While an oddly-placed sexist ploy in a Hollywood film made for the kids back in the early 1960s was obviously meant as harmless fun, its inclusion provides contemporary adults with an insight into what American attitudes towards gender were like almost 60 years ago. Mark Fraser revisits some cinematic frivolity which perhaps is no longer so frivolous.
Accusing William Castle’s 1962 spy comedy Zotz! of being juvenile might seem a tad unfair given it was obviously aimed at the youth market.
There remains, however, a standout moment in this black and white movie which, by today’s standards at least, is undeniably immature.
It involves a scene that reaches out to the sensibilities (read: secret desires) of horny pre-pubescent and teenage boys, and occurs early in the story when a naked Professor Virginia Fenster (Julia Meade) turns up on the doorstep of Prof Jonathon Jones’ (Tom Poston) Saracen Valley suburban home at night after a brief and sudden thunder/lightning storm has somehow ripped all her clothes off.
For the chivalrous Jones, Fenster’s tussled wet hair, glistening bare shoulders and exposed slender legs are all part of an awkward inconvenience; a situation he quickly resolves by procuring some makeshift replacement clobber from his niece Cynthia’s (Zeme North) wardrobe before promptly sending his surprise guest on her way.
But for any impressionable young male watching this film (then and now), answering the door to an attractive unclad woman could conceivably lead to a number of other possible scenarios – including a gender reversal of the well-hung pizza guy turning up at the nymphomaniac’s house in a porno film.
Looking back, there can be no doubt this moment of female objectification was intended to titillate the collective imagination of a good section of Zotz!’ target audience, that being nine to 15 year-old boys.
Bearing this in mind, the attitude underpinning this juvenile ploy by Castle and his scriptwriter Ray Russell can be summed up in one word: Sexist!
Granted, Jones – an expert in ancient Eastern languages – is inadvertently responsible for creating the instant storm after he unleashes the magic powers from an ancient amulet (which is shaped like a coin and attached to a charm bracelet) that was sent to Cynthia by her unseen boyfriend Eddie. And yes, he and Fenster, an academic brainiac in her own right, do eventually hook up after going through some silly adventures involving the amulet, university politics and a pair of Russian spies.
Furthermore, her character is naked when she arrives on the scene, albeit under more mysterious circumstances, in Walter Karig’s Zotz!, the short 1947 novel from which all this originates.
Nevertheless, the movie maker’s motivations must come under some contemporary scrutiny. For a start, was it really necessary for Fenster to be starkers (and thus totally vulnerable) when she and Jones first meet? Couldn’t Castle and Russell have come up with something that didn’t necessitate the demeaning of a woman in what realistically would have been an embarrassingly nightmarish situation? And does the eccentric and nerdy Jones have to establish a kind of psychological advantage over his future bride by literally rescuing her fully exposed self during a perplexing moment of weakness?
In this era of wayward political correctness and the overwhelming presence of the thought police, the answers to these questions seem fairly obvious.
But back in early 1960s’ Hollywood, when amusing and harmless sexism was acceptable, any seemingly benign dramatic trick to improve box office takings was obviously fair game – even if it involved mildly exciting the imaginations of some of the males in the crowd.
Of course it’s also possible this scene was included to keep cinema-going fathers of the day briefly entertained while sitting through Zotz!’ unlikely premise; goodness knows they probably would have welcomed any distraction after enduring 10 minutes of Poston’s early shtick, especially if it involved a bit of bare female skin.
Carping aside, the film does employ a couple of nifty special effects towards its end, including what must be one of Hollywood’s first incarnations of the bullet-being-shot-from-a-pistol-in-slow-motion trick, a visual device that has since been made famous by much bigger works like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) and, in a more profound way, the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy.*
This cinematic magic is unleashed during the movie’s climatic chase scene when Jones is cornered on the roof of a downtown apartment building by two Russian agents (Carl Don and Mike Mazurki) who are after the magic amulet.
By way of an explanation, if used properly the coin can help win the Cold War, and two ways of activating its powers (one of which inflicts the immediate surroundings with “retarded movement” or slow motion) necessitates saying “Zotz”. Thus, when the Soviet hoods try to shoot the professor, he recites the magic word and dodges their crawling bullet. Why he doesn’t fully utilise this resource earlier, though, when a getaway is more feasible, remains one of the narrative’s annoying mysteries.
Meanwhile, the movie’s second big effect involves more of the same – after falling from the aforementioned rooftop, Jones turns his plummet to the footpath below into a gently floating descent, Polston hamming things up by twisting and turning in the air like a playful astronaut performing a mid-air ballet.
No doubt these hijinx would have tickled cinema-going youngsters back in 1962. But for the same age group in 2019, it’s likely this kind of stuff has become well and truly passé. In this regard Zotz! – along with its overt sexism – is definitely a product of its time.
On that note, also dated are some of the other comic routines which appear in the movie.
Jones’ attempt to show off his new found powers using white mice at a high level dinner function organised by the Updikes (Cecil Kellerway and Margaret Dumont), for instance, becomes unbearably clumsy when Castle turns the whole thing into a rodent-driven slapstick farce. Then there’s the professor’s visit to the Pentagon, where a doltish General Bullivar (Fred Clark) fails to see Cold War victory being offered to him on a silver platter – another moment which could aptly be described as juvenile.
Oddly, while the screen version of Zotz! was primarily aimed at the kiddies’ market, there seems to be nothing childish about its source material.
Apparently Karig – a former US naval officer – wrote the original novel as a warning about the pitfalls of possessing absolute power in the (then fledgling) nuclear age.
Not having read the book, it is difficult for this reviewer to make any real meaningful comparison between it and the film adaptation.
However, given Fenster’s character in the novel is not a bubbly academic, but “a voluptuous young librarian with a snake fetish who works at the university where Jones teaches”**, one can reasonably assume Karig’s intention was to create political satire for adults instead of harmless gag-driven slapstick humour designed to amuse infantile minds.
The fact she first appears nude in both versions of the story, though, suggests that while American attitudes towards gender representation may have changed quite a bit since 1962, they remained fairly consistent between the second half of the 1940s and the early 1960s.
Given this, it’s fair to say that by turning Zotz! into a family-friendly farce, Castle and Russell – in their modest way – helped keep Hollywood sexism alive.
*Despite this innovation – and the latter one involving Jones’ fall from the multi-storey building roof – no one received a credit for the movie’s special effects.
**This came from a review of the book by Annie Van Auken which was published by amazon.com on April 12, 2012.
Words by Mark Fraser
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Zotz was released as part of the William Castle at Columbia, Volume Two Blu-ray set from Powerhouse Films.