Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Ancestry Odyssey, Part Two by Greg Dziawer

Party animals: Ed Wood's mother, Lillian (right) at a VFW function in 1954.

A striking resemblance.
Ed Wood's mother, Lillian C. Wood (1903-1989), plays an important but slightly vague role in the director's strange mythology. Legend has it that she's the one responsible for Eddie's cross-dressing during his formative years in Poughkeepsie, NY. She reputedly wanted a girl and dressed him up as such.

Is it true? Who knows? But it's a story Ed often told about himself to others, and it has since become one of the accepted "facts" of his life, even making it into the screenplay for the Tim Burton-directed biopic Ed Wood in 1994. "My mom wanted a girl, so she used to dress me up in girly clothing," Ed (Johnny Depp) explains to a shocked Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), once he's revealed his darkest secret to her.

But what of the woman herself? Other than the transvestism story, preciously little else is ever mentioned about Lillian, even though she lived long enough to be one of the interviewees in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy. This week, let's try to change that a little. First, let's put a face to the name, a literal snapshot. 

While she never received nearly as much attention as her eccentric son, Lillian did get a modicum of press coverage during her lifetime. Through the years, she frequently posted in the local Poughkeepsie newspapers: small blurbs recording her illnesses and various trips to visit relatives. 

Furthermore, both Lillian and her husband, Edward D. Wood, Sr., were active at the local Vail-Wolff VFW Post #170. Edward had been the post's second commandeer for a stint in the early 1940s. And so, supportive wife that she was, Lillian took on numerous assignments as part of the post's Ladies Auxiliary. If there were a party at the VFW back then, it was usually Lillian credited with arranging it.

These activities generated a fair amount of ink in the local papers. In 1954 alone, Lillian was mentioned in eight different articles, nearly all of them about the Ladies Auxiliary or a related club charmingly called the Cootiettes or Cooties. Looking through these old clippings, I was stopped dead in my tracks by one particular photo of Lillian because of how strong a resemblance she bore to her famous son Ed. While this isn't too surprising, considering that they were blood relatives, the similarity of their faces was so uncanny that I wanted to share it with you.

Left: A 1954 press clipping about Lillian Wood. Top right: The Cooties' logo. Bottom right: VFW Post #170.

The article that caught my eye came from the July 15, 1954 edition of the Poughkeepsie New Yorker. The photo caption gives a little insight into what Lillian's life in Pougkeepsie was like while her son Ed was off in Hollywood, making movies like Glen or Glenda (1953) and Jail Bait (1954). To wit:
"Believed to be the oldest past president of Veterans of Foreign Wars auxiliaries in the sate, Mrs. Isabelle West (second from left), 23 Holmes Street, was honored at a surpise party at the Vail-Wolff post home last night, in celebration of her 86th birthday. Shown presenting a corsage to Mrs. West as she cuts her birthday cake is Mrs. Irene Knickerbocker, left, president of the Past Presidents' club of the Ladies Auxiliary of Vail-Wolff post, as Mrs. Lillian Wood, right, chairman for the party, and Mrs. Edith Robbins, second from right, president of the Queen Bee Cootiette club, look on."

If you're wondering about the Cootiettes, incidentally, you can read more about the organization here.

We'll visit Poughkeepsie and Ed's family again in future installments of this column. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Dziawer Odyssey, Part Seven by Greg Dziawer

Greg Dziawer's personal copy of The Young Marrieds.

Where's Ed Wood in this thing?
Time flies. Not the most original sentiment, perhaps, but undoubtedly a truism if one lives long enough. I'll be turning 50 in less than three weeks. If I survive just half a decade more, I'll have outlived Edward D. Wood, Jr., the subject of this series. My AARP card even came in the mail last week. I've arrived!

Truthfully, the realization that I'm now over the hump, moving down the other side of the proverbial hill, has increasingly occupied my thoughts in recent years. For a long time, I've found Maslow's hierarchy of needs a viable framework. And although I've long understood—or at least had my own interpretation of—self-actualization, it's only recently that I've come to feel legacy needs. For me, that has taken the shape of writing these articles about Ed Wood over the past two and a half years. Through them, I've endeavored to amplify and extend Ed's legacy. I even crafted my own three-tiered mission statement a few years back. 
  • Recognize Ed as an outsider artist.
  • Index Ed fully. And, no, that's not impossible.
  • Access Ed's work. Clamor for it. It won't rediscover itself.

Last May, thanks to the immense generosity of Vinegar Syndrome co-founder Joe Rubin, I was lucky enough to get my hands on an actual 16mm print of Ed's last-known feature, The Young Marrieds. (The details of obtaining this rare print are another story.) A copy of this 1972 porno film had been discovered more than a decade earlier and identified, perhaps for the first time, as Ed Wood's work by my good friend, self-styled porn archaeologist Dimitrios Otis. Since that watershed moment in Woodology, more prints have emerged—I know of at least six in existence—and The Young Marrieds has been released multiple times on DVD. It can even be streamed over the internet.

Keith Crocker at home.
Soon after getting my print of The Young Marrieds, I e-mailed another good friend, Long Island cult film schlock-teur Keith Crocker, the demented genius behind The Bloody Ape and Blitzkrieg: Escape from Stalag 69, to tell him of my good fortune. Keith graciously offered to host a private screening of the print and invite a small audience. He also proposed that we introduce the film and follow it with a Q&A. I was, naturally, tickled pink. 

We both had a busy summer, but finally the day came. On the last Saturday in August, I hopped in my car and put the big plastic canister containing The Young Marrieds on the back seat and hit the road for Long Island. The guests would be arriving around 7pm, Keith told me, and we planned to eat first and have a few drinks before retiring to the screening room. I live in Northeast Pennsylvania, and the drive took considerably longer than I expected, especially once I crossed the George Washington Bridge. There was a lot more traffic than one would expect for a Saturday afternoon. To make matters worse, the GPS kept recalculating my route owing to accidents. 

But I finally arrived at Keith's place, where my wonderful host and his wife Christina cooked a too-late lunch on the grill. Keith and I then went to work cleaning the print. In one of those "duh!" moments that seem to become more frequent as I get older, I had previously neglected to mention that my copy of film was on a core, not on reels that could be threaded into a projector.

Time now started proving tight as Keith cleaned the film, spliced it, and wound it onto two reels. The hand-lettered leader was curiously dated 1981, the same year The Young Marrieds was first released on videotape in the UK, sans any attribution to Ed Wood. Amid a bit of confusion and some related profanity, we ended up winding the film back and forth a few times, the clock ticking, until we got it right. With no time to spare, we finished just as the first guest arrived at Keith's place.

A copy of The Young Marrieds.
In all, we had a crowd of eight people, including a few students from Keith's film class, a fun and smart bunch who knew their exploitation films well. None, though, had ever seen The Young Marrieds. We ate, talked, and drank before we finally retired to the screening room, where Keith had placed several exhibits, including some 8mm Swedish Erotica films now attributed to Ed Wood and some books and magazines related to Ed.

Among the paperbacks was the 1971 sex education manual The Young Marrieds by Benjamin Blatkin. Billed as "a photographic study of the marital habits of the younger generation," this book was published by Pendulum and carried the company's Atlanta address inside. Although this volume was not actually written by Ed Wood, its orbital proximity to Ed's career and the fact that it shares a title with one of his movies make it an interesting related artifact nevertheless. I'd brought along one of my two copies to give Keith as a gift. But since he already owned it, Keith suggested we give the extra copy away as a prize. Together, he and I agreed on a suitable trivia question to determine who would win the book: What does the sign outside the strip club say? 

As Keith began his introduction to the screening, I was feeling very relaxed and comfortable. I was a few drinks in by that point, and there was a congenial atmosphere with good company as we all prepared to watch an early '70s pornographic film. This wasn't my first rodeo, so to speak. In my high school days, my friends and I would occasionally cut class to visit a small local porno theater. We got a kick out of watching the old guys jerking off in there.

That said, it had been 30 years since I'd watched a porn film with a group this large. More importantly, I was about to screen The Young Marrieds theatrically with an audience, an extremely rare occurrence these days. Keith and I introduced the film, then fielded questions. The audience proved to be a highly engaged bunch with plenty of insights, opinions, and inquiries. As the movie began and I settled down in the back of the screening room, I was a bit surprised to realize that our intro had taken a full half hour.

See no evil? A small crowd, including Greg Dziawer (center), in the screening room of Keith Crocker.

The audience laughed raucously and commented out loud throughout The Young Marrieds. Afterward, Keith led a follow-up discussion lasting well over an hour, far longer than the film itself. We laughed again, noting that the movie's protagonist Ben always gets the primo parking spot right outside the strip club he frequents. It was observed—and not for the first time—that Ben's climactic moment of decision in the film evokes a Twilight Zone-like turnabout.

We also talked about the numerous set decorations shared by The Young Marrieds with 8mm porn loops from the same era. While discussing the loops, I made a straight-faced reference to their dreamlike quality, again comparing these short pornographic films to the works of experimental directors like Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren.

And, yes, one lucky winner went home with a paperback copy of The Young Marrieds. The closest answer was: "Something about a computer." Fairly astute, considering how quickly that sign flashes by.

Looking back on this wonderful evening, it was one of the most memorable experiences I've had in the last year. Or any year. Enjoying Ed's work with a like-minded crowd will validate your obsession, believe me. And if you know a like-minded crowd who would like an Ed-perience of this sort, let me know. This host comes free and works best with complimentary drinks.
BONUS: Some images from this event have been posted to the Ed Wood Wednesdays Tumblr. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: Remembering "Jail Bait: The Director's Cut" (1994)

Dolores Fuller scolds Clancy Malone on the VHS cover of Jail Bait.

This sticker was a common sight in the 1990s.
Ed Wood's notoriety from having been named the worst director of all time in The Golden Turkey Awards in 1980 was wearing off just a little by the end of the decade. But his posthumous career would come roaring back in the 1990s, thanks to two major developments: the publication of Rudolph Grey's oral history Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992) and the premiere of Tim Burton's star-studded biopic Ed Wood (1994).

Suddenly, Eddie  was "hot" again, and his comeback happened to coincide with a general resurgence of public interest in all things considered "camp" and "kitsch." This was back when the internet was still fairly primitive, so consumers were much more reliant on physical media, including compact discs and videotapes. This was, therefore, a golden age of reissues. Lots of old albums and movies suddenly came back into prominence and started appearing in spiffy new editions on store shelves. Yesterday's disposable junk was today's marketable "collectors' item."

Leading the charge was a Los Angeles-based reissue label called Rhino Records. Now a part of the Warner Music Group behemoth, Rhino started in 1973 as a quirky, brick-and-mortar record retailer. Within a few years, Rhino was releasing records of its own (generally novelty numbers), and by the 1980s, it was a thriving reissue label with a wide variety of products. It was only natural that they would transition into marketing video tapes as well, again specializing in kitsch and nostalgia.

Some Rhino VHS tapes.
The work of Edward D. Wood, Jr. seemed tailor-made for a company like Rhino. As I remember it, Rhino Video was the preeminent distributor of Eddie's movies in the 1990s during the heyday of Nightmare of Ecstasy and the Burton film. The first VHS editions of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), Glen or Glenda (1953), Night of the Ghouls (1959)and Bride of the Monster (1955) that I ever owned were all from Rhino. I even had the three-tape set with the pink faux-angora box. I still have it, in fact.

Rhino also released some titles that Eddie had merely written rather than directed. The Violent Years, for instance, was marketed as part of the company's Teenage Theater series, hosted by 1950s glamour girl Mamie Van Doren. Much to Steve Apostolof's chagrin, Orgy of the Dead bore a garish pink and green sticker marking it as part of "The Ed Wood Collection." Meanwhile, Joe Robertson's Love Feast was regurgitated by Rhino as Pretty Models All in a Row, complete with doctored credits fraudulently suggesting that Ed Wood himself had directed it! And, while we're talking about Wood-related films, let's not forget that Rhino bankrolled its own quirky, humorous documentary about Eddie: Look Back in Angora (1994), directed by Ted Newsom.

One of Rhino's strangest yet least heralded Wood releases from this era was a 1994 "director's cut" of Eddie's turgid 1954 crime drama Jail Bait. Even though it was made during Eddie's golden age and features many of his regulars (Timothy Farrell, Dolores Fuller, Lyle Talbot, Mona McKinnon, Bud Osborne, and Conrad Brooks), not to mention future Hercules star Steve Reeves, Jail Bait has never been as loved as its siblings. It lacks the cross-dressing of Glenda and the sci-fi/horror elements of Bride and Plan 9. It also lacks the commanding screen presence of Bela Lugosi, though Herbert Rawlinson makes a valiant effort, wheezing through his final screen role. For all these reasons, fascinating though it is, Jail Bait just isn't as instantly fun as the other Wood films of the 1950s.
Rhino's 1994 version of Jail Bait.
Another problem with Jail Bait, at least for many modern viewers, is that it contains a two-and-a-half-minute blackface sequence lifted wholesale from Ron Ormond's Yes Sir, Mr. Bones (1951). Performed by Cotton Watts and his wife Chick, this comedic routine presents African-Americans as being slow-witted, cowardly, and animal-like. Since the movie's plot revolves around a nighttime robbery of a theater, this footage is supposed to represent a show being staged at the doomed venue.

Rhino's 1994 edition excises the Ormond footage almost entirely -- leaving only a shot of a theater audience and a curtain closing -- and replaces it with a rather tame burlesque routine by Evelyn West (1921-2004), a legendary cabaret performer of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. (Thanks to Ed Wood superfan Milton Knight for making the initial identification!) My learned colleague Greg Dziawer is currently researching both Cotton Watts and Evelyn West, and he'll have much more to say about both of them in the near future.

Rhino, meanwhile, is vague about how this supposed "director's cut" was assembled, since Ed Wood himself had been dead for nearly 16 years by then. The explanatory notes on the back cover of the VHS tape were penned by Kansas City-based film distributor Wade Williams, who has occasionally claimed to hold a copyright on Ed Wood's 1950s films. You can see from this passage that Williams is playing into Ed's campy "so bad, it's good" image from The Golden Turkey Awards, even mentioning that book by name. Williams openly admits that the Evelyn West footage was "not included with the original release of the picture" but was "discovered when the long-lost narrative was unearthed." It is not identified or credited in any way, but a title card says "FOLLIES THEATRE, LOS ANGELES." And Evelyn West did appear in a 1947 film called A Night at the Follies, directed by W. Merle Connell.

Williams also says Jail Bait was "filmed entirely on location in the underbelly of 1950's Hollywood," which is patently untrue. It was, in fact, shot at various places in Los Angeles County, California. A bar scene, for instance, was shot at the Hunters Inn in Temple City. A robbery was filmed at the Monterey Theatre in Monterey Park. (The film was also previewed there, according to Rudolph Grey.) And a scene at a police station was shot in Alhambra, where cast member Mona McKinnon lived at the time. Lyle Talbot remembered filming the climactic swimming pool scene at a motel on Sunset Boulevard. Much of the film appears to have been shot -- like Eddie's other movies of this period -- on a sound stage. Cast member Theodora Thurman recalled working on "a small set."

Anyway, here are Williams' notes:

Wade Williams describes Jail Bait.

Other than the Cotton Watts sequence, the biggest difference between the 1994 version of Jail Bait and all other versions is the title sequence. In most currently-available prints of the film, the credits roll over some wobbly footage of a police car driving down a street at night. In the Rhino version, however, the credits appear as a series of grainy still images. Apparently the "negative" that Williams "unearthed" was in poor shape, and this part of the movie wasn't quite salvageable.

The "director's cut" of Jail Bait didn't have much of a shelf life beyond this 1994 release. Subsequent DVD releases of the movie have reverted to the Cotton Watts footage and are generally sharper in picture quality than Rhino's version, complete with fully-restored opening credits. The 1994 version, however, was included on a 2007 double-disc set called The Ed Wood Collection: A Salute to Incompetence from a company called Passport.

It is from that collection that I gleaned the following clip, to show you how the Evelyn West footage was incorporated into Jail Bait. The burlesque footage seems to have been shot without sound, so some borrowed music has been dubbed in. Curiously, the last minute of this routine takes its audio directly from the Cotton Watts blackface footage! (It kicks in at about the 1:42 mark.) If you listen carefully, you can even hear the audience laughing. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Set Decoration Odyssey, Part Five by Greg Dziawer

Gallery goers ponder the subtle intricacies of Panther Descending a Staircase (artist unknown).

"Bright paint on black velvet creates an image so plush it makes you want to touch it, or maybe even wriggle your naked toes against the part of the painting's fuzzy pile that isn't covered by paint."
-The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste (1990)