Thursday, June 27, 2013
I mentioned in my first 1934 post that Robert E. Howard had authored at least three significant femmes formidables in the same year, but one of them, "Red Sonya of Rogatino," gained more fame in a derived form, that of Marvel Comics' "Red Sonja." Since Red Sonja only borrowed a few motifs from Howard's character, as well as appearing in a thoroughly different milieu, it seems sensible to give the earlier Sonya separate consideration. The French reprint book above, which retitles the Howard story "Shadow of the Vulture" into "Sonya la Rouge," looks as if it's illustrating the Marvel version more than Howard's.
One surprising facet of "Shadow" is that Red Sonya is at best a secondary element of the tale. The bulk of the story is Howard's rewriting of the history of the 1529 Siege of Vienna, the last attempt made by the Ottoman Empire-- then under the command of Suleiman the Magnificent-- to extend its power into Europe. Robert E. Howard, being an ardent Celticist, had his own fictional version of "how the Irish saved Europe," often sending Celtic, English, or roughly related racial types into the mysterious East. This time Howard sends a German hero, Gottfried von Kalmbach, to personally twist the tail of the ruler Suleiman. Suleiman responds by sending a hitman, the "Vulture" of the title, to bring him Gottfried's head.
Sonya becomes embroiled in this conflict only because she comes to have some regard for Gottfried as a fellow warrior, and possibly (though it is not stressed) as a man. Sonya saves Gottfried twice from his enemies, and displays fearless prowess on the battlefield, but her own character-arc is dubious. She claims to be the sister of Roxelana, a historical Russian woman who became the real Suleiman's primary wife. Howard devotes nearly no space to describing how this state of affairs came to be, though there's a brief suggestion that Roxelana may have been abducted in a Muslim slave-raid-- which, to modern ears, sounds pretty exculpatory for any imagined sins. Yet Sonya refers to her sister as a "slut," apparently for not having chosen death over bedding a Muslim potentate. It's possible Howard had some notion of pursuing this plot-thread in a separate story, but "Shadow of the Vulture" remains the only story about the woman from Rogatino.
Sunday, June 23, 2013
Patricia "Pat" Savage, cousin to Doc Savage, was introduced in the 1934 adventure "Brand of the Werewolf." Though she never possesses martial skills equal to those of her near relation, her very first adventure shows that she can take care of herself. Attacked by a Native American thug with the curious name of "Boat Face," she knocks him for a loop with one good punchout.
Later adaptations of Pat for comic books tended to make a devotee of the martial arts, but at the very least she's consistently able to handle firearms and has just as much love for adventure as Doc and his boys' club.
Dale Arden, who appears in the opening installments of the FLASH GORDON comic strip alongside the titular hero, is something of a judgment call. Certainly in her earliest appearances she's largely a "damsel in distress." However, though I don't have a broad familiarity with the strip throughout all its phases, I do see a few indications that over time she becomes a little more adept with weapons while following Flash around on his crusades. By the time of the last original GORDON comic books, she becomes adept in judo as well, and shows some fighting-moxie in the 1980 FLASH GORDON film.
Dale is still less complicated than Edgar Rice Burroughs' Dejah Thoris, who has no martial abilities at all in the books, and doesn't become a "femme formidable" except in other media, such as film and comic books.
Saturday, June 15, 2013
The short-story "Shambleau" was the first professional sale of C.L. (Catherine Lucille) Moore, appearing in the November 1933 issue of WEIRD TALES. It introduced Moore's gun-wielding hero Northwest Smith, and begins on a futuristic version of Mars, colonized by Earthmen like Smith but still inhabited by more primitive native Martians. Smith saves a mysterious alien girl from a mob who call her by the name "Shambleau." Smith does not initially know why the mob hates her, but he claims her to save her from death. The mob leaves in a mood of disgust, and Smith takes the woman to his own dwelling. There, as the book cover above shows, the Earthman learns the folly of taking in unknown alien, as "Shambleau" is the alien source of the myth of Medusa. Smith only survives Shambleau's soul-sucking attentions thanks to the intervention of a friend.
All the references to Greek mythology aside, purple passages like this one make clear what Shambleau really represents:
In nightmares until he died he remembered that moment when the living tresses of Shambleau first folded him in their embrace. A nauseous, smothering odor as the wetness shut around him—thick, pulsing worms clasping every inch of his body, sliding, writhing, their wetness and warmth striking through his garments as if he stood naked to their embrace.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
While in most instances I endeavor to survey "femmes formidables" from their very beginnings, I'm not likely to ever to write an entry for "Ursula Georgi" in her first appearance in a trashy-sounding 1930 bestseller-novel by one "Tiffany Thayer" (the only male "Tiffany" I've ever heard of).
From what I've read about the novel online, it sounds like a big waste of my time. I did flip through the pages of the online edition just long enough to ascertain that the character's name is the same in the novel as in the 1932 film, and even that seems like too much damn trouble.
I do have a mild affection for the 1932 film, for as I note in this fuller review, because Myrna Loy-- who had played a lot of exotics by that time-- does a better than average job of depicting this sultry sorceress-- or, to be more exact, "hypnotist." Still, Ursula has a decided ability to conquer the souls of both women and men with her mental magic. She uses the art of suggestion to cause twelve other women to meet awful fates, and so dominates the character of the "Swami" (seen above) that she forces him to walk into an oncoming train. How she gained these powers is not revealed in the film, though it seems possible that the Swami taught her the skills of the mind in exchange for her body-- only to find himself mastered by the pupil, rather like Nimue imprisoning Merlin in Arthurian legend. Ursula is also seen to control a younger fellow, a chaffeur, into doing her will, despite his fear of the law.
Two months later in 1932, Loy's last and arguably greatest "exotic villain" would appear when she played Fah Lo Suee in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU.
Saturday, June 8, 2013
This is the first entry I've included purely for historical reasons, as I don't think the character rates very high as a "femme formidable."
The reader learns very little about this early "femme fatale" in Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel THE MALTESE FALCON. It's suggested that "Brigid" is no more her real name than the first alias she gives detective Sam Spade when she seeks to involve him in her scheme to sell the priceless Maltese Falcon to the venal Caspar Gutman.
As described on the page by Hammett, Brigid doesn't seem like the brightest bulb in the socket. Spade constantly rags on her for being incompetent at her scams and for foolishly plying her "defenseless female" wiles on him. Implicitly her beauty does seduce Spade to some extent, though he fights it all the way, and the story ends with his refusal to cover for her one deadly crime: that of shooting Spade's detective-agency partner. But Hammett makes even her act of murder sound like that of an incompetent.
It's purely thanks to Brigid's subsequent cinematic incarnations in 1931, 1936 and 1941 that she earns a place of distinction here. And at that, it's really the 1941 film that cemented Brigid's reputation as a quintessential "femme fatale." To be sure, Brigid doesn't do anything more than she does in the novel, or in the 1931 version. (The 1936 version did not use Brigid's name and rewrote her character substantially.) But Mary Astor's performance does give Brigid a subtler dimension than she has in the book; she seems a little more than just a blunderer trying to get by on her looks.
Prior to FALCON, Hammett portrayed a much more energetic female character, Dinah Brand, in his novel RED HARVEST, first serialized in a 1927 issue of BLACK MASK. However, though she was mentally tougher than many of the novel's male characters, Brand does not meet my criteria for a "femme formidable."
It feels appropriate that 1929-- the year in which I found one of the first major *heroic* femmes formidables-- also sports a great villainess; the Sea Hag, introduced the same year as her nemesis Popeye for Elzie Segar's comic strip THIMBLE THEATER.
I've only read a handful of the Sea Hag's adventures in her original medium, so I'm not able to comment extensively about the nature of her witchly powers. In the stories I have seen, she's frequently served by various hulks like the Goon above, as well as ordinary mortal bruisers. In keeping with Segar's comic tone, the Hag's evil doesn't seem to be too extreme. In one of the sequences I have read, Wimpy draws her into a card game and she ends up gambling away her corset!