainly does, as does the peculiar fang-weapon Hava uses.
I called the film “derivative” earlier, and at least one critic, John Stanley, apparently came to the same conclusion, erroneously attributing the original story to H. Rider Haggard. The film clearly credits the story to long-time Hollywood scribe Scott Darling. Yet it’s extremely likely that Darling borrowed a couple of major ideas from Haggard.
One has to do with the specific form of Naja’s tyranny. While doing her cobra-dance before a crowd of worshippers, she goes into an ecstatic state and begins pointing out victims who must be sacrificed to the god. This idea is almost certainly borrowed from the Haggard novel KING SOLOMON’S MINES, wherein a witch-finder—who is, to be sure, a decrepit old African woman—randomly picks out victims from a crowd, simply as a means of maintaining absolute control of the tribe.
The other major idea is that of centering the story around the exotic evil queen, as Haggard did in his equally immortal novel SHE. In the previous Hall-Montez vehicle, the lead actors were the central players, and everyone else in ARABIAN NIGHTS—from the villains to the comedy relief (also played by Sabu)—proved secondary to the story of the lead actors’ romance. But Tollea and Ramu are more like the viewpoint characters of SHE, who exist to introduce the readers to a formidable, somewhat fearsome figure. To be sure, Naja is not a character able to measure up to She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. However, if we assume that Scott Darling alone was Naja’s creator, rather than the writers of the screenplay, Darling did come up with something more than your standard evil queen. Her ritual dance with the cobra may take some inspiration from the Balinese rite in which a young woman actually tries to kiss the venomous serpent without being bitten. Failing that, though, she can also be compared to any number of pagan queens who are ritually “married” to a beast-god, though the god is usually just the product of archaic imaginations. Once Naja is dead and her evil regime has been defeated (in a better-than-average action-scene for this type of film), Tollea and Ramu depart Cobra Island for their marriage. But neither of them captures the audience’s imagination as does evil Naja, the “Cobra Woman” of the title. And just to remain consistent on my combative classifications, Naja represents a combative central character by virtue of the soldiers she controls, since she has no literal power beyond the ability to survive cobra venom.