You want to see a fantastic female in charge, and another trying to take charge, try the cult classic Cobra Woman (1944). Maria Montez plays a dual role as twin sisters. Naja is the tyrannical and wicked high priestess of Cobra Island. Her twin Tollea, was the first born and therefore the rightful ruler, but when she reacted badly to cobra venom during a childhood ritual, she was condemned as unfit, smuggled away and raised by a kindly sailor. Now, on the eve of Tollea’s wedding to Ramu (Jon Hall), a mysterious mute peddler (Lon Chaney Jr) arrives to take her back to Cobra Island. Her biological grandma, the Queen, hopes that Tollea will assume the throne and rid them all of the evil, uncontrollable Naja. Legend has it that no stranger ever returned from Cobra Island, but Ramu and his faithful buddy Kado (Sabu) brave those poor odds to attempt a rescue of Tollea.
It is said that “no drug-soaked brain could dream up the horrors of Cobra Island,” but this movie dreamed it up and brought it to vivid life. This is fantastic entertainment and pulpy comic book spectacle bursting at the seams with fantastic things: an island city of castles and spires, pronged venom-tipped weapons, impossible cliff walls, dangerous beasts, quicksand, creative torture, angry volcanoes, hypnotic rituals and dances, abyssal dungeons, a bejewelled chest holding none other than King Cobra (why did it have to be snakes!), hilariously literal descriptions of rituals and locations (“the thousand steps to the fire mountain”) and characters speaking in bizarre accents and dramatic exclamations.
Everywhere you lay your eyes, there is sumptuous Technicolor. The costuming is amazing, a fashion show of robes and gowns in jewel colours, laden with satin, brocade, sequins, feathers and beads, and topped with turbans and architectural marvels of headdresses. Sets are elaborate and beautiful in every detail. You can sometimes spot the seams where painted sets meet the organic ones, but it looks great and hardly matters when everything is meant to be such gloriously gaudy eye-candy. In all the fantasy there’s still a clear reference to Nazi Germany with the stabbing, striking cobra hand gestures the audience make in united salute during Naja’s rituals.
Hall may be the action hero here and fulfills that role really well, swinging around like Tarzan, but there’s no shortage of strong women. Grandma/Queen (Mary Nash) doesn’t consider herself the boss on the island, but she brings the good sister back home to save her people, has no problem defying the evil sister, orders her to abdicate and then bravely faces assassination. As she dies, she curses her killer and assures him that good will win. There’s also a helpful island lady (Lois Collier) who works with Chaney to help Tollea and the strangers.
The twins only meet in one scene, but up until then Montez creates two distinct characters. Naja hardly goes anywhere without her fancy entourage and exotic fanfare. During the King Cobra ritual, Naja tames and scares the reptile with her writhing dance and then, as if possessed, lunges toward the crowd and picks out random citizens to be carried off for sacrifice. “I haff spoken!” is always her final answer and woe to the sucker who dares to inquire further. It takes a while before Ramu realizes he’s kissing a twin, and Naja, amused by his advances and daring, and the novelty of a man who isn’t a toady, asks him for more. She’s gorgeous and intimidating but not beautiful, as Kado observes; her cruelty makes her ugly.
Tollea is the opposite, the modest and meek but shining and noble sarong sister who spends a lot of screen time staring agog at her doppelganger or professing her love for Ramu. Which isn’t to say she’s a damsel in distress. Initially unambitious about the whole birthright and ruler option, Tollea gets curious about her duty once she gets to know the Queen and wins the loyalty of some islanders. When Tollea works up the guts to confront her sister, her weapon is courage, which shocks and scares Naja, makes her back down. Naja ends up getting fatally tangled in her seductive fashions and pushed to her death by her own hatred.* Tollea ends up with the ruling power, and better yet, the power to decide her future.
Many criticise Montez’s acting and ego, but she was the main exotic attraction for Universal and this is one of her best moments. She fully commits, fulfills the fabulosity, lives up to the spectacle, and does her job differentiating the sisters. And you can’t be totally down on her talent after you see her play Tollea impersonating Naja in that last throne and cobra scene. Tollea has put on the fancy garb but suspicious high priest Martok (Edgar Barrier), isn’t buying it and brings out the big snake to discover which sister this is. Tollea is petrified but wants to prove herself. She hesitates and seems to sweat bullets but bravely gives a “here goes nothing” look, launches into a facsimile of Naja’s snake dance and inches toward King Cobra.
*There’s a great dissection of this scene in A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960, by Jeanine Basinger