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).

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #43: "Three Husbands" (1951)

Excerpt from Fred Guardineer's 1951 comic adaptation of 3 Husbands. You can read the entire comic here!

The flick: Three Husbands (United Artists release of a Gloria Film Production, 1951) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.5

Director: Irving Reis (All My SonsThe Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer; one of the pioneers of radio drama)

(top) Frank Cady; Billie Burke
(bottom) Jane Darwell; Howard De Silva
Actors of note: Eve Arden (comedienne best known for TV's Our Miss Brooks, for which she won an Emmy, and The Mothers-In-Law; was Principal McGee in both Grease movies; Oscar nominated for Mildred Pierce), Ruth Warrick (the first Mrs. Kane in Citizen Kane; the mom in Song of the South; put in 35 years on All My Children as Phoebe Tyler Wallingford,) Vanessa Brown (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; "B" movie actress with 165 IQ), Howard Da Silva (actor blacklisted during the "red scare" of the early 1950s; pre-blacklist credits include The Lost Weekend and Sergeant York; post-blacklist credits include 1776 and Mommie Dearest, in which he played Louis B. Mayer), Shepperd Strudwick (A Place in the Sun, All the King's Men), Robert Karnes (The Best Years of Our Lives, Miracle on 34th  Street, From Here to Eternity; extensive TV work from the '50s to the '70s including Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Charlie's Angels, M*A*S*H, The Twilight Zone and more), Emlyn Williams (Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn), Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz; wife of theatrical impresario Flo Ziegfeld), Jonathan Hale (Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, much more), Jane Darwell (Mary Poppins, Gone with the Wind, The Ox-Bow Incident; best known as Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath), Frank Cady (Sam Drucker on TV's Green Acres; extensive film work includes The Bad Seed, The Asphalt Jungle, Hitchcock's Rear Window, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, etc.), Louise Erickson (played "bobby soxer" Judy on the long-running 1940s radio show A Date with Judy; married to Ben Gazzara from 1951 to 1957), Jerry Hausner (Kubrick's Paths of Glory; lots of TV work, including Green Acres and The Mothers-In-Law)

Smug Emlyn Williams
The gist of it: Suave British playboy Maxwell Bard (Emlyn Williams) has died of heart failure and gone to Heaven, but before he spends eternity in the kingdom of God, he has one last request: to watch what happens to three different married couples back on Earth. The titular three husbands (De Silva, Strudwick, and Karnes) were Max's poker buddies, and after his death, they receive letters (delivered by lawyer Hale) in which Max confesses to having affairs with their wives (Arden, Warrick, and Brown, respectively). Flashbacks then reveal that each of the three marriages was troubled in some way. De Silva was a businessman who was embarrassed by wife Arden's coarse manners. Strudwick cheated on Warrick with a flaky young artist (Erickson). Karnes, Max's cousin, was still under the control of his passive-agressive, domineering mother (Burke), who lived in the same house as her son and daughter-in-law. And all three men neglected their wives to one degree or another, staying out late at night to drink and play poker. What effect will Max's posthumously-delivered letters have on these couples? Will there be three divorces? The story reaches its climax when all the characters gather for the reading of Max's will and the true motivation behind the letters becomes known.

My take: Because of this film's relatively high IMDb rating and ridiculously overqualified cast, I was expecting to really enjoy Three Husbands. To put it mildly, though, I did not. In fact, I quickly grew to hate virtually all the characters and wanted a nuclear bomb to drop on whatever city they lived in. These are silly, trivial people who spend an entire movie arguing about silly, trivial things. Marriages and lives are at stake here, yet I don't think any of the characters in this film ever discuss anything real or meaningful.

At heart, this should be what we'd call a bedroom farce, but it was made in 1951, so hanky panky can only be implied in the most abstract, genteel way. This is a sex comedy with no sex and very little comedy. As far as I can tell, having an affair in the early '50s meant going out on swell dates to the movies. A huge problem with this film is its repetitive structure. There are, after all, three couples at play here so we have to sit through three variations on the same story. The script cycles through the same basic events three times. (The husband gets the letter, reads it, can't believe what it says, flashes back to past incidents involving his wife and Max which seem to suggest it could be true, and argues with his wife. Repeat.) It's the Goldilocks and the Three Bears of adultery movies. I think we're supposed to like Max and appreciate him for teaching these dumb, neglectful husbands a lesson, but I just wanted someone to punch the smug bastard right in the chin for being such a know-it-all.

Frankly, none of these marriages were worth saving, so I didn't have much invested in the outcome of the plot. Modern viewers are likely to be horrified at a scene in which a bartender (Hausner) suggests that Karnes' character should smack his wife around a little to prove who's the man in the relationship. Though Karnes does eventually agree with this, he never (thankfully) goes through with it. Incidentally, the whole plot of this film reminded me of a terrific 1968 Stax soul hit called "Who's Making Love" by the late, great Johnnie Taylor. Too bad it came out 17 years after the movie because it would have made an ideal theme song.



Is it funny: Nope. I guess it tries to be, but none of the jokes worked on me until maybe the last five minutes when there's some funny stuff involving Frank Cady as an elevator operator. Even here, though, the movie insists on cycling through the same joke three times. Strudwick and Warrick's marriage is largely played seriously, so the comedy is provided by Louise Erickson as Strudwick's lovelorn, overly-dramatic mistress who gets entirely too clingy entirely too soon. But I think the movie could have gotten more comedic mileage out of this character. The same goes for the Karnes/Brown marriage. The husband and wife play it straight, so the comedic character in this part of the movie is Billie Burke as the buzz-killing mother-in-law, but she, too, could and should have been exaggerated a bit more for comedic effect.

Three Husbands seems to set its tone in the opening sequence in which we see traffic signs on the way to Heaven. Funny signs are usually an indication of zany, go-for-broke comedy in the Mad magazine/Zucker Brothers tradition. But the movie doesn't really go in for madcap gags after that, preferring quip-filled banter. After watching forty-plus comedies from the middle of the previous century, I must admit to having "banter fatigue." When it comes to comedy, funny beats witty any day of the week. I don't want dry chuckles, damn it. I want laughs. Three Husbands just didn't provide them.

My grade: C-

P.S. - Not really any racial stereotypes here. Max has an Asian houseboy, but this character is not presented in any kind of negative or cartoonish way.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #42: "Swing It, Sailor!" (1938)

Wallace Ford plays a sailor who swings it in Swing It, Sailor! Also featured: dames!

The flick: Swing It, Sailor! (Grand National Pictures, 1938) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.2

Suave director Raymond Cannon
Director: Raymond Cannon (silent film actor who transitioned first into writing, then directing in the sound era; his mostly-forgotten directorial efforts include Samurai, Swanee River, and Imagine My Embarrassment; as an actor, worked with D.W Griffith, Lilian Gish, and more; wrote the "scenario" for Buster Keaton's Go West)

Actors of note: Wallace Ford (Money Means Nothing, The Nut Farm), Ray Mayer (Make Way for Tomorrow, Follow the Fleet, and 42 other movies you haven't seen; 1920s musical comedy performer), Isabel Jewell (played "poor white trash" Emmy Slattery in Gone with the Wind; appeared in High Sierra, The Bishop's Wife, The Snake Pit, etc.), Mary Treen (Cousin Tilly in It's a Wonderful Life; appeared in several Elvis Presley movies, including Fun in Acapulco, Girls! Girls! Girls!, and Paradise, Hawaiian Style; worked with Jerry Lewis in Who's Minding the Store, The Errand Boy, and The Caddy), Cully Richards (The Pirate), Max Hoffman, Jr. (Meet Jon Doe, Topper), George Humbert (lots of comedies, including Bringing Up Baby, Gilda, and Hellzapoppin' with our pals Olsen and Johnson)

The gist of it: Lazy, manipulative sailor Pete Kelly (Ford) has been exploiting his shipmate, sweet but slow-witted lug Husky Stone (Mayer), for years. Pete "borrows" Husky's money, while Husky gladly does Pete's dirty work and even takes the blame for Pete's mistakes. Pete's swell arrangement is threatened, though, by Husky's romantic infatuation with a cheap blonde named Myrtle Montrose (Jewell) who has been stringing a dozen guys along. To Pete's dismay, Husky wants to leave the Navy and marry Myrtle. In order to prevent this, Pete decides to romance Myrtle right under Husky's nose, just to prove what a no-good tramp she is. Before he knows it, though, Pete finds himself engaged to the scheming, materialistic Myrtle. When Husky finds out that Myrtle's been two-timing him with Pete, the sailors' longtime friendship is threatened. But Pete has a chance to redeem himself when Husky is accidentally stranded on a ship which is being bombed as part of a practice exercise.

Isabel Jewell, typecast as
a blonde bimbo.
My take: It's not a great compliment to say that Swing It, Sailor! is the best Wallace Ford comedy I've ever seen. After all, I pretty much hated Money Means Nothing and was disappointed by The Nut Farm. Ford's brand of low-key, smarmy smugness still doesn't strike me as particularly hilarious or compelling, but Swing It, Sailor! was marginally more enjoyable than the other two Ford films. For one thing, I was genuinely charmed by the guileless and goofy Husky, whose intelligence is somewhere in the neighborhood of Lenny from Of Mice and Men and Mongo from Blazing Saddles. For a while, the script seems to be setting up a sweet romance between Husky and Myrtle's sensible, plane-jane roommate Gertie (Treen), which would have made a nice ending, but the movie kind of forgets about Gertie and goes for a more action-heavy, dudes-only finale composed almost entirely of stock footage. 

In retrospect, the ending of the film is kind of a downer. Pete and Husky patch up their friendship, and Husky signs up for four more years in the Navy. But this is 1938. The next year, Germany invaded Poland, beginning the second world war, and Husky and Pete would probably still have been in the service when the United States entered WWII after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Most likely, they were sent to fight in the Pacific theater, and who knows what might have become of them after that? 

Okay, this is getting a little heavy. Let's lighten the mood by talking about some of the cheerier aspects of Swing It, Sailor! Leading vixen Isabel Jewell is capital aitch-oh-tee HOT in this movie, and she has a good sense of comic timing, too. Of course, it doesn't hurt matters any that her character, brazen hussy Myrtle, wears bullet bras so pointy you'll wish this movie were in 3D. Kudos to the wardrobe department for that. Come to think of it, this movie offers modern day viewers the chance to see a lot of vintage ads and products in the backgrounds of scenes. Many are still around (Milk Bones, Alka Seltzer, Dr. Scholl's), but others didn't fare so well (Campana's Italian Balm). 

I also liked the art-deco-style street numbers on Myrtle and Gertie's apartment building and the stylized clock-face Grand National logo at the start of the film. And if you're a dog person (as I am), you'll likely be entertained by some puppy-related hijinks at several points in the film, too. There's quite a bit of animal humor in this movie, since a major plot point involves Myrtle's overly-talkative parrot, who knows way too much about his mistress's sexual history. One thing you won't find in this movie, though, is a lot of swing music or swing dancing. A more appropriate name for this flick would have been: I'm Macking on Your Fiancee, But I Swear It's for Your Own Good. Not as catchy, but I'm going for a little truth in movie-titling here.
Ray Mayer in the 1920s.

Is it funny: Not terrifically so, but Swing It, Sailor! does manage to elicit a modest chuckle every once in a while. No home runs, let's say, but a few ground rule doubles. For instance, I liked the cheerful way Husky utters the immortal line, "And we'll keep peace all over the word, even if we have to kill everybody doing it." Husky's inability to swim is a character trait which exists mostly for plot convenience, but it does result in a few good gags, as when the poor dope's inflatable water wings explode when he goes to hug Myrtle. The movie's main comedic set piece is a chaotic scene in which Myrtle's sassy parrot causes havoc in a pet store by chanting, "Mad dog! Mad dog!" thus inciting a near-riot among the panicked customers and infuriating the store's owner (Humbert), a stereotypical Italian immigrant with one of those cartoony "whatsa matta you" accents. This scene is not the total success it should be -- it's mostly noise and chaos without any real jokes -- but I liked Isabel Jewell's utter nonchalance here. 

This actress, by the way, played a string of slutty characters in both A-list and B-list movies until she got too old to play temptresses and fell into a life of alcoholism. Most of her work in the 1950s and 1960s was on television, but in 1972 (the year she died at age 64) she appeared in two intriguing films, her first big-screen roles in 15 years: the infamous Ciao Manhattan, a posthumous vehicle for doomed Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick, and Sweet Kill, a horror cheapie written and directed by Curtis Hanson of 8 Mile, L.A. Confidential, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle fame. The next time you're in Los Angeles, make sure to visit Isabel's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1560 Vine Street and say a little prayer on her behalf for me.

My grade: B-

P.S. - No racial stereotypes here. As I mentioned, there's one ethnic stereotype, but this scene is brief and mild.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 3: "Bride of the Monster" (1955)/"The Violent Years" (1956)

An ailing Bela Lugosi menaces co-star (and possible backer) Loretta King in Bride of the Monster (1955).

"The music is winsome but raggedly discordant pop. Something is sort of wrong with the tempo, and the melodies are squashed and bent, nasal, deadpan."
-Susan Orlean describing the music of The Shaggs

A waning Bela Lugosi.
Having made the most unusual and personal film of his career with his 1953 debut, Glen or Glenda?, Edward D. Wood, Jr. would spend the next quarter-century, the remainder of his life on this earth, trying to give moviegoers, exhibitors, publishers, and investors what he thought they wanted. He was forever chasing pop culture trends and naively offering up his abstract approximations of them for public approval. (You want a juvenile delinquent movie? Okay, here's a juvenile delinquent movie!) But these efforts were invariably colored by Ed Wood's personal background, fetishes, fears, obsessions, haphazard production methods, and peculiar use of the English language.

The resulting films were, to borrow Susan Orelan's words, "squashed and bent." I chose that excerpt above from Orlean's article about the Shaggs because virtually every adjective in it could be applied to Wood's work. His films are (usually) winsome yet raggedly discordant. His actors speak with voices which are often nasal, deadpan, or both, and there is often something "sort of wrong with the tempo," i.e. pacing, of his films. Apart from his westerns, which are professional in a rather colorless way, Wood's work is seemingly incapable of being anonymous... even when the man himself was uncredited or worked under a pseudonym. For good or ill, these movies bear the mark of their oddball creator.

Ed Wood was, above all, an untiring dynamo who kept coming up with ideas for movies, television shows, books, records, live shows, and more for as long as he lived. For every one of Ed's movies that actually reached theaters, there were likely five which fell apart in the scripting, casting, or financing stage. In 1953 and 1954, most of these would-be projects revolved around Bela Lugosi, the septuagenarian actor who had conquered movie screens two decades previously as Dracula but who had become obsolete and borderline-unemployable by the early 1950s.

Desperate for cash, Lugosi memorably played an irritable "puppet master" character, known variously as "The Spirit" or "The Scientist," in Ed's surreal Glen or Glenda? for a grand total of $1000. Ed wanted to follow this up with a TV series, Dr. Acula, starring the famed screen vampire. Or maybe, he thought, Bela should play the Dr. Acula character in a movie called The Vampire's Tomb. Or maybe he should be reunited with Boris Karloff in Doctor Voodoo. Or maybe pair him up with Gene Autry in The Ghoul Goes West. (This project would have especially delighted Ed, since it could also allow him to work in the western genre he so loved. Perhaps that's why he pursued The Ghoul Goes West, aka The Phantom Ghoul, for two years.)

None of these particular Lugosi vehicles ever materialized, but there was another one which which did come before the cameras. This film became one of Ed's most-seen, best-known films -- one of only three, along with Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 from Outer Space, whose making was depicted in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994). Of course, I am speaking of....

BRIDE OF THE MONSTER (1955)

More horrifying than "Dracula "..."Frankenstein!" An atomic-powered Bela totes an unconscious Loretta King. 

Alternate titles: The Atomic Monster; Bride of the Atom

Availability: This film is in the public domain and is available in all the usual Wood-related boxed sets, including The Worst of Ed Wood, The Ed Wood Box, and Big Box of Wood. The Big Box version contains an introduction by independent filmmaker Ted Newsom, who made the documentary Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora, and a commentary track by Newsom and David DeCoteau, director of Creepozoids, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama and several Puppet Master sequels.

Newcomer Paul Marco as Kelton the Cop
The backstory: The exact circumstances behind the making of Bride of the Monster are controversial and highly disputed, even today. Like the characters in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), the cast and crew members of Bride of the Monster all tell differing accounts of what happened, when it happened, who did what, and why. Critics and film historians have only clouded matters by adding their own interpretation of the events.

Here is what we know for sure. Although Bride was shot on an extremely tight budget, it took Ed quite a while, possibly a whole year, to raise the money. This partially accounts for his two-year drought between features. Ed Wood very strongly believed that Loretta King, the film's female lead, was wealthy and would invest heavily in the film, but this did not come to pass. Bela Lugosi -- by all accounts very ill and frail during filming -- was paid somewhere between $750 and $1000 a day for his participation and may have negotiated for more money during the production process.

Meat packing tycoon Donald McCoy did put up most of the money for it, and his son, Tony, played the lead and acted as associate producer. Work on the film did come to a halt at one point, but then resumed once Ed Wood procured completion funds. Some footage for Bride was shot at the studio of renowned Hollywood cinematographer Ted Allan, but it appears that Ed's regular cameraman, William C. Thompson, took over after that. Judging from behind-the-scenes photos, Thompson was the cameraman for Bride's location footage, which was shot at Los Angeles' Griffith Park.

Ed was not an astute businessman and apparently sold more than 100% of the film to various backers, and when the film eventually received national distribution and enjoyed a healthy run on the drive-in circuit, neither the director nor his original backers saw much or any of the profits. The businessmen who handled the film wound up forming American International Pictures (AIP), so some film historians credit Ed Wood with inadvertently giving that important company its start.

Cast-wise, Bride features many returning Wood veterans: Lugosi, Dolores Fuller (though in a much smaller role than she would have wanted), Harvey B. Dunn, Don Nagel, Conrad Brooks, and Bud Osborne. Future Plan 9 cast member Ben Frommer turns up as a belligerent suspect at a police station, "borrowing" some of his dialogue from 1945's Dillinger.

The two truly significant additions to the Ed Wood repertory company this time around were Paul Marco and Tor Johnson. Marco, a short, dark-haired character actor with the voice of a Daws Butler cartoon character (half-Yogi Bear, half-Snagglepuss), portrayed the bumbling, cowardly Officer Kelton in the first of three such appearances for Ed Wood. Tor Johnson, a bald, 400-pound Swedish wrestler (with movie credits going back to 1934), portrayed Bela Lugosi's mute henchman Lobo, a part he'd reprise once for Wood and once for Boris Petroff, an independent director who would collaborate with Wood on a number of future projects. Tor, of course, would also go on to his iconic role as cop-turned-zombie Inspector Clay in Plan 9 from Outer Space a few years down the line.

Conflict resolution: Tor Johnson and Bela Lugosi.
So far, so good. Nothing too contentious yet, right? Well, once you start delving into specifics, that's when the history of Bride of the Monster becomes a baffling maze with no entrance, no exit, and a thousand blind alleys. A crew member swears that Ed Wood never drank while working. A backer says Ed was intoxicated every day. Wood himself says he was planning to marry Loretta King for her money. Loretta says she didn't have any money and was hired because Ed wanted to work with someone outside his usual circle. Ed's relationship with Dolores Fuller came to an end during this era, but was it before or after he awarded her role to another actress? Depends whom you ask.

Tim Burton's 1994 biopic Ed Wood would have you believe that Tony McCoy only came on board as Bride's male lead after the movie resumed production with new money from Tony's father, Donald. But some of the footage with Tony seems to predate the production stoppage.

Even the film's authorship is in doubt. During the Bride DVD commentary and intro, Ted Newsom repeatedly states that much of the credit for the film's screenplay should go to Ed's writing partner at the time, Alex Gordon, a British expat with whom Ed had previously written Jail Bait. However, direct quotes from both Wood and Gordon dispute this theory.

"I wrote Bride of the Monster for Lugosi," said Wood. "I wrote every line in that. I gave Alex Gordon a credit because he gave me an idea."

Gordon concurs: "Eddie rewrote the script The Atomic Monster and made a very low budget picture based vaguely on it." Another Gordon quote: "Bride of the Atom was a title Eddie thought up. My title was The Atomic Monster. Later on the script was completely rewritten."

Is Gordon being modest? Is Ed Wood being greedy? It's not for me to say. The version of Bride of the Monster's history that most of us know comes from Ed Wood. It's an entertaining and satisfying story, even if it bears only a passing resemblance to the truth. Even there, however, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski had to be extremely careful with the wording of the scenes involving Loretta King and her status as a potential backer for Bride of the Monster. Their script tactfully frames it as a simple misunderstanding.

Whether or not Loretta King was rich, Ed Wood certainly believed she was. His own words, quoted in Nightmare of Ecstasy, prove that. "She had a million dollars," he once claimed. Did she... or was this all in Ed's imagination? One is reminded of Bela Lugosi's Glen or Glenda speech: "No one can really tell the story. Mistakes are made. But there is no mistaking the thoughts in a man's mind!"

The viewing experience: Hallucinatory and surprisingly poignant. With its mushroom cloud finale and repeated references to atomic tests which may be affecting the weather, Bride of the Monster is Ed Wood's attempt to capitalize on the paranoia of the Cold War era. But it is just as rooted in the "old dark house" films of decades past, with most of its action centered around the spooky, decrepit "old Willow place" on "Lake Marsh" (or "Marsh Lake") in some scenes.

The film's principal location is a weather-beaten mansion occupied by exiled mad scientist Dr. Eric Vornoff (Lugosi), who dreams of creating "a race of atomic super beings" (shades of Nazism). Vornoff carries out his experiments on any traveler unlucky enough to trespass on his property, but he has thus far only succeeded in killing his test subjects, whose irradiated corpses are then fed to the doctor's pet octopus. The octopus, represented by a combination of stock footage and an actual rubber prop swiped from Republic Studios, is apparently the "monster" of the title, but another interpretation of the story is that Vornoff himself is the story's real monster.

Bela Lugosi's multifaceted character shows the schism occurring in Ed Wood's brain. On the one hand, given that this is supposedly Wood's "atomic age" film, Dr. Eric Vornoff should remain rooted in the world of science, albeit preposterous movie science. But the character's hypnotic stare and trance-inducing hand movements, imported from Dracula (1931) and White Zombie (1932) respectively, also place him in the world of the supernatural and romantic.

Wood has stated that the script was written "for Lugosi," and in fact, the plight of the central character -- he has been banned from his homeland and forced to seek refuge in a swamp many thousands of miles away -- mirrors that of Lugosi. Ed Wood's friend, John Andrews, explains:
"George [Becwar] plays this foreign agent, Strowski, whatever he is, in Bride of the Monster. And he goes to the swamp to visit Bela. He's trying to get Bela to go back to Hungary or wherever it is. Which the Hungarian communists actually tried to get Bela to do. They actually sent for him to come back to Hungary to be Minister of Culture. Plays, museums, stuff like that. And he told Eddie he was afraid to go over there, that they'd send him to a gulag."
Knowing this -- and knowing how close to death Lugosi was at the time of filming -- makes viewing Bride of the Monster a rather thought-provoking, even somewhat melancholy experience, despite its inherent silliness and rather slipshod construction. As the romantic leads, Tony McCoy and Loretta King are flat and uninspiring, engendering little sympathy with the audience.

The plot unfolds with a sort of free-associative dream logic and makes little narrative sense. The film's use of "stock footage" creatures -- not only the aforementioned octopus but also a snake and an aligator -- is extremely unconvincing, as is Dr. Vornoff's laboratory, which is constructed like the set of a high school play with its notorious two-dimensional "stone wall" backdrop and kitchen appliances and photograph enlargers in place of actual science equipment.

The ridiculous finale, a confusing jumble of incongruous shots capped by one of the most infamous last lines in movie history (Harvey B. Dunn's simplistic proclamation, "He tampered in God's domain.") pushes Bride of the Monster into the realm of camp. But I'll be damned if William C. Thompson (or possibly Ted Allan) doesn't manage to create some truly striking, evocative images along the way, helped along by the quasi-Universal-type score by Frank Worth.

And then, of course, there is Bela with his accent and his eyes and his wiggling fingers. There are some actors who qualify as "human special effects," and Bela is one of them, even in this weakened condition. As Ted Newsom rightly points out, Bela gave it his all in this film, even if the script did not merit it.

To be honest, Bride has never been among my favorite Ed Wood films, despite its prominence in his catalog and the fact that many of his fans like it best because it's the closest thing to a "real" movie Eddie ever made. It's too stifling and depressing for me, and it seems like a great deal of the running time is wasted in newspaper offices and police stations, listening to characters drone on and on about the plot. These days, I'm more likely to watch the MST3K episode in which this film is used as cannon fodder. The quips of Joel, Servo, and Crow help to relieve the tedium a bit. Sorry, Ed.

P.S. - For you serious Wood-ologists out there, take note please of Lobo's interest in Janet Lawton's fuzzy hat. Whether or not it's angora (Ed's preferred fabric), I don't know. But it preserves the writer's eternal interest in "feathers, furs, and fluff."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The month before Bride's premiere in May 1955, Ed shot some of the silent Bela Lugosi footage which would become the foundation for Plan 9 from Outer Space, but that film would not see the light of day until 1959. As always, "idea man" Ed had a number of potential projects in the works, few of were ever completed or even started. Would-be films from this era include the enticingly-named Rock and Roll Hell, which would have reunited him with Glenda producer George Weiss, plus Piranhas, The Dead Never Die, and Trial By Terror. While these scripts moldered in the grave, one of Ed's screenplays did reach theaters... to financial success, no less! Unfortunately, it was for another director. Which brings us to...

THE VIOLENT YEARS (1956)

"So what?": Former Playboy Playmate Jean Moorhead repeatedly asks that existential question in The Violent Years.

Alternate titles: Female; Violent Years; Teenage Killers; Teenage Girl Gang; Girl Gang Terrorists

Availability: Again, this one is available as part of S'More Entertainment's Big Box of Wood. Ted Newsom provides an introduction to this edition, but there is no commentary. The film is paired with Robert C. Dertano's 1954 film Girl Gang on a single DVD entitled Teenage Terror Drive-In Double Feature (Something Weird Video, 2001). Alpha Video released a bare-bones single-disc version in 2003.

Perusing various editions of the movie online and on DVD, I found one copy with the opening credits superimposed over a shot of the four main girls in the cast, one with the credits over a static shot of a generic city, and one with no opening credits whatsoever. The S'More Entertainment version has no opening credits.

Back again: Vaguely sleazy, mustachioed Timothy Farrell.
The backstory: A distinguished editor whose resume includes such prominent films as Tarantula (1955), Song of the South (1948), and Of Human Bondage (1934), British-born William L. Morgan had a somewhat less distinguished career as a director, i.e. thirteen forgotten features released between 1940 and 1943, then a 13-year drought, and then this movie, his swan song. He would drop off the Hollywood radar entirely after another year.

Produced and distributed by tiny independent Headliner Productions, The Violent Years was a surprise box office hit in 1956. As would be the case again and again in his career, though, Ed did not share in the film's success. Naive and too trusting (in the words of Glen or Glenda? producer George Weiss), Wood was paid a flat fee for his script and did not get a cut of the film's box office revenue.

The film was a successful attempt to cash in on the public's fascination with juvenile delinquency, shamelessly exploiting the seedier aspects of the phenomenon while pretending to pass moral judgment upon wayward youths and their negligent parents.

Though Ed himself was not directly involved in the film's production, two seasoned veterans of Wood projects did work on The Violent Years: actor Timothy Farrell, who plays a cop named Lt. Homes and provides the obviously Dragnet-inspired narration, and our good friend, cinematographer William C. Thompson. The most prominent member of the cast is Jean Moorhead, who was Playboy's Playmate of the Month for October 1955 and who had a decade-plus career in film and television.

The rest of the cast is filled out by actors who had prolific but unremarkable careers in low-budget independent films. I. Stanford Jolley, normally a bad guy in "B" westerns, had probably the most prominent role of his career as the pious Judge Clara, whose droning, halting delivery was much mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000 when this film appeared there.

Another pic of lovely Jean Moorhead.
The viewing experience: Folks, what can I tell you? I loved The Violent Years. I'd never seen it, not even in its MST3K incarnation, until this project. Now I don't know how I ever lived without it. Though not actually directed by Ed Wood, it's unmistakably his work. Structured very much like Reefer Madness (1936) and I Accuse My Parents (1944), The Violent Years features a humorless authority figure (in this case, a judge) who lectures the characters and the audience about the importance of morality, while the script doles out severe punishments to those who stray from the path of righteousness. But the movie, like Reefer Madness before it, doesn't forget to show the sinners having a hell of a lot of fun before the heavy consequences.

The main sinner, of course, is poor little rich girl Paula Parkins (Moorhead), whose father is an overworked newspaper editor and whose mother is a charity-obsessed socialite. Mr. and Mrs. Parkins give their daughter everything... everything but love, that is. To fill the emptiness inside her, Paula adopts a nihilistic attitude -- "So what?" is her credo -- and forms an all-girl gang who rob gas stations and have scandalous co-ed pajama parties. In one particularly absurd plot point, Paula and her gang are hired by "foreign" interests (read: communists) to trash a school room, which somehow leads to a shootout with the cops and fatalities on both sides of the law.

I have no idea if Ed was sincere when he wrote this script (based on a story by B.L. Hart) or whether he was laughing like a maniac after every stilted, artificial line. I kind of hope both are true. Jean Moorhead is absolutely gorgeous and gives a terrific, spirited performance, aided immensely by Bill Thompson's flattering cinematography.

So many of Ed's motifs are here, from alcohol (booze plays a prominent role in the girls' social life) to The Daily Chronicle (a fictional newspaper also seen in Glen or Glenda?, Jail Bait, and Bride of the Monster). The fact that the four main girls all use masculine nicknames based on their own names (Paula becomes "Paul," Georgia "George" and so on) and dress as men while committing crimes is an interesting reversal of the gender fluidity in Glen or Glenda? A scene in which a young woman is forced at gunpoint to hand over her angora sweater is a shocking variation on another famous Glenda scene.

Even more fascinating is the insight the script gives us into the mind of its author. In Glenda and Jail Bait, Wood tried to explain the odd or aberrant behavior of his heroes by analyzing the issues they had with their parents. In the first film, Glen was unloved by his parents, an indifferent father and a mother who wanted a girl, and so grew up to be a cross-dresser. In the second, Don Gregor's mother died early in his life, so he grew up to be a small-time thug.

In this film, Mr. and Mrs. Parkins seem like perfectly nice people, but they just don't spend enough quality time with their daughter. So spoiled Paula becomes a thief, murderess, and unwed mother. Other than Paula herself and the completely unhinged Judge Clara (whose speech advocating religion and a return of the "woodshed," i.e. corporal punishment, is completely inappropriate under the circumstances), the most intriguing character in this movie is Paula's mother, Jane (played by B-movie stalwart Barbara Weeks in one of her last roles).

Eternally optimistic, childishly innocent, and in a constant state of denial, Mrs. Parkins reminds me very much of Lillian Wood, Ed's own mother, the one who dressed her son as a girl to punish him. She might have scarred him for life, but in interviews, she seems to have no idea that her actions had any impact whatsoever on her son. She's completely insulated from reality. "They didn't know what the hell they were doing to me," Ed once confided to a friend when talking about his own parents. That's exactly the theme of The Violent Years.

Next week: Ed's magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space, was still three years away. In the interim, Ed completed (but failed to sell) a fascinating television pilot and saw yet another one of his scripts brought to cinematic life by another director. I hope you will join me next week for coverage of Final Curtain (1957) and Bride and the Beast (1958).

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #41: "St. Benny the Dip" (1951)

Three crooks inadvertently volunteer to do the Lord's work in St. Benny the Dip.

The flick: St. Benny the Dip (United Artists, 1951) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.7

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour, The Black Cat, Man from Planet X; renowned director who chose to spend most of his career at cheapskate PRC Pictures in order to have more control over his films)

Actors of note: Dick Haymes (Mutiny on the Bounty, State Fair; better known as a singer with dozens of pop hits in the 1940s), Nina Foch (The Ten Commandments, An American in Paris, Kubrick's Spartacus, much more), Roland Young (His Double Life), Lionel Stander (The Milky Way), Freddie Bartholomew (Captains Courageous, Anna Karenina; famous mainly as a child actor, he dropped out of acting after this film and went into advertising), Dick Gordon (It's a Wonderful Life, The Best Years of Our Lives), Oskar Karlweis (5 Fingers; like director Ulmer, Karlweis was from Austria-Hungary)

Mr. Excitement, Dick Haymes
The gist of it: Three crooks, Benny (Haymes), Matthew (Young), and Monk (Stander) are on the run from the cops and decide to duck into a church to hide. There, they steal vestments and sneak out disguised as reverends. Kindly Reverend Miles (Gordon) allows them to get away because he takes pity on them and feels that the police officers pursuing them are too "angry." Miles' subordinate, nervous Reverend Wilbur (Bartholomew), is highly dubious of this reasoning. Together, Miles and Wilbur begin the daunting task of locating the criminals.

Meanwhile, our three wayward con artists hunker down in the long-abandoned Clover Street Mission, which is located very near the apartment where Monk once lived before he abandoned his wife and children. Police officers discover Benny and his cohorts in the mission and assume them to be real reverends who are there to help the poor and homeless. Benny, in fact, gets stuck with transporting a drunken musician named Kovacs (Karlweis) home. In the course of carrying out this duty, Benny meets Kovacs' lovely daughter, an illustrator named Linda (Foch), and they begin a flirtatious relationship.

In short order, the three phony reverends discover there is a full-on community campaign to fix up the old mission and realize to their shock that they, supposedly being men of the cloth, are expected to run the place! Old-school English gentleman Matthew takes to the work quite naturally, while Benny spends his time romancing Linda, and Monk ponders the feasibility of returning home to his family. The three men soon find their interests diverging, and there are signs that the cops might just be onto them, with Reverends Miles and Wilbur hot on their trail, too. And is it just possible that pretending to be reverends has actually set these fellows on the path of righteousness?

He did it his way: Edgar G. Ulmer
My take: A fairly unimaginative story about crooks pretending to be clergymen, St. Benny the Dip* is of interest today mainly because of director Edgar G. Ulmer, who has gained a cult following (including Peter Bogdonavich) and critical respect despite his dogged insistence upon remaining at the very bottom rung of the film industry, the so-called "poverty row." Of course, it is Ulmer's handful of sci-fi, horror, and film noir credits which attract the most attention these days. But he worked in a variety of genres, including comedy, over the years. From a directing standpoint, St. Benny the Dip is more than respectable. An early chase scene is actually quite exciting and well-paced, and throughout the film, Ulmer moves his camera more than most zero-budget filmmakers.

But the film never catches fire for some reason. Some of the blame must go to the script, which keeps lapsing into melodrama and pathos every time it threatens to get funny. And then there is the lead performer, singer Dick Haymes, who has very little charisma or screen presence and does not manage to hold his own in the comedic or dramatic scenes. Haymes' character, Benny, is simply not believable as a hard-boiled criminal because Haymes himself comes off as such a well-groomed goody-goody. He does have a rich, warm singing voice, though, and he does get a chance to sing one inspirational ballad near the end of the film. But the entire script should have been revised to make Benny a real reverend who inadvertently gets mixed up with fugitives rather than the other way around.
*By the way, "dip" is an obscure Roosevelt-era slang term for "pickpocket."
Is it funny: Not that I noticed. If so, only briefly. I guess I smiled a little during a scene in which Benny, Matthew, and Monk try to fake their way through a service at the mission even though they apparently have no religious background whatsoever. Lionel Stander is fairly amusing throughout the religious scenes because of his gruff, streetwise manner which contrasts with the supposed dignity of his profession. Roland Young is a little too pious throughout this film, and his late-in-the-movie relapse seems to come out of nowhere. Dick Haymes is comedy kryptonite. The man just is not funny. His love interest, Nina Foch, gives it all she's got, but her character is too flighty -- cold and distant one minute, super-aggressive and clingy the next -- to be convincing. There are strong comedic possibilities in this premise, but the script ignores virtually all of them in favor of sentimentality. The makers of this film should have taken some cues from Guys & Dolls, a musical which had opened on Broadway the previous year and did the "hoodlums get religion" plot with a lot more humor and style.

My grade: C+

P.S. - At least there are no racial stereotypes here. The portrayal of the poor and homeless characters, however, is not as sensitive as it would be today.

Rewriting today's "Wizard of Id" comic

From top to bottom: the original version of the joke; my version.
I didn't think this particular joke from today's Wizard of Id quite worked, so I rewrote it a bit. Enjoy. Or don't. Totally up to you.

Mill Creek comedy classics #40: "Road to Bali" (1952)

Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour hit the road for the next to last time in Road to Bali.

The flick: Road to Bali (Paramount Pictures, 1952) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.6

Director: Hal Walker (Road to Utopia, directed a string of early 1950s Martin & Lewis vehicles, including At War with the Army, Sailor Beware, That's My Boy, and My Friend Irma Goes West)

Caricature of Bing, Dorothy and Bob by Al Hirschfeld
Actors of note: Bing Crosby (massively popular singer-actor known to fans as "Der Bingle" or "The Old Groaner"; starred in High Society, Holiday Inn, much more; Oscar winner for Going My Way; nominated twice more; his recording of "White Christmas" has sold about 100 million copies), Bob Hope (actor-comedian who is arguably one of the most successful and famous entertainers of the last century; starred in The Ghost Breakers, The Paleface, My Favorite Brunette, etc.; hosted the Oscars fourteen times; made dozens of TV specials for NBC from the '60s to the '80s; renowned the world over for his work with the USO), Dorothy Lamour (appeared in all seven Road movies with Bing and Bob; also appeared in Creepshow 2, Donovan's Reef, etc.), Murvyn Vye (Pickup on South Street), Peter Coe (House of Frankenstein, The Ten Commandments), Ralph Moody (Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, much more; did a lot of Dragnet episodes and other Jack Webb-produced shows), Leon Askin (The Robe, The Maltese Bippy, Airplane II: The Sequel; Gen. Burkhalter on the Bing Crosby-produced TV series Hogan's Heroes)

Other notables: There are cameo appearances by Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Jane Russell, and Humphrey Bogart, plus Bing's brother, Bob (a popular swing bandleader in his own right) and Carolyn Jones (Morticia on TV's The Addams Family),  Costumes are by Edith Head. Songs are by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke.

Dorothy Lamour: Sarong... and yet so right.
The gist of it: George (Crosby) and Harold (Hope) are two American song-and-dance men performing in Melbourne, Australia, but they have to high-tail it out of town when a naive young lady (whom they've both promised to marry) arrives at the theater with her shotgun-toting father. After some misadventures involving trains and sheep, they sign on as deep-sea divers for an unscrupulous Indonesian prince named Ken Arok (Vye), little realizing that the job means all-but-certain death.

The treasure they're supposed to uncover is guarded by a giant killer squid who has sent many men to watery graves. Blissfully unaware of this, they travel with Ken Arok to a small, exotic island on the way to Bali where they are given the royal treatment and meet lovely Princess Lala (Lamour), with whom they both fall in love. Despite Lala's warnings, George and Harold go on the diving expedition, recover the treasure, and survive the squid, too, but Ken Arok tries to kill them to recover the gold and jewels they've found. George, Harold, and Lala escape on a boat bound for Bali, and a humorously contentious love triangle quickly arises as George and Harold compete for Lala's affections.

This romantic rivalry continues even after their boat capsizes and the three are stranded on a seemingly deserted island... only to find themselves in the clutches of Ken Arok, who arranges for Lala to marry the villainous King Ramayana (Askin) and for George and Harold to marry each other! Luckily, the volcano god disapproves of same-sex marriages and starts spewing lava everywhere. George, Harold, and Lala manage to escape, and the love triangle story is resolved in a way I'd rather not spoil since it's one of the movie's comedic high points.

Director Hal Walker with the Road to Bali cast.
My take: Of all the movies in this collection, Road to Bali was among the ones I was most eager to cover when I first rescued Mill Creek's 100 Comedy Classics from a grocery store bargain bin. First off, this is another one of those big-name, all-star Technicolor extravaganzas that slipped into the public domain purely by negligence on the part of the studio. It's the only one of Bing and Bob's famous Road movies to be filmed in color, and in a way it's the end of an era. Or the beginning of the end, anyway.

The boys had been cranking out a Road picture every few years since 1940 to great success, but they were both pushing 50 at this point* and the public's interest in the team must have been waning just a bit. The series' previous entry, Road to Rio, was released on Christmas day in 1947 and became the #1 grossing film of 1948. Looking over the Top 10 for 1952, however, I don't see Road to Bali at all. I do see a solo Bob Hope vehicle (Son of Paleface), plus -- even higher on the list -- Sailor Beware, a comedy that had the same director (journeyman Hal Walker) but featured the newer, younger, hipper team of Martin and Lewis, who pay their respects to Bing and Bob by making a brief cameo in Bali.

Hope and Crosby gave it one last shot a full decade later in 1962 with Road to Hong Kong, but the ship had definitely sailed by then. They remained friends all their lives and, of course, had tremendously successful solo careers of their own. For the most part, the two men moved to television, becoming eternal "guest stars" on talk shows, variety shows, and specials. They were venerable elder statesmen from the 1950s onward and would remain so for the rest of their lives, with their reputations only slightly tarnished by support of the unpopular Vietnam War (in Bob's case) or accusations of child abuse (in Bing's case).

We tend to think of them now as as middle-aged men on a golf course somewhere in Palm Beach. Road to Bali, however, is a reminder that Der Bingle and Old Ski Nose were once actually kind of cool and irreverent. Today's film comedians are expected to make in-jokes, break the fourth wall, and generally treat the plot with as little respect as possible. That air of ironic detachment comes in large part from Bob Hope. And in the good-natured ball-busting that goes on constantly between Hope and Crosby throughout this film, we can see the beginnings of the male camaraderie on display in modern-day films like This is the End and the Hangover trilogy. I can remember a Rolling Stone interview in which David Letterman, the king of irony, expressed his admiration for Hope's early work and lamented the fact that his comedic ancestor went on to be the symbol of everything old-fashioned and unhip in comedy. As Road to Bali shows, it's a bum rap.

Another, secondary reason I was looking forward to this movie was simply because of a longstanding interest in the island of Bali. A dark, surreal 1954 Woody Woodpecker cartoon called Alley to Bali made an enormous impact on me as a kid, and years later I discovered a 1957 Patience and Prudence B-side called "Very Nice is Bali Bali" that makes a convincing case for the province. Technically, I don't think the characters in this movie ever quite get to Bali proper, though Dorothy Lamour does wear a headdress similar to one from the Woody Woodpecker cartoon.
* A near-constant running joke in this film is how much older Bing Crosby is than Bob Hope. In truth, they were born in the same month, May 1903, just a few weeks apart.
Bandleader Fred Waring in his heyday.

Is it funny: Sure, for the most part. Personally, I'd say the film hovers between "fairly funny" to "pretty funny" for the entire running time and has several sequences in which it rises to the level of "quite funny indeed," largely thanks to Bob Hope. The plot of Road to Bali is extremely shaky, and the film is best when Hope and Crosby simply ignore it and crack wise, directing their zingers at each other or straight to the audience.

My absolute favorite parts, in fact, are the ones in which Hope completely abandons the narrative and talks directly to the camera, as when he tells us that Crosby is about to sing and that we should use this opportunity to get some popcorn. And he's right, too: Bing's song, a romantic ballad to Lamour, is rather dull. The musical numbers, by and large, drag the film down.

The series was a bit past its prime and the dreaded "sequel-itis" had started to set in, but Bing and Bob were obviously having a blast making this thing, and some of the fun is contagious. Since this was the sixth film in the series, the actors could have a little fun with the conventions of the Road movies. One particular tradition of these films, for instance, was the famous "pat-a-cake" routine in which our two heroes would play the children's clapping game as a pretense for punching out the bad guys. In this movie, the bad guys are wise to 'em and duck out of the way, so Bing and Bob knock each other out instead. The meta-humor reaches its zenith during the finale, when Bob tries desperately to keep the movie from ending and resorts to pushing the words "THE END" off the screen.

Many of the jokes in the script are topical, and not all of them have worn well. In 1952, for instance, you couldn't go wrong with a Fred Waring joke. In 2013, you can only go wrong with a Fred Waring joke. And even though guys in mangy gorilla suits are one of my favorite comedy conventions, I'd have to say that Road to Bali really doesn't bring anything new to the field of gorilla-based comedy.

On the other hand, the film does bring something new and highly disturbing to chimpanzee-based comedy. There's a very weird, unappetizing flashback scene involving a chimp with Bob Hope's face. Forewarned is forearmed, reader.

A chimpanzee in a hideous Bob Hope mask. Now that's comedy!

My grade: B+

P.S. - A little -- or a lot, depending on your vantage point -- of racism is kind of built into the Road series, I'm sorry to say. Though set in far-flung locales around the world, the movies themselves were filmed entirely within Los Angeles and played fast-and-loose with cultural and ethnic authenticity. I'd very highly doubt that many or any of the main cast members or extras were Indonesian at all, let alone Balinese. I'd guess that the "research" for this film consisted of looking up "Bali" in the encyclopedia and then just studying the pictures without reading the text. The natives in this movie have no language of their own and merely converse in heavily-accented pidgin English, even when conversing among themselves. There are lots of jokes about head hunting and cannibalism, of course, and women are treated solely as exotic sex toys. Amusingly, Leon Askin plays his role as an Indonesian exactly the same way he played a Nazi general on Hogan's Heroes.