Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week #27: "The Beach Bunnies" (1976)

Oddball alternate poster for The Beach Bunnies (1976) with sunbursts over the actors' eyes. 

"To make love to someone you may not even like, and to make the audience believe you're really into it, takes as much acting ability as it takes to play Shakespeare!"
-Rick Cassidy, pornographic film actor 
        
"The girls on the beach are all within reach if you know what to do."
-The Beach Boys 
(l to r) Yucca Flats and Pla-Boy Liquor as they look today.
America celebrated the 200th anniversary of its independence from England in 1976, but Edward D. Wood, Jr. had little to celebrate that year, as he was more dependent than ever. Dependent on booze. Dependent on porn. Dependent on favors from friends. And, as we'll soon see, dependent on his own past and his own showbiz memories for sustenance.

Money is the bane of every independent filmmaker and every addict; Eddie, being both, was doubly cursed. Bankruptcy was his apparent destiny. He could never escape it. "He had no conception of money," declared Steve Apostolof. Ed and his wife Kathy didn't even have a bank account. The little money Eddie could earn from his screenplays and stories went toward booze and rent. By the 1970s, the Woods were living in a violent, dangerous, and run-down apartment complex at 6383 Yucca Street in Los Angeles, near the intersection of Yucca and Cahuenga. Ed and his friends all jokingly referred to the place as "Yucca Flats," evoking both a nuclear testing site in the desolate Nevada desert and Coleman Francis' mutation-horror film, The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961), which starred Eddie's late friend Tor Johnson as an irradiated Russian scientist-turned-monster.

At first, the place on Yucca reminded Kathy of the stories of Damon Runyon (the inspiration for the popular musical Guys and Dolls), with its mixture of "racetrack people [and] a couple of hookers." But then, according to actor Paul Marco, a 7-Eleven opened across the street, and Yucca Flats "became quite a hustler place." As of this writing, by the way, there is still a 7-Eleven at that location (1810 N. Cahuenga). "Almost every day/night, there is a stabbing, robbery or assault at this intersection," a Yelp reviewer declared in June 2013. Eddie was ashamed of Yucca Flats and was generally reluctant to have friends over to the place. But they visited him anyway, and their reviews were not kind:
  • "That was a dive ... There would be dog shit right in the halls. " - David Ward, actor and close personal friend of Ed Wood
  • "The place was just horrible" - Nona Carver, actress (Take it out in Trade)
  • "[W]hen you walked in, you just had this ... creeping feeling all over that you might not even survive this walk down the hallway." - Charles Anderson, editor at Pendulum Publishing
  • "I used to go over to that real raunchy place ... Jesus, the doors would be bolted because the cops had raided the next door neighbors." - Aldo Ray, actor
  • "I went over there one afternoon. It was too depressing for me." - John Agar, actor
Yucca Flats' one geographical advantage was its proximity to Pla-Boy Liquor (6435 Yucca Street), a still-existent, still-sketchy establishment just down the street which would cash Eddie's checks and allow him to purchase his alcohol for the weekend. Venturing down to Pla-Boy on foot,  though, was a risky venture and Ed found himself getting mugged by African-American street gangs on a regular basis. He ultimately chose to have Pla-Boy deliver his bottles directly to him. That was a plus as far as he was concerned, but it was a definite minus for everyone else in Ed's life. Alcohol made him violent and abusive. Sadly, it seems he took out his frustrations on the person who was closest to him, i.e. his wife. Kathy, for her part, was vague and euphemistic on this point: "Eddie wasn't nice when he got drunk."

For those who remember the cute, quirky couple portrayed by Johnny Depp and Patricia Arquette in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), it can be especially painful and unpleasant to consider what Eddie and Kathy were really like in their horrendous last years as a married couple, with Kathy yelling ugly racial slurs at the neighbors ("I don't want no nigger trash walking by my window!") and Ed beating his wife (whom he called by her maiden name, "O'Hara") until she was nearly dead because she "wouldn't shut up." But if we want to examine Ed Wood's life and career in its totality, we must come to terms with these grisly, unflattering realities.

Punk princess Shannon Dolder
Touchingly, Eddie retained his enthusiasm and optimism even during these dark times. He never stopped being an idea man, even when he had no way of bringing his ideas to life. He and Kathy befriended a neighboring family, the Dolders, and Ed had some never-to-be-fulfilled plans of turning their daughter, Shannon, into a star with a vehicle called Venus De Milo, a mystery about the famous statue's missing arms to be filmed in Greece. "Ed decided he was going to make me a big movie star," Shannon recalled. "He thought I had the talent to do something." But the funding fell through and Eddie's health collapsed, so the movie was never made. Though Venus De Milo was not to be, the young lady did have some adventures in showbiz.

As it happens, Shannon Dolder aka Shannon Dolder-Wilhelm or Shannon Wilhelm (1956-1996) was quite a fascinating figure in her own right. She was a fixture on the Los Angeles punk rock scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, performing with a group called the Castration Squad. She was called "the porcelain doll punk Vivian Leigh," by one observer. Shannon's punk compatriots, in fact, were Ed Wood fans! ("A lot of my friends wouldn't miss Ed Wood's films.") One obituary says that Shannon was in a group called the Go-Go's, but it  does not seem to have been the famous one with Belinda Carlyle, Jane Wiedlin, etc. She was married but had no children when she died at the very young age of 40 in LA in the mid-1990s. The mementos of her musical legacy are a few grainy performance videos and some rather artsy photographic portraits of the young lady in her prime. Luckily, she was still around in the early 1990s to talk with Rudolph Grey for his book, Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. It was her last significant contribution to popular culture.

Bela Lugosi at his funeral in 1956.
Ed Wood never forgot  his sci-fi moviemaking past and even remained in touch, albeit sporadically and unpredictably, with some of the old gang from Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), decades after that film had wrapped. Dudley Manlove, aka Eros the snooty pacifist alien, kindly gave his friend and erstwhile employer a few used typewriters after Eddie had pawned his own beloved IBM Executive model to buy booze. ("It was a very sad day when we lost that typewriter," Kathy recalled.) Mona McKinnon, who'd once portrayed the justifiably-worried housewife Paula Trent, stayed in phone contact with Ed during that last, sad decade of his life. "By 1975," she recalled, "you couldn't reach Ed after six p.m. because he and Kathy would go to sleep by then."

Good old loyal Paul Marco -- synonymous with the role of Kelton the Cop -- stuck around to bear first-hand witness to his pal's alarming decline, as he'd been on hand to witness everything else that had happened to Ed in Hollywood.

And Bela Lugosi? Well, Bela had been dead for twenty years, but he was still a big part of Eddie's life and thoughts. One of the great unrealized multimedia projects of Ed Wood's later career was Lugosi: Post Mortem, an unpublished book and unproduced screenplay about the horror legend's life. The film's cast was to have included Karl Johnson, portraying his father, Tor. According to Rudolph Grey, this highly intriguing project was commissioned by an independent music label called Blue Dolphin Records circa 1975. I can find very little on Blue Dolphin, other than that the obscure company was based in Hollywood and that its roster included an R&B group called Faye Hill and the Hill Sisters. Kathy Wood remembered the book as being quite funny and speculated that working on it may have been keeping Eddie alive during the lean years. Sadly, the "almost finished" handwritten manuscript was lost when the Woods were hastily evicted from Yucca Flats in 1978.

Potential extras in Ed Wood's The Day the Mummies Danced
Eddie's professional life had slowed to a crawl by then. Of course, he was still writing the occasional softcore screenplays for his buddy and benefactor, Stephen C. Apostolof, but Steve wasn't much further ahead economically than Eddie. The Bulgarian-born filmmaker was finding it increasingly difficult to secure funding for new productions. Luckily for him, Steve was his own distributor, via his SCA company, and could at least try to arrange theatrical bookings at home and abroad for his existing movies. There were plenty of those for exhibitors to choose from. In addition to the films Apostolof made on his own in the 1960s, Steve and Ed did three films together in 1972, another in '73, and yet another in '76.  There would be a two-year drought after that, however, and Ed couldn't rely on his writing career as a backup in the meantime.

His steadiest employer in the 1970s, Bernie Bloom's Pendulum Publishing (aka Gallery, aka Edusex) finally let him go in 1975. "Eddie loved Bernie," said Kathy. "He tested Bernie too many times. Eddie was such a kid in a way. When Bernie fired him, it broke his heart." It was a major blow, arguably a fatal one, because Bernie's versatile company distributed magazines as well as books, both fiction and nonfiction, and even some movies. Ed Wood's last big project for the company was a series of twelve super-8 films called the Sex Education Correspondence School (or SECS), which he co-wrote and co-directed with Charles Anderson. These pseudo-educational porn loops represent the last directorial efforts of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

After that, the only publishing company that would release Eddie's novels was Eros Goldstripe, which put out Death of a Transvestite Hooker (1974), Forced Entry (1974), and finally TV Lust (1977).  That was the last confirmed book by Ed Wood to be published during his own lifetime. A 1978 book, Swedish House, is rumored but unsubstantiated.

During all of this, Ed longed to rekindle his career in legitimate movies. Friend John Anderson remembered Ed concocting "a horror script that would have been fine for 1934 but not 1974." When the script was politely dismissed by Wood's old employer, Universal Pictures, a paranoid and delusional Eddie blamed Anderson for "sabotaging" him. Perhaps this script was The Day the Mummies Danced (circa 1976), which Rudolph Grey describes as "Wood's return to the horror genre." This peculiar film "was to have been filmed on location at the famous Guanajuato caves in Mexico, which featured naturally mummified bodies as a tourist attraction." The mummies of Guanajuato were victims of an 1833 cholera outbreak, some of whom were buried alive by accident with horrified expressions on their faces.

Wood's potential cast for the abandoned film included Aldo Ray, John Agar, and would-be backer Dudley Manlove. Needless to say, not a frame of the film was ever shot. But one of Ed Wood's scripts from this same era was made into an actual movie. As Cruel Lady Fate would have it, while Ed Wood was living in squalor and misery, he was tasked with writing a lighthearted, fun-in-the-sun sex comedy about a quartet of young ladies seeking love and laughs on a beach vacation. The incongruous results are described below.

THE BEACH BUNNIES (1976)

Hotter than the summer sun: Various home video and theatrical releases of The Beach Bunnies.

Alternate titles: Sun Bunnies [video title]; Red Hot and Sexy [alternate UK title as part of a double bill with Ajita Wilson's Blue Passion]; the film's Greek title translates roughly as Sinners on the Shores of Pleasure.

Availability: The easiest way to see The Beach Bunnies today is as part of the six-DVD set Big Box of Wood (S'more Entertainment, 2011). Like the other films in this set, it comes with an explanatory introduction by Ed Wood historian Ted Newsom. A VHS copy of the film, under the alternate title Sun Bunnies, was recently spotted on Ebay for a mere forty bucks. (You can get Big Box of Wood for $27.)

Gidget: The original beach bunny of pop culture.
The backstory: Counter-intuitive as this might seem, the preeminent beach bunny in American popular culture was created by an author from a landlocked European country. Yes, Austrian-born writer Frederick Kohner wrote the highly successful novel Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas in 1957, taking inspiration from his daughter, Kathy, who grew up in Malibu and immersed herself in the town's thriving surf scene. Kohner's book spawned a series of literary sequels (1959-1968), three major motion pictures (1959-1963), and of course an iconic TV sitcom (1965-1966), which lasted but a single season before becoming a syndication perennial. Other beach-themed Hollywood youth films of the era included Where the Boys Are (MGM, 1960) and Beach Party (AIP, 1963). Bottom-feeding studio Crown International Pictures got into the beach game with Never Steal Anything Wet in 1967, and by the late 1970s, they were pretty much the standard bearers of what had become a particularly disreputable subgenre, with an increased emphasis on T&A and drug-and-booze-fueled shenanigans.

Schlock merchant Stephen C. Apostolof waited until 1976 before dipping his toe into the ocean, so to speak. His misbegotten stab at a beach flick, The Beach Bunnies, was different from the kind of thing Crown-International was doing, though. Crown's beach movies tended to focus on high school and college age characters, while Steve's movie (like all his other 1970s movies) was firmly ensconced in the darker, more sordid world of adults. His characters weren't spring breakers. They were grown-ups with jobs and responsibilities hoping to drown their problems in sex and alcohol for a few precious days.

While characters in Crown-International beach flicks chugged beers at rowdy house parties, the characters in Apostolof's The Beach Bunnies sipped cocktails at dimly-lit piano bars and complained about their dull day jobs. I'll chalk this up to co-writers Stephen C. Apostolof and Edward D. Wood, Jr. writing what they knew. Speaking of which, in an early scene of the film, two of the bunnies talk about their depressing workplaces:
Sheila: Well, this sure beats the four walls of my computer room. 
Bonnie: This is fantastic! All I can see from my office are the tops of buildings... when I'm not staring at a typewriter.
These lines are significant since they so neatly describe Ed Wood's own, rather dismal working conditions at Pendulum Publishing for the first half of the 1970s, a nine-to-five desk job he'd only recently lost when he was writing this screenplay.

As you might guess from the title, The Beach Bunnies was a slight rewrite of Ed and Steve's previous collaboration, The Snow Bunnies (1972). Each film is about a woman who goes on vacation to some resort and takes three of her friends along with her, ostensibly so they can meet guys. The two films are structured along very similar lines: 
  • Prologue which establishes why the frustrated heroine needs to get away.
  • Opening titles with big yellow letters on the screen and upbeat Muzak on the soundtrack
  • Travelogue-type driving sequence with the four ladies making their way toward the vacation spot of choice.
  • Once in their hotel room, the girls undress, redress, then split up for separate storylines. (They do check in with one another sporadically.) Generally, each of the four main ladies gets her own individual boyfriend for the duration of the movie.
  • The female characters hook up with these horny guys in tacky hotel rooms and other workaday locations.
  • A horrifying, anti-erotic sequence in which one of the main characters is raped and/or beaten.
  • More hookups.
  • Still more hookups.
  • Yes, a few more hookups.
  • Our original four characters regroup as their vacation comes to an end.
  • Another extremely long driving sequence as the girls leave the hotel and get back on the highway.
Just like The Snow Bunnies, The Beach Bunnies is a combination of location footage and studio footage. The studio stuff -- mainly hotel rooms, as indicated above -- is virtually indistinguishable from Drop Out Wife, The Cocktail Hostesses, The Snow Bunnies, and The Class Reunion. The sets are constructed from the same materials and feature the same props as those other films. There is one curtain I've come to dread in particular -- a gigantic rectangle of splotchy white-and-green fabric resembling a slice of moldy Wonder Bread. It absolutely dominates any scene in which it appears, as it dwarfs the actors. 

I noticed this time that there were some visible boom mikes during the bedroom scenes, but perhaps this is not Steve Apostolof's fault. The SCA movies in Big Box of Wood, including this one, are all presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and were clearly transferred from videotapes. It is likely, then, that what we are seeing is the full camera negative which has not been properly matted. This would explain also why there is so much "dead space" in Apostolof's compositions. Naturally, the grey-paneled walls from Steve's previous movies make many, many unwanted appearances in The Beach Bunnies. Maybe those depressing tiles were there for sound recording purposes.

The Cameo Room: a forgotten Hollywood nightclub.
The location footage was a little trickier to pin down. During the post-opening-credits driving sequence, there is exactly one legible highway sign, and it identifies the spot as Leo Carrillo State Park Beach. Best known for playing the role of sidekick Pancho in a number of Cisco Kid films and a popular syndicated TV series (1950-1956), Leopold Carrillo was also an active conservationist who served on the California Beach and Parks commission for 18 years. The state park named in his honor is located west of Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway and has been a filming site for many prominent motion pictures, including Grease (1978), The Karate Kid (1984), and appropriately, Gidget (1959) with Sandra Dee. It is also a popular spot for fishing, swimming, surfing, and beachcombing, so it's possible that Steve Apostolof combined business with pleasure once again and took his family on vacation to Leo Carrillo, just as he did with Mammoth Mountain in The Snow Bunnies.

Other exteriors seen in The Beach Bunnies include a hotel with a distinctive elevator on the outside of the building, a large ranch-style "beach house" on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and a swinging cocktail lounge called the Cameo Room. This last site was especially intriguing to me, as its exterior featured some very cool-looking neon signs. I could find very little about the place, though, apart from a reminiscence from a retired Navy lieutenant who remembered his mother owning "a little restaurant called the Cameo Room in East Hollywood in partnership with ... a chef and a bartender." And then there was an obituary for a woman named Gladys Mae Davis (1911-2003) who "was an owner of [the] Cameo Room, a nightclub in Hollywood." Ms. Davis' memorial appeared in the Glendale News Press, while the Navy lieutenant's story appeared on the website of Glendale Community College, so I'd have to imagine that there's a connection between the two. Either way, the place is long, long gone.

Top row: Johnny Fain, Brenda Fogarty.
Bottom: Marland Proctor, Mariwin Roberts
As with Steve's previous film, Fugitive Girls (1974), The Beach Bunnies has a cast consisting of both SCA regulars and some fresh faces (and bodies). Apostolof loyalist Harvey Shane was back again, of course, not only as an actor but as Steve Apostolof's Assistant Director on the film, this time sporting bushier hair and a bristly mustache, making him look rather like comedian Avery Schreiber. Con Covert of The Class Reunion and Fugitive Girls was back again, too, as were Cory Brandon and Rick Cassidy (both of Drop Out Wife). Steve Apostolof gave himself a cameo as a piano player in a bar scene and got to show off his skill at the tickling the ivories.

The four main actresses, however, were newcomers to SCA. Playing the central role of gossip magazine editor Elaine Street was actress Brenda Fogarty, then about a year into a five-year stretch of strictly softcore films. Fogarty was not your typical skin flick bimbo, however. Somewhat resembling a Last Picture Show-era Cloris Leachman, Fogarty had genuine acting chops and a warm, naturalistic screen presence. After her half-decade in movies, she remained active in the theater, penning a one-woman show called The Lesbian Monologues and appearing in YouTube videos under the direction of acting teacher Charles Tentindo. Texas-born beauty Mariwin Roberts made her film debut here. She went on to be Penthouse magazine's Pet of the Month in April 1978 and did a few more R-rated sex comedies before dropping out of show business to become an artist. As of this writing, she's alive, well, and living in Oxnard, CA. Linda Gildersleeve and Wendy Cavanaugh also debuted here, thus embarking on similarly-undistinguished careers in low budget skin flicks of the late 1970s. Gildersleeve seems to have earned a little extra pocket money as a pinup model, too. Steve Apostolof must have been impressed with these ladies, because he brought Roberts, Gildersleeve, and Cavanaugh back for his next and final film, Hot Ice (1978).

Among the film's notable male talent was Robert Bullock, then just embarking upon a two-decade career in porn which would include Genital Hospital (1987), My Bare Lady (1989), and FrankenHurter: Queen of the Porno Zombies (1993). Marland Proctor, who goes uncredited here despite playing a pivotal role as movie star Rock Sanders, had previously appeared in Steve Apostolof's Lady Godiva Rides (1969) and would eventually claw his way up to legitimate roles on such TV shows as The Rockford Files, Quincy, Fantasy Island, Hunter, and more.

By far, however, the most famous cast member, male or female, in The Beach Bunnies was Johnny Fain (hilariously billed here as "John Aquaboy"), a renowned California surfer who parlayed his success on the waves into a nearly twenty-year film career as an actor and stuntman, including an appearance in (you guessed it) Gidget. He also played doomed ranch hand Shorty Shea in the 1976 TV movie, Helter Skelter. Fain seems to have dropped out of public life since the 1970s, but he has occasionally resurfaced to comment on the physical toll of being a surfer and to eulogize one of his colleagues. Fain does a little surfing here, but it is brief and quite lame. You'd never guess he was once considered "one of the four aces of Malibu."

Depending on your definitions of "last" and "movie," The Beach Bunnies could be considered Ed Wood's last movie. Specifically, it's the last feature-length production based on one of his screenplays to be filmed and released during Eddie's lifetime. Rudolph Grey's filmography in Nightmare of Ecstasy ends with this movie, for what that's worth. But by the same token, I could point out that The Sinister Urge, Necromania, Hot Ice, and other films have been called his last, too. In fact, there are more "last-ever Ed Wood movies" than there are "fifth Beatles" and "farewell tours by the Who." Considering that his screenplays and novels have inspired posthumous films, there never will be a true end to his filmography in all likelihood.

"I've got to know if Rock Sanders has a cock!"
The viewing experience: Alternately enervating and intriguing, in the typical Wood/Apostolof tradition. After the welcome change of pace provided by Fugitive Girls, The Beach Bunnies was a return to the same old, same old. Once again, as pointed out by Ted Newsom, the script was merely an excuse for a lot of nudity and simulated sex. Ironically, modern day viewers will likely find these sex scenes tedious and take more interest in the plot and dialogue. Were it not for the contributions of Ed Wood to the script, after all, it is probable that The Beach Bunnies would be forgotten in the 21st century. As with pretty much all of the Wood/Apostolof films, you're going to want to fast-forward through the supposed "good parts" of the movie, i.e. the romantic interludes, and focus your attention on the narrative shoe leather holding them together. That's where the fun is.

Take, for instance, the movie's infamous opening scene, which sets up the wafer-thin plot and gives us some of Ed Wood's trademark themes and motifs. After a typical Apostolif-ian establishing shot of a phallic skyscraper, we cut to the interior of what's supposed to be the wood-paneled office of Blue magazine editor Elaine Street (Fogarty). Elaine's sitting behind her desk in a white wicker chair that definitely looks like patio furniture. She's wearing a rust-colored polyester pantsuit which will set the tone for the outfits we'll see throughout the movie. Behind her is that hideous green and white curtain which Apostolof has previously used in scuzzy motel rooms in his other movies.

As the scene begins, she's angrily lecturing a guilty-looking reporter (played by a non-speaking, unbilled actor) who has a porno mustache and wears a "Canadian tuxedo" with a black bowtie. As she yells at him, he looks like a child being scolded by his mother. The film begins with an extended monologue, which Brenda Fogarty handles with aplomb:
Elaine: Great Scott! You want something done around this place, you have to do it yourself! (pointing at the reporter) You've put me in a hell of a bind! 
(She stands up.) 
You've had two weeks to file a story on Rock Sanders, and what kind of stuff do you hand in? 
(She picks up a piece of paper and starts to read.)  
"Rock Sanders, just back from Denmark, is thought..."  Thought?! Facts! That's what Blue magazine demands!  "...thought to have had a sex transplant performed on him."  (scoffs) Ha!  "Is he really going to marry his agent, Bruce Collins?"  
(She waves the paper in the reporter's face.) 
What kind of reporting is that? You ever heard of lawsuits? 
(She walks around the desk and sits down on it, now just inches from the reporter.) 
When I was a reporter, I'd do everything and anything to get my stories in! And you hand me garbage like that? 
(She goes back to her chair, nearly knocking over a globe on her desk in the process.) 
Two weeks you've had to file a story, and all I know is that Rock Sanders is ready to star in SCA's new film, Tidal Wave 2000. And big deal, he's staying at the Silver Cove Lodge. (sighs) Look, right now Rock Sanders is pretty hot stuff. Next month he could be a nobody. Blue magazine has got to know the facts! I've got to know if Rock Sanders has a cock! 
(An intercom on her desk buzzes; she speaks into it.) 
I said to hold! 
(She turns her attention back to the reporter) 
Get out of my sight. Go cover that dog show. I'll handle Rock Sanders myself. 
(The reporter gets up and shuffles toward the door, defeated. A distinguished middle-aged man with graying temples and a brown suit walks in. Elaine greets him.) 
Morning, J.B.
JB: (sitting down) What about this Rock Sanders story?
Elaine: I'm working on it, J.B. 
JB: Working on it?! What the hell is that supposed to mean? 
Elaine: Well, see... 
JB: Hey, I've got a deadline to meet! And you tell me you're just "working on it?" 
Elaine: No... no... uh... I've just taken over where what's his name left off. 
JB: (slams his hand down on her desk) I need a lead story and Rock Sanders is it! 
Elaine: Watch your blood pressure, J.B. You'll have it! And I know exactly how to do it! 
JB: So you have a plan. Well, what is it?
Elaine: Yes. (She walks around the desk again so that she's mere inches from her boss.) Well... so he's staying at the Silver Cove Lodge. Now that much we know. I'll just go out there and interview him. 
JB: (interrupting) You'll be kicked out on your butt like all the others that's tried to interview him! His fag agent will just not let anyone near him! 
Elaine: You underestimate me, J.B. You see, I have three beautiful girlfriends that I'll take with me as decoys. And then, when I turn on my own sex charms, I'll get that story, J.B. You know I will. 
(Wocka chicka music fades in on the soundtrack.
JB: (smiles and nods, then rises from his chair and moves even closer to her) You know, that just might work? I've always thought you were the sexiest editor in town. BUT... get that Rock Sanders story. 
Elaine: I'll bring it in personally. Have I ever let you down? 
(They kiss, leading to an extended makeout session. Then she undoes his fly and kneels down, out of frame. We see his pleasured reaction to the implied fellatio as the image goes blurry.)
 Oh, yeah. This is gonna work.
This scene, probably the film's dramatic and comedic peak (and it occurs in the first five minutes), tells you pretty much all you need to know about what happens in The Beach Bunnies. After the theme song, Elaine and her pals go to the Silver Cove Lodge, where Elaine tries repeatedly to get close enough to Rock Sanders to determine whether or not his penis is still attached. Basically, she spends the whole movie acting like Wile E. Coyote: she comes up with some harebrained scheme to spy on and/or grab Rock Sanders; she tries it; it fails miserably; repeat. That is, until the end when she finally bangs him and gets a definitive answer to her question.

Honestly, that's not much of a spoiler because Marland Proctor plays his part in such an obviously-masculine way that neither his gender nor his sexual orientation is ever even remotely in question. Elaine's strange statement about using her friends as "decoys" is just so much fertilizer, since the other three women -- Lorrie (Roberts), Sheila (Gildersleeve), and Bonnie (Cavanaugh) have no impact on the main plot whatsoever. After the introduction, each young lady gets her own individual, largely self-contained subplot. This mostly means that they get paired up with guys and screw their brains out for most of the movie. (There is one major, jarring exception, which we will discuss shortly.) And of course, we can't miss Steve Apostolof's plug for his own distribution company, SCA.

Con Covert as "fag" Bruce Collins.
Wood-ologists can also study the opening scene from The Beach Bunnies for insight into the mind of its ever-confounding author. Elaine's insistence on "facts" is classic Ed Wood, for instance, even though the man himself was a notorious fibber who often retreated into the safety of delusion and denial. For some reason -- critic Rob Craig suggests it might be the influence of Jack Webb's Dragnet  -- the importance of facts is a major recurring theme in many of Ed Wood's screenplays, going all the way back to Glen or Glenda? (1953), which promises in its prologue to give us "the facts -- all the facts -- as they are today." In Bride of the Monster (1955), Police Capt. Robbins (Harvey B. Dunn) tells Loretta King's nosy reporter that "facts are our business. Facts and only facts, and don't you forget it!" In Jail Bait (1954), pious Dr. Gregor (Herbert Rawlinson) states that "the proof is in the fact!" Similarly, Criswell promises in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) to give us "the shocking facts about grave robbers from outer space" and then, in Orgy of the Dead (1965), tells us that he has "related the unreal and showed it to be more than a fact." In Venus Flytrap (1970), grouchy Dr. Bragan (James Craig) declares, "I want the facts. The facts, do you hear?" You get the idea.

Meanwhile, the possibility that Rock Sanders may have had a sex change is an obvious callback to Glenda. Gender reversal and gender fluidity are pillars of Ed Wood's career, both on the page and the screen. Note that Rock's manager, Bruce Collins, is derisively referred to as a "faggot," both here and throughout the movie. Con Covert plays Bruce as yet another of Ed Wood's lisping, limp-wristed sissy stereotypes. (See also: The Class Reunion, Take it out in Trade, the novel Killer in Drag.) Elaine also refers to an unhelpful desk clerk as a "fag." Ed Wood's exact feelings toward homosexuality are difficult to suss out. Ted Newsom has speculated that Eddie was likely at least bisexual.

Homosexuality and bisexuality are themes he returns to again and again (and again and again!) in his writing, even more so in his paperbacks than in his movies. Curiously, one thing I've never found in Ed Wood's writing is any sense that he appreciates male beauty. Oh, sure, he has handsome, rugged male protagonists (see Sheriff Buck Rhodes in Devil Girls), but he doesn't fawn over them the way he does with women. The only time Ed, either as a novelist or a screenwriter, lingers over the appearance of a male character, is when that character is in drag. And, trust me, this is a guy whose fetishes and obsessions find their way into everything he writes, whether they belong there or not! Ed's sexual interest was definitely focused on feminine characteristics, as demonstrated by women and (perhaps) by transvestite men. The male form held little fascination for Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Elaine is "rescued," much to Rock Sanders' amusement.
But the male form -- specifically that of Rock Sanders -- holds a great deal of fascination for Elaine Street. As I mentioned earlier, she spends the majority of the running time trying and failing to get near Rock's crotch in a series of increasingly-wacky gambits that feel like something out of a porno version of I Love Lucy. At first, she simply pretends to be Rock's "cousin" and calls the front desk for his room number. The clerk isn't buying it. ("What a faggot!") She finally gets the number by screwing a bellboy (Bullock, in an amusing debut). One critic was unkind enough to point out that Ms. Fogarty seems to have rather a nasty rash on several parts of her body in this sex scene; nevertheless, it yields the desired results. She gets the room number: 714.

But when she calls Rock's room, she gets cigarette-holder-clutching Bruce Collins, who shoots her down immediately, saying in a sing-song voice, "It is my happy, happy duty to inform you that we do not give interviews." Click. That's when the Lucy Ricardo/Wile E. Coyote gene kicks in. Elaine pays a maid $50 for her uniform and enters Rock's room. She tries to peep on him when he's in the bathroom, only to be caught (again) by Bruce. The next day, Elaine spots Rock Sanders on the beach and tries to get his interest by pretending to be attacked by a shark. Why a shark? Well, this was the year after Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) broke box office records. This plan too, is a flop. Rock just sits on the beach, staring in amusement, while a Japanese tourist dives into the ocean to "save" Elaine.

Stereotypes are in full effect here. Of course, the tourist has a giant camera around his neck. His companion, a non-Asian actress, is clad in a kimono and carries a silk parasol around with her, as if she's dressing up like a geisha for a costume party. As the well-meaning Japanese fellow carries a protesting, kicking-and-screaming Elaine out of the water, Rock gets the "punchline" for this silly scene: "God, I've gotta learn how to swim sometime!" (I swear, this is followed by a "wah wah wah wahhhhhhh" stinger on the soundtrack.) But our intrepid reporter is far from finished! Her next plan involves standing outside Rock Sanders' room with a fire extinguisher and yelling, "There's a fire! Everybody out of the building!" Unfortunately, in all the confusion, Elaine grabs the crotch belonging to -- can you guess by now? -- Bruce Collins, who is suitably offended. ("You bitch!") Dejected, Elaine sits on the floor in the hallway, spraying foam from the fire extinguisher as Hanna Barbera-type music plays on the soundtrack.

Top: Steve Apostolof at the piano.
Bottom: Chris & Bonnie & Lorrie & Dave.
Meanwhile, while all this is going on, the three non-Elaines cruise for guys at the nearby beaches and bars. Sweet, shy "computer analyst" Sheila Barnes begins a rather chaste courtship with golden-haired surfer boy and trust fund layabout Dennis Coleman (Johnny Fain). That night, she and the Big Kahuna have a boring dinner at a boring-looking restaurant and talk about how boring they are. (He: "Life with the jet set just isn't my bag." She: "I know what you mean! Now, my friends, they thrive on the fast life.") The great thing about this scene is that the actors seem to run out of dialogue before it ends, but the camera just stays on them, smiles frozen on their faces, for a few seconds of what Uma Thurman would call "uncomfortable silence."

Over at the Cameo Room, featuring Mr Stephen C. Apostolof at the piano, Lorrie and Bonnie, get hit on by a couple of cheeseball lounge lizards, Dave (Cassidy) and Chris (Shane), who wear garish polyester outfits and dub themselves "two of the most fantastic studs in town." Dave gets Lorrie and Chris gets Bonnie. That's pretty much how it stays for the rest of the movie, except for one scene in which Dave and Chris double team Lorrie in a hotel room with all the enthusiasm of motorists exchanging insurance information. Another great Ed Wood motif, alcohol, is the cornerstone of these relationships. "That's pretty potent stuff," Dave says of Lorrie's drink "Well, I like 'em... potent," quips Lorrie. Dave, it should be noted, is a pilot -- one of the more frequent occupations in the Wood-iverse. (See also: Plan 9, Drop Out Wife.) This allows for several leering puns about Lorrie's "landing strip." Yeesh.

The boys waste no time in following through on their sexual innuendos. Mere moments after meeting, Chris and Bonnie are canoodling on the former's catamaran. At least Dave and Lorrie have the decency to drag themselves back to a hotel room. Here, we get to see Rick Cassidy's "Shakespearean" feigned lovemaking at its finest.

Sheila cheerfully discusses her rape.
Very unfortunately for the movie, Sheila's subplot goes off on a nasty tangent at this juncture in the narrative. Our redheaded computer analyst confides to Elaine that "there wasn't a bed scene" between her and Dennis. Elaine tells her friend to "stop being such a prude," lest she wind up "an old maid." This, I'm afraid, is foreshadowing. Sheila agrees with Elaine, who is the Marcia Jordan-esque mother figure to the group, and goes out for a walk on the beach. One of Apostolof's jarring dusk-to-dark jumps later, Sheila is strolling along the beautiful shore of Leo Carrillo when she's stopped and harassed by a trio of fairly clean-cut-looking surfers -- Coolie, Tenpipe, and Hickory -- who look like stand-ins for the Beach Boys circa 1963. Later, Sheila will refer to these fellows (totally inaccurately) as "hippies," which shows you just how out of touch Ed Wood and Steve Apostolof were with the counterculture, a movement which had been dead for several years by the time this movie came out.

Anyway, as is becoming a sickening trend in Steve and Ed's movies, Sheila (the nicest character in the story, by the way) is gang raped by the three young men, who strip her naked, then take turns forcing themselves on her. In an absolutely unforgivable twist, Sheila ends up enjoying the "sex" she's having, making this movie even less sensitive than The Cocktail Hostesses. The next morning, Bonnie rouses the sleeping Sheila from her slumbers. Both Bonnie and Elaine, however, soon recognize that something is wrong with their friend, leading to the following discussion, which I present here so that you can read it over and think about what message or messages are being conveyed:
Bonnie: What's the matter, Sheila? Did you have a fight with Dennis last night? (Sheila does not respond. She looks catatonic.) Did you have a fight with Dennis? 
Sheila: I didn't see Dennis! 
Elaine: What's the matter, honey? 
Sheila: I was raped! 
Bonnie: Raped? 
Elaine: When? 
Bonnie: Last night. I was walking along the beach, and all of a sudden I was surrounded by three hippies! 
Bonnie: Oh my god! 
Elaine: Go on. 
Sheila: Well, the next thing I knew, they'd ripped my clothes off, and they were all over me! It was horrible! (Elaine winces.) At first. 
(Elaine and Bonnie are understandably puzzled by this last utterance.) 
Bonnie: Didn't you scream? 
Sheila: Yes. (beat) At first.
Elaine: What do you mean, like, what do you mean, "at first?" 
Sheila: Well, everything became really weird, like, suddenly I was enjoying everything they were doing to me. I really did! 
Bonnie: Enjoyed it? How could you? 
Elaine: Bonnie, shut up! 
Sheila: But I did! Is there something wrong with me? 
Elaine: (shaking her head) No. Sex is fine, but... 
Bonnie: Not like that! 
Elaine: Well, I didn't mean like that! There's a right way and a wrong way! God, what a hell of a way to get it! I'd report those bastards if I were you. 
Bonnie: So would I! 
Sheila: I will. (to Elaine) But you're right. You know, it was the actual screwing I liked! 
Bonnie: Sheila! 
Elaine: You know, now maybe you're beginning to think straight. 
Sheila: You bet I am! 
Bonnie: But... 
Sheila: But what? You like it, don't you? 
Bonnie: Well, yeah, but... 
Elaine: We all like it. Just remember one thing: all men are out for the same thing! 
Sheila: I know! But I'll tell you one damn thing for sure! I'm gonna screw every one of them, before they screw me! And it's gonna start tonight! 
Elaine: Right on!
At that point, Sheila gets a call from Dennis, asking for a date which she accepts. Elaine warns her not to wear herself out before "the big beach party tomorrow night," and the three women end the scene giggling like schoolgirls at a slumber party. Okay, time to regroup. What has happened here?  Sheila says that the rape was "horrible," but that she enjoyed "the screwing." Up until the rape scene, Sheila was the only one of the four women not having sex with semi-strangers. Are we to assume that being sexually assaulted by the three surfers was a form of sexual liberation for this potential "old maid?" If so, and this was meant as Sheila's initiation into adult sexuality, why were the rapists (a sorry trio of braying jackasses) portrayed as overgrown boys rather than men? And yet, judging by Elaine's reference to thinking "straight" (i.e. like a heterosexual woman), I think this is exactly the message the movie is trying to convey. 

Perhaps here we can also see some evidence that Ed Wood and Steve Apostolof were operating at cross purposes in their co-creation of this screenplay, as Eddie manages to include some of his typical quasi-feminist dialogue about how men are "bastards" who want to use women for sex. It's all very confusing, and again (!) I have to wonder why Ed and Steve even had a rape scene in the middle of a featherweight sex comedy. What on earth could they have been thinking? If they'd just done this kind of thing once, I'd chalk it up to a lapse in judgment. But they pulled this kind of thing habitually in their movies!

A Farrah hairdo.
After the out-of-nowhere three-way between Chris, Dave, and Lorrie, the movie shows us another one of Sheila and Dennis's dinner dates. Again, alcohol comes to the forefront. "Mmmm," enthuses Sheila, "cognac just warms me all over!" I have to point out that actress Linda Gildersleeve sports a Farrah Fawcett hairdo in this scene. This was the year that gave us both Farrah's iconic poster and TV's Charlie's Angels. It's odd for me to think of an Ed Wood movie which evokes Jaws, Farrah Fawcett, or any other pop culture icons of the mid-to-late 1970s. For some reason, Ed remains permanently entrenched in the 1950s and 1960s in my mind. Regrettably, this scene also confirms that the rape was indeed intended as a sexual awakening/initiation for Sheila. "Somehow," Dennis notes with appreciation, "you've really changed!" All he knows is that she's more affectionate now, sloppily French kissing him, and shimmying out of her dress in record time. Many have questioned the finale of the film Grease (1978), in which previously-virginal Olivia Newton-John dresses like a "slut" in order to appease macho John Travolta. Well, my dear readers, Grease ain't nothin' compared to The Beach Bunnies when it comes to sending questionable, perhaps very dangerous messages to young women. Johnny Fain was a long way from Gidget here, that's for sure.

When Dennis and Sheila finally hit the (pink satin) sheets, a veteran viewer of SCA films will easily notice that the decor of his supposedly posh beach house looks exactly like the cheapskae hotel rooms where our heroines are staying, right down to those dreaded and dreadful gray square panels on the wall.

The unnamed, mysterious Pink Bikini Girl
At last, we reach the film's conclusion -- a climactic beach party attended by almost all the characters. Steve Apostolof makes a fairly clever transition into this scene, zooming in on a candle during Dennis and Sheila's romantic tryst and cutting from that to a bonfire. Get it? One flame to another. For the most part, this sequence is light on dialogue and extremely heavy on bongo music. There are at least two bongoists on hand at the beachfront bacchanal: one who seems really into it, and one who's just kind of going through the motions. For reasons known only to the actor, Johnny Fain wears a Day-Glo orange and yellow wizard's robe to this affair. It's a major distraction, so I'm not certain why Steve Apostolof allowed it. Perhaps it was colder on the beach that night than it looks onscreen.

Elsewhere, Chris wears his ugliest polyester shirt yet, accompanied by mustard yellow shorts. (Oy, the '70s! I'm tellin' ya!) Actor Harvey Shane proves in this scene that he was no dancer, but he's obviously having a lot of fun anyway, looking like a drunken relative at a wedding reception. After a few minutes of watching a bunch of uncoordinated actors flailing around on the sand, a lone dancer -- a busty, dark-skinned, raven-haired beauty in a pink bikini -- emerges as the center of attention. The credits do not mention her whatsoever, but her extended, wordless dance sequence takes up a good chunk of screen time as she writhes, shakes, and gyrates for our amusement. In a way, it's a return to the dance routines from Orgy of the Dead, except that Pink Bikini Girl does not remove her swimsuit. One bystander does yell, "Take it off!" but she does not heed this advice. Weirdly, this is (for me) the most erotically-charged scene in the entire movie.

But then, of course, Steve and Ed have to return to the darned plot. A late-arriving guest at the party is none other than Mr. Rock Sanders, who stumbles over Elaine, causing her to drop her drink. Rock offers to buy her another one (from whom? this is a beach party!), and they begin chatting. "Thank God for small favors," Elaine quietly utters. Elaine and Rock's relationship escalates quickly, from sharing a drinking glass (She: "It's kind of like kissing by proxy!" He: "Why by proxy?") to screwing on the beach. All this is possible because Rock has finally slipped away from the watchful eye of Bruce Collins. ("That guy follows me around like a warden!" laments Bruce.) At last, our intrepid gal reporter gets indisputable evidence that Rock Sanders' genitals are still very much attached to his body. ("Oh, god, it's big!" she exclaims.)

Perhaps to maintain a sense of democracy among the cast, Steve Apostolof occasionally cuts away from the Rock/Elaine tryst to show the furious coupling of Chris and Bonnie and the just-as-eager fornication of Lorrie and Dave. I guess Steve thought we'd seen enough of Sheila and Dennis by this point. And he was right.

Wise advice from a 1976 bumper sticker.
The next day, Elaine and the gang pile into their Cadillac Eldorado and head for home. Apostolof gives us a brief glimpse of the car's bumper sticker, which reads: "If You're Horny, Honk." Of course, as a Simpsons fan, I was immediately reminded of Honk If You're Horny, the fictional movie Homer attempts to see in the classic 1995 episode, "King-Size Homer." This movie obviously proves that the joke was already 20 years old by then, though the bumper sticker in The Beach Bunnies is phrased a little less gracefully. As with its companion movie, The Snow Bunnies, The Beach Bunnies ends with an almost unconscionably long driving scene as our title characters pull out of the hotel parking lot, drive down a fairly busy stretch of road, and finally merge onto the highway. At least here, there's some attempt at humor, because lots of other cars honk their horns when the girls drive by. I guess there were a lot of horny Californians on the road that day. But this gag quickly wears thin, simply because the noise of car horns is extremely irritating after just a few seconds.

And thus concludes The Beach Bunnies, another fairly generic Steven C. Apostolof sex romp which is notable today only for the contributions of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Rob Craig, in his otherwise-exhaustive Ed Wood, Mad Genius, doesn't even bother covering either of the Bunnies movies And yet, from these seemingly insignificant films, we can examine Ed's views toward women, feminism, rape, homosexuality, youth culture, sex, alcohol, and more. So while The Beach Bunnies is not necessarily a "good" movie in any conventional sense, it is far from a worthless one. If you're looking for insight into the mind of Ed Wood, it's worth an hour and a half of your time.
Next week: When is an Ed Wood movie not really much of an Ed Wood movie? When he's just an assistant director and doesn't write, direct, or act in it. Considering that the film in question was such a career-ending disaster for its director, maybe it's better that Eddie wasn't more deeply involved. You see, even while toiling in sexploitation, Steve Apostolof always wanted to break into the mainstream, so he got the not-so-bright idea to invest every last cent of his own money into a diamond heist movie. He really thought that this was his ticket to the big time. To say the least, it wasn't. But the film does hold a unique place in movie history! Unless some hitherto-unknown film arises from the archives, this is the very last movie Ed Wood worked on before his death in December 1978. Maybe now I've got your attention, huh? Either way, make sure you're back here in seven days when I review Hot Ice (1978)

2 comments:

  1. Ed Wood's attitude toward homosexuality is something I don't think I'll ever be able to come to grips with. In light of Glen or Glenda's plea for tolerance for those with alternate sexualities, his demonization of gays and lesbians in his later writings is an unsolvable puzzle.

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    1. I think some of it might be Steve Apostolof's input in the later films. In the SCA films, there's a mix of horrendous misogyny and sympathy towards the plight of women. You get the sense that there are two different mindsets at work here. Eddie's novels are all over the place when it comes to the depiction of homosexuality. I think it's within the realm of possibility that Ed had some gay or bisexual tendencies, then overcompensated for that in his scripts.

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