Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part 12 by Greg Dziawer

These two explorers are looking for their mummy.

Before Glen or Glenda, there was Tomb Itmay Concern.
A certain degree of creative parsimony is a necessity for any exploitation filmmaker, especially one operating with the lowest of low budgets. As Edward D. Wood, Jr. embarked upon his directing career in the early 1950s, it was the cheapskate exploitation world that afforded him his first big opportunity to write, direct, and star in a feature film: Glen or Glenda (1953). Its producer, George Weiss, is legendary as a prolific filmmaker in this milieu. Exactly when he met Ed is unclear, although Dolores Fuller notes on page 66 in her autobiography A Fuller Life (2009, BearManor Media) that George was "an independent producer Eddie knew" prior to them collaborating on Glen or Glenda

To sketch in some relevant details, many of the interiors in Glen or Glenda were shot at Quality Studios, a tiny facility on Santa Monica Blvd. run by W. Merle Connell, who often acted as director and/or cinematographer on the hundreds of shorts and the passel of features shot there. Like Weiss, adept at shooting on a shoestring, Connell began filming strippers in LA burlesque houses in the early '40s. He adopted the name Quality Pictures for what became mail-order product in the latter half of that decade. Eventually opening his own studio, he would frequently partner with Weiss, a producer whose office was in the immediate vicinity at 5634 Santa Monica. Many of Weiss' Screen Classics Inc, films, including Glen or Glenda, were shot at Quality.  (Ed Wood later shot Plan 9 from Outer Space at Quality a few years later.) And Glen or Glenda's supposed insert scenes of burlesque strippers have since been attributed to Connell. 

The IMDb entries for both Weiss and Connell represent only a small percentage of their total output, with most of their films remaining unlisted. This week, we're documenting one such film, a charming 1950 burlesque short with the improbable title Tomb Itmay Concern. (And, yes, that's "itmay" with no space. It's intentional, as we'll soon see.) 

The film's setup could not be simpler. Two male archaeologists enter a sparse tomb—the sole set—where they use water to revive two sexy female mummies, neither of whom display any wrapping or signs of decay. The water, it seems, has been placed in the tomb specifically to tempt any visitors to bring these women back to life.

Waterboys: Don Mathers (left) and Little Jack Little explore a tomb.

Bela Lugosi and George Weiss on the Glenda set
For audiences in 1950, the plot of Tomb Itmay Concern must have been a reminder of the superstitions that had swirled ever since Lord Carnarvon, the first to enter King Tut's tomb in 1922, passed away due to a supposed "curse" placed upon him for having desecrated the crypt. In fact, in late 1949, the superstition was again at the fore, as another archaeologist had perished not long after entering an Egyptian tomb. Early the following year, the story of Carnarvon's death itself was resurrected, and it was determined that the man had died of normal, non-supernatural causes.

Just as with Glen or Glenda and its ties to the sensational Christine Jorgensen sex change saga, Tomb Itmay Concern had a story ripped from the headlines of the day. Viewers back then would doubtless have these "curse of the tomb" stories flitting around at least at the edges of their consciousness. 

The film's straight man, played by Don Mathers, explains that this is the the tomb of Princess Itmay, revealing the title card to have been the film's first joke and not a gaffe. Tomb Itmay Concern, then, is a pun within a pun. ("Tomb" being a play on "to whom." The same gag turns up in an episode of Tom and Jerry Tales from 2006 and a 2017 short by Adam Taylor.)

After quelling his partner's fears, Mathers exits the crypt to explore elsewhere. His sidekick, the "comic" relief, naturally can't resist reviving the girls. Once he does this, the diminutive explorer is no longer frightened, not even for a split second. This sidekick role is essayed by burlesque comedian Little Jack Little, who also appeared in Connell's final feature: a nude cutie from 1960 called Not Tonight Henry. Mathers, too, appeared in this production.

Pinup queen Inez Claire
Having endured Little's lame jokes, audience members might have expected the proceedings in Tomb Itmay Concern to turn tragic, as in so many of Universal's Mummy movies. The Mummy's Hand (1940) even features a comedic duo (Dick Foran and Wallace Ford) not unlike Mathers and Little. Instead, viewers were surely pleasantly surprised to experience a sexy dance number by the mummified princess.

Itmay is played by Inez Claire, who had been stripping since at least 1944 and who maintained a lengthy and active career in burlesque. According to the credits, her servant is played by one Sally Starr, not to be confused with the 1930s film actress and cheesecake pinup or the 1950s cowgirl. This Sally Starr was a dark-haired stunner. Sadly, she doesn't dance in Tomb Itmay Concern, but she does use a banana as a prop in a joke that goes nowhere. Starr's skin color is also the subject of two of Jack Little's jokes, including the one that ends the movie!

The film, with Connell credited as both producer and director, is filed for copyright under Quality Pictures Co., not Screen Classics. The credits contain no mention of Weiss. But, also mentioned in her autobiography (page 67), Dolores Fuller notes that Weiss ran Quality Pictures. Incidentally, Tomb Itmay Concern runs exactly 10 minutes.

In future articles, I'll untangle the exact working relationship of Wood collaborators Weiss and Connell. I'll also delve into far more of their work that remains little-known to this day. Although we can't say whether Ed Wood was involved in any way in Tomb Itmay Concern—and I doubt he was and am not suggesting it—he was definitely approaching the orbit of Weiss and Connell at the time this short film was made. He may have been there already. Dolores Fuller mentions (page 66) that Eddie "kept abreast of developments" (no pun intended) in the world of low-budget Hollywood filmmakers at the time.

A final thought. The core idea of this short is the same in a nutshell as that for Orgy of the Dead (1965). That film even contains a mummy, albeit a more traditional one with wrappings. Could Tomb Itmay Concern have been a possible source of inspiration for Ed Wood? 

Tomb Itmay Concern is the final short on the jam-packed fifth volume of Something Weird Video's incredible Roadshow Shorts series. The volume contains more than its fair share of other material from Weiss and Connell, for those interested in exploring more of their work.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Glen or Glenda Odyssey, Part Five by Greg Dziawer

Totally radical! Ed Wood Mania was already in full swing by the 1980s!

Off the Wall as it looked in the 1980s.
Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy and Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood introduced many viewers to the work of Edward D. Wood, Jr. in the 1990s. But the late writer-director's strange posthumous career was already well underway by then. After the publication of Harry and Michael Medved's The Golden Turkey Awards in 1980, Eddie's older films started to get prominent bookings in theaters across the country. And they were starting to attract serious critical attention as well.

On July 16, 1982, for instance, Glen or Glenda began a two-week engagement at Off the Wall Cinema in Cambridge, MA. Off the Wall was, as its name suggests, an eccentric art theater and coffee house specializing in obscure and bizarre movies. (Unfortunately, this well-loved venue closed in 1986.) Glenda was playing on a double bill with The Little Shop of Horrors, the 1960 Roger Corman cheapie about a killer talking plant. Interestingly, Little Shop was also gaining a new fanbase in the 1980s, due to a stage musical adaptation that had just opened Off-Off-Broadway on May 6, 1982.

Theater and film critic John Engstrom reviewed Glen or Glenda in the July 17, 1982 edition of The Boston Globe. His article is quite a find. Long before Grey or Burton, Engstrom shrewdly identified Glenda as a key Wood work. While pointing out the film's many shortcomings, he also notes that the movie was incredibly forward-thinking for its vintage, hailing it as "compassionate and enlightened."

Here's the article in its entirety. Enjoy. As a little bonus, this newspaper clipping also includes a print ad for another quintessential cult movie of the era: Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva (1981).

John Engstrom's 1982 review of Glen or Glenda.

"As a movie," Engstrom writes, "[Glen or Glenda] transcends its own incompetence and attains something like dignity." That's a pretty far cry from what the Medveds were saying about Eddie's movies at the time.

Happy Independence Day, everybody!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Could 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' have been saved? Maybe not, but let's try anyway.

Alden Ehrenreich looks typically blank as Han Solo because he has no character to play.

A typical screening of Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Maybe Solo: A Star Wars Story never had a shot at being good, let alone necessary or impactful, it being yet another unsolicited prequel in a franchise already lousy with exposition. But I don't think it needed to be the pointless, empty, dispiriting slog that it turned out to be. Was I a fool for thinking this thing would actually be fun?

In the wake of the film's underwhelming debut—it "only" earned $84 million at the domestic box office over the Memorial Day weekend—plenty of theories are circulating as to why Solo failed to click with audiences. Franchise fatigue? Backlash from disgruntled fanboys (many of whom are weirdly fixated on their hatred of supporting character Rose Tico, who is not in Solo)? An overcrowded marketplace? All of the above?

I can't tell you with any certainty why certain viewers stayed away from Solo. That's for the industry analysts to decide. What I can tell you is that, for me, watching Solo was almost no fun at all and that I can't imagine this thing being anyone's favorite movie unless they'd only seen three movies and the other two were snuff films. And even then it would be close.

As it happened, I was in Indiana over the Memorial Day holiday, visiting my sister and her family. We all went to see the movie at the local multiplex, and I'll testify from first-hand experience that it played to soporific silence from the entire audience. I even had to fight the urge to nod off during the film's leaden middle passages and found myself wishing I'd brought a caffeinated beverage with me into the theater. The film's timid attempts at humor fell particularly flat. I think the socially-conscious droid L3-37 was supposed to be the film's designated comic relief character, the Jar Jar of Solo: A Star Wars Story. After one of her several failed wisecracks, I exhaled loudly enough with disappointment to make my niece giggle a little. That accounted for the one (1) audible laugh during the entire screening.

Curiously, speaking of Jar Jar, Solo: A Star Wars Story made me pine for the days of George Lucas' much-mocked prequel trilogy of the late '90s and early 2000s. As gratingly stupid as it is, The Phantom Menace at least provides some eye candy: cool-looking cities, cool-looking planets, cool-looking costumes, etc. Solo, on the other hand, is almost perversely drab, underlit, and murky. The title character spends the whole film bouncing from one inhospitable world to another, and we never get a good sense of the terrain in any of these places. It's like: mud world, another mud world, rock world, desert world. Gee, thanks a bunch, movie. A Star Wars movie should seem open and airy, bursting with possibilities. Solo, in sharp contrast, feels cramped and restrictive. There's not even a hint of adventure here.

Our antagonist: a petulant twerp.
I can't comment on the characters, since Solo didn't really have any. Instead, it had placeholders where interesting, well-developed characters would otherwise be. Wide-eyed, baby-faced Alden Ehrenreich bears little resemblance to Harrison Ford, other than being a bipedal mammal. I guess he says his lines all right—it helps that the script doesn't have him say, "Would that it were so simple."—but he's the least dynamic, compelling character in the movie, and that's a problem when the movie is named after him.

Does this movie even have an antagonist? I've heard Paul Bettany's character, stripey-faced gangster Dryden Vos, described as the film's main villain. But he's such a petulant little twerp it was difficult to take him seriously. In a real Star Wars movie, he'd be the lieutenant to the actual antagonist. I'm not sure how he got those scars on his face. I think he might just be a cat owner.

Everyone else? Eh, they're fine, I suppose. It's difficult to judge them properly because the script is so clunky. So many awful lines here. "She's part of the ship now." "You're the good guy." And that idiotic scene in which Han gets his last name. It's a complete ripoff of the scene from Mike Judge's Idiocracy (2006) in which Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) finds himself being renamed "Not Sure."

While we're talking about that part of the movie, let's discuss the Empire for just a moment. I've written before about how the Empire never makes the least attempt to win over the public's affections. Well, in this movie, there's actually an Empire recruiting film, and I'll be good and goddamned if it isn't seemingly inspired by a Family Guy parody. That's right: Lucasfilm is now taking cues from Fuzzy Door Productions.

A better template for this movie.
Solo even gets the little details wrong. It's a longstanding Star Wars tradition, for instance, to have weird looking bands and singers providing background music. In this movie, I think we get one lame lounge act consisting of a woman with a radio dial over her mouth (?) and a guy who's just a head in a jar. And they're off-key the whole time. Give me the Max Rebo Band or the Modal Nodes over these bozos any day!

Admittedly, I have never given a great deal of thought to what Han and Chewie were like before joining up with Luke and the Rebellion. But, if I'd had to guess, I probably would've said their lives were something like The Dukes of Hazzard.  You know, "making their way the only way they know how. That's just a little bit more than the law will allow." Han and Chewie would be like Bo and Luke. The Millennium Falcon is their General Lee. And Jabba the Hutt (absent from Solo) is their Boss Hogg. I guess that makes Lando their version of, uh, Cooter or something. Look, it's not a one-to-one comparison.

But the way I see it, young Han Solo is a hotshot smuggler and pilot. He digs himself. He thinks he's too much. He has a badass ship. He has a badass sidekick. He has a badass blaster. And he's a handsome, athletic, quick-witted dude who is constantly outsmarting both the gangsters and the Empire. To him, every Stormtrooper might as well be Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, i.e. a dope who couldn't hit the broadside of a barn. Han's life is a series of daring escapades and narrow escapes, and that's the way he likes it. In other words, it's a goddamned adventure. The movie starts out with this narration: "It is a lawless time." To which I would have added: "And Han wouldn't have it any other way."

Above all, I thought sure young Han would be a womanizer, a galactic Don Juan constantly seducing ladies (plus occasional aliens and droids) wherever he goes. But no. Solo: A Star Wars Movie gives him a steady girlfriend, Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke), at the beginning of the movie, and Han remains stupidly loyal to her throughout the film. He's so earnest and wholesome, he might as well be a Boy Scout. I was certain there would be at least one scene in which Han is chased by a jealous husband, but Solo definitely isn't that kind of movie.

Instead, Solo wants to be basically a filmed FAQ about its title character. How did Han get his last name? How did he meet Chewbacca? How did he get his famous blaster? I would have structured it around a different question entirely: How did Han get his cynical attitude?

Another good role model for this film.
Let me elaborate. By the time we meet him in A New Hope, Han Solo is a selfish, sarcastic guy who keeps the world at arm's length. I think he does this as a defense mechanism. If he walls himself off emotionally, he can't truly get hurt. My version of his origin story would have explained how exactly he got that way.

Like I said before, my version of young Han Solo is a cocky, arrogant hotshot. But he's still a boy at heart. My script for Solo: A Star Wars Story, then, would be about Han's journey from boyhood into manhood. I would have kept the character of Qi'ra, as well as that of Han's quasi-mentor Beckett (Woody Harrelson), but their roles would have been different. Or, rather, their functions would have been different.

The first part of my Solo movie is about Han being a smuggler and having a grand old time at doing it. But then, he runs afoul of Beckett's gang somehow. Even this, though, seems like yet another lucky break for Han. Beckett has actually heard of Han, he says, and thinks that Han and Chewie would be good additions to the squad. Seeing as how the only alternative is having his head blown off, Han says yes.

Beckett's plan is to rip off some big time warlord, someone like Dryden Vos but not such a prep school punk. (And ixnay on those Garfield stripes on his face.) They have an operative on the inside: the warlord's beautiful mistress Qi'ra. Immediately, Han has the hots for Qi'ra, and soon she and Han are sneaking kisses whenever possible. It's possible that this is the first time Han Solo has ever actually been in love. Normally, he's the "find 'em, fuck 'em, forget 'em" type, but Qi'ra is different.

Beckett tells Han he has potential but that he has only been a small time operator up to now. And so, Han serves an apprenticeship under the more experienced crook, learning the ropes. In the end, the heist goes off successfully, and the warlord is killed, but it turns out Beckett has really only been using Han the whole time and plans to kill him and take his share of the money. Beckett tells Han, "It's a shame, too, kid. Because I was really beginning to like you. In fact..." Han shoots him at this point and casually kicks Beckett's body into a ravine, where it's eaten by animals. This is a key moment when Han starts to become more callous.

But the real moment of change for Han comes when he realizes that Qi'ra, too, was only in this for herself. She needed money to buy her way out of being a kept woman. Now she has it, and she doesn't need Han anymore. This has not been foreshadowed in any way throughout the movie, so the moment should feel like a real gut punch to the audience. We've come to know and like Qi'ra, and it's devastating to watch her dump Han. But she's not been a goody-goody either. She's more like a character out of film noir. I see Han as being analogous to the private eyes from those movies, e.g. Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. The film, then, would be about how Han lets some dame play him for a chump and how he learns a tough life lesson along the way. That's classic Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett-type stuff.

My movie ends with Han and Chewie in some shithole cantina halfway across the galaxy. Based on the way he's talking, we can see he's already started to develop the cynical persona of the Han we knew from the older movies. Suddenly, a strange emissary (Greedo?) walks up to Han and offers him a business card. It's from Jabba the Hutt. Han looks intrigued. Smash cut to end credits.

So, yeah, that's my take on Solo: A Star Wars Story. The TLDR version is this: Solo should have been Dukes of Hazzard in Outer Space. Just imagine this but with spaceships.

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part 11 by Greg Dziawer

By 1955, Bela Lugosi was getting by with a little help from his friends.
 
T
his week,
I've decided to keep the Ed-itorializing largely to myself.  Instead, through an assortment of vintage news clippings, I'd like to offer a snapshot of a pivotal month in the saga of Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi. These events unfolded in the spring of 1955. In April of that year, the 72-year-old Lugosi was famously hospitalized for drug addiction not long after shooting the silent test footage that Ed would later insert into Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Meanwhile, the release of Ed and Bela's previous film—then still called Bride of the Atom—was mere weeks away. Following Bela's hospitalization, the May '55 premiere of Atom immediately morphed into a benefit for the ailing, debt-plagued Hungarian actor. This upbeat article from the April 27, 1955 edition of The Lubbock Morning Avalanche details both the hospitalization and the "lavish" benefit gala. Note the mention of Bride producer/star Tony McCoy, who is said to have visited Lugosi in the hospital.

"A lavish Hollywood premiere is planned."

This celebrity gossip column from the May 21, 1955 edition of The Oakland Tribune is significantly less positive in its depiction of the Lugosi benefit, characterizing the evening's receipts as "pitifully low."

"Receipts were pitifully low."

This next piece, which mentions Bride's leading lady Loretta King, was penned by Edwin Schallert and appeared in May 30, 1955 edition of The Los Angeles Times. You may remember that Schallert, father of actor William Schallert, had previously written about Glen or Glenda back in 1953. According to Schallert, King was "active on TV" at the time.

"Miss King is active on TV."

Like Edwin Schallert, Aline Mosby had also written about Glen or Glenda back in 1953. In fact, Mosby wrote numerous articles through the years featuring various friends, associates, and collaborators of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Her syndicated article here, clipped from the April 25, 1955 edition of The El Paso Herald Post, is especially sad and poignant in its depiction of Bela Lugosi in his twilight years. The article paints the actor as a pathetic figure, dependent upon the charity of friends. The "cruel satire" Mosby mentions was The Bela Lugosi Revue at The Silver Slipper in Las Vegas the previous spring.

"A quiet, gentle man who got into horror movies by mistake."

One last clipping to share with you, this one from the May 11, 1955 edition of The Los Angeles Times. It, too, describes the Bride of the Atom premiere and the subsequent Bela Lugosi benefit. The article name checks both Ed Wood and Tony McCoy, as well as Paul Marco and Dolores Fuller.  It's also interesting to note Vampira's presence at the benefit showing, making this yet another entry on the timeline of Ed's association with the horror hostess.

"Vampira, escorted by Paul Marco."

EPILOGUE: Bela Lugosi died on August 16, 1956, not even a year and a half after this benefit in his honor. He was 73. The former site of the Gardens restaurant at 4311 Magnolia Ave. in Burbank is currently occupied by an establishment called Joe's Great American Bar & Grill. The Paramount Theatre, originally constructed in 1923, was closed in 1960 and demolished in 1961. At its former location at the intersection of 6th St. and Hill in Los Angeles, you'll now find a wholesale jewelry building constructed in the late 1970s.

The site of the Bela Lugosi benefit is now Joe's Great American Bar & Grill in Burbank, CA.