Gypsy Wildcat

Movie Information

In Brief: Though Maria Montez — usually co-starred with Jon Hall — is largely forgotten today, Universal Pictures parlayed her looks — especially her curvaceous body — and her limited acting skills into a popular series of highly Technicolored romance adventures in the 1940s. These garishly colored movies were appealing to wartime audiences. Today, we'd call them camp — and rightly so — but for a studio as small as Universal was then, they were big productions. (You can still see the corner cutting in little things like the fact that Montez has custom red leather gypsy boots, but the chorus girls are stuck with red shoe-store cowboy boots — never mind that we're in some indeterminate Ruritanian kingdom in an equally iffy time period.) Roy William Neill's Gypsy Wildcat is the best of the lot, though it's unusual in that Montez shows less skin than usual (but is given dresses that accent her breasts). The movie — a bunch of nonsense involving an evil baron, a royal foundling raised by gypsies, etc. — is a lot like a particularly silly opera — something enhanced by Edward Ward's grandiose musical score. (Ward had just come off the studio's Phantom of the Opera, and the sound came with him.) But either in spite or because of the camp and the goofiness of it all, it's very entertaining — and the presence of Leo Carrillo, Gale Sondergaard and Nigel Bruce (director Neill must have brought him in from the Sherlock Holmes movies) adds much.
Genre: Campy Romantic Adventure
Director: Roy William Neill (Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon)
Starring: Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Peter Coe, Nigel Bruce, Leo Carrillo, Gale Sondergaard, Douglass Dumbrille
Rated: NR



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.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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