Directed by Richard Cunha
Irish McCalla – Jerrie Turner
Tod Griffin – Fred Maklin
Victor Sen Yung – Sammy Ching
Rudolph Anders – Col. Karl Osler
Leni Tana – Mona Osler
Gene Roth – Igor
Let us imagine NASA is sending a capsule into space – a communication to other civilizations out there behind the chilly dome of stars. Our goal for this particular space shot is a noble one: we want to provide perfect examples of American film making, from the first grainy, silent “flickers” right up to present day digital films. We are to provide a single film from every definable genre and era. What’s this? We’re lacking a film from the late 1950s, one from the low-budget, drive-in category – designed for sensation, splash, and ticket sales! Quick! The rocket takes off in 10 minutes!
No true connoisseur of atomic age B would need 10 minutes, of course. Any devotee already has his pick rattling around inside his skull - one more useless ping pong ball of information, of no good to anyone. In the above imagined scenario, however, I would have my moment in the sun. Gentlemen, I would say, please remain calm! I have dedicated my life for this moment! My research indicates that there are many good choices here, but it is my firm belief that Richard Cuhna’s 1958 “She Demons” is as fine an example as can be found!
Brows are mopped, backs are clapped, and the rocket launch is successful. I am awarded some sort of phallic, Plexiglas NASA award at a news conference and make a brief appearance on the today show the next morning ; after which I am promptly forgotten, as is the capsule and the mission. Years pass in which my slide back to anonymity is complete (the final humiliation, of course, is when I am no longer asked to appear at Sci Fi/Star Trek/Comic book conventions). *A special thanks goes to John Gilmore, Dean friend and biographer, for his wonderful recollections of the meeting between Dean and McCalla at Googies Coffee Shop. Mr. Gilmore was very generous with his time and with his emails, sharing his unique memories of Irish McCalla. Mr. Gilmore is the author of two fine biographies of Dean as well as several other books dealing with Hollywood celebrities and true crime. Please visit his website at http://www.johngilmore.com/.
Perhaps a few light years latter, however, in some neon-hued alien laboratory, the capsule’s seal is broken; and the lid opens with a hiss. Alien tentacles reach in, clutching at the discs inside with hair-covered suckers. Soon, several of the large, pulsing aliens are gathered around a large glowing ball. Their dozens of individual antennae eyes blink and undulate, watching the images that flit inside the globe as American Earth Movies are inserted, digested, and converted. Suddenly and deliciously, statuesque Demons heroine, Irish McCalla, strides inside the glowing ball, and all eye/membranes open fully (one or two even appear to bulge and vibrate).
The “hair” on the hip fins of several of the male aliens begins to bristle and enlarge a bit at the sight of the tall blonde actress, who is dressed in white shorts and sheer blouse cinched at the waist. One alien urgently reaches out a body tentacle, gently easing a sucker through the gelatinous, clear material of the globe, and attaches it to the holographic image of McCalla. The hairy sucker makes a wet sound as it flattens, covering her knee. The alien makes a sort of moist, guttural chortle with this contact; and his comrades all begin to grunt, their top vents bubbling, in what might be a form of crude laughter or, perhaps, a completely involuntary sound.
But I digress. Actually, I do far more than digress. I am simply killing time, trying to imagine a way that I can somehow express my deep love for this movie. The problem is that the movie, by all normal standards and conventions, is not worthy of love. Indeed, more than one prominent reviewer has called it “unwatchable.”
Yet love it I do, and by ”love” I don’t mean the worthless, condescending “love” of the movie snot, yukking it up over “bad” movies (I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I detest these pimply snits and their ilk). No, I mean “love” as in a deep, tender, inexplicable feeling of affection.
love for anything is difficult to explain. I can only speak for myself, but whenever a girlfriend has asked me, straight up, why I loved her; I have been instantly transformed into my alter ego - “Mr. Imbecile.” Because you’re a good person? Because I like your smile? These responses will earn you the flat stare of the undead. For reasons I only vaguely grasp, I have discovered that saying, because you make me laugh will work - but only once and only if you mean it.
But let’s get to She Demons before all focus is lost. It is, after all, the reason you plunked your two bits down in the first place. Perhaps, along the way, I’ll stumble over something that can explain my stubborn love (actually, let’s not fumble about. The reasons for my devotion to this film are all anchored in my affection for Irish McCalla. She provides the film’s utter watchability. I will discuss this tall, blonde Amazon in detail a bit later).
The plot of Demons is very simple in its linear movement, but a true hum-dinger when it comes to concept: A rich businessman hires a team to explore bizarre rumors of a tropical island inhabited by strange creatures, half-animal half human. The ship carrying this expedition is shipwrecked in a hurricane, which kills all crew except the small core of the research group. This small group washes up on a small, uncharted island. The central players in this band are Jerrie Turner (Irish McCalla), the very hot, very spoiled daughter of the rich founder of the expedition, Fred Maklin (Tod Griffin) head honcho of the expedition; and Sammy Ching (Victor Sen Yung), radioman and overly-optimistic, token ethnic of the expedition.
By sheer luck they have all been shipwrecked on the very island they were searching for in the first place. They soon discover that a mad ex-Nazi scientist, has been performing experiments on bands of kidnapped girls for his own demented purposes, turning them into half animal creatures. Our crew spends a good portion of the movie bumping heads with head Nazi guard, Igor (played by the brutish Gene Roth). Eventually, things come to a head when mad Nazi scientist falls in love with the spoiled, American rich girl, and spurned, decides to turn Jerrie into one of the island’s She Demons. The American military routinely uses the island for minor bombing practice, however, and in an unprecedentedly vicious assault blows the island to bits, releasing (somehow) a holocaust of volcanic earthquakes. Our three principles manage to escape in a small boat while all Nazis and she beasts die in a fiery inferno of carpet bombing, lava, and crumbling buildings.
So. We have super-duper hot Irish McCalla, who is best known for her atomic age modeling work, her frequent appearances in Men's magazines, and her two-season television run as Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (1955-56). Not for nothing, we also have Nazis in full uniform, despite the blaring heat of the tropics, keeping half-dressed women in bamboo cages; and we have a very hammy Rudolph Anders playing a demented, Nazi geneticist, spouting the appropriate wild-eyed dialogue in an odd, breathy, Germanic patter. Last, and certainly not least, we have Victor Sen Yung as “Sammy,” the half-dopey comic relief, who never lets torture or death disturb his optimistic, subservient approach to life (Sen Yung was head and shoulders the most accomplished actor in the troop, and one can only imagine the number of times he must have reminded himself that a paycheck was a paycheck was a paycheck. Then again, Mr. Sen Yung obviously enjoyed working with Irish McCalla and perhaps this was an important fringe benefit – more on his later).
Let’s first consider these and other elements that make She Demons an exemplary example of late atomic age B for the afore-mentioned, imaginary space capsule (We will deal with my love for it later).
Element No. I: The Pure Horror of Science
Perhaps the most important staple of the late atomic age B to Z movie is an utter contempt for the known bounds of science. In the new, nuclear age, scientists had managed, somehow, to split the atom. Wasn’t that kind of like blowing up the air? Increasingly, scientists were no longer good men driven mad by their obsessions (as in many mad doctor films from the 1930s and 1940s), but increasingly were unhealthy, dangerous madmen; outcasts from the stagnant world of traditional science, driven like mangy, foaming curs into the dark corners of the world. Once purged from decent society with its fussy dogma, these raving lunatics become completely unhindered by such trifling regulations as physical laws, cellular or atomic structure, gravity, and evolution. Once working in such fertile freedom, these gibbering lab rats are able to triumph in their diode-crackling, beaker-smoking, syringe-squirting experiments. Importantly, these madmen always work in isolation (save for the traditional, subhuman flunky), usually from a mountain villa or a poverty-blackened lab or, as in She Demons, a remote, uncharted tropical island (it would be pleasant to call the similarities between The Island of Lost Souls and She Demons a heartfelt homage, but they are really a simple, shameless snitch).
In Demons, we have a crackling good example of the above in Col. Carl Osler (Rudolph Anders), aka, “The Butcher.” Colonel Osler is an ex member of the SS, which makes him a madman from the get go; a medical doctor once in charge of hideous experimentation at an unnamed concentration camp during the war. His specialty was discovering methods for the removal of scar tissue. “You see,” explains the blonde, grinning doctor, having just captured our three Americans and finding himself unable - like most mad doctors – to keep his yap shut about himself, “my Fuhrer believed that, since we were developing a master race, there would be no place for scared war veterans.”
Under Hitler’s direct orders, the doctor developed a method by which massive amounts of scar tissue could be removed successful, leaving clear skin, if the subject was given massive amounts of radiation. Naturally, the clear complexion came at a heavy price, as the radiation killed the subject within hours. Osler was at work refining his methods (presumably earning his nickname by scarring and un-scarring camp prisoners in the process) when the war ended. With regard to lavish, dodgy science, Dr. Osler’s back-story could end right there and his Mad Doctor qualifications would be near impeccable. Plenty of B madmen have worked with less and didn’t have the benefit of a full SS uniform, including Jackboots and cigarette holder, for moments of histrionic posing. But in the competition for the atomic age’s maddest madman, this Nazi bastard is just warming up.
During his years at the death camps, Osler used molten lava as a source for his radiation treatments (where one finds molten lava at Buchenwald, say, is left to the imagination) , discovering in his scar tissue experiments a way to electrically extract the thermal energy from lava, converting this energy into electricity, which is then used to run the extraction machinery with energy to spare – turning the operation into a perpetual energy machine that will forever feed itself. Osler had come to the small, volcanic island at the end of the war, along with a devoted gaggle of Nazi guard henchman, because of its rich deposits of lava so near the crust of the earth; and has since put his discoveries in thermal energy to use by setting up his island laboratory with an endless source of humming, renewable power.
In the key scene where the colonel puffs his cigarette and blathers about himself, he directs his captured guests to a small porthole, through which can be seen, amazingly, the planet’s core of bubbling, white hot magma. “If this fire were to cool by even a thousand degrees,” declares Osler, “the surface of the earth would be entirely covered with a layer of ice!” Goddammit, stop hogging the porthole, Jerrie! I want a peak at the center of the earth!” But wait! This Gestapo son of a bitch isn’t done yet! It’s what he’s done in this crackling, buzzing underground laboratory of thermal power that is the real kicker!
Osler’s wife, Mona Osler (Leni Tana), has worked with the Colonel for years as a lab assistant. Once the Osler’s set up shop on the island (after the war), Mona was horribly disfigured by lava exhaust, leaving her virtually faceless (she flits through the movie politely, welcoming the island “guests” with her face completely wrapped in bandages like the invisible man with nice ankles). His wife’s scarring was so horrible, Osler’s procedures for normal skin replacement proved useless; and he began experimenting with a less cosmetic approach. His new research thereafter became much darker, based in dangerous and untried genetics.
“I vowed,” says Osler, thumping his fist on a surgical gurney, “to spend the rest of my life making her beautiful again. I have made some refinements on a discarded theory based on the exchange of what I term Character X between a healthy specimen and my wife.”
What is Character X? asks Jerrie helpfully (it has been Jerrie’s roll through much of the exposition scene to listen attentively to the doc’s yammering and ask the hard questions: Lava, a natural resource? What does that have to do with your laboratory here? Hitler really believed that? etc.) Character X, explains Osler happily as if speaking to an eager freshman, is the cellular structure - the secretion of genes - that make up personal appearance. In pursuit of beautiful specimens with whom his wife can exchange this beauty-defining character X, Osler has kidnapped a troop of beautiful native girls from a nearby tropical island. The final fly in the ointment is that his wife, Mona, is so devoid of character X (beauty), that a full an uncut exchange between Mona and a healthy, foxy Island girl would be fatal to both; therefore the character X exchanged has to be modified with animal genes, so as to make the new brew a palatable compromise between the horribly ugly (Mona) and drop-dead sexy (any of the nubile teenagers the Nazis keep in bamboo cages). Unfortunately, this animal-gene mixture, while going down smooth as two fingers of Jim Beam for the hideous Mona, turns our native lovelies into snaggle-toothed, bulge-eyed, murderous animals (at least from the neck up. From the chin down, they still fill their leopard-skin bikinis perfectly). Viola! In an effort to restore his wife’s beauty, Osler the Butcher as created a Nazi She Demon factory!
Element No. II: Nazis in dress uniform, whips, and half-naked girls in cages
While it might be a bit grandiose to call Richard Cunha the Godfather of the massive, bloody tide of exploitation films that washed over drive-ins and theaters in the 60s and 70s; the director’s She Demons must at least be considered a legitimate precursor for two of exploitation’s richest and most storied subgenres: Demon predates the first entry in the Nazi Exploitation subgenre - Lee Frost’s Love Camp 7 - by a solid decade; and the subgenre’s most famous entry, Don Edmond’s Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, wouldn’t repel, disgust and thrill audiences for another fifteen years. If your personal preference in exploitation runs to the Women in Prison vein, Col. Osler and his troop of jackboots kept these island girls in bamboo cages thirteen years before Roger Corman’s The Big Doll House shackled imprisoned women in a steaming, jungle hell. While Cunha lacked the ugly soul of today’s directors of mainstream horror film, with today’s new-found focus on torture porn, his head Nazi, the un-Germanically named Igor (Gene Roth), does whip an island girl to death for an escape attempt, lashing her first to a post as is traditional.
Element No. III: The Diana Nellis Dancers Go Cheesecake Native
Girls! Girls! Girls!
By the end of the fifties, filmmakers where battling, in ever feverish fashion, the pervasive influence and dominance of television. That goddamn little tube thing was in a huge chunk of American homes by 1958, and any hope of TV being simply a fade (yes, there actually such a thought, albeit very briefly) was smashed like a fat fly against a windshield.
This battle of the screens heralded the age of the theater gimmick, which the wonderful William Castle made into an American art form: seat buzzers, scratch-and-sniff cards, voting signs which could be waved at the screen (having no effect on anything) and, of course, 3D glasses; were used by Castle and other film-makers in an effort to give the theater-going public an experience unavailable in their own living rooms (my favorite ploy to attract ticket buyers was employed in William Castle’s 1958 Macabre: Each member of the audience was given an actual Lloyds of London life insurance policy for $1,000 upon entering the theater, payable in full should they die of fright during the film - and null and void upon exit. Castle also hired a bevy of nurses in white uniforms and squeaky-souled shoes to be on hand, should any medical emergency arise). And, naturally, there was a rapid increase in gratuitous moments of sex, violence and gore, none of which was available, as yet, on the home screen.
The gratuitous sex part brings us to the Diana Nellis Dancers, who portray the kidnapped island girls so badly abused by the tropical Nazi. Richard Cunha, who in his brief but glorious career never lost his producers a goddamn penny, was noted for scenes of sudden, crowd-pleasing sensation, apropos of nothing in the plot. His glorious, rock-and-roll pool party, complete with swingin’ cats, smack dab in the middle of Frankenstein’s Daughter comes to mind; and here the Nellis Dancers supplies the sudden, jarring moment of naked audience pandering.
Our shipwrecked castaways come upon the clearing of native girls, having been attracted by the sound of their native drums. We come upon the young, island girls having all just escaped from their Nazi tormentors and, for reasons that will forever remain their own, decide to celebrate their liberation by erotically dancing around a blazing campfire (despite it being broad daylight and despite the sweltering heat). It can only be assumed that the girls either discovered the drums and totems of their brief camp laying handily about or somehow manufactured them very quickly, but in either case their dance of freedom proves a mistake: The drums and smoke, quite naturally, attract not only our three castaways, but also the Nazi storm troopers, who recapture the loud and nicely gathered troop in easy fashion.
The Diana Nellis Dancers, whoever they were (I have been unable to find anything on Diana Nellis or her dancers other than references to She Demons) provide the pre-requisite cheese cake and suggested sex, and in this regard do an outstanding job. It probably goes without saying that none of them look “native,” but I’ll say it anyway. Some of them are just plain blonde and fair skinned. Would it be unkind to notice that, as a troop, their dance performance is noticeably . . . unsynchronized? Yet, let’s give credit where it is due. They do, in their awkward and overt way, provide moments of erotic heat. And it is their nonsensical actions and gratuitous presence that make them beloved by B film fans. If this troop of island captives had been actual native girls who, upon their escape from their Nazi overlords, had simply hidden in stealth until managing a boat back to their home island, She Demons would have been forgotten long ago. The Diana Nellis Dancers were fated for something far more glorious than rational action and simple intelligence can ever manage.
OK. I believe we’ve have been able to justify the space capsule inclusion of She Demons to the officers and administrators at NASA; but what of my fervent love? Let’s get to the good stuff where everything is revealed.
The Good Stuff Pt. I: Rudolph Anders: Our Little, Giddy Butcher!
As cinematic mad doctors go, Anders’ Colonel Carl Osler takes a back seat to no one in screen history. Sure, Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein had moments of epic madness, screaming his glee to the Heavens upon his creature’s life, but Ander’s Osler is shithouse crazy 24/7. With Osler, there are no rational interludes of sane reprieve; no quite moments in the lee of madness. With Karloff, in nearly all his mad scientist roles, he is a warm human being driven mad by the passions of his exploratory pursuits. Not so with Anders. His Col. Osler was born with a bent ray of light blighting his brain; his perfect, white teeth capable of only a rictus grin.
Also, there is something absolutely shivering and just plain repulsive about Anders’ Osler. His odd tittering and jabbering delivery with Teutonic accent is hypnotic yet un-nerving, his words bubbling quietly in some hideous verbal caldron, at times nearly inaudible. His constant grin, devolving at times into a soft giggle, as he describes his various “unethical’ experiments in the death camps; or his wild eyes, suddenly gaining sharp focus as he discusses his “specimens,” is completely convincing. Also, there is nothing at all attractive about his madness; quite the reverse. He is a repulsive little man, made toxic by his demented mind. His hands would be warmish and moist; his breath fetid but scented with an odd trace of mint.
“I must have your love,” says Osler to Jerrie Turner (whom he has at least shown the sense to dress in an elegant black dress for an evening of forced seduction), his velvety words quivering like oil sliding over water. He begins to paw at her, his voice a nattering gurgle too soft to hear, when suddenly McCalla’s arm coils and lashes viciously, the flat of her hand delivering a terrific crack across the much smaller man’s face. I have watched the scene several times and have to wonder if McCalla might have had an actual moment of gut-level repulsion. Her fury seems genuine, as does the wallop she delivers to the actor’s face. Ander’s appears completely dumbfounded for a moment, staggering back with eyes glassy and mouth hanging open. He gathers himself and swallows before he can speak. If this was simply a stage blow, it is certainly the most convincing Richard Cunha was ever able to commit to film. Simply put, it appears for all the world like McCalla really ties into the smaller Anders, slapping the blathering dialogue right out of his mouth.
Normally Cunha’s fight scenes are slow, ponderous and sloppily presented; the sound at poor levels and badly synced - containing nothing of the sudden and shocking effect of this slap which made me grimace and, I admit, cheer the first time I saw it. With actress McCalla, one can easily imagine the tall, athletic woman responding to real-life groping with the kind of sudden fury she lays on Osler; and if McCalla had some moment of primal instinct with regard to Anders’ slimy pawing, she can certainly be forgiven. When it comes to creepy-crawly, Anders’ mad Nazi certainly delivers the unwholesome goods and then some.
The Good Stuff Pt. II: Irish McCalla – Savage Beauty from Pawnee City
Bang. There it is. Irish McCalla is the reason I love this film so much.
I would treasure it, probably, if another actress had played the spoiled heiress, Jerrie Turner. I could easily see the great Mara Corday (Tarantula, The Black Scorpion, The Giant Claw) in this role, for instance. With her lush, dark beauty and wide-set, beautiful eyes, she would have been very good. Corday was most certainly a better actress than McCalla, or at least more serious about the craft. But my devotion to She Demons would likely be considerably less. Let’s talk about Irish McCalla.
She was born Nellie Elizabeth McCalla in Pawnee City, Nebraska; one of eight siblings, daughter of a big Irishman, Lloyd McCalla – town butcher and drinking man. By all accounts McCalla was a tomboy, loved fighting with her brothers, football, and climbing trees; and was considered odd looking as a young girl. None of the other Midwest girls had such a wide face, or such high cheekbones and almond-shaped blue eyes. She was also gawky tall, earning the nickname “beanpole.” She was very self conscious about her unique appearance, and around the age of fifteen the tall beanpole fleshed out into a figure that would further delineate her from the local girls, or, for that matter, from nearly every other woman that has ever put on earrings. By her late teens, there was a near savagery to her blonde beauty, a thing very unique and physically intimidating.
How do you keep a girl on the windblown plains when she’s one of the most breathtaking young women in the world? If you’re smart, you don’t try. After moving to California in the late forties and throughout the fifties, McCalla became, along with Bettie Page, one of the most successful magazine models in the industry. She simply dominated the covers of the plethora of men’s magazines so popular in the atomic age - with titles like Eve, Adam, Big Time, Scene, Frolic, and Night and Day. She became a Vargas Girl (McCalla so admired Vargas that he was the only artist she ever posed nude for) and was, along with Page, one of the early model superstars.
“Look sexy,” the photographers would say, eliciting only shy giggles. One day a photographer noticed a look on her face during a long day of shooting, a rather dreamy look of wanton desire, and he asked her what she was thinking about. She told him, and from then on the shutterbug knew the secret. “I’m going to buy you a hot-fudge sundae with lots of whipped cream,” the photographers would say, and McCalla’s expression would become one of rapture. Click, click, click would go the camera.
Of course, the moving camera couldn’t keep It’s grubby mitts of McCalla for long. She will be best remembered for her television role as Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, which she played on the young tube in 1955-56. She was a natural for the part, being so tall, strong and athletic; and looked completely at her ease swinging from the trees and doing her own stunts. “You mean they’re going to pay you for doing what you did as a kid?” asked her mom. Among Sheena fans there really is not discussion. McCalla was the ultimate Queen of the Jungle. Tanya Roberts? Please. McCalla went on to make a series of B movies, my favorite of which is under discussion.
Three quick McCalla stories:
Irish McCalla – Commercial Artist: Irish McCalla always thought of herself as an artist and it was the one thing she was passionate about her entire life. She moved to California, in fact, to make it as an artist and painter, not as a stunning model and drop-dead-object-of-lust-and-desire. As a kid she loved making sketches of her favorite comic book, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle; and was very influenced by the pin-up artist, Alberta Vargas. As a teenager, she would make copies of the Vargas girls on pieces of cheap newsprint, using colored chalk, and trade them for gas for her boyfriend’s car at the local gas stations. McCalla kept old journals and sketch books, containing her early drawings of Sheena, until the day she died. Is beauty in this life most obvious in moments of pure symmetry? If so, McCalla must have touched it often as an aging woman, looking over her little girl sketches of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.
Irish McCalla and James Dean: Irish McCalla was starring as Sheena the same year that two James Dean films, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, were released (1955). The two were introduced by John Gilmore*, Dean friend and future Dean biographer, at Googies - coffee shop and hot spot of the stars. Gilmore introduced McCalla as Queen of the Jungle, and Dean gave a short bow as if being presented before royalty (and by this simple, courtly gesture confirming that his reputation for cool isn’t hype). Upon straightening, Dean looked up at McCalla, who was a good 3 or 4 inches taller than the actor, and said, “I’m going to have to come over and swing in your tree.” McCalla responded easily, “That’s fine, I’ve got a lot of slack in my vines.” In short, two confident Midwesterners, well met.
Irish McCalla and Elvis Presley: Elvis and McCalla appeared together on The Milton Berle Show in June of 1956**. McCalla’s initial impression of The Pelvis was lukewarm. She couldn’t quite figure out what the fuss was about. He didn’t seem any better looking than many of the Nebraska boys she had grown up with. During his performance, McCalla turned to show co-star Debra Paget, and said, “It’s got a good beat, but what’s he singing about? A hound dog?” Paget, offering a much more typical reaction, said, “Who cares?” without taking her eyes off the King for a second. When Presley smiled, though, McCalla could see something of the appeal. A certain shy, boyish charm which made him, indeed, very handsome. That smile made her want to “ruffle his hair.” Over the days of rehearsal for the show, Presley would eventually introduce himself to her, declaring himself a fan of Sheena, having watched the show on television. She would show him demonstrations of Tahitian dancing, explaining the ways it differed from his rock and roll moves. “He was a real nice kid,” McCalla concluded.
Irish McCalla and the She Demons of Nazi Island: As an actress, McCalla lacked dramatic intensity. “She Demons,” she says easily, as the castaways first encounter the dancing native girls amid the totems and drums; and she reads the line as though commenting on a pleasant, vast field of corn. “It’s another one of your filthy, dirty tricks,” she says to Colonel Osler, managing to lower her voice and frown a bit, as he is threatening to kill all her friends and turn her into a hideous she demon if she doesn’t have sex with him. In fact, throughout her scene with Col. Osler, Butcher of the SS, she seems about as threatened and anxious as would a cobra in a room with a rabbit.
McCalla never wanted to be an actress, after all. Painting was her lifelong passion. The cameras simply demanded her presence, as did the filmmakers. In a sense, McCalla was the perfect ingénue for Richard Cunha, a director who rated his own movies by the amount of fun they were to make. McCalla approached acting like a good job, with good money and all, but a passionate craft or calling? Really, wasn’t acting a little silly? Like playing make-believe when you’re a kid?
McCalla did posses one of the actor’s gifts, however, in spades: She was never nervous in front of a camera and seemed completely at her ease under the lights and lenses. In She Demons, she has the natural grace some women obtain simply by being objects of beauty, being quite used to a lifetime of people staring whenever the enter or move across a room. A self-consciousness turned into a kind of elegant integrity. What radiates off the screen whenever Irish McCalla speaks is a simple feeling of enjoyment – a love of life and real joy in being part of a moment, with this particular group of guys, simply having fun with this ridiculous story. Oh my God, Mom. It’s called She Demons!
“What I wouldn’t give for a nice, chilled glass of champagne,” says Jerrie Turner, spoiled rich girl, now shipwrecked on a make believe island of green, jungle hell; as the three castaways rest a moment on the beach. Instantly seizing the moment, Sammy Ching tosses a dead palm leaf over his arm like a maître d’s towel (throughout the movie, actors McCalla and Sen Yung enjoy a warm, clever repartee that, knowing how Richard Cunha worked, was more than likely one-take ad-libs. The script actually seems clever whenever these two share a moment). “Ms. Turner, what is your pleasure this evening?” says Sammy.
The two actors banter on a bit, with McCalla holding her hand up, curled back at the wrist. She calls Sen Yung, “my good man” in her rather deep, Middle America voice and orders some French champagne “veddy, veddy chilled.” Sen Yung compliments mademoiselle on her choice, remarking that the brand is, of course, the specialty of the house. “And for an entrée, Mademoiselle?” McCalla cocks her head, thinking . . .
So, what we have is a Nebraska girl from a very small town. She’s very beautiful in an exotic way – nearly wicked looking. The year is 1957 and she’s sitting on a beach dressed in some white shorts and a cute, little top; pretending to be a rich girl shipwrecked on an island, who is pretending to order a chilled glass of champagne in a fancy restaurant where the waiters speak French. She’s talking to a Chinese-American actor, who is pretending to be a castaway, pretending to be a French waiter. And the thing, Mom, is that there are Nazis on this Island. You know. Germans. All dressed up and everything!
What we have here is a smart, warm girl from Nebraska, having fun playing in a huge clubhouse called Hollywood, where the coolest guys on the planet have bowed before her, playing the most elaborate game of dress-up the world has ever known. Later, in about four or five years, she would get back to being an artist (which is what she moved to Malibu for in the first place) and continue to paint her heart out until she died of complications from a brain tumor in 2002. Her death wasn't easy, but she was a tough, brave woman.
You mean they’re going to pay you for doing what you did as a kid? says Mom, sensing a bit of the thrill of it all right through the telephone line, the communication stretching over the entire bulge of the Midwest, all the way from Hollywood right to the telephone stand in a front hallway of the house in Pawnee City, right there next to the stairway that led up, up, to her room when she was a little girl.
“I know, Mom, can you believe it? Isn’t it something!”
**Much of the biographical detail about Irish McCalla was gleaned from Paul Wickham's Website,
*A special thanks goes to John Gilmore, Dean friend and biographer, for his wonderful recollections of the meeting between Dean and McCalla at Googies Coffee Shop. Mr. Gilmore was very generous with his time and with his emails, sharing his unique memories of Irish McCalla. Mr. Gilmore is the author of two fine biographies of Dean as well as several other books dealing with Hollywood celebrities and true crime. Please visit his website at http://www.johngilmore.com/.