Maria Montez was a Movie Star. She was never an actress. The only truly credible performance I ever saw her give was in Max Ophüls’ The Exile (1947) — and despite receiving second billing, it was a brief role. (The fact that Ophüls got a good performance out of her suggests that perhaps her other directors never really tried.) Montez — whose very name became the essence of campy kitsch in the 1960s — was an exotic screen presence. She looked good on the screen — and she knew it and liked being up there — and to wartime audiences in the 1940s that was quite enough. In a series of silly Technicolor adventures — rudely dubbed “tits and sand” movies — she and beefy male co-star (usually) Jon Hall (also a shaky actor, but with more experience) offered 90 minute slabs of fanciful escape from reality that audiences took to without question. They also quickly lost interest once the war was over, so her reign at Universal was a short one.
Gypsy Wildcat is the most atypical of the films — at least in its setting, which was a kind of fairy book Ruritania that looked rather suspiciously like Southern California (specifically, the backlot at Universal). Normally, her films were set in some kind of desert or tropical setting — an Arabian Nights fantasy world. (In fact, the first of these films was 1942’s Arabian Nights.) Other than the change of locale and Montez festooned in more clothes than usual, it was pretty much business as usual — though it does boast a better than average supporting cast. As noted at the beginning, the story is like a divinely silly grand opera — with dialogue to suit. The film is utterly indefensible as anything other than beguiling trash, but it’s good trash — wildly entertaining in its very preposterousness and creaky melodrama. A fascinating footnote in the history of film.