Of the following scene from The Rescuers, critic John Culhane had this to impart: "The scene in which Mme Medusa takes off her makeup while plotting child abuse. The way that Milt Mahl accents Geraldine Page's fruity, cruel voice by making her tug extra hard at her false eyelash until her eyelid snaps back like a rubber band is like a drawing from Daumier's Sketches of Expression series - but in movement!" - (Grant 293)
Madame Medusa is one of the Disney oeuvre's most chilling, and underrated, villains in a crowded field known for its innovation and deviation. Medusa is a harridan in a red dress, careening wild-eyed on a swamp rover, and strong-arms a little girl into plunging into a dark well to get her the world's largest diamond, yet is able to retain the greasy charm of a pit viper in the process.
Medusa, oddly enough, wasn't the first choice for a villain in Disney's The Rescuers, based on Margery Sharp's series of novels about two intrepid mice who do good deeds around the world as part of The Rescue Aid Society. (Medusa's literary counterpart in the novels is The Duchess of Diamonds, who is not as overtly multi-faceted, but is more evil and humorless than the fire-breathing gorgon we end up with!) According to Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Medusa's animator, "considered using Cruella de Vil again, but preferred not to make a sequel to any of [Disney's] pictures." (Johnston 159) Indeed, several pieces of concept art survive that show Cruella in the realm of The Rescuer's, decked out in a crocodile stole and leather-lined coat.
Indeed, both Medusa and Cruella are sisters in a way: both are incredibly unattractive, yet vain, are greedy to a fault, are reckless drivers, and, according to Johnston and Thomas, "would kill anyone who confronted them, destroy any device that hindered them, fight with anything in their power to get them what they wanted" including Medusa who "wants the largest diamond in the world." (Johnston 19) Medusa and Cruella's reckless driving skills are one in the same, begging the thought that they must have shared the same, devil-like driving teacher (Cruella's driving scene follows this note, Medusa's is included in the introduction clip below):
The initial concept art, once the Cruella idea fizzled out, showed Medusa as a frump, Margaret Dumont-like matron with furs and opera glasses (as seen in the concept art to the right.)
The Medusa that Milt Kahl summoned from the ashes was, as Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times "commented that she looked more like a frowzy, over-the-hill nightclub singer than an intimidating villain." Johnston and Thomas counter that "literature is full of soft and pudgy women who are absorbed with evil thoughts, so [Champlin's derogatory opinion] should not have mattered." (Johnston 162)
Indeed, to Champlin's point, Medusa's first scene is like watching a cheap actress in a melodramatic play go through her playbook of emotions, in the best way possible:
The fact that Medusa is looked over as a prime example of a villainess on the edge is disheartening, just as The Rescuers is seen as a lesser submission in the Disney catalog. Her relationship with Penny, that of an illegitimate "foster mother", is particularly disturbing. As with her predecessors The Evil Queen in Snow White and The Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella, Medusa shows that the tainted love of an unfit and evil parent is the most vicious abuse to force on any child.
Medusa's voice actress, Geraldine Page (wife of famous character actor Rip Torn), has been lauded in her portrayal as the "Diamond Diva", imbuing the character with a whiskey-soaked croak of a laugh and a slick-as-pomade charm, and is even credited with unlocking the secrets needed for the animators to grasp the oft-elusive dame. "From her first line, we knew we had possibly the greatest voice for animation we had ever had," remembers Johnston and Thomas. "Suddenly, the character, was there before us, alive, vain, and fanatical. Surpassing any of the timid concepts we had worked with so arduously before, this Medusa was over-whelming, authoritative, and entertaining." (Johnston 156-59)
After forcing Penny to get her diamond, which she is successful in doing despite almost drowning in the deep well, fighting in the swamp with a myriad of swamp-dwelling creatures, and having the diamond wrenched from her greedy grasp, Medusa finally meets her Waterloo. As with her ancestors before her, Medusa is left in the end, according to John Grant, "with nothing" despite being "like so many monomaniacs who will never settle for anything less than the object of their desires." (Grant 293)
Medusa's ultimate fate is ambiguous, as seen in this final clip, but one can assume that the greedy diamond-grubber ends up, fittingly, as chow for her gluttonous gators, Nero and Brutus. Now, c'mon, you have to admit that being torn to shreds by two gators is a pretty metal ending for a woman who is a giant, dramatic pain in the ass!
Grant, John. Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters. New York: Hyperion, 1993. Print.
Johnston, Ollie, and Frank Thomas. The Disney Villain. New York: Hyperion, 1993. Print.
Steven Krage is an award-winning writer, author, blogger, film historian, playwright, podcaster, classical musician (opera singer and pianist), actor, librarian, rare book collector, and professional eccentric who lives and breathes pop culture of the past, present, and future. His recent acting roles include Mr. McQueen (Urinetown), Carmen Ghia (The Producers) and a monologist in the final Chicago cast of the Listen to Your Mother Festival. He is currently writing a book-length biography of infamous Marx Brothers foil, Margaret Dumont: The Marx Sister. “I'm not a stooge, I'm the best straight woman in Hollywood. There's an art to playing it straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him.” – Margaret Dumont. (For more information, please visit StevenKrage.com!)