Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 172: The Oralists (1969) [PART 1 OF 2]

It's time to talk about one of Ed Wood's most shocking books.

One of the pivotal literary discoveries of my youth—apart from finding a well-worn paperback copy of Dan Jenkins' Semi-Tough (1972) in the basement—was stumbling across Nancy Friday's Forbidden Flowers: More Women's Sexual Fantasies (1975) at the local library. I'm not sure how I found this book. I was unfamiliar with Ms. Friday and wouldn't have known to seek out her work. But I saw something titled Forbidden Flowers on the shelf, and it called out to me. Little did I know I was about to have my adolescent mind blown.

This book shocked me.
Nancy Friday (1933-2017) was not a scientist or an academic. She was, rather, a sex-positive feminist who interviewed women about their erotic fantasies and turned her findings into the best-selling book My Secret Garden (1973). The book that I found, Forbidden Flowers, was the sequel. It was, by a wide margin, the most explicit volume I'd ever seen. It left even Semi-Tough in the dust. Here were women sharing their innermost thoughts about taboo topics in terms more graphic than I thought were legally allowable in print. And some of the stories in the book were from women who'd read My Secret Garden and were relieved that they weren't the only ones in the world with certain fantasies.

I thought about Nancy Friday occasionally while making my way through one of Ed Wood's least-known yet most disturbing books: The Oralists, published in 1969 by Tiger as part of its "Case History Series" and credited to the fictional Jean Spenser and Roger West. The publisher's conceit is that Jean and Roger are two sex researchers who are married to each other and write books together; this is their scientific study of oral sex and those who enjoy it. Ed's equally salacious Bloodiest Sex Crimes of History (1967) from Pad Library is also attributed to the nonexistent Spenser and West. In The Oralists, Ed alludes to the existence of another S&W book called Sexual Fantasia. According to reader Guy Devrell, this extremely rare title was also published by Tiger as part of its "Case Histories Series." (Fantasia was designated PP191, and The Oralists was PP190.)

While the veracity of Nancy Friday's books was sometimes questioned, the author vigorously denied making up the fantasies herself. I believe her; the women's stories strike me as genuine. On the other hand, Ed Wood's The Oralists is pure literary invention. As with much of Eddie's so-called nonfiction, there's not an ounce of genuine research in it. The supposed interviews and testimonials within it are all just Ed talking to himself. Whether they represent the author's own fetishes and kinks, I don't know. I sincerely hope not. I suppose that the publisher credited the book to Spenser & West and presented it as a clinical study of sex in order to give it a sheen of respectability it would otherwise not have.

I've long delayed writing about The Oralists for a variety of reasons. For one thing, this book will not appeal to most Ed Wood fans. If you've come here for mad scientists, plywood gravestones, and flying saucers dangling from strings, you will not find them in this book. This is "down and dirty" Ed, wallowing in extreme topics and incredibly graphic language. In particular, Chapter Two and Chapter Seven will be more than most readers will be able to take. Another problem in reviewing The Oralists is that each chapter is devoted to a different, self-contained story, so it's really more like a short story anthology than a novel. A lot happens in this book, in other words.

There's no way around the first problem, i.e. the subject matter and tone of this book. This is Ed Wood at his grungiest and least ingratiating, and we just have to accept that. As for the second problem, the overabundance of material to talk about, I've decided to divide this review into two parts: four case studies now, four more next week. That way, I can discuss all the major characters in The Oralists without shortchanging any of them.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "The Baddest Mother of Them All"

Marion Ross and Billie Bird on Happy Days.

There are some TV characters we just never get to see. Maris on Frasier. Charlie on Charlie's Angels. Orson on Mork & Mindy. Vera on Cheers. We hear a lot about them. In the case of both Charlie and Orson, we even hear them. But their faces are never seen. And that's part of the fun. We imagine what they must look like. We each create our own version of the character. So there's not just one Maris Crane; there are thousands, maybe millions.

Happy Days had a strange, recurring habit of establishing such mysterious offscreen characters, then relenting and actually showing them to us. We eventually got to meet Rosa Coletti, Binky Hodges, Arnold Takahashi, Jenny Piccalo, and more.

But viewers probably thought we'd never get to meet Mother Kelp, the notorious mother of Marion Cunningham (Marion Ross). The eternally-offscreen Mother Kelp was one of Happy Days' longest running jokes, frequently mentioned by the characters but never even glimpsed by the audience. We heard about her bad temper, her drinking, her wacky shenanigans, and her undying hatred of her son-in-law, Howard (Tom Bosley). She was the ultimate compendium of all "mother-in-law" jokes.

Finally, in one of the very last episodes of Happy Days to reach the airwaves ("So How Was Your Weekend?"), Mother Kelp appeared onscreen, played by the inimitable Billie Bird. Does Billie live up to eleven seasons' worth of hype? Find out this week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays: A roundup of Ed Wood news! (Fall 2023)

A new version of one of Ed's films is coming to BluRay soon!

For a director who's been dead for 45 years this December, Ed Wood has maintained a surprisingly high profile in the 2020s. He never totally goes away, at least not for long. It seems like there's always some Wood-related project in the works, related to his films, his writings, or his life. Ed Wood tribute movies and documentaries are always in production or pre-production somewhere, though many of these may never be finished or released. I know this because the makers of these films (and potential films) contact me occasionally to tell me of their grandiose plans. I wish them all a lot of luck.

Eddie's own movies are occasionally rereleased or repackaged as well. Currently, a company called Gold Ninja Video is taking pre-orders for a new two-disc Blu-ray edition of Eddie's Night of the Ghouls (1959). This remastered version will carry the film's original title, Revenge of the Dead, and comes with a slew of special features. Most impressively, this package includes several of Ed's other movies, including Trick Shooting with Kenne Duncan (1960), Jail Bait (1954), and Final Curtain (1957), plus the Super 8 version of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). Ghouls, Plan 9, and Jail Bait will all have optional commentary tracks as well. My esteemed colleague Greg Dziawer has written the liner notes. Can't wait to have this one in hand!

But not all the news I have this week is so positive.

Probably the biggest Ed Wood-related story of the past few months was that the makers of the new, crowdfunded episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 wished to use Plan 9 from Outer Space for the show's proposed 14th season. Unfortunately, their Thanksgiving weekend fundraising drive only managed to raise $2.7 million toward the show's $4 million goal, and this was an "all or nothing" campaign. On November 26, MST3K creator Joel Hodgson sent this melancholy message to all who had donated:
Greetings, backers.

Well, we’ve come to the end of the month, and the end of the Turkey Day Marathon and this campaign.
While we’re incredibly grateful for all of the support, enthusiasm, and encouragement, it’s clear we’ve fallen short of our goal this time.

First, to be clear, please understand that that means that no one will be charged anything, and we will not be collecting anything that you pledged to this campaign , since the agreement was that we’d only collect funds if we reached our minimum goal. No charges will be put on anyone’s credit cards.

Second, and more important, please know that we’re incredibly grateful for all of your input, feedback, concerns and questions, and are thinking about all the suggestions you have made over the past month.

One silver lining is that the continued support for this campaign, and the show, may have opened up some new conversations about potential partnerships and fundraising that could be key in getting the show another season.

We’ll spend some time now exploring those, and working to integrate all of the feedback and suggestions we’ve heard from you, and will follow up again next year, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, when we’ve had a chance to regroup and have more to share downstream.

For now, whether you pledged or not, please accept our thanks and gratitude for your ongoing dedication and investment in MST3K.

We’re proud that the show continues to mean so much, to so many, and will keep working to figure out a path forward so that we can hopefully continue to #MakeMoreMST3K.

Until then, have a wonderful holiday season, and thanks again for all of your support.

Cheers and Thanks,

Joel and Team MST3K
For the time being, Ed Wood's most famous film will not be receiving the full MST3K treatment. So Plan 9 from Outer Space will not be joining Bride of the Monster (1955), The Violent Years (1956), and The Sinister Urge (1960) quite yet. But don't despair! There's a RiffTrax version of Plan 9 from 2009 featuring commentary from MST3K veterans Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy. 

And who knows? Maybe the MST3K team will find a way to make Season 14 happen after all. Lord knows, Ed Wood went through his own struggles to raise money for films. Maybe Joel and the gang can take inspiration (or at least consolation) from him.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "And I Am Outta Here!"

Stanley Brock and Henry Winkler on Happy Days.

In its waning months, with death looming overhead, Happy Days seemed determined to put its characters to the ultimate test. Would their comfortable, longstanding relationships survive major changes to the status quo? In "Welcome Home," for example, Richie (Ron Howard) decides to follow his dreams and move to California. He's also done being the nice, obedient doormat that his friends and family have come to know over the years. How will this affect his relationship with his parents, Howard (Tom Bosley) and Marion (Marion Ross), and his friend, Fonzie (Henry Winkler)? Will they accept this new, more assertive Richie? 

Meanwhile, what about Joanie (Erin Moran) and Chachi (Scott Baio)? They've known each other since Season 5 and been a couple since Season 7's "Fools Rush In." What happens if they break up? What are they to each other then? Friends? Enemies? Nothing? That's what we found out in Season 11's "The Ballad of Joanie and Chachi" and the episodes that immediately followed.

This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, we're reviewing "Fonzie Moves Out," an episode whose very title gives away its basic plot but not its emotional complexities. Fonzie has been living over the Cunninghams' garage since Season 3 and has slowly but surely become a surrogate son to Howard and Marion. But what if he moved out of the garage and got a place of his own? What happens then? Find out by clicking the play button below.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 171: Ed Wood and the Legend of Big Nose Kate

Ed Wood must have been fascinated by the store of Mary Katherine "Big Nose Kate" Horony.

Ed Wood sometimes drew inspiration from real-life historical figures for his work. We all know, for example, that his debut feature Glen or Glenda (1953) was partly based on the highly-publicized story of transgender woman Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989). Generally, though, Eddie's movies are profoundly fictional. Sorry, folks, but the events of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) and Bride of the Monster (1955) exist only in the world of imagination. And don't expect to visit the spooky yet sexy mansion of Madame Heles from Necromania (1971) either.

It's through his writing, his innumerable books and articles, that Ed Wood gets to indulge in his interest in history. Think of his fairly straightforward 1973 story "Pearl Hart and the Last Stage," which recounts the career of America's first and last female stagecoach robber. In his book Bloodiest Sex Crimes of History (1967), Eddie writes about the monstrous exploits of Albert Fish, Elizabeth Bathory, and other real-life evildoers. Other such personages are namechecked throughout the nonfiction articles collected in When the Topic is Sex (2021).

But there is at least one prominent historical figure in Ed Wood's writing I have so far overlooked, and it's because I had no idea until recently that she was based on an actual person. What can I say? When it comes to history, I'm kind of a dummy. (And I say that as the son of a history teacher!) This one completely slipped past me. Let's correct that today.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "Nostalgia Kills!"

Alexa Hamilton and Henry Winkler on Happy Days.

Happy Days got pretty decent ratings when it debuted in January 1974. Its status as a nostalgia-driven show set in the 1950s made it something of a novelty and helped it stand out from its competitors in the crowded prime time TV landscape. As Fonzie (Henry Winkler) himself said in an early promo: "Hey, I'm Fonzie. I'm on that new show about the '50s called Happy Days. It'll take you back to some really cool times! Now how does that grab you?" And it must have grabbed people pretty well, since the freshman sitcom made the Top 20 against CBS' Maude and NBC's Adam-12.

Unfortunately, the novelty appeal of Happy Days wore off during the second season, and the show's ratings started to suffer. At ABC's insistence, the struggling sitcom was heavily retooled, with Fonzie becoming a more central character and the entire show being filmed in front of a rowdy studio audience. Miraculously, this revamped version of Happy Days caught on and managed to last another decade, becoming the cornerstone of the network's Tuesday night lineup. 

Over the course of that long (and highly-rated) run, the makers of Happy Days gradually played down the nostalgia gimmick until it was barely part of the show at all. Oh, you'd hear golden oldies on the soundtrack occasionally, and the characters would make some references to TV shows and movies from the past, but Happy Days was otherwise a normal sitcom that could have been set in any era.

In its final season in 1984, Happy Days did the unthinkable: an anti-nostalgia episode! In "The Spirit is Willing," Fonzie falls for a mysterious woman named Nancy (Alexa Hamilton) who shares his love of the past -- the cars, the clothes, the music, all of it. She tries to lure him into a world where it's 1955 forever and nothing ever changes. Fonzie is tempted but ultimately realizes that Nancy is not what she seems and may have a deeply sinister agenda. In short, "The Spirit is Willing," written by Larry Strawther, is a bold repudiation of everything that Happy Days spent 11 seasons building up.

But does that make it a good episode? Find out by listening to These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast.