Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 4: "Final Curtain" (1957)/"The Bride and the Beast" (1958)

In a role intended for Bela Lugosi, James "Duke" Moore stars in the fascinating unsold pilot Final Curtain.

"Ed grimaces. Lugosi was 90 percent of his pitch."
-stage direction from the screenplay of Ed Wood (1994)

A near-skeletal Bela Lugosi in rehab (1955).
Bela Lugosi died on August 16, 1956, and with him died Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s one connection with (faded) movie royalty. Bela had memorably toplined two of Ed's first three feature films as a director, playing variations on his "grouchy mad scientist" persona in both Glen or Glenda? (1953) and Bride of the Monster (1955). Beyond that, the two had become off-screen friends and had collaborated on a number of non-film projects, including a Dracula-themed Las Vegas revue in 1953 (featuring famed stripper Lily St. Cyr) and an unsuccessful "testimonial benefit" on Lugosi's behalf (featuring Maila "Vampira" Nurmi, then a local television celebrity).

In April 1955 and June 1956, on either side of Bela's famous stint in rehab, Ed shot the silent footage of Lugosi which he would eventually incorporate into his most famous film, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). In many ways, however, the death of the great Hungarian actor marked the beginning of Ed Wood's long, slow decline in Hollywood. His directing career, apart from a brief return in the early 1970s, would not survive past the Eisenhower era.

For most of the rest of his tenure in Hollywood, Ed Wood's fate was to be a writer-for-hire, living off the charity of friends and professional associates and often working under assumed names while his out-of-control alcoholism wreaked havoc on his body and his mind. Wood had never been a businessman, and much of the money he earned from his scripts likely went towards the purchase of alcohol. If he had truly been a "user" or an "exploiter," as some of his latter-day critics have claimed, it was certainly not reflected in his bankbook or standard of living. If there is one point on which all of Ed's friends, relatives, and professional associates agree, it's that the man never seemed to have two dimes to rub together.

Kathy O'Hara Wood and Dolores Fuller in a
photo taken by Kathy's friend, Bob Blackburn.
The truly sad, squalid years of Ed's life were still down the road a piece in 1957, though. He was only 33 years old then and as determined as ever to make a go of it in Tinseltown. Ideas were never in short supply. Ed seemingly always had half a dozen scripts lying around and ideas for countless more on the back burner. This would remain true until the day he died.

Wood's long-time relationship with Dolores Fuller had imploded the year before, possibly because of Ed's casting of Loretta King as the lead in Bride of the Monster, but more likely because Dolores understandably wanted to better herself in life by getting an education and a career of her own. Ed's very brief "rebound" marriage in October 1955 to actress Norma McCarty (known to Wood fans as stewardess Edith from the infamous "Albuquerque ball" scene in Plan 9) proved a disaster when the puritanical bride was appalled by Ed's cross-dressing and heavy drinking and fled in disgust from him. The marriage was annulled after just a few months.

But Ed's May 1956 marriage to Kathy O'Hara, a sweet-natured and non-judgmental young woman he'd met a year earlier, proved to be a (rare) wise decision on Ed's behalf, and the union lasted the rest of his life, despite many incredibly rocky patches. It's quite possible that this stable relationship had given him a new sense of optimism, even in the wake of his #1 star's death. Several projects intended for Bela Lugosi were simply retooled for other actors in the Ed Wood repertory company. And among these, perhaps the most fascinating is an unsold television pilot produced in 1957 but not widely seen in its intended form for many decades after that.

FINAL CURTAIN (1957)



Alternate titles: Portraits of Terror: Final Curtain.

Availability: YouTube [link]. After being rediscovered by Paul Marco's great-nephew, Jason Insalaco, Final Curtain started playing film festivals in 2012, including Cult Movie Mania's Screaming Cinema Series and Slamdance, but has had no commercial release of which I am aware.

The proposed opening scroll for Portraits of Terror.
The backstory: While his feature films are what brought him his posthumous fame, television remained the white whale Edward D. Wood, Jr. pursued without notable success for decades. Those of you who have been following this project already know about The Sun Was Setting and Crossroad Avenger. Wood did manage to get some low-profile directing work in local television in the 1950s and 1960s, including everything from sports to commercials to a few episodes of a show featuring the controversial, outspoken Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty, plus a handful of made-for-television films which have mysteriously gone missing and perhaps were never preserved.

For dedicated Wood-ologists, the most significant of Ed's television credits was his work on Criswell Predicts (1953), featuring a well-spoken but extremely dubious "psychic" named Jeron Criswell King, who would go on to be an important member of Ed's acting troupe and, like many Wood regulars, an off-screen buddy as well. According to artist and writer Don Fellman, Ed Wood even tried to sell a script to The Beverly Hillbillies in the mid-1960s but claimed it was "rejected at the last minute," whatever that means.

Ed's real goal was to launch a weekly network series. His negative experience of trying to sell Crossroad Avenger had perhaps soured him on the western genre, so his second major attempt in this arena was a proposed suspense anthology series (pre-Twilight Zone, but post-Alfred Hitchcock Presents) entitled Portraits of Terror. Only one pilot episode was ever produced, a 22-minute short called Final Curtain. The opening credits tell us optimistically that the series would contain "Original Stories and Screenplays Written, Produced and Directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr."

With Bela obviously unavailable for the pilot, the central role of an unnamed actor suffering a nervous breakdown in an empty theater went to the ever-reliable Duke Moore, the bulldog-faced supporting player whose association with Wood stretched all the way back to the doomed Crossroads of Laredo project in 1948. Incidentally, Ed Wood always maintained that Bela Lugosi was reading the script for this TV pilot when he died. (Is that really a boast?)

MST3K stalwart Anthony Cardoza
Filmed silently, Final Curtain was augmented by a soundtrack consisting of stock music (supervised by Gordon Zahler, who would use some of the same cues for Plan 9), plus a few sparse sound effects and, most importantly, hysterical first-person narration by Dudley Manlove, well known to Wood fans as the pompous alien Eros in Plan 9. William C. Thompson once again provided the distinctive chiaroscuro camerawork, lending the short film an almost expressionistic feel with its extreme contrasts between light and shadow.

Of particular interest are two of the film's four credited producers: Thomas R. Mason and Tony Cardoza, Jr. Cardoza, of course, is a name familiar to all MST3K viewers as a producer/actor in three of Coleman Francis's films (Night Train to Mundo Fine, The Skydivers, and The Beast of Yucca Flats, the last of which starred Tor Johnson) plus a dismal Ross Hagen biker film called The Hellcats. Mason, better known as "Doctor Tom," was Kathy Wood's chiropractor and would make significant and bizarre contributions to three more Ed Wood-related productions, including the one at the bottom of this article, The Bride and the Beast.

While Portraits of Terror obviously never became an ongoing series, the material from Final Curtain did not exactly go to waste. Footage from it was shoehorned into Night of the Ghouls (1959), Ed's sequel to Bride of the Monster, while the opening scroll was recited on camera, slightly reworded, by Criswell in both Night of the Ghouls and Orgy of the Dead (1965). Criswell's voice-over in Orgy, in fact, borrows quite heavily from Dudley Manlove's narration in Final Curtain.

It took 55 years, however, before Final Curtain would ever be screened as it was originally intended. After years of searching, Paul Marco's great-nephew, Jason Insalaco, finally managed to locate a print of the film from a Los Angeles memorabilia collector and turned over the footage to a friend of his, Jonathan Harris, who restored it. Today, at last, the film is easily accessible to Ed Wood's fans and admirers.

The viewing experience: Astonishing. Final Curtain is a film which, without exception, all those who are interested in Ed Wood should see. It's a major find. Seemingly all of Ed's pet themes and motifs are present here. The film is bookended by stock footage of thunder and lightning, which will remind viewers of Plan 9, Glenda, and many more Wood-related productions. The setting of a theater after closing hours seems to be a carryover from Jail Bait. Phrases like "a night of pleasure" and "the endless reaches of time" recur in other Wood scripts. And Duke Moore, like many Wood heroes before and after, takes a moment to admire the sensual quality of a woman's outfit, fondling the fabric with fetishistic glee.

But more important is the film's wildly free-associative, stream-of-conscious nature. Though vaguely presented as a horror story, the nature of which might be supernatural or merely psychological (my guess is the latter), Final Curtain is akin to Glen or Glenda? in not belonging to any particular genre or storytelling tradition in my experience. To put it more bluntly, this is some weird, weird stuff. Virtually nothing happens in these 22 minutes whatsoever. Duke Moore is a tuxedo-clad thespian who hangs around in a rather run-down, shabby-looking theater after the closing performance of his latest play, which was apparently a vampire story. The one set still standing looks more rural than gothic, however.

Alone in the dimly lit building, Moore becomes paranoid and starts hearing and seeing things which don't seem to be there. Moore's performance is entirely in pantomime. On the soundtrack, an extremely over-emotive Dudley Manlove gasps and howls his way through a berserk, nonsensical monologue, as florid and delirious as anything Ed Wood ever wrote. A sample quote, as Moore surveys the theater: "The seats out front are as I have seen them night after night while doing my lines on this side of the footlights. Empty, they appear like squatty little fat men standing row on row, like soldiers in formation!"

Literally all the viewer sees during Final Curtain are reaction shots of Duke Moore (not exactly the most expressive performer in the world) interspersed with cutaways to an unremarkable-looking theater. Some shots, in fact, are repeated over and over: a dressing room, a spotlight, a window, etc. And yet Dudley Manlove sounds like he's narrating War of the Worlds or watching the Hindenburg go up in flames. The disconnection between what we're seeing and what we're hearing makes Final Curtain a most unusual cinematic experience.

Moore becomes convinced that he's supposed to find something in this theater, and his search eventually takes him upstairs. There, in one room, he encounters a blonde-wigged mannequin (played by Jenny Stevens aka Jeannie Stevens) which may or may not come to life. Manlove's narration informs us that this mannequin was a cast member in Moore's play, which may offer a clue as to why that show has closed. In another (again, very ordinary-looking) room, our doomed protagonist does at last reach the object of his quest.

 I will not divulge what he finds in that room, but I will tell you that the ending of Final Curtain presages that of Necromania (1971), which is perhaps Ed Wood's last film as a writer-director.

While Portraits in Terror proved to be another dead end, one of Ed Wood's gonzo scripts did see daylight during this same period. And even though Ed himself wasn't in the director's chair, the resulting film was unquestionably his work. Which brings us to....

THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST (1958)

A detail from the sensational poster for 1958's The Bride and the Beast, featuring a suspiciously mannish bride.

"Before, I was a poor stone apology. Today, I am two separate gorillas."
-Vivian Stanshall (1969)

Alternate title: Queen of the Gorillas

Availability: A very nice widescreen transfer of The Bride and the Beast is available as the top half of a double bill with Harry L. Fraser's The White Gorilla (1945) on a single DVD, teasingly titled Positively No Refunds Double Feature (VCI Video, 2007). [buy it]  Both films have commentary tracks hosted by film historians Tom Weaver and Bob Burns. Bride's commentary also features two of the film's cast members, female lead Charlotte Austin and bit player Slick Slavin.

Lovely and talented Charlotte Austin
The backstory: Louis Weiss (1890-1963) had been producing low-budget independent films since the 1920s, including such jungle-themed films as The Revenge of Tarzan (1920), Jungle Menace (1937), and The White Gorilla (1945). With his brothers, Max and Adolph, Louis formed at least half a dozen production companies over the next few decades. Louis's son, Adrian (1918-2001), got into the family business in the mid-1930s, starting as a production manager and assistant director. By the early 1950s, the Weiss family's empire was fading a bit. Their film production had slowed down to a crawl, and their television series, Craig Kennedy, Criminologist had only lasted 26 weeks in 1952. At least the series had given son Adrian his first chance to direct.

In 1956, the Weisses announced to Variety their plans to get back into the feature film game with a script called Queen of the Gorillas, to be directed by Adrian and adapted from his own story. What Adrian had going for him were two things: (1) a desire to capitalize on the "Bridey Murphy" case, which had brought the subject of past-life regression to the public's attention, and (2) access to a lot of stock footage of animals in the wild, including shots taken from Man-Eater of Kumaon (1948) starring Sabu the Jungle Boy.

The task of building a script around this existing footage fell to Edward D. Wood, Jr., who in typical fashion made the project very much his own, delivering to the Weisses an outlandish and highly contrived script which essentially amounts to a love story between a beautiful young woman and a gorilla. Wood's own personal fetish for angora and other "fur-like fabrics" such as marabou became a major element of the plot.

Although she found the script utterly ridiculous, gorgeous actress Charlotte Austin, whose resume includes How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Monkey Business (1952), took the leading role in order to make a payment on her house. (This would prove to be Austin's penultimate film role. After Frankenstein 1970 (1958), she did a smattering of TV work and then gave up on the business entirely and opened an antiques shop.)

The male lead was played by Kentucky-born Lance Fuller, another actor well known to MST3K viewers because of his roles in This Island Earth (1955) and The She-Creature (1956). Fuller worked steadily in film and television from the mid-1940s to the late 1950s, but his career slowed down in the 1960s and came to a halt altogether in the 1970s when his health would no longer allow him to continue. He died in poverty and near-obscurity in 2001, having lived a life nearly as tragic as Ed Wood's. The Bride and the Beast, however, captured him during his 1950s heyday, and he even dated leading lady Charlotte Austin for a while.

The all-important role of the gorilla -- two separate gorillas, if you want to get technical about it -- was played by Steve Calvert, a protegee of Ray "Crash" Corrigan. In those days, portraying gorillas was its own specialized career in Hollywood. Pseudo-gorillas were expected to provide their own suits and know how to mimic the mannerisms and movements of the animals already.

Astonishingly, the original music for this film was written by none other than Les Baxter, a composer and bandleader who'd had a #1 hit single in 1956 with "The Poor People of Paris."

Make-up man Harry Thomas at work.
While none of the cast of The Bride and the Beast are members of the usual Wood repertory company, there are a few of Ed's associates in the crew. It's likely, for instance, that the connection between Ed Wood and the Weiss family was assistant director Harry L. Fraser, who had made films for Louis Weiss in the past and was also a buddy of Ed's. Fraser was a B-movie veteran whose titles included Chained for Life (1952), a vehicle for conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton of Freaks fame.

 Even more interestingly, the makeup man for this film was Harry Thomas, a Wood regular whom I've thus far neglected to mention in this project, even though he's one of the characters portrayed in Ed Wood (1994), where's he's played by Leonard Termo. Harry toiled on Glen or Glenda?, Plan 9, and  Jail Bait and was a delightful presence in a couple of Ed Wood documentaries before his death in 1996. Harry worked solidly as a makeup artist through the 1950s and 1960s, mainly on science-fiction and horror films, including Roger Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors (1960).

And while I'm at it, let me point out that one other member of Ed Wood's inner circle contributed to The Bride and the Beast. Chiropractor Tom Mason -- yes, the man who unconvincingly doubled Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 and who ponied up some of the dough for Final Curtain -- was Ed's unofficial technical advisor on the film's hypnotism scenes. Mason was himself a hypnotist so skilled at his craft that he could allegedly put Kathy Wood in a trance over the phone!

Obviously, a script about past-life regression would require a hypnotism scene, and Ed Wood knew exactly whom to call for advice.

Charlotte Austin says she felt like a bumblebee in this sweater.
The viewing experience: Fascinating, then frustrating, then fascinating again. The Bride and the Beast begins, as usual, with stock footage of lightning and thunder. In short order, we're introduced to a young couple, big game hunter Dan* (Lance Fuller) and his new bride Laura (Charlotte Austin), a lovey-dovey couple in the tradition of Dick and Janet from Bride of the Monster, Jeff and Paula from Plan 9, and Bob and Shirley from Orgy of the Dead.

On their wedding night, Dan takes Laura to his estate, where he happens to keep a gorilla named Spanky in a cage in the basement! Laura, who has always had a strange affinity with animals and who typically wears very fuzzy sweaters of angora or marabou, seems to bond with Spanky, a fact which makes Dan uncomfortable.

That night, while Dan and Laura sleep in separate beds, Spanky breaks out of his cage, goes upstairs to the the bedroom, and rips Laura's nightgown off. (We see nothing, by the way. The moderately more risque "European version" of the scene is glimpsed in the film's trailer.) Dan shoots poor Spanky, who staggers out of the boudoir, falls over a railing and dies. Seemingly unconcerned with the fact that there's a dead gorilla in his living room, Dan goes back to bed. Laura tries to sleep, but she's all hot and bothered by visions of her past.

The next day, Dan brings in a doctor, ludicrously named Carl Reiner (and played very stiffly by William Justine), who hypnotizes Laura and discovers that Dan's new wife had been the queen of the gorillas in a past existence. Dr. Reiner advises Dan against taking Laura on a honeymoon safari to Africa, but Dan is insistent.

Once they get there, the movie slows down for quite a while so that Adrian Weiss can use up all his stock footage of animals in the jungle. Occasionally, he'll include a shot of Lance Fuller holding a gun to remind us that this is supposed to be a hunting expedition. Unfortunately, a great deal of the stock footage depicts tigers rather than African wildlife, so Wood's script has to include a ludicrous subplot about how two tigers have escaped from an Indian cargo ship and have developed a taste for human blood after attacking a few unlucky natives!

Dull,  ill-fated actor Lance Fuller
The hunting subplot and tiger subplot are in the film to eat up screen time and serve no greater thematic purpose. Weiss matches the stock footage to his own footage somewhat more convincingly than Ed did in Bride of the Monster, but if anything, that makes the middle of the movie even less interesting. Moreover, modern audiences are apt to be appalled by the prospect of a great white hunter coming to Africa to collect trophies by hunting zebras, giraffes, and other creatures who were just minding their own business. On the commentary track, even Charlotte Austin expresses dismay over this aspect of the film.

Dead-eyed, monotone-voiced Lance Fuller, meanwhile, is simply not that compelling as a leading man. MST3K, in fact, devoted an entire host segment to mocking Fuller's complete lack of charisma in The She-Creature, and he's even less appealing here. A part like this -- a pompous, arrogant, man's man who treats everyone around him with a slight air of condescension -- practically screams out for John Agar. (It's not out of the question; though they never worked together, Ed Wood and John Agar's social circles did overlap, and there are photos of the two men together.)

More distressingly, the middle of the movie keeps Charlotte Austin -- who gives a helluva performance, by the way -- on the sidelines for far too long. The movie finally returns to its original theme with a wonderfully sordid and ridiculous climax in which Laura is taken prisoner by the gorillas (their lair is actually the famed Bronson Canyon) and then must make a decision: do I choose my human husband or do I live among the gorillas? I will not spoil the conclusion, except to say that Dan's final conversation with Dr. Carl Reiner had me howling with laughter and applauding the screen. If anything can top Harvey B. Dunn's legendary "He tampered in God's domain" from Bride of the Monster, it's the last line of The Bride and the Beast.

 Though hampered by a saggy, draggy middle section, The Bride and the Beast begins and ends with such bravado and audacity that the film is an absolutely essential addition to the Ed Wood canon. Had Ed directed this himself, I think it would rank alongside Plan 9 and Glenda in popularity.

*Strangely, Dan and Laura's last name is given as "Fuller" in the film. Whether this is a reference to Lance Fuller's own real-life moniker or perhaps a nod to Ed's ex-girlfriend Dolores Fuller is unknown.

NEXT WEEK: In addition to his film and television work, Edward D. Wood, Jr. also had a side career as an author from 1963 to 1978, producing at least 22 novels and countless short stories, using his own name whenever possible. Join me here next Wednesday when this project takes a break from Ed's film career and examines his literary career with a review of his debut novel, Killer in Drag (1963).

9 comments:

  1. Ooooooh, an Ed Wood NOVEL!

    I might have to track down this gorilla movie. It sounds pretty damn weird.

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    1. Bride and the Beast was a real discovery for me. I'd known about it, but I had no idea it was so fetishy and weird.

      As for the novels, I'm going to try to review at least four of them as part of this project because they were a major part of Ed's life and career. The first one has far exceeded my expectations. It's jaw-dropping. It's supposed to be a crime thriller, but the author is much, much more concerned with the characters' clothing.

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  2. It seems like I've already seen my fair share of "guy in gorilla suit" movies, but The Bride of the Beast sounds like something else.

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    1. I've never seen anything like it. I'll say that.

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  3. Thanks for mentioning my old friend Harry Thomas.
    Dennis

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  4. http://www.moviemonstermuseum.com/htimages/kfs3.jpg

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  5. I've just downloaded iStripper, so I can watch the sexiest virtual strippers on my desktop.

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