Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays: Bela's Letter to a Fan by Greg Dziawer

This ad for The Bela Lugosi Revue appeared in The Las Vegas Sun in February 1954.

NOTE: Happy greetings and seasons holidays, dear readers! Before I head out of town to visit relatives for Christmas, I thought I'd post this week's Ed Wood Wednesdays. Again, it comes to us through the courtesy of Mr. Greg Dziawer, who has been delving through the archives to find rarities related to Edward D. Wood, Jr. This week, he has discovered a most interesting document: a 1954 letter supposedly penned by Bela Lugosi with a brief addendum by Ed Wood himself. Please enjoy and have the merriest of Christmases. I'll see you on the other side of the holiday. J.B.

Image courtesy of the Movie Monster Museum.

Ed Wood clearly wrote this entire letter, signed from Bela in response to a fan – not just the added note to encourage others to write Bela, signed by Ed as Bela's "Producer." The letter perfectly summarizes the projects Bela and Ed were then working on. On March 19, 1954, Bela was in the second and last month of a run at the Silver Slipper ("More & More Jackpots") in Las Vegas. The Bela Lugosi Revue was a burlesque show, spoofing among other things Dracula, Bela hosted four shows a night – the first at 9pm, the last at 2:30am - for two straight months. He checked himself into rehab just a few months later. The show featured Tere Sheehan's ("The Girl in the Champagne Glass") burlesque act, "Champagne Fantasy," which she performed at the Slipper through the 1950s as part of Hank Henry's house troupe.

(left) The Silver Slipper advertises The Bela Lugosi Revue.
(right) Pull da string! Tere Sheehan's Champagne Fantasy.

The fan, whose first name is redacted, was easily identified as Henry Mazzeo, Jr. of Yonkers, who also submitted a letter to "Dear Uncle Creepy" in the sixth issue of Warren's Creepy magazine, from 1964, making the controversial claim that vampires can come out in sunlight. Reading between the lines of the letter, the "group" Ed refers to that Henry is urged to encourage to write Bela is a fan club.

Henry Mazzeo wrote more than just fan letters.

Don't just take my word on it that Ed wrote this entire response. On an IMDb board in 2012, a user called billymac107 made this astute observation:
I came across a letter from Bela to a fan which was obviously typed by Ed, I say obviously because as I am sure you are aware Ed was a lighting fast typist and if you examine the letter you can see that most of the capital letters are at a different level than the rest of the text, indicating the shift key did not have time to properly return, if you get my meaning.
Speaking of which, makes me wonder if Bela could even type?

Happy Holidays!

Special thanks to Movie Monster Museum for their help with this article.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Did Frank Zappa somehow predict Mötley Crüe?

Frank Zappa (black tux, yellow shirt) on the cover of his Tinseltown Rebellion album.

The infamous glam metal outfit Mötley Crüe formed in 1981, the same year Frank Zappa released his mostly-live Tinseltown Rebellion album. Why is that significant? Well, the title track of Zappa's LP is a screed against the shallow, image-conscious music scene in Los Angeles. Two genres, punk and new wave, are mentioned specifically in the harsh, satirical lyrics. The song is about how musicians in L.A. were more concerned with how they looked than how they sounded, leading to a glut of crappy, amateurish music. According to "Tinseltown Rebellion," the bars and clubs in Hollywood were being besieged in the early 1980s by "record company pricks" looking for flash-in-the-pan acts to exploit and then most likely abandon after "a week or two perhaps," and there were plenty of young musicians lining up to be exploited in this way.

In his lengthy Zappa-analyzing book, The Negative Dialetics of Poodle Play, author and punk loyalist Ben Watson takes Frank to task for unfairly and inaccurately portraying punk rock here. Real punkers, he insist, did not use cocaine, as Frank alleged in "Tinseltown Rebellion." Sure, the arena rockers of the 1970s snorted plenty of the stuff, but punk was rebelling against all that. Besides, Watson argues, punk rockers couldn't have even afforded coke if they'd wanted it back then. It was an expensive drug, and punk was commercially negligible in those days. I might argue that Zappa also mentions new wave, a slicker, more commercial genre that rose from punk. Certainly by 1981, some new wavers were selling enough records, tickets, and T-shirts to afford cocaine. Whether they did or not, I don't know. But they could have if they'd wanted to, is my point.

Maybe Frank Zappa was just using the terms "punk" and "new wave" because those were the only labels available to him at the time to describe a kind of music that was cropping up in Los Angeles in the 1980s. I mentioned at the start of this article that Mötley Crüe formed in '81. They were, of course, a fixture of the Los Angeles club scene in the 1980s, but I don't think anyone would describe them as punk or new wave. Not by a long shot. Instead, they were part of a movement now known as "glam metal" or "hair metal," a subgenre that definitely did regrettably emphasize image at the expense of music. Zappa would not have known who Mötley Crüe were when he wrote "Tinseltown Rebellion," but that's nevertheless the band that comes to my mind when I hear this song. Take a listen.

Mötley Crüe at the Whisky.
So now we get into specific references in the lyrics. The song starts: "From Madame Wong's to Starwood to the Whisky on the Strip, you can hear the crashing, blasting strum of bands that come to be real hip." Okay, I can't find any documentation that the Crue ever played Madame Wong's, an establishment that catered to punk acts, but they were famous for their appearances at both Starwood and the Whisky A Go Go. So two out of three ain't bad. Here's another line from the song: "So off they go to S.I.R. to learn some stupid riffs and practice all their poses in between their powder sniffs." That's Studio Instrument Rentals, a famous rehearsal space in Los Angeles. When you go to S.I.R.'s website, one of the first things you'll see is a paragraph about the company's history: "Artists including Miley Cyrus, Queen Latifah, Snoop Dogg, Katy Perry, Jane’s Addiction, KISS, Mötley Crüe, Green Day, No Doubt, Maroon 5 and Mariah Carey all call SIR home." So another reference checks out.

And what about those "powder sniffs?" Well, Mötley Crüe is justly famous for its love of chemical intoxicants. Even the cover of their official autobiography, The Dirt, is designed to look like a Jack Daniels label. The band is most closely associated with alcohol and heroin, but they did their share of cocaine, too. In my research, I even found a cute little story about lead singer Vince Neil buying a baggie of cocaine that turned out to be baby powder. The unnamed band in the song plays music that is "real dumb" and "somewhat insincere." Check and check. (Though the Crue's masterpiece, "Girls, Girls, Girls," is probably very close to their hearts.) Zappa also mentions "leather groups and plastic groups and groups that look real queer." The Crue certainly wore plenty of leather, and their over-the-top stage makeup gave them an androgynous appearance. So, once again, the song fits them very well. Zappa did not accurately predict the Crue's longevity, however. While there probably were plenty of flash-in-the-pan groups on the glam metal scene in Los Angeles, Mötley Crüe stayed popular for decades, only recently retiring.

Again, let me emphasize that "Tinseltown Rebellion" is not about Mötley Crüe. It couldn't have been. When Frank Zappa wrote it, the band was just starting out. But what the song manages to do very well is predict where the Los Angeles music scene was heading in the 1980s. Mötley Crüe simply exemplified that era better than just about any other band.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays: Eddie or Not? by Greg Dziawer

No doubt about the authorship of this particular paperback.

NOTE: Hi ho, faithful readers! Joe here. It's time once again to let the unstoppable Greg Dziawer into our lives and into our hearts. He's been doing some serious, time-consuming research into the career of Edward D. Wood, Jr. and keeping us apprised of his findings each Wednesday. This week, he has tackled an issue that plagues every aspiring Wood-ologist eventually: Both "Edward" and "Wood" are very common names, so our Ed Wood is by no means the only Ed Wood. I regularly receive Google alerts about the name "Ed Wood," and most of these items are indeed about the director of Plan 9 from Outer Space, but occasionally one of those other Ed Woods will find his way into my Gmail inbox. Indeed, it's not always clear which Wood is which. Relax. Greg's on the case, and he's here to impart some knowledge. J.B.

Eddie or Not?
by Greg Dziawer

I. “Sourdough” Ed Wood

Bread Wood? This Ed Wood has a couple of buns in the oven.

There are of course plenty of real people named Ed Wood. One, along with wife Jean, devoted his life to "studying the science of real sourdough, baking and batching the perfect loaf, and traveling the world to uncover the hidden history of sourdough for National Geographic Society." Interesting folks. But, of course, this Ed Wood isn't our favorite pulp auteur.
II. Edward Wood: Sci-Fi Lit-Crit

A better candidate, surely, is one Edward Wood, who authored numerous articles for the newsletter The Science-Fiction Times from 1958 through 1960. For issue #309 from Feb 1959, he penned the cover story 1958 in Science-Fiction. Its opening lines: "It was a bad year. No compromise with the truth can disguise this elementary fact." An article called "1959 in Science Fiction" followed for issue #330 from Jan 1960. The magazine reviews are consistently scathing.

Two Science-Fiction Times cover stories by Edward Wood.

One degree of separation:
"Forry" knew both Ed Woods.
Essentially a fanzine, Science-Fiction Times was a (mostly) monthly, mimeo-printed 8 ½ x 11 newsletter typically running 4-8 pages. It began life in 1941 as Fantasy Times, switching its emphasis and its name in 1957, amidst an explosion of homebrew sci-fi 'zines influenced into being by – among many other things that defined an era – Einstein, the Bomb, and Sputnik.

Science-Fiction Times largely contained news, book, and magazine reviews. Forrest J. "Forry" Ackerman was a regular contributor. It moved to offset printing before its lengthy run finally ended in 1970. The milieu seems right, the same that nurtured Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Ed knew Forry, and he did – albeit later in a much different milieu – write magazine articles.

Eddie or not? Nope. Turns out this is a sci-fi fan who was active in the fanzine press during the 50's and '60s.

Issues of Science-Fiction Times can be readily had online. There are currently two issues over at Ebay containing pieces by Edward, and I must commend the seller for divulging in one of these listings that "this is not the movie director but rather in the 1950s and 1960s there was an active SF fan who was also named Edward Wood."
III. Spurious Attributions

Not all sellers have been as forthcoming, and some made lazy pronouncements (whether deliberate or not, an attribution to Ed would almost certainly substantially raise the selling price) that I've delved into before. You can read more about the manner of listing by hitting either of the links in the preceding couple of sentences.

To cut right to the chase, this seller "believed" Ed may have written two more items up for auction. I say that in the past tense because the listing for Office Sex Circus has been fairly and thankfully revised.

Office Sex Circus and Desert Lust, two novels dubiously attributed to Ed Wood.

Desert Lust is an undated Club Novel paperback from the '60s, credited to Bob Roth. A few quick searches don't reveal much about an adult paperback writer of that era with this name, nor have I ever seen any claim tying it to Ed. Given the source of the claim, utterly incorrect twice before, we can fairly shoot this one down.

Office Sex Circus is an April Morgan Bee-Line title from 1968. Though the title is certainly up Ed's alley, he never wrote for Bee-Line, a prolific New York publisher. (Hal Kantor, who wrote for Calga when Ed was at Pendulum, wrote 1967's The Vegas Trap for Bee-Line under their common Pinnacle Books imprint.) April Morgan, likely a pseudonym, wrote other titles for Bee-Line, but a quick scan revealed little else. Bee-Line often copyrighted their titles without listing an author, or listing a pseudonym without listing the actual author's name. That only makes the haze murkier as to the true authorship of Office Sex Circus and the identity of April Morgan.

Two more Bee-Line titles by April Morgan.

Eddie or not? There's no good reason to think so.

We must be honest also. We must not be so anxious in our attempts to make new converts that we forget to remind them of the cost. Consider The Quandary of Discipleship, a sermon by a retired Southern Baptist minister named (you guessed it) Ed Wood.

The devil, dear readers, is in the details.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Let's judge the 2016 candidates by their website photos

Circle gets the square! One of these people could walk away with $10,000 in cash and prizes!

We're all very busy these days. Well, I'm not. But you probably are. And I'm guessing you don't have time to get to know all the candidates for president: who they are, how they spell their names, and what they generally stand for. You may only have enough time to visit each candidate's official campaign website for 5 to 10 seconds apiece, stare at the picture on the homepage, and move on with your life. After all, that gaping chest wound of yours isn't going to cauterize itself. The clock is ticking. Well, don't you worry, because I've visited the websites of the major remaining candidates, and I'm here to make some snap judgments about them, drawing mostly on purely superficial crap. Please do join me.

Talk to me. Pull up a chair and bend ol' Benny's ear for a while. That's why he's here.

HOT TAKE: Okay, this is just plain weird and unsettling. Ben Carson is the only one of the major candidates whose welcome photo seems to have been shot in a gray, featureless void. All the other candidates opted for real, recognizable locations. Was this pic actually taken in one of the corridors on the Death Star? Is that what's happening here? That queasy half-smile of his is creeping me out, as is his leaning-forward posture, and the way he has his hands folded. Is he a Bond villain? A serial killer who only kills other serial killers? "Heal * Inspire * Revive." Is this a political campaign or a goddamned day spa? Anyway, I have this theory that the candidates' photos will reveal how liberal or conservative they are. You'll notice that Dr. Carson is all the way to the right in his picture. Enough said. Also, couldn't he get a comfier chair? That's the kind of chair you sit in when you're sent down to the principal's office for talking in class.

Is that a peace sign? What is this, Woodstock? GET A JOB, HIPPIE!

HOT TAKE: Of all the candidates whose sites I visited, Trump had the biggest welcome image. No surprise there. I actually couldn't get the whole thing on the screen at once, so the red banner with the the word TRUMP at the top got cut off. Sorry. The rest is what you see here: Donald doing the classic "bunny ears" thing over his own campaign slogan, as if that slogan were some clueless underclassman he's been hazing all week. "Seniors rule! Freshmen drool!" You'll notice he's on the right side of the screen, too, just like Ben Carson, and they both have that "I'm a bad widdle boy" smile going. The most badass thing about Trump's site is that you can get there by typing into your web browser. Try it. I'm not kidding. Otherwise, this is very dull. I wanted everything to be written in money font, with maybe a shiny gold border around the edges. Step up your Scrooge McDuck game, Donald!

I swear, this is not a picture of a crooked faith healer.

HOT TAKE: Ooh, black and white! Classy! Notice where Ted is standing? Right in the center of the picture. I think that's to show that he's not an extremist like Trump or Carson, even though the former just called him "a maniac," so make of that what you will. It cannot be ignored that Ted Cruz has basically given himself a halo here, and he has his hands pressed flat together like a Precious Moments figurine of a praying child, so he's just maybe courting evangelicals with this image. Much more interesting to me, though, is the rambling slogan at the right. It's just a delicious, cheesy omelet of pure nonsense. "I'm running for President because we need to build a dynamic nation where anybody with nothing can achieve anything." So, conversely, nobody with something can achieve nothing? I'm lost, Ted. Stop praying to baby Jesus for a second and toss me a life preserver. At least he knows how to smile properly.

RubioBot is ready to lead America. And he makes crushed ice, too!

HOT TAKE: Well, are you ready for a new American century? A century in which the cyborgs take over the country and wrest control of the government from us lowly, imperfect meatbags with all our messy emotions? What is this thing you hu-mans call love? Marco Rubio is not programmed for love. Marco Rubio is confused by hu-mans and their hu-man feelings, but he cannot help but be curious and perhaps even yearn for something beyond the parameters of his pre-programmed system specifications. There's a prog rock concept album in this somewhere. His heart is human. His blood is boiling. His brain IBM. Even those words in the lower left-hand corner sound like something a lurching, clanking 1950s robot might say in a monotone. "Must.... watch... videos... Need... sensory... stimulation... Beep... Boop..." Another odd decision here is to put the candidate behind what looks like a tinted windshield. Is that so we won't touch him and get our oily hands on his delicate circuits?

"That's how you're gonna beat 'em, Jeb! They keep underestimating you."

HOT TAKE: This campaign has been an endless, joyless death march for Jeb Bush, and the strain is clearly showing in this picture. The mouth is smiling. The rest of the face is... not. It's too late to say we're sorry. How would he know? Why should he care? Please don't bother trying to find him. He's not there. Saturday Night Live just made fun of the poor guy for using "Jeb!" with an exclamation point as his campaign slogan, but I kind of like it. It reminds me of the old days of the Internet, when there were exclamation points at the end of seemingly every name. Maybe I'm misremembering that, and it was just Yahoo! Anyway, I don't know if Jeb (or Jeb!) stole the red "I'm In" button from Ted Cruz or vice versa, but I genuinely like the fact that he's being photographed with American servicemen. After all, they're the ones who ultimately have to risk their asses for the politicians of world. Why shouldn't they be front and center in this election?

She goes through so much Purell on the campaign trail. So, so much Purell.

HOT TAKE: Hillary has, by far, the most modest welcome image of any of the major candidates. It's actually more of a banner and only takes up half the screen. By the bottom half of the screen, Hil's already into her talking points. ("Hillary's economic plan: raise middle-class incomes." Sounds pretty sweet.) In this respect, she's the anti-Trump. I wonder if this is just efficiency, or are women in politics expected to maintain a certain level of decorum and refrain from bragging about themselves too much, lest they upset the menfolk? I sensed that Condoleezza Rice was under this particular kind of strain when she was Secretary of State under Bush #2. It was like Condi was always telling herself, "Be good. Smile. Be nice." And then she'd go home at the end of the day and just scream for a half hour until her vocal cords were shredded. Anyway, you'll notice that Hillary is all the way to the left of the screen in her picture. And clad in bright blue, too! Is this subtext or just regular text?

That's very interesting, sir, but can you PLEASE tell me your order? There are people waiting.

HOT TAKE: Well, Bernie ruined my theory. He's the furthest left on the political spectrum, but he's standing on the right in this photo. GODDAMN YOU, SANDERS! Anyway, the Bern-meister always looks haggard and disheveled whenever he's filmed or photographed, but at least his hair is relatively under control here. Smiling's not his bag, though. Never has been. I wonder about the shirtsleeves. They don't reach his wrists, yet they're not really rolled up in the classic "let's get to work!" fashion either. It's like he pushed his sleeves to the top of his forearms and rebuttoned the cuffs just south of his elbows. Is that comfortable? If not, is that why he's so grouchy all the time? It's hard to tell at this size, but I think he's wearing jeans. That's a nice touch. Really, a button-up shirt with jeans is how I dressed for work for years, so Bernie and I have a lot in common, fashion-wise. I also notice something odd about the photos of Bernie, Hillary, and Jeb. Why are there never any black people in these pictures? All three candidates are awash in a sea of peach-colored flesh.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Look at this pattern. What do you see? The answer will prove your sanity.

Stare deeply at this image until it begins to make sense.

What I want you to do now is examine that pattern up there. Stare at it for a while. What do you see? A lot of pink, tan, yellow, and blue rectangles with a red border in between? Good. Because that's all it is. Utterly meaningless. Any significance you might glean is all in your mind and a possible symptom of a condition known as cosmicam dementia provecto. Better have that checked out.

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Paperback Odyssey, Part Three by Greg Dziawer

The front and back covers of Sheldon Lord's Savage Lover.

The Wood Paperback Odyssey
Who Wrote Sheldon Lord's Savage Lover?

Will the real Sheldon
Lord please stand up?
If you know your vintage adult paperbacks even reasonably well, then you likely have already blurted out the answer to that question: "Why, it's Lawrence Block, of course!" Let's hang on just a second.

In the murky world of adult paperback pseudonyms, Lawrence Block did write under the pen name Sheldon Lord (one of his earliest pseudonyms, and most oft-used, upwards of two dozen titles by my quick count). Block began writing short stories for men's magazines in the late '50s, at the tender age of 19. He produced a slew of sleaze paperbacks for that market through the '60s and into the early '70s, before hitting it big in the mainstream as a writer of crime fiction.

Another early Block pen
name: Andrew Shaw
I can hear you wondering: What has this got to do with Ed Wood? As with our last Ed Wood Wednesday, we are again into Ebay territory with another lazy, spurious claim of Ed's possible involvement. The claim is the same – from the same seller – as I previously documented. For the record, and because this title did sell recently so the listing will be gonzo within a couple of months, here's the questionable piece of the auction listing:
I believe this may be an original Ed Wood Jr. book – I attempted to find out online, but found no list for his books written under pseudonyms.

A few quick searches turn up plenty of lists of Ed's paperbacks, none of which include Savage Lover or any titles by Sheldon Lord. And there are no known Ed titles (or Block titles, for that matter) published by the Softcover Library (which featured photo covers as opposed to drawn art, the latter the norm for known Wood and Block titles penned under pseudonyms). The pseudonym Sheldon Lord, as is easily verified if you can type a few simple words into a Google search, is an early pen name of Lawrence Block. Block himself admits it, as well as verifying titles. He even later reprinted some of the Lord titles under his own name.

A Lord original and its retitled Block reprint.

The plot thickens!
Alas, and here's the rub: Block did not claim authorship of Savage Lover. By 1968, the publication date of Savage Lover, Block had moved on from the Lord pen name. He's never verified the title as his own. As was common practice in the milieu of adult paperbacks, pseudonyms were often shared. Though Sheldon Lord was Block (commonly if not entirely) in the first half of the '60s, three authors are believed to have shared the pseudonym in the latter half of that decade: Peter Hochstein, Hal Dresner (who later wrote episodes of M*A*S*H) and Milo Perichitch. Take your pick. I hope the Ebay auction buyer of Savage Lover doesn't really think it's an Ed Wood book. Or even Lawrence Block title. And moreso, they paid about twice the price of a few other contemporaneous Ebay listings of the very same title!

It's the old shell game.
To reiterate our initial question: who wrote Sheldon Lord's Savage Lover? It wasn't Ed, certainly not, and it's highly unlikely it was Lawrence Block. The likely source is one of two of the three authors noted above. (Block himself shoots down Dresner.)

In the world of vintage sleaze paperbacks, that's sometimes as close as you're gonna get.

As always:

Caveat Emptor. Let the buyer be-vare.

Be-vare, take care. Be-vare....

"Most of us have our idiosyncrasies."

Friday, December 4, 2015

7 into 28 is 13: The politics of joke thievery

Bud Abbott screws his landlord out of the rent money with mathematical trickery.

How do jokes get started? Hell if I know, but back in the days of vaudeville, certain successful comedic routines got passed around a lot between different acts, with very little thought given as to attribution. I guess there was a lot of borrowing or just outright stealing in those days. Maybe there were turf wars over the "ownership" of certain bits. These were live performances, of course, and no one was recording them, so what was the harm ultimately? But then a strange thing happened to the entertainment biz. Two strange things, actually: film and television. Suddenly, performances were being immortalized and shown to audiences from coast to coast. And yet, those same hand-me-down vaudeville routines kept popping up on screens both big and small well into the 1950s and beyond. Hey, the material has to come from somewhere. There's a famous quote sometimes attributed to Larry Gelbart and sometimes to Bob Hope: "When vaudeville died, television was the box they put it in." Many decades later, a variation on that line wound up in a Family Guy episode: "Vaudeville's dead, and TV's the box they're gonna bury it in." So even the quote about vaudeville has some miles on it.

There is one routine in particular that shows up with remarkable persistence in old movies and TV shows, performed by a variety of comedians with very little variation in the basic premise or structure. Simply put, one character tries to convince another character that 28 divided by 7 is 13. The first character will "prove" this assertion in three ways: long division, multiplication, and addition. Always in that order. I guess the bit is most closely associated with Abbott and Costello, who went from vaudeville to film to television over the course of their long career. They certainly did this math routine a lot of times. Like this, for instance:

And this:

Not to mention this and this.

So Bud and Lou sure performed the hell out out of the "28" bit. But the routine was not their exclusive property by any stretch. Ron Ormond's 1951 film, Yes Sir, Mr. Bones is meant as a tribute to minstrel shows, which were already on their way out by then (for good reason). This is the movie from which Ed Wood's producers plundered the Cotton Watts and Chick routine he used in Jail Bait in 1954. Two of the other performers in the original Ormond film are Emmett Miller and Ches Davis, doing their version of the old "28" routine, though they don't get around to it until about two minutes into this clip.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main were doing this same routine in one of their low-budget Ma and Pa Kettle films at Universal. The only difference is that they use 25 and 14 instead of 28 and 13. But the joke is exactly the same, as is the order: division, then multiplication, then addition.

Remember all this before you ever accuse anyone of stealing a joke. Joke-stealing is a proud show business tradition. Comedy could barely exist without it. I mean, who came up with this mathematics routine? Abbott and Costello? Davis and Miller? Ma and Pa Kettle? Probably none of them!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

New theory: 'Fargo' season 2 is basically 'The Ladykillers' in slow motion

The Blomquists should not be alive. And yet they are. How?

As anyone who watches it knows, FX's television adaptation of Fargo is no mere regurgitation of the 1996 film by Joel and Ethan Coen. It frequently references that movie, yes, but it also draws upon the Coens' entire 30-year career for source material, in addition to its scads of newly invented, wholly original characters and situations. This season alone has seen major homages to Miller's Crossing, The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? But it's taken me until today to realize that the Coen film most heavily referenced in the TV show, outside of the original Fargo itself, might just be The Ladykillers, the brothers' little-loved, much-criticized 2004 remake of the classic 1955 Ealing comedy with Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.


Now, I've tried to argue in the past that The Ladykillers is a grossly underappreciated, widely misunderstood film that holds up very nicely in a side-by-side, point-by-point comparison with its predecessor. I still feel that way, but I've come to accept the fact that critics and movie nerds have their minds made up about the movie and will not budge. Their loss. Obviously, Noah Hawley, creator of the Fargo TV series, has some affection for The Ladykillers. Early on in the show's second season, a pivotal scene takes place at a restaurant called the Waffle Hut, which is also the name of a crucial location from The Ladykillers and the source of that film's best-known line: "You brought your bitch to the Waffle Hut!" I figured the Waffle Hut locale was going to be Fargo's token nod to The Ladykillers. But I miscalculated. If you'll recall, The Ladykillers centers around a group of thieves, led by Tom Hanks, who decide they have to kill an old lady, Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), who has found out about their casino heist. In their slapstick efforts to kill the elderly woman, the would-be ladykillers fail every time. One by one, they die, and the woman remains alive and unharmed.

Flash forward eleven years. The second season of Fargo has largely focused on the travails of a North Dakota hairdresser, Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst), and her likable if rather oafish butcher husband, Ed (Jesse Plemons). The seemingly naive and vulnerable Blomquists find themselves smack dab in the middle of a mafia turf war when Peggy accidentally runs over Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin), a member of a regionally powerful crime family. The Gerhardts have dispatched numerous would-be assassins to erase Ed and Peggy from existence. The result? A lot of dead Gerhardts and no lasting harm visited upon the Blomquists. Ed and Peggy have demonstrated a lot of unexpected toughness and resourcefulness this year, but they've also benefited from tremendous luck and good timing. Just like a certain Marva Munson. Meanwhile, the Gerhardts are a lot like the inept thieves from The Ladykillers, always squabbling among themselves when they should be acting as a team.

But the similarities don't end there. In The Ladykillers, Ms. Munson is a somewhat delusional, deeply religious woman who lives in her own isolated little world. She spends a great deal of time talking to an oil painting of her deceased husband, Othar, and imagines that the painting talks back to her. On Fargo, Peggy is also delusional and believes in a "religion" of sorts based around self-help seminars and women's magazines. Peggy's devotion to her chosen faith rivals that of Marva Munson. While Ms. Munson talks about getting into Heaven as her ultimate goal, Peggy prattles on about becoming "actualized" as her highest ambition.

And, like Marva Munson, Peggy Blomquist is more than capable of carrying on both halves of an imaginary conversation. Last night's episode, for instance, had her seeking advice from a spectral self-help guru, perhaps a psychologist, who had magically materialized in her basement. In reality, she was addressing Dodd Gerhardt (Jeffrey Donovan), a dangerous criminal she had taken hostage and tied up. Peggy's insistence that Dodd mind his manners while in her presence is very Munson-esque. In The Ladykillers, Marva repeatedly slaps poor Gawain McSam (Marlon Wayans) when he uses profanity around her. Peggy, for her part, has no trouble stabbing  Dodd in both shoulders when he fails to say "please" and "thank you" while bound to a chair in a remote cabin. Interestingly, Gawain McSam's timid, utterly botched attempt to shoot Marva Munson in The Ladykillers is mirrored by a sequence in Fargo in which young Charlie Gerhardt (Allan Dobrescu) totally louses up what should be an easy execution of Ed Blomquist. In these moments, both McSam and Charlie are boys sent to do a man's job. Not that the men do any better, mind you.

So there you have it, folks. Fargo's second season is one big extrapolation of The Ladykillers.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Paperback Odyssey, Part Two by Greg Dziawer

The cover of Dirk Malloy's Camera Action. Note the Midwood clover in the upper left corner.

Note to readers: You know what time of the week it is, friends? Yes, it's time to turn Dead 2 Rights over (temporarily) to Greg Dziawer so that he can enlighten us with his investigations into the strange, shadowy world of Edward D. Wood, Jr. I'm traveling out of state to visit relatives for the Thanksgiving holiday, so this is the last new content you'll be seeing at Dead 2 Rights for the next several days. But Greg has provided us with plenty of food for thought this Thanksgiving weekend through his examination of some vintage paperback books dubiously attributed to Edward D. Wood, Jr. Ready to separate wheat from chaff? Read on. And have a lovely Thanksgiving. J.B.

The Wood Paperback Odyssey
Who wrote Dirk Malloy's Camera Action?
... And ID-ing the “lost” A Study of the Sexual Man, Book One

So who did write Dirk Malloy's Camera Action? Well, Dirk Malloy did, to end the suspense quickly. But there has been some lingering suggestion that Dirk Malloy could be another one of Ed Wood's pen names. And, truth be told, Dirk Malloy is a pseudonym.

Why do I bring this up? In last week's first installment of the Wood Paperback Odyssey, we delved into the true authorship of Norman Bates' Male Wives, sometimes credibly claimed to be written by Ed Wood. There's also reasonable circumstantial evidence: Ed collaborated frequently with Charles D. Anderson, and they worked together closely at Pendulum. Nonetheless, Ed had no involvement with Male Wives.

I bring this up – to finally answer my own question – because in my travels I occasionally come across far more spurious claims of works that supposedly involved Ed. And before a spark becomes a fire, we should put it out. Which isn't to say that anyone is believing Ed's involvement here, as evidenced by the fact that the Ebay listing claiming this has been up for months now, with a "buy it now" price of a mere $22.00. Real vintage Ed paperbacks are into the hundreds.

A Leo Eaton/Ed Wood collaboration
from the T.K. Peters source.
But even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut: I landed the super-rare A Study of the Sexual Man, Book One at Etsy for a mere $21.99 a couple weeks back, lucky that the seller had no idea what they had, not listing Ed's name, nor Pendulum, nor even one of the credited names, T.K. Peters, highly associated with Ed. I was about 30 pages deep on the seller's listings (got there because I found a non-Ed Pendulum paperback listing and just started clicking through out of blind hope) when the title on the cover and the name on the cover, T.K. Peters, caught my eye. Without the relevant keywords, no one looking was going to find it. And, truth be told, few were looking and the seller isn't to blame. Although The Sexual Man, Book 2 is a known work of Ed's, information on its predecessor is almost non-existent. Almost. I found a copyright listing for it in at the invaluable Library of Congress' Catalog of Copyright Entries Jul-Dec 1971. Credited there to just Leo Eaton (another of Ed's fellow staff writers at Pendulum) – under an oft-used pseudonym, Frank Leonard - I later learned that it's listed on Ed's very own resume, as verifiably accurate (if still largely yet made public) a document as Wood scholars and fans have got.

An excerpt from the introduction to A Study of the Sexual Man, Book One (intro signed, "Frank Leonard, Los Angeles, 1971"):
As Madison Avenue and the advertisers jumped on the band-wagon, the confused and bewildered male looked around to find that all aspects of his nice, safe, male-dominated society were pandering the woman's sexuality. 
I digress. Because Dirk Malloy's Camera Action will eventually sell and the listing will eventually disappear, let's document the details of the claim here.

In an Ebay listing for the adult paperback Camera Action, a 1967 Midwood title (an East Coast publisher that never published a known Ed-affiliated work), written by Dirk Malloy, the seller opines: “I believe this is an original Ed Wood Jr. book! I attempted to find out online but found no list for his books written under pseudonyms."

A rare Midwood Triple!
I “attempted” to do the same, which I guess means something different to me. And maybe “find out” is a post on Yahoo! Answers. I simply googled Dirk Malloy. Though there are lists of Ed's pseudonyms online, and lists of his paperbacks that include known pseudonyms, maybe there is truly, “no list for his books written under pseudonyms.” I'm being charitable.

Dirk Malloy is easily identified as a pseudonym for Hank Gross. As Dirk, he wrote dozens of sleaze paperbacks (which sound very much like man's man fantasies when not in Mr. Teas territory, seemingly there in Camera Action) during the peak of that medium's era in the latter half of the '60s. A post with content from an unidentifiable source hinting Dirk's own website ( once existed, but the domain is now for sale) painted a succinct portrait befitting what you'd expect from the persona of a writer of sleaze paperbacks named Dirk Malloy:
Dirk Malloy is a raconteur, a lover of the ladies, and a writer of books aimed especially at men with lusty and intellectual interests like his own. He is a third-degree black belt in aiki-jitsu, has traveled extensively, rides a Harley, explores both theoretical physics and the wacky stuff, drinks his scotch straight, loves a good belly laugh, and has tasted both victory and defeat in life and in love. In short, a complete man.
Dirk Malloy: Father of the Most Interesting Man in the World?

In 2010, he published much of his work as e-books, still available. His bibliography fanciful and eclectic, it includes everything from Celebrity Sex Scandals to Gourmet Cat Recipes to Raunchy Jokes for Guys to Jesus Plays the Catskills.
In this sublime retelling of the story and teachings of Christ's life, Jesus himself takes the mike and tells it to a Borscht-belt crowd as a Jewish comic might. It's the New Testament as you've never heard it before! So here he is, ladies and germs, the King of Kings, the Lamb of God...let's give it up, folks, for JESUS!
His bio glosses over his work in adult paperbacks, though he reprinted some of them digitally. I am going to check out the reprint of 1967's The Dirtiest Dozen, a document of the meteoric rise of sex newspapers in the late '60s, covering Screw and its pretenders:
The male could grind his thighs against those of the heroine as much as he pleased, but he could not, under any circumstances, drop in on her cunt – not that it mattered, since she didn’t have one anyway. And of course, heaven help the publisher if, despite the obstacles of having neither a pud nor a place in which to put it, the hero had the temerity to actually shoot his load.
Oh, well. I thought my friends and I had made up the word "pud" in the fifth grade.

I'll also be checking out Sexual Fetishism, which covers painfully neglected, harshly real territory, the description getting lost in parentheses:
Take a walk on the wild side with this breezily-written guide to sexual fetishes, from agalmatophilia (arousal by statues) to renifleurism (urine and underwear, to doraphila (fur fetish), including quotes from some of the estimated 50 million practicioners and a comprehensive glossary of over 700 fetishes you probably never heard of.
This tiny Smashwords profile photo is the only
one I could find of Hank Gross/Dirk Malloy.
Many more astounding facts to come in future editions of Ed Wood Wednesdays:
  • Reviews of The Sexual Man, Book One and Pendulum's Young Marrieds, a paperback from 1971
  • “Unknown” fellow staffers at Pendulum identified. 
  • "Down Shirlee Lane"
  • The story of Golden State News and its myriad magazine lines (Classic, Cougar and Gold Line Publications among them), the blueprint for Pendulum, where Ed's work still largely remains unidentified
  • "One Million A.C. Stephens," the first installment of the Wood Script Odyssey; and the epochal revealing of the real T.K. Peters
"More than a fact!"

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Social Media Buzz: Another short story by Joe Blevins

"Eat your soul? Who, me?"

     After gently knocking twice, the dapper young man cracked open the door of his immediate supervisor's tastefully-appointed office and tentatively peered in.
     "Mr. Van Landingham?"
     The other man, fiftyish and conservative, did not rise to greet the young man but remained seated behind his desk as he said, "Come in, Korey. Have a seat, please."
     The young man entered the room, closed the door behind him, and respectfully sat down in a chair across the desk from his boss.
     "How do you think you've been doing in your role of Social Media Manager for the General Mills family of cereals?" said the older man.
     "Uh, good, I guess?"
     "Okay. Okay. Interesting. Now, one of your professional duties these last six months has been maintaining the Twitter account of Buzz the Bee, the cartoon mascot of our Honey Nut Cheerios brand. Is that correct?"
     "Uh, yes, it is."
     "All right. Now we're getting somewhere. Well, Korey, I took the liberty of printing out some of your recent tweets from that account. I have them right here. Do you mind if I read them out loud?"
     "Not at all."
     "Okay, here's one: 'Nothing like a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios to start your morning right.' Now, normally, that would be a damned fine tweet, Korey, but you chose to end it with the hashtag '911WasAnInsideJob.' Can you explain that?"
     "Well, uh, Mr. Van Landingham..."
     "Please. It's Kevin."
     "Well, Kevin, it's not that I personally think 9-11 was an inside job. But, of course, the account is written from Buzz's point of view. It's what he thinks. He's a multi-faceted character."
     "Okay, fair enough. But how about this one? 'Bee happy. Bee healthy. Life begins at conception.'"
     "Well, children do make up a substantial portion of our customer base, Kevin. And if they're not carried to term, they're not going to be eating any of our delicious Honey Nut Cheerios, are they?"
     "Hmmm. I suppose not. But then, there was this tweet that contained only a photo of actress Neve Campbell topless in the 2007 film I Really Hate My Job."
     "What, specifically, is the issue with that one?"
     "The issue, specifically, is that it's a photo of actress Neve Campbell topless in the 2007 film I Really Hate My Job. We try to keep our social media content family-friendly, Korey."
     "Are you saying then, Kevin, that General Mills considers the female body to be inherently shameful, something to be hidden away from view?"
     "Well, no, not exactly. But..."
     "Haven't you heard of the Free the Nipple campaign, Roderick?"
     "Whatever. It's a vital, burgeoning movement in this country right now. Shouldn't General Motors..."
     "...Mills be at the forefront of change for once? There's nothing wrong with breasts, Kevin. Breasts produce milk, and what goes better with cereal than milk?"
     "Yes, but did you have to post that same photo every hour on the hour during the Paris terrorist attacks? People were beginning to wonder if it was some kind of code. Now I have the NSA breathing down my neck."
     "People always fear what they don't understand, Kevin. That's what I'm up against every time I tweet something on behalf of Buzz the Bee. You don't know what kind of an awesome responsibility this is. While you're tucked away in this cozy little office of yours, I'm out there on the front lines! Right now, people are starving for the truth, and I'm there to feed it to them, 140 characters at a time. The new millennium needs its own Che Guevara, and why shouldn't it be a cartoon spokes-bee? The truth will out! Viva the Bee!"
     As the young man pumped his fist in the air and assumed a pose of hard-won victory, the older man reached into a desk drawer, pulled out a small blow gun, raised it to his mouth, and shot a dart directly into his subordinate's neck. The young man slumped over instantly. The older man paused, sighed, then picked up the landline phone on his desk.
     "Gladys? Have maintenance send a crew to my office immediately. We have another Code B to take care of. Say, how many more nephews do you think the CEO has left, anyway?"

Saturday, November 21, 2015

I tried to fix 'The Dinette Set,' and it defeated me.

(left) Julie Larson's original Dinette Set panel; (right) My "corrected" version.

Julie Larson's The Dinette Set, a single-panel cartoon feature, is somehow celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2015. It started in the Los Angeles Reader under the title Suburban Torture back in 1990 and became nationally syndicated under the name The Dinette Set seven years later. The feature's appeal and longevity baffle me. It's a domestic comedy focused on the adventures of two middle-aged sisters, Verla Darwin and Joy Penny, and their respective spouses and friends. It's supposed to be a gentle satire of middle class life, but it comes off as condescending and snide, and the characters are interchangeable and dull.

What really bugs me about The Dinette Set, though, is that it's a humor strip that doesn't know how to tell a joke properly. Each panel is saturated with unfunny, superfluous textual gags: T-shirt slogans, posters and signs, product labels, etc. All of this extraneous text is handwritten in the exact same style. Larson tries to distinguish each panel's primary, dialogue-based joke by writing it in larger letters, but the words push right up against the edges of the balloons, rendering them only semi-legible. The strip is a difficult-to-read eyesore.

Part of the reality of doing a syndicated newspaper comic is that each installment will contain a certain amount of clutter: the artist's signature, a date, a plug for the syndicate, and probably some mention of a promotional website, too. As distracting as these can be, they're a necessary evil. I firmly believe that jokes, at least when presented in the form of comic strips or cartoon panels, need a little breathing room. A certain amount of negative space helps. Charles Schulz, one of the masters of the form, used tons of negative space in Peanuts. But Julie Larson clutters up every square inch of her panels with unnecessary verbiage. Her jokes are suffocating. And they weren't too strong to begin with!

So I took a typical Dinette Set panel and tried to "fix" it. First, I eliminated as many props and background actors as I could without sacrificing the integrity of the scene, i.e. a baby shower with numerous guests and presents. I wanted to focus the reader's attention on the two primary characters, the ones who are actually talking to each other. I especially wanted to remove any distracting details around those characters' faces. When you're drawing a cartoon like this, you're like a director working with actors. I wanted to make sure their faces were the focal point of this scene. I also reduced the dialogue in size so that it had some air around it, while removing some redundant words in Mrs. Darwin's response. I didn't see any reason for both women to say the words "a Clapper for the baby's overhead light." Once was enough.

But my efforts were in vain. This stubborn Dinette Set panel was still pretty bad, even after my so-called "corrections." I think my version is a slight visual improvement, but the cartoon is still stifling and uninspired, and the joke still doesn't land the way it should. In desperation, I tried to convert this into a New Yorker-style cartoon with no word balloons and the dialogue rendered as a caption below the picture.

Nah. Still sucks.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Paperback Odyssey, Part One by Greg Dziawer

Some latter-day reprints of Ed Wood's many, many, many paperback books.

Note to readers: It's that time of the week again, folks, when I step aside and hand the reigns of Dead 2 Rights over to faithful contributor Greg Dziawer, who has graciously consented to continue the labor-intensive Ed Wood Wednesdays series for me. This week, Greg takes us deep into the heart of Eddie's career as a paperback writer and shows us how to separate the real gold from the fool's gold. Once again, some censoring of images has been necessary. Take it away, Greg. J.B.

The Wood Paperback Odyssey
The Key to Barclay House's Male Wives by Norman Bates

The story must be told!
A veritable cottage industry, the sale of rare Ed Wood works, artifacts and memorabilia is an increasingly pricey world. And if you had one of these items to sell, let's say a paperback, and it had somewhere been suggested or even implied that it was written by Ed, your asking price just increased 10x. Of course, what we really all want to know is if Ed really did have any involvement in this hypothetical paperback. While I, as much as anyone – out of hope and enthusiasm, I tell myself – go flush with the excitement of seeming discovery when I come across the occasional magazine short story or porn loop that seems plausibly to have a connection to Ed, my reason eventually overtakes my impulsive emotion and reminds me of the truth. A Janus-faced truth, which also states that there remain tons of unidentified work by Ed.

Let's investigate an actual paperback to make these considerations worth our while. Let's get at the unvarnished facts, the very haven of truth.

Barclay House: unlocking closed
Psycho-Sexual minds!
FACT: Male Wives was published in 1969 by Barclay House, North Hollywood, as Psycho-Sexual Study #7031, published under the pseudonym Norman Bates.

FACT: Barclay House was an imprint of Brandon House (and so was Essex House), all lines marketed as sociological non-fiction to evade legal scrutiny. Credited to Norman Bates, Teenage Pimp (1970) – a delirious title and cover – was Barclay House Psycho-Sex Study #7096.

FACT: The Library of Congress' Catalog of Copyright Entries Jan-June 1969 lists Male Wives' author as Charles Anderson. And elsewhere from the same volume: Bates, Norman, pseud. See Anderson, Charles.

FACT: Though not listed in Nightmare of Ecstasy or Muddled Mind, Male Wives is listed — credibly and authoritatively — here, a derivative of having been included at the incredible exhibit here. That translates to this. The cover alone may be worth it!

(left) Teenage Pimp: Every boy's fantasy.
(right) Male Wives: Gay pulp fiction masquerading as hippie-era sociology.

You get the point. Excepting the Norman Bates titles, Ed is nowhere credited at Barclay House. Charles D. Anderson held down dual roles at Pendulum from 1970 or so, as editor and staff writer. The gig overlapped with writing paperbacks for Barclay House. In an interview I've yet to locate, Anderson is reputed to say that all Norman Bates credits are written solely by him. That includes a ton of short stories in various Pendulum magazine titles, concurrent to Ed's insanely prolific work there. Of course, Anderson/Bates did, indeed, collaborate with Wood/Trent (in this case, as just one example) on Pendulum's A Study of Fetishes & Fantasies from 1973.

 Pendulum's Little Library imprint aped the look and feel of the popular Liverpool Library Press.

People: All going some-vere!
MORE THAN A FACT: Ed did not write, or collaborate on Male Wives, or for that matter, Teen-Sex Swapping, a 1970 Barclay House title by Norman Bates. Charles D. Anderson did write as, a fittingly evocative doppelganger, Marion Crane, penning Brother John and Sister Mercy in 1972 for Little Library Press, an imprint of Pendulum, under which Ed's To Make a Homo was also published in 1971.

And as trivia, not suggesting Ed's involvement, the cover of Barclay House #7406 – Satan, Demons & Dildoes by Eugene Richards from 1974 – is a still from Orgy of the Dead.

Caveat Emptor. Let the buyer be-vare.

Be-vare, take care. Be-vare....

More to come about Bates/Anderson, Pendulum/LLP/et al and real Ed paperbacks to come in future Wood Wednesdays.

That other Norman Bates regards that other Marion Crane in Psycho (1960).