The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
BRIDES OF THE ID MONSTER
People who say "Sex Sells" never point to actual depictions of sex. Their metaphor cuts deeper and more insidiously. Those female bodies are being indiscriminately used to sell the promise of sex. Promises are whatever the mind conjures, a territory more personal and less implausible than any flesh-limited reality.
Figuratively selling the female body probably emerged short moments after the first act of literally selling it. If the Consensus Future begins in 1893, as I arbitrarily claim, two almost chaste developments occurred shortly after that would reverberate down through the 20th century, both necessary for the development of the psychopathological phenomenon I'm calling the Limp Woman. Richard Dana Gibson married Irene Langhorne in 1895 and Frank Munsey founded The Argosy magazine in 1896.
Gibson was already a commercial illustrator when he married Langhorne, member of a wealthy family with three equally beautiful and noted sisters, one of whom would become Lady Astor, the first woman to sit in the House of Commons. Gibson, smitten with their elegance and style, began sketching Langhorne and other models to create his Gibson Girl, a languid, ethereal, serene creature far above the reach of the ordinary male. (That's a mere man they are peering at - and hopefully not frying - with the magnifying glass.) Women adored these
idealized figures and made them a national craze who set standards of beauty for the next twenty years, along with spawning a slew of imitators.
By the mid 19th century Americans venerated literacy, and supplied it equally to boys and girls with free public education in large city systems and one room shacks. Women emerged as heavy readers, often responsible for schooling their children, and by the end of the 19th century they - or the growing subset of them that had achieved the comforts of the middle class - had money to spend. Several fortunes were made by magazines catering to this new mass readership. Women were both the targets and also the cover images. This was not yet selling sex, but style; a small mental gap that could easily be crossed and often was.
Munsey was also established in his field, that of magazine publishing, starting with a weekly boy's adventure magazine called The Golden Argosy. Changes in costs and tastes put the magazine through changes of size, thickness, and title, and finally paper, switching to thick but cheap pulp paper as of the December 1896 issue, so that most historians credit this as the first pulp magazine. Munsey was selling half a million copies monthly in a few years, and every publisher jumped on the bandwagon. At first, Munsey followed the custom of the day with all-text covers, giving the issue's table of contents. By the 20th century, he switched to illustrations, simple artwork of stalwart men in the wild. His covers would evolve with the times, becoming bolder, more colorful, more savage, pulpier. Men in dangerous situations sold magazines; women sold magazines. What would happen if women
were placed in dangerous situations? They were, not as heroic adventures, but as precious objects to be rescued from peril. This sold magazines. Pretty soon editors figured out that the man was almost entirely superfluous. Place a woman in jeopardy and the issue sold as well, if not better. With the sudden loosening of standards in the Roaring 20s, images that never would have been allowed to be displayed in public found homes on hundreds of different pulp titles.
Women wore skintight outfits, or revealing ones, or torn shreds, or, whenever the artist was clever enough in concealment, nothing at all. They were menaced, by gangsters or hoodlums or mad scientists or fiends; by often gigantic carnivores or octopi or snakes or insects; by guns or knives or needles or fire or acid or mechanical devices; and eventually by robots or aliens or creatures or demons or ray guns or exploding suns. Magically, many of these perils had the power to rend female clothing picturesquely without leaving a mark on beautiful pale flesh.
Even the one noted female illustrator in the pulp fantasy field, Margaret Brundage, served up peril, its manifestations aimed at the tiniest, palest, and often nudest women on the newsstands, although only at her most extreme did she descend into the lubricious sadism that defaced too many of her competitors. She worked in the 1930s, mostly for Weird Tales, a period when pulps slashed budgets and cover prices, and became more and more extreme in the effort to lure any sales at all from their predominantly lower class and heavily suffering audience, an audience more and more heavily weighted toward men.
The romance pulps, by comparison, featured portraits of pretty, smiling women or male-female couples standing close together or in a clinch. The cowboy romance pulps - more numerous than you might believe, including Ranch
Romances, Rodeo Romances,Cowboy Romances, Far West Romances, Real Western Romances, Romance Western, North-West Romances, Rangeland Romances, Romance Round-Up, Romantic Range, Rangeland Love, and whatever else publishers could dig out of their thesauruses - almost always showed couples, presumably because an unaccompanied female in the west was unthinkable, or at least unshowable.
What doesn't get shown is always a good clue to underlying motives. All these chaste romances in the love pulps end in a clinch, with declarations of undying love or proposals or marriage, though seldom an actual ceremony. Romance, the chase of the chaste, gave writers the impetus for conflict and resolution, promising everything, and - again - promises are more potent than actualities. There were married couple pulps like True Marriage Stories and Honeymoon Tales - publishers tried everything, and would have titled pulps out of MadLibs if they had existed - but these are rarities. What's impossible to find even on couple pulps is the most iconic image of marriage, the man sweeping up the woman in his arms to carry her across the threshold.
Various accounts give the usual mish-mash of supposed folk lore and improbable history for the origin of this custom. One version is superbly apropos to our world of fantasy. All doorways are symbolic portals, with two sides and all the differences that implies. If one side is light and the other side darkness, evil spirits could lurk behind doors waiting for the innocent to fall into their clutches. Who could be more innocent than the untouched bride? The groom carried his bride to prevent her feet from touching the floor, where demons lurked, to show off his strength as a protector, and to insure that any possible reluctance on the bride's part would be vanquished. Some versions make the custom a sanitization of history, a polite retelling of the days when the female was a mere prize kidnapped by the powerful male, his bestial lusts overwhelming right and rules, similar to the notion that the wedding ring is left over from its marking as a token of slavery. Asking why anyone would commemorate these horrors is pointless; that these beliefs are fused with the iconography of coupling imparts the cliché with depths of sexuality that can therefore be exploited.
Symbolism exists to be inverted - most of the history of Christianity has a doppelganger in which the Devil uses the church's iconography for evil - and the fiend carrying the bride offers a festering vat of defilement waiting for the victim. The surprise is not that the perversion of marriage became iconic in horror, but that it took so long to become omnipresent.
Where did it start? Probably with a gorilla. Gorillas always sell. No matter the medium, a picture of a gorilla sells whatever it illustrates. As the story goes, Mort Weisinger, the editor of DC comics, had to limit gorilla covers in the 50s to one a month across all his titles because every artist and editor wanted to run them all the time. Ralph Spence, a veteran writer for The Ziegfield Follies, had the brilliant notion of putting a gorilla on Broadway. The Gorilla: A Mystery Comedy "outbats The Bat, outcats The Cat and the Canary" screamed the posters in 1925. It sold. Thomas S. Hischak, in his encyclopedic Broadway Plays and Musicals, called the raucous comedy the "surprise hit of the season, receiving appreciative notices and running for nearly eight months," possibly including time off-Broadway since other accounts limits its stay at the Selwyn Theater to 15 performances.
Of course Hollywood jumped on it. A silent movie, simply titled The Gorilla, appeared in 1927 with a former Keystone Kop as the lead detective. Two distinctly different posters were issued, one with a standard gorilla and the other with a beast that looked like nothing on earth.
The interchageability of the monster will become a key point in the imagery in later decades. What threatened the woman was mere whim of the writer, or the director, or the producer, or even the prop department. Women were helpless by definition; prey for any type of fiend. Gorillas had obvious advantages: they walked upright, they were large and fierce, they came from exotic climes, and they were cheap and easy to recreate by throwing a guy into an ape suit. Hollywood, like all popular entertainment, is built upon perpetually offering audiences what they want while somehow simultaneously topping each past marvel with one more marvelous. Gorillas would return in dozens of movies, so would presumably scarier creatures. Both sold, until they didn't and had to be laid to rest for a time.
The interchangeability of the woman is equally important. From all appearances, those two posters were produced by different artists using different source materials at different times and places. They might as well be entries in a competition to create a poster. Yet the female in the beast's arms might have been literally traced from one to the other, differing only in the necessary repositioning of her right leg.
The artist or artists knew what drew audiences, with a penetrating insight apparently unique with them. The rest of the world would not catch up for decades. Discovering a 1927 poster with archetypal 1950s images is akin to stumbling across the Antikythera mechanism while doing a mundane archaeological dig. The woman lies limply in the gorilla's arms, head thrown back, long hair dangling dramatically like a cascade of fire. Her garb, sheer, gauzy, perhaps torn, bares her legs to the top of her thighs. And her legs are indeed bare, without stockings or shoes, even more shocking than the typical flapper's outfit. Nor does the woman remotely resemble Alice Day, the putative female lead, though her name appears in even smaller type than the writer, director, producer, and production manager, maybe the lowest billing in the history of Hollywood. (She was a 22-year-old ingénue, appearing in one of her earliest full-length movies.) If this truly is the creation of the Limp Woman she springs to life as fully formed as Athena.
The power of the Limp Woman as an image stems from more than just the danger of defilement, always omnipresent whenever a villainous male is present. The tinge of bestiality must always add additional horror to her situation. Having her in the arms of a ravening beast literalizes that plight for the dimmest potential viewer. Yet rape is a fate that is confined to drama, even in those pre-Code days of 1927, when posters were allowed to show more flesh than a decade later. How contemporary audiences read those posters is hard to fathom. On the one hand, the play had some fame as a comedy while Charles Murray and Fred Kelsey were old-time comic actors. Newspapers talked of the roles as being "famous" and accounts of the action emphasized comedy. The posters themselves betray no mention of laughs, however; a "thrilling, chilling, killing mystery" is emotional light-years away from the Keystone Kops. This almost psychotic disconnect from reality is also a harbinger of thousands of posters to come: assume that the knowledgeable audience will find its way to the theater; find a way, any way, honest or farcical, of getting the rest in. Either way, audiences who paid their admission found a slapstick laugh riot along with the presumably less revealing shot of Alice Day in her nightgown being carried off by the gorilla. Who of course is not a gorilla, but the dressed up (or down) villain. Nothing bad ever happens inside the movie; movie posters are direct descendants of carny posters, designed to part the marks with their nickels, dimes, and quarters. Half man, half woman, all moonshine and misrepresentation.
The Gorilla, totally forgotten today, made producers drool. Anthony Balducci in The Funny Parts reports that Goose Flesh, a short about a guy in a gorilla suit chasing people around a spooky house, made it to the screen in 1927 before the legit movie was released. Three years later First National Pictures thought it worthy of being one of the first movies to be remade into a sound version and lured Broadway comic star Joe Frisco to California to star in a 1930 version, also called The Gorilla. Pulling the old switcheroo, a 1937 cheapie combined the plot with the title of a 1928 play, and somehow got the hallucinogenic Sh! The Octopus (whose "plot" includes the plans for a death ray) all the way through production. Both included a Limp Woman in their promotion but nobody on earth could sexualize her plight from the posters. (Completists, note that The Gorilla was remade yet again in 1939 as a vehicle for the Ritz Brothers with Bela Lugosi as a butler.)
With this background, the next appearance of the Limp Woman should have been foreordained. In 1933, RKO gave the world the biggest and most important gorilla picture of all time, King Kong, a picture built around the climactic imagery of the beast absconding with the beauty. Yet Kong’s size, the gigantism that makes him memorable above almost all other monsters, is at war with the biophysics, with his size making a sexual threat physically impossible. Apparently recognizing this, RKO issued a huge number of variant posters with every one that showed Wray portraying her held in a paw. A paw. One paw normally equals physical rather than sexual menace. The equation is best shown in this poster. Kong uses the same grip for Fay as he does for the weirdly tiny airplane - and not even Freudians could consider those intentions sexual.
The home of the image in the 1930s would instead be the home of the monsters themselves. Universal had long been associated with horror in general and monsters in particular, making the silent classics The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. The Golden Age of Universal horror nevertheless came a few years later after Carl Laemmle Jr. was made production chief. As a 21st birthday present. His father had started the Yankee Film Company in 1909 as a rogue studio fighting Edison's movie trust. He fled to the no-man's-land of Hollywood in March 1912 and quickly changed the studio's name to the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. Universal was never quite as major a studio as, say, MGM, and the coming of the Depression hurt it more. So did his policy of installing relatives in every major position. All articles on that period are obligated by international treaty to quote Ogden Nash:
Uncle Carl Laemmle
Has a very large faemmle
In fact Carl Jr. was born Julius Laemmle, and changed his name to reflect his overlord father's power. He was the one who pushed to make Dracula and Frankenstein, both in 1931 and both risky projects. They paid off beyond any possible expectations; Frankenstein was by far the top grossing film of the year and Dracula came in at number six. The Mummy followed in 1932 and The Invisible Man in 1933. Then came The Black Cat in 1934.
A quickie, ground out in 19 days with a budget one-fourth that of Frankenstein's and a title stolen from Edgar Allan Poe with no connection in the script, The Black Cat surprisingly became Universal's top-grossing film of the year. Could it have been the poster? The Cat gets top billing, with searchlight eyes illuminating the limp body of Jacqueline Wells in the arms of an unrecognizable Boris Karloff. Karloff actually wants to sacrifice her for his devil worship cult, but it is the fate worse than death that the poster implies. Most Hollywood posters of the period relied on the stars' names and head shots to draw audiences: here was something new, an indefinable aura of sexual menace that promised delicious evil from the actors who portrayed Frankenstein and Dracula, teamed for the first time.
Universal completed its romp through the classic set of monsters with 1935's Werewolf of London (singular pace Warren Zevon). In the early 1930s movie posters displayed a
remarkable lack of creativity for representatives of the country's increasingly dominant artform; they stayed as formulaic as pulp covers and with a duller palette. Probably 90% of all posters showed only the faces of the leads, disembodied heads smiling out at you, personally. Whole bodies were extremely rare. You could say the same for 1935's crop, but that remaining ten percent broke through by stealing from the pulps the dynamism of action, adding plot to the pull of the individual stars. Werewolf of London is a first step toward the future.
The attack scene, the monster's face, even the flying bat in the upper left are nice touches. What makes it an important footnote to The Black Cat is Valerie Hobson's limp body at the bottom. Artists for the next two decades would copy her flowing golden hair and form-fitting red dress for their versions of the theme. Her look is
prototypical 40s, making Wells' look from a mere year earlier appear like a leftover flapper from the 1920s. The floor-length gown would soon be slashed above knee length but the deep décolleté is a decade ahead of its time.
Having run through its repertoire, Universal replenished its cash flow with sequels. Of course sequels. Movies always had sequels; all that has changed are the conventions of naming. Producing a sequel to the number one movie of 1931 was inevitable. So was the plot. And the imagery.
And there it is, the perfect subversion of the groom carrying his bride, an insert poster measuring 14" x 36" that hits every point: the broad-shouldered stalwart groom, the bride in her gown with the bouquet in one hand, eyes closed, swept off her feet in ecstasy. Presenting Boris Karloff and Elsa Lancaster in The Bride of Frankenstein.
The image is so perfect that from today's perspective it's impossible to believe that it wasn't used for the primary one sheet or that the publicity department could find half a dozen other images for variants that all took precedence over this. Of course the scene is nowhere in the movie - the Bride can do nothing but scream when she catches sight of the monster she was created for - but that mattered not at all, in 1935 or ever after.
(A short note on movie posters: The industry standard, the one normally placed outside of a theater to lure the fans in, is called a one-sheet, usually 27" x 41" and always vertical. Many, probably most, major movies had variant one-sheets with slightly or even wholly different images. Larger versions are called two sheets, three sheets, and six sheets; a horizontal smaller format is the half-sheet. Collectors also go after lobby cards - important because they showed stills from the movie rather than the collage of images the publicists favored, window cards, stills, and ones that don't even have a name, just a size. A skinnier format is called the insert, which could be horizontal or vertical, and inserted into glass displays inside of smaller lobbies. Because of the different shape, they usually had a different set of images from the one-sheets and often added text, which will become a telling gloss on the images. The multiplicity of variations means it's next to impossible to tell what images how many movie-goers actually saw. The focus here is on the creators, though, and their job was to see everything, to keep abreast of the images that sold, that appealed to buyers, that caught eyes. As we'll see they not only borrowed from one another, they forthrightly stole the best stuff.)
Another footnote from 1935 is deliciously telling in retrospect. That's stalwart Clark Gable hauling the limp body of Loretta Young through a snowstorm in The Call of the Wild. Nothing untoward is imaginable here - it's a prefiguring of romance - and presumably being saved by Clark Gable was itself a desirable fantasy even if frostbite were entailed. Today the pose has undertones nobody could know in 1935. The sexualization of imagery on screen did indeed translate into off-screen sex, just as audiences fervently imagined. Production delays meant long stays on location in Washington and the two dove deeply
into an affair. In the obituary for Judy Lewis, born in November of that year, the Los Angeles Times exposes the depth of scandal and shame implicit in all intimacy:
Young was single and 22 and Gable married and 34 when they co-starred in Call of the Wild (1935), based on the classic novel by Jack London. The rest of their story unfolds like a B movie: The unmarried, devout Catholic known for playing wholesome roles discovers she is pregnant as she is set to star in legendary director Cecil B. DeMille's religious-themed film The Crusades, goes abroad to avoid gossip, and returns to Los Angeles to give birth in secrecy. Then she turns the infant over to a home run by nuns, retrieves her daughter before she turns 2, fakes the adoption and raises the child under a cloud of lies.
A cloud of lies. Maybe it's not snow in that poster. (A footnote re: lies. Young's daughter-in-law has claimed that Young told her no affair ever existed. Instead, Gable "date raped" her on the train back from the shoot. No more corroboration exists for this any more than any other part of the story.)
There's one more image from 1935 that's also perfect in its way and all the more important because it was live, not a movie image. Live, but not real: it's a stunt dreamed up by a publicist, one for San Diego’s California Pacific International Exposition, a huge draw in the summers of 1935 and 1936. His brilliant conception was to combine two of the Expo's most popular attractions, Alpha the Robot and Zoro Gardens, Home of the Nudists. This requires explanation. I wish I had one. All I can offer are facts, and a glimpse into the psyche of the 1930s. The past is another country, indeed.
We think of the 1930s as a prudish time of reaction and backpedaling from the go-go years of the 20s and that's mostly true in every way. Joseph Breen started strict enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934, making movies safe from images of sex and indecency. The Code had been written by prominent Catholics to give the movie industry a shield against outside censorship but the Catholic Legion of Decency retained its own ratings system and any film garnering a C for condemned could not in good faith be watched by observant Catholics. Most large cities had their own censorship boards, which meant that movies played in dozens of local variations with random frames, words, images, and scenes cut out. The censorship boards looked at print materials as well. Boston's group was noted for its strictness and the phrase "Banned in Boston" sold books elsewhere. The federal government used the Customs Office to prevent salacious books, including now-major works of literature, from entering the country, and the Post Office refused to allow racy material to be sent through the mail. Photographic nudity was banned everywhere. Publications that seem quaintly titillating today were sold literally "under the counter," from stores where you had to know what to ask for and how before the proprietor would pull it out of hiding. Fiorello H. LaGuardia, then mayor of New York, banned all burlesque in 1937 after a stripper was found performing without her g-string.
And yet. Sally Rand's fan dance was the hit of the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition in 1933 and 1934. She officially was never nude underneath the swirling fans, but amateur home movies captured her bare charms. Meanwhile, a publicist staged a fake wedding for the "daughter of the sun" of the nudist colony exhibit that ran during 1934. Rand brought her "nude ranch" girls to fairs in Fort Worth in 1936 and San Francisco in 1939, where they outdrew every other exhibit the first week. Determined visitors to the 1939-40 New York World's Fair could chose from a variety of true and seemingly nude exhibits, including Salvador Dali's astounding portrayal of surrealism for the masses, "Dream of Venus." Discreetly away from the heart of the exhibits the girls of the pastorally non-surrealistic Enchanted Village frolicked with exposed skin. The "Living Magazine Covers" exhibit presented topless women in tableaus that presented a voyeur's dream of what magazines should be using as covers. And strippers performed with coverage only by an octopus (fake) and birds (real).
Even so, the California Pacific International Exposition may have been the nudest of all. Nudism as a recreation had been creeping across the country protected by courts ruling that it could not be prohibited on private property. Nudism also had to be one of the cheapest amusements in a country without money; it cost nothing more than the price of admission and the experience could be enjoyed far longer than a trip to the movies. Once almost exclusively an east coast phenomenon, nudists now migrated to California for year round enjoyment. So did promoters Nate Eagle and Stanley R. Graham, who brought their nudists from Chicago to San Diego and established the Zoro Garden Nudist Colony in a natural amphitheater next to the Palace of Better Housing. They also brought along the still unmarried Yvonne Stacey, promoted from daughter of the sun to Zorine, Queen of the Nudists. The nudists, who had been approved by the district attorney as non-salacious, did little more than stand around as attendees unto a hairy nudist king but with 125,000 paid admissions still managed to be one of the most popular exhibits - competing only, according to publicity reports, with the midget city.
Just as every 30s Exposition had to have nude or "nude" girls, every one had to have a working robot. San Diego choose Alpha, the creation of "Professor" Harry May, who debuted him at the 1932 London Radio Show. Alpha had been making a tour of the States, landing a long article in Time magazine based on a publicity appearance in Macy's New York.
May: What do you weigh?
Alpha: One ton.
A dozen other questions and answers followed, some elaborately facetious. When May inquired what the automaton liked to eat, it responded with a minute-long discourse on the virtues of toast made with Macy's automatic electric toaster. Finally when May requested the creature to raise its arm and fire the pistol, the arm went up, the metal forefinger pulled the trigger, the firing-pin fell with a click. Professor May explained that store officials would not permit him to use blank cartridges.
Which probably was best for everyone around, since premature firings of the gun had badly burned May in England. The repartee sounded good, if one got past Alpha's heavy cockney accent, but was supplied by a synchronized phonograph hidden off stage. Or perhaps by Alpha's handlers. Nobody really knows for certain what if anything Alpha could do other than be a giant metal puppet typical of his day. Answering questions, firing a gun, merely standing up[!], were part of the standard bag of audience-astounding tricks for most of the dozen or so robots who went on display on the department store and electric utility appliance dealership circuit in the late 20s and 30s. A metal statue that weighed 2000 pounds had no capacity to do more, even with discrete cables running offstage. Alpha's only real distinction is that despite May’s changing his appearance several times, he had the most hideous face of any early robot.
The identity of the genius who put two and two together to equal dollar signs is forever lost, but at some point during the 1935 season, a publicist inveigled a magnificent stunt. He got Alpha, the Frankensteinian metal Adam newly minted by an unseen creator, to pose with Zorine, the sylph-like Eve. Actually, Alpha posed with a veritable chorus line of live nude girls, but that one begging-to-be-imitated image is all creative minds needed.
At this point enquiring minds might want to know: If Alpha could do no more than stand up from his immobile base how did he manage to get across Balboa Park to the comely Miss Stacey? The answer is as obvious as it is true; they faked the suit with an actor whose tin man outfit looked precious little like the real Alpha. Not that it mattered. The photographs could never be sold openly. They went into the vast under-the-counter market for gentlemen of discriminating tastes, most of whom probably never came within miles of San Diego.
Unquestionably, though, many of them lived in Los Angeles and worked in Hollywood. The male denizens of the film colony kept to a lifestyle we now associate with
fraternities, replete with pranks,practical jokes, escapades, and hijinks, along with the expected booze, drugs, fast cars, faster women, and general debauchery. They collected these "French postcards" and passed them around like boys would Playboy a generation later. The lucky actor who played Alpha likely spread the word about his great gig. In addition, the community of publicists was a small one, all of whom kept an eye out for the others’ best tricks. Alpha carrying Zorine might never have reached the masses in Peoria or Boston, but it's notable that it's one of the very few images surviving from that photo shoot. Owners kept the picture and savored it, placing it in an undeletable segment of their memory banks for later retrieval.
One additional example from outside of Hollywood fits here chronologically. Producers clever or daring enough to skirt local censorship laws made pictures of taboo subjects and images on the cheap, rented out small theaters, and moved their films from town to town, often racking in astounding profits. Some purported to be “educational,” a broadly-interpreted term that included travelogues that could, like National Geographic, show bare-breasted native women with some impunity. An odd entry in this category was Angkor, a film first released in the U.K. in 1935. Ostensibly a journey to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the producers mixed old stock footage of nature documentaries with scenes of topless prostitutes hired in Los Angeles who were menaced by, what else, a guy in a cheap gorilla suit. The brothel apparently had no Asian inhabitants, because the women's heritage is obviously not Cambodian but African. For the U.S. 1937 re-release, the flick got two titles, Forbidden Adventure and The Gorilla Woman, along with a series of posters - each weirder than the last. The cropped images in the first poster indicates that Gorilla Woman was the more legitimate version, even thought the name made no sense (I'm surprised that the apter and more inflaming The Gorilla's Woman wasn't used), while Forbidden Adventure had to be part of the underground circuit, since those posters couldn't be shown publicly. "Giant monsters enthroned as love gods" also makes no sense until you see the fourth poster, in which the native girl is kneeling in front of the gorilla with an offering of fruit.
In the meantime, Limp Women began infiltrating other popular culture imagery, such as this anatomically improbable pose on the cover of the December 1939 Science Fiction, a decidedly second-rate pulp magazine printing the rejects from better publications. Frank R. Paul did all the first three years of covers - it's impossible to not include his name in a discussion of SF imagery - but people were never his strong point. The captive's head is thrown back so far that her entire face is visible (maybe she's an alien with extra vertebrae), though technically she's struggling rather than limp. Even dangling women must have sold. Although this run of the magazine lasted only six more issues, half of those had Paul covers with women bound by creatures, with every pose seemingly placed by poster artists into a clip file to swipe from.
As the decade progressed, artists in all segments of popular culture began to adopt the image and home in on the pieces that made it instantly understandable and thereby iconic. It spread to other pulp magazines - that's a Robert Gordon Jones cover for the February 1943 Fantastic Adventures, with a limp blonde in an exceedingly low-cut dress being absconded by a gorilla several months prior to Captive Wild Woman; to comic books - for the March 1947 Startling Comics, Graham Ingels drew the first of many covers on which Lance Lewis, Space Detective, has to rescue his gal pal Marna, a blonde always in scanty red outfits even in outer space; and to paperback covers - such as the one an unnamed artist for Avon created for a 1950 reprinting of a Jack Williamson pulp classic, The Green Girl, that has the limp blonde naked but seemingly dressed in red because of the tentacles.
Despite everything happening around them, mainstream Hollywood remained blind to the potential for the rest of the decade. Universal, now under new ownership after the Laemmles sold the studio in 1936, led the way once again. The monster money had run out; time for a reboot. No, those are nothing new either. All the classics were revived, some with the same stars as before but a badly faded aura. No stylish atmospheric thrillers, no big budget phantasmagorias. These were product, rolled out one after another with tiny budgets and the certainty that audiences would salivate when the proper bells were rung. When Universal restarted the Mummy with a cast of no-names in The Mummy's Hand (1940), it issued a tweaked copy of the poster for The Black Cat. The monster holding the Limp Woman is again front and center against a backdrop of action scenes with the upturned heads of the other cast members gazing off-poster at nothing in particular. This created a template which the poster department followed slavishly. Man-Made Monster (1941) is a virtual synonym for Frankenstein, and Lon Chaney, Jr., in what was essentially an hour-long audition for him to be Universal's new monster star or maybe star monster, also gets his powers from electricity. The poster even copies the black-shadowed scraggled yellow lettering for the title. The studio brought it all together in 1942 when Chaney, no longer Jr., was the new Mummy in The Mummy's Tomb. The poster flips the direction Elyse Knox's head is pointing but changes nothing significant, except possibly to make her dress coral, a prefiguring of the red clothing de rigueur for Limp Women for more than a decade.
These one hour flicks, B-movies to the core, can't be thought of as individualized works of art. The studio intended audiences to see them as a series, familiar, reassuring, fast food guaranteed to hit the same taste buds. They played to the same Pavlovian responses that brought buyers back to print series as otherwise varied as The Shadow or Nero Wolfe or even all those cowboy romances. In 1943, Universal created the cross-franchise mash-up with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Frankie - played by Bela Legosi - is second banana to Chaney's Wolf Man, but he gets the shot of all shots in the half-sheet for the film. Look at the expression on his face - a ecstatic recapitulation of the longing gaze on Karloff's face in The Bride of Frankenstein - as he carries off Baroness Elsa[!] Frankenstein, the beautiful blonde Ilona Massey, styled except for her 40s hair as The Black Cat's Jacqueline Wells. That's Frankenstein meeting his bride, with the Wolf Man a dreary afterthought. Fascinatingly, the one-sheet poster has Massey in a reddish gown, low-cut and showing her knees. At times there is little need to explore for psychosocial impulses in primitive ganglia. When an image works beat it into the ground.
That's just what Universal did, also in 1943, with possibly the most misleading poster image to the time, a claim that takes in large territories of chutzpah. Every moviegoer above grade-school level had to viscerally understand that posters lied, but seldom had the scam extended to the point of physical impossibility. Yes, in a literalized version of Dr. Jekyll releasing the beast within, the raven-haired Acquanetta herself is the "Gorilla Girl," as the bottom line of the Captive Wild Woman poster reveals in very small type. (Another poster changes her scanty outfit to red.) One innovation in this poster is subtle, though it would be noticed and exploited. The Gorilla holds herself by an arm around the waist, allowing her head to loll precipitously backward, more limp than any woman ever before, a helpless thrall to herself. Dare we assume that the poster department deliberately intended that much psychological insight? The question mocks itself; any reading of these images that requires subtlety comments on the writer. Poster designers knew what they were doing, but that knowledge digs down only a single level, the one fully represented by the leer on The Wolf Man's face and Evelyn Ankers' protruding breasts.
Were the other studios paying attention to Universal? It seems so. Universal tried a werewolf again in 1941 with The Wolf Man, which led Fox to offer a werewolf in 1942's The Undying Monster and Columbia to do so in 1944, though only as an antagonist to Bela Lugosi in The Return of the Vampire, whose poster artist swiped Ankers' long-necked pose, one audiences at the time would as today associate with the offering of the throat to a vampire's sublimated sex in a bite than to a werewolf's frenzy. The monster in Paramount's 1941 The Monster and the Girl is yet another gorilla. RKO, in near-death mode after the Citizen Kane fiasco, hired a new production chief who offered lighter fare sure not to offend. 1943 brought I Walked with a Zombie, 1945 followed with Zombies on Broadway. Despite the almost identical look for the posters' zombies, the first was a straight psychological horror movie, the second a comedy spoof with Bela Lugosi.
Both horror and science fiction movies were all but abandoned in the late 1940s, except for the lowest of low-budget serials. Universal, of all studios, gave up on its prime money maker except for the comic stylings of Abbott and Costello, who met Frankenstein in 1948, and the Invisible Man in 1951. Post-war audiences were presumed to be interested in colorful spectacle, meaningful social comment, and gritty noir, not cheap thrills. Answers to the question of why they returned usually discuss the fragile psyche of the Cold War populace. As important as that was, equally if not more significant was a momentous event that took place in 1948 that directly transformed the future of movies.
The Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, et al., forced the big Hollywood studios to sell the thousands of individual movie theaters they owned and stopped the practice of exclusivity, which bullied even independent owners to sign contracts limiting them to only one studio's films. Suddenly, any tiny independent production company could get their product before multitudes of virgin viewers. Add to that the incredible boom in drive-ins, which went from about 150 immediately after the war to more than 3000 in 1952. Early showings might appeal to families, but later ones could offer more specialized fare, bringing in an audience who considered the ambience of the outdoors and perhaps what happened inside the fogged-up windows more important than the quality of what was shown on screen. If cheap thrillers weren't lowest common denominator cinema, they buzzed the territory.
Science fiction - not yet sci-fi, which hadn't even been coined - appears first, a fine, quality start in 1950 with Destination Moon, a money-making Oscar winner for Visual Effects, therefore parent to a stream of more or less serious attempts at depicting realistic space travel or alien encounters. Included among them was 1951's The Thing from Another World, a serious mainstream thriller with an impeccable lineage from a John W. Campbell story. Otherwise, the first examples of menacing creatures are all comparatively mundane gorillas (gorillas always sell) - Bride of the Gorilla (1951), Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), Robot Monster (1953), and Gorilla at Large (1954). While the latter came from a major studio, Fox, the others are legendarily awful low-budget grade Z flicks, fodder for camp movie festivals today, whose cultural importance can’t be denied for the simple reason that they made money, spurring the dozens that imitators that would rush into production, and they each featured Limp Women somewhere in their advertising.
The image of Gort holding the girl in The Day the Earth Stood Still technically appears first; that movie was released on September 28, 1951 and Bride of the Gorilla not until October, although they must have overlapped as coming attractions. Their simultaneousness undoubtedly helped sear the images into brains, especially those of poster creators. Bride may be even more important, since the woman on it is shown limp rather than screaming, and with a full body in the proper pose revealing the requisite bare legs. Perhaps the word "bride" was just as important, to act as a trigger of sexual innuendo that transcended the peril of the eye-beaming robot who surely represented pure death.
Thereafter Sci-Fi/Horror Limp Women movie posters fall into four main categories:
Or creatures and monsters as in this unique double-feature poster, although each original also used a Limp Woman, if a lobby card for The Vampire is added:
The similarities among this set of posters, despite the differences in the studios, the production values, and the years, are astounding. With only a few exceptions, the woman's head is thrown back, her long hair flowing neatly downward in perfect swirls, her legs and feet bare, an oddly titillating though almost subliminal feature first seen in The Gorilla poster; in an era when no woman, certainly no lady, would think of going out in public without stockings, these limp woman are typically bare-legged and often barefoot. The bare feet are a sexual signal, to be sure, as if the women were interrupted undressing for bed, but also imply submission - slaves were typically barefoot - and general helplessness - it's harder to flee without shoes. By comparison, Uhura's often-derided miniskirt and boots look like plate armor. Additionally, the Limp Woman is usually blonde and of course always white. She wears astoundingly short skirts for the 50s, with the red favored in the 40s moving toward a virginal, bridal white. Her body almost never is bent naturally, although the creature is just as often contorted, arms locked in bizarre cantilevers, the better to display not just the woman's body but the monster's evil face. The images are equally divorced from their movies. Gort, in The Day The Earth Stood Still, never menaced anybody let alone heroine Patricia Neal, who, incidentally, was a brunette. Nobody had more fun twisting the truth than MGM's poster department, who for Forbidden Planet (1956) resorted to drawing a clownishly cartoon face on the friendly and protective Robbie in order to somehow suggest a sinister leer that might as well be the product of the Id Monster that is the true terrorizer of the crew. Slight variations do exist. Some of the monsters use a one-handed grasp; in fact, that was the typical pose for sea creatures:
The conformity among types - these four pictures were from three different studios, the Revenge of the Creature comes from a fourth and the Monster That Challenged the World is also a sea creature from a fifth - overshadows any differences from the core images and reveals how omnipresent the borrowing of successful images was. The rare woman who is not limp but struggling otherwise shares the bare feet, the cleavage, and the suggestive poses. The takeaway details form the baseline for the decade, a set of instantly comprehensible images hammering home a reflexive frisson of peril and innuendo.
It's near impossible to know whether the images on a poster ever bring in significantly more viewers, although that belief has been a staple in Hollywood for a century. Bad poster campaigns are blamed for the failure of movies, scapegoating though that might be. Good posters get little of the credit, but studios took no chances. The Limp Woman worked, or was perceived to work. The fact that studios falsified images to feature one never to be seen in the movie proper is proof of that. So is the fact that they produced series of variant posters with individual limp poses. Major movies always get more promotion than minor ones, even if the minor need the help far more, and consequently major movies are represented by larger numbers of variant posters, which often meant additional Limp Women to be ogled.
Universal, now Universal-International after a set of mergers, had a surprise hit with Creature of the Black Lagoon in 1954, which managed to outgross Abbott and Costello. Producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold took about five minutes to decide to make a sequel, which Alland himself wrote. They took no chances with the poster. Posters. Five separate Limp Woman posters were ordered up for maximum impact.
Yes, that's only four, although they are doubly remarkable for the four different colors of the slip of fabric covering the captured woman's torso and for her hair being a different color in each. She is as generic as a mannequin, a nonentity created to be menaced. Did it work? No one can say, although the sequel did almost as well at the box office, a rarity in those days. That meant a second sequel, The Creature Walks Among Us, appeared in 1956. It too has a Limp Woman (pictured above, in the Creatures row of posters). Nobody could misunderstand what the Gill-Man had in mind with Leigh Snowden; it's shown staring directly at her breasts as she is clasped to its bosom - and vice versa.
I promised five variants for Revenge, and a fifth indeed exists. It's so amazing and revealing that it needs to be looked at separately. There's our Limp Woman again, this time in white and with reddish hair. She floats as limply as the other four - in mid air, as if the creature were a magician caught in mid-levitation. Doubt the power of a Limp Woman or the audience draw it was thought to have? By 1955 she is an external reality, a prop inserted into the scene for its effect. If that isn't convincing enough, look at U-I's poster for 1956's The Mole People. There she is again, floating freely, almost cut-and-pasted, although the barest few differences show that the poster artist simply redrew her. It's the Mummy movies all over again, and as direct a swipe as Alex Schomburg committed to reproduce his comic book emperiled women. These posters deconstruct themselves, proving that the repeating images do not need the context of their surrounding unique images for comprehension; they are understood even if seemingly essential portions are removed. A Limp Woman conveys her plight despite being literally untouched.
That women have been pictured as threatened, dainty adornments, helpless and needing rescuing by men, throughout the 20th century somewhat lessens our modern understanding of how specifically sexualized the bestiality implicit in the Limp Woman is. Studios have always taken the belt and suspenders approach to marketing, repeating messages in different forms so that every possible ticket-purchaser catches the hook. So too here. Posters often added text to subtext, in words as explicit as public advertising could get in the 1950s. They most typically appeared on inserts, those vertical posters placed inside lobbies to give audiences more information and goose their return for the coming showing.
The Phantom is "This stranger from the void with his unimaginable desires...", all too easily and vividly imagined. "What animal desires drove [the Neanderthal Man] on?" is a question quickly answered by the placement of his gaze. To the Gill-Man every "woman's beauty [is] prey for his strange passions," probably not chess. "Please don't tell what happens to the bride," pleads the poster for The Bride and The Beast, knowing that what does happen couldn't compare to what is seemingly promised. The "Co-ed beauty captive of man-monster" apparently has a fate worse than a fraternity party in store for her. "Animal desires"? "Strange passions"? "A monster on a rampage for a human bride!" That's code that doesn't require an Enigma machine to decipher.
At this point the temptation to psychoanalyze the 50s is almost irresistible and many authors have done so, with the consensus that these sci-fi/horror movies were an expression of the fear and paranoia of the times. Making the other into literal Others imbues filmmakers with the same freedom that has always driven the best science fiction, the ability to use metaphor and allegory to comment on the current world by extrapolating trends into extremes. The social SF of Frederic Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth were the exemplars of this in 50’s SF magazines, while 1984 and Player Piano served the same function for mainstream audiences. That most of the movies on this list were exploitive schlock is irrelevant; to be successful even schlock needs something real to exploit. The function of poster artists varies little from those of pulp and paperback cover artists; each needs to draw the eye and entice the audience to enter in the hopes that the actual contents would somehow live up to the billing. They seldom did, but like addicted gamblers audiences kept putting their money down in hopes of a jackpot. “They’re comin’ fer our womenfolk” is a primal emotion that probably dates back to early tribal days; distilling the essence of both conscious and unconscious anxiety about the Other into a single compelling image is marketing genius. Nor had audiences anything to fear. The understanding that the good guys would defeat the monster before any actual defilement occurred was an absolute that, to my knowledge, no director ever thought of defying.
It all neatly fits together, except for one odd fact. The Limp Women end before the sci-fi boom does. In retrospect, given its nostalgic fame, it's surprising how short the reign of the creature features was. A count made from Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies shows that the number of English language movies listed peaks in 1957 and 1958 with 29 in each, and then trails off, with 19, 18, and 10 the next three years. That’s still a large number; not one year from 1951 to 1955 had as many as 19. (I eliminated from the count mainstream comedies that couldn’t possibly have such a poster image.) From 1951 through 1958 an average of about five Limp Woman posters appear every year; the forty-seven potential candidates from 1959-1961 yield a total of zero. The two I found were from films obscure enough to be missed by Hardy.
Sputnik changed everything, of course, but the knowledge that a Russian satellite orbited overhead should logically have increased fear and paranoia, and did, if the newspaper headlines accompanying the feat are any indication. Free-floating anxiety about atomic war now had real-world long-distance delivery systems to make the fear concrete. If anything, monsters representing Russians, spacemen, and the spawn of atomic mutation should have become more prevalent and more menacing. That they didn't, that even the Japanese who led the world with legitimate atomic paranoia failed to make a new Godzilla movie for five years after Sputnik, indicates that the standard analysis of creature features lacks some explanative power.
What you do get is increasingly bizarre and singular. The Woman Eater, a title apparently thought up by an id monster, had the requisite scantily-clad if decidedly non-limp woman in the monster’s embrace but the text explicitly eschews sex when it invites us to “SEE the hideous arms devour them in a death-embrace.” Missile to the Moon, also from 1958, gives us a giant hairy moon spider with not one but two even more scantily-clad women in its grasp, though each is similarly vertical and struggling. The poster for Invasion of the Animal People, a movie shot in Lapland in 1959, features a poster with a woman who somehow looks like she's accompanying the beasts to a Mondo Cane nightclub.
By 1959 the trope is dead, done in with a stake through its psyche by the power stronger than monsters: parody. The Wasp Woman, a giant and hairy wasp with the face of a female human (opposite to her female body with a wasp face in the film itself), is the menacing creature here, and her victim is… a man, not quite limp but as horizontal as some women in earlier posters and shirtless as well. Is that sufficient to imply sexual menace? If not, the insert’s text telling us of “Strong men forced to satisfy a passion no human knows” should raise eyebrows. Male rape was a taboo few in the 1950s could even hint of. Threatened men are a strong signal of the end of an expolitation cycle. The Limp Woman fades from the poster world, with the tiniest handful of exceptions, until she is finally brought back as camp, as in the poster for 1973's Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride (The U.S. title of The Satanic Rites of Dracula). Not the Bride of the Beast this time; they are equals sanctified by marriage, the only rite that the poster leaves undefiled.
After so many years, determining what cultural status to give the Limp Woman is difficult. The problem is made worse because it seems clear that its intent changed over time. The first uses appear almost innocent, implying sex to be sure but without the overtones of pure defilement that would later appear. The leers and stares, the charged verbiage, the increasingly horrendous visages of the creatures, are convincing evidence that marketers of the 1950s completely understood what they were selling to audiences, suggestions over and beyond any reality that could in those days be shown on screen but would provide enticing titillation nonetheless. Yet the precipitous dropoff in the use of a proven viewer draw indicates that it had become faddish, and fads develop diminishing returns. Perhaps the disconnect between promise and reality grew too wide, perhaps the increased availability of other types of exploitation movies, especially foreign and nudist flicks with their revelations of truly bare female flesh, created better opportunities for profit. Implied sex increasingly became explicit sex, a market that expanded exponentially faster in the 60s and 70s than any mutant growth. Or perhaps the Cold War had hit a point in which mankind - or womankind - became scarier than any creature. 1960 was the year of Cover Girl Killer, 3 Murderesses, The Bloody Brood, Bluebeard's Ten Honeymoons, Violent Women, Eyes Without a Face, and The Awful Dr. Orloff. Sex continued to sell, now all the better for the amount of violence allowed in the mixture.
Women never lacked for peril in any time period, of course; they were prey for fiends of all pathologies even if writers disdained any paranormal dimension. Pulp magazine and paperback covers pictured woman in every conceivable peril and torture device, most far more explicit than merely being carried off to an unseen fate. When the villain was a mere human male, Limp Women were conspicuously absent. What explains the restriction of this image to sci-fi creatures, many of whom would lack the sex organs that could create any possible gratification from the captured females? As magicians know, the feature that seemingly makes the trick impossible is often the trigger. Paradoxically, a woman could look at the creature in such a poster and feel safe. The contract between film-maker and audience ensured that the woman would never be harmed by the beast, that she would be saved by the human hero, and that the final clinch in a creature movie would be between the two thrown-together young and beautiful lovers, just as in every other genre of movies. Threats of this nature were always implied and never fulfilled, a promise that could not be made if the villain were a fiend rather than a Fiend. A second level accompanies this need. Unlike pulps or paperbacks, which could be marketed explicitly to one sex or the other, movies are inherently universal. All mainstream movies were made and marketed with the understanding that both men and women would be in the audience, often together as a couple. That puts boundaries on the imagery; no production company would release any image that would antagonize women to the point of refusing to attend. Standard sexism was demonstrably acceptable; society then as now was awash in such imagery – a boycott of all such merchandise would place almost every advertised product off limits. Healthy as that might have been Lysistrata remains fiction. (And untouched by Hollywood, save for the 1955 farce The Second Greatest Sex.) The cleverest subversion of the Limp Woman is that she can function as a fantasy object for both sexes as long as the fantasy is safely displaced to a psychological region beyond harm. That makes her a spiritual ancestor to our current world of vampires who do not suck blood and BDSM Masters whose whips and bondage provide only sexual satisfaction.
Only one antidote for all this exploitation exists, and I already gave away that secret. Humor. To research this article I scanned several thousand movie posters from the 1930s through the 1960s, an exhausting albeit not exhaustive search since as with monsters, new ones continually emerge from the muck. One of all those posters stands out conspicuously, a rare dab of humor rising above the festering swamp. Sexual exploitation is the monster that cannot die, but maybe if more movies had borrowed from this 1953 poster the domination of the Limp Woman could have been nipped in the bud. Dig that crazy pair.