Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 2: 'Glen or Glenda' (1953)/'Jail Bait' (1954)

Two faces have I: Ed Wood's first two features revolve around duality and surgical modification of the body.

Bela Lugosi, Dolores Fuller, and Ed Wood.
By 1953, Ed Wood was pushing 30 and had been in Hollywood six years without achieving a great deal of success in the movie industry. His production partnership with theater buddy John Crawford Thomas had merely produced one crude, blurry, unreleasable Western called Crossroads of Laredo (1948). Another business venture, a creative advertising company called Story-Ad Films, had come and gone with little fanfare apart from a write-up in Ed's hometown paper back in Poughkeepsie.

Meanwhile, Eddie had also been trying to make it in TV. A brief made-for-television drama called The Sun Was Setting had reached local airwaves in late 1951, but it did not lead to a regular series and didn't make much of an impact beyond the Los Angeles city limits. A second attempt at breaking into the TV market, a proposed western series called Crossroad Avenger starring faded screen cowboy Tom Keene, had not generated any interest among the major networks either.

In fact, Ed's steadiest work during these years had come as a stage actor, including a long run in a play called The Blackguard Returns at the Gateway Theater. He also toiled in the story department at Universal, where he worked his way up to the rank of "night production coordinator," typing up call sheets for productions that would be filming on the lot the next morning.

But these were not fruitless years for the decorated ex-Marine. Ed's natural charisma made him popular with the ladies, and his ability to schmooze (today, we'd call it "networking") allowed him to make key professional and personal relationships that would affect the course of his life and career. Far from being a hindrance, Ed's longstanding habit of cross-dressing -- deeply rooted since childhood (supposedly) -- had become the center of his social life, including rumored parties with such major movie stars as Danny Kaye and Tony Curtis.

What's more, during the years between 1952 and 1954, Edward D. Wood, Jr. met many of the actors, producers, and crew members who would contribute significantly to his most famous films, the cinematic works upon which his reputation is largely built. Some of these folks were on the way up. Some were on the way out. Some were just along for the ride. A few, including George Weiss, Bill Thompson, Dolores Fuller, Conrad Brooks, and Bela Lugosi, would eventually become characters in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994).

A major turning point in Wood's career was his first theatrically-released feature, a would-be exploitation flick that was supposed to capitalize on some recent sensational headlines. Instead, it wound up being the most personal statement of Eddie's entire film career.


The Devil attends the wedding of Barbara and Glen in this dream sequence from Glen or Glenda?

Alternate titles: Behind Locked Doors (working title), Transvestite, He or She?, I Changed My Sex, I Led Two Lives, etc.

Availability: A censored, abbreviated print of the film appears in such boxed sets as The Worst of Ed Wood (Image Entertainment, 2000) and The Ed Wood Box (Image Entertainment, 2004) and has also fallen into the public domain.

For this project, I consulted two different versions of the film: a longer, uncensored VHS print from the Deluxe Ed Wood Angora Box Set (Rhino Video, 1996) [buy it] and a newly computer-colorized version from 2012 by Legend Films. Legend Films was very gracious in sending me a review copy of this new DVD, and I am happy to let you know you can purchase Glen or Glenda? in color for only $9.95 right here.

Legend's new DVD of the film.
The backstory: Among the professional associations Ed Wood made in the early 1950s, arguably the most important was with veteran cinematographer William C. Thompson, who'd been working in the motion picture business since 1914 and had already filmed Maniac (1934), Dwain Esper's infamous horror epic. Colorblind in his one working eye, Bill Thompson would have an enormous impact on the look of Ed Wood's best-known films. Thompson's camerawork is often stiff and creaky with some shots held far too long, and Henry Bederski -- a frequent repertory player in Ed's early films -- has blasted Thompson for demanding that the actors remain static when it wasn't necessary to do so. But Ed had the highest esteem for Thompson, calling him "one of the most fantastic cameramen I ever met."

As I've rewatched Ed Wood's 1950s films, I can't help but notice how many truly striking shots they contain. There is a dark, brooding, mysterious quality to the images that presages the work of David Lynch, and I think much of that was due to Bill Thompson. Thompson is also the man who introduced Ed Wood to B-movie mogul George Weiss, a meeting that resulted in Ed's debut feature, Glen or Glenda.

As anyone who has seen Tim Burton's film already knows, Weiss had wanted to capitalize on a then-recent scandal, the male-to-female sexual reassignment surgery of Christine Jorgensen, and crank out a quickie biopic from his tiny independent studio, Screen Classics. After Jorgensen refused to grant anyone, let alone a penny-ante producer like Weiss, the rights to her life, the producer simply decided to go forward with a fictionalized version of the events and hired Wood on the recommendation of Thompson, little knowing that the budding auteur would use the film as an opportunity to explore his own personal cross-dressing issues.

The cast of Glen or Glenda is, unsurprisingly, filled with actors from past and future Wood-related productions. Along with the aforementioned Henry Bederski (a pudgy, bald character actor who pops up in multiple scenes), the attentive viewer will find Lyle Talbot, Timothy Farrell, and Conrad Brooks. More importantly, this is the film that introduces two key players in the Ed Wood saga: Bela Lugosi and Dolores Fuller.

The former was the renowned Hungarian-born star of Universal's Dracula (1931), a role that both launched him to superstardom and typecast him as a "bogeyman" for the rest of his life. Lugosi's strong association with the famous vampire, compounded by the actor's heavy accent, erratic temper, and longtime drug addiction, had caused his career to suffer throughout the 1940s. He went from making major studio films to appearing in low-budget "poverty row" productions, and even these had largely dried up by the early 1950s. George Weiss was able to hire Lugosi for a mere $1000, largely to give the otherwise-disreputable movie some "name value."

Aspiring actress and model Dolores Fuller, on the other hand, was a wife and mother of two who divorced her husband to be with Ed Wood, whom she'd met at a casting call. They were soon living together, and their real-life relationship would be the basis for many of the scenes in the film.

And at the very center of it all is an astonishing performance by Wood himself, credited as "Daniel Davis," the first in a series of professional aliases he would use throughout his career. Perhaps because he was playing a character based very closely on himself, Ed Wood gave the performance of his life as the hero, a troubled man who doesn't want to admit to his fiancee that he is a cross-dresser.

A moody moment from the dream sequence.
The viewing experience: I will not mince words here. Glen or Glenda is, unequivocally, my favorite Ed Wood movie. It's the film that made me a lifelong fan. I had never seen anything like it before and have not seen anything like it since. Most of Ed's movies, odd as they are, fall into pretty easily recognizable categories: science-fiction, horror, western, crime thriller, pornography, etc.

Glenda is something different altogether: part horror (Lugosi appears as a Dracula-esque mad scientist in a lab filled with skulls and test tubes), part documentary (Talbot and Farrell play "respectable" members of the community who discuss the issues in a dry, factual way as if they were in an educational film), part soap opera (Wood and Fuller share talky, melodramatic scenes in prosaic locations such as a kitchen and a living room), and part stream-of-consciousness surrealism (symbolic stock footage of a buffalo stampede, a lengthy and bizarre dream sequence).

I found that when I watched this movie at the age of 37, I no longer laughed the way I did when I was 17. Instead, apart from a few scattered guffaws, I became truly involved in the story, thanks largely to Wood's sympathetic performance. And I marveled at the audacious, one-of-a-kind oddness of it all. George Weiss famously padded the movie with several minutes of racy "girly show" footage directed by schlockmeister W. Merle Connell for an entirely different production, inter-cutting it with reaction shots from Wood and Lugosi to justify it being part of the movie. Rather than feeling like a diversion or a distraction from the main feature, the Connell footage (including a husband-and-wife bondage team) only adds to its transportive, dreamy nature.

There are various edits floating around out there, but the most complete I've seen is the VHS version Rhino put out in the 1990s. The version you're more likely to see today, while made from a fairly decent print, lacks a few important moments. The words "god" and "sex" have been clumsily excised a few times, and Timothy Farrell's doctor is no longer allowed to say he "doesn't think" a transvestite deserved to die.

Worse yet, one of the film's most peculiar sequences -- constructed by Wood entirely out of stock footage of highway traffic and a foundry, plus some dubbed-in dialogue by two unseen factory workers, "Jack" and "Joe"  -- loses its semi-shocking punchline, in which one of the workers suddenly starts talking in a woman's voice. The biggest omission is an entire sequence in which an unnamed man (played by Conrad Brooks) rebuffs the advances of a homosexual but then unwittingly lights the cigarette of a cross-dresser. Apart from the Rhino tape, I have not seen this material elsewhere.

The new Legend Films DVD is made from the shortened, censored print available elsewhere, but what it lacks in completeness, it makes up for in visual panache. Quite simply, this is the best-looking, best-sounding version of Glen or Glenda I have ever seen. As is customary of this company's products, the DVD contains the standard B&W edition of the film as well as the colorized print. Apart from a newly-created trailer (not the vintage 1950s trailer that appears on the Rhino and Image versions), the Legend DVD has no extra features to speak of.

The disc's entire reason for existence is to present the colorized version of Glen or Glenda, and that alone makes it well worth purchasing. What the colorization gives us is a whole world of detail that might go unnoticed in the B&W film: the sinister bric-a-brac in Lugosi's lab, the books behind Timothy Farrell's desk, the items on Glen/Glenda's vanity, plus the cars, clothes, and businesses visible in both the stock footage of crowds and the "stolen" outdoor shots of Wood-as-Glenda on the street, staring longingly into a store window. The colorization is very detail oriented. I couldn't help but notice the reflections in the store windows, for instance. (Hey, there's a paint shop across the street from that woman's clothing store! Who knew?)

Given Ed Wood's heavy use of cross-fading and superimposition, this could not have been an easy film to colorize. There are certain moments on the Legend DVD that actually caused me to gasp. By all means, if you want to have a DVD of Glen or Glenda? in your collection, make it this one. By the way, Wood-ian scholars will want to take note of a moment during the dream sequence in which Barbara (Fuller) emerges from the shadows with her arms outstretched. It is a clear precursor to Vampira in 1959's Plan 9 from Outer Space.

While the oddness of Glen or Glenda made it difficult to market, George Weiss managed to sell it to various territories in the United States under a bewildering variety of titles (see the list above), and the film played in China, Argentina, France, and Belgium, among (presumably) others. Ed's next film would be rather more conventional but would still contain a great deal of the director's trademark surrealism and absurdity.

JAIL BAIT (1954)

A lobby card for Ed Wood's feverish film noir, Jail Bait. Note Theodora Thurman in her jammies on the left.

Alternate titles: Jailbait, The Hidden Face

Availability: Like Glen or Glenda?, this public domain film is available in the Image Entertainment boxed sets, The Worst of Ed Wood and The Ed Wood Box. For this project, the DVD version I watched was from Big Box of Wood (S'More Entertainment, 2010) [buy it]. I also screened a VHS edition called Jail Bait: Director's Cut! (Rhino Video, 1995) [buy it].

Cotton Watts, one of the last blackface performers.
The backstory: While Wood's first creative partnership didn't go very well, at least his second one resulted in a couple of actual released films. In 1954, Ed was roommates with British writer-producer Alex Gordon, who was just then starting out in Hollywood before a decade of churning out such drive-in fare as The Lawless Rider (supposedly ghostwritten by Ed Wood), The She-Creature, and Shake, Rattle & Rock!

Wood and Gordon's initial collaboration was a film noir-style crime thriller originally called The Hidden Face. That title, which referred to the script's highly unlikely plastic surgery gimmick, was abandoned in favor of the intentionally misleading Jail Bait. The salacious term is used only once during the film -- in a line of dialogue clearly dubbed in after the fact -- and supposedly refers to an unlicensed gun. Yeah, right.

Several cast members from Glen or Glenda reappear here, and there are living room and kitchen sets that look very much like those from the previous film as well. Lyle Talbot plays another cop. Dolores Fuller is once again the romantic lead. Timothy Farrell, interestingly, has switched sides. A respected and caring physician in the last film, he's a ruthless and grouchy small-time crook named Vic Brady here. Vic's favorite expression seems to be "shut up," which he says several times per scene.

The role of plastic surgeon Dr. Boris Gregor, despite that infamous first name, was intended for Bela Lugosi, but when Lugosi was unavailable, it went to veteran British actor Herbert Rawlinson, who was quite literally dying of lung cancer while he made this film and expired the night after completing his last scenes.

Notables in the cast include bodybuilder Steve Reeves, a former Mr. Universe just a few years away from hitting the big time as the title character in Hercules (1958), and gorgeous singer/model/TV weather girl Theodora Thurman, making her one and only film appearance as a sexy but misguided gun moll who is inexplicably loyal to the sleazy, foul-tempered Vic Brady. Fans should keep an eye out for brunette Mona McKinnon, who would play Paula Trent in Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Ed Wood also "appropriated" two elements from films by director Ron Ormond. The film's much-noticed and very distracting score comes from Ormond's Mesa of Lost Women and was composed by Hoyt Curtin (here misspelled "Kurtain"), who was Hanna-Barbera's house composer for decades, penning theme music and underscore cues for dozens upon dozens of TV cartoons. Meanwhile, a lengthy and very offensive blackface routine was lifted from Ormond's Yes, Sir, Mr. Bones! (This is obvious padding; the only connection to the rest of the movie is that two characters rob the theater where this show is supposedly taking place.) This act was performed by Cotton Watts and his wife Chick. Even by 1954 standards, Watts' act was woefully behind the times, but it unintentionally gives the film extra historical resonance.

In the Rhino cut of the film, which has yet to make it to DVD, the blackface footage is removed and is replaced by a rather blurry burlesque routine film shot at "Les Folles, Los Angeles." Curiously, there seems to be no audio for this rather tame, nudity-free striptease routine, so some of the music from Cotton Watts' blackface act, including audience laughter, is recycled.

A far-fetched but memorable plot point in Jail Bait.
The viewing experience: Feverish. That's the word I'd use to describe Jail Bait. It's appropriate that I'm reviewing this movie during a lengthy heatwave because the film seems to take place in a universe where it's always humid and muggy. Even at night -- and it's perpetually night in this movie -- the weather doesn't cool off. Everybody looks sweaty, tired, and beaten-down. Hoyt Curtin's score, somewhere between Mexican folk music and clattering free jazz, adds to the unease.

This is a world without comfort, without rest, without hope. It has the same stifling, depressing, deflating quality as Ed Wood's previous The Sun Was Setting. The film takes place in the shadowy underworld of crime and violence, but Ed's knowledge of that world seems to have come entirely from dime novels and B-movies, plus maybe some comic books and radio shows.

I kept thinking how kid-like it all was, reminiscent of children playing "cops and robbers" in the back yard. Vic Brady is the kind of tough-talking gangster a 12-year-old might dream up. Similarly, even though he's supposed to be a world-renowned plastic surgeon, Herbert Rawlinson has the medical vocabulary of a middle schooler. ("Do you know I had to completely remodel that man's face? It was strenuous and very, very complicated. Plastic surgery at times seems to me to be very, very complicated.")

The plot, for the first two-thirds or so, is a relatively unremarkable crime-and-consequences tale about a botched robbery. Then? Well, I don't want to spoil too much in case you haven't seen the film yet, but it goes off on a very odd, unbelievable tangent that is probably the film's major source of fascination for modern-day viewers.

In brief: a doctor is forced to perform plastic surgery at gunpoint. As far-fetched as I find this development, I'm almost positive I saw something similar happen on an episode of Nip/Tuck, not to mention John Waters' Desperate Living (1977). At least in those last two examples, the surgery takes place in a hospital. Wood sets his scenario in the living room of an ordinary apartment... and there's not a stray drop of blood anywhere when it's done.

Wood scholars will want to note the script's attempts to psychoanalyze the Don Gregor character, possibly Ed's surrogate in the film. Glen or Glenda made a similar effort to diagnose its title character. Ed might have had some "mommy issues" or "daddy issues"  or both  that he was working through in his scripts. Alcohol, too, is becoming a recurrent theme in his films. The bad guy in Crossroads of Laredo spent all his time at the bar, and the characters in Jail Bait -- good, bad, and indifferent -- are always boozing it up, too.

Next week: Ed tries to capture the zeitgeist with Bride of the Monster (1955) and The Violent Years (1956).