Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Castaway Kitty!

Ahoy, mateys! Today, we're going on a rather unusual jaunt, to a place where maritime disaster leads to a semi-uninhabited island on which a luscious redhead parades around with her hair set and sporting a full face of makeup. No, I'm not referring to Tina “Ginger” Louise of Gilligan's Island, but to the crazed world of Robin Crusoe. That is not a typo! Miss Robin Crusoe is the name of a film starring Amanda Blake (known to millions as Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke) as a female version of Daniel Dafoe's literary hero Robinson Crusoe!

Released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1954, Miss Robin Crusoe is a low-budget, yet colorful and beautifully photographed, oddity that seems to have been buried at sea for years, but was recently unearthed by those guardians of vintage cinema over at TCM (Turner Classic Movies.) Could this channel be any more wondrous or more respectful of the rights of lesser-known projects to see the light of day again in something close to their original form?

The story begins with stock footage of a violent sea storm and a ship being tossed to and fro atop the waves. Voiceover narration accompanies a series of diary entries as we are introduced to our heroine, Blake. This shot of her is the first time we see the erstwhile young lady (twenty-five at the time!) and already we can see from the eye makeup and lipstick that this is not likely to be a realistic study of grit and depravity concerning a woman against the jungle.

She recalls through narration how her widowed father had placed her on board his ship as a “cabin boy,” forced to disguise herself under a hat and shirt in order to save on the expense of housing her elsewhere while he was at sea. After the shipwreck, only she and another sailor are left alive.

Hilariously, they've barely woken up when the sailor has discovered and sampled from a barrel of rum and hasn't even bothered to see where they are or what they can salvage before attempting to sexually assault Blake! He informs her that, unlike his colleagues on board the vessel, he wasn't fooled by her disguise. Looking at her bosom from the angle the director chose for this shot, would YOU be fooled, even if you got past the face of Max Factor-esque makeup?! Lord, Bette Davis thought that Joan Crawford's tits rose too high when prone in Baby Jane! Joan's got nothing on Amanda Blake.

Blake puts up a good fight and manages to break away from the inebriated codger. She darts up a steep hill and engages in a dusty, violent scuffle with him (in which Miss Blake appears to be doing most, if not absolutely all, of her own stunt work!) After the tete-a-tete has gone on for a tad longer, she manages to rid herself of the offending scum for good. Take note of the beauteous oceanside scenery of this film, appealing shot in color along the coast of California.

Blake now explores the island alone with only her flintlock rifle for company. Soon, though, she befriends a tiny, cute monkey and acquires a goat for milk. She lugs various bit of debris up into the jungle to create a tree house for herself. Fortunately for her, such items as a saw and a hammer have floated (?!?) ashore for her use! She crafts a small, surprisingly exposed, tree house complete with a trap door. There's also a damaged boat that she intends to repair and eventually row to freedom in.
Somehow, she maintains a mane of groomed hair and a face full of Las Vegas-level makeup despite there being no such beauty supplies nor even anything resembling a mirror in sight.
And what's a castaway movie without the hero or heroine going for a naked swim? In one scene, Blake strips down (while her monkey friend chirps and covers his eyes!) and takes to the water. True, she is wearing something on her front in this rear nude shot, but this was still a rather eye-popping amount of skin for a 1954 movie! The swim itself probably sent quite a few little boy's hearts racing, too, though nothing much is visible. We find as the movie goes along that it is rather progressive in terms of its display of flesh and the insinuations of sexuality.

One day, Blake is scouting the land and is startled to come upon a contingent of colorfully-garbed natives, excitedly carrying two females who are strung up on poles. Captivated by shock and disbelief, she sees them pull down two opposing trees limbs and attach one to each “leg” of a carved, human-like talisman. When they release the tree limbs, the figure is ripped in two, giving the audience a clear idea of what is in store for the ladies without actually having to show something that violent so graphically. The director neatly places one of the ladies' faces between the legs of the dummy so that when it rips apart at the crotch, we see her screaming face! (That's her again, below.)
Sadly, Blake can do nothing for the first woman, who is held upside down, tied to the limbs and rendered into two parts, but she does manage to free the second female (who has passed out in shock.) She drags the unconscious native woman (played by Rosalind Hayes) back to her tree house.

Now, the natives are more than restless and begin to track the women. The plumage of the headhunters' clothing makes for a vivid contrast against the jungle setting.
Now, Blake is forced to fend off a horde of agitated tribesmen, who are tossing javelins and climbing up the steps of the ladder to her tree house. The awakened woman attempts to pitch in, but is nearly killed by one of her former friends when he scampers through the trap door. Fortunately, Blake's rifle gives her the advantage over her enemies and, after a tense skirmish, they depart the scene.

Blake tries to communicate with the native woman, giving her the name Friday because to the best of her recollection it is a Friday and the name apparently stands for freedom. Together, the ladies work on the tree house, milk the goats and basically coexist as a team.

Eventually, Blake's old clothes have given out, so Hayes helps her to fashion a new get-up out of animal hides (did one of the goats suddenly go missing at this point?!) In most shots, Blake's strapless mini-dress covers up her female attributes pretty well, but it must be said that in some of the long shots and action sequences, she is showing a remarkable amount of cleavage for a film of this era! This one hour and fifteen minute action movie was clearly a matinee entry, so again I must say that the little boys in the theater were really getting an eyeful when compared to other flicks of the day.

Blake is happy to have some companionship in her new home, but can't help but be worried when Hayes occasionally slinks off to take part in some of her tribe's more primitive rituals. Here, we see her in the midst of a rhythmic dance, using poles decorated with shrunken heads as accessories. (Where did these come from?! She was rescued with nothing but the clothes on her back.)

To this point, the movie has been a reasonably faithful, albeit gender-swapped, retelling of the famed Daniel Dafoe novel. However, a new element enters the movie, one that for me makes the whole thing worth watching! Blake is striding down the shoreline and suddenly stubs her toe (forward vision apparently not being a strong suit of hers?) upon bits of another wreckage. This time, there are two bodies lying in the sand. One is of a dead man tied to a makeshift raft, but the other is of the hirsute, manly George Nader!

Can you imagine being stuck on an island for months and then one day coming upon this waiting for you on the shore? Blake does exactly what I would do in the same situation. She binds his feet and hands (but leaves his clothes on.) Still distrustful of men following her father's callous treatment of her, the near rape at the hands of the old sailor and the violent behavior of the natives, she is hesitant to let him run free. Both he and Blake are meant to be British subjects, but neither one can even begin to suggest such a thing with their voices, making some of the dialogue come out awkward in the extreme, especially when Nader is called upon to refer to Blake as a “lass.”

She unties him long enough to allow him to preside over his deceased comrade's funeral and finally declares that he is trustworthy enough to stay free. He is not, however, allowed to live with her or be privy to any of her belongings, including the boat she's been working on. Hayes is also more than skeptical of Nader and occasionally bleats out, “Man BAD!”

Nader begins working on his own little shelter, but decides that he must borrow a saw. (By the way, just look at the delectable chest of Mr. Nader here. At no point in the film, apart from his opening scene in which he's almost wearing one, does a shirt ever cover up his upper half!) He proceeds to the tree house, but is confronted by an angry Hayes who tries to kill him!
Blake breaks them up, and lets Nader use the saw for one day, but is still reticent when it comes to him. Now, something really delicious happens. Nader has decided to forgo his calf-length trousers and run around in nothing more than a skimpy loincloth made out of his old sash! It makes one long for a Robinson Crusoe movie starring him and no women in sight! Anyway, he and Hayes have still not settled their hash and she allows him to eat some fruit that she knows to be poisonous! Blake discovers this in time to save him, with Hayes' reluctant help, and winds up moving him into the tree house for a spell.
Blake is beginning to soften towards the hunkalicious Nader and even Hayes begins to see that they make a great couple. (Blake's legs look quite stumpy and unappealing here, however!) Though they still bicker about one thing or another, usually Blake's assertion of power and her protectiveness of the boat, there is undeniable chemistry between them. This is exacerbated by Hayes, who goes off to build a fire and partake in a wild native dance intended to bring these lovers together whether they want to be or not!
Nader goes for a swim in the ocean and when he emerges, the ripened Blake is waiting for him on the shore. They engage in a passionate kiss and proceed to (off camera) make love then and there! (This shot of their shoreline clinch, doubtlessly inspired by the prior year's From Here to Eternity, never appears in the final cut of the movie.)

Interestingly, right before Nader kisses her, Blake is mouthing some line of dialogue, but there is no audio for it, so only expert lip readers know what it was she was saying before he interrupted her with a big smack on the lips.
When Blake awakens, clearly having been loved by Nader in the sand, she is dismayed to find that he has taken off in her boat! Now she is furious with him and with herself as she feels abandoned on the island with no hope. Though it was surely intended to be an innocent expression of sympathy and comfort from Hayes to Blake, this sequence in which Hayes hovers over the sleeping Blake and caresses her hand and hair now takes on a vaguely lesbonic vibe. This is all the more eye-catching for 1954 due to the fact that these ladies are of differing races!

Blake and Hayes don't have much time to fret over their circumstances, though, because soon there is a gaggle of natives back on the island, bent on retrieving and, presumably, killing Hayes.

Fortunately for the ladies, Nader hasn't forsaken them after all. He merely went to a nearby charted island he had been aware of and requested help, then came back to inform the girls. He arrives just in time to take part in a skirmish between Blake and the spear-wielding natives, who relentlessly attempt to kill them both. These scenes afford the viewer further chances to witness Nader trotting around the jungle (apparently barefoot) in his cute little makeshift loincloth.
One of the more entertaining aspects of his outfit is the fact that whenever he goes to stand up or has to move swiftly, the front panel of his mini-sarong rides up and shows off his crotch!
Ending after only seventy-five minutes, the colorful, surprisingly tolerable movie is a fascinating curio. Though the same tale has been filmed countless times (even this very same year with Dan O'Herlihy in Luis Bunuel's Robinson Crusoe) and tweaked into things like Swiss Family Robinson (1960), the idea of making the lead role into a female remains pretty unique.

The director was a Russian man named Eugene Frenke, who only helmed four films (of which this was the last), more often producing properties. Some of his productions include the similarly themed, offbeat male-female pairings of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (about a marine and a nun stranded together, 1957), The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) and The Nun and the Sergeant (1962.) He's seen here with his wife of sixty-one years, a woman by the name of Anna Sten.

If that name seems at all familiar, it could be because she was a notable person in the career of famed producer Samuel Goldwyn. He brought the Russian Sten to the United States in the early-1930s in an attempt to rival the European superstars who were under contract to his competitors like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Note the extremely obvious imitation of Dietrich in this portrait. She knew not one word of English and had to be taught swiftly before her first film with him, the heavily-promoted Nana (1934) could be shot.

Goldwyn tried everything under the sun to make Anna Sten happen in the U.S., but it was all to no avail. She was done up in every conceivable manner of hairstyle and dress. The result was that she wasn't able to establish any sort of personal identity! So foolish did Goldwyn look during all this that the matter began to be called “Goldwyn's Last Sten” in a play on “Custer's Last Stand.” Cole Porter even immortalized the fiasco in lyrics to his song “Anything Goes.” (“When Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction // Instruct Anna Sten in diction // Then Anna Shows // Anything Goes.”)

It's interesting to note that on this picture, Sten is credited as “Production Advisor.” She's not just credited, her name is in a huge font that dwarfs such peons as the Art Director, the Cinematographer and the Editor! And what on earth did she know about Crusoe, shipwrecks or George Nader's loincloth?! Marry well, my friends...

This film also boasts a score by the famous Elmer Bernstein, best known, perhaps, for composing the theme for The Magnificent Seven in 1960. Bernstein had only done a handful of movies before this one, starting in 1952 with Sudden Fear, but would soon emerge as a top name in the business. He used to refer to himself during this phase as “gray-listed” due to the McCarthy witch hunts, but in fact he did The Man with the Golden Arm the very next year and was Oscar nominated for it. He was nominated eleven times in his long career, winning once for Thoroughly Modern Millie (of all things) in 1967.

Blake had begun acting in films in 1950 when she was twenty-one. Eventually, she would appear in Lili (1953) and The Glass Slipper (1955), both starring Leslie Caron, and A Star in Born (1954), among others. Crusoe was not the most unusual role she ever played. Far from it! This same year, she also played a whip-wielding villainess in the John Derek actioner, The Adventures of Hajji Baba. In 1955, she would segue into what became an iconic role for her, Miss Kitty, proprietor of the Long Branch Saloon on Gunsmoke, opposite James Arness.

She portrayed Kitty from 1955 to 1974, departing just as what was to be the final season of the show began. Just a scant 568 episodes, from crisp black and white to living color! An Emmy nomination in 1959 saw the award going instead to Barbara Hale of Perry Mason.  Likewise, three Golden Globe nominations were won in turn by Linda Cristal of The High Chaparral (1970), Peggy Lipton of The Mod Squad (1971) and Sue Ann Langdon in Arnie (1972.)

During those years on the show, she occasionally worked on something else, but most often tried to use her free time for herself. She also went through three husbands during the course of Gunsmoke. When it was over, she was content to leave it behind, though she did take part in a 1987 reunion movie. (Do note the muddy wagon wheel she's leaning on here and the mud stripe on her blouse!) Her fourth husband, a bisexual city councilman, brought her the AIDS virus, which led to her death in 1989 at only age sixty, though it must be added that she suffered from lung cancer prior to that in the wake of a lifetime of heavy smoking.

In contrast, Nader lived until age eighty, dying of heart issues in 2002. He was given a tribute here in The Underworld, so I won't go on too much more about him in this post. You may read more about his life and career right here. One of Hollywood's more fit actors during a time when such a thing wasn't emphasized nearly as much as it is now, there are plenty of shirtless and swimsuit pictures of him to be found. This movie, being in color as it is, is a terrific testament to his physical appeal!
As to Hayes, there isn't a lot of detail to be found regarding her. In her brief career, she only appeared in six films, this one clearly offering the largest role. She also played various roles on the 1950s TV series The Amos 'n Andy Show, which was rare in its time due to the two black male leads of the title, played by Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams, respectively. I can report that prior to her acting career (which spanned 1952 to 1957), she was a popular pin-up model in the black community. She tried to land a role in the 1959 Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun, but after failing to do so, apparently turned to short story writing.

Miss Robin Crusoe is not a film of amazing pedigree or strong story quality, but it is generally well made and has curiosity value that should be irresistible to fans of Blake, Nader or the Crusoe story in all its myriad versions. (Of course, I can never think of Daniel Dafoe without recalling the Men on Books from In Living Color, one of who reviewed Crusoe as a tale of steaming sexual tension and summed up author Daniel Dafoe with this line, “If he anything like that cute little Willem Dafoe, I'll be his Friday, Saturday and Sunday!”) It also showcases some captivating situations and visuals that make it stand apart somewhat from other product of its time.

THE END:

4 comments:

Michael O'Sullivan said...

Hi Poseidon - one you must also review is Saturday Island or Island of Desire, where the still luscious Linda Darnell is shipwrecked on a desert island with young Tab Hunter, and they are alone until another man (with only 1 leg) arrives .... its a delirious drama from 1952. Tab looks like a go-go boy dancer in his sawn off jeans and boots. Stuart Heisler directs, and its a lot of fun.

NotFelixUnger said...

Be still my heart... If I had a man that looked like that, wearing a blue loin cloth, I'd have a hard time not keeping him tied up!

This is one of the most informative posts yet. I never knew she died of AIDS. Oddly enough, she's the second actress I've heard of in the last few days that passed away from the illness. The other a stage actress at the same time, and then at the height of her career. [It was such a horribly sad time for a lot of us.]

I had the good fortune to grow up watching the last few years of Ms. Kitty on Gun Smoke and I can still hear that intonation and accent she used in my head. I wanted to be just like that; like her. I also had the good fortune to get her autograph in the mail a few years before she passed away.

I vaguely remember seeing this movie in my childhood. I had totally forgotten about it until I just read this post and am immensely grateful to be reminded of it. One really big thank you is for the lobby card picture of the movie with the two of them kissing on the beach. I also collect lobby cards, when possible, and this is one I not have but wish to add to the collection. I'm fairly certain I can't get an original but I can easily have that picture printed.

Thank you so much. I'm searching for a copy of the movie as I type this!

PS As to Nader being gay, to quote my grandad, "Good taste, and/or good looks and THAT gay gene normally travel together!" Yes, he was a smart guy.

Ricardo said...

"Anything Goes" is by Cole Porter, not Noel Coward.

jeffm12012 said...

It's an odd coincidence, but true; at about the same time Amanda Blake was playing a "jungle girl" in MISS ROBIN CRUSOE, Irish McCalla (Sheena herself) was screen-testing for the role of Miss Kitty in GUNSMOKE!