Eastern Meet West: 1944’s ‘Cobra Woman’

Cobra Woman operates like a time machine, but it’s completely free of the complicated metaphysical consequences of stepping into one. Offering an insight into the creative processes, techniques, marketing skills, and audience demographics of a time long gone, it is an extraordinary film. Cobra Woman falls into the ‘Eastern’ genre popular in the 1940s. Today, such a concept would demand sensitive, intelligent direction and self-serious script writing. It would demand dusty, clattering, epic character-studies about political disenfranchisement and those characters’ conflicting drives and desires. It would imply a relationship to the Western, in the mold of Giant or Hud, akin to the relationship between the Gothic genre and its southern counterpart.

For Universal in 1944, these films were pure escapism, dragging the collective consciousness of audiences away from the horrors in Europe. For an audience in the 21st century, the ‘Eastern’ is a gloriously unspecific genre, pure exotica gold. A contemporary audience cannot ever be sure where Cobra Woman is set. It could be set in a generic Middle Eastern state, or it could be set in a generic state in the Indian subcontinent. There are hints of both, but they overlap into something unclear. Perhaps we, the 21st century audience, think of ourselves as being more enlightened. We are thus sure that actor Sabu, the son of an elephant driver, ultimately here playing the role of an apprentice Westerner, is not from a Middle Eastern background. Indeed, certain elements of Cobra Woman would have Edward Said turning in his grave like a grimly revolving kebab, a deep-fried stereotype.

It’s a spectacle built of sheer camp. Full of golden thrones shaped like cobras, sparkling dresses designed by Vera Drake, and hyper-religiosity directed towards actual cobras, the film is soundtracked by yowling and occupied by the flailing of its extras. Ordinarily, where films use dialogue and action to further drama or to propel a plot, Cobra Woman is fantastical to the point where these become irrelevant. It uses three central adventure-film archetypes to attempt to achieve thus. First, it relies on the ill-defined need of its hero, Ramu, to travel to a mysterious island. The island in question is called Cobra Island, which is enticing in its obviousness. Second, the film relies on Ramu encountering forbidding, and forbidden, royalty. Here, this takes the form of a Maria Montez double-act, where she simultaneously plays Ramu’s fiancée Tollea and her evil twin sister Naja. The tension between the two Montezs is the central driving force of the film, but it makes unbearably little sense.

A review written by the brilliant Bosley Crowther in the New York Times in 1944 summarizes the plot perfectly. He writes that, while the only discernible plot seems to be extracted from comic strips, the sole piece of clear narrative an audience can gather is that ‘Cobra Island is ruled by a viperous doll who snake-dances in the sacred temple, surrounded by a bevy of night-gowned toots’. It really has to be seen to be believed. Where the acting is blisteringly awful, and Maria Montez remains deadpan throughout, the film is captured in rich, charming, Technicolor. Cobra Woman is tremendous fun. It’s full of very-1940s signifiers, most importantly that we see the film’s romantic leads tangled in a kiss at the center of the screen and the absurd and violent deaths of its villains. By the onset of the action on Cobra Island, Cobra Woman has already sacrificed its opening fifteen minutes to oblivion and irrelevance. Perhaps this is how the film is best experienced: with bleary eyes as the perfect remedy to a blurry hard day’s night, the trembling attempt to smooth out a comfortable Sunday afternoon.