While Brazilian Bombshell Carmen Miranda was getting big laughs mangling the English language in Fox musicals during the early 1940s, Dominican-born Maria Montez was also getting big laughs, doing the same thing at the same time, but in Universal adventure films. The more important difference is that Montez’s laughs were unintentional. She was no actress, but she did reign as a bona fide movie star between 1942 and 1945, specifically as co-star to Jon Hall in six ravishingly colorful and likably junky flights of escapist fancy. Montez was hailed as “The Queen of Technicolor,” though quite a few other ladies of the period could conceivably have been referred to as royally, from Maureen O’Hara to Betty Grable to Rita Hayworth. But Montex is probably unrivaled as “The Queen of Camp,” with her Cobra Woman (1944) a reasonable candidate for campiest movie of all time. It’s one thing that Montez couldn’t act, it’s quite another to then go ahead and cast her as good-and-evil twins, two characters delineated solely by their costumes, with “bad” Maria the more spangled and bejeweled of the two. Thus, Montez is able to double the fun with two terrible performances. The sets and costumes are more Beverly Hills than South Seas, yet this is a blissfully innocent, impossibly bad, and unforgettably pleasurable movie.
Montez died at just 39 in 1951 and would have turned 100 next week on June 6th. The movie that made her a star was Arabian Nights (1942), the first to team her with handsome, muscular Hall. (Did you ever notice that Hall and Randolph Scott sound exactly alike?) Talk about wartime escapism! The script is dimwitted nonsense, but the color is rapturous (sometimes hideous, always mesmerizing). Montez is Sherazade (pronounced “Sheherazade”), a dancing girl who yearns to be a queen. Hall is the Caliph whose throne was usurped by rotten brother Leif Erikson. Sabu, who sooner or later shows up in Montez’s movies, is the acrobat who rescues Hall and makes him a member of their troupe to protect his true identity. Montez is horridly costumed, overly beaded and overaccessorized beyond belief. She’s a dead weight who gives line readings just as deadly. This is a movie in which Shemp Howard is Sinbad! Yes, it’s aimed at kids of all ages. Montez is conveniently veiled while her double takes care of her dancing requirements. When the film isn’t garish it can be magically pretty, and so it’s not hard to see why Montez, Hall, and Sabu captured the imaginations of WWII audiences. What they offered was dreamlike, romantic, foolish, childlike, and crazily colorful. And you weren’t expected to believe one minute of it. As Hollywood fantasies go, I’ll take it over most of the ugly, loud, and bludgeoning blockbusters of modern times.
Montez had one shot at a prestige picture, The Exile (1947), the first U.S. film made by Max Ophuls. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., stars as Charles II during his decade-long exile in Holland. (Fairbanks also wrote it and produced it.) It’s a disappointing movie, not entertaining enough to be an Errol Flynn-type adventure, not interesting enough to be a serious drama. It lacks momentum and often looks like a lavishly filmed stage play, despite Ophuls’ roving camera. The charismatic Fairbanks is surprisingly bland here, perhaps preoccupied with his other duties. Oddly enough it’s Montez, arriving midway as a French countess, who enlivens the proceedings. She isn’t in the movie very long, but it’s her best work. Never has she been so charming or humorous (intentionally!) or relaxed. Never has she looked better, and in black and white! Montez was already on her way out in post-war Hollywood, so The Exile didn’t do anything for her (or anybody else), but it’s nice for her that she’ll often be included in retrospectives of Ophuls’ work and not only in festivals with titles like ”Bad Movies We Love.”