|What kind of project could bring Ed Wood, Sam Fuller, and Vincent Price together?|
"He worked at Universal, and he never recovered."
-actor John Andrews on his friend Ed Wood
"First I was a cowboy and then a guru priest, any little thing that would keep my palm greased."
-R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders, "Fine Artiste Blues"
|The movie which wowed Eddie.|
Actor Don Nagel, who appeared in Bride of the Monster, Jail Bait, Night of the Ghouls, and other Wood productions, told biographer Rudolph Grey that Ed worked for Universal "for a while, about six months" and could have carved out a career for himself at the entertainment powerhouse but "blew it by not staying there when he was there." John Andrews, who played the Wolfman in Orgy of the Dead, felt that Eddie left Universal because "he wanted to go out on his own."
The only lasting legacy of Eddie's time at Universal is a passage in Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood in which we see Johnny Depp as a young go-getter working at some unnamed movie studio in some vaguely defined role as a gofer, schlepping a potted palm across a backlot teeming with costumed extras. Though no one in Ed Wood ever says this is Universal, the clues are there in the dialogue... sort of. At one point in Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszeski's script, Eddie's ill-tempered boss, Mr. Kravitz (a composite character portrayed by Biff Yeager) dispatches our hero to the Carl Laemmle Building. Laemmle (1867-1939) founded Universal in 1912, and it was under his leadership that the studio made such films as Dracula and Frankenstein. The latter, in fact, begins with the famous preamble delivered by Edward van Sloan: "Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning."
Weirdly, in Tim Burton's finished film, the reference to Laemmle is mysteriously excised, and Eddie's destination is merely designated "the executive building." An opportunity to name check an important film pioneer is missed. But in another conversation between Ed and Mr. Kravitz, there is an unmistakable reference to Universal's past. In trying to defend Bela Lugosi's reputation, Eddie asks his boss, "Do you realize how much money he made for this studio over the years? Dracula! The Raven! The Black Cat!" All three of those were Universal productions.
Another product of the studio is obliquely referenced as well in the Ed Wood script. While carrying out his menial duties, Ed happens to catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the making of Abbott & Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950). In the screenplay, just as in real life, Eddie was awed by the fact that this movie was able to afford truckloads of real sand to add verisimilitude to its desert scenes. Burton, apparently feeling that piles of sand were not visually interesting enough for his movie, substituted live camels. And, naturally, no specific mentions of the famed comedy team are ever made in Ed Wood. According to artist Phil Cambridge, who worked with Wood at Pendulum Publishing in the 1970s, Lou Costello made quite an impression on young Eddie:
Ed told me that he had been on the set with Lou Costello on couple of films. Lou, unlike the personable little guy that he was [in the movies], was really an S.O.B. in person and hated Bud, along with everyone else. Ed said Lou had a chauffeur, and he would always humiliate the chauffeur when he was angry with anyone. He would hit him or kick him -- whatever he felt like doing. One day he got the guy to come inside, and he got a bar of soap and said, "Now you eat that." And the guy ate it. It was a bad business, bad business.Bad business or not, Abbott & Costello in the Foreign Legion is an intriguing curio for Ed Wood fans and is well worth a viewing. For one thing, it gives you the real-life origins of a memorable moment from Ed Wood. More intriguingly, the movie has a wrestling-themed plot and features Wood regular Tor Johnson, the hulking Swedish grappler so memorable as a zombie in Plan 9 from Outer Space, portraying an Arabic character named "Abou Ben." This was one of about two dozen films Tor made over a 20-year period before he started appearing in Eddie's low-budget productions. The assertion in Ed Wood that Eddie somehow "discovered" Tor while watching him wrestle is wishful thinking on the part of the writers. There is no truth in it.
|Samuel Fuller: An inspiration to Ed Wood?|
It is just possible that Ed Wood drew some inspiration from career of writer-director Samuel Fuller (1912-1997), a filmmaker nearly always described as a "maverick" for his fierce and unwavering individualism. There are further parallels between the two men. Like Ed, Sam was born on the East Coast (in his case, Worcester, Mass.) and saw combat action in World War II. Both saw cinema as a medium for personal expression yet knew they had to work within the confines of the movie industry to get their ideas up on the screen. Filmmaking is a curious profession in which art and commerce are inconveniently shackled together at the ankle -- something which both Ed Wood and Sam Fuller knew all too well. Largely refusing to compromise his vision past a certain point, Fuller spent much of his career working outside the studio system, yet he still managed to garner adoration from fans and respect from critics, particularly French ones. Though he appreciated his cult following, a fraternity whose members include Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Fuller never stopped longing for mainstream success.
"I want," Fuller once said, "to join the cult of the $100- and $200-million grossers and still make an artistic picture."
That dream was never to be realized, nor did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ever see fit to bestow its blessings upon Fuller. He did work for a time at one of the majors, 20th Century Fox, and did one of his most famous films there: Pickup on South Street (1953) with Richard Widmark. Much of Fuller's reputation, however, rests on low-budget indie flicks like Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964), both of which received theatrical distribution through a low-rent company called Allied Artists, which traces its cheapskate lineage back to Poverty Row's own Monogram Pictures.
Even Fuller's single biggest movie, the controversial WWII epic The Big Red One (1980) with Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill, was financed by Lorimar, a now-defunct company best known for its made-for-TV movies (such as Sybil and Helter Skelter) and its many popular television series (including Family Matters, Dallas, and The People's Court) rather than its theatrical feature films. Interestingly, Lorimar temporarily had the rights to many films formerly owned by Monogram and Allied. Maybe that is where the connection to Sam Fuller originates.
In any event, a quick study of Fuller's career shows just how interconnected the low-budget movie world was in the middle decades of the last century. The people who worked on Sam's films were often the same who worked on Ed's. Samuel Fuller's first produced script, for example, was the comedy Hats Off (1936), which was directed by none other than Boris Petroff, who, like Sam's immigrant parents, was of Russian birth. Petroff, of course, worked with Eddie on some of the very same films I've covered in this series, including Shotgun Wedding (1963) and Anatomy of a Psycho (1961). The makeup man on Fuller's Naked Kiss, meanwhile, was our good pal Harry Thomas (1909-1996), who worked on all the famous Wood movies from Glen or Glenda (1953) to Night of the Ghouls (1959) and was even portrayed onscreen by Leonard Termo in Ed Wood. (In Burton's film, Harry is the one who has to cover the track marks on Bela Lugosi's arms and is the first to notice that stand-in Dr. Tom Mason needs a toupee.)
And then there's ubiquitous character actor I. Stanford Jolley (1900-1978), who is best known to Ed Wood fans as the pontificating Judge Clara in The Violent Years (1956) but who appeared in literally hundreds of films and TV shows from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s, including a supporting role in the unusual film which we are covering this week...
THE BARON OF ARIZONA (1950)
|The Baron on DVD.|
Availability: For years, The Baron of Arizona was only sporadically available on VHS from specialty providers like Burbank Video and Other World Video. But now, the film has been preserved by the Museum of Modern Art and is readily available on the three-disc collection Eclipse Series 5: The First Films of Samuel Fuller (Eclipse/Criterion, 2007) along with I Shot Jesse James (1949) and The Steel Helmet (1951). According to the DVD's back cover: "Eclipse is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions. Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer." In other words: don't expect any extras, folks. The picture and sound quality are excellent, however, making this a very worthwhile set.
|Are we looking at the face of Edward D. Wood, Jr.?|
I have given this section of the film the Zapruder treatment, studying it frame by frame to see if Ed is recognizable. Naturally, a vigilante mob scene is going to be chaotic, and the stuntman's face is deliberately obscured so as not to spoil the filmic illusion. But after considerable scrutiny, I will concede that the unfortunate soul being manhandled by a group of fearsome-looking extras may indeed be Edward D. Wood, Jr.
This was way back in 1950, three years before Glen or Glenda and a decade before the effects of Ed's alcoholism really became apparent in his appearance and physique. Eddie had delicate features in those days and maybe could have been believable in drag. There's a reason he was played by former teen idol Johnny Depp in his biopic and not, say, Randy Quaid or Willem Dafoe. And this wouldn't have been Ed's only attempt at stuntwork either. He did some horseback riding in both Crossroads of Laredo and Crossroad Avenger and performed a fight scene with Don Nagel in The Sinister Urge. During the making of Plan 9, Eddie even dressed in drag to double Mona McKinnon for a scene in which Mona's character, Paula Trent, staggers out of the woods after being pursued by the vampirish Ghoul Man (Bela Lugosi/Tom Mason) and is rescued by a kindly passing motorist (Karl Johnson). In fact, Ed had the utmost respect for those in the stunt field and wrote highly of the profession in his mid-1960s guidebook to the movie industry called Hollywood Rat Race.
So the idea that Ed would dress up as Ellen Drew and allow himself to be dragged violently from a horse-drawn wagon is quite plausible indeed and fits in comfortably with the rest of his biography. Here is a visual breakdown of Ed's supposed scene in The Baron of Arizona. Vincent Price is the bearded fellow with the black hat in the upper left hand corner of the screen.
|Damsel in this dress: Does Edward D. Wood, Jr. appear in drag in The Baron of Arizona? You make the call.|
|The great pretender: James A. Reavis|
In other words, this is no documentary. Instead, it's entertainment which dips its big toe -- but not much more than that -- into the big swimming pool of history. The basics, at least, are there. Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States agreed to honor all previously-existing property rights in the territory it had just won. This was in the Southwest, of course, so we're talking about the area that is now Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, and California. Well, it's one thing to make a promise and quite another to stick to it. For the next few decades, the US spent a lot of time in court determining which of these land grants held by Mexicans and Spaniards were real and which were phony. Decidedly in the latter category was the famed "Peralta land grant," which was supposedly owned by James Reavis, who claimed to be the rightful heir to a barony granted by the King of Spain to a nobleman. In reality, this fellow was a former Confederate soldier who had honed the craft of forgery during the Civil War, when he wrote phony passes to get himself (and a few paying customers) out of army duties. If the United States had honored this bogus grant, Reavis would have owned a huge chunk of modern-day Arizona and thus become one of the richest men in the United States.
Once you know that, you can understand why James Reavis went to such extreme lengths to keep the charade going -- painstakingly forging documents both here and abroad, creating counterfeit monuments in the desert, and even marrying a poverty-stricken half-Indian woman and passing her off as the last surviving member of the powerful (and fictional) Peralta family. Naturally, Uncle Sam was none too eager to fork this land, especially its valuable mines, over to the so-called "Baron of Arizona," and our government dragged its collective feet in honoring Reavis' claim. Meanwhile, the ersatz Baron made a tidy sum charging the people of Arizona for using the land they already rightfully owned. The whole Peralta saga dragged on for decades, from roughly the mid-1870s to the mid-1890s, when James Reavis was convicted of perjury after forensic scientists discovered his supposed 'documentation" to be pure quackery. The would-be landowner served a couple of years in prison, then tried his hand without success at a variety of careers, including journalism, before dying in poverty at the age of 71.
One might say that James Addison Reavis was altogether too bold in his attempts to defraud the country, but then again, tycoon J. Paul Getty once famously said, "The meek shall inherit the earth but not the mineral rights." And Reavis certainly wasn't meek.
|By 1950, Vincent Price was most definitely ready for his close up.|
Samuel Fuller's next directorial efforts, The Baron of Arizona and The Steel Helmet soon followed. These were low-budget pictures -- small potatoes by Hollywood standards -- and didn't make much of a commercial splash. But they were manifestly well-made and established their maker as a talented up-and-comer. Sam Fuller was clearly one to watch. His career wasn't always as steady or prosperous as he would have liked it, but with his early films, he at least got off to an auspicious -- if modest -- start. Fuller's earliest films were all produced by the legendary Robert L. Lippert (1909-1976), known semi-affectionately as "the Quickie King." Lippert's surprisingly-diverse resume includes many films which wound up on Mystery Science Theater 3000, including Jungle Goddess (1948), Last of the Wild Horses (1948), Lost Continent (1951), and Rocketship X-M (1950). Those titles eventually helped make him a laughingstock.
But producer Lippert also had a longstanding professional relationship with an actor who is rightly beloved by all horror and B-movie fans: Mr. Vincent Price (1911-1993). In addition to this week's movie, Price worked for Lippert on both The Fly (1958) and The Last Man on Earth (1964). The Baron of Arizona might just be Price's first assignment for Robert L. Lippert, and it was something of a turning point in the actor's long career. Although born in St. Louis, MO, Price studied drama in England and began his theatrical acting career over there as well. Back home, he started landing film roles in the late 1930s. The most prominent credit in the first decade of his movie career was a supporting part in Otto Preminger's Laura (1944).
By 1950, however, Price was nearing the age of 40 and still had not established himself as a leading man. Though admittedly a low-budget film, The Baron of Arizona gave Vincent Price his first true starring vehicle. The picture is undeniably his. Even without the participation of Samuel L. Fuller, it is likely that The Baron of Arizona would eventually have attracted a cult following simply because of Price's performance. A few years later, Vincent Price starred in the classic 3D film, The House of Wax (1953). From that point on, the die was cast for Vincent Price, and he would spend most of his remaining career as a horror icon -- a role he cherished, partly because it financed his passions for gourmet cuisine and fine art. Though not actually a horror film, The Baron of Arizona is nevertheless an important landmark in Price's career, as it helped to establish his half-suave, half-sinister screen persona.
The viewing experience: Quite a pleasant surprise. The Baron of Arizona is the kind of movie I might not ever have seen if it hadn't been for a project like Ed Wood Wednesdays, but I am grateful for having discovered it. It's a little gem... and a difficult film to precisely categorize. It takes place in the Old West, but it's not exactly a Western. It offers a loving depiction of a skilled conman at work under often high-stress conditions, but it's not quite a heist film either. And you can't quite call it a courtroom drama or a crime thriller, though it has elements of those genres, too. There's even an element of Shaw's Pygmalion, with Vincent Price as a skewed variation on Professor Henry Higgins. It's an oddity, this one, which might have made it a little tricky to market back in 1950. For most of the lesser-known movies in this series, the only reason that they're available on DVD at all is because of their connection -- however tenuous -- to Edward D. Wood, Jr. But that's not the case this time around. Not by a long shot. The Baron of Arizona has been preserved by the Museum of Modern Art and released by the prestigious Criterion Collection because it was written and directed by Samuel L. Fuller.
Though Wood and Fuller's careers overlapped chronologically and they worked with some of the same people, they are not particularly similar as filmmakers. Here's a representative quote from Sam Fuller on his profession: "I write with the camera. It is my typewriter." I think for Ed Wood, the very opposite was true: the typewriter was Eddie's camera! Throughout this project, I've come to see Ed Wood as an idea man who struggled to communicate his ideas to the rest of the world through the technology and media available to him. Much more so than the camera, the typewriter was Eddie's most direct means of artistic expression. Although obviously sincere in his work, he was a clumsy, often flat-footed director. As a writer, he could communicate more easily without all the technical stuff getting in the way. Films as varied as The Violent Years, The Bride and the Beast, and even One Million AC/DC give the viewer a very satisfying "Ed Wood experience" without Eddie actually being the director.
|Vincent Price makes his dramatic entrance.|
Certainly, Howe's consistently sharp and deep focus in Baron is reminiscent of what cinematographer Gregg Toland did on Kane. Of particular note is the way Fuller and Howe use doorways and entrances throughout this movie. (Doors and entryways are also a motif in Citizen Kane.) Very often, Fuller positions his camera so that doorways are framed within other doorways. And the very first good look we get at Vincent Price in this movie comes at the six-minute mark, when he shows up at the doorstep of kindly Pepito Alvarez (Vladimir Sokoloff), who is raising Sofia (played by Karen Kester as a child and Ellen Drew as an adult), the woman Reavis plans to mold into the fraudulent Peralta heir. This is a pivotal moment in the story, and Sam Fuller lets us know with the way he dramatically introduces his leading man. It's a "dark and stormy night" when Reavis knocks on Pepito's door, and Vincent Price is memorably dressed in all black. The actor was a big man -- 6'4" -- and Fuller and Howe do their best to make him look even bigger as he towers over his costars, aided perhaps by the set design. The entrance is pure Price: regal yet vaguely satanic, enticing and unsettling all at once. It's a star-making moment.
|Gypsies Tina Pine and Angelo Rossitto|
Sam Fuller's most eccentric choice as a screenwriter was to include a self-contained passage in which James Reavis falls in with a band of gypsies and even fleetingly romances pretty but troubled Rita (Tina Rome aka Tina Pine), who is smitten with this mysterious outlaw and wishes to abandon her people to join him on his adventures. The most memorable of the gypsies, however, is the dwarf Angie, played by Angelo Rossito, the 2'11" actor whose 60-year career includes indelible turns in such cult hits as Freaks (1932) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). While the gypsy scenes have little to do with the rest of the movie and don't really advance the plot, I'm not sorry that Fuller included them in The Baron of Arizona simply because they add variety and give this film an almost picaresque feel. Besides, gypsies are integral to several of the classic Universal movies, so their presence here is welcome.
|Complimentary scenes in Baron and Plan 9.|
Man #1: Joe, I don't like this quiet.
Man #2: Funny, I never seen the square so empty this time of night.Mere seconds later, of course, all hell breaks loose, as an angry mob attacks the dapper conman and his wife. Our poor law officers knew something bad was about to go down, but they were still unprepared for it. Visually, this scene is very much like the moment in Plan 9 when Conrad Brooks and Paul Marco -- also playing uneasy cops -- prowl around the patently-artificial cemetery, unsure of what they're supposed to be doing but scared nevertheless. ("It's tough to find something when you don't know what you're looking for," says Brooks in the defining moment of his career.) A side-by-side comparison between the two films reveals remarkable parallels. I was also reminded of the memorable exchange between the doomed Plan 9 gravediggers, who are also experiencing vague paranoia but are nevertheless clueless as to the tragedy about to befall them. In their case, though, it is not silence but noise which bothers them. ("Don't like hearin' noises. 'Specially when there ain't supposed to be any.")
Is it too fanciful to suggest that Edward D.Wood, Jr. saw The Baron of Arizona, took special note of the scene with the two police officers and filed it away in his brain as an idea he could use later in one of his own movies? Or is this just a coincidence? Such are the mysteries of Ed Wood Wednesdays.
A special thanks goes out this week to Derek M. Koch, who convinced me to cover this film as part of Ed Wood Wednesdays. Derek, this one's for you!
In two weeks: More Ed Wood apocrypha! But nothing so classy as The Baron of Arizona. No, I'm afraid that next time, we will be dipping back into the disputed canon of "Pete LaRoche," the shadowy screenwriter who may or may not have been Edward D. Wood, Jr. Thanks to the kindly intervention of reader Douglas North, aka hifithepanda, I've managed to track down another LaRoche-scripted film. I'm almost hesitant to tell you the title of this one, for fear that you'll avoid reading the article. But I assure you, this is all done in the name of film scholarship. Does it sweeten the deal to tell you that the film in question stars Lloyd Bridges? Anyway, be here in two weeks for my look at Wetbacks (1956).