Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Cat-Women of the Moon: ideas of space travel in the 1950s.


No woman has yet set foot on the Moon in reality; but in science fiction there have been plenty of female lunar explorers.

This 1953 black-and-white science fiction classic is credited with introducing the genre of female-only enclaves in space. It starred Marie Windsor as astronaut Helen Salinger, Carol Brewster as Alpha, leader of the cat-women, and Susan Morrow as Lambda.

The remaining cat-women were played by the Hollywood Cover Girls: Betty Arlen, Suzann Alexander, Roxann Delman, Ellye Marshall and Judy Walsh. The Hollywood Cover Girls seem to have been a vaudeville act.

I'm interested in this film for how it represents views of space and space travel in the early 1950s, four years before the launch of the first object into Earth orbit, and fifteen before humans really landed on the Moon. And also, because cat-women.

Why must we wait?

The movie opens with with a thrilling declaration. The Freudian symbols in this passage are not subtle.
The eternal wonders of space and time, the faraway mysteries and dreams of other worlds, other life, the stars, the planets. Man [sic] has been face to face with them for centuries, yet is barely able to penetrate their unknown secrets. Some time, some day, the barrier will be pierced. Why must we wait? Why not now?
The scene then cuts away to a pale rocket ascending vertically - a very visual reinforcement of the symbolism! The rocket appears to have been launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and this is certainly where their mission control is. In the early 1950s, White Sands was one of just a few locations in the world where rockets could be launched into space.

Surely it can't be just me who sees the resemblance.

The propulsion method isn't entirely clear, but it has an 'atom chamber' and some kind of acid fuel.  At this time, there was a lot of interest in nuclear-powered rockets. The US Atomic Energy Commission (remember there was no NASA in those days) started developing a Nuclear Thermal Rocket in 1955. While we've gone on to have numerous nuclear-powered spacecraft, this method has not been used for Earth-to-space rocket propulsion, although it seems that there is renewed interest in this technology at the moment.

'White Sands calling Moon Rocket 4 Code 63. Can you hear us?', says mission control. Looking through the window to the outside, the crew see raw space - an inky blackness dotted with stars.

This is not a stunt!

Helen is the navigation officer. Upon waking up from the sleep of launch (they recline on banana lounges), her first action is to take a comb and hand-mirror from a drawer. 'Remember', says the manly blond captain Laird, 'this is a scientific expedition and NOT a stunt!', looking very pointedly at Helen combing her hair. This implies that her presence is regarded by some as gimmicky - that is, she doesn't belong there, and was only included for the sake of publicity.

Helen of Troy?
So much to pick apart here! There's the implication that a woman couldn't have got there for her skills alone; that science and femininity are opposed (so Helen should be 'one of the boys' and pay no attention to her appearance). These were certainly issues later in the rocky road to US women getting access to space. In 1978, when they were finally admitted to NASA's astronaut programme, the lads obligingly made a make-up kit for the girls. Even in space we have to be beautiful! But like, not too much, or you can't be taken seriously as a scientist.....

Public consumption and commercial space

Laird makes their first report to White Sands. 'Over and out', he says. 'Wait a minute, commander', says White Sands. 'There's a world full of people listening in. Are you alright - could we have a few words from the crew?' 'No!' says Laird, but Helen persuades him to let them talk to the people of Earth. This foreshadows an important part of the Apollo missions, and later the International Space Station - engagement with the public. The television broadcast of the Apollo 11 landing has become legendary. However, it wasn't a priority for NASA in the planning, as cameras would add weight, and the filming was a whole work sequence that would take up time. In 'Cat-Women' we see a similar tension between satisfying the public curiosity and getting on with the job.

Each of the crew introduces themselves and speaks a few words for the radio audience. The engineer Walt Walters is exercised by the opportunities for a space side-hustle. When he talks to Earth, he seizes his chance. 'We're humming along folks!' he says. 'That new lubrication by the Delphite Oil Company sure turned the trick. [off air] That plug ought to make a couple of grand, huh?' This stunt establishes Walt's character as a venal money-grubber and also introduces a new theme into the film: the commercial exploitation of space. I think it's very interesting that this aspect of space - making profit from it - is evident even before the launch of the first satellite.

Finally they arrive! As the navigator, Helen chooses the landing site. To the surprise of the other crew, it's on the dark side of the Moon. Unbeknownst to them, the cat-women have telepathically guided her here.

Walters is still on the take: prior to their moonwalk, he pulls out a box. 'What are those?' asks radio operator Doug. 'First letters from the Moon; I've even got my own cancellation stamp. Ought to be worth a couple of hundred bucks apiece'. This amused me no end, as there's a long and slightly bizarre relationship between space and philately. In 1972, the Apollo 15 astronauts took unauthorised postal covers with them for later sale. It turned into a scandal, with much discussion about whether astronauts should seek to personally profit from their profession. You can read more about the incident here. (Also see update at the end of this post).

Where does a city end?

Doug has a sign from the Los Angeles Police Department that he wants to leave on the surface of the Moon. Note that this is a local symbol, not a national one: there is no US flag proposed here. The sign says "Los Angeles City Limits". It's not explained, but the visual reference is clear. The placement of this sign on the Moon extends the limits of the city of Los Angeles into space, making the Moon part of its geography. There's obviously a humorous element to this, but it's also serious: a territorial claim, the extension of a terrestrial jurisdiction. In 1953, you could technically make a territorial claim in space, as there were no international conventions forbidding it. The Outer Space Treaty was not signed into being until 1967.

I thought I had better look into the US concept of city limits, which I have to confess I've only paid attention to before in the context of the Tina Turner dance classic 'Nutbush City Limits'. This is an American local government concept. The area within the city limits is governed by the Mayor of Los Angeles and the City Council, who provide services and collect tax. The city limits, however, can extend over county lines.

Why Los Angeles, though? In the early 1950s, White Sands was a focus of military space activity, but Los Angeles was the centre of aerospace industry, with CalTech in nearby Pasadena. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was established in 1944 and became a key institution in developing space technology. You can read more about its fascinating history in Escape from Earth, by Fraser MacDonald. We might presume that Doug came from one of these organisations.

Spiders and dust

The astronauts suit up and venture outside. Here's the first step on the Moon, 1953-style:

Prompted by the telepathic cat-women, Helen encourages them to enter a cave. Inside they are attacked by GIANT MOON SPIDERS. It's not the first time the Moon has been inhabited by giant insects - Dr Dolittle in the Moon (one of my all-time favourites) has giant moths and grasshoppers. The reduced gravity allows them to grow far larger than on Earth.

No you can't have a picture, just watch the movie for yourself.

Of course the GIANT MOON SPIDERS go after Helen and then get slaughtered by the men.  Despite this setback, Helen wants to keep going. 'We don't know what's ahead', says one of the crew. 'Well I'll tell you then', says Helen. 'Adventure, discovery, knowledge! Isn't that why we came?' I like that that a woman gets to own these qualities.

They find, to their surprise, that the cave has breathable air, and take off their spacesuits. The enterprising Walters immediately leaps to a new idea for lunar industry: 'Maybe we can bottle this stuff for sale: Moon Mist for chronic coughs and asthma'. Moon mist would be pure and uncontaminated by terrestrial toxins!

It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. Of course there is no atmosphere to provide mist, but there is plenty of dust to be had. Not great for human lungs; but I could imagine a time in the future where people are making remedies out of lunar dust. What claims will be made for its healing properties? At the moment, you can buy basalt dust at plant nurseries to put on your garden. The dust comes from quarries, but it's similar to the lunar dust in its chemical and mechanical properties. Perhaps people will salt their garden beds with lunar dust instead and grow moon gardens!

I have seen advertisements for lunar mineral make-up (Note: not containing actual lunar minerals). Perhaps the very wealthy will drink champagne with lunar dust in it, just as they once did with gold. Lunar mineral waters will be a thing! Indeed conceptual philosopher and artist Jonathon Keats has already done this. By extension, you may be able to go to a spa and have an exfoliating skin treatment in which the abrasive qualities of lunar dust are put to good use. If lunar missions become more common in the decades to come, there may be all kinds of terrestrial commercial ventures making use of the one thing the Moon has plenty of. Probably I should get in first with the spa thing before Gwyneth Paltrow does.

Polity and politics among the cat-women

On the other side of the cave, the astronauts find themselves in a sort of bubble with a microclimate, a sky with clouds above them. They enter the city of the cat-women, with its architecture of columns, statues and black-and-white tiles. It's a little bit Aelita Queen of Mars, and also kind of classical culture - indeed, the cat-women have Greek names like Alpha, Beta and Lambda. The women themselves are slinky and sexy, dressed in one-piece catsuits. All have black hair, curled up in a big bun behind their head. They have pale faces with dark eyebrows and a curved hairline - they look a little like the Thermians in Galaxy Quest.

Bit by bit we piece together the story of the cat-women (incidentally a derogatory name applied to them by one of the crew, who is suspicious of them) and a glimpse into how their world came to be. 'We have no use for men' says cat-woman Beta, scornfully. The more diplomatic Alpha explains: 'What Beta means is that we have no contact or control over them as we do among ourselves. It seemed rather difficult to get a crew composed entirely of women.' Huh! Then as now..... this is interesting though. Their telepathic powers work only on other women; men are immune. Perhaps this is an extension of the much-vaunted and mythical quality of feminine intuition, which does not work on men because they lack it. Pure speculation on my part, and of course there is no need to explain all these plot devices, which do not need to be logical.

So how did the cat-women get on the Moon? Their ancestors, men and women both, travelled there two million years ago, when the Moon still had an atmosphere. I'm wondering here if the classical Greek complexion of their culture is meant to be a reference to Atlantis.

At a certain point the atmosphere started thinning, and they had to do something to conserve oxygen. It was not pleasant. Planned genocide was one of the strategies they employed. The other was to wait for a spaceship to arrive.

We find out more about the genocide when the gentle Doug falls in love with cat-woman Lambda. 'Incidentally', Doug asks her, 'where are your menfolk?'. 'Ours died off when I was still a child' replies Lambda. The implication here is that they were the subject of the genocide - a gender-cide, in fact.

Alpha has a plan to steal the spaceship to travel to Earth. There, she says, 'We will get their women under our power, and soon we will rule the whole world'. Before you might be tempted to think this could be a good thing for the future of Earth, Alpha disabuses Lambda of the idea that she can make a life with Doug. 'There is no room in your life for love. We will choose your man eugenically'.

I interpret this as an indictment on the cat-women's culture. By the 1950s, eugenics, which had a long history in the US, was becoming unacceptable.

The moral of the story

The Moon has other resources that would be valuable on Earth, as Walt discovers. Over a meal, he converses with Beta. 'Say, you wouldn't have any small works of art that I could take home with me as a souvenir, would you?', he asks her. Beta gives him her silver arm band. Walt says that on Earth such jewellery would often be made of gold, and Beta says 'but it's so common'! Walt's greed is aroused. Beta reveals the existence of a cave of gold, 'with more gold than you could carry away in your rocket ship in 100 years'. Naturally, he wants to see it, so they sneak off without the others. In the cave of gold, Beta kills him.

Perhaps there is a moral here: that looking to profit from the Moon will end badly.

This film, as cheesy as it is, covers a number of themes that become important in the later reality of space travel, such as lunar mining and profiteering in space; territorial claims; gender relations; and public engagement. It's remarkable prescient in this regard. 

Update, June 2020: City limits and stamps

I was reading Robert A. Heinlein's classic novella The Man Who Sold the Moon, written in 1949 and published in 1950, when this caught my attention.
'How are things going in Florida, Monty?' 
'I thought we were going to have to buy the whole damn legislature until we got the rumour spread around that Los Angeles had contracted to have a City-of-Los-Angeles sign planted on the Moon for publicity pix. Then they came around'.
This, as it turned out, wasn't the only similarity with Cat-Women of the Moon. Delos Harriman, star of Heinlein's story, also sends first day covers to the Moon. As already mentioned, there is a bizarre space-philately thing, and it seems this emerged very early on.

Coincidence? The Los Angeles City Limits does seem very specific. If there is a connection here, then Cat-Women was cleverly playing with science fiction references and it does make one wonder what else is hidden in there.

Heinlein was not involved in Cat-Women, but he was kicking around the film industry in the early 1950s. Probably there is some deeper story here if anyone had the time to pursue it.

You can watch the whole movie here: