The Female Animal
Universal's low budget melodrama The Female Animal (1958) was one in a long line of Hollywood backstage films that exploited a business that had much storytelling potential. This 1950s cycle included The Star (1952), Singin' in the Rain (1952), A Star Is Born (1954) and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). However, The Female Animal was strictly on the end of the spectrum as a kitschy B movie. The story centers on a love triangle featuring an aging movie star (Hedy Lamarr), the handsome extra who saves her life (George Nader) and the adopted daughter who shares her mother's penchant for liquor (Jane Powell).
A team of Universal regulars including director Harry Keller, producer Albert Zugsmith and cinematographer Russell Metty had come on to this project after collaborating on Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958). This reliable trio would take on whatever Universal threw their way. Zugsmith, a self-starter and entrepreneur who ran various independent projects before coming to Hollywood, had developed a reputation for producing trashy exploitation pictures. Keller was a low-budget movie director and film editor who worked across genre for both Republic and Universal. Metty, known for his distinctive use of light and shadow and who had worked extensively with director Douglas Sirk, was quite nimble and would be assigned to projects ranging in genre, style, format and budget. Writer Robert Hill's original screenplay was titled Hideaway House, a reference to Lamarr's Malibu beachside cottage featured in the film but was eventually changed to a more suggestive title to play up the sexual nature of the story.
The Female Animal's biggest claim to fame is as the bookend to Hedy Lamarr's movie career. As a teenager, Lamarr made her debut in the controversial Czech film Ecstasy (1933). She eventually made a splash in Hollywood and was billed The Most Beautiful Woman in Films, a moniker that she held near and dear. After her death in 2000, Lamarr's legacy experienced a renaissance of sorts when her contributions to the development of frequency hopping during WWII were later connected to advancements in modern day technologies including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. However, in the late 1950s Lamarr's career was on the decline and the parts offered to her were not worthy of her talents. The Female Animal was her swan song, and the struggles her character Vanessa Windsor goes through closely mirror Lamarr's own real-life insecurities.
Co-star Jane Powell wrote in her memoir The Girl Next Door and How She Grew, "Hedy Lamarr was the only actor I ever had problems with... I don't think she'd ever played a mother before, and she was worried about her age; she thought of herself as perennially young... What a shame she was so insecure, because she was a real star and an incredibly beautiful woman." Powell, who was nearing 30, was only 15 years younger than Lamarr. Although the two play mother and daughter, they don't share a lot of screen time together. Powell wrote "she didn't even want to do any scenes with me, which was a little unreasonable since I was supposed to be her child, and that was the plot of the film." For Powell, The Female Animal was also an indicator that her own movie career would soon be over. By that point, she had left MGM and not only was this her first film for Universal, she was playing against type in her first non-singing role. She made four more feature films before moving on to television work.
Leading man George Nader, known for his rugged physique, was a Universal contract player often cast in beefcake roles. He was a few rungs down the ladder from Rock Hudson, the studio's biggest male star and a close friend of Nader's. In The Female Animal, Nader is clearly the object of desire; a man caught between two enigmatic women. He plays Chris Farley, a bit player who dreams of making it big but lacks the confidence to do so. Nader himself was increasingly frustrated with the decline in quality of the roles Universal threw his way. Like his character Farley, who agrees to a lead role in a friend's independent production in Mexico, Nader decided enough was enough and after this project decided to go freelance.
While the film did not do well at the box office, it deserves more attention than it has received over the years. It's got a fantastic cast of players including Jan Sterling, who plays Lily Frayne, another aging actress holding on to any semblance of her youth, and James Gleason who has a small role as bartender Tom Maloney. Powell delivers by inhabiting quite a sexy performance. According to writer Michael Barrett, who champions this film on the culture site Pop Matters, "it's not a waste of time for film buffs, especially those interested in Hollywood's stealthy attempts to be more frankly sexual."
By Raquel Stecher