Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 66: Ed Wood and the search for home

Dr. Eric Vornoff mourns the life he left behind in Bride Of The Monster (1955).

"Home? I have no home. Hunted, despised, living like an animal! The jungle is my home."

-Dr. Eric Vornoff (Bela Lugosi) in Bride Of The Monster

Kubrick: Communication breakdown.
If you watch any director's films back to back to back, certain patterns are bound to emerge. Most prominent filmmakers return to particular "pet" themes, images, and motifs throughout their careers. Robert Altman is probably going to have his characters talking over each other. Quentin Tarantino loves women's feet. Stanley Kubrick is going to point his camera up at his characters when they go insane or are under extreme duress. Alfred Hitchcock sure did have a thing for those icy blondes, and many of his heroes are wrongly accused of terrible crimes. Martin Scorsese's Catholic guilt is always bubbling underneath any story he tells.

Directors return to what interests them or what has worked for them in the past. Ed Wood is no exception to the rule. Watch his movies (or read his novels and stories, for that matter) and you'll notice certain stubbornly recurring themes: death, transvestism, alcoholism, etc.

But, occasionally, binge-watching a director's entire filmography -- or most of it, anyway -- reveals unexpected fixations. A few years ago, for instance, I noticed how Stanley Kubrick often showed his characters as being spatially isolated from one another and, thus, reliant on technology for communication. This is most obvious in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which his main characters are in outer space and can only speak to relatives or journalists back on Earth via television monitors. But then there is poor, lonely Wendy in The Shining (1980), trapped in a mountaintop hotel with her deranged husband and deeply disturbed son. Her only lifeline to the outside world is her CB radio, which she uses to speak to local lawmen, perhaps her only friends in the world. And then there is Dr. Strangelove (1964), a film in which the action takes place on three hyper-isolated fronts: the War Room in Washington, Burpelson Air Force Base, and a bomber plane called the Leper Colony. The whole movie hinges on long-distance communication between these three locations. Too often, messages are either not received or are misinterpreted along the way, ultimately leading to disaster.

Portrait of Ed Wood as a young man.
Are there themes hidden in the oeuvre of Edward D. Wood, Jr. as well?  Yes, I would say there are. I have already written about how most of Wood's famous films are essentially police procedurals in the tradition of Jack Webb and Dragnet. But over time, I noticed another key theme of Wood's work, one that does not receive sufficient comment from critics: the importance of home. As forehead-slapplingly simple as this idea is, it is nevertheless crucial to understanding both the life and work of Ed Wood. Eddie spent years trying to find a place to call his own, and his characters seem to go through similar struggles.

Home was not an issue for Ed in the first few decades of his life. As Greg Dziawer has ably pointed out in his articles about Ed Wood's early youth, the future director of Plan 9 From Outer Space lived with his family in various locations scattered throughout his hometown of Poughkeepsie. But, other than that, his childhood seems pretty sedate and predictable. He grew up in a stable, two-parent household and was able to make and maintain friendships with boys his age at school. Sure, his relationship with his brother, William, was marred by jealousy of the latter towards the former. And it's been suggested (albeit not without controversy) that Ed's cloying mother, Lillian, may be to blame for Ed's later cross-dressing. But at least little Eddie never had to worry about where his next meal was coming from or where he was going to sleep.

After Wood moved to Los Angeles in 1947 to pursue show business, his life became -- and would remain -- peripatetic. He worked in a variety of capacities in Hollywood over the course of 30 years, including actor, director, writer, producer, and even stuntman, but never won respect or acclaim in any of them. He worked in film, theater, and television, but none of these made him rich or famous (at least while he was alive). He established a few long-term working relationships with people like publisher Bernie Bloom and producer-director Stephen C. Apostolof over the years, too, but these didn't bring him anything like financial stability or security. If there is one fact upon which all observers can agree, it's that Eddie never had any money to his name. That can be a problem when the rent comes due. Eddie's downward spiral can be seen in the increasingly sad places he and his wife Kathy called home in Los Angeles.

Bob Blackburn kindly forwarded me a list of addresses supplied by Kathy Wood in a probate deposition. Circa 1954, she and Eddie lived on the 4000 block of Kingswell in Los Angeles, then on Mariposa in Hollywood, then at Lenai Apartments near Warner Bros. at the intersection of Warner Blvd. and Riverside Dr. In the 1960s, they used Ed's G.I. bill money to buy a little house at 6136 Bonner Street in North Hollywood. "Kathy always says that the biggest disappointment in their lives was when they lost [that] house," Bob reports. They closed out the decade at 11250 Tierra in North Hollywood. In the 1970s, they lived at 5217 Strom Ave. in North Hollywood, then finally moved into a grungy apartment at 6383 Yucca in Los Angeles, from which they were ultimately evicted. Along the way, when temporarily homeless, they had to move in with actors Ed knew, including Duke Moore and Peter Coe.

Ed Wood spent the last three decades of his life desperately looking for a home, both literally in Los Angeles County and figuratively within the motion picture industry. The dependable life he'd known on the East Coast was never to be replicated out West. Judging by his movies, "home" was always on Eddie's mind. But he approached this admittedly broad topic in a variety of ways. To simplify matters somewhat, I've divided my findings into a few major categories, starting with the one I consider most important.

Home As Sanctuary

The Old Willows Place
When one thinks of Ed Wood and the theme of "home," one's mind goes directly to Bela Lugosi in Bride of the Monster (1955). After all, that's the movie with the famous "Home? I have no home!" monologue that gets quoted twice in Tim Burton's Ed Wood  (1994). The sci-fi/horror film casts Lugosi as Dr. Eric Vornoff, an embittered German scientist living in exile in the United States and conducting insidious, Nazi-like experiments in his swamp hideout. He delivers that speech to a duplicitous foreign agent, Strowsky (George Becwar) who has come to bring him back to the Fatherland whether he likes it or not. The scene is notable because it briefly makes the villainous Vornoff a sympathetic character. We learn that Vornoff left behind a wife and child in his native land when he was forced to come to America.

So Lugosi's character abandoned one home but started another, far stranger one in California. Vornoff inhabits a crumbling mansion, "the old Willows place," on secluded Lake Marsh. There, he has formed a very odd surrogate family with two "children": his hulking manservant Lobo (Tor Johnson) and his pet monster, an ill-tempered octopus. Vornoff uses these children to protect the homestead, killing anyone foolish enough to venture onto his property.

But Dr. Eric Vornoff is not the only Wood character to use his home as a fortress. Think back to June (Angela Stevens), the doomed heroine of the made-for-TV production The Sun Was Setting (1951). Deathly ill, she is repeatedly told she will die if she ever leaves her apartment. And sure enough... well, you get the idea.

Arguably, the main characters of Wood's most famous film, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1957), are square-jawed pilot Jeff Trent (Greg Walcott) and his wife Paula (Mona McKinnon). Jeff wants to fight off the invading aliens and the zombies, naturally, but his real motivation in the film is protecting his home. Unfortunately, he lives next door to the cemetery the aliens have chosen as their base of operations. Jeff makes a point of telling Paula to lock all the doors in the house. ("I may even lock the side door," she teases.) But one of the zombies (played in tandem by Bela Lugosi and Dr. Tom Mason) enters the house anyway and chases poor Paula into the woods. It's worth noting that Fugitive Girls (1974), a prison-escape movie Wood cowrote for Steve Apostolof, also contains a shocking home invasion scene.

The dialogue in Plan 9 frequently reflects the theme of "home." Lugosi's character, for instance, mourns the death of his wife (Vampira), and narrator Criswell describes the old man's thoughts: "The home they had so long shared together became a tomb." Later, Paula tells Jeff, "This is our home, and nothing's going to take me from it." Even at the end, Criswell warns us that we in the audience may unwittingly pass an alien "on your way home."

The home is a sanctuary for a different reason in Glen Or Glenda (1953): It's the only place where the transvestites in the film can truly be themselves without having to deal with the police or judgmental strangers. "The title of this can only be labeled 'Behind Locked Doors,'" narrator Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell) tells us as we see Glen in full drag, happily reading a magazine in his own home. Again, the film's dialogue is peppered with references to the home. Dr. Alton compares men's clothing unfavorably to women's. "At home," the doctor asks, "what does modern man have to look forward to for his body comfort?" He also reminds us that the friendly neighborhood milkman "knows how to find comfort at home."

Home As Private Playground

Ed Wood as Mr. Murphy in Love Feast
That infamous milkman and the other cross-dressers in Glen Or Glenda seem most comfortable when they are at home, but the movie treats their problems seriously. These are not frivolous transvestites who get some sort of cheap, fleeting thrill from wearing the clothing of the opposite sex. Instead, the men in the movie wear women's clothing simply to feel comfortable and secure. For the theme of "home as private playground," then, we have to venture into Ed's adult movies of the 1960s and 1970s. There, away from prying eyes, his characters get up to all sorts of naughtiness in their own homes.

Take Mr. Murphy (played by Ed Wood himself) in the Joe Robertson-directed Love Feast (1969). This white-suited old sot is a shameless pervert who essentially turns his own home into a makeshift brothel. His scam is outrageous: He searches the Yellow Pages for modeling agencies, has them send over attractive young ladies, then persuades these women to disrobe and join him in an orgy. This is the kind of behavior society at large might frown upon, but Murphy gets away with it because he does this all within the confines of his own home. Maybe he never leaves the place. He doesn't seem like the type who ventures far from his base of operations.

Wood himself directed Necromania: A Tale Of Weird Love (1971), a pornographic feature that seems to take place almost entirely within the confines of a private residence, in this case the home of mysterious "necromancer" Madam Heles (Maria Arnold). Danny (Ric Lutze) and Shirley (Rene Bond) are just weekend visitors, but Madam Heles and her assistants live there, devoting their lives to some kind of pseudo-religious sex cult. It's also suggested that the house is inhabited by sex addicts who engage in a nonstop orgy every day. Like the heroine of The Sun Was Setting, they cannot function in the outside world anymore.

And then there is Wood's The Young Marrieds (1972), in which frustrated Ben (Louis Wolf) cajoles his supposedly frigid wife Ginny (Alice Friedland) into various kinky capers at home, including posing for nude photographs. They also experiment with dirty talk and light S&M. Yet again, what makes this possible is that they are in the confines of their own home. But that's nothing compared to what goes on during the film's last third. Ben and Ginny attend a full-fledged orgy at the home of one of Ben's coworkers. The whole point of the movie is that these are not deviates operating on the fringe of society; they're just normal people looking for some fun. They could be your next-door neighbors, the film implies.

Home As Battleground

A tale of domestic misery.
Plan 9's Jeff and Paula aside, there aren't too many happily married couples or functional families in the Wood canon. The homes in Wood's movies are often under assault from outside forces, it's true, but they are just as likely to be torn asunder by internal tensions as well. Wood specialized in depicting domestic turmoil in his movies. It starts with his debut feature, the aforementioned Glen Or Glenda. The title character's own boyhood home was fraught with tension, we learn, since Mother wanted a girl instead and Father showed nothing but disdain and disappointment for the child. We overhear one of their arguments about whether Glen should be allowed to wear a dress for a costume party.

There is further unpleasantness when Glen's snooty sister Sheila (Evelyn Wood, no relation) comes home and is shocked to find her brother dressed as a woman. "Suppose I were to come home with Roy or one of my other boyfriends some night," she complains to a coworker, "and find Glen like I did last night?" This scene is mirrored by a flashback sequence in which Glen's friend Johnny (Charles Crafts) is caught in drag by his wife at their home. Even Glen's domestic scenes with his fiancee Barbara (Dolores Fuller) are tense, namely because Glen doesn't know how to confess his transvestism to her, even though she suspects something is dreadfully wrong.

Wood's crime thriller Jail Bait (1954) is also about a family under siege. The matriarch of the family has died, so it's up to the elderly patriarch, Dr. Boris Gregor (Herbert Rawlinson) and his grown daughter Marilyn (Fuller, again) to keep the household together. Unfortunately, young, impetuous Don Gregor (Clancy Malone) has taken up with criminals and is on his way to either prison or an early death. Much of Jail Bait takes place in the Gregor family living room, where Don, Marilyn, and the doctor engage in soap opera-style arguments. The film has a parallel household, consisting of gangster Vic Brady (Farrell, again) and his gun moll Loretta (Theodora Thurman). Life here is unhappy as well, with bad-tempered Vic constantly snapping at Loretta, who unwisely remains loyal to this skunk.

As reader Milton Knight points out, via Facebook, the Wood-scripted The Violent Years (1956) is all about domestic turmoil, as teenager Paula (Jean Moorhead) runs afoul of the law, despite coming from a well-to-do family. Ultimately, when Paula is brought before the court, her problem is diagnosed as the lack of a "proper home."

And there is plenty of domestic misery to be found in the films that Wood made with Stephen C. Apostolof. Characters in The Cocktail Hostesses (1973) and The Class Reunion (1972) refer to their own failing marriages, and they attempt to numb themselves with sex and alcohol. But for the definitive Wood/Apostolof statement on the theme of "home," one must watch Drop Out Wife (1972). This is the story of Peggy (Angela Carnon), a wife and mother (with two children) who decides to abandon her family and live as a swinger, having numerous sexual encounters with strangers. In a flashback, we learn that Peggy was pregnant with her third child when her husband Jim (Chris Geoffries) slapped her across the face during an argument, knocking her to the ground. The baby was stillborn. This horrific scene actually happens in the family's kitchen, which should be the heart of any home. In the end, Peggy becomes disenchanted with her free-and-easy new lifestyle and makes a desperate gambit to get her family back.

Domesticity may not be perfect, suggests Ed Wood, but it beats any alternative.

4 comments:

  1. I was in LA on my honeymoon, and felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to the Yucca St. apartment along with Pla-Boy Liquors (my wife doesn't get it, but she is astoundingly patient with my obsessiveness...). I could all too easily envision Ed, riddled with DTs, stumbling back and forth across Cahuenga, his Underwood in tow, week after week. It was an ethereal moment for me.

    The house on Strohm Ave. is a parking lot now. The Tiara St. house is still standing. The Bonner St. house is (sort of) still extant, though it is invisible from the street due to decades of overgrowth. It does not appear to be recognized as a valid address (there is no mailbox at the end of its unpaved driveway), and is likely condemned at this point. Paradoxically, though, it has a pool in the backyard that is about the same size as the house itself.

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    1. Thanks for the updates, Team Member X. I've only been to California once in my life, and it was when I was a young child and not even aware of Ed Wood. Maybe someday I'll make the pilgrimage.

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