Sunday, December 21, 2014

One song at a time: '26 Miles (Santa Catalina)'

A vintage postcard for California's "island of romance."

I suck at winter. I'll admit it. Today is the winter solstice, and that fact depresses the ever-loving hell out of me. I've lived in the Midwest all my life: the first two-thirds in Michigan, the last third here in Illinois. The total time I've spent outside the Midwest adds up to maybe a month, a month and a half at the most. And yet I've never gotten used to the climate here. I feel like the misfit polar bear in that joke Reese Witherspoon told on Saturday Night Live once. Winter and I are simply incompatible. Driving in snow and/or ice is highly stressful for me. I swear, each car trip in such weather takes a year off my life. As a pedestrian, I've slipped and fallen -- badly -- at least once each winter for as far back as I can remember. My body absolutely turns traitor during the cold weather months. I get windburned so easily, and my body is always covered with various painful rashes and blisters during the winter, oftentimes in embarrassing and hard-to-reach areas. Before I even leave home in the morning, I have to slather sticky, oily Vaseline on my legs and torso. Yuck. Sinuses? Forget about it. You've heard of Can't Stop the Music? Well, this is Can't Stop the Mucous. Furthermore, that old reliable seasonal affective disorder kicks in hard sometime during January, and I spend several consecutive months cooped up indoors, gorging on snack food and getting next to zero exercise. No doubt about it, winter takes a serious toll on your humble blogger. Each year, I fantasize about living somewhere more habitable, but I cannot imagine the circumstances under which that might happen.

The Four Preps in their element.
As you might expect, I take refuge from winter in fantasy. Music helps me do that sometimes. I'm always a sucker for songs about warm-sounding, far-away places. One of my favorite examples of such a song is the delightful but somewhat forgotten 1957 smash, "26 Miles (Santa Catalina)" by the Four Preps. I found this song in a really roundabout way. Albert Brooks briefly parodied "26 Miles" as part of his "Rewriting the National Anthem" bit from the 1970s. That routine is included on Albert's 1973 LP, Comedy Minus One, and I found the title of the original song credited in the liner notes. The Four Preps were one of those well-scrubbed pop vocal groups who flourished in the mid-to-late 1950s, alongside the Ames Brothers, the Lettermen, the Four Aces, the Four Freshmen, the Four Lads, and the Crew Cuts. Acts like these were a gentler, more polite alternative to the raucous rock, R&B, and doo wop sounds of the era. It was really the British Invasion which finally made these non-rock acts obsolete in the 1960s, and now it's a chapter of music history we mostly try to pretend never happened. I actually kind of like this stuff, even though it's possibly the squarest, corniest, whitest, and least cool music to hit the charts in the last sixty years. (The Crew Cuts in particular were infamous for taking R&B songs originally by black artists and doing sanitized white cover versions.) Perhaps the definitive spoof of this type of music was found on SCTV with its 5 Neat Guys commercials, which showed a quintet of sad, middle-aged men squeezing into their old sweaters from the 1950s and crooning about egg salad sandwiches and other hopelessly Caucasian topics.

The Four Preps were one of the more innovative of these groups, and "26 Miles (Santa Catalina)" is actually a little gem of a pop tune whose influence on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys is immediately apparent at first listen. The Los Angeles Times not long ago ran a great, informative article about how the song came to be. Among other tidbits, you'll learn that one of the Four Preps was TV producer Glen A. Larson (of Battlestar Galactica and Knight Rider fame), who just passed away in November 2014. What's key about the song is that it was written by someone who had never actually been to Santa Catalina Island off the coast of California. The song, then, is the guy's dream of what the island must be like. He imagines it as a lush tropical paradise just crawling with beautiful, available women. And he never actually gets to the island during the song either. It's so close -- just twenty-six miles away -- and yet he can't get there. "So near, yet far," as the lyrics go. That's exactly how I feel during the winter sometimes. I think "26 Miles" will be in heavy rotation for me until next May or so.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 52: 'Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.' (2014)

Blood Splatters Quickly offers readers new insight into the mind of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

NOTE: This article concludes my ongoing coverage of Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

The "angora edition" of Ed's book.
O. Henry of the damned.  Washington Irving of the down and out. Edgar Allen Poe gone to pot. That was Edward Davis Wood, Jr. as a short story writer, a career he doggedly pursued in the last, debt-ridden decade of his abbreviated and disappointment-plagued life. His much-maligned, ultra-low-budget movie career already in the doldrums by the end of the 1950s, Eddie (barely) kept body and soul together as a writer-for-hire in the 1960s and 1970s, using his verdant imagination and formidable typing skills to churn out a seemingly-inexhaustible supply of scripts for anyone willing to give him a few bucks for his troubles. Generally, though not always, the check-writers were men in the pornography business, an industry which was by then clearing important legal hurdles and closing in on acceptability if not respectability after decades of legal and social suppression. In the 1960s, putting his own directing dreams and attendant pride temporarily on the shelf, Ed wrote screenplays for such outside-the-mainstream filmmakers as Boris Petroff (Shotgun Wedding), Stephen C. Apostolof (Orgy of the Dead), Jacques Descent (Operation Redlight), Don Davis (Gunrunners), and surfer-boy-turned-smut-kingpin Ed DePriest (One Million AC/DC). These may not have been the kinds of movies Ed Wood truly wanted to make, nor was he even at the helm of them, but such relatively-paltry assignments allowed him to stay at least tangentially connected to the movie industry he so loved. He came to Hollywood to make films, after all, and was determined to do so, whatever the circumstances. Something always trumps nothing, does it not?

During that same dismal decade of diminishing returns, Ed Wood also broke into the adult paperback market, starting in 1963 with his wildly eccentric yet also highly personal crime novel Killer in Drag (aka Black Lace Drag). That marvelously unhinged book set the template for the rest of Eddie's writing career: he'd give his editors and readers the sex and violence they demanded, at least usually, but not at the expense of his own particular fears, fetishes, obsessions, and quirks. Under his own name, as well as a whole rainbow of pseudonyms like "Dick Trent" and "N.V. Jason," Eddie would produce dozens upon dozens of cheap, salacious softcover books, both fiction and non-fiction, for the rest of his life. One such volume, a 1966 tie-in novelization of Orgy of the Dead (published by Greenleaf Classics), was unique in that it incorporated a few of Eddie's previously-unpublished short stories, including "The Night the Banshee Cried" and "The Day the Mummy Returned." By the late 1960s, Ed Wood was a busy if underpaid staff writer for Bernie Bloom's Pendulum Publishing, contributing truly oddball short stories to the company's many, many pornographic magazines (including Belly Button, Party Time, and Young Beavers). While a few of Ed's full-length novels staggered back into print in the 1990s, during a wave of nostalgia brought on by Tim Burton's 1994 biopic Ed Wood, those short stories went largely unseen and unread for decades.

Excerpt from my notes.
This year, Hollywood resident Bob Blackburn, co-executor of Ed Wood's estate, helped to change all of that by arranging with New York's O/R Books to publish Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr., an anthology with thirty-three of Eddie's short stories dating from 1969 to 1975. The vast majority of these were originally published by the late Bernie Bloom in the magazines he produced through his Pendulum, Calga, and Gallery imprints, all of which operated out of the same office on West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. Since October 29 of this year, I have been very thoroughly reviewing the contents of this newly-published volume, story by story, starting with Bob's own affectionate introduction and then covering each individual title, from the Tales of the Crypt-esque curtain raiser "Scream Your Bloody Head Off" to the haunted and haunting "Final Curtain," which was adapted from the script of an unsuccessful TV pilot Ed had written in the 1950s. Having studied and analyzed this material for over a month, I can truthfully say I have garnered a great deal of new insight into the so-called "muddled mind" of Edward D. Wood, Jr. This isn't a case of "forget everything you thought you knew about Ed Wood." No, the stories here build on themes and ideas already present in his previously-known film scripts and novels, as well as mirroring certain events in his own life, including his experience as a Marine in World War II and his long, slow descent into alcoholism. Rather, reading Blood Splatters Quickly, is like watching an artist take a very basic line drawing and add a lot of shading and cross-hatching to it so that the picture becomes more vivid and complex. If nothing else, Eddie's stories offer a more direct pipeline between author and audience than any movie ever could. Ed Wood may have thought he was put on this earth to direct movies, just like his idol Orson Welles, but perhaps his true purpose was to write. On the page, Eddie could really expound upon his pet themes and launch into qausi-poetic, pseudo-philosophical diatribes to a greater extent than he could even in his famously disorganized screenplays. In fact, my desire to keep track of all of these threads was what led me to write about these stories individually rather than collectively. I started taking a yellow legal pad with me on the train to work so I could take notes on each story, carefully marking down each appearance of an angora sweater and every reference to such prime Wood motifs as thunder, lightning, and snakes. I knew that if I just wrote one big "Ed Wood Wednesdays" article about Blood Splatters Quickly, those kinds of details would get lost in the mix. A one-story-at-a-time approach was the only viable option.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

In retrospect, 'Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids' was kind of a messed-up show

The cast of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Note Mushmouth in the lower left hand corner.

Bill Cosby on Picture Pages.
Bill Cosby, serial rapist. Try as I might, I cannot get my mind to connect those first two words with the second two words. It would be like "Bob Newhart, secret Klansman" or "Steve Martin, puppy killer." It just doesn't seem possible. Not that I'm saying Bill Cosby is innocent, mind you. False accusations of rape are extremely rare, statistically speaking. They happen, of course, but not very often. For twenty or more separate accusations against the same man to be false would be a mathematical near-impossibility. The law of averages suggests that the unthinkable is true. And yet... Bill Cosby! For people my age (and I was born in the mid-1970s), this man has been an integral component of American life. Long before The Cosby Show simultaneously revitalized both the sitcom form and the NBC network in the 1980s, I was already a fan of the Cos thanks to his long-running CBS animated series, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and his educational Picture Pages segments on Captain Kangaroo. He was as much a part of my childhood as Kermit the Frog or Popeye the Sailor Man. How could this man be a serial rapist, a monster who drugged and sexually assaulted women for decades without facing any consequences? That's something I'll never understand.

SNL is so original sometimes I could just puke

Is a good joke worth repeating? SNL sure seems to think so.

Here is a scene from Family Guy's Star Wars parody, "Blue Harvest," which aired on Fox over seven years ago.
Princess Leia (as portrayed by Lois Griffin) stands in a corridor facing R2D2 (as portrayed by Cleveland Brown). 
LEIA: (plaintively) Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope. (crouching down) Okay, now what do I click? 
R2D2: Click 'Preferences.' 
She presses a button on R2D2's control panel. 
LEIA: Okay, I clicked 'Preferences.' 
R2D2: Now go to 'Default Media Browser.'
LEIA: Okay. There's a little hourglass and it's, it's not letting me do anything. It, it says, "Buffering." What is that? 
R2D2: Just give it a minute. 
LEIA: (testily) Well, all I'm trying to do is make an MPEG! 
R2D2: All I'm trying to do is tell you to wait a minute! 
LEIA: (backing off) Okay, relax. 
R2D2: Now click 'Import Video File.' 
LEIA: All right. (She presses another button on R2D2.) It's, it's telling me I have to download Real Player 7. 
R2D2: You know what? I'll just bring it to him myself.

And here's a scene from a Star Wars parody which aired on NBC's Saturday Night Live just last night:

Princess Leia (Bobby Moynihan in drag) stands in a corridor, opposite R2D2. She crouches down and tentatively pushes a button on the droid's control panel. It beeps. She puts on a pair of reading glasses, which had been dangling from her neck, and presses further buttons. She looks frustrated. 
LEIA: (softly, to herself) This is the menu. I don't want the menu. I want to record. 
She stands upright again and yells to someone off camera. 
LEIA: Hey, Han! How do you work this friggin' thing? 
The droid beeps again. She slaps it. A blinking red "12:00" display appears on the machine's control panel. Leia gives up.

Same basic gag, no? As she did in the classic 1977 film, Princess Leia wants to use R2D2 to record a video message. But in both these parodies, she runs into the kinds of technical snags and snafus associated with modern-day computers. The Family Guy version is more specific, with its references to buffering and Real Player, while SNL goes the generic route. Saturday Night Live gets away with this kind of bullshit on a regular basis. Normally, though, they filch their jokes from the Internet or cable. It's relatively rare for them to so blatantly copy another network comedy show like this. I guess they figured Family Guy was small enough potatoes to get away with it. But as far as the rest of the world is concerned, a comedy idea isn't "real" until SNL does it. There might be two dozen or more fake Wes Anderson trailers floating around on YouTube, Vimeo, and Funny or Die for months, but when Saturday Night Live does one, it's a big deal for some reason. It's good to be the king. (I stole that line from Mel Brooks, by the way.)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Ed Wood's BLOOD SPLATTERS QUICKLY: 'Final Curtain' (1971)

An actor caresses a blonde-haired vampire dummy in Ed Wood's "Final Curtain."

NOTE: This article is part of my ongoing coverage of Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Fresh from the pages of Belly Button!
The story: "Final Curtain," originally published in Belly Button magazine, Vol. 2, No. 2., July/August 1971, Calga Publishers. [Note: Philip R. Frey contends that the story appeared in Belly Button's February 1971 issue.]

Synopsis: After the closing night of his play, an actor wanders around an otherwise-empty and darkened theater, convinced that he is supposed to find some object. At first, his travels take him from his dressing room to the now-deserted stage. All the while, he is seized by eerie hallucinations and senses the presence of the spirits of those long deceased. Every trivial detail he encounters-- the empty theater seats, some burned-out guide lamps, the yowling of a cat -- takes on sinister significance in the man's paranoid imagination. He ascends a staircase to an upper story, where there is a hallway of evenly-spaced storage and rehearsal rooms. In one, he encounters a blonde-wigged female vampire mannequin, which he swears comes to life briefly and smiles at him! He backs out of the room and continues exploring, finally coming to a room where he finds what he had been seeking all along: a big black casket. He climbs inside and closes the lid.

Wood trademarks: Preoccupation with death (cf. this collection's "Into My Grave"); the theater (an important part of Ed Wood's early history); vampires (cf. this collection's "Dracula Revisited"); rambling supernatural monologue (cf. this collection's "I, Warlock," "Dracula Revisted," "The Night the Banshee Cried"); protagonist plagued by spirits and screaming sounds (cf. "Dracula," "Banshee"); quasi-poetic formatting with numerous line breaks (cf. many of the stories in this collection, including "Hellfire," plus the aforementioned monologues); heavy use of ellipses; resurrection of the dead (literal this time, as spirits); a preference for blondes (the "vampire dummy" has blonde hair); character compelled to climb into a coffin (cf. Necromania, "Come Inn"); fetishization of women's clothing (our narrator takes time to appreciate the mannequin's silk dress); fondness for soft fabrics (the casket is also velvet-lined); the "other things.. pleasant things" monologue (recycled as a speech for Criswell in the script for Orgy of the Dead); and one last reference to snakes (a metal railing is compared to "a cold, slimy snake").

Excerpt: "I leave the comforting lights of my dressing room and move to stand on the dark, empty stage. I look out over the blackened auditorium. The seats in front are as I have seen them night after night while acting my lines on this side of the footlights. But now, empty, they appear like squatty little fat men standing row on row, like soldiers in battle formation."

Reflections: More needs to be written about Ed Wood's mid-to-late-1940s theatrical career, which seems to have had a considerable, course-altering effect on his life. Unsurprisingly, the details of this phase of his career are scarce, and the sketchy information one can find in books like Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy is incomplete and often contradictory. What's (generally) agreed-upon is this: in 1946, having been honorably discharged from the Marines, Edward D. Wood, Jr. studied at the King-Smith School of the Creative Arts in Washington, D.C., where he may have received instruction from revered dancer and choreographer Martha Graham (1894-1991), a figure he is said to have admired greatly. When he moved out to Hollywood the next year, Ed's first professional experiences were not in film but on the stage, acting in his own autobiographical play The Casual Company and portraying a sheriff in a show called The Blackguard Returns, as well as appearing in other, as-yet-unspecified theatrical productions. Chuck La Berge, an actor who appeared with Ed in The Casual Company, recalled to Rudolph Grey: "In the theater, we had a bad night, we'd all sit around and share a bottle of gin. We'd get drunk, and Ed would tell us all this weird stuff." Oh, to have been a fly on that wall, huh?

Duke Moore in "Final Curtain."
Those late, lonely nights in the theater were the inspiration for "Final Curtain," a story which should already be familiar to readers of this blog, as it was the basis for an unsuccessful yet quintessentially Wood-ian television pilot in 1957. Though Ed's would-be anthology series was a non-starter, this material hardly went to waste. Footage from that doomed pilot was shoehorned into Night of the Ghouls in 1959, and a chunk of text from the script was airlifted into Orgy of the Dead in 1965. Finally, in 1971, Eddie reformatted "Final Curtain" as a short story and sold it to Bernie Bloom, who used it to pad out one of his many photo-heavy stroke books. Judging from the rather lavish illustration accompanying "Final Curtain" in the pages of Belly Button, Bernie gave this particular piece the royal treatment, despite its utter lack of eroticism. Perhaps he sensed how dear this monologue was to Eddie. In its transition from the screen back to the page, the text of "Final Curtain" does not seem to have changed much. Generally, the TV version is a wordier than the magazine version, perhaps in an effort to better match Dudley Manlove's over-emotive voice-over narration with the silent footage of actor Duke Moore wandering around an empty building. But generally, the two incarnations of "Final Curtain" match each other, image for image and idea for idea. I won't say "plot point for plot point," because "Final Curtain" is more of a mood piece than it is a traditional narrative. As such, its natural home is on the page rather than the screen, so I'm glad Eddie recycled this one as a short story. Not much actually happens here, which becomes more obvious in the filmed version. In any format, "Final Curtain" offers further evidence that Edward D. Wood, Jr. spent an inordinate amount of his life fantasizing about death, his own in particular.

Wherever you are now, Eddie, I hope you're resting in peace.

Next: My closing thoughts on Blood Splatters Quickly

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ed Wood's BLOOD SPLATTERS QUICKLY: 'The Whorehouse Horror: A Touch of Terror' (1972)

Ed goes back the the whore shack in this beautifully-illustrated Gothic tale.

NOTE: This article is part of my ongoing coverage of Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

The story: "The Whorehouse Horror: A Touch of Terror," originally published in Ecstasy, Vol. 4, No. 1, February/March 1972, Pendulum. Also appeared in Garter magazine, January 1, 1974, Gallery.

Synopsis: Prostitute Sandra Livingston is getting a little too old to be a call girl, and the dangerous life of the streetwalker doesn't appeal to her either, so she's looking for a whorehouse. Unfortunately, those are getting tougher to find. By chance, she goes into a dive bar and encounters a creepy pimp nicknamed Mousy, who says that he'll drive her out to just such an establishment. She agrees but is suspicious when the house of ill repute turns out to be a spooky mansion next to a graveyard. Despite her reservations, she goes in anyway and meets the ancient but friendly-seeming madam. Sandra soon finds that she is being held prisoner in the house and that escape is impossible. Only then does the madam reveal the bordello's terrible secret: all the girls are intentionally given venereal diseases which they will then pass on to their clients, who in turn have been sent unawares to the house by their revenge-seeking enemies. Girls who disobey or become too sickly wind up in the graveyard next door.

Wood trademarks: Whorehouse (cf. Take It Out In Trade); relationship between prostitute and pimp (cf. this collection's "Private Girl"); alcohol and bars (Sandra and Mousy meet in a dive bar, where Sandra drinks martinis); graveyard (cf. this collection's "Into My Grave," "In the Stony Lonesome"); juxtaposition of sex and death (cf. "Stony Lonesome," Orgy of the Dead); extremely illegal and perverse business in remote location (cf. this collection's "Breasts of the Chicken"); reference to Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff horror films (cf. this collection's "The Gory Details"); woman aging in the sex trade (cf. this collection's "Flowers for Flame LeMarr," "Private Girl"); venereal disease (cf. this collection's "Craps," "To Kill a Saturday Night"); use of color pink (the madam wears a "faded pink velvet wrapper"); marabou (angora-like fabric often cited by Ed).

Excerpt: "The sweat had begun to pour from her forehead, even though there was a chill in the air. She felt strongly that she needed a drink. She also felt that she would catch syph or worse if she ventured into the dives she found along the street. But then she knew alcohol was a sterilizer. It probably couldn't hurt her any... especially if she demanded a clean glass."

Reflections: Where does he come up with this stuff? As I mentioned before in this series, Eddie's horror stories tend to have some nasty twist at about the four-fifths mark, and he's come up with some doozies in this collection: an incestuous transvestite alcoholic amnesiac killer, a mad dentist who sells organs on the black market, and a gourmet restaurant for cannibals with a breast fetish. "The Whorehouse Horror" may be the weirdest of them all. Try as I may, I cannot quite wrap my brain around this bordello's business model, which somehow combines white slavery with germ warfare. Of my many, many questions about this arrangement, my greatest might be: aren't the johns suspicious of anything? After all, they're instructed to go to a spooky old house right out of Scooby-Doo or The Addams Family, simply to enjoy a free-of-charge session with a prostitute. (The johns don't pay for the service; their enemies are the ones footing the bill.) I guess horny guys are willing to overlook just about anything. All I can think of is Valarie Solanas' scathingly satirical and often dead-on S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1967), which contains the following passage, which in retrospect applies to many of Ed Wood's male characters:
"Eaten up with guilt, shame, fears and insecurities and obtaining, if he's lucky, a barely perceptible physical feeling, the male is, nonetheless, obsessed with screwing; he'll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there'll be a friendly pussy awaiting him. He'll screw a woman he despises, any snaggle-toothed hag, and furthermore, pay for the opportunity. Why? Relieving physical tension isn't the answer, as masturbation suffices for that. It's not ego satisfaction; that doesn't explain screwing corpses and babies."
I've also been thinking about why Ed Wood writes about prostitution so often. There are only hints of this obsession in his movies (e.g. Colleen O'Brien as the eternally doomed streetwalker in 1965's Orgy of the Dead), but it dominates his short stories. Ready for some fan theory spinning? I think Eddie identified with prostitutes because he basically had to sell himself for increasingly paltry sums of money throughout the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn't Ed's goal in life to become a writer of pornography or a director of X-rated films, just like most little girls probably don't dream of growing up to be a hooker someday. That's just the way things worked out for him. Life in Hollywood also aged Ed Wood severely, and I think he saw a parallel to that in the lives of prostitutes. This story's Sandra Livingston wants to work in a "house of ill repute" because she could last there until her late forties, as long as she wears enough makeup. I need hardly tell you that Ed Wood was about 48 years old when this story was published. Wonder how thick his makeup was by then.

Next (and last): "Final Curtain" (1971) 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ed Wood's BLOOD SPLATTERS QUICKLY: 'Pray for Rain' (1972)

The men of Wet Hound Fork, AZ endure a drought in Ed Wood's "Pray for Rain."

NOTE: This article is part of my ongoing coverage of Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

"12 Pages of Tactile Color"
The story: "Pray for Rain," originally published in Skin & Bones magazine, Vol. 4, No. 1, February/March 1972, Calga Publishing. According to Bob Blackburn, this story also appeared in Lusty Lovers, year and other publication data unknown.

Synopsis: The small Arizona community of Wet Hound Fork (population: 200) is in the midst of a months-long drought, and the situation is starting to get desperate. Water, money, food, and booze are all in short supply. The town's wives have taken control of what little money is left, so they can buy the precious, trucked-in food and water their families need. Only on Saturdays do the menfolk gather at the local saloon to slowly sip their drinks and complain about the lack of rain. During one such bull session, an old-timer recalls the droughts of the 1930s and suggests a remedy to the current problem: the people of Wet Hound Fork should pool their money and hire an Indian Rainmaker*. As expected, this idea is met with ridicule and skepticism, but the men still discuss the old-timer's plan in detail. They point out that the Great Depression-era Rainmaker must be long dead by now. The old man says there's another who's still living named Chief War Eagle. The men also say that the Indians on the reservation are suffering the exact same drought and are living on government assistance. The old timer suggests that a Rainmaker  might somehow help Wet Hound Fork receive some federal aid as well or even help get God's attention. The men fall silent at this point as they continue to pray for rain, unaware of the sound of thunder in the distance.

*Throughout "Pray for Rain," the word Rainmaker is consistently italicized.

Wood trademarks: Western setting (cf. this collection's "Calamity Jane Loves Hosenose Kate Loves Cattle Anne"); men gathering around to drink and talk (cf. this collection's "Epitaph for the Village Drunk," "Craps," "To Kill a Saturday Night"); conversation dominated by talkative old-timer (cf. "Craps"); domineering women (cf. this collection's "Just One Question"); alcohol (no particular type is named, but the social ritual of drinking is key to this story); bars (like "Calamity Jane," this story is set in a saloon); thunder (a well-known Ed Wood motif in films and literature alike); the phrase "Then one day, like now, it just ain't there no more." (compare to Glen or Glenda?'s "Then one day, it wasn't Halloween any longer."); the existential ennui of small town life (cf. this collection's "Taking Off," "To Kill a Saturday Night"); lack of money (a subject with which Ed was all too familiar).

Excerpt: "Folks get to takin' water as always being right there. They just never think about water as never being around no more. We get to taking it for granted. We get to thinking that the water won't never run out. that is if we think about water at all. When you get to takin' things for granted you just don't think about it no more."

Reflections: "Pray for Rain" is the kind of story which makes me love Edward D. Wood, Jr. Here, Eddie's task was to yet again fill a few pages in one of Bernie Bloom's sleazy skin magazines -- the type of publication people definitely weren't buying for the articles -- and somehow Eddie produced a miniature tragicomic masterpiece which manages to be funny and sad and thoughtful all at once. People tend to stereotype Ed as a clown: a delusional dreamer with ambition but no common sense or talent, totally oblivious to his own faults and failings. The stories in Blood Splatters Quickly show how drastically oversimplified and unfair that image is. Sure, there are gaudy, lurid, and ridiculous stories in this collection, tales glutted with purple prose and highly improbable plot twists. The title story is an excellent example of that. But Eddie had a whole other side to his personality -- a philosophical, slightly sardonic side which emerges in stories like "Pray for Rain" and its thematic first cousins, "Craps" and "To Kill a Saturday Night." Maybe his dark sense of humor came from his years of alcoholism and career setbacks. Without having to deal with cameras and actors and props and sets and the million-and-one other hassles of low budget filmmaking, Eddie could express himself through his writing in ways which were bold, vivid, shocking, witty, and even graceful.

When Ed Wood dealt with fantastic subjects (vampires or warlocks, for instance), he was apt to let his fevered imagination get the best of him, and the result was extravagant camp. When he tried to capture the language of particular social groups which were essentially foreign to him (slang-slinging teenagers or underworld gangsters, for instance), his grasp of the lingo was often clumsy and ham-handed, and the result was unintended comedy. Eddie's words rang the truest when he wrote about characters like himself: hard-drinking, middle-aged men who have been flattened by life and who have very few options still available to them. When he did these kinds of down-to-earth stories, he tended to ditch the flowery, highfalutin language of his pseudo-Gothic horror tales (like, say, "Dracula Revisited") and write in a style which was more economical and spare, yet which still left ample room for evocative background details and realistic scene-setting.

These stories feel very personal, almost biographical. In "Pray for Rain," the relationship between the garrulous old storyteller and the scoffing, skeptical, younger men is very similar to the relationship Eddie really had with the other writers at Pendulum Publishing. The men of Wet Hound Fork laugh at their elder's talk of Rainmakers in the 1930s, just as the young bucks at Pendulum snorted at Eddie's anecdotes about working with Bela Lugosi in the 1950s. It's not difficult to see the drought in "Pray for Rain" as a metaphor for the brutal, seemingly endless dry spell in Ed Wood's own show business career. The sound of a phone not ringing can be downright deafening in Hollywood, and Eddie's phone wasn't ringing very often by the early 1970s. That is, when he could even afford to maintain a working phone line. Speaking of phones, Eddie gives his readers a perfect little image of futility and desolation in this descriptive passage about the lack of telephones in Wet Hound Fork:
There was no electrical refrigeration units in the small town... no electricity of any kind except for the single telephone in the General Store. Some months ago Hank Kleper tried to get one installed at his single pump gas station, but the expense was too great, then when the drought set in he and the telephone company both felt it wasn't worthwhile. Another telephone in the town of two hundred wasn't necessary at the time.
In other words: no phone, no lights, no motorcars, not a single luxury. Though it doesn't call attention to itself, that passage is, in its own modest way, nearly as bleak and discouraging as anything to be found in Camus' The Plague or the novels of Cormac McCarthy.

Next: "The Whorehouse Horror: A Touch of Terror" (1972)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Ed Wood's BLOOD SPLATTERS QUICKLY: 'Calamity Jane Loves Hosenose Kate Loves Cattle Anne' (1973)

The real-life Martha Jane Canary (1852-1903), better known as Calamity Jane.

NOTE: This article is part of my ongoing coverage of Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

A saloon gal services Hosenose Kate in this illustration.
The story: "Calamity Jane Loves Hosenose Kate Loves Cattle Anne," originally published in Tales for a Sexy Night, Vol. 2, edited by Chuck Kelly and illustrated by Neil Weisbecker, Gallery Press, 1973.

Synopsis: Deadwood, South Dakota, 1876. The legendary gambler and gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok has been shot in the back during a poker game. Mourning him is Calamity Jane, a butch lesbian stagecoach driver who declares that Bill was the only man she would ever love. After making some threats to local undertaker Uncle Zeke, Jane seeks solace at a saloon called the High Dyke, which is owned by notoriously crooked and obese card dealer Hosenose Kate, so named for her booze-bloated face and trademark red nose. Kate, herself a lesbian, has a frank and sexually explicit conversation with Jane, during which they discuss Wild Bill's death and other local gossip. Vulgar, coarse-mannered Kate, who never leaves her chair, even when being serviced by prostitutes, implies that Will Bill was bisexual and offers the heartbroken Jane a free night with one of the High Dyke's beautiful saloon girls, including newcomer Barbara. Kate is not bothered or offended when Jane repeatedly throws drinks in her face during their talk. Instead, Kate tells Jane that a woman named Cattle Anne, with whom Wild Bill had a sexual relationship, is driving a big herd of cows from Texas and should be in town soon. Jane vows to gun Anne down when she arrives, though Kate advises against it. When Cattle Anne and Calamity Jane finally meet, everyone expects a bloody showdown. Instead, to Hosenose Kate's (and everyone else's) disappointment, the two women break down in tears when they see each other and go off to mourn Wild Bill Hickok together.

Wood trademarks: Old West setting (cf. Crossroads of Laredo, Crossroads Avenger, Revenge of the Virgins, etc.); real-life woman from history (cf. "Pearl Hart and the Last Stage"); comical supporting character named Zeke (cf. Crossroads Avenger); tough women acting and talking in a masculine fashion (cf. The Violent Years, Fugitive Girls); alcohol (both Jane and Kate are described as hard drinkers; Jane throws "rotgut whiskey" at Kate); bars (saloons in this case, predecessors to the modern day bars and lounges of Ed's other work); dildos (cf. this collection's "Come Inn"); multiple references to prostitution (saloon girls or "ready meat"); the word "fluff" meaning young women ("damned good fluff, them girls"); "fluff" meaning soft clothing or accessories ("the fluff and finery," a phrase which also turns up in Glen or Glenda?); a blonde character named Barbara (cf. Glen or Glenda?); "meat whistle" as a euphemism for the penis (cf. this collection's "Sex Star"); the now-mandatory references to death and its attendant rituals (Jane and undertaker Zeke discuss Wild Bill's coffin); name-calling directed at homosexual or effeminate men (compare this story's "You know what they calls men that does that kind of thing." to Glen or Glenda?'s "There are names for boys who go around wearing girls' clothes.")

Excerpt: "Why in hell I ever come to this creep dive I don't know. What do you know about anything anyway? You sit there with them big black cigars lettin' the ashes go down between your boobs, and you swig this rot gut all day, and you don't never get out of that chair. What in hell do you know what's going on outside them swinging doors? You ain't seen the street out there since it was a dirt path."

Reflections: The Old West and the colorful characters who populated it were lifelong obsessions for Edward D. Wood, Jr., going back to his childhood in Poughkeepsie, NY, where he was a regular patron of the local movie house in the 1930s and 1940s. Those were boom times for the Western, and those pictures left their mark on little Eddie. Had absolutely everything worked in his favor when he moved to Hollywood, Ed might have carved out a cozy little career making formulaic cowboy pictures for thirty or forty years and been quite happy doing so. But very little worked in Ed Wood's favor, as we know, so he made a few obscure Westerns for himself and scripted a few more for other directors but never came close to establishing himself as a cut-rate John Ford or Zane Grey. Of all the genres in which Eddie toiled -- horror, science fiction, crime, juvenile delinquent, skin -- Westerns were closest to his heart. You could see it in his casting choices from the 1950s. Why else dredge up D-listers like Tom Keene, Bud Osborne, and Kenne Duncan to act in stories which had absolutely nothing to do with the range? Working with these people, all Western film veterans, gave Eddie the chance to pay tribute to the kinds of movies he truly loved.

Thus far in Blood Splatters Quickly, Ed Wood the short story writer has not made too many trips out to cowboy country for inspiration. "Calamity Jane" is this collection's first clear example of a Western tale, and it shows how both the country and Eddie himself had changed from the 1940s and 1950s to the 1970s. In Ed's aborted first film, Crossroad of Laredo (1948), no-goodnik Tex (played by Don Nagel) frequents the local saloon and carouses with the cheap women there, but Eddie's prudish camera does not follow him past those infamous swinging doors. That film had its own character named Barbara, but she was a wronged woman who finds true love with the film's hero, Lem (Duke Moore), not a newly-debauched prostitute like the Barabara in "Calamity Jane." In fact, if you follow the trajectory of Ed Wood's further Western career from Crossroads Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid (1953) to Revenge of the Virgins (1959) to "Calamity Jane Loves Hosenose Kate Loves Cattle Anne" (1973), you can see Ed becoming progressively raunchier and less optimistic. In this story, he gives us an especially grotesque character in the Jabba the Hut-esque Hosenose Kate, whose own alcohol-induced physical decline seems to be a grim parody of Ed Wood's own personal mutation from dashing, Errol Flynn-type loverboy to double-chinned drunken sot. As for the story's sexual politics, the knee-jerk reaction is to say that this is another example of Ed stereotyping lesbians as hyper-masculine "bull-dykes." But a closer inspection shows that the lesbians in this story just want to be able to enjoy the kind of power and freedom that men do, even if that does bring on unwanted prejudice. As evidence, I present this dialogue between Kate and Jane, as the two discuss Wild Bill Hickok's past escapades with other women:
     "You ain't in town all the time. You're always out there on prairie driving that six up stagecoach of yours."
     "Well I gotta' make a livin'."
     "You live like a man does."
     "That's what I like."
     "And livin' like a man you got to have a woman when you came to town. Now you don't want to live like a man and have a man take you to bed. You know what they calls men that does that kind of thing."
     "What in hell do you think girls that take on girls are called? What in hell about that?"
     "Ain't the same. Some girl thinks like a man, then by the hell's fires she's got to be a man, and a man always needs his woman. Now you was thinkin' like a woman when you got all worried up about the dead man out there takin' on a woman. Yet you sit right over there across from me and you're all dressed up like a man and you smoke cigars like a man... just like me."
Clearly, suggests Ed Wood in this story, some women in the Old West have learned that there are societal advantages to acting and dressing in a masculine fashion. For Calamity Jane and Hosenose Kate, it's a matter of deeply-felt personal identity, and it's every bit as integral to their lives as Glen's angora sweater and blonde wig were to him in Glen or Glenda? To quote that film's wise Dr. Alton: "To take it away from them might do as great a harm as taking away an arm or a leg or life itself."

Next: "Pray for Rain" (1972)