Friday, March 2, 2012
YEAR 1944: THE SPIDER WOMAN
Though thousands of Sherlockians have worshipped at the fane of Irene Adler, the detective's one major female nemesis, I can't deem her a "femme formidable." She's an extremely clever opponent, but she's disqualified in that her formidability is purely intellectual, and as I said here those types aren't related to the archetype I'm describing.
Adrea Spedding, the "Spider Woman" of the Universal film THE SPIDER WOMAN, may be the first femme formidable to encounter any version of Holmes. The film-script builds upon Spedding's aura of both ingenuity and cruelty by calling her a "female Moriarty," and she does indeed come close to spelling the doom of the detective. Her overall plot has to do with faking the suicides of wealthy men in order to gain their wealth, using the venom of a "wolf spider" to accomplish the rich men's deaths. Distinguished actress Gale Sondergaard plays Spedding with intelligence and nastiness in equal measure, particularly in a death-trap she devises for Holmes: hanging him up behind a shooting-gallery. The writers of the 1960s BATMAN teleseries liked the trap so much that they ripped it off wholesale.
Two years later Universal attempted to reuse the name of "the Spider Woman" for a separate villainess who had no connection to the Holmes villainess except for being played by Sondergaard. This attempt to launch a villain-centric serial for Sondergaard presumably did not play well with 1946 audiences, as it was not continued. Curiously another Holmes film from 1944, THE PEARL OF DEATH, also featured another villain who received one, and only one, Universal movie spin-off. This was the brutish "Creeper," potrayed by acromegaly-victim Rondo Hatton, who appeared first in PEARL, then as an assistant to Sondergaard in THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK, and then had one more outing as "the Creeper" in HOUSE OF HORRORS. (Hatton made one more appearance as a Creeper-like creature before he died that same year but the film was not released by Universal.)