Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 38: 'It Came from Hollywood' (1982)

It Came from Hollywood... and went to videodisc somewhere along the line, apparently.

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
-Percy Bysshe Shelley 
 
"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment."
-Woody Allen
Ramesses II on display in the UK.
Legacy. That's pretty much all a man has left after he dies. Will I be remembered? And if so, how? And by whom? Try as we might, plan as we may, we cannot control how others will judge us and judge our actions after we die. After the funeral, the narrative is simply out of our hands. Some fare better than others in this respect. Take a fellow like Ramesses II, the seemingly omnipotent pharaoh who ruled over the formidable Egyptian Empire over three-thousand years ago. As the most powerful man of his day, Ramesses II, who would come to be known as Ozymandias to Greek historians, was immortalized in stone many times over by his contemporary artisans. These statues, in fact, long outlived the Egyptian Empire itself.

One such likeness, called the Younger Memnon, was shipped off to the British Museum about two-hundred years ago and is still there now. It's object EA19, if you're interested. It was this particular piece, eight feet tall and carved in over seven tons of granite, along with the inscription on another massive statue of Ramesses, that inspired British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to compose his famous sonnet, Ozymandias, in 1817. In Shelley's poem, a statue of the once-great ruler stands abandoned and forlorn in the desert. All that remains are "two vast and trunkless legs of stone," a "shattered visage," and a pedestal upon which is carved a boastful message about the importance of this long-dead man and his triumphs. These accomplishments have obviously been erased by time, however, since the shattered relic is surrounded on all sides by a bleak and barren landscape.

Interestingly, Shelley gives us all this information third-hand, so to speak. The narrator of Ozymandias tells us that "a traveler" once described the scene to him, and now he is passing the story along to us. The point of the poem, I think, is that Ozymandias is a chump. At least, that's the way Shelley sees it. The pharaoh thought he had it all figured out, lording over his magnificent empire that was supposed to last forever. And now, all that's left of it is a busted-up statue in some crummy desert. Time, Shelley implies, has neutered Ozymandias. In his lifetime, he accomplished a great deal, but in the long run it was all for naught.

"Ozymandias melancholia"
Shelley's discouraging, humbling poem must have struck a chord with filmmaker Woody Allen, because he coined a term, "Ozymandias melancholia," for his film Stardust Memories (1980) and reused it in To Rome with Love (2012). Allen defines this phenomenon as "that sad and depressed feeling you get when you realize that no matter how great and majestic and important something is at the time, in time it's going to pass." Given his advancing age and myriad scandals, Woody Allen may have some legitimate concerns about his own legacy. He's been a public figure for about 50 years, and his name is still up there in the firmament... for now. Who knows what the ensuing decades and centuries have in store for the former Mr. Allen Konigsberg?

Percy Shelley's brief life was also pockmarked by scandals -- expulsions, suicides, charges of blasphemy -- yet his work has survived at least two centuries and seems good for at least a few more. I can't imagine high school English teachers dropping Ozymandias from the curriculum anytime soon. We can all rest assured that students will be writing perfunctory, semi-incoherent essays about it for years to come. And what about the inspiration himself, Ramesses II? Sure, his empire didn't last forever, and his statue is just another exhibit at which tourists will likely gawk for a few moments before heading to the gift shop. But here we are, three millennia hence, and I'm still puzzling over him. Percy and Woody have a long way to go to catch up to Ozzy in terms of longevity. So maybe he wasn't such a chump after all. He didn't live on the way he wanted, but he did endure after a fashion.

Columbus' reputation is fading.
Lady Fortune can play some weird tricks on you even after you're dead. She's that kind of gal. Just this week, the city council of Minneapolis voted unanimously to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day in honor of the city's local native tribes. The council said its decision was "not about Christopher Columbus," but I find that somewhat difficult to fully believe. In my lifetime, I've seen Columbus' reputation as an icon in the history of our country virtually evaporate. Once lauded as the man who "discovered America," the Italian explorer is now treated as a racist, lying thief and bully who brought greed, genocide and misery along with him on the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Based on the objective historical evidence, the man is truly indefensible and doesn't deserve a holiday in his honor. Still in all, what rotten posthumous luck for Columbus! His legacy survived largely unscathed for not decades, but centuries -- well into the 1980s -- only to collapse about 20-25 years ago. Ironically, the tipping point was probably 1992, i.e. the 500th anniversary of his famous voyage. The occasion brought him back into the public consciousness but also inspired renewed skepticism and criticism. The much-lauded quincentenary fizzled, and two competing Columbus biopics were box office bombs.

In the oddest of coincidences, both Christopher Columbus and Edward D. Wood, Jr. died at the age of 54. Ed is another case of a man whose reputation has taken some weird detours after his demise. The debate over Eddie's image has continued for decades now. Who was Ed Wood, Jr., exactly? A drunk and transvestite who made the worst movies of all time? A mad, misunderstood genius? A misguided but sincere outsider artist? A martyr? A fool? The film I'm covering this week, Paramount's comedic semi-documentary It Came from Hollywood, played a not-insignificant role in shaping the legend of Ed Wood in the early 1980s. In this motion picture, released only four years after Eddie's untimely death, the man's life and work are represented through the merest of remnants -- brief clips, a few questionable factoids, and some comedic conjecture.

These fragments strike me as the equivalent of the "trunkless legs of stone" described by Shelley. They don't give you the whole picture, certainly, but they do offer some insight to the life and times of a noteworthy individual. This isn't Ozymandias. It's Eddie-mandias.

IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD (1982)



Alternate titles: Direct from Hollywood (Venezuelan title)

Availability: Naturally, because of all the clips it contains, It Came from Hollywood is rather a nightmare from a copyright standpoint. Paramount intended on releasing it to DVD circa 2002, and one can still locate official-looking cover art for the disc. Due to rights issues, however, this DVD never made it to market. Used copies are still available in other formats, however. You can still purchase the film on VHS ($34) or laserdisc ($60) through Amazon. Additionally, a site that specializes in "Rare, Out of Print and Lost Cult Films on DVD," markets a DVD-R of the movie for $20. I have never dealt with this site and cannot say how reputable it is. Caveat emptor.

Additionally, an iOffer user named doctorkildare366 is selling it for $14. Used copies in a variety of formats -- VHS, laserdisc, and video disc -- are up for bid on Ebay, with prices ranging from $22 to $60. If that's out of your price range, the entire film has been uploaded to YouTube.

NYC's (sadly) long-gone Sutton Theatre
The backstory: Paramount Pictures obviously took note of the success of Harry and Michael Medved's The Golden Turkey Awards, the book that almost single-handedly brought Edward D. Wood, Jr. and his work to America's attention, for good or ill, in 1980. The very next year, the major studio acquired the rights to Ed's inaugural and most idiosyncratic feature, Glen or Glenda? (1953), and planned on exhibiting it prominently at New York's upscale (and now demolished) Sutton Theatre, only to back out at the last moment. Paramount's unlikely alibi was that such a release would have been in poor taste following the assassination attempt on recently-inaugurated President Ronald Reagan's life on March 30, 1981. All that remains is a remarkable ad from the "Arts & Leisure" section from a March '81 edition of the New York Times. The ad took the form of a fancy wedding announcement and contained the following text:
In the vast parade of motion pictures,
there are a few that marched to a different drummer.
Some were one of a kind originals.
Like "Citizen Kane."
Some told their story on a wide emotional canvas.
Like "The Godfather."
Some were provocatively bold, thumbing their noses at convention.
 
Like "Freaks."
Some were lost, like "Napoleon."
They all had one thing in common.
They were different, more special than the other movies around them.
 
Beginning on April 1st at 8:00 P.M.
The Sutton Theatre and
Paramount Pictures Presents
Edward D. Wood, Jr's
"Glenn or Glenda."
An ancestor of It Came from Hollywood
Note the incorrect spelling of Glen and fortuitous mention of Citizen Kane, directed by Ed Wood's idol, Orson Welles. The above account, incidentally, comes from J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbuam's invaluable text on paracinema, Midnight Movies (Da Capo Press, 1983), which states that Paramount's "interest in the film has never satisfactorily been explained." Nevertheless, the studio was still convinced that there was some gold to be mined from the Medveds' "golden turkeys," particularly the outlandish, low-budget horror and science-fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s. Harry and Michael had, if nothing else, proven that there was a resurgence of interest in such movies, one fueled partly by mid-century nostalgia and partly by the desire of younger viewers to mock the naivete of an earlier generation.

These particular movies, born of both Cold War paranoia and the rise of the American teenager as a cultural force, had a unique and potent effect on viewers of the 1980s, who reacted to them with a combination of befuddlement, incredulity, delight, and cynical superiority. The supreme and definitive expression of this phenomenon, television's Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999), would not arrive for several more years. In the meantime, Paramount gamely bankrolled an unusual "grab-bag"-type compilation film consisting of clips of dozens of these movies, interspersed with newly-shot vignettes featuring top comedians of the era.

The result, It Came from Hollywood, certainly stood out from the rest of Paramount's 1982 release schedule, which included 48 Hrs., Some Kind of Hero, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. There were a few Paramount films that year that spoofed the cinema of the past, including Airplane II: The Sequel and Jekyll and Hyde... Together Again.

This movie's clearest antecedent, however, was from another studio entirely: MGM's massively successful That's Entertainment (1974). That film, a surprise $19 million box-office hit, was a tribute to the golden days of movie musicals and consisted of clips from vintage films, interspersed with newly-shot introductions featuring such familiar stars as Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, and Liz Taylor. It Came from Hollywood was structured vaguely along those lines, only minus the reverence. Like That's Entertainment before it, this new film was a "greatest hits" reel of a particular chapter of movie history and also contained freshly-minted interstitial material.

In this case, however, the presenters were comedians who had come up through National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live and the Second City franchise in the 1970s and were poised to become major movie stars in the 1980s. And instead of offering fond reminiscences and pertinent background information about the films they were exhibiting, as the co-hosts had in That's Entertainment, the stars of It Came from Hollywood performed in madcap comedy sketches and offered smart-alecky comments about the various brief clips. Some of these cheeky remarks, in fact, were used as narration over the clips themselves, making It Came an apparent predecessor of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Perhaps we can think of this movie as a missing link between MST3K and some earlier efforts at redubbing and repurposing movies for comedic effect, including Jay Ward's television series Fractured Flickers (1963-1964) and Woody Allen's feature, What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966).

Solt and Leo's Elvis doc.
The masterminds behind It Came from Hollywood were a pair of up-and-coming producer-directors named Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo, a Britisher and an American respectively. Solt and Leo were hot at the time, coming off the success of This Is Elvis (1981), an acclaimed documentary that combined existing newsreel and home movie footage with dramatic recreations in order to tell the life story of messianic rock star Elvis Presley. The underwhelming performance of It Came, which opened to dismal reviews (Leonard Maltin declared it "spectacularly unfunny") and lukewarm box office receipts in late 1981, does not seem to have caused long-term professional damage to either of its creators. Indeed, both Leo and Solt went on to lengthy, prosperous and still-ongoing careers making pop culture-based documentaries, though after It Came from Hollywood, they would do so separately and mostly for television. A prominent exception was Andrew Solt's theatrically-released Imagine: John Lennon (1988).

As for the star-studded cast, the first three comedians recruited for the film were all Second City alumni who had attained national fame through television. Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner had only recently left Saturday Night Live, while John Candy was still a cast member on SCTV, the shape-shifting sketch series then airing in a 90-minute block on NBC. Candy had already had prominent roles in The Blues Brothers (1980) and Stripes (1981), but according to biographer Martin Knelman in his book, Laughing on the Inside: The Life of John Candy (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998), the comedian's TV workload (he stayed with SCTV in one form or another from 1976-1983) had put a crimp in his burgeoning film career:
Because he had been consumed with SCTV, 1982 was the only year in which Candy did not have a movie coming out, except for It Came from Hollywood -- a forgettable anthology of clips from amusingly dreadful movies about aliens. Candy was one of the narrators, along with Cheech and Chong, Gilda Radner, and Dan Aykroyd. Candy's main contribution was to make jokes putting down that prodigious director of cheap, amateurish movies, Ed Wood. But the jokes seemed every bit as tacky as Ed's movies.
As for Cheech and Chong, the only performers in the film outside the Second City bubble, their appearance seems to have been an afterthought by a worried studio. In Cheech & Chong, The Unauthorized Autobiography (Simon and Schuster, 2008), Tommy Chong tells an anecdote about going to Vancouver Island for his mother's funeral, only to be met there by two Paramount executives, who had chartered a Cessna to track him down. After expressing their condolences, they gave him a pitch:
     "We need a favor from you and Cheech. Cheech is already onboard. So now we need a favor from you. We are doing a movie, a spoof actually, about Hollywood. It's called It Came from Hollywood and we need you and Cheech to do a cameo. And like I said, Cheech is already onboard, so..."
     "Sure. I would be glad to be in your movie," I answered. I still wondered why they went through all this trouble.
     The very next morning bright and early, we boarded the little Cessna and flew to Seattle, Washington, and then took a commercial flight to Los Angeles. The "we" being Jeffrey Katzenberg, Larry Marks, and me. Katzenberg was one of the top guns at Paramount at the time. The movie It Came from Hollywood was in trouble and needed some star power to put some butts in the seats. Cheech and Chong were the hottest movie stars at the time, so Jeffrey flew to Vancouver Island to get my support. [...] Cheech and I shot our part in It Came from Hollywood in one afternoon, ad-libbing the entire shoot and having a ball with the rest of the celebrity cast -- Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, and Gilda Radner among them.
So for Cheech and Chong, whose partnership was nearing its end, this was a pleasant experience on the back half of their career. (The duo broke up in 1985.) It Came from Hollywood was not a complete commercial failure, as I had remembered. It grossed $2 million on what must have been a very modest budget. The new segments were all shot within the confines of Paramount Studios in L.A., with only a few rudimentary interior sets (a movie theater, an operating room, a suburban home) and exteriors that were obviously filmed on the backlot, with its permanent cluster of fake-looking buildings. After a brief theatrical run, it enjoyed a fairly healthy afterlife on VHS and cable before disappearing into obscurity. In a truly bizarre coincidence, the film opened two days before Halloween in Los Angeles but did not go national until December 10, 1982 -- the fourth anniversary of Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s death.

Ed Wood gets a posthumous "salute" from Paramount.
Ed Wood dominates It Came from Hollywood as much as -- or more than -- any of the high-profile comedy stars on the marquee. The compilation includes clips from dozens of films by dozens of filmmakers, yet almost none of these are specifically named... except Eddie's movies. The directors of It Came, Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo, drew their source material mostly from the movies of the 1950s and 1960s, but It Came from Hollywood spans nearly a half-century from the late '20s to the late '70s. Apart from an affectionate roll call (set to the strains of "Hooray for Hollywood") at the very end of the picture, however, almost none of these clips are identified in any way, either by onscreen captions or by the presenters. Leo and Solt merely selected noteworthy clips from the original movies and grouped them into a series of fast-paced montages*, each with its own theme ("Gorillas," "Aliens," "Troubled Teenagers," etc.), bookended by the shenanigans of the five famous comedians. Except for Phil Tucker's Robot Monster (1953), the only films specifically identified by the hosts are those made by Ed Wood.

In fact, about 22 minutes into the film, there is an entire segment entirely devoted to the infamous auteur entitled "A Salute to Edward D. Wood, Jr." This passage is anchored by John Candy, who begins by delivering the following monologue directly to the camera while standing amid a variety of props, including a flying saucer:
One man who usually gets singled out when people talk about third or fourth-rate movies is Ed Wood, the man who brought you such classics as Glen or Glenda? and the science-fiction epic Plan 9 from Outer Space, which could have used this flying saucer here. As a matter of fact, I'd like to present a salute to Ed Wood, a true master of the B-movies. Well, D-movies. You judge for yourself.
Candy then shows the audience a few representative excerpts from Plan 9 and Glenda, remarking on the chintzy special effects ("You can hardly see that string!") and unconvincing acting ("Oh, look at the motivation! The deep concern! The confusion! Marvelous performance!"), but also mixing in a few factoids about Ed and his career, information likely cribbed directly from the Medveds' book. Some of what Candy says is accurate. Yes, Ed wrote and directed these films and played the lead in Glen. Yes, that's a shower curtain in the cockpit from Plan 9. Yes, Ed used his wife's chiropractor as a stand-in for the late Bela Lugosi. Some of the information, though, is the stuff of urban legends. No, Plan 9 was not made for $37 and those flying saucers are not hubcaps.

Generally, the clips here are well-chosen -- Duke Moore scratching himself with his gun; wobbly UFOs zooming past a matte painting; Dolores Fuller dramatically removing her sweater -- the kinds of memorable moments that would make strong impressions on viewers who had never seen Ed's work before. By far, though, the most stunning aspect of "A Salute to Edward D. Wood, Jr." is its ending, in which a bra-wearing Dan Aykroyd joins John Candy onscreen and the two comedians, their voices dripping with mock sincerity, re-enact the crucial "angora sweater hand-off" scene from the climax of Glen or Glenda? before zooming off in Aykroyd's motorcycle.

Dan Aykroyd (left) and John Candy re-enact the climax of Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda?

And this surreal scene is far from the only Ed Wood-related content in It Came from Hollywood. In fact, clips of Eddie's work are interspersed throughout the entire film.. and not just the familiar titles like Plan 9 and Glenda, but the obscure ones as well, including The Violent Years, The Bride and the Beast, and even Married Too Young. The very first glimpse of Plan 9 arrives about two minutes into the proceedings, with a clip of Dudley Manlove and Joanna Lee as aliens Eros and Tanna prompting this reaction from a baffled Tommy Chong: "I want my money back!"

In a later segment sarcastically called "Technical Triumphs," John Candy offers some whimsical thoughts on the production values of Ed's Bride of the Monster. He describes a laboratory scene between mad scientist Bela Lugosi and test subject Tony McCoy thusly: "A man with a spaghetti strainer strapped to his head gets tortured by a photo enlarger on a microphone stand." Maybe not the greatest compliment in the world, but this is (again) one of the rare instances in which the stars of It Came from Hollywood bothers to name one of the movies he is mocking. Ed Wood might have very well appreciated the fact that he was getting some name recognition from a major studio production like this. After all, there's no such thing as bad publicity, right?
*Interestingly, one of the editors who labored on this movie was Janice Hampton, who was John Waters' resident cutter from Hairspray (1988) to Pecker (1998).

The ill-fated DVD release.
The viewing experience: That will vary greatly depending on what kind of viewer you are and how seriously you take your B-movies. As regular readers of this feature will know, I've taken a moderate, pragmatic stance on the "to laugh or not to laugh" issue when it comes to the work of Ed Wood and other low budget filmmakers of his era. While I never want to be snide or dismissive in these articles, I cannot help but be moved to laughter occasionally by these often-ridiculous, delirious movies. It was laughter that originally made me a fan of Ed Wood in the first place. If, however, you are one of those ultra-orthodox fans who cringe at the very thought of these science-fiction and horror films being treated disrespectfully, you will want to give It Came from Hollywood a wide berth. Certainly, such viewers will be offended to see such well-made and highly-regarded films as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and War of the Worlds (1953), included alongside and thus essentially equated with such no-budget bottom feeders as The Creeping Terror (1964), as if any older film that included monsters or aliens was inherently worthless.

Personally, that last point bothered me more in theory than in practice, since the jokes lobbed at these movies throughout It Came from Hollywood are strictly softballs. "On Earth, we throw a dog a bone. We don't turn him into bones," goes one of Dan Aykroyd's typically toothless non-zingers after witnessing an alien casually dispose of a defenseless pooch with a laser gun.

The script for It Came is credited to comedian and writer Dana Olsen, whose CV includes such cartoon-to-screen adaptations as George of the Jungle and Inspector Gadget. Olsen is currently working for an upcoming Nickelodeon series called Henry Danger. As you'd expect from those credits, Olsen's work here is innocuous -- amiable, if not exactly funny. (To his credit, Olsen has also written screenplays for beloved cult directors like John Carpenter, Greydon Clark, and Joe Dante.) Given the improvisational backgrounds of literally all the film's stars, it's difficult to say how much of the finished movie can truly be attributed to its screenwriter.

By any yardstick, however, the sketches in It Came from Hollywood are fairly weak, and the commentary by John Candy and the others is fairly puerile and witless. The clips themselves are the true stars here. The comedians mostly get in the way. I will say, though, that the hosts genuinely appear to be having fun, which in turn made this film more fun for me as a viewer. Aykroyd gets to ham it up as a German-accented mad scientist. Gilda Radner trots out her famous "Judy Miller" character, a hyperactive and talkative child, from Saturday Night Live. She also stars in one of the more successful interstitial routines, portraying a hapless housewife who all but destroys her own living room trying to heed the urgent advice of a radio announcer. And Cheech and Chong chortle at the pitifully-inaccurate depiction of the dope-smoking lifestyle in Reefer Madness (1936), with Chong pointing out that the potheads in that film don't hold the smoke in their lungs but just puff and puff.

John Candy: Canadian sincerity.
MST3K viewers will no doubt notice that a great many of the films excerpted in It Came From Hollywood were later used as full-length episodes of the long-running cable series. But MST took a sharper, more critical approach to the films it used whenever necessary (e.g. Jerry Warren's interminable The Wild World of Batwoman), diplomacy be damned, and their jokes tended to be specific, esoteric, and obscure. The humor in It Came from Hollywood, on the other hand, tends to focus on the same basic subjects over and over, namely the shoddiness of the props and sets, the stiffness of the acting, and the overall implausibility of the plots. The grand message of this film is: "Gee, aren't these old movies kooky, folks?" That's pretty much it.

Make no mistake: It Came From Hollywood is a PG-rated major studio comedy aimed at a broad audience. The actors in it are clearly playing to the gallery, to borrow an idiom from the theater.

Perhaps for more timid viewers, It Came could serve as a "gateway drug" to MST3K or at least a "sampler platter" of the sci-fi and horror flicks of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. If only the clips were better labeled, this would be a terrific "what to see next" guide for adventurous viewers. In addition, It Came from Hollywood is recommended to Ed Wood fans, as it is one of the first mainstream acknowledgements of the Wood cult, more than a decade before the famous Tim Burton-directed biopic. Although the principal point of this movie was to hold Ed and his work up for ridicule, it is difficult to become too offended by It Came from Hollywood.

A lot of that has to do with the onscreen persona of the late John Candy, who was one of the most gregarious and ingratiating screen personalities of the 1980s. With his tousled hair and rumpled, loose-fitting attire, Candy very much resembles an overgrown kid in this movie. And there's a touch of humble Canadian sincerity to this ostensibly comedic monologue, which Candy delivers about two-thirds of the way through:
You know, up until this point, there's been a lot of laughing and sneering going on, directed at some of the films we've been watching. And I've gotta admit, I've been laughing a bit myself. Thing is, you've gotta keep an open mind about these things. Most of these guys were working under a very tiny budget. And when that's the case, even the most fundamental things become difficult, if not impossible. Like makeup and wardrobe. Just because you can't afford the best doesn't mean it's bad filmmaking.
I'm sure Eddie would have agreed very heartily with that sentiment. After all, he knew from first-hand experience just how true those words were.

In two weeks: My humble little "Ed Wood Wednesdays" series takes a tuneful detour with its first album review. "The sick musical flowering of a twenty-year obsession with the extraordinary life, work, and sexual paraphilia of Ed Wood, Jr., pornographer, war-hero, director of unspeakable celluloid tortures, big-time lush and cross-dressing angora adorer." So says the ad for a bizarre concept LP about Poughkeepsie's favorite son. And it was created by a musician and journalist of some prominence, no less! How could I resist such a trinket? Mosey on back here in a fortnight, folks, when I sink my fangs into Josh Alan Friedman's The Worst! (2007)

Friday, April 25, 2014

My latest time-wasting nonsense: Pretentious Satan

What if the Father of All Lies turned out to be a snotty barista?

I'm in bed with a nasty cold on this fine spring day, so I thought I'd waste my time wisely.  One of the great side effects of taking vast amounts of over-the-counter cold remedies is that you start thinking of truly asinine, ridiculous things that you might otherwise never consider. Today, for instance, I started wondering what would happen if the Devil, the very personification of evil, were a snooty, judgmental urbanite. And now, ladies and gentlemen, I am ready to present to you my findings. I submit for your approval, PRETENTIOUS SATAN!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 37: "Bloomer Girl" (1972)

This charming DIY title sequence is perhaps the first clue that Bloomer Girl was an Ed Wood production.

"Confidentially, I even paratrooped wearing a brassiere and panties. I tell ya, I wasn't scared of being killed, but I was terrified of getting wounded and having the medics discover my secret."
-Ed (Johnny Depp) opens up to a producer in Ed Wood (1994)


"It's very interesting to me how quickly the classes have divided up into three factions. One faction being the students who sit in the back. Given up sitting in their assigned seats, preparing the cases. What is it, only October? They've already given up trying. Cowards. The second group are the ones who won't raise their hands or volunteer an answer, but will try when called upon. That's where I am, right now, living in a state of constant fear. And then there's the third echelon. The upper echelon. The volunteers. They raise their hands in class. They thrust themselves into the fray. I don't think they're smarter than anyone else, but they have courage. And they'll achieve the final recognition."
-Law student James (Timothy Bottoms) in The Paper Chase (1973)

Sexploitation king Harry H. Novak
The B-movie world lost an important link to its colorful past recently when producer and distributor Harry H. Novak died in Los Angeles at the age of 86 on March 26, 2014. "The Sexploitation King," the industry called him, and from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, he kept drive-in and grindhouse audiences well supplied with the sex, nudity, and bloody violence they wanted and demanded. From roughly 1964 to 1978, he did so under the auspices of his own company, Boxoffice International Pictures, whose familiar "globe" logo became a beacon to knowledgeable connoisseurs of cinematic sleaze. Among the most infamous and therefore beloved Boxoffice productions, all with tell-tale titles: Suburban Pagans (1968), Axe (1977), Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks (1974), Country Hooker (1974), The Mad Butcher (1971), and dozens more. Thanks to Novak's business acumen, showmanship, and ability to satiate his paying customers, the Chicago-born movie maven managed to do what Ed Wood, Steve Apostolof, and so many others in his profession failed to do: make a very decent living in the skin flick market.

In a lot of ways, Ed and Harry had parallel lives. Born only four years apart, they were both transplanted Angelinos, having moved to Hollywood ("the great salt lick," as it's called in Barton Fink) to be part of the ever-alluring entertainment industry. They both fought in World War II. They both worked for major studios early on, too. While Eddie spent a few months as a salaried employee at Universal, Novak lasted years at RKO in the studio's publicity department, supposedly honing his skills at hucksterism. Both Ed and Harry, however, truly made their names in low-budget independent pictures, generally of a disreputable nature. Part of Novak's success, at least according to one exhaustive survey of his career, derived from his habit of hiring talented people, both in front of and behind the camera. But, in truth, Harry and Ed worked with a lot of the same exact folks, including directors Pete Perry and Don Davis and performers like Valda Hansen (whom Ed originally discovered!), Marsha Jordan, Pat Barringer (aka Pat Barrington), and of course, the First Couple of Porn, Ric Lutze and Rene Bond, the stars of this week's feature.

Please Don't Eat My Mother one-sheet
In fact, I first saw Ric and Rene in one of Harry Novak's most memorable and eccentric productions: Please Don't Eat My Mother (1973), a crude but amusing update of Roger Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). The basic plot is the same: a nerdy guy with an overbearing mother and a dubious work history discovers that his plant can not only speak English but also possesses a taste for blood. In both flicks, the wily, cunning plant ultimately convinces its gullible owner to feed it human victims, causing it to grow exponentially. The difference, of course, is that in the Novak-produced film, which was directed by Carl Monson, the hapless antihero (portrayed by super-prolific character actor Buck Kartalian) is also a peeper, and most of the victims are naked, busty women. But the overgrown weed gobbles up a few fellas along the way, too. As you might guess, Ric Lutze and Rene Bond wind up as plant food in Please Don't Eat My Mother.

Ric and Rene were a real-life couple for years, too, but if the Internet Movie Database can be trusted, their brief marriage had ended in 1972. It didn't seem to affect their movie careers, though, as their filmographies continued to overlap and intertwine for several more years. What strikes me now, revisiting Novak's film after having watched this same couple in several Ed Wood movies, is that Ric and Rene constantly seem to be fighting onscreen, occasionally with serious consequences. And the arguments always seem to be about Ric's sexual potency... or lack thereof.

In Necromania (1971), written and directed by Ed Wood, Ric and Rene visit a necromancer because he can't satisfy her in bed or even maintain an erection. In The Snow Bunnies (1972), written by Ed but directed by Steve Apostolof, Rene accuses Ric of being both a transvestite and a homosexual when he fails to become aroused, so he beats her severely. In Please Don't Eat My Mother, meanwhile, Ric and Rene successfully make love -- all while our friendly peeper watches through the bedroom window -- but afterwards, Ric becomes paranoid that Rene is lying to him about her own orgasm and his sexual prowess. This escalates into a violent argument in which Ric threatens to kill Rene, but she gets to the gun first and shoots him dead.

It's truly surreal watching these two people, who obviously couldn't make their own marriage work, re-enact the same basic argument again and again in their movies. Does art imitate life or the other way around? I have no idea.

 What's also amusing is that Please Don't Eat My Mother was clearly made after Rene Bond's breast augmentation surgery, which apparently happened in either late 1971 or early 1972 and must be one of the worst-kept secrets in sexploitation history. In Necromania, she is basically flat-chested. Not exactly "two aspirins on an ironing board" flat, but not busty by any means either, at least not by porn star standards. In the films she made for Stephen Apostolof the very next year, however, she sports the bulbous, balloon-shaped appendages for which she was well-known. A persistent urban legend is that Harry Novak himself paid for those famous balloons. On Something Weird Video's special edition DVD of Please Don't Eat My Mother from 2001, SWV founder Mike Vraney asks Novak about it, and the producer neither confirms nor denies the story. He says that he never fraternized with actors in any way, with the exception of Marsha Jordan (who was also long-time friends with Don Davis), and never liked to deal with them directly.

If Boxoffice International Pictures financed Rene Bond's notorious boob job, it would have been handled by one of Harry Novak's partners or subordinates. He does say, however, that Rene didn't "feel feminine" until she got those artificial breasts. Ironically, in Please Don't Eat My Mother, Ric and Rene's characters have just come home from a "dirty movie" starring a "big-titted broad." Rene frets that her own attributes are insufficient in comparison, but Ric assures her, "I like you just the way you are." Keep in mind, this is definitely after Rene's surgery.

Something Weird's Mike Vraney (1957-2014)
In 1978, the same year that Ed Wood died, Boxoffice Pictures also bit the dust -- a victim of various, undefined legal woes. Undaunted, Harry Novak started a new venture with an equally-auspicious name, Valiant International Pictures. This time, however, the focus was on hardcore pornography, while Boxoffice had been strictly softcore and horror. Among this new company's output was Sissy's Hot Summer (1979) starring the one and only John Holmes. Novak stayed in the porno game a while longer but had retired by the mid-1980s. In his autumn years, he did participate in the DVD re-releases of several of his 1960s and 1970s productions through Something Weird Video. In fact, SWV's print of For Love & Money (1967), a film directed by Don Davis and based on a novel by Ed Wood, came from Novak's own personal collection.

The conversations between Mike Vraney and Harry Novak on the Something Weird special editions are chatty, funny, and informative -- a valuable resource for anyone researching the history of exploitation cinema. Vraney, too, died in 2014 at the age of 56 after a long battle with lung cancer that he largely kept hidden from the outside world, apart from a few relatives and close friends. It's difficult to imagine that both Harry and Mike are gone now.

To honor Mike, one of the greatest collectors and historians of B-movies the world has ever known, I am choosing this week to spotlight one of the more obscure titles in the vast Something Weird archives, the kind of movie that might otherwise be totally overlooked or forgotten. The film in question has no production logos or credits, so it's difficult to tell exactly who made it. It wouldn't have been Harry Novak, though, since it was released well before Harry got into the hardcore racket. Besides, the script and overall production values are well below the usual standards of Boxoffice International Pictures. But Novak did have an effect on this movie, albeit an indirect one. After all, it does feature the cosmetically-enhanced body of one Ms. Rene Bond, made possible by a generous grant from the Harry Novak Foundation, so to speak.

The reason why I'm including this obscure stag film as part of my ongoing series, however, is that there is just a ghost of a chance that it was written and directed by Eddie Wood himself. Was it? Let's find out...

BLOOMER GIRL (1972)

Love is in bloom for Ric Lutze.

Alternate titles: Panty Girls [the film's original title and still the one under which it is best known]; Panty Party

Availability: The film is available from Something Weird Video on a DVD-R entitled Dragon Art Theatre Double Feature Vol. 175: Bloomer Girl/Peacock Lady. The other film on the disc was originally released as Two Hours on Sunday in 1973 and features such familiar performers as Jack King (from One Million AC/DC), Starlyn Simone (from The Class Reunion), and Rick Cassidy (from Hot Ice and The Beach Bunnies).

A class act all the way: Radley Metzger
The backstory: If you think that I've already done a lot of articles about movies from 1972, it's because I have. It was a big year for the pornographic film industry. If 1991 was the year punk broke, then 1972 was the year porn broke. For the first time, sexually-explicit films gained mainstream, if temporary and conditional, acceptance in the United States. Actors and directors who worked in the X-rated film industry during its Golden Age in the 1970s repeatedly attest that there were distinct levels of quality and respectability within porn during this exciting time, and they lament that those at the bottom eventually crowded out those at the top.

When I read interviews with these folks and come across such comments, I'm reminded of Timothy Bottoms' monologue from The Paper Chase (1973) in which he discusses the various "echelons" in his Harvard law class. Bottoms divides his fellow students into only three distinct levels, but I think there are actually more subtle gradations than that in the world of filmic erotica. In the upper echelon of porn, one supposes, are the "boutique" directors like Radley Metzger, whose films including The Lickerish Quartet (1970) and The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1975) have attracted serious critical attention outside the insulated world of pornography.

There existed in the 1970s, a breed of X-rated filmmakers who aimed a little higher than the garden variety smut peddlers and actually put thought into such niceties as plot, character, and overall mise-en-scène. For example, the Mitchell Brothers' Behind the Green Door (1972), starring former "Ivory Snow Girl" Marilyn Chambers, was artsy and abstract, which perhaps helped it attract a higher class of clientele at the box office. More intellectual, less savage, you might say.

At the complete opposite end of the scale, occupying the lowest possible echelon of porn, we have those mercenary filmmakers who made absolutely plotless and shameless short films (about 10 minutes in length) called "loops," meant to be shown in sad, lonely booths at sad, lonely peep shows.

But there were lots of strata in between these two extremes. Take a filmmaker like Steven Apostolof. His films technically were not hardcore, since they didn't actually contain real on-screen sex. (His actors and actresses came as close as they possibly could, though.) This meant that Steve's films could play in places where hardcore movies were still unwelcome. As morally and artistically dubious as they may have been, the Apostolof movies always had at least some semblance of a plot and usually contained a mixture of location and studio footage.

Several rungs below that on the ladder of respectability, but still somewhat above the "loops," were the films called "one-day wonders." As the name implies, these were feature-length pornographic films which were shot very quickly, generally in just a day or two and often at a private residence. Obviously, with such a tight shooting schedule, there wasn't enough time to develop characters, tell a coherent story, or compose fancy-looking shots. Instead, such a movie would quickly establish some very contrived reason for its characters to have sex and then devote the rest of its screen time to artless, matter-of-fact depictions of fornication.

Some of the classier porn stars had nothing but contempt for the "one-day wonders" and refused to do them. Others swallowed their pride (along with some other things, no doubt) and appeared in them because, hey, a buck's a buck. In his autobiography, 10 1/2 (Zebra Books, 1975), the late, legendary porn actor Marc Stevens discusses doing these quickie films simply as a reality of life in the field of adult entertainment.

Bloomer Girl made it to DVD.
Bloomer Girl has all the earmarks of being a "one-day wonder." Apart from a very brief driving scene, the rest of the film takes place in one indoor location, a privately owned home somewhere in the Los Angeles area. And even there, the festivities are largely limited to three rooms, all just a few feet away from each other. Joe Rubin of the "Adult Films 1968-1988" Facebook group informs me that "the house in which the film was shot was one of the more commonly used properties in early 70s LA shot XXX films, turning up in numerous one-day-wonders and even a few all male films like David Allen's 2 hour epic, Light from the Second Story Window (1973)." In fact, reports Joe, two of the cast members of Bloomer Girl have a particular history with this house."Most of the straight films it appears in have Cyndee Summers in them," he says, "and nearly all of the films, straight and all male, have Rick Cassidy in them." So these performers would have been right at home, so to speak, while making Bloomer Girl.

The action in this film starts in the large living room, which comes complete with some groovy wicker furniture and a crimson-colored shag rug, then migrates to the master bedroom down the hall. Along the way, there's one brief detour to the bathroom for an obligatory shower scene. But that's all the scenic variety you're going to get from this flick.

There are no names in the opening or closing credits, not even pseudonyms or production company logos, because nobody was going to boast about participating in its making. This was not one to put on the resume. This was more of a "take the money and run" scenario: the kind of film that was made very quickly so that it could be shipped out to establishments with names like the Kitty Kat Theatre, where frustrated, middle-aged businessmen might watch it over their lunch breaks. It even conveniently clocks in at just under an hour. It's the kind of thing I can imagine Travis Bickle watching in Taxi Driver (1976). The fact that a print of Bloomer Girl survived long enough to be digitized and immortalized by Something Weird Video is a minor miracle. By all rights, this is the kind of ephemera which might otherwise disappear and not even be mourned.

Ric and Rene found a formula (literally) for love.
Perhaps one factor that saved this movie from extinction and oblivion was its cast. There are only six people in Bloomer Girl. And I mean literally six people. You won't even see one background extra the entire time, although you will hear extraneous traffic noise coming from outside the house now and again. As fate would have it, the half-dozen eager thespians in this movie all had pretty substantial careers in the adult film industry during the 1970s, enough to warrant having multiple onscreen pseudonyms for each of them.

Of course, the star attraction is Ms. Rene Bond, the so-called "porn princess" about whom I have already written a great deal. Rene seemed comfortable at just about any echelon where she happened to find herself on any given day. And just about wherever Rene went in the early 1970s, her real life sweetie Ric Lutze was sure to follow. In truth, they made a natural and attractive onscreen couple with obvious audience appeal since they looked like they could have been the head cheerleader and the captain of the football team at any number of suburban high schools.

No matter what raunchy things they were doing in their movies, Rene and Ric always seemed healthy and wholesome. That's why I call them the Barbie and Ken of porn. I mean that as a compliment. I've already discussed Rene's chipmunk-esque cuteness and innate likability in previous articles. As porn actresses go, she has an admirable range, which was probably why she scored so many assignments in so many movies for so many directors. The pampered daughter of proud, upper-middle-class parents, Rene could turn on the honeyed charm any time she liked and often played the part of the archetypal "California Girl" right out of a Beach Boys song. But generally, Rene's characters (including the one she portrayed in Bloomer Girl) had a dark undercurrent to them and could become enraged in a matter of seconds.

Ric, meanwhile, was svelte and physically fit, though not musclebound or imposing. His most distinctive feature was probably his wavy, cinnamon-colored hair, which he wore in a unisex style nearly down to his shoulders. He was fairly good with dialogue and often played generic nice guys (as he does in The Class Reunion). But his characters, too, could turn on you if you weren't careful and display a nasty temper (as he does in The Snow Bunnies). One trait that he demonstrates repeatedly in Bloomer Girl that I hadn't noticed in his other movies is a goofy, Elmer Fudd-type laugh.

Sexually, Ric is a reliable if unimaginative performer. According to Mike Vraney on the Please Don't Eat My Mother DVD, Ric and Rene had a template for their lovemaking scenes which they followed in movie after movie, doing the same basic moves in the same order again and again. Sadly, my sources inform me that Ric Lutze passed away about a decade ago, though he did live long enough to be interviewed by Rudolph Grey for Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. in the early 1990s.

Margo/Tina in Bloomer Girl (left) and a pinup photo (right).
If nothing else, Bloomer Girl is perfectly balanced in terms of gender. There are three guys and three gals, all Caucasian, all likely in their 20s. Besides Lutze, the two other "studs" in this flick are Rick Cassidy (whose amusing noms de porno include Reggie Balls, Dick Cassidy, and Rod Marine) and Franklin Anthony. Cassidy, you may remember, appeared in the R-rated 1976 softcore film The Beach Bunnies, which was written by Ed Wood and directed by Steve Apostolof. (If you follow that link to the article, you'll find an intriguing quote from Rick on the nature of acting in pornographic films.) He appears muscular and broad-shouldered, with a physique that reminded me somewhat of Peter Hinwood in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and has an understated, soft-spoken demeanor. The relatively scrawny Franklin Anthony, who portrays Cassidy's sidekick in this movie, rather resembles a cross between Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin' Spoonful and Annie Hall-era Paul Simon. He seems like a nice enough guy, probably destined to be a second-stringer.

On the distaff side, we have Cyndee Summers and Tina Smith, the latter of whom is better known as Margot Kennedy. A native of Los Angeles, Summers (1949-2009) is a sweet-faced, slim-bodied redhead with a cheerful disposition. She got started in porn around 1970, when she was roughly 21, and kept at it until the early-to-mid 1990s. She has a fresh-faced, unspoiled appearance in this movie, which occurred very early in her career. As the years rolled on, though, Summers morphed into a heavily-made-up Jessica Rabbit type vamp.

As for Tina Smith/Margot Kennedy, well, it turns out she has something of a cult following. A busty brunette with prominent dark eyebrows, her most high-profile role was in a softcore film called The Pig Keeper's Daughter (1972), produced by (you guessed it) Harry H. Novak for Boxoffice International Pictures. She worked in both hardcore and softcore flicks from roughly 1970 to 1976 and did some pinup modeling, too, before vanishing into the great grey unknown. Although her career was somewhat brief, she obviously attracted some fans who retained fond memories of her for decades, as evidenced by this Yahoo! fan group.

A relevant excerpt from the Ed Wood Apocrypha.
But why, I can hear you asking, am I even covering Bloomer Girl as part of this series if it has no identifying credits and therefore cannot be attributed with certainty to anyone, let alone Ed Wood? Well, readers, the credit (or blame) must go to an Ed Wood fan -- his identity now lost to time -- who sent an e-mail to Philip R. Frey, curator of the Internet's preeminent Ed Wood website, suggesting that this film was directed by Wood himself. So respected is Frey in the field of Wood-ology, I must point out, that Legend Films tasked him with assembling the trivia track on its DVD and Blu-Ray release of Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Rob Craig, author of the guidebook Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Study of the Films, also relied heavily on Frey's research in the composition of his book. The motives and methods of the original e-mailer remain unknown.

What is known, however, is that Frey added this movie, under its original Panty Girls title, to the roster of Ed Wood Apocrypha with the notation [FA] denoting "fan attribution." I have scanned this list many times, but somehow the title Panty Girls did not jump out at me as it should have. I probably figured it was yet another of Ed's "lost" films, until faithful reader Douglas North (aka hifithepanda) informed me otherwise.

The film itself was actually a breeze to track down, and once I'd watched the first five minutes of it, I decided there was sufficient evidence to award the rechristened Bloomer Girl a full-length write-up in Ed Wood Wednesdays. The presence of Ric Lutze and Rene Bond, the stars of Ed Wood's own, nearly-contemporaneous Necromania (1971), was encouraging. Furthermore, the timeline seemed about right, since Eddie would definitely have been involved in the making of hardcore features and loops circa 1972. Besides -- and here I venture into the realm of pure speculation -- Bloomer Girl seemed to me to have certain thematic and aesthetic connections to the Ed Wood canon. These, of course, I will discuss in greater detail in the next section.

Ron discovers Linda and June in the shower together.
The viewing experience: Undeniably intriguing at first, then rather monotonous and repetitive in the tradition of many porn films. Judged purely as a standalone movie, Bloomer Girl is mildly enjoyable as a snapshot of the turbulent era in which it was made but not especially compelling. Had I not been viewing this film in the name of Ed Wood scholarship, I might not have stuck with Bloomer Girl for its entire, overgenerous 57-minute running time. The plot, such as it is, exists merely as a flimsy pretense for many extended lovemaking interludes. These sex scenes, at least from my perspective, felt desultory and uninspired. Bloomer Girl is not as blatantly unappetizing and anti-erotic as The Love Feast (1969) but is still fairly feeble as an audio-visual aphrodisiac.

The story, if one may call it such, is exceedingly simple. Ron (Ric Lutze) is a designer of women's underwear, and he has hired a pair of models, Sue (Cyndee Summers) and Linda (Tina Smith), to demonstrate his wares, specifically a line of "Pretty Panties," to a group of buyers who are due to arrive in a few minutes. Ron vaguely implies to Sue and Linda that they are to cater to the needs of the customers, i.e. serve as prostitutes.

In the quarter-hour before the arrival of his guests, Ron has sex with Sue on the floor while Linda watches. Then Sue and Linda depart to prepare themselves for the upcoming fashion show. In the film's only outdoor scene, we watch as the main buyer, Charles (Rick Cassidy), drives his white compact car through the Hollywood hills to Ron's wood-paneled house. Accompanying him on this "business trip" are his secretary and lover, June (Rene Bond) and his partner Bob (Franklin Anderson). Ron barely has time to put his clothes on when Charles and the gang show up at his doorstep. Before the girls model the panties, June visits the restroom, where she finds -- and joins -- Linda in the shower for a brief makeout session.

Then it's time for Linda and Sue to demonstrate Ron's "Pretty Panties." The fashion show goes over exceedingly well and quickly turns into an orgy. Ron pairs up with June, Charles with Sue, and Bob with Linda. Suddenly, June becomes jealous that Sue is spending so much time with her boss, and an abortive catfight ensues. June storms off to the master bedroom to sulk, so Sue goes after her to try and make peace. Naturally, this develops into another lesbian love scene, with June initiating the rather naive Sue into the world of sapphic experimentation. ("I never knew it could be like this!" Sue exclaims.) Ron discovers them scissoring in his bed, and soon he and June resume their previous lovemaking, while Sue is relegated to the role of a spectator.

Then, the remaining characters also enter the bedroom and engage in the film's second and final orgy. While Ron and June watch from the sidelines, seemingly content in each other's company, the film's two other couples make love on what must be Ron's bed. Again, Charles is paired with Sue, while Bob is paired with Linda. And, in case you were curious, Charles and Bob say they will be purchasing some of Ron's feminine undergarments. The end.

A charming, homey touch
Nothing special, right? What denotes this movie as the work of Edward D. Wood, Jr.?

Well, the most obvious factor is the movie's obsessive and narrow focus on women's undergarments. It is well documented that Eddie wore ladies' panties himself on occasion, and he often went out of his way to include detailed depictions of lingerie in his film scripts (e.g. Glen or Glenda?, The Snow Bunnies) as well as his novels (e.g. Killer in Drag, Devil Girls), focusing especially on how sheer or lacy these items are. So it's only natural that Eddie would make an entire movie about the marketing of panties. And there are some doozies on display in this movie, including "spider web" panties and a pair of "peek-a-boo" drawers with a ripcord in the crotch! This script was obviously the creation of someone who spent a good deal of time thinking about women's underwear. And who in the porn biz ruminated on that subject more than Ed Wood? Along those lines, I was further charmed by the movie's old-fashioned alternate title, Bloomer Girl, because who was still saying "bloomers" by 1972 besides an aficionado like Ed Wood, who was born in the mid-1920s?

The title sequence, too, is intriguing even though it lasts only a few seconds. While bongos echo furiously on the soundtrack, we see a title card with an assortment of colorful "unmentionables" arranged around the words BLOOMER GIRL spelled out, rather crookedly, in tiny white plastic letters against a grayish backdrop. Delightfully, the movie concludes with a matching title card which has the words THE END displayed in a similar fashion. That's one of the few things about this movie which doesn't seem lazy and perfunctory. It's a nice, eccentric little flourish -- the kind I associate with Eddie's work.

And just like a true Ed Wood movie, Bloomer Girl starts with a big chunk of clumsy but heartfelt expository dialogue.
Ron's living room. He is kneeling on a shag rug in front of his two models, giving them a pre-show pep talk. Sue is curled up on a wicker love seat, while Linda is perched like a bird in a wicker chair which hangs from the ceiling. 
Ron: (claps his hands once) Okay, I think we've gone over everything! Now, the buyers should be here in about 15 minutes. Are there any questions? 
Sue: Can we just go over all of this once more? 
Ron: Sure.  
Sue: The guys arrive, and we wait in the other room until you call us out by name. Right? 
Ron: Right! 
Linda: Then we sway sensuously across the room, trying to look like the sexiest things ever, all because of Ron's Pretty Panties. 
Ron: (clapping) That's it, sugar! That's it! Now, look, I wanna make a reeeeaaalllly big sale outta this, so I want you girls to really be nice to these guys. You know, pamper 'em a little bit. Okay? 
Linda: Just how far do we pamper them? 
Ron: Aw, now, look. You girls are the bosses as far as these guys are concerned. I mean, you know, they're kinda country. All right? So, look, as soon as they see your cute, pretty little fannies and those little bodies of yours, you'll have 'em eatin' right outta your hand. And that's what I want, okay, to make this SALE! 
He slaps his palm on the floor for emphasis.

Rene Bond, clad in a towel, in a groovy 1970s kitchen.
Lines like the ones above would not be out of place, believe me, in Ed's screenplays and stories from the 1960s and 1970s. There are further Wood-ian touches in the film as well. Rene Bond once again plays a secretary who has a sexual relationship with her boss, just as she did in The Cocktail Hostesses. And during the sales pitch, Ron claims that his Pretty Panties are based on the underwear of real Hollywood actresses, which seems like the kind of detail that a star-struck, glamour-obsessed fellow like Eddie might have thrown into a script.

Of course, no Ed Wood movie would be complete if it didn't contain a baffling plot twist in the last act, the narrative equivalent of an unsignaled left turn. Well, this movie has one in the form of Rene Bond's totally out-of-nowhere temper tantrum. Now, even though her character, June, is supposed to be Charles' girlfriend, she spends virtually the entire movie with Ron! In fact, Ron and June make love just a few inches away from Charles and Sue for many, many minutes. So June has no real cause to become jealous and possessive, but that's just what she does. She and Ron take a break from their amorous activities, and it's only then that she realizes that Charles, too, is canoodling with someone else. This proves to be more than she can take! "That's enough of my man, bitch!" she yells at a rightfully-bewildered Sue. (As we've seen in Fugitive Girls, Rene Bond has a certain way with the word "bitch.") There's a too-brief physical altercation between the two women in which June smashes some crockery from Ron's groovy adjacent kitchen with its funky multicolored cabinets. Then, she storms off to the bedroom, and there's a fairly hilarious scene in which the other characters clean the shards of broken dishes off the floor. I appreciated the fact that Bloomer Girl takes the time to depict this totally non-sexual activity. It adds much-needed texture to this little film.

I also couldn't help but notice that some of the actresses looked very bored when they were sitting in the background, watching other people have sex. Those are the kinds of things that you don't see in more "slick," polished films but which are common in Ed Wood's movies. And who but Eddie would have written the following monologue, which is assigned to Ric Lutze:
The clothes make the man! Don't you ever forget that! And the panties make the chick! Every girl looks better in my panties than they do in the nude, I'll tell you that right now. Right? Do you think they wanna see that pubic hair? Huh? You think that turns 'em on at the beach?
This is a profoundly Wood-ian statement and fits neatly with the philosophy expressed by the main character in Ed's 1963 novel, Killer in Drag. In that story, you may remember, the protagonist was a fastidious transvestite who hated to be completely nude even for a second and went to some lengths to avoid that state. So, while the true authorship of Bloomer Girl may remain forever a mystery, this movie can nestle cozily among the other films on Ed Wood's bizarre and varied resume.

In two weeks: In 1982, Ed Wood appeared prominently in a film which was released by a major studio and whose cast included some of the biggest comedians in Hollywood, including folks from Saturday Night Live and SCTV. That's the good news. The bad news is that the movie in question was released on the fourth anniversary of Eddie's untimely demise, so he wasn't exactly in a position to enjoy it. How about that, huh? While this particular flick introduced many viewers to Ed Wood who otherwise may never have heard of him or his work, it was also partially responsible for cementing Eddie's undeserved reputation as a laughingstock, coming two years after the publication of The Golden Turkey Awards. Was this movie a boon or a curse? Both? Neither? We'll sort all that out in 14 days when I take a close look at It Came From Hollywood (1982).

Saturday, April 12, 2014

I'm concerned that you haven't been having enough nightmares lately, so here's this thing.


He's saying, "Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom!"

"Let me say this about that..."

I'm kind of obsessed with wax museums, and I especially love bad wax figures. In my travels, I happened to come across this nice little roundup of 31 of them on Buzzfeed. I was especially taken with the hideous paraffin effigy of Richard Milhous Nixon which closes the article. Tricky Dick kind of looked like a ventriloquist dummy, so I decided to animate the image and make this little mini art piece out of it. I hope you don't enjoy it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Brief updates about my exciting, eventful life

Title card from new new video which lampoons AMC's Mad Men.

Happy Friday, one and all!

Josh Fruhlinger's blog, The Comics Curmudgeon
Just wanted to give my readers (all both of you) an update on some recent happenings involving your humble blogger. First, I landed another article in the Onion AV Club. This one was a change of pace since it was based on an assigned topic from an editor rather than one I pitched myself. But, still, I hope it turned out well. It's about a fake trailer which reimagines the popular cable drama Mad Men as a 1970s blaxploitation film. Please do go read it and watch the video while you're at it, too. The fake trailer, which was apparently made by a real-life advertising firm, is exceptionally well-produced and is fun whether or not you're a Mad Men junkie. Secondly, and now we're entering truly arcane territory, I was thrilled to have one of my smart-alecky remarks named the Comment of the Week at Josh Frulinger's venerable blog, The Comics Curmudgeon. Josh writes with incredible wit and insight about newspaper comics, and his blog has attracted a large and loyal fan base who come up with some very funny observations of their own. This little victory was especially sweet because my comment was about one of the soap strips, Apartment 3-G, which are always much, much funnier than the comic strips which are intentionally comedic. Anyway, these two little things made my day. Unless something awful happens in the next six hours, I'm going to declare today a success.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mill Creek Comedy Classics #78 : "That Uncertain Feeling" (1941)

Burgess Meredith is an unlikely homewrecker in That Uncertain Feeling.


The flick: That Uncertain Feeling (United Artists release of an Ernst Lubitsch/Sol Lesser production, 1941) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.9

Director Ernst Lubitsch
Director: Ernst Lubitsch (highly esteemed German-born director known for his witty comedies like The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be, and Ninotchka; given an honorary Oscar in 1947, the same year he died at age 55; his films were touted as having "the Lubitsch touch")

Actors of note: Merle Oberon (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Wuthering Heights, The Private Life of Henry VIII; Oscar-nominated for The Dark Angel), Melvyn Douglas (Oscar winner for Being There and Hud; other films include The Tenant, The Candidate, Captains Courageous, and Lubitsch's Ninotchka), Burgess Meredith (Oscar nominated for Rocky and The Day of the Locust; other films in his six-decade career include Grumpy Old Men, Clash of the Titans, Foul Play; well known for roles on TV's Batman and The Twilight Zone), Alan Mowbray (The Villain Still Pursued Her), Harry Davenport (long-time stage actor with late-blooming film career; credits include Gone with the Wind, You Can't Take it With You, The Ox-Bow Incident, and Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent), Eve Arden (Three Husbands), Olive Blakeney (Auntie Mame, Leave Her to Heaven; lots of TV work on shows like Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, and The Donna Reed Show), Sig Ruman (Nothing Sacred), Richard Carle (also appeared in Lubitsch's Ninotchka and The Merry Widow; other appearances include San Francisco, The Devil and Miss Jones, and Preston Sturges' The Great McGinty)

The gist of it: After six years of marriage, bored and pampered housewife Jill Baker (Oberon) is starting to have psychosomatic hiccuping spells. At the urging of her friends, she visits Dr. Vengard (Mowbray), who quickly discovers the root of the problem: she's become resentful of her husband, Larry (Douglas), a well-to-do insurance man. While Jill diets, Larry feasts. While Jill sits up with insomnia, Larry slumbers peacefully. While Jill frets about her day, Larry cheerfully tunes her out. Mr. Baker, it seems, is just a contented married man who cannot fathom why his wife should have any complaints when everything she wants is handed to her. Instead, he concentrates on landing his next big account.

While sitting in Dr. Vengard's waiting room, Jill meets eccentric pianist Alexander Sebastian (Meredith), a curmudgeonly nonconformist whose philosophy of the world boils down to his catchphrase: "Phooey!" Jill has never met anyone like Alexander, who introduces her to modern art and classical music, and she becomes enamored of him, much to Larry's dismay. Things come to a head when Larry arrives home early from work to surprise Jill, only to realize that she was expecting Alexander instead! Knowing that Jill's fixation on Alexander -- whose piano-playing is loud and near-constant -- is a temporary whim, he decides to initiate divorce proceedings. His hope is that she will give up the silly little piano man and come running back to her husband. Will she?

Meredith, Oberon, and Douglas: Three virtuoso performers.
My take: That Uncertain Feeling was not a box office success at the time of its release, and film historians do not rate it among Ernst Lubitsch's best films. It generally gets filed away in the "good but not quite great" category. (The IMDb's users dutifully regurgitate this "accepted" belief.)

I doubt my little review will reverse 70+ years of history, but I strongly feel that this sharp, funny little comedy deserves to be rediscovered. I know this can be difficult for "serious" cinephiles, but maybe it's best to temporarily forget about the director's other films and just concentrate on the one that's right in front of you.

There are so many good lines and funny moments in That Uncertain Feeling, it's a shame to let them go to waste simply because this isn't Ninotchka. As part of this project, I've watched dozens of comedies from the '30s and '40s, and I can tell you that this one is in the top 5% in terms of quality. Besides, Uncertain is in the public domain and available for free, so what do you have to lose except an hour and a half of your time?

Lubitsch has an excellent cast at his disposal, and his talent for working with actors is easy to see. The quips are flying at 90 mph, and Oberon, Douglas, and especially Meredith deliver them with enviable skill. If you are a student of comedy, there is so much to learn here about the importance of posture and inflection and body language. The actors don't really ham it up in the Vaudeville style that's so common to these movies. The cast is operating at a whole other level. It's like comparing a symphony orchestra to granddad's jug band.

Don't get the impression that That Uncertain Feeling is "perfect" (whatever that means) or some kind of unassailable masterpiece. Ultimately, it is just a silly little comedy. But I'd say it's a gourmet silly little comedy.

Critics can -- and usually do -- point out that the film's plot is flimsy and implausible. Here, after all, are two very immature people playing a ridiculous game of "chicken" with their marriage, essentially daring the other to be the first to flinch. I doubt people would truly behave this way. But then again, maybe they might. I mean, human beings are pretty thick-headed and irresponsible, especially when it comes to marriage. So the plot is not entirely outside the realm of possibility.

If there was something that bothered me, it's that Larry Baker really is sort of an oblivious clod, and Jill Baker does have some legitimate complaints about the way she's treated in her marriage. But this is the 1940s, so it's preordained that Jill will be exposed as a selfish ninny who realizes, almost too late, the error of her ways while Larry learns absolutely nothing.

This also requires turning Burgess Meredith into the film's villain, so about midway through the movie, the script makes him a greedy, petulant, peevish little coward. That's a disappointment, because when he first appears in this movie, he's so drastically different from everyone else in Merle Oberon's life that it's easy to see why she'd fixate on him. Jill's married life seems pretty stifling and homogeneous, so can we really blame her for looking elsewhere in her search for meaning and fulfillment?

Is it funny: I've already referred to it as "funny," so yes. The laughs start pretty early and really don't let up until the end. Burgess Meredith gets the majority of the good lines as Alexander, who rants about just about everything which crosses his path. But looking back on the film, Meredith does a lot of quite-good physical or at least non-verbal comedy in the film, too, as when he pitifully hides behind a lamp to somehow escape the wrath of a jealous husband. Or when he continually places a knick-knack he finds offensive in a drawer so he doesn't have to look at it. Or when he repeatedly gets up from the piano bench before playing so much as a note in order to whisper various demands to Merle Oberon. (Things have to be just so before he'll play.)

At first, I worried that Melvyn Douglas was just going to be a boring nice guy throughout the movie, but his character turns into something much more interesting once he realizes his wife is infatuated with another man. Critics and civilians alike refer to this movie as "lightweight" and "frivolous," but Douglas goes down some darkly funny paths here, like when he brings Burgess Meredith into his den in order to alternately flatter and threaten him.

And then there's the movie's most twisted, unimaginable-by-today's-standards scene in which poor Larry has to work up his courage to slap Jill across the face in front of a witness as part of their divorce proceedings. Yes, he has to do this for legal reasons! Trust me, it makes sense in context... sort of.

My grade: A-



P.S. - No racial stereotypes in sight, but this was released several months before the United States entered WW2, so it was still possible for Melvyn Douglas to briefly imitate Hitler and do a Nazi salute as part of an otherwise-lighthearted scene.