As part of their liberation from convention, Corman empowers female characters with choices both real and metaphorical. Even a common love triangle can represent female empowerment, with the choice between the past and future made symbolically by a choice between two men who represent regressive and progressive paths. Corman’s early Westerns and apocalyptic science fiction occur at transitional, even crucial times, when decisions impact the future of a society, place, or community. With a woman positioned between traditional and progressive male suitors, Corman creates the ultimate matriarch who is responsible for the destiny of the world. She has the right of choice, but when she veers in a regressive direction, the wrong is evident. It is clear which path is Corman’s preference. Women decide their own destiny in nearly all of Corman’s output, most notably in the 1950s in Apache Women, She-Gods of Shark Reef, Naked Paradise, and The Undead, where the plots hinge on women’s self-determination.
* * *
A new literary archetype known as the “New Woman” entered the cultural scene in the 1880s and caused quite a furor. She was born from a burgeoning social rebellion against a history of constriction that kept most women undereducated, sexually subjugated, and often confined to the home. The New Woman of literature, on the other hand, was a highly educated emancipated woman who sought employment, cultural and political engagement, and sexual autonomy. She appeared in the fiction of Iota, Henry James, Kate Chopin, Olive Schreiner, and others but did not have a proper name until Sarah Grand celebrated her in the 1894 essay “The New Aspect of the Woman Question,” arguing that the sexual subjugation of women and their relegation to home and family life limits women’s potential, happiness, and productivity. Sexual morality and sexual inhibition, she writes, are artificially constructed by men to control women: “We have listened much edified to man’s sermons on the subject of virtue, and have acquiesced uncomplainingly in the convenient arrangement by which this quality has come to be altogether practiced for him by us vicariously.”1 She also argues that, once allowed to be educated and productive members of society, women have extraordinary potential for improving the lives of others.
At first the New Woman character primarily existed in British novels like Jude the Obscure, which portrayed women seeking greater autonomy and sexual freedom. These works demonstrated how the inequity of the social structure unfairly exploits and punishes women, as well as men.2 While the New Woman’s persona and problems were also portrayed in American literature, America’s adoption was primarily visual. The explosion of printed illustration in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras allowed American illustrators to explore a new world for American women. The most memorable examples are the “Gibson Girl” illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson, which depict active, athletic young women who comically dominate their male admirers and enjoy a life of social exploration and fun.3 Early American cinema also embraced this archetype. The first true “movie stars,” like Florence Lawrence and Florence Turner, were the living embodiment of the Gibson Girl in the 1910s.4 Adventurous, curious women were featured in prestige pictures, serialized shorts, and everything between. In the 1920s, those first heroines gave way to flappers like Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, and Colleen Moore who exhibited rebellion, physicality, and an exuberant sexuality. The concept then entered a dark period from the Great Depression until the 1970s. During that long period, it was financially disadvantageous to the patriarchy for women to work outside the home. Hollywood studio executives believed Americans longed for a return to what they considered the normalcy of a traditional nuclear family life and selected scripts that supported such a vision.5 In countless films of the period, working women long to escape the drudgery of their lives through marriage. Even those with important and lucrative careers decide that working life is incompatible with the far worthier roles of wife, mother, and housekeeper. Examples of this include No Man of Her Own, in which Carole Lombard marries a wanted criminal to escape her dull life as a librarian; His Girl Friday, in which gifted reporter Rosalind Russell is desperate to quit her job so she can start a family with a dim, but steady, insurance salesman; and Woman of the Year, in which Katharine Hepburn pulls away from her career as a world-famous journalist because her unambitious husband feels neglected. The Great Depression helped reinforce the commonly held belief that employment was a male privilege and working women were robbing men of their right to support themselves and their families. One of the by-products of that attitude was the repression of women, who were pressured to live a more cloistered life focused on family and housekeeping. Female sexuality was always unofficially censored in the film industry, but it became tightly controlled and exclusively relegated to marriage once the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 was rigorously enforced. The code ruled that “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.”6 Extramarital sex could no longer be presented attractively. Passion could not be filmed in a way that stimulated “the lower or baser element.”7 Sex was unseemly for wives and impossible for unmarried women. Filmmakers could not positively depict an unrepentant and unpunished female sex life while working for a Hollywood studio. It became rare to see a New Woman even as a cautionary figure. By the 1950s, independent filmmaker Roger Corman was the leading cinematic celebrant of her liberation.
Roger Corman was born in Detroit in 1926, a product of the American dream. His parents were both children of disadvantaged immigrants who made good. Thanks to his father’s work as an engineer, the family managed to maintain a middle-class lifestyle throughout the Great Depression. “But,” he writes in his autobiography, “I overheard the apprehensive talk about money, about saving, about friends wiped out.”8 When Corman was 14, his family’s economic status relative to its neighbors was inverted by a move to Beverly Hills, where they were surrounded by those far wealthier and often employed by the lucrative, Depression-proof movie industry. Both juxtapositions heightened his awareness of social and economic inequity and influenced his political development. Progressive and concerned about social justice, young Corman was comfortable rejecting the status quo of midcentury America.
As soon as he achieved independence, Corman turned his back on convention and found his own unique path. He earned a degree in industrial engineering from Stanford, but left his engineering job after only four days, eventually finding work as a bike messenger at 20th Century-Fox. Corman hustled his way into an unpaid second job as a script reader with the intention of moving up in the studio hierarchy. He dismissed every script but one. He saw potential in a previously rejected story about a washed-up gunfighter and rewrote the summary with suggestions that further developed the story and recommended that Gregory Peck be cast in the lead.9 20th Century-Fox followed those suggestions and filmed The Gunfighter, a well-regarded revisionist western, both moody and mature, that critiques the conventional morality of its genre. Corman’s supervisor received credit for Corman’s story suggestions, as well as a bonus, which caused a disillusioned Corman to leave the studio. Still hoping to become a filmmaker, he approached independent low-budget movie distributors with story ideas, hoping to find funding. In 1954, he co-wrote Highway Dragnet for William F. Boidy Productions and worked for free on the set in order to earn an assistant producer’s credit and learn his craft.
Unlike the film studios that made their own movies, independent distributors desperately needed product. As a result, Corman could negotiate with distributors, film laboratories, independent theater chains, and related companies for payment deferrals, advances, and other forms of financial flexibility. By taking advantage of that situation and employing remarkable enterprise, Corman began turning out one picture after another in the 1950s, nearly all of which were genre films: westerns, science fiction, horror, adventure, and teen exploitation movies. Not all of the output was polished, as he admitted:
With almost no training or preparation whatsoever, I was literally learning how to direct motion pictures on the job. It took me four or five of these “training films” to learn what a film school student knows when he graduates. But while the mistakes they make in student films are usually lost forever, mine were immortalized.10
The technical limitations of those early films continue to damage his reputation as a filmmaker, but even the rawest of his work suggests an unusually subversive perspective. He developed a knack for creating engaging stories in confined settings, which helped disguise what he lacked financially and technically. He assembled a semi-regular crew of hardworking actors and writers he trusted to deliver the themes that interested him, which were anti-authoritarian, humanistic, and socially progressive. Many of these films were made for American International Pictures (AIP), which came to dominate the suburban teenage market in the 1950s and ’60s. Corman’s efficiency and teen-friendly subject matter were key to AIP’s success, and he became the director most closely associated with AIP. By juggling money and keeping production costs extremely low, he was able to run a production line that finished 47 movies between 1954 and 1960, all of which he either produced, wrote, directed, or some combination of all three. Unique circumstances allowed him to create a factory-like system11 for movies in which advances for one film might cover the cost of an additional film on the same set and the profits might be used to make a third nearly simultaneously with overlapping actors, sets, and crews. “Roger has cheap genes,” AIP co-founder Samuel Arkoff declared approvingly.12 By consistently finishing movies quickly, under budget, and always making a profit, he earned the right to control the intellectual content of nearly all his films, which was highly unusual at the time. A writer or distributor often suggested a title, subject, or story outline, but Corman usually collaborated with the writer on the story development, so there is a continuity of style and theme throughout his oeuvre. Of the 26 films he directed in the 1950s only one was made from a finished script for a major Hollywood studio – I, Mobster. It is easily his most conventional film, conveying traditional morality and typical gender roles. Nearly all his other movies of this period convey messages that are radical, progressive, and subversive.
The social mores governing women in postwar America gave Corman much to subvert. The decade produced a set of economic, political, social, and cultural circumstances that led to conformity, sexual repression, and intellectual restriction for women. America experienced 98.31% economic growth between World War II and 1961, which resulted in a generally satisfied population.13 The baby boom, which continued through the decade, focused attention on family life. Urban environments changed drastically, as droves of Americans moved to the suburbs for space, a sense of community, a family-friendly lifestyle, and because they could afford the luxury of doing so. All these factors discouraged women from joining the workforce and put pressure on them to conform by marrying and having children.
American cinema in the 1950s was an exaggerated reflection of this American society. The Production Code continued to limit depictions of family, gender roles, sexuality, violence, crime, and values. This meant a profusion of studio-produced historical epics and grand genre pictures (musicals, war pictures, and melodramas, in particular) designed to dazzle and entertain, but not challenge the established paradigm. Few “message pictures” were made, and those were neither revolutionary nor more than moderately successful, so film studios generally avoided personal introspection or criticism of society. Hollywood studios invested heavily in films with a socially conservative perspective, as well as films with Christian subject matter. The top-grossing films in each year leading up to Corman’s directorial debut were King Solomon’s Mines, Quo Vadis, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Robe.
Cracks had been forming in the film industry’s foundation, however. A loosening of the Production Code in 1956 made it easier for filmmakers to explore new themes and subjects previously off-limits. The studios’ ownership of theater chains was also found to be in violation of antitrust practices, which gradually led to a more varied theater system.14 Most helpful, though, was the creation of a new teenage market that could fly under the radar and influence a whole generation of young Americans. AIP came to dominate that market, and Corman was its most frequently employed filmmaker.
The suburban drive-in theater thrived in the car culture of the 1950s. The number of drive-in theaters increased from 548 in 1947 to approximately 4,700 in 1958.15 This increase was the last domino in the inevitable decline of Hollywood’s golden age, which began with the expansion of the American suburbs. Television ownership was now widespread, so suburban families were more likely to stay home for entertainment than drive into town for a movie. Film studios tried to recapture that audience by creating bigger movies (VistaVision, Cinemascope, etc.), with which television could not compete. Their wider screens were best suited to more expansive and therefore more expensive movies, which often needed to be held over at first-string theaters to recoup costs. This led to the death of the neighborhood theaters, which relied on screenings of third-run A pictures, as well as B pictures.16 Costly films and a thriving economy also caused ticket prices at indoor theaters to increase every year but one between 1948 and 1964.17 All of this made drive-in movies more practical, more convenient, and more entertaining for some Americans who wanted to see films outside the increasingly out-of-touch offerings of major studios. This was particularly true for American teenagers who often attended movies in groups and sought story subjects that were unpredictable and provocative. They visited drive-in theaters in droves and came back frequently for fresh fare. The drive-ins cultivated this market: “Teenagers were worth the trouble. The intermission at a teenpic double bill could be more profitable than the box office receipts because refreshment receipts didn’t have to be shared with the distributor.”18 Moviemakers who catered to the teen market, like Corman did, had to work hard to keep up with audience demand.
Drive-ins and the remaining independent neighborhood theaters offered a subversive filmmaker a huge audience and ample cover. The movies that had their first run at these theaters were not widely reviewed and received little attention in the press. This lack of critical attention meant freedom to imply or even demonstrate what was forbidden in the high-end theaters. Hollywood studios attempted to recruit Roger Corman multiple times, but he chose to remain an independent and churn out genre pictures for young audiences so that he could control his content and process.
As a result, Corman won the battle for cultural influence. His teenage audience in the late 1950s and early ’60s grew into a massive counterculture aligned perfectly with his own beliefs and themes. His films were consistently anti-authoritarian, pro-peace, politically radical, and socially progressive. Though not always the plot’s central focus, those values are inherent in his stories and characterizations. The Intruder, his excellent 1962 film about desegregation, is a notable exception in which Corman’s political message was the focus. It is famously the only film he directed that lost money. Normally, though, he wrapped a subversive subtext in an exploitative genre, which allowed him to influence a huge number of young people more likely to respond to the provocative subject matter and empowering messages of Corman’s movies than, for example, MGM’s regressive Gigi or Warner Bros.’ unrelatable A Nun’s Story, both of which were among those studios’ most prestigious movies made during the same period. The sheer quantity of his output also ensured that urban and suburban teenagers had a good chance of seeing more movies directed by Corman than any of his contemporaries. His influence is evident in the prevalence of socially progressive genre films that dominated mainstream filmmaking in the years that followed his directorial career.
While his progressive agenda is evident in many ways, nowhere is it more striking than in his depictions of women. Even current Hollywood films generally fail to measure up to the bar Corman set in presenting women in the 1950s. The characters he developed with his writers are consistently and unapologetically ambitious, sexual, intelligent, and adventurous. They are not restricted in their dress, profession, or behavior, unless it is done to show the gross unfairness of that restriction. This advanced presentation of women and equality is by no means common to independent movies or the teen market. One cannot fully appreciate the feminism of Roger Corman until his work is compared to that of his contemporaries. It is not present in the works of Jerry Warren, Bert I. Gordon, Robert L. Lippert, and the many other producers and directors who worked on what became known as “Poverty Row.”19 In those films, women were nearly always decorative and in need of rescuing. Their behavior and professions were bifurcated into two distinctly separate camps of good girls and tramps if they were young enough or kindly mothers and evil crones if they had entered middle age. In Corman’s films, on the other hand, women’s options were myriad.
His first wave of films, from Five Guns West in 1955 to Creature from the Haunted Sea at the end of the decade, is the purest distillation of the Corman paradigm because he afterward turned to literary adaptations, historical biographies, and completed scripts. He no longer molded his stories. He also pulled away from directing and issued far fewer films. Between 1955 and 1960 he averaged a finished film nearly every seven weeks. The following analysis of women in Corman’s first 26 films illustrates his Sarah Grand-style feminism and explores the essential elements of the “Corman woman,” the archetype that embodies his female ideal. It will also describe how he positions characters both inside and outside the standard gender-based limitations of his era in order to show the negative impact of those limitations and present better options for women, men, and their partnerships. Corman’s films do not refer directly to the New Woman, nor to the theories of Sarah Grand. Rather, they are infused with their influence, handed down through progressive literature and the visual culture of an earlier and more self-consciously modern America.
Many women in the earliest Corman films are strikingly dissatisfied. Possessed of adventurous spirit, ambition, and a healthy sexual appetite, these Corman heroines are anxious to leave inferior husbands and homes behind. Corman’s directorial debut, Five Guns West, offers a textbook example. Shalee, the only female character in the film, works at an isolated stagecoach station. The plot Corman developed involves five criminals captured by the Confederate Army who are offered their freedom in exchange for crossing enemy lines to capture a Union spy at Shalee’s station. Shalee’s most notable qualities are boredom and hunger. She wants much more than her environment can provide, including adventure, travel, and romance. She is underutilized at the station, but manages it effectively without the help of her drunken uncle (one of many ineffectual male authority figures in Corman’s films). Her restlessness leads to recklessness. When the Confederate spies first approach, her uncle warns her that they might be thieves. “Almost wish it was, to see a new face,” she responds. She is suspicious of the men, so she spies on them and later defends her station from their armed attack. Her sexual hunger is also evident in her interactions with the men. Shalee’s potent sexuality is worn casually. It makes the men around her comically and ardently desirous, effectively reducing them to adolescent lust, in a throwback to a Gibson Girl trope.
Five Guns West was released in 1955, when Hollywood movies were largely ignoring women (Mister Roberts, Blackboard Jungle) or punishing them for sharing Shalee’s restlessness (East of Eden, Picnic, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Love Me or Leave Me, Night of the Hunter, and so on). In Five Guns West, however, Shalee is clearly an admirable character. Not yet in control of his visuals, but clearly in control of his story and message, Corman allows Shalee to dominate the plot and the frame. The film’s only heroic male, an undercover agent named Sturges, recognizes Shalee’s inherent power, admires her bravery, and finds himself completely unable to control it. This is even vocalized when Shalee proudly informs Sturges she isn’t afraid of him. “I’m afraid of you!” he replies to a visibly pleased Shalee.
Shalee was followed by a long series of adventurous, ambitious, and amorous women in the Corman catalog, who could not be sustained by conventional lives and marriages. In Machine Gun Kelly, Flo pushes her titular partner into increasingly risky crimes. In The Last Woman on Earth, Evelyn longs to escape her stifling marriage. In Carnival Rock, Natalie demands self-actualization by leaving her passionless marriage, exclaiming, “I gotta live my life!” The title character in Apache Woman is described by a townsman as “a diamond-back rattler,” but the title sequence, which features mock Indian glyphs, associates her name with winged creatures – a butterfly and a bird. The film introduces her as a creature that longs to fly.
Corman’s women are also physically, emotionally, and mentally fit. His female characters regularly perform feats of strength that their mainstream cinematic sisters left to men. Their physical abilities and aggression are demonstrated with no irony and little, if any, comment about their unconventional behavior. The female gangsters in Swamp Women, for example, trudge through a thick, snake-infested swamp pulling a boat with the muscular, but helpless, male lead tied up inside. (In reality, as well as on film, because Corman could not afford stunt doubles.)20 The women in The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent also exhibit great strength, as well as fighting and seafaring skill. Physical strength is crucial for their lifestyle. It is not age, but strength and the ability to fight that determine whether these Vikings are eligible to vote, which the women demonstrate by hurling heavy spears at a target.
Grand’s women and Corman’s women share altruistic and formidable qualities. Grand believes it is the role of the New Woman to do good in the world and rescue “the desolate and the oppressed.”21 This altruism is “often inconvenient to man, especially when he has seized upon a defenceless [sic] victim whom he would have destroyed had we not come to the rescue.…”22 Corman’s women frequently rescue others through acts of physical strength or intelligence. Formidability is demonstrated by mental and emotional strength, as well as physical ability. Bravery and ingenuity are essential elements of the Corman woman’s success. Bravery is evident in dialogue and in action. A witch in The Undead takes on Satan and proves herself his superior in strength and cleverness. When a rescue is called for in a Roger Corman movie, women are just as likely to lead the charge as are men. Women affect the rescue of male characters through a combination of physical strength, bravery, and ingenuity in a number of stories. Mahia, the female lead in She Gods of Shark Reef, twice rescues the male lead from a shark attack during the film. The plot of The Saga of the Viking Women…, in fact, hinges on the women’s decision to travel across the sea to rescue the men from their village, who have been taken prisoner.
Corman’s women are often aggressive fighters, as well. The title character in Apache Woman initiates a knife fight with a man who addresses her with a racial slur. The female gang members in Swamp Women periodically fight one another with fists or with guns. Carnival Rock, Sorority Girl, and Teenage Doll all feature physical fights between women that eschew the mainstream presentation of face slaps and hair pulling that typically lead only to dishevelment and loosened clothing. Fights undertaken by women, particularly the gang battle in Teenage Doll, are violent and potentially fatal. A fight starts in Gunslinger when a villainous saloonkeeper sends underlings to kill the noble town marshal. This is a conventional scenario in westerns, but Corman reconfigures all of the roles for women, resulting in campy subversion. The dastardly saloonkeeper and upright marshal are both women. The underlings in question are not cowboys, but saloon girls who trade their can-can skirts for leathers and boots before going on the attack. In another early Corman Western, Oklahoma Woman, the title character is introduced kicking and whipping a gambler before tossing him from her saloon. Oklahoma Woman also features a notoriously violent fight between the two female leads – honorable rancher Susan and ruthless saloon keeper “Oklahoma.” Silver and Ursini describe it in Roger Corman: Metaphysics on a Shoestring:
The climax of the film is the physical battle between Susan and Oklahoma over their “property” – Steve Ward. It is an extended scene, invoking the traditional “catfight” so endemic to exploitation films. This battle, however, not only leaves the women in tatters, but also destroys the saloon. Like classical furies, these women have solved their problems physically rather than verbally.23
Corman’s staging of Susan’s fight entrance is striking. It starts with the stereotypical saloon fight entrance, in which a character, typically a man before this film, bursts through swinging saloon half-doors. He then cuts between Susan and Oklahoma, closing in each time on Susan, who looks increasingly fierce with teeth bared and eyes glaring. While Silver and Ursini see a more violent version of a “traditional ‘catfight,’” it is actually a more violent version of a traditional saloon fight. There’s no reason to qualify it as a “catfight,” a belittling term that reduces women to domestic animals and their fights to spats. The weapons Susan and Oklahoma use are fists, blunt objects, and broken glass. The only time hair is pulled is when one woman grips her opponent’s hair in order to bang her head against the bar. Susan only stops fighting because she has pulverized Oklahoma and it is no longer productive to continue: “I could beat you ten times over if I had anything to fight for.” Silver and Ursini also diminish the impact of this violent fight in their analysis by shifting the motivation to a simple love triangle, a shallow explanation focused on gratifying male ego. The fight is in response to Oklahoma’s reign of terror over Susan’s hometown, culminating in her murder of Susan’s father. The fact that both women desire the same man has little bearing on the fight’s motivation.
Even female characters who appear conventional on the surface possess intrinsic formidability. Not of This Earth’s Nadine, for example, is traditionally feminine in dress, works in a traditional job as a nurse and is part of a traditional romance with a police officer. Yet, when she discovers that the patient under her care is actually an alien planning to annihilate the human race, her bravery and ingenuity make her the film’s most powerful character. In a mainstream movie of the period one would expect a male scientist –the physician for whom Nadine works, for example – to discover the alien’s identity and Nadine’s police officer-boyfriend to rescue her and destroy the alien. Corman inverts the roles entirely. Nadine is smarter than the physician and braver than the cop. It is she who uncovers the alien’s plot and helps to stop him. She is also armed with a natural weapon against him: as a woman, she can scream at a higher pitch, which renders him helpless. Corman frames Nadine heroically, often filming her from below so that she dominates the screen or as a calm central figure, surrounded by panicking men. Nadine’s power is reinforced in dialogue. For example:
Nadine: Don’t worry about me. Did you ever try and tangle with a nurse?
Sherbourne: No, but I’ve seen some heavyweights taken down when they tried.
Nadine: There’s some things about our training that would surprise you.
The formidability of Corman’s early women is often tied to their sexuality. Women who enjoy or desire sex are nearly always sympathetic and able to reduce men to ardent and ineffective suitors. A gang of criminals in Naked Paradise, for example, self-destructs under the influence of the women they desire. In Five Guns West, Sturgis separates Shalee from the men he commands because he cannot control them, nor can they control themselves, in her flirtatious presence. The power of female sexuality is acknowledged in dialogue, as well as action. The title character in Oklahoma Woman suggests that women are innately dangerous. When an adversary visits her in her bedroom, which is on the second floor of her saloon, she tells him, “You’re on dangerous grounds, Sheriff. Down there I’m a saloonkeeper, but up here I’m a woman.”
Sexual gratification as self-empowerment is best exemplified by Flo in Machine Gun Kelly, who is played by Susan Cabot, an actress Corman often cast to convey a potent and sometimes sinister sexuality, while still eliciting audience sympathy. Corman and screenwriter R. Wright Campbell present George “Machine Gun” Kelly as a morbid neurotic manipulated by his girlfriend, Flo, into criminal acts of brutality. Flo’s sexuality is evident in her dress, her languid manner, and her risqué conversation. Corman associates Flo with the morals and unfettered sexual drive of a wild animal. He does this visually by draping her in fur and positioning her in the languorous pose of a drowsy panther. A big-game hunter and a mountain lion figure prominently in the plot, which keeps the association in mind. Additionally, there is dialogue like this: “You like to be looked at, don’t you? You like to be petted. You like soft things. Fur for your neck.” Flo’s attractiveness, like Shalee’s and Oklahoma’s, disarms men, who fight and compete with one another in her presence. She maneuvers them for her own gain. Some she reduces to children, like George, whom she calls “my little baby.” Some she reduces to masochists, like Harry, the hunter. While arguing with Harry, George admonishes him to behave, “or I’ll have Flo here slap you silly.” “Want me to, Harry? I think you’d like it,” purrs Flo.
Nadine’s engagement does not prevent her from enjoying a flirtation with Jeremy, the handsome houseboy in Not of This Earth. The script by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna presents him as a sexual creature who desires her, though she coldly resists him. Corman’s staging of their scenes, however, establishes a playful mutual attraction and further develops both characters. The script includes a scene in which Jeremy’s flirtatiousness is met with Nadine’s indifference. The script notes for the scene focus on male desire: “Jeremy mentally licks his chops and gets very close to bedroom door before slam.” Corman’s blocking, however, gives Nadine control, as well as the playful kink of a dominatrix. Corman stretches a sheet between the two on a diagonal and places Nadine in the foreground where he can draw both Jeremy’s and the audience’s eye to her legs as she pulls on her stockings. He flirts and she teases, “I’m not here to keep you happy, Jeremy.” He creeps in toward her, and she rises until they are just opposite one another, separated by the bedsheet. She wears underclothes and stockings. His jacket is unbuttoned, showing an undershirt and a strong body. The placement of the bodies implies a sexual encounter. She intentionally tempts him to the edge of the screen and then slaps his face with the back of her hand. It isn’t hard enough to hurt and it makes him laugh. It is also teasingly sadistic and leads to a second encounter at the pool which is rich with sexual euphemism.
Jeremy: “You’re gonna make yourself wet.”
Nadine: “I think everyone in the house can use a little exercise.”
Jeremy: “I’ve got a hook and line inside. Maybe I should use it.”
Nadine: “I’m afraid, Jeremy, you just haven’t got the right bait.”
Nadine dismisses him before diving into the pool. She is, again, in the power position.
Corman’s independent distribution and underground methods helped insulate him from the censorship that impacted American studio films. Much of his subversive messaging stayed intact, possibly because censors could not always interpret the alternate culture of Corman’s films in the 1950s. On occasions when they were censored, female empowerment and sexuality were targets. The Prodcution Code Administration insisted on changes to a scene from Sorority Girl that made that scene both more conventional and demeaning. PCA reviewer Geoffrey M. Spurlock rejected the script, but offered the following suggestions:
The sequence in which Sabra administers the vicious whipping to Ellie with the belt is unacceptable for two major reasons: the most important of which is established on Page 64 – that Sabra has achieved a perverted sexual satisfaction from administering the beating – and, secondly, the belt that she uses implants in this entire sequence an overtone of sadism and brutality which is unacceptable. We believe the same story point could be established if she were to employ the traditional paddle used in the sorority and fraternity initiations and it were indicated that she struck Ellie several times (in all likelihood across the posterior) with this paddle. In any event, any overtones of sex perversion will make this impossible for us to approve this entire sequence.24
In the script, Ellie is masochistically enthralled by the dominating Sabra. The recommended change further demeans Ellie with a punishment normally used for children. It also replaces homoerotic sadism with a conventional collegiate ritual more acceptable to the male censors. It is most important, as Spurlock explains above, to eliminate the women’s sexual satisfaction. Sabra’s and Ellie’s lesbianism becomes less explicit and their identities as sexual beings are replaced by identities as sexual objects. The toxicity of their relationship remains, but their pleasure is censored.
The prevailing attitudes of the 1950s are rejected by Corman characters who accept and, occasionally, celebrate female sexuality. On the rare occasion when a character attempts to enforce a double standard for sexual expression, it is answered visually and verbally. The villain in Naked Paradise attempts to separate Duke, the male lead, from Max, the female lead, by informing Duke that Max is chronically promiscuous. In the scene that follows, Duke delivers a long speech justifying non-exclusive sexual activity as a woman’s right and rejects the condemnation of women who exchange sex for security when options are few. He skewers the “hypocrisy of respectable women” who have themselves exchanged sex for the security of marriage but condemn unmarried women who benefit from other forms of sexual engagement. He assures Max of her right to choose her sexual partners without answering to anyone else, including him. Instead of focusing on Duke, Corman employs a very long close-up of Max’s hurt, worried face. Her head is framed by a torrent of water flying off a waterfall behind her, giving a sense of the tempestuousness behind her tense exterior. This framing highlights the pain and chaos caused by the condemnation of female sexual expression and rejects this attempt to weaken a woman through the policing of her sexuality. Duke earns the right to become Max’s partner with his declaration of support.
The Corman woman of the 1950s might be adventurous, strong, and sexually aggressive, but that did not prevent her from being constantly underestimated by some of the men around her. Even without those qualities, she would likely exceed the very low expectations of many male characters. When a misguided scientist in It Conquered the World helps an alien enslave humans through mind control that erases emotion and personality, he assures his wife that he will still need her after the alien takeover because of her “warmth and beauty.” He will be satisfied with a woman stripped of everything except her looks and affection. His brave and clever wife furiously responds that he can hire a woman who “matches all his fetishes” before striking out to do what he cannot – fight the alien invader.
There is a clear difference between the perceived and the actual abilities of the Corman woman. Multiple films suggest that the source of this discrepancy is the inability of others to see beyond their assumptions. Scenes of masculine dismissal are often juxtaposed with visual evidence of feminine ingenuity and fortitude. In The Undead, for example, mystic Quintus hires a prostitute named Diana to serve as a test subject in his reincarnation experiments. “Her type is the most easily influenced of basic character groups. Almost devoid of willpower,” Quintus tells his male associate, “That’s why I chose one of her class.” Corman’s camera captures Diana quietly picking the pockets of their jackets as she listens to them discuss and dismiss her as if she were an unfeeling object.
The modern workplace is the site of particularly dismissive behavior. In War of the Satellites, for example, Susan Cabot plays Dr. Carrington, a scientist who correlates observed data for the space program but is still required to answer the phone and “type this up” for her male colleagues. Her colleagues also debate whether they should order her off a dangerous mission for her own protection. An alien infiltrator points out that “Ms. Carrington is a very capable young woman, capable of making her own decisions,” which suggests that extraterrestrials would likely have more respect for women than do male earthlings. Her presence proves absolutely necessary to the mission’s successful outcome, as her quick thinking saves the satellite.
Wasp Woman features two women struggling with the expectations of male colleagues. Janice is the CEO of a cosmetics company, and Mary works in the company’s office. Male board members insist that Janice is reducing the company’s profits because she is no longer sufficiently attractive to represent a cosmetics company, having entered middle age. After being hounded by these men to improve her appearance, she takes youthening injections of wasp jelly. The injections do give her a younger appearance, but they also periodically turn her into a homicidal wasp woman. Corman, who wrote the story outline, originally planned for the protagonist to be an actress, but wanted to show that ageism impacts women in other fields, as well.25 Tellingly, the same male colleagues who berate Janice for aging ridicule her for seeking a solution and for “being so anxious to turn back time that she falls for the first phony line she hears.” Corman’s plot makes apparent that men are affronted not simply by the appearance of women’s aging, but by the very fact of women’s aging. Mary is the only employee who sympathizes with Janice and recognizes the unfairness of her position.
The underestimation of Janice is based on a combination of age and gender. The underestimation of Mary, on the other hand, is purely the result of gender. She is the first to suspect Janice’s monstrosity, but her observations are ridiculed by her male colleagues. They do not acknowledge their mistake or apologize to Mary after her investigation proves that her suspicions were true. In fact, they press Mary to engage in increasingly risky behavior to get more information. Corman’s early plots often involve a woman taking on the dangerous role of detective after her male associates ridicule and patronize her for voicing suspicions that ultimately prove correct. The first of these underestimated women appeared in Monster from the Ocean Floor, the first film Corman produced, but which he did not direct. He also developed that story, which shows he was sensitive to male condescension from the beginning of his career.
Corman’s underestimated women are part of a generation awkwardly transitioning between tradition and modernity. They aren’t given authority or credited with much intelligence, yet they do not benefit from the gallantry expected of, but not always offered by, earlier men. One example of this is Wasp Woman’s Mary. She has a job and is therefore financially self-sufficient. She even pays for lunch with her male colleagues occasionally, depending on who wins the coin toss. When she objects to performing an act of theft that would endanger her job in order to protect a male colleague’s, however, he responds, “Well, I’m afraid that’s a chance you’ll have to take, Mary.” The assumption is that his employment is more important than hers, as is their company’s bottom line.
The chronic devaluation of women is not only perpetuated by men. A female police dispatcher dismisses Nadine as a hysteric when she calls for assistance in Not of This Earth. It is also not always a negative. A captured group in Naked Paradise are able to escape only because their captors focus on the one man in their group and ignore the women. It is, however, always an indication that the person underestimating the women is of a lesser and meaner character.
It is also part of an anti-authoritarian critique of society, which figures throughout Roger Corman’s oeuvre as director and producer. Most members of privileged classes are blind to social, racial, and gender inequity. When faced with a reality that runs counter to their expectations, they behave as though reality matches those false expectations. The women’s accomplishments and abilities, therefore, are unacknowledged. In story and in visuals, Corman juxtaposes the reality, in which the women are capable and important, against the false perception that they are not. The injustice of this dichotomy and the challenges it imposes constantly jeopardize the safety of the society. Well-being is achieved when the women compensate for privileged but inferior men by outperforming them, as in Gunslinger, Not of This Earth, and The Undead, or when a man breaks with his privileged class to partner with a woman in overcoming a malignant authority figure, as in Naked Paradise and She-Gods of Shark Reef. In the first scenario, the social structure is inverted. In the second, an imbalanced structure is replaced with a balanced one. Both strategies help male, as well as female, characters overcome the social limitations of their genders.
From the beginning of his film career, Corman planted female characters in roles far different from those seen in most mainstream films. As a result of their strengths and ambitions, these characters were well suited to professions that offered power, danger, and intellectual challenge. Even before he began to direct, Corman developed the story for and produced The Fast and the Furious (1955), which starred Dorothy Malone as a competitive auto racer. While it is unusual to see any women in corporate, scientific, military, law enforcement, or criminal organizations in studio films of the 1950s, Corman’s early women serve as leaders in all those fields. The titular Wasp Woman is the CEO of a major company, which employs women on the board of directors and in other important roles. Women portray research scientists in War of the Satellites, Attack of the Crab Monsters, and It Conquered the World. The last also features female soldiers. The Viking women serve as military leaders in The Saga of the Viking Women…. The female leads in Swamp Women and Gunslinger are a decorated police officer and the town marshal. All-female gangs are the focus of both Swamp Women and Teenage Doll. Another all-female community is featured in She Gods of Shark Reef. The women in that film live and work collectively, managed by a priestess, and worship sharks as goddesses (not gods, notice). The presentation of women serving in these positions is straightforward. It is understood that women can perform these roles and live their lives as they choose.
Corman sometimes winks at the unconventionality of his films. Gunslinger, for example, takes place in a town called Oracle. Though most oracles were men, the most preeminent and prestigious, the Oracle of Delphi, was a woman.26 The name of the town, therefore, invokes a famous woman in a male-dominated profession, just like the marshal in the movie. The name of the gang in Teenage Doll, the Black Widows, is also apt. Black widow spiders eat their mates and live alone. These Black Widows need no support from men, whether financial, emotional, or physical. This contrasts with the film’s other female characters, nearly all of whom are deeply dependent on men for validation and financial support. Both a mother and her teenage daughter hunger for approval from their emotionally abusive partners in the film. Another girl feels she must date her supervisor in order to acquire the material possessions she wants. In fact, all of the women outside the Black Widows are humiliated by their circumstances and their toxic relationships with men who have power over them.
In addition to the naming of Oracle and the Black Widows, there are many indications that Corman is intentionally expanding gender roles. Gender fluidity is visible in dress, mannerism, and character presentation. His earliest work includes a number of deep-voiced female protagonists with masculine dress and appearance, who are, nevertheless, greatly desired by male characters. The title characters in the Westerns Apache Woman, Gunslinger, and Oklahoma Woman wear either pants or dresses, depending on what actions are required of them that day. The titular Apache Woman is introduced wearing leather pants in a street fight. When she later changes into a dress, she becomes a less potent character and more inclined to defer to the men in her life. The clothes are more conventional, and she becomes more conventional wearing them. The clothes are, therefore, a socially constructed costume.
Fluidity in gender representation is also striking in Swamp Women¸ where the deep-voiced, short-haired, square-jawed Lieutenant Lee Hampton of the New Orleans Police Department, played by Carole Matthews, attracts the desire of the equally deep-voiced, short-haired, square-jawed hero played by former basketball star Mike “Touch” Connors. The behavior of the Swamp Women while in prison is no different than the behavior of male convicts in prison movies, like Birdman of Alcatraz or Cool Hand Luke. In the prison sequence, women fight and wisecrack. Their mannerisms are stiff and graceless. In a world without men, their manner encompasses both gender roles. Their femininity again becomes performative when they kidnap Touch Connors and his date, Marie, a bejeweled Southern belle in a lacy sundress. The gangsters verbally acknowledge his handsome looks and adopt conventionally feminine mannerisms. The most sexually assertive of the women fondles his passive body while he is tied up. When the girls become tipsy from alcohol, they cut off their pants to reveal their legs. “The Nardo Girls never run around in pants like a bunch of boys,” says one. They still differentiate themselves from Marie, however, who earns their disdain by being weak, whiny, and helpless. They establish their own femininity, proud and aggressive, separate from Marie’s more traditional femininity, which is based in fragility.
Swamp Women also features another fight between women that defies gender expectations when two women box one another. Women fight with fists and guns in Gunslinger. After one such fight, a woman receives a shoulder massage from her male employee, as if she were resting in the corner of a boxing ring. The act of fighting is, therefore, also liberated from gender-based rules.
The films for which Corman developed stories bear the greatest evidence of gender fluidity. Little Shop of Horrors, for example, is the story of Seymour, who nurtures an unusual plant he names Audrey Jr., which grows into a monster that lives on human blood. Seymour is essentially the mother of Audrey Jr. Audrey Jr. has a woman’s name but is voiced by a bellowing baritone (screenwriter Charles Griffith provided the voice) and is referred to by both male and female pronouns. Another story Corman helped develop, Naked Paradise, plays with gender in dialogue and plot. The female lead sexually pursues a man, whom she calls beautiful instead of handsome. She also corrects him when he addresses her formally. She prefers a masculine nickname to a feminine title, which she emphasizes: “Nobody calls me Mzzzzz McKenzie. Everyone just calls me Max.”
Roles and behaviors do not box in characters with a proscribed set of rules and expectations in Corman’s early work. Women are not exchanging the limitations of one role for the limitations of another one. Being a career woman, for example, does not prevent one from having romance or a family life. Being in a service position does not prevent one from also serving as a leader. Being an American woman in 1958 does not prevent one from enjoying an unapologetic sex life with multiple partners. Being a sorority girl does not insulate one from violence and cruelty. The panoply of experiences for gender and sexual expression results, instead, in richer characters and more complicated storylines.
As part of their liberation from convention, Corman empowers female characters with choices both real and metaphorical. Even a common love triangle can represent female empowerment, with the choice between the past and future made symbolically by a choice between two men who represent regressive and progressive paths. Corman’s early Westerns and apocalyptic science fiction occur at transitional, even crucial times, when decisions impact the future of a society, place, or community. With a woman positioned between traditional and progressive male suitors, Corman creates the ultimate matriarch who is responsible for the destiny of the world. She has the right of choice, but when she veers in a regressive direction, the wrong is evident. It is clear which path is Corman’s preference. Women decide their own destiny in nearly all of Corman’s output, most notably in Apache Women, She-Gods of Shark Reef, Naked Paradise, and The Undead, where the plots hinge on women’s self-determination.
Women are given the right to make significant, influential choices for society. In The Day the World Ended, Louise is pursued by both the heroic Rick and the cruel Tony. As Louise appears to be the last woman alive on the planet by the end of the movie, it is important that she choose the better culture and values for the human race of the future. Although women do not yet have the vote in Oklahoma Woman, they determine government representation. Saloon owner and Tammany Hall-style political boss Marie finally loses control of the town because all the local women demand that their husbands support the virtuous and law-abiding opposition candidate. Even her saloon girls collectively walk off the job to protest her corruption. “It’s the women…” she is told, “They beat you.”
Corman is not merely responsible for the implementation of these themes of empowerment and female complexity. He intentionally wove them into genre scripts to express his own sociopolitical beliefs. Apache Woman was a completed script when presented to Corman by the American Releasing Corporation (an early iteration of AIP). Corman took a straightforward Western plot and invested it with a subplot in which a biracial woman must navigate cultural division and prejudice in order to develop a post-ethnic identity. The subplot is the most compelling aspect of the film and elevates it above the standard low-budget romantic Western of the era. In his autobiography, Corman writes, “I was always politically liberal and I tried, even on my earliest films, to work in some of my beliefs. Apache Woman was a good action script written by Lou Rusoff to which I added a subplot dealing with prejudice against another kind of outcast, the so-called half-breed trapped between white and Indian cultures.”27 This plot concerns a biracial brother and sister. Anne, the sister, is the New American Woman, living outside two cultures, yet explicitly of both. She tries to make a place for herself and her brother, a tormented and angry outcast. As the film opens, she vacillates between her Apache and European identities, each of which is evidenced by distinct dress and behavior. When the Apache identity dominates, Anne dresses in buckskin pants, fights racist townsmen, and prefers independence to the admiring government agent played by Lloyd Bridges. When the European identity dominates, she wears dresses, attends to domestic tasks, and is more amenable to the advances of Lloyd Bridges’s Rex. Both identities provide her with good instincts that reflect ethnic stereotypes of the 1950s. The Apache woman is brave and able to withstand adversity. The European woman has an instinct for homesteading and society-building. Corman blocks Rex and Anne’s first kiss, so that the conflict between the identities is visible. Both identities struggle for dominance. When Rex first kisses her, he leans her body back. She wears a dress, her voice and body shake, and she looks panicked. “I wanted to kiss you the very first time I saw you.” “When I was going to kill you with a knife?” “Uh huh. You’re very exciting when you get mad.” When reminded of her anger, her physical manner changes entirely, and she takes over the role of aggressor. She leans in, forcing Rex to bend back despite his greater height, and demands more affection from him: “Is that all?” Their conflicting identities cause Anne and her brother to be rejected by both Indian and white society. They literally live on the road between the Indian reservation and the all-white town. While Anne is attempting to develop an identity that fuses cultures, her brother is at war with himself. He resents his rejection by both societies and despises his own ethnic lineage. Needing to align with one side or the other, he engages a small group of Apache men to kill white townspeople and thus adopts an identity that confirms their worst stereotypes. Anne must choose between her regressive, violent brother and the progressive Rex, the only other character who transcends the divided society and values Anne’s complicated dual nature. She is able to find a post-tribal solution with the more enlightened man, where her ethnicities are conjoined and she is made stronger. Anne’s New Woman-style complexity is her most positive quality.
Corman has little use for the fragile female who cannot grow outside her role as supportive wife or girlfriend. Notable examples include Swamp Women’s Marie, who is so useless that the female gang members never bother to tie her up and she still dies accidentally, without ever attempting escape. Teenage Doll features a mother and daughter who are both victimized by abusive, controlling men, but elicit no sympathy. The mother’s dress, hair, and obsessive love for her first boyfriend all suggest she is trapped in a childlike state. Under the influence of her infantile, helpless mother and her tyrannical father, the daughter is predictably attracted to a cruel boy and unable to care for herself. Both women are presented as authors of their own victimization, who submit to and even pursue a life with abusive men. The gang members in that film, on the other hand, attempt to escape poverty and oppression by joining an empowered criminal community. While the film does not celebrate their life of crime, it recognizes their perseverance and offers a sympathetic view of women who deserve better options. The Last Woman on Earth features Evelyn, another passive woman who allows two men – her husband and her lover – to determine her future. She meets the latter at a cockfight (one of Corman’s least subtle metaphors) and introduces herself: “I’m Ev Gern.” He seeks clarification: “Harold’s what?” “Occasionally,” she replies. She is a weak and male-dependent woman, so the man needs to establish her relationship with another male in order to establish her identity. “I have so little to say and nobody who’ll listen,” she muses aloud later, as she walks about in a suicidal, alcoholic fog. Corman’s feminism is particularly notable when one compares The Last Woman on Earth with The Creature from the Haunted Sea, which he filmed simultaneously on the same location with the same cast. Corman supplied only the basic story idea for the first film and hired Robert Towne to write the script. He dictated the second plot to collaborator Charles Griffith.28 It is the second film, therefore, that bears the Corman perspective. It is a sort of parody of The Last Woman on Earth with the same leads comprising the love triangle. Betsy Jones-Moreland plays both women, Antony Carbone plays her partners, and Robert Towne plays the other man. In The Last Woman on Earth, Jones-Moreland plays a woman who might appear in any mainstream film of the period with tragic and unsatisfying results. In The Creature from the Haunted Sea, however, she plays one of Corman’s assertive women. Mary-belle is a dice-throwing mob associate. She is amused by the adoration of Robert Towne’s character, whom she considers moronic. He tries to persuade her to escape with him, mirroring the plot of the first film. “You’re a victim of circumstance,” he insists, “You’re innocent.” “I am perfectly adjusted to my life of crime,” she tartly responds. When he pathetically attempts to rescue her after she is pushed into the ocean by another woman, she punches him in the face to rid herself of his presence. She is a fully self-actualized postmodern woman who chooses her own fate. As a woman who is both strong and sexual, she is in the power position in her relationship with her partner, which is the inverse of their relationship in The Last Woman on Earth. When the story is more tightly under Corman’s control, the unhappy, weak, indecisive, and self-destructive woman becomes happy, strong, confident, and self-aware. The men also become more palatable and even lovable. The dictatorial husband becomes sweetly sentimental. The lover who was an impotent millstone becomes an endearingly goofy buffoon.
Hypermasculinity is an exaggerated form of stereotypical male behavior that emphasizes physical strength, aggressive sexuality, and violence. The devaluation and objectification of women is a key element of hypermasculinity. In Corman’s films it is a burden that limits men’s happiness and causes them to be rejected by the women they admire. Instead, the Corman Woman prefers men who display kindness and who appreciate her strength and independence. In some films (e.g., Gunslinger, Teenage Doll, and The Wasp Woman) she elects to live without a male partner, as none can serve as her equal. In films where two men court a Corman Woman, she inevitably selects the man who is liberated from hypermasculinity.
Hypermasculine leaders and societies are dysfunctional. The Grimolts in The Saga of the Viking Women… are a male-dominated society whose leaders are tyrannical men who inherit position from their fathers, unlike the Viking society, a democracy in which both genders participate. The only Grimolt women we see are sexual objects and concubines. In the absence of equal female partners, the Grimolt men descend into extremes of violence, vanity, and jealousy over the unattainable Viking women who defeat them.
Corman’s presentation of masculinity evolved slightly during the 1950s. From the beginning of his career, however, he presents hypermasculine aggression and entitlement as a potentially dangerous negative. The characters whose masculinity is most exaggerated are consistently undermined by an inherent weakness that belies their masculine feature. A boxer is afraid to fight outside the ring. Authority figures are incapable of leadership. Toughened criminals are overpowered by their own emotions. Corman presents male violence, aggression, athleticism, and other forms of hypermasculinity as an affected performance by weak and pathetic men.
In the 26 films that constitute his first wave as a director, Corman also employed contradiction to create sympathetic male characters released from regulated gender performance. Male authority figures are consistently ineffectual when their authority is given due to their profession, sex, or age, rather than earned through a psychological aptitude for leadership. As the station manager in Five Guns West, Uncle Mike is in charge during the hostile takeover of his station, but it is his niece who is capable of dealing with the crisis. She tells him frankly that she will have a better chance than he at saving the others, relieving him of his obligations. He has authority, but no responsibility, whereas she has all the responsibility without any official authority. Uncle Mike was followed by many ineffectual authority figures in professions typically reserved for men. These include the sheriff in Apache Woman, the physician in Not of this Earth, the professor in The Undead, and the policeman in several movies. Rather than solve the problems of the people and patients under their care, they take a fatalistic approach to crisis management. “It’s in the hands of God,” says the physician. “I have no choice,” says the professor. It is generally the role of the Corman Woman to dismiss the ineffectual male and overcome whatever threat moves the plot of her film. Nadine in Not of this Earth, for example, urges her police officer-boyfriend to “stop playing Stormtrooper” when he offers her protection. After he has ignored her warnings about an alien invasion for most of the movie, he calls her in a panic to tell her that another source has confirmed her suspicions and she is in danger. He would go there himself, he insists, if he didn’t have to go on duty in half an hour. She gently patronizes him: “Maybe you have got something. I’ll tell you what … I’ll look around and see what I can find out MYSELF.”
The Day the Earth Ended presents an interesting juxtaposition between patriarchal and matriarchal leadership. In a post-apocalyptic world, the last survivors are isolated in a home, awaiting the dissipation of the toxic gas that surrounds it. The older man who owns the home assumes the role of God, deciding who may live and who should die. His daughter, however, gently asserts her own authority and overrules him. She also rejects a violent man who adores her to partner with a more generous and courageous man.
Deep emotion is common to Corman’s characters, both noble and villainous. The inability of his hypermasculine characters to process emotion and recover from disappointment leads to self-destruction, violence, and terror. The titular Machine Gun Kelly, for example, is a bully who terrorizes others, but is also morbidly fearful and superstitious. His girlfriend and partner in crime, Flo Becker, remains cool, calm, and in charge while using his fears to control him. During one confrontation between them, Kelly loses control and hits her so hard she falls back against her mother. Flo picks herself up and returns to starting position, finishing her dialogue as if nothing has happened. Kelly is envious of her emotional control. In the final shootout, Kelly wants to give himself up to the police. Flo berates him for cowardice, picks up his guns, and announces plans to continue the fight. If they are captured, she tells Kelly, she will “plead that I’m a woman. And I’m scared of ya.” She chokes with laughter when she says “scared.”
Kelly is one of several oversensitive bullies in Corman films. Stress reduces the two most overtly masculine characters in Five Guns West, Jonathan Haze’s psychopath and Touch Connors’s macho gambler, to a terrified child and a man frozen in panic. Romantic emotion is particularly damaging to the common sense of the most violent men. The criminals in Naked Paradise are consumed by jealousy and unrequited love. One displays increasingly poor judgment after being spurned, leading to his own defeat. His henchman is so disturbed by romantic rejection that he spirals pathetically into mental instability before throwing himself in the way of a spear to save the woman who rejected him. The hired assassin in Gunslinger is also undone by his romantic longing for the woman he was hired to kill. She responds to his declaration of love with a statement about her legal responsibilities as town marshal. Though he takes risks to save Rose, she performs her duty and kills him, even taking advantage of his feelings to do it.
The mental domination of hypermasculine characters is secured through psychological manipulation. Throughout Machine Gun Kelly, for example, Flo treats Kelly like a child, hypnotically calling him her “little baby.” She admits, “I mothered you until you went out to prove to me that you were a man.” When he attempts to wrest back control of their criminal enterprise, she claims a creator’s right: “You were peddling watered-down gin when I picked you up. I gave you the machine gun, the name, the reputation. I gave you a backbone…. Because you were dumb enough and scared enough. I could make you do anything I wanted you to. You were my gun hand.” She admits she intended to leave him without the money after the job. In addition to Flo, a female nurse they kidnap compares him to a child: “Aren’t you a little young for giant steps?” Both women are filmed across or above Charles Bronson’s Kelly, making him appear vulnerable by comparison. The contrast between Kelly’s appearance of strength and his mental and emotional weakness is typical of Corman’s hypermasculine characters.
Powerfully built men in traditional roles are often too overcome by fear to fight. Rock All Night features several physically powerful men, including the boxer, a laborer, and two criminals who are easily disarmed, both physically and mentally, by Shorty, a diminutive anti-authoritarian young man who also wins the film’s ingénue.
Corman’s liberated man is able to express deep emotion and is not threatened by a woman who is his equal. The men Corman values share the same attributes of the Corman women – adventurousness, formidability, and a healthy sexual appetite – without the emotional and physical volatility associated with hypermasculinity. These are more important qualities than superficial considerations, such as appearance or financial stability. They are free from gender-based limitations on behavior and appearance. Unconventional casting contributes to Corman’s messaging. Dick Miller redefines manliness as the romantic hero in Rock All Night, Sorority Girl, and other Corman films. The short, fast-talking, Jewish New Yorker would have been cast in comical or character roles by other filmmakers of that period, but Corman routinely cast him as a desirable or powerful lead, capable of disarming bigger, stronger men through quick wit and quick movement. Corman cast more conventional men, such as Mike Connors, Richard Denning, and John Lund in his earliest films, but these predictable choices quickly gave way to a scrappy, smaller set of regulars, like Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze, and Ed Nelson, who could convey unpredictability and energy.
Corman offers a roadmap to inter-gender partnerships free of domination by illustrating the dysfunctional effects of an imbalanced relationship, as well as the benefits of a relationship free of subjugation. The imbalanced and dysfunctional couples are often the most conventional. The disastrous relationship between Flo and George in Machine Gun Kelly features a strong woman unable to respect her weak partner, annoyed when he exhibits empathy or decency. She is toxic. In Teenage Doll, a girl is twisted into helpless passivity by a cold, cruel father who dominates her childlike mother.
The Saga of the Sea Serpent…, on the other hand, features a couple that appear to be unconventional but represent Corman’s ideal. Statuesque Betsy Jones-Moreland plays Thyra, the strongest warrior in her Viking society. Jonathan Haze, 5’6”, plays Ottar, who is not yet old enough to participate in the rescue mission central to the plot. He defies the age limit, however, and demonstrates bravery and formidability fighting alongside Thyra, who becomes his romantic partner. They appear imbalanced, because of the difference in their ages and height. Such a physically mismatched couple might serve as a comical device in other films of the period. In Corman’s world, however, attributes are determined by actions. Both Thyra and Ottar are courageous and assertive, two of Corman’s most admired attributes, so they create an ideal couple.
While they were in the male-dominated culture of the U.S., the men in She-Gods of Shark Reef were violent criminals. While on the female-dominated Shark Reef, the men become sexualized and passive, until jolted by the threat of coming law enforcement. The protagonist couple elects to escape both cultures and leave in search of another place where they can achieve balance and equity.
In her influential 1894 essay, Sarah Grand cast a mold for a balanced male-female couple, capable of celebrating one another and partnering to create a better world:
All that is over now, however, and while on the one hand man has shrunk to his true proportions in our estimation, we, on the other, have been expanding to our own; and now we come confidently forward to maintain, not that this or that was “intended,” but that there are in ourselves, in both sexes, possibilities hitherto suppressed or abused, which when properly developed, will supply to either what is lacking in the other. The man of the future will be better, while the woman will be stronger and wiser.29
That couple rarely materialized in the cultural documents and entertainments that followed her. When female characters who embodied Grand’s ideals emerged in literature or performance, they were often joined by a lesser male or were forced to sacrifice some of their independence in favor of love and family. The fact that it took so long for American culture to return to those ideals is what makes Corman’s first wave so potently radical. This unconventional auteur was able to draw upon early feminist ideas to present a subversive cinematic universe at a notably regressive time, influencing a generation of teenagers that would rebel against social limits on sex, gender roles, and expression.
- Grand, Sarah. 2013. “The New Aspect of the Woman Question.” A Feminist Reader: Feminist Thought from Sappho to Satrapi, edited by Sharon M. Harris and Lind K. Hughes, Cambridge University Press, p. 458. [↩]
- Cunningham, Gail. 1978. The New Woman and the Victorian Novel. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, pp. 2-19. [↩]
- Downey, Fairfax. 1936. Portrait of an Era as Drawn by C. D. Gibson. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, pp. 184-5. [↩]
- Burr, Ty. 2012. Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 14. [↩]
- LaSalle, Mick. 2000. Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, pp. 189-201. [↩]
- Vieira, Mark A. 1999. Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-code Hollywood. New York: Harry N. Abrams, p. 215. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Corman, Roger, and Jim Jerome. 1998. How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. New York: Da Capo Press, p. 5 [↩]
- Ibid., p. 14. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 16. [↩]
- A 1992 retrospective at the Bergamo Film Meeting in Italy was titled “Corman Factory.” [↩]
- Svehla, Gary, Susan Svehla, Jeff Herberger, Tom Weaver, and Tom Proveaux. 2008. Samuel Z. Arkoff. Narbeth, PA: Alpha Home Entertainment. [↩]
- US GDP Growth Rate by Year. Multpl. Web. n.d. [↩]
- Edgerton, Gary R. 1983. American Film Exhibition and an Analysis of the Motion Picture Industry’s Market Structure, 1963-1980. New York: Garland, pp. 14-19. [↩]
- The 1969 Film Daily Year Book of Motion Pictures. 1969. New York: C.A. Alievate, p. 274. [↩]
- Izod, John. 1988. Hollywood and the Box Office, 1895-1986. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 143. [↩]
- Edgerton, American Film Exhibition, p. 27. [↩]
- Doherty, Thomas P. 2002. Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p. 92. [↩]
- Ray, Fred O. 1991. The New Poverty Row: Independent Filmmakers as Distributors. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland. [↩]
- Silver, Alain, and James Ursini. 2006. Roger Corman: Metaphysics on a Shoestring. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, p. 38. [↩]
- Grand, Sarah. “The New Aspect of the Woman Question,” p. 460. [↩]
- Ibid., pp. 460-461. [↩]
- Silver and Ursini, Roger Corman, p. 41. [↩]
- Geoffrey M. Spurlock, letter to Roger Corman, 10 Jul. 1957. TS. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 120. [↩]
- Flower, Michael A. 2008. The Seer in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press. [↩]
- Corman and Jerome, How I Made a Hundred Movies, p. 30. [↩]
- Ibid, pp. 70-71. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 459. [↩]