Sometimes you can't trust your cable guide. Mine told me that Turner Classic Movies was going to be running Luis Bunuel's Oscar-nominated version of Robinson Crusoe starring Dan O'Herlihy. Apparently I'll have to watch that here if I really want to see it, because what TCM ended up showing the other day was something that might well have appealed to the arch-surrealist of cinema: a gender-bending adaptation of Defoe raging with sexual subtext.
After teasing us with a male narration of the logbook of a doomed vessel, a woman's voice takes over to inform us that she, Robin Crusoe (Amanda "Miss Kitty" Blake), a young woman who got aboard in male drag, and one wretched man survived the shipwreck to reach an apparently deserted island. The man instantly attempts to force himself on Robin, claiming to have never been fooled by her imposture, but she manages to shove him off a cliff after he chases her up a hillside. Robin settles into her new routine as queen of a realm of one, proving quite a competent survivor and builder. A monkey is her sole companion until the inevitable day when black tribesmen appear to carry out an execution. They intend to put two women to death -- for what offense??? -- by tying their legs to bent tree limbs and tearing them in half. Robin manages to rescue one of the women (Rosalind Hayes) while the executioners focus on their first victim. She then fends off an attack on her treehouse by the aggrieved men with her musket and pistol, the woman joining in by chucking back some of the spears the men have flung at them. Like her literary model, Robin names her new companion Friday, noting the day's connotation as a day of freedom -- did Friday Foster get he name for the same reason?
Robin retains enough eurocentric civilization to take offense when Friday performs a mysterious death ritual over their foes, brandishing (freshly?) shrunken heads on sticks, but the black woman responds with servile gratitude (at least) when reprimanded. They teach each other skills, Friday warning Robin off the island's poisonous fruits, for instance. Eventually, Robin starts work repairing a rowboat so she and Friday can strike out for civilization, but the project is hardly under way when a second shipwreck deposits a sole, male survivor on the island. Robin wastes no time letting Jonathan (George Nader) know who's boss, reminding Friday -- who may have needed no reminding -- that "All men are bad." Ms. Crusoe suspects that Jonathan will try to steal her tools or her boat, and her suspicions make Friday violently hostile toward the man. She nearly kills Jonathan when he sneaks to the Crusoe place to borrow her saw, then gleefully watches him chomp on some that poisoned fruit. Stumbling on the scene, Robin is horrified and urges Friday to whip up the natural antidote that fortunately exists. An uneasy truce settles in as the women nurse Jonathan back to full health, neither fully trusting him but each, perhaps, tempted by him. Friday seems quick to adopt Robin's new opinion that this man, at least, is "good."
A very awkward courtship ensues as Jonathan tries to win Robin to womanly ways, wondering whether she always has to be the captain of everything. She despises girlish affectations, informing Jonathan that she's wearing flowers in her hair "only to please Friday," -- but she quickly clarifies that her friend considers them a good-luck charm. But Jonathan, despite his hopeless chauvinism, proves still more tempting in what looks like blue store-bought swim trunks. Things come to a head when Friday lights a huge bonfire and performs a ritual of uncertain significance -- at first I thought that she had burned the rowboat -- while Jonathan seems insanely to swim out to sea, only to return to shore. Robin watches both spectacles, confessing a strange attraction to Friday's "savage" spectacle. What might otherwise be written off as director Eugene Frenke's incompetence creates a very ambiguous moment when you can't tell whether Robin is going to go to Jonathan on shore or Friday by the fire. She opts for Jonathan and a From Here to Eternity moment -- but the next morning he and the rowboat are gone.
By themselves again, Robin seethes and Friday tries to console her, subtext rising its closest to the surface when Friday strokes the sleeping Robin's hair. From there, events rush to their climax, Jonathan returning and setting a big fire on shore just as the tribesmen return, apparently after vengeance on the women. Robin is ready to kill Jonathan, who has wisely armed himself for his return visit -- and has the drop on him when she hears Friday's screams. To spoil things for the sake of closure, Robin and Jonathan rescue Friday and the trio fight off a small army of tribesmen until a naval vessel appears to investigate the bonfire and scatter the savages. At the darkest moment, Robin promises to marry Jonathan, and appears to fulfill that promise by the end -- but it's worth noting that, despite all my expectations, Friday does not die and is presumably still around in England as our heroine's body servant or in some related capacity, if you get my drift....
Miss Robin Crusoe is a triumph of content over form, which is fortunate considering how often the form stinks. Frenke, more often a producer (he made a more reputable desert-island picture, John Huston's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, in that capacity), was directing for the fourth and last time, and it makes you dread the first through third attempts. Nicely photographed locations are laughably integrated with the fakest-looking soundstage sets, while Frenke has difficulty ending scenes. Many end with an abrupt blackout, as if footage had suddenly been excised. Apart from the score by Elmer Bernstein, who was helping films as bad as Robot Monster punch above their weight musically, this is a clumsy affair. But sometimes, especially in the Code Enforcement era, it was the films lacking in classical smoothness that allowed repressed ideas to crack the surface of cinema if not break through entirely. Did Frenke mean for this film to have so much lesbian subtext, or was the whole movie a sort of Freudian slip? I won't venture an answer right now, but at least I can say that Miss Robin Crusoe more than made up for missing the Bunuel. I'm sure it'll prove inferior on every level once I see the film I originally wanted, but it was entertaining as hell.