Film Noire ‘The Female Animal’ Is Better Than She Seems

Film buffs interested in ’50’s era Hollywood’s stealthy attempts to be more frankly sexual may enjoy The Female Animal.

Independent producer Albert Zugsmith specialized in what were regarded as trashy exploitation pictures during the ’50s and ’60s, yet he managed to pull off a handful of classics during his association with Universal: Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) and still widely underseen The Tarnished Angels (1958), and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), controversially taken away from Welles and re-edited.

According to Wikipedia, the Welles film was initially released as the B picture to another Zugsmith production, The Female Animal, which he produced between The Tarnished Angels and Touch of Evil. What a run. Now that we can see The Female Animal on demand from Universal Vault, it’s clearly not in the same league. Still, it’s not a waste of time for film buffs, especially those interested in Hollywood’s stealthy attempts to be more frankly sexual. This is the “trashy” element lambasted by contemporary critics.

A Cinemascope item shot in very high contrast black and white by Russell Metty, this backstage Hollywood tale centers on fourth-billed George Nader as the shirtless sex object with the now unfortunate name of Chris Farley. He becomes the bristling gigolo of movie star Vanessa Windsor (Hedy Lamarr), who flashbacks the whole story after plunging drunk into a waterfall while shooting a picture. It’s just about okay for the moody angle-jawed Chris to be “caretaker” of Miss Windsor’s snazzy beach pad, but he snits that he’d be a “tramp” if he accepted free evening clothes. He doesn’t love her but he’s dazzled and flattered, while she’s got it bad and that ain’t good.

Third-billed Jan Sterling only has two brief scenes and the filthiest lines as a rival faded sugar mama: “I was the first child star ever to be chased around a desk” and “My dear boy, one does need a little talent in this business but not necessarily for acting” and “I adore the clean limbed American type too but somehow I always end up with veal scallopini and sideburns” and “Never let them have a career. That’s the one thing I’ve really learned about men in Hollywood. Success goes to their little heads… Keep ’em sharecropping, dear, it’s the only way. Tote that barge, lift that bale.” And at the end of that little diatribe: “If he’s not taking care of your cottage as you like, send him over to me. I have a little property too.”

Credit for such dialogue goes to Robert Hill. He wrote several Zugsmith productions, from the not dissimilar Female on the Beach (1955) with Joan Crawford and Jeff Chandler, and which was based on his own play, to the excruciating Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) with Mamie Van Doren, a chimp and a robot. At that point, Zugsmith became a director and went off to his own world of softcore skinflicks.

Lamarr was only in her mid-40s, and this was her swan song. Second-billed Jane Powell, pushing 30, provides ludicrous complication as Hedy’s adopted daughter, especially problematic in drunk scenes. You also get James Gleason as a tough wizened bartender, Mabel Albertson as a frowzy landlady, and Ann Doran as a nurse who opines that Hedy, or rather Vanessa, was always a much better actress than the roles they gave her. That’s when we realize that Lamarr has been better all through this than she seemed.

Director Harry Keller mostly did westerns before moving into other Universal films and eventually producing. About this project, we’ll just observe that he’s no Sirk. This movie cries out to have been much better, yet it’s got something of the era’s rapidly fading genre of “woman’s picture”, with the ending especially interesting. Also, it’s over in 80 minutes.

RATING 6 / 10