“I hate her! I hate dat qveen!” Despite being one of the most maladroit sci-fiers of the ’50s, color and ‘scope and Zsa Za Gabor’s hilarious accent make this Allied Artists offering a must-see head scratcher. Bad taste! Tacky art direction! Infantile sexist humor! The word on the street is that the Me Too movement has this embarrassing howler on their kill list.
Queen of Outer Space
Warner Archive Collection
1958 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 80 min. / Street Date September 25, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eric Fleming, Laurie Mitchell, Dave Willock, Paul Birch, Lisa Davis, Patrick Waltz, Barbara Darrow, Joi Lansing, Marilyn Buferd, Mary Ford, Marya Stevens, Laura Mason, Lynn Cartwright, Kathy Marlowe, Coleen Drake, Tania Velia, Norma Young, Marjorie Durant, Gerry Gaylor, Brandy Bryan, Ruth Lewis, June McCall.
Cinematography: William P. Whitley
Film Editor: William Austin
Sam Gordon and Ted Mossman: Props
Visual Effects: Jack Cosgrove
Original Music: Martin Skiles
Written by Charles Beaumont, story by Ben Hecht
Produced by Ben Schwalb
Directed by Edward L. Bernds
Yes, this is the one where Zsa Zsa Gabor plays a Venusian beauty, with a thick Hungarian accent. It ain’t art, but it’s guaranteed to get one’s attention.
’50s science fiction film has its high and lows, but the naysayer critics that gave the genre grief never distinguished between the quality product and, uh, lesser achievements. Around 1957 or so, after the big studios had abandoned high-budget projects and the drive-ins were swamped with budget horror / fantasy / sci-fi. The default critical attitude was to lump them all together as infantile junk unworthy of serious attention.
As the decade faded, Allied Artists had all but folded its tent. Impressive AA releases continued through the 1960s, but many of those were co-productions. The B-pictures and series offerings that paid the studio’s bills (e.g. The Bowery Boys) were no longer selling; producer Walter Mirisch had departed to form his own company with his brothers. Mirisch had jumped into the sci-fi craze early with 1951’s Flight to Mars, in Cinecolor. AA returned to sci-fi for 1956’s World Without End, emphasizing the fraternization between spacemen and futuristic show girls, after a desperate space flight. The attraction in World were the leggy leading ladies Nancy Gates, Shawn Smith and Lisa Montell — in costumes reportedly designed by girlie illustrator Vargas.
The appeal of these matinee features derives from older Jungle and Lost Civilization movies, where intrepid explorers find exotic tribes ruled by Amazon queens, sometimes with supernatural powers. One can easily imagine cheapjack producer Al Zimbalist cobbling together his 3-D production of Cat-Women of the Moon with happy thoughts of a ‘space age’ thriller that co-opts the girlie appeal of a burlesque runway. The same threadbare but fundamentally commercial formula must have prompted the appalling Fire Maidens of Outer Space, and later, a 2-D remake of Cat-Women dubbed Missile to the Moon. [I will insert myself into this lofty discussion here by asserting that I saw Missile to the Moon brand new, at age seven. I didn’t follow the story very well but thought the Rock Men were intimidating.]
From all evidence Queen of Outer Space was Allied Artists’ last stab at the ‘space girlie show’ formula, and was initially intended to be a semi-comedy. The genesis of the story idea and screenplay has been distorted by numerous unreliable reports; the version endorsed by Bill Warren and to some degree Tom Weaver is that Ben Hecht had no real input and was used only for the value of his name; and that seasoned sci-fi writer Charles Beaumont tried to do a spoof of no-budget Captain Video-style space opera. It’s possible that Beaumont wanted a tongue-in-cheek, campy style like that already been perfected in ’50s Mad Magazine lampoons of Flash Gordon (‘Flesh Garden’) and Superman (‘Superduperman’). But clever spoof comedy requires thought, timing and a production that isn’t rushing to get scenes into the can at warp speed. The combo of filmic in-jokes and sick humor wouldn’t strike for another year, with Roger Corman’s horror spoofs A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors.
Queen of Outer Space therefore is a silly story about court intrigues on the planet Venus, showcasing attractive Venusian showgirls and randy Earth spacemen who dish out a constant stream of bad jokes that hit new heights of sexism.
In 1985, a crack team of space aces Captain Neal Patterson, Lt. Mike Cruze, Lt. Larry Turner and professor Konrad (Eric Fleming, Dave Willock, Patrick Waltz & Paul Birch) are sent on a secret space mission. But ‘atomic rays’ from an unknown source blow up Konrad’s orbiting space station and propel their ship all the way to the planet Venus. There they are captured by ray-gun wielding Amazon warriors and imprisoned by the cruel Queen Yllana (Laurie Mitchell). Despite her subsequent attempt to seduce Captain Patterson, the bad-tempered Queen Yllana has banished all Venusian males to a penal planet. She’s also eager to direct her Beta Disintegrator atomic ray across space to destroy Earth, just out of meanness. Patterson tries to ply Yllana with romance, but no dice: the mask she wears comes off revealing a horror-face, the apparent source of her man-hating streak.
The Venusian beauty Talleah (Zsa Zsa Gabor) and several cohorts conspire with the Earth men to thwart Yllana’s plans; at one point Talleah assumes Yllana’s identity in a bid to destroy the Beta Disintegrator machine. It looks like curtains for our heroes and heroines, as Yllana prepares to fire her trans-space death ray…
Queen of Outer Space is outrageous all right, but not in any way that can be called good. It’s one thing to make fun of an underachieving picture that’s trying to float a serious story, but another to regard this strange item, that doesn’t know what it is. It’s definitely packed with verbal jokes, but the only fun is laughing at the movie, not with it. Although director Bernds and the cast play the show straight, none of it holds together for a moment. The anarchic Mad Magazine- derived Airplane! wouldn’t arrive for 22 years, and Queen is insufficiently self-aware to be classified as a knowing spoof.
Some say that all of this babes-in-space nonsense began with the comedy Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, which hasn’t much of a reputation. In my memory it was fairly funny — it at least knew what it was trying to achieve, with its parade of slinky showgirls. Sadly, none of the other space-Amazon epics push the girlie angle as hard as does the sword & silk veils hoochie-koo Arabian adventure Son of Sinbad.
The show mostly just sits there, in garish color. The sets are barely more substantial than what would be built for a skit on a TV variety show. Glittery curtains dominate in the palace of Queen Yllana, so that entire scenes play out on what looks like the stage set for Queen for a Day. The set representing the dreaded Beta Disintegrator is just pitiful, and the flat and standoffish CinemaScope lensing makes a colorful, potentially interesting Venusian jungle set just more glittery nonsense arrayed flatly across the screen.
Allied Artists repurposes spaceship shots from World Without End; Joe Dante reports that they were actually filmed for the earlier Flight to Mars, and apparently reformatted for CinemaScope. That same needle-shaped rocket does indeed land in a snowbound set identically in all three pictures. The ship seen launching in official government footage is a real pre-NASA rocket shot flat, and allowed to ‘stretch out’ in the anamorphic CinemaScope format. It looks terrible, and of course does not match the model seen in space.
Sci-fi fans early on realized that the costumes and props on views came straight from Forbidden Planet — various ray guns, the spacemen suits, and even one of Altaira’s better costumes. Forbidden Planet’s occasional corny dialogue seems sophisticated when compared to Queen’s atrocious collection of drivel exposition and lame, offensive jokes about ‘dames’ and ‘babes’: unending sexist cracks about women that can’t drive, can’t do science, that are dishonest with men. Spaceman Turner is a leering wolf and even the 50-ish Konrad comes off as a dirty old man. We learn that the screwy Queen Yllana is horny hypocrite when it comes to sex. Her psychotic man-hating streak condemns her to a fiery demise.
The actors struggle to find a proper tone, but only a few moments succeed. Edward Bernds’ direction plays most of the film in straight pageant mode — sober faces, declarative statements directed at the fourth wall. All the male actors come off as thick-headed dolts, reciting nonsensical science jargon and stumbling over the unfunny sex jokes: “26 million miles from Earth, and the little dolls are just the same.” Patrick Waltz’s Lieutenant gapes and gawks at the babes in a way that’s really unpleasant. All that’s missing is an enlisted spaceman to perform baggy-pants humor and roll his eyes when glomming the dames.
Zsa Zsa Gabor was likely willing to be in this show for one reason — as the star she’d have the marquee all to herself. She’s given a score of attractive dresses, and her hairstyles are carefully tended at all times. She performs as if great acting just means posing and flashing ‘dahling’ smiles. The accent is indeed funny, with ‘W’s turned into ‘V’s, and ‘planet’ pronounced as ‘plant.’ We can easily envision John Huston trying his patience to get a decent performance from Zsa Zsa as the drop-dead-beautiful Jane Avril in Moulin Rouge, by far her best role. Zsa Zsa murdered dialogue throughout her career, and here she reads most of her lines with the same proud, glamorous inflection, regardless of the circumstances: “I hate her! I hate dat qveen!”
The good sport Laurie Mitchell has the plum part of the Queen. When not wearing her foolish mask, she’s revealed in a none-too imaginative gory horror face. Mitchell would one year later be one of the frisky musicians in the ‘Sweet Sue & her Society Syncopators’ band in Some Like it Hot; when Marlyn Monroe was unavailable for publicity photo shoots, legend has it that the perfectly formed Mitchell posed with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, and Monroe’s head was later pasted over hers. That indignity and her lemon-meringue horror makeup in this movie have ‘worthy trouper’ written all over them.
Although there are more space babes in Queen than in any of the other girlie space operas, they aren’t well deployed. All seem to be show-biz pros, va-va-voom lookers that might get a featured bits in a TV show one day, and the next day moonlight opening a supermarket or showing off new cars at a trade show, Vanna White-style. Lisa Davis (just above) and Barbara Darrow have parts big enough to be singled out in the final cast list, while eleven more showgirls make the title credits; they have little to do but march in stiff lines, brandish ray guns and shout ‘Botchino!’ That translates roughly to, ‘Do what I say!’
Gorgeous Marilyn Buferd was one of a few American actresses (Harriet White Medin, Doris and Constance Dowling) who ditched the States and found more opportunities in postwar Europe, landing in good roles in films by Mario Monicelli, Edmond Lozzi, Roberto Rossellini, René Clair, Pietro Germi, Giacomo Gentilomo, and Jacques Becker. On her return home, all Ms Buferd found were a few TV shows. Her only feature appearances are this movie and the hapless The Unearthly.
Equally remarkable is the chief henchwoman of Yllana’s ‘posse,’ Lynn Cartwright (center guard in red, just above). Tall and statuesque, Cartwright enjoyed a long marriage to actor-writer Leo Gordon, and appeared to good effect in some of the movies he wrote, notably 1960’s The Wasp Woman. Her claim to fame came decades later, playing Geena Davis as an older woman in 1992’s A League of Their Own. Everybody remembers how well Cartwright’s performance matched that of Ms. Davis.
The other ‘name’ starlet is Joi Lansing, who goes un-billed as Lt. Turner’s main squeeze back on Earth. Lansing (just above) gets one extended close-up, being hit with a blast of wind and dust at Turner’s spaceship launches. I guess she should have gone back to the safety of the observation blockhouse.
I’ve witnessed screenings of Queen of Outer Space that were a camp hoot — it helps if the audience is pre-primed to appreciate / jeer at Zsa Zsa’s absurd presence, and if they find the inept production and script a plus rather than a ticket to dullsville. It must be said that the bright color, silly sound effects and eerie-cliché music score lighten the experience. In less than optimal presentations, the other B&W Babes-In-Space films of the ‘fifties can look dull and flea-bitten. But as Professor Konrad states, after a ray of unknown origin has propelled their rocket halfway across the solar system, “It would appear that all things are possible in space.”
The Warner Archives Collection Blu-ray of Queen of Outer Space adds another title to the growing shelf of Camp Classics. The excellent transfer accurately reflects the film’s bright colors, while the CinemaScope screen is mostly used to spread the chorus girls across the frame, as if on Minsky’s burlesque stage. They part at frequent intervals to allow Zsa Zsa to saunter seductively to screen center, in a series of knockout gowns.
WB’s Blu-ray transfer is much better than any images reproduced here. On some of the wider shots we do notice the less-than optimal CinemaScope lenses in use. In two of the wider images above one can see the horizontal distortion — actors on the left extreme of the screen are squeezed more than actors on the right. Although CinemaScope corrected their lenses a year or two later, older ones obviously remained in circulation. They were perhaps rented more cheaply, or sold outright to producers who could invent their own process names if they wanted to.
What does perk up the proceedings is an engaging commentary track with Tom Weaver, this time serving as host to Laurie Mitchell, the real ‘Queen’ in the plot. Zsa Zsa didn’t have to worry about sharing the screen with a younger beauty, what with the mask and then the ugly-face makeup job. Ms. Mitchell offers her comments and memories as Weaver goes over what is known about the making of the film. At one point he interrupts the proceedings to present his special guest with a new decorative ‘Venusian’ mask, to take with her to fan convention signings. Then he comes up with some cut dialogue scene pages from the movie, and he and Ms. Mitchell recite them for our edification. It’s nice to have these commentary keepsakes with some of the notables Weaver has interviewed over the years. According to the IMDB Ms. Mitchell is still going strong at age 90.
Two notes on Queen of Outer Space: back at UCLA, the brand-new film archive was presented with nine 35mm Color & CinemaScope prints of the title, I think by Ben Hecht’s widow when she cleaned out her garage. Such a haul was considered useful because the extra copies could be traded with other archives. The only problem was that every print had faded to two tones of purplish-pink. The film school serialized the film one quarter during student screenings week; even in ten-minute doses we all grew plenty sick of it, really fast.
This opus space-us is also the source of one of the more printable jokes from Randy (Randall William) Cook back in the dorms: at one point Zsa Zsa shows her captives the pitiful boxy structure that she calls ‘The Beta Disintegrator.’ Randy offered that there really ought to be two more similar machines, which Zsa Zsa can also explain in her marvelous accent. The second one could be another variety of Beta machine. The third would control the other two — it’s the Master Beta machine!
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Queen of Outer Space
Supplements: Trailer; commentary with Tom Weaver and guest Laurie Mitchell
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 9, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection. No screen shots were taken; illustrations were gathered from the web at large.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson