Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 61: 'Mrs. Stone's Thing' (1970)

Ed Wood dons eye shadow and lipstick for his role in Mrs. Stone's Thing.

"It's amazing. I mean, here the guy is a complete failure in our way of thinking. Made schlock pictures, you know. And suddenly, he's famous. It's amazing."
-Director Joe Robertson on the career of Ed Wood


In addition to writing and directing, Ed Wood did his fair share of acting.
Is it possible that Ed Wood missed his true calling, but just barely? Consider this assessment made by his biographer, Rudolph Grey, in a conversation with filmmaker Frank Henenlotter in 1994: "What many people don't realize is that Ed was a pretty good actor. He did have an extensive stage background. He did a lot of stage work when he first arrived in Hollywood. I think Ed could've gotten a lot of work as an actor if he had really pursued it, but I don't think that's what he really wanted to do."

Ed certainly had the looks for it, at least in the late 1940s and early-to-mid-1950s, before alcoholism had fully taken its ghastly toll on his face and form. Numerous actresses who worked with him during those years, including Valda Hansen and Maila Nurmi, have commented upon his old-fashioned, Errol Flynn-esque handsomeness. And, obviously, he convinced at least two women -- Norma McCarty and Kathy O'Hara -- to marry him during the 1950s. A third paramour, Dolores Fuller, never actually tied the knot with Ed but did leave her own husband, Donald Kenneth Fuller, for him. So Eddie must have had the charisma of a leading man in those days.

But did Ed have the acting chops to go with it? It is my assertion that he did. Obviously, his biggest screen role was in the autobiographical Glen or Glenda? (1953), and during my many viewings of that film, I have been struck time and again by how genuine and vulnerable Eddie is in the title role(s). Viewers tend to be so distracted by that film's wildly improbable dialogue, ludicrous plot, and jerry-rigged construction that they miss out on Ed Wood's true conviction at the center of it.

Take, for instance, the scene in which cross-dresser Glen (Ed Wood) confides in his friend Johnny (Charlie Crafts), a fellow transvestite and, thus, one of the few people on earth who could possibly understand his troubles. Glen is dithering, Hamlet-like, about whether or not to tell his emasculating "secret" to his fiancee, Barbara (Dolores Fuller). In the process, he delivers the following speech, the closest thing to the "to be or not to be" soliloquy in the Wood canon:
"My mind's in a muddle, like in a thick fog.  I can't make sense to myself sometimes.  I thought I could stop wearing these things.  I tried, honestly I tried.  I haven't had a stitch of them on for nearly two weeks until tonight.  Then I couldn't stand it anymore.  I had to put them on or go out of my mind. I'm afraid I'll lose her.  I don't want that to happen because... I really love her."
The "muddled mind" monologue has been one of the most frequently-chided passages in any of Wood's films, even turning up in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, but the more I watch Glenda, the more I believe what Ed is saying here. He really does seem like a confused young man with a difficult, high-stakes decision to make. In fact, Glenda is the most emotionally-affecting of Ed Wood's films, and a big part of that is Wood's own lead performance.

Eddie's dialogue is not easy to deliver and make sound believable. Luckily, throughout his career, Wood worked with a few actors, including Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Kenne Duncan, Rene Bond, and even Criswell, whose outsized screen personalities carry them along, no matter what they're saying or doing. But many more actors, veterans and newcomers alike, were defeated by the stilted, arrhythmic lines Eddie gave them to recite.

In the softcore erotic films Ed Wood co-scripted for Stephen C. Apostolof in the 1970s, Harvey Shane (aka Forman Shane) seems at ease most of the time, but Steve's other regulars, such as Angela Carnon and Terri Johnson, are hopelessly adrift. Performances like these make you realize how good an actor Ed was in comparison.

After Glen or Glenda?, however, acting was never more than a very occasional sideline for Edward D. Wood, Jr. His stage career, the one he'd formally trained for after serving in the Marines, ended when he went into the picture-making business, with the possible exception of 1954's The Bela Lugosi Revue.

As a director, he didn't cast himself nearly as often as he could have, preferring minor walk-on parts to major speaking roles. His gonzo, cross-dressing turn as broken-down madam "Alecia" in Take It Out in Trade is the exception which proves the rule.

Still in all, author David C. Hayes dutifully devotes a chapter of Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. to Eddie's talents as a thespian, underused as they might have been. "Ed Wood... the Actor?" (credited to Hayes' jokey alter ego, Hayden Davis, PhD) makes the following modest claim: "Ed Wood Jr. was a good, effective character actor (with a few exceptions)." In building his case, Hayes concentrates on Wood's performance in Glenda, of course, but also details Eddie's late-career acting gigs in other directors' films (e.g. his triple role in Steve Apostolof's Fugitive Girls), as well as the cameos Wood awarded to himself in his own movies (e.g. a nameless tough tussling with Connie Brooks in The Sinister Urge).

Besides Wood himself, the filmmaker who used Ed Wood most prominently as an actor, for better or worse, was independent cinema legend Joseph F. Robertson. And not so coincidentally, it is one of Robertson's films which concerns us this week, my friends...

Mrs. Stone's Thing (1970)

Joe Robertson's film was released as The Sensuous Wife on VHS by Private Screenings.

Mrs. Stone by any other name...
Alternate titles: The film was retitled The Sensuous Wife when it was released on VHS by Private Screenings in 1981. In the current existing version, this new title has been obviously and clumsily inserted into the film. It has also been spotted under the title The Very Sensuous Wife. The West German title, Heisse Fingerspiele, translates as (not kidding) Hot Fingering. I hasten to point out that fingering is not exceptionally essential to the plot of this motion picture, whatever its title may be.

Availability: Though Mrs. Stone's Thing never made it to DVD under its original title, old copies of the Sensuous Wife VHS tape are still available on Amazon. Expect to pay about a hundred bucks, though. Sorry. It's also being sold on iOffer. Good luck.

The backstory: The legendary, three-decade career of exploitation filmmaker Joseph F. "Papa Joe" Robertson (1925-2001) is one I have already covered when I reviewed Love Feast (1969), a softcore film directed by Robertson and written by and starring Ed Wood. Though Joe and Ed did not join forces until the late 1960s, the former had been in the motion picture game for some time. In a few vital ways, the two men led parallel lives. Like Wood, Robertson was born in the state of New York in the mid-1920s, fought as a Marine in World War II, and wound up making low-budget independent feature films once he got back home. Eddie, however, had grown up with a movie camera in his hand, thanks to his father, and started trying to make his own movies professionally as early as 1948. Joe, on the other hand, didn't get into the picture game until the Swinging Sixties.

Neither Wood nor Robertson started out in pornography, furthermore, but both gravitated towards the genre because of its promise of quick profits with low overhead costs. In the early days of his movie career, Joe Robertson produced a trio of drive-in perennials, all non-pornographic: the sci-fi/horror films The Slime People and The Crawling Hand (both 1963) and the James Bond knockoff Agent from H.A.R.M. (1966). As near as I can tell, Joe Robertson's Nixon-era shift to skin flicks coincided with his meeting Edward D. Wood, Jr. Coincidence?

In a retrospective interview with documentarian Ted Newsom in the 1990s, Robertson talked about meeting Ed Wood. Ed's military history, it turns out, was pivotal in their bonding:

Mrs. Stone's Thing director Joseph F. Robertson
"I had done a lot of films, and I was working. And then, as a hobby, I had a very big bar called the Surf Girl. And one night, [Ed] came in, and he was okay. I mean, he wasn't in drag, and he looked pretty good. He didn't look good, but he looked okay. And we had mutual friends that introduced me to him. And he was in the Marine Corps. I was in the Marine Corps. And so we had a certain empathy. We felt for each other on that portion of it. Semper fi. And we talked a lot. And he was quite decorated. And then I got friendly with him.  
And the next thing I know, he comes in, and he's Shirley. And this is that silver lamé, horrible 1940 dress. And the shoes were all crooked, and he had a wig on that didn't fit him right. And then he used to put his makeup on. His makeup would go from here to here (indicates the top and bottom of his face), and he would look okay with the wig. But afterward, the middle of the night, he got drunk. The wig would turn around, and you would see a big line of makeup and white skin. I mean, it was almost shocking. And then, we got friendly. I enjoyed him. He was very, very funny, but kind of shocking with his different outfits. But mostly, he was Shirley when he changed."
Robertson told Newsom that these evenings of cross-dressing revelry at the Surf Girl occurred over the course of "three or four years," circa 1966 to 1968, and did coincide with Joe's entrance into softcore adult filmmaking. Robertson was quick to point out, however, that the sex in his early films was "simulated" and "very, very mild," unlike current skin flicks. He knew of which he spoke: At the time of the interview, circa 1994, Robertson was still writing, producing, and directing X-rated feature films as "Adele Robbins," a nom de guerre he picked up in the late 1970s, several years after his association with Ed Wood ended.

In retrospect, considering his Marine past and attendant machismo, Joe Robertson displayed remarkable tolerance for Ed Wood's gender-blurring eccentricities. Rather than shrinking from Ed's transvestism, Joe made it part of the act. In total, Wood and Robertson made three films together, and Eddie dresses in drag in all of them.

Accounts differ as to who did what on these movies. In the Newsom interview, Joe Robertson claimed that he wrote the screenplays for all three of these motion pictures. ("[Ed] didn't [write] for me. I'm a writer, too.") While Joe's sole authorship of Mrs. Stone's Thing (1970) is not in doubt, most sources -- including Ed Wood's own writing resume -- suggest that Eddie himself wrote both Love Feast (aka The Photographer) and Misty (aka Nympho Cycler). Robertson did, however, acknowledge Eddie's writing talent or at least his writing productivity. "Very prolific writer," he told Newsom. "Tremendous. He could turn things out all night and just do a whole script in five or six hours." Nevertheless, Robertson basically thought of Eddie as a charity case, as he explained to Ted Newsom:
"Because of our friendship, I had him in two pictures that I have. Three pictures, actually, that he made for me. He did one in Mrs. Stone's Thing. He did a little funny shtick. That was a big picture. And then I had him in Misty, another one we did, which we can't find, by the way. And then he did The Photographer, which Rhino is distributing. I wrote it. He was the actor in it."
An ex-Marine was simply doing a favor for another, less successful ex-Marine. "At that point," Joe said, Ed Wood "was downhill." But even though Eddie was in physical, financial, and professional decline during its making, Mrs. Stone's Thing was nevertheless a major production for Joe Robertson. While Joe couldn't pin down an exact budget, he pointed out to Ted Newsom  that Mrs. Stone's Thing was shot on pricey 35mm film, while Misty and Love Feast were only 16mm. For Joe, Mrs. Stone was an epic. "They had a hundred people in the cast!"

The existing print carries an unmistakably proud credit: "Written & Directed by Joseph F. Robertson." Maybe every low-budget director dreams, if only fleetingly, of being Cecil B. DeMille for a day. This might have been Joe Robertson's The Ten Commandments. It does bear some resemblance to that film's notorious "golden calf" sequence.

Ironically, Robertson would be denied proper directing credit for two of the three films he made with Ed Wood. Rhino Video claimed Eddie directed The Photographer, which it opportunistically renamed Pretty Models All in a Row, while Alpha Blue Archives touted Ed Wood as the director of Nympho Cycler. I don't believe that Rhino or ABA were trying to cheat or shortchange Joe Robertson; the movies were simply more marketable if Ed Wood were listed as their director. In his chat with Ted Newsom, Joe suggested that he may have voluntarily ceded the directing credit to Ed Wood on Love Feast. Maybe it was karmic payback for misspelling his buddy's name as "Ed Woods" in the hand-drawn, hippy-dippy end credits for Mrs. Stone's Thing.

Poor Eddie was credited as "(Mr.) Ed Woods" in Mrs. Stone's Thing.

Victor Rich and Karen Johnson.
As of this writing, Mrs. Stone's Thing is the only one of the Wood/Robertson films not to make it to DVD. To this day, it remains accessible only to collectors and die-hards. Perhaps that's because Eddie's role in it is fleeting and entirely peripheral to the main story. In contrast, Wood was the lead in Love Feast and the husband of the main character in Misty.

Briefly, the plot of Mrs. Stone's Thing revolves around George Stone (one-and-doner Victor Rich), a middle-aged businessman who reluctantly brings his naive, stay-at-home wife Martha (Karen Johnson, also a one-film wonder) to an orgy at the home of a business associate (Ron Dyer, who also appeared in 1969's Dr. Masher with Alice Friedland). Victor Rich and Karen Johnson are the actual stars here.

The film is really about how this wild get-together puts the Stones' marriage to the test. Ed is merely a guest at the party, and he doesn't even show up until about the 30-minute mark. When he does, he essentially plays himself: a hard-drinking, cross-dressing writer. As with the other Robertson films, Eddie does not look healthy here. His face and body are both badly bloated, and his complexion is fish-belly pale. For the benefit of Robertson's camera, Ed clumsily but bravely dons female attire onscreen. With some effort, he squeezes himself into control-top pantyhose, but his booze-filled gut will not be contained. Later in the film, he puts on eye shadow and lipstick and makes faces at the camera. Tongue firmly in cheek as always, author David C. Hayes describes Ed Wood's "smaller" but "no less commanding" role in Mrs. Stone's Thing in gleefully unappetizing yet somehow triumphant terms.
"Wood played Ed, a transvestite writer of smut novels, that attended an orgy party. Unfazed by the rampant sex around him, Ed searched through the house until he found the mistress' bedroom. Changing into a dress, hose and blouse Wood reminds us of his ever-adaptable acting style. At that point, Ed the actor was obviously suffering from the DTs, and shaking like a leaf. He persevered, though, and with shaking hands, funny 'actor' voice and bad girdle jokes Wood applied lipstick. In some ways this can be a testament to the younger actors of today. To the Downeys, Slaters and Sutherlands... chemical abuse is no reason to give a crappy performance."
Most of Eddie's fans have, for obvious reasons of availability, not seen Mrs. Stone's Thing. In their 1994 Cult Movies magazine interview, biographer Rudolph Grey and filmmaker Frank Henenlotter discuss whether this is a good thing. They differ, as you will see, on whether this softccore film is degrading to Ed Wood's image. The two experts also compare Mrs. Stone to the other Robertson films.
Jack King and Nancy Holliday in Mrs. Stone's Thing.
     FH: Ed also plays a small role in Robertson's Mrs. Stone's Thing in which he's again in drag. And one of the things that's interesting is that, before Ed's scene, Nancy Holliday, the actress playing his fat wife, talked about Ed as both a transvestite and a prolific writer. She says, "Just because he wears women's clothes around the house, doesn't mean there's anything queer about him..." 
     RG: Right. The fat woman and the fat guy are in the pool and she's talking about her husband Ed. And Jack King, the fat guy, says Ed's kinda weird and she says something to the effect of, "Everybody has their hang-ups, haven't they? It's all a matter of perspective." Then she says he's really quite brilliant and wrote 28 novels last year. 
     FH: Ed looks like he's having a good time in that one but, again, seems juiced to the gills. He even comments on how much booze he's had. He also ad-libs a couple of lines which he finds really hilarious and seems to be staring at someone off set as he cracks up. 
     RG: Well, I find his appearance in that one somewhat depressing. It's almost as if he's being exploited. 
     FH: He probably was but I get the sense that Ed's also an exhibitionist. I mean, when he's in drag he loves showing off. 
     RG: Right. 
     FH: And I don't see where his part in Mrs. Stone's Thing is any less depressing than him licking the boot at the end of Love Feast... 
     RG: I see your point. But Love Feast seems to be more of an Ed Wood type movie. He wrote Love Feast. I'm not sure he had much to do with Mrs. Stone's Thing. I mean, it just looks like he was drunk, and he's just making an appearance, and he doesn't have much control over the movie or the situation. 
     FH: You'll notice that although his character is supposed to stumble into the bedroom and find the women's clothing, he's already wearing high heels... 
     RG: Yeah...
The aforementioned scene involving Nancy Holliday and Jack King, who frolic in an oversized bathtub (not a swimming pool), is one of the most memorably unhinged moments in Mrs. Robertson's Thing. The issue of "who wrote what?" almost becomes irrelevant because long passages of this movie, including this one, seem to be improvised or semi-improvised. In a later scene, Holliday and King sneak away from the party to the mansion's game room and try to have sex on two billiard tables pushed together. It's obvious that the two actors are ad-libbing most of their lines and desperately stalling for time. Judging by what's on the screen, I doubt any of Ed Wood's scenes were tightly scripted. At most, Joe Robertson might have been working from a vague outline. Eddie appears to be winging it most of the time.

In case you never get to see the film, here's a complete breakdown of the Ed Wood content in Mrs. Stone's Thing. Remember, most of this is interspersed with scenes of the party already in progress.

  • 25:36 - Before we ever meet Ed's character, we are introduced to his better half. Ed's roly-poly wife Nancy (Nancy Holliday) is blatantly cheating on him with similarly-zaftig Jack (Jack King). They canoodle in a tub in what looks like a very fancy, ornately-decorated bathroom. Among other things, they talk about Ed's cross-dressing and his writing career. (See Frank Henenlotter and Rudolph Grey's comments above.)
  • 30:41 - Ed's first appearance is in what seems to be the master bedroom, where he has secluded himself away from the other guests. Wearing a drab, long-sleeved brown shirt and matching trousers, he takes a moment to regard a squawking parrot. Then he sits down on the bed and sniffs a pair of panties, all while squinting and rubbing his face. He looks around to see if anyone's watching, then takes off  his pants and shirt.
  • 31:39 - Now nude except for pantyhose, Ed steps into a pair of matronly-looking white panties.
  • 32:55 - Ed now dons a hot pink brassiere and admires himself in the mirror. At this point, a blonde-haired woman walks into the bedroom, sees Ed, and becomes goggle-eyed in horror.
  • 33:29 - Ed is modestly covering himself up when a shirtless man walks into the bedroom. It's a fellow we recognize from earlier in the movie as George Stone's friend and coworker. "What do we have here?" says the man. Ed giggles and shyly turns away. The man reassures him: "That's all right! You look nice!" "Oh, come on!" says Ed, humbly. Gesturing to some other clothes on the bed, the man suggests: "Why don't you try the rest of them on?"
  • 34:02 - As the shirtless man looks on admiringly, Ed holds a black and grey dress in front of him. "It looks cute!" enthuses the man. "Oh, this is crazy!" replies Ed. "What would my wife say?" "She'll never find out," says the man. "And that gang downstairs?" asks Ed. "I'll never tell 'em," the man says. "Put it on!" "Why not?" reasons Ed. "I'm game for anything after all that booze you had down there!" When the man tells Ed he looks "like my wife" in the dress, Ed replies: "Good Lord! If she's this fat, we don't want to worry about that, do we?"
  • 34:35 - "I didn't know you were this cute, you know that?" enthuses the man. Ed says, "I need a girdle." But he fits into the dress anyway. The man then advises him, "Look in the mirror! Isn't that something?" Ed asks the parrot for a review: "What do you think about that, Polly?" Turning back to his human guest, Ed says, "Let's go get another one!"
  • 42:22 - Still wearing the dress, Ed runs his hands up and down his legs in the hosiery. Then he looks in the mirror and squints while applying lipstick. He slips a pink satin robe over the dress and again admires his reflection. He twirls, tousles his hair, and strikes "model" poses. But then Ed's enormous wife, Nancy, enters the room, and Ed runs for cover. "Uh oh! You've had it doc!" says the parrot. "Oh, the Age of Discovery!" yells the wife. "Have I got a great idea! Have I got a girl for you!" She then drags a reluctant Ed out of the bedroom by his arm.
  • 43:15 - Ed and Nancy are now downstairs, in the thick of the party. Nancy says to one blonde-wigged party-goer: "I would like you to meet my husband." This mysterious stranger turns around and reveals himself to be... another man in drag! Ed rolls his eyes. "Oh, how very fascinating!" says the second cross-dresser, as he sizes Ed up.

A Mia Coco pictorial.
Like its two uninspiring leads, most of the actors in Mrs. Stone's Thing had never been in a movie before this and would never make another one after this.

Jack King is the obvious exception, Perhaps best known for his turn as a doomed grandfather in The Creeping Terror (1964), this distinctive character actor brought his round physique, gruff voice, and bushy beard to a number of low-budget films, nearly all of them pornographic, from the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s. Ed Wood fans will know him, for instance, as the storyteller -- a sort of Cro Magnon Criswell -- from Ed De Priest's One Million AC/DC (1969), where he was also scantily clad but seemingly not self-conscious about his appearance. (In Mrs. Stone, King's weight becomes an issue when he tries to mount Nancy Holliday, but neither actor seems terribly bothered by it.) Joe Robertson cast Jack King again in A Touch of Sweden (1971), just a year after Mrs. Stone. And Pete Perry (who directed 1959's Revenge of the Virgins) used Jack in The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet (1969).

Meanwhile, viewers familiar with Love Feast may recognize busty, flirtatious Mia Coco. A prominent pinup model in the 1960s and 1970s, she was the lone African-American in the Love Feast cast, and she turns up as an aptly-named "scene stealer" in Mrs. Stone. At one point, she even wriggles like a snake across the prone bodies of the partygoers.

The other name which immediately jumps out from the credits of Mrs. Stone's Thing is that of Hal Guthu, who acted as the director of photography, just as he did on Love Feast. Guthu was better known as an agent for nude models and porn actresses, so I'm guessing he might have supplied some of the female talent on (abundant) display here, including Ms. Coco.

The film's second director of photography was Robert "Bob" Maxwell, who was a very busy cameraman and gaffer in '60s and '70s cult cinema. His credits include Orgy of the Dead (1965), Girl in Gold Boots (1968), and the revolutionary Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). Born on Christmas Day in 1923, Maxwell was just a few months older than Ed Wood. Sadly, they both died at the age of 54 in December 1978. Bob outlived Ed by just twelve days.

On a happier note, Mrs. Stone's Thing acts as yet another accidental documentary -- one of many in Ed Wood's filmography -- of what Los Angeles, California looked like during the Laugh-In years. Joe Robertson shot a lot of location footage for this film, and he managed to capture some now-long-gone landmarks in the process. During the title sequence, for example, we see actor Victor Rich walking through downtown L.A.'s Century City Mall in pursuit of a sexy young thing with an admirable disdain for underwear. His travels take him past the 55-story headquarters of Security Pacific National Bank, which later became Bank of America Plaza.

He also saunters past the impressive-from-the-outside Century House Restaurant, which was also glimpsed in 1967's A Guide for the Married Man. A website called Old L.A. Restuarants called the Century House "a decent place to grab a bite if you were shopping over there but that's about it."

The original George and Martha.
The viewing experience: Like surveying the ruins of Pompeii after that doomed ancient city was buried in lava, its citizens uncannily preserved just as they were before Vesuvius blew its stack. Mrs. Stone's Thing, from its slangy title onward, is unmistakably the product of a lost era.

This was back when middle-aged people, like the ones largely in charge of the motion picture industry, were desperately trying to figure out the so-called counterculture so as to subdue it, exploit it, or both.

This film might make interesting viewing for superfans of Mad Men, as it also concerns liquor-swilling, suit-wearing executives awash in the Age of Aquarius. This film's lead character, George Stone, could even be a refugee from that departed AMC series. He's an arrogant, womanizing businessman who wears ascots and keeps his silver hair immaculately groomed -- a strutting peacock of a man. His views toward women, predictably, languish in a pre-feminist hinterland; George likely takes his cues directly from Hugh Hefner in his dealings with the fairer sex. He expects his wife, Martha, to remain faithful to him and stay at home, mixing his martinis, while he dashes off to bacchanals which would make Caligula blush.

In other words, George Stone is no hippie, yet he wants to reap the sensual pleasures -- namely, casual sex with attractive and anonymous young women -- of the hippie lifestyle. If there is a common thread in the three Wood/Robertson films, it is of the older generation essentially cannibalizing the younger one. Incidentally, I don't think it's a mere coincidence that the husband and wife in this movie are named George and Martha. These monikers remind us not only of George and Martha Washington, the Father and First Lady of our country, but also of George and Martha from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which Mike Nichols turned into an acclaimed film in 1966 with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Set mainly at the lavish estate of a free-spending tycoon, Mrs. Stone's Thing centers around a wild party which quickly evolves/devolves into a full-scale orgy. Sex and drugs are in full evidence here, and the third component of the hippie holy trinity, rock 'n' roll, is present in the form of a fuzzy-haired, bongo-bashing acid rock combo whose repertoire includes an instrumental cover of "Johnny B. Goode."

Yet all of this is ostensibly being done in the name of commerce. George is attending this event in order to make business contracts. Getting loaded and screwing flower children are just components of his job. Mrs. Stone's Thing takes place firmly within the territory of the Establishment, not the counterculture. The dozens of nude, gyrating young people in attendance seem to have been rented and bused in especially for the occasion. Do they know or care that they are on enemy turf?

Russ Meyer favorite Princess Livingston
More than anything, Mrs. Stone's Thing reminded me of Russ Meyer's contemporaneous Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), which was also chiefly set at the plush estate of an eccentric, party-happy millionaire. The two films even share a piece of prominently-used stock music -- a bouncy, harpsichord-accented twist rocker which could only have come from the 1960s. (It sounds like something from Hullaballoo or Shindig!)

Like Beyond the Valley, Mrs. Stone allows us to eavesdrop on a ridiculously over-the-top, sex-and-drug-fueled Hollywood party attended by lots of young, well-tanned "beautiful people," along with a few grotesques and eccentrics for good measure. Ed Wood, I'm afraid, is intended as one of the grotesques, as are Nancy Holliday and Jack King, who share his inconsequential sub-sub-subplot. They serve essentially the same function for Robertson as the cackling, toothless hag Princess Livingston did for Meyer. (Meyer cast Livingston four times, including Beyond the Valley. She died in 1976.) They're there to remind us just how absolutely anarchic this party is. Anything goes, baby! Just look what kinds of freaks we let through the door! Whee!

This is not to say that Robertson's film was influenced by Russ Meyer. Joe Robertson might never have even seen one of Meyer's films. But I'll be damned if Mrs. Stone's Thing doesn't seem like it was edited together from footage Meyer left on the cutting room floor while making Beyond the Valley. George Stone is certainly the kind of square-jawed man's man Meyer used repeatedly. (Meyer regular Charles Napier would have been perfect for the role.)

And Robertson often uses oddball camera angles and frenetic editing in Mrs. Stone, just as Meyer did in Beyond the Valley. When Mia Coco slinks through the party in Robertson's movie, furthermore, it reminded me of Haji wearing little more than black body paint as the "Cat Lady" in Beyond the Valley. Even the absurdly old-fashioned ending of Mrs. Stone's Thing, in which George and Martha decide to forget all this "orgy" nonsense and start a family, runs parallel to the utterly square epilogue and "triple wedding"conclusion of Beyond the Valley.

An upsetting flashback from Mrs. Stone's Thing.
The main difference between Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Mrs. Stone's Thing is one of tone. Meyer's film, which was scripted by famed critic Roger Ebert, is slyly self-aware, deliberately outrageous, and steeped in parody, irony, satire, and real-world cultural references ranging from Lawrence Welk to Muhammad Ali. Robertson's film has virtually none of these attributes.

Irony was never Ed Wood's strong suit, and that much-abused word does not even seem to be in Joe Roberton's cinematic vocabulary. Both Beyond and Mrs. Stone contain scenes of strong sexuality and violence, sometimes in alarming combination, but I believe such moments in Mrs. Stone's Thing are meant to be taken seriously and at face value. In Meyer's film, in contrast, everything's a put-on, including the Nazi bartender (who appears in full uniform at one point) and the musclebound hunk who is brutally decapitated by a vengeful transsexual. One potentially-disturbing subplot in Beyond the Valley concerns a young lesbian (Cynthia Myers) who is raped -- off-camera -- by a male friend (David Gurian), who in turn is driven to attempt suicide. It sounds grim, but the film treats these events like everything else in the script, i.e. as stylized, soap opera-style camp.

The characters in Beyond the Valley may take themselves and their problems quite seriously, but the movie doesn't. It's analogous to the treatment of Adam West and Burt Ward in the '60s Batman TV show. We know the show is a goof even if they don't.

On the other hand, Mrs. Stone's Thing has a dark subplot about a lesbian party guest (Toni Demoulin) who was raped by her father (Reb Rebel) as an adolescent and consequently grows up to be a rapist herself, forcing herself on another female party guest. For reasons of his own, Joe Robertson includes numerous, mood-killing flashbacks to this poor woman's terrible childhood. We witness, first-hand, the rape and abuse of both the mother and the daughter at the hands of the father. And then we have to watch as the now-grown woman continues the cycle of abuse with a new victim. Unlike a Russ Meyer film, there is not a hint of parody or irony in any of this. This material is played as strictly traumatic and upsetting. What this stuff is doing in an erotic film is beyond me.

And yet, despite all this, the overall mood of Mrs. Stone's Thing is celebratory, up to and including Ed Wood's cameo. Some awful things may be happening in the back bedrooms here, but otherwise this party seems like a lot of fun. This house has everything: a swimming pool with a water slide, a deluxe game room, body painting, plenty of colorful beach towels you can use in light S&M scenarios, a wisecracking parrot, one of those hanging wicker chairs (like the one in Bloomer Girls), hordes of attractive naked people, a full assortment of drugs and alcohol, a very decent rock combo, and even a monkey! And you can make important business contacts here, too? Who wouldn't want to go to this party?

P.S. - Like Joseph F. Robertson's other films of the period, Misty (1971) and The Love Feast (1969), Mrs. Stone's Thing has a moronically repetitive yet insidiously catchy theme song which semi-successfully summarizes the plot of the movie. In the case of both Misty and Mrs. Stone, Joe Robertson uses the title tune to psychoanalyze and pass judgment upon his characters somewhat. Musically, the theme song from Mrs. Stone's Thing is straight-ahead, late-1960s pop-rock in a "bubblegum psychedelia" vein. There are echoes here of "Mellow Yellow" by Donovan, "Getting Better" by the Beatles, "Happy Together" by the Turtles, and countless B-sides by the Monkees. Obviously, the best way to appreciate this musty aural artifact is to listen to it yourself. That's why I have graciously uploaded the Mrs. Stone's Thing title tune to YouTube for you all to enjoy.

 

NEXT: How low can you go? It's a matter of opinion, of course, but there are arguably few assignments in filmmaking lower than directing pornographic loops. But that is one of the many odd jobs Ed Wood took in the 1970s, when feature film gigs were hard to come by and even his short stories and novels weren't paying the bills. These types of films might seem to be extremely ephemeral. After all, who would think to preserve them? And yet, miraculously, some of Ed Wood's X-rated loops have survived to this day and age, and I am now preparing to review them for your benefit. Join me back here in two weeks, and together we will enter the realm of Swedish Erotica.

5 comments:

  1. It's interesting that you point out that Robertson said he "voluntarily ceded the directing credit to Ed", because when "Pretty Models All in a Row" came out, I contacted Rhino's answer man, Dr. Rhino, and he stated (quite *emphatically* I might add) that Robertson himself had provided the credits. (I may have implied shenanigans were involved on Rhino's part.)

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    1. My theory was this: Joe decided that if putting Ed's name as the director would help get it to DVD, then so be it.

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    2. I agree. The funny part is, he also seems to take credit for writing "Love Feast", but that dialogue sure sounds like Ed (when it isn't clearly being ad-libbed).

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    3. An amazing artifact...and a brilliant breakdown, Joe.

      Curious as to the extent of Ed's association with Joe Robertson. Looks like the back of his head in LOVE MAKING USA, in the film-within-a-film segment. And the narration there sounds quite Woodian. Given that Robertson moved into hardcore, could it have happened earlier than is documented?

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  2. Follow this sinfull mortal and see what I offer...

    Make no MissTake, pal: we're all gonna someday, sometime, somewhere bite-the-dust; then, we're judged on who has followed God's rules based on our free-will.

    1) do you love Jesus first above all else? 2) do you love your neighbor? Those are the two thangs you need to ask ourselves in order to ascend.

    God blessa youse
    -Fr. Sarducci, ol SNL
    Make Your Choice -SAW

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