This installment, we're debuting a new column by our good friend and ace scribe, Bruce Dettman, called "The Way Back Machine." For its maiden voyage, "The Way Back Machine" looks at Those Sci-Fi Gals. So fasten your seatbelts, secure your ship, and prepare yourself for a journey back to the land of yesteryear, when magic was in the air!


By Bruce Dettman

There exists a certain school of perception, culled mostly from early exposure to exaggerated pulp illustrations and further triggered by garish movie poster art, which suggests that women in science-fiction and horror cinema of the 1950s traditionally fell into two distinct categories -- that is to say beyond being physically attractive -- namely those either sacrificed to the predatory whims of the BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters), the walking dead or nature's axe-wielding miscreants, or as intended victims usually saved in the much cliche'd nick of time by the hero, usually her love interest. From such one-dimensional depictions little is suggested in these women in the way of character, intellect, stamina or independence. They are little more than curvaceous props, necessary plot-wise but hardly of great interest save in providing a physical allure. To a certain degree this was also true in the fantasy cinema of the 1930s and 40s when the designated female lead was seen to faint away while being carted off by Kharis the Mummy or shrieking at the sight of The Wolfman. But while this defenseless image was indeed extended into the next decades as far as promotional material was concerned -- fainting heroines, their bodies draped over a giant insect's lethal mandibles or cowering from a fierce Martian -- the reality was a great deal different. In examining the main female characterizations in classic science-fiction films of the 1950s the majority of these characters, unlike so many of their counterparts in mainstream films of the same period, were nearly always portrayed as intelligent, courageous and usually the equal to, if not an improvement, over their brawny but often impulsive and rash male co-stars.

Having grown up in the 1950s where much of my pre-pubescent notion of femininity and womanhood was to a great degree influenced by film -- both old and new -- and television -- all new -- I was particularly attracted to horror, science fiction and fantasy themes. While the monsters and fantastic dilemmas were obviously the main attractions, I also took note of the women in these movies. These were the females I watched as a kid as they helped to wage battle against giant scorpions, vegetable invaders from another planet or pod people. These were the women I admired and who, to a certain degree, shaped, for better or worse, much of my nascent perspective of the opposite sex.

I immediately found much in these brave and resilient heroines to admire and take serious note of, even if I was hardly immune to the more overt and gaudier extremes of certain other showboating actresses. In the latter department there was Allison Hayes, her greatly enlarged -- and exceedingly impressive -- body straddled by strategically placed bed sheets in Attack of The 50 Foot Woman. There was the ultimate trashy vixen, Yvette Vickers, oozing hot sex like a manhole oozes steam and eventually sucked dry by the voracious title creatures of Attack of the Giant Leeches. There was the stupendous Shirley Kilpatrick as the Amazonian space invader in The Astounding She Monster, endowed not only with the sort of cone-shaped knockers that stretched nylon to its limits, but the touch of radioactive death as well (and who always moved backwards from the camera, a retreat made necessary due to a rip in the back of her costume and budgetary restrictions prevented the creation of a second outfit) all of whom certainly got my temporary attention. Still, it was the other women, the brainy, subtle and dependable ones, who in the long run captured my true and lasting interest.

While there are numerous examples of these sharp and resourceful ladies in science-fiction films of the period, I will limit the scope of this piece to just five particular favorites: Patricia Neal, Dana Wynter, Margaret Sheridan, Mara Corday and Faith Domergue.

Patricia Neal, who later in her career went on to numerous impressive features including her Academy Award role in Hud, appeared in Robert Wise's 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still opposite Michael Rennie's space visitor Klaatu. In the film, Ms. Neal plays a war widow supporting herself and her small child (Billy Gray) in post World War II Washington D.C. Neal's character, who Rennie eventually must turn to when his true interstellar identity is discovered, is one of the few level-headed, non-hysterical figures in the entire film. She is intelligent, calm, and intellectually curious and unlike most of the paranoid soldiers, politicians and scientists around her refuses to panic despite the incredible situation she finds herself in. Even after she is brought to Klaatu's spaceship by the alien visitor's intimidating robot Gort, her composure, grace under fire and grasp of the situation shines through.

Dana Wynter, a brunette beauty born in England, in some ways might seem an odd choice for the part of all-American Becky Driscol, the small-town young woman who partners with Kevin McCarthy's Dr. Miles Bennell to resist the invading pod people in director Don Seigel's classic science-fiction film, the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She is refined and poised, almost regally so, but the script explains that she has been living abroad for many years in an attempt to explain away her slight accent. While there is an undeniable delicacy about Ms. Wynter which might seem to work against her in a life and death situation requiring both physical and emotional stamina, she impressively and unequivocally rallies to the cause once the high stakes are placed before her. After the pods have been discovered and their terrifying purpose unveiled, Miles wants Becky to leave, to find safety, but she won't hear of it. She not only remains with him, even helping with a well-targeted scissors when he is attacked by an altered chief of police, but because of her unflagging devotion and refusal to desert their cause, ultimately becomes a pod herself.

Lanky, slightly tomboyish Margaret Sheridan from producer Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World (1951) is probably the most modern of the heroines being discussed here. Her character Nikki, a typical Hawksian woman, is not only the equal of most of the men around her but often eclipses them in intellectual readiness and composure. It is she who comes up with the solution of how to deal with the invading and carnivorous extra-terrestrial, made out of plant-like material, when both the military led by Captain Hendry (Kenneth Toby) and lead egghead Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) are stymied.

"What do you do with a vegetable?" someone asks in frustration.

"Boil it," she responds matter-of-factly.

It is the beginning of the invader's downfall. Kerosene begets electricity.

All thanks to our Nikki.

Margaret Sheridan died young and did not leave much in the way of a memorable film career but if nothing else her work in The Thing established her as one of filmdom's greatest and most impressive sci-fi heroines.

Mara Corday never had the opportunity of appearing in a quality science-fiction picture, certainly not the caliber of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Thing. She was a real beauty, a former model and pinup girl, but beneath the knockout exterior she managed to register strongly with a quiet, sometimes even brooding intelligence. This served her to good advantage in her three sci-fi outings, all of the giant critter variety. In The Black Scorpion she portrayed the no-nonsense and prairie-smart owner of a Mexican ranch smack dab in the middle of a nest of giant arachnids, a biologist assisting Leo G. Carroll in Tarantula and a female scientist in the notorious The Giant Claw helping drab hero Jeff Morrow eradicate the bloated buzzard whose appendage is referenced in the title. It is a testament to Ms. Corday's ability as an actress that she manages to create an admirable and intelligent character in spite of being forced to react to what has been deservedly acclaimed as undeniably the worst overstuffed critter in the annals of 1950s giant monster flicks. While audiences might have split guts laughing at the atrociously designed puppet, they never laughed at Mara. Here, I could see, was a woman with beauty and brains. Finding one of these in my grammar school play yard, of course, was quite another thing.

Faith Domergue was a dark-haired beauty who had been given the big buildup by millionaire producer Howard Hughes but whose much ballyhooed debut in the eccentric producer's Vendetta proved to be a box office misfire failing to excite both audiences and critics alike. The doe-eyed Ms. Domergue persevered, however, and had a busy film and television career for a few years. She could project a kind of smoldering even dormant sexuality but also radiated a cool and detached intelligence, traits that served her well in her various horror science-fiction efforts. Probably best remembered as the scientist accompanying Rex Reason to the planet Metaluna in Universal's 1955 This Island Earth, she projected intellect and a measured coolness. Still portraying a brainy and clinical scientist in Ray Harryhausen's It Came From Beneath The Sea, she once again resonated with a nicely balanced persona of intellect and beauty. Despite going up against a cephalopod big enough to supply the entire Pacific coast with a year's worth of calamari steaks, she remained steady and reliable, undaunted by the challenge although never totally abandoning her natural charms and undeniable sensuality. She also applied these same charms to a villainous character when she portrayed the snake woman in the routine Cult of the Cobra, her presence being the film's only positive feature.

Taken as a whole, despite stereotypes that did not hold up under scrutiny that the women in 1950s horror and science-fiction were nothing more than ornamental offerings to a public expecting simplistic beauty and the beast scenarios and where the men vanquished the monsters and the women quivered and shook in the background, the very opposite was pretty much true. Compared to mainstream films of the same period -- from straight dramas to westerns -- where the distaff side was too often depicted as one-dimensional, weak and without substance other than devotion to their men -- the women cited above -- and many others not referenced -- in the decade's genre movies have stood the test of time, as some of the most emotionally sturdy, mentally adept and physically impressive that motion pictures have ever bestowed upon the movie-going public.

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