Apparently this didn’t go well. I can’t find any reviews of it, so perhaps it closed out of town. But it was at this point, when she was 29 years old, that Roger Corman lured her back to Hollywood, telling her that she could star in his low-budget movies—no more sarongs, cowboy boots, or harem outfits—and he made good on his promise. The six movies she made for Corman are what she is rightly remembered for, and there’s one in particular—Machine Gun Kelly in 1958—that shows what might have been if the Universal moguls had been a little more perceptive and Susan had gone to a few less all-night parties. The movie stars Charles Bronson as the eponymous gangster, but she’s the woman-behind-the-muscle who plays him like a violin. No one who’s seen the movie can ever forget the scene where she calls out his cowardice and takes his brutal slaps without flinching. “You were peddling watered-down gin when I picked you up! I gave you a name, a reputation. I gave you a backbone! I could have had fifty better than you!”
Susan was at her best as the femme fatale. The first movie she made after returning from New York was the deceptively named Carnival Rock, in which a nightclub owner is so desperately in love with her that he’s driven to madness, financial ruin, arson, attempted murder, public humiliation, and self-destruction. (The Phantom of the Opera-knockoff script starred a weak character actor named David J. Stewart but could have been great in the hands of someone who knew what to do with it.) In Sorority Girl she was the ultimate sociopathic mean girl who knows she’s beautiful. In The Wasp Woman she’s a cosmetics executive who doesn’t care who lives or dies so long as she can keep taking the enzyme extracts that make her forever youthful and beautiful.
And in a movie that absolutely no one likes except me—The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent—she executes a twist on femme fatale cliché as the only brunette Viking (evidence of her dark powers), who plots against Abby Dalton in order to steal her man but then sees the need to preserve her race so uses her sexuality to lure all the Grimald warriors to their deaths in the Vortex. Yes, that’s what I said. In Susan’s big moment—when the Viking queen and Viking king are both about to be burned at the stake because neither will forswear love for the other—Susan steps forward, says “Your gods are false!” to the only man who can protect her, crosses both arms over her chest, and prays to Thor: “Show these infidels your power!” The resultant thunder, lightning, and drenching rain douse the sacrificial fires, send the army into retreat, and electrocute the whiny, effeminate Grimald heir to the throne, setting up the final sequence in which the sea serpent emerges from the Vortex and devours the ships of the Viking enemies.
When you see Susan Cabot at her best, you can easily imagine her beauty having that kind of power. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of beauty that starts to fade earlier than most. Her remaining days on this earth were spent doing occasional television walk-ons while living in Encino with King Hussein’s illegitimate son, who was born with dwarfism and whose mental stability was affected by taking an experimental drug derived from pituitary-gland hormones taken from cadavers. In 1986, acting out a plot that even Roger Corman wouldn’t film, that same son went temporarily berserk and beat his mother to death with a dumbbell, one year before her 60th birthday. The presiding judge would show leniency and limit prison time to three years, but the son died early as well, at age 38.
It was a downbeat B-movie ending to a remarkable life. My friends scoff when I say Susan Cabot was a feminist, but she was—of a certain type, in a certain time, with her own rules of engagement. I found the site of the Village Barn. It’s a Mount Sinai medical clinic. I feel like we should put up a plaque or something. The Wasp Woman thing was the least of it.
Joe Bob will be presenting his politically incorrect multi-media show “How the Rednecks Saved in Hollywood” January 26, 2018 at the Texas Theatre in Dallas. Tickets available here.