Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 3: "Bride of the Monster" (1955)/"The Violent Years" (1956)

Bela Lugosi as Dr. Eric Vornoff in Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster.

"The music is winsome but raggedly discordant pop. Something is sort of wrong with the tempo, and the melodies are squashed and bent, nasal, deadpan."
-Susan Orlean describing the music of The Shaggs

A waning Bela Lugosi.
Having made the most unusual and personal film of his career with his 1953 debut, Glen or Glenda?, Edward D. Wood, Jr. would spend the next quarter-century, the remainder of his life on this earth, trying to give moviegoers, exhibitors, publishers, and investors what he thought they wanted. He was forever chasing pop culture trends and naively offering up his abstract approximations of them for public approval. (You want a juvenile delinquent movie? Okay, here's a juvenile delinquent movie!) But these efforts were invariably colored by Ed Wood's personal background, fetishes, fears, obsessions, haphazard production methods, and peculiar use of the English language.

The resulting films were, to borrow Susan Orelan's words, "squashed and bent." I chose that excerpt above from Orlean's article about the Shaggs because virtually every adjective in it could be applied to Wood's work. His films are (usually) winsome yet raggedly discordant. His actors speak with voices which are often nasal, deadpan, or both, and there is often something "sort of wrong with the tempo," i.e. pacing, of his films. Apart from his westerns, which are professional in a rather colorless way, Wood's work is seemingly incapable of being anonymous... even when the man himself was uncredited or worked under a pseudonym. For good or ill, these movies bear the mark of their oddball creator.

Ed Wood was, above all, an untiring dynamo who kept coming up with ideas for movies, television shows, books, records, live shows, and more for as long as he lived. For every one of Ed's movies that actually reached theaters, there were likely five which fell apart in the scripting, casting, or financing stage. In 1953 and 1954, most of these would-be projects revolved around Bela Lugosi, the septuagenarian actor who had conquered movie screens two decades previously as Dracula but who had become obsolete and borderline-unemployable by the early 1950s.

Desperate for cash, Lugosi memorably played an irritable "puppet master" character, known variously as "The Spirit" or "The Scientist," in Ed's surreal Glen or Glenda? for a grand total of $1000. Ed wanted to follow this up with a TV series, Dr. Acula, starring the famed screen vampire. Or maybe, he thought, Bela should play the Dr. Acula character in a movie called The Vampire's Tomb. Or maybe he should be reunited with Boris Karloff in Doctor Voodoo. Or maybe pair him up with Gene Autry in The Ghoul Goes West. (This project would have especially delighted Ed, since it could also allow him to work in the western genre he so loved. Perhaps that's why he pursued The Ghoul Goes West, aka The Phantom Ghoul, for two years.)

None of these particular Lugosi vehicles ever materialized, but there was another one which which did come before the cameras. This film became one of Ed's most-seen, best-known films -- one of only three, along with Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 from Outer Space, whose making was depicted in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994). Of course, I am speaking of....


More horrifying than "Dracula "..."Frankenstein!" An atomic-powered Bela totes an unconscious Loretta King. 

Alternate titles: The Atomic Monster; Bride of the Atom

Availability: This film is in the public domain and is available in all the usual Wood-related boxed sets, including The Worst of Ed Wood, The Ed Wood Box, and Big Box of Wood. The Big Box version contains an introduction by independent filmmaker Ted Newsom, who made the documentary Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora, and a commentary track by Newsom and David DeCoteau, director of Creepozoids, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama and several Puppet Master sequels.

Paul Marco as Kelton the Cop
The backstory: The exact circumstances behind the making of Bride of the Monster are controversial and highly disputed, even today. Like the characters in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), the cast and crew members of Bride of the Monster all tell differing accounts of what happened, when it happened, who did what, and why. Critics and film historians have only clouded matters by adding their own interpretation of the events.

Here is what we know for sure. Although Bride was shot on an extremely tight budget, it took Ed quite a while, possibly a whole year, to raise the money. This partially accounts for his two-year drought between features. Ed Wood very strongly believed that Loretta King, the film's female lead, was wealthy and would invest heavily in the film, but this did not come to pass. Bela Lugosi -- by all accounts very ill and frail during filming -- was paid somewhere between $750 and $1000 a day for his participation and may have negotiated for more money during the production process.

Meat packing tycoon Donald McCoy did put up most of the money for it, and his son, Tony, played the lead and acted as associate producer. Work on the film did come to a halt at one point, but then resumed once Ed Wood procured completion funds. Some footage for Bride was shot at the studio of renowned Hollywood cinematographer Ted Allan, but it appears that Ed's regular cameraman, William C. Thompson, took over after that. Judging from behind-the-scenes photos, Thompson was the cameraman for Bride's location footage, which was shot at Los Angeles' Griffith Park.

Ed was not an astute businessman and apparently sold more than 100% of the film to various backers, and when the film eventually received national distribution and enjoyed a healthy run on the drive-in circuit, neither the director nor his original backers saw much or any of the profits. The businessmen who handled the film wound up forming American International Pictures (AIP), so some film historians credit Ed Wood with inadvertently giving that important company its start.

Cast-wise, Bride features many returning Wood veterans: Lugosi, Dolores Fuller (though in a much smaller role than she would have wanted), Harvey B. Dunn, Don Nagel, Conrad Brooks, and Bud Osborne. Future Plan 9 cast member Ben Frommer turns up as a belligerent suspect at a police station, "borrowing" some of his dialogue from 1945's Dillinger.

The two truly significant additions to the Ed Wood repertory company this time around were Paul Marco and Tor Johnson. Marco, a short, dark-haired character actor with the voice of a Daws Butler cartoon character (half-Yogi Bear, half-Snagglepuss), portrayed the bumbling, cowardly Officer Kelton in the first of three such appearances for Ed Wood. Tor Johnson, a bald, 400-pound Swedish wrestler (with movie credits going back to 1934), portrayed Bela Lugosi's mute henchman Lobo, a part he'd reprise once for Wood and once for Boris Petroff, an independent director who would collaborate with Wood on a number of future projects. Tor, of course, would also go on to his iconic role as cop-turned-zombie Inspector Clay in Plan 9 from Outer Space a few years down the line.

Conflict resolution: Tor Johnson and Bela Lugosi.
So far, so good. Nothing too contentious yet, right? Well, once you start delving into specifics, that's when the history of Bride of the Monster becomes a baffling maze with no entrance, no exit, and a thousand blind alleys. A crew member swears that Ed Wood never drank while working. A backer says Ed was intoxicated every day. Wood himself says he was planning to marry Loretta King for her money. Loretta says she didn't have any money and was hired because Ed wanted to work with someone outside his usual circle. Ed's relationship with Dolores Fuller came to an end during this era, but was it before or after he awarded her role to another actress? Depends whom you ask.

Tim Burton's 1994 biopic Ed Wood would have you believe that Tony McCoy only came on board as Bride's male lead after the movie resumed production with new money from Tony's father, Donald. But some of the footage with Tony seems to predate the production stoppage.

Even the film's authorship is in doubt. During the Bride DVD commentary and intro, Ted Newsom repeatedly states that much of the credit for the film's screenplay should go to Ed's writing partner at the time, Alex Gordon, a British expat with whom Ed had previously written Jail Bait. However, direct quotes from both Wood and Gordon dispute this theory.

"I wrote Bride of the Monster for Lugosi," said Wood. "I wrote every line in that. I gave Alex Gordon a credit because he gave me an idea."

Gordon concurs: "Eddie rewrote the script The Atomic Monster and made a very low budget picture based vaguely on it." Another Gordon quote: "Bride of the Atom was a title Eddie thought up. My title was The Atomic Monster. Later on the script was completely rewritten."

Is Gordon being modest? Is Ed Wood being greedy? It's not for me to say. The version of Bride of the Monster's history that most of us know comes from Ed Wood. It's an entertaining and satisfying story, even if it bears only a passing resemblance to the truth. Even there, however, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski had to be extremely careful with the wording of the scenes involving Loretta King and her status as a potential backer for Bride of the Monster. Their script tactfully frames it as a simple misunderstanding.

Whether or not Loretta King was rich, Ed Wood certainly believed she was. His own words, quoted in Nightmare of Ecstasy, prove that. "She had a million dollars," he once claimed. Did she... or was this all in Ed's imagination? One is reminded of Bela Lugosi's Glen or Glenda speech: "No one can really tell the story. Mistakes are made. But there is no mistaking the thoughts in a man's mind!"

The viewing experience: Hallucinatory and surprisingly poignant. With its mushroom cloud finale and repeated references to atomic tests which may be affecting the weather, Bride of the Monster is Ed Wood's attempt to capitalize on the paranoia of the Cold War era. But it is just as rooted in the "old dark house" films of decades past, with most of its action centered around the spooky, decrepit "old Willow place" on "Lake Marsh" (or "Marsh Lake") in some scenes.

The film's principal location is a weather-beaten mansion occupied by exiled mad scientist Dr. Eric Vornoff (Lugosi), who dreams of creating "a race of atomic super beings" (shades of Nazism). Vornoff carries out his experiments on any traveler unlucky enough to trespass on his property, but he has thus far only succeeded in killing his test subjects, whose irradiated corpses are then fed to the doctor's pet octopus. The octopus, represented by a combination of stock footage and an actual rubber prop swiped from Republic Studios, is apparently the "monster" of the title, but another interpretation of the story is that Vornoff himself is the story's real monster.

Bela Lugosi's multifaceted character shows the schism occurring in Ed Wood's brain. On the one hand, given that this is supposedly Wood's "atomic age" film, Dr. Eric Vornoff should remain rooted in the world of science, albeit preposterous movie science. But the character's hypnotic stare and trance-inducing hand movements, imported from Dracula (1931) and White Zombie (1932) respectively, also place him in the world of the supernatural and romantic.

Wood has stated that the script was written "for Lugosi," and in fact, the plight of the central character -- he has been banned from his homeland and forced to seek refuge in a swamp many thousands of miles away -- mirrors that of Lugosi. Ed Wood's friend, John Andrews, explains:
"George [Becwar] plays this foreign agent, Strowski, whatever he is, in Bride of the Monster. And he goes to the swamp to visit Bela. He's trying to get Bela to go back to Hungary or wherever it is. Which the Hungarian communists actually tried to get Bela to do. They actually sent for him to come back to Hungary to be Minister of Culture. Plays, museums, stuff like that. And he told Eddie he was afraid to go over there, that they'd send him to a gulag."
Knowing this -- and knowing how close to death Lugosi was at the time of filming -- makes viewing Bride of the Monster a rather thought-provoking, even somewhat melancholy experience, despite its inherent silliness and rather slipshod construction. As the romantic leads, Tony McCoy and Loretta King are flat and uninspiring, engendering little sympathy with the audience.

The plot unfolds with a sort of free-associative dream logic and makes little narrative sense. The film's use of "stock footage" creatures -- not only the aforementioned octopus but also a snake and an aligator -- is extremely unconvincing, as is Dr. Vornoff's laboratory, which is constructed like the set of a high school play with its notorious two-dimensional "stone wall" backdrop and kitchen appliances and photograph enlargers in place of actual science equipment.

The ridiculous finale, a confusing jumble of incongruous shots capped by one of the most infamous last lines in movie history (Harvey B. Dunn's simplistic proclamation, "He tampered in God's domain.") pushes Bride of the Monster into the realm of camp. But I'll be damned if William C. Thompson (or possibly Ted Allan) doesn't manage to create some truly striking, evocative images along the way, helped along by the quasi-Universal-type score by Frank Worth.

And then, of course, there is Bela with his accent and his eyes and his wiggling fingers. There are some actors who qualify as "human special effects," and Bela is one of them, even in this weakened condition. As Ted Newsom rightly points out, Bela gave it his all in this film, even if the script did not merit it.

To be honest, Bride has never been among my favorite Ed Wood films, despite its prominence in his catalog and the fact that many of his fans like it best because it's the closest thing to a "real" movie Eddie ever made. It's too stifling and depressing for me, and it seems like a great deal of the running time is wasted in newspaper offices and police stations, listening to characters drone on and on about the plot. These days, I'm more likely to watch the MST3K episode in which this film is used as cannon fodder. The quips of Joel, Servo, and Crow help to relieve the tedium a bit. Sorry, Ed.

P.S. - For you serious Wood-ologists out there, take note please of Lobo's interest in Janet Lawton's fuzzy hat. Whether or not it's angora (Ed's preferred fabric), I don't know. But it preserves the writer's eternal interest in "feathers, furs, and fluff."


The month before Bride's premiere in May 1955, Ed shot some of the silent Bela Lugosi footage which would become the foundation for Plan 9 from Outer Space, but that film would not see the light of day until 1959. As always, "idea man" Ed had a number of potential projects in the works, few of were ever completed or even started. Would-be films from this era include the enticingly-named Rock and Roll Hell, which would have reunited him with Glenda producer George Weiss, plus Piranhas, The Dead Never Die, and Trial By Terror. While these scripts moldered in the grave, one of Ed's screenplays did reach theaters... to financial success, no less! Unfortunately, it was for another director. Which brings us to...


Playboy Playmate Jean Moorhead in The Violent Years.

Alternate titles: Female; Violent Years; Teenage Killers; Teenage Girl Gang; Girl Gang Terrorists

Availability: Again, this one is available as part of S'More Entertainment's Big Box of Wood. Ted Newsom provides an introduction to this edition, but there is no commentary. The film is paired with Robert C. Dertano's 1954 film Girl Gang on a single DVD entitled Teenage Terror Drive-In Double Feature (Something Weird Video, 2001). Alpha Video released a bare-bones single-disc version in 2003.

Perusing various editions of the movie online and on DVD, I found one copy with the opening credits superimposed over a shot of the four main girls in the cast, one with the credits over a static shot of a generic city, and one with no opening credits whatsoever. The S'More Entertainment version has no opening credits.

Back again: Timothy Farrell.
The backstory: A distinguished editor whose resume includes such prominent films as Tarantula (1955), Song of the South (1948), and Of Human Bondage (1934), British-born William L. Morgan had a somewhat less distinguished career as a director, i.e. thirteen forgotten features released between 1940 and 1943, then a 13-year drought, and then this movie, his swan song. He would drop off the Hollywood radar entirely after another year.

Produced and distributed by tiny independent Headliner Productions, The Violent Years was a surprise box office hit in 1956. As would be the case again and again in his career, though, Ed did not share in the film's success. Naive and too trusting (in the words of Glen or Glenda? producer George Weiss), Wood was paid a flat fee for his script and did not get a cut of the film's box office revenue.

The film was a successful attempt to cash in on the public's fascination with juvenile delinquency, shamelessly exploiting the seedier aspects of the phenomenon while pretending to pass moral judgment upon wayward youths and their negligent parents.

Though Ed himself was not directly involved in the film's production, two seasoned veterans of Wood projects did work on The Violent Years: actor Timothy Farrell, who plays a cop named Lt. Homes and provides the obviously Dragnet-inspired narration, and our good friend, cinematographer William C. Thompson. The most prominent member of the cast is Jean Moorhead, who was Playboy's Playmate of the Month for October 1955 and who had a decade-plus career in film and television.

The rest of the cast is filled out by actors who had prolific but unremarkable careers in low-budget independent films. I. Stanford Jolley, normally a bad guy in "B" westerns, had probably the most prominent role of his career as the pious Judge Clara, whose droning, halting delivery was much mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000 when this film appeared there.

Another pic of lovely Jean Moorhead.
The viewing experience: Folks, what can I tell you? I loved The Violent Years. I'd never seen it, not even in its MST3K incarnation, until this project. Now I don't know how I ever lived without it. Though not actually directed by Ed Wood, it's unmistakably his work. Structured very much like Reefer Madness (1936) and I Accuse My Parents (1944), The Violent Years features a humorless authority figure (in this case, a judge) who lectures the characters and the audience about the importance of morality, while the script doles out severe punishments to those who stray from the path of righteousness. But the movie, like Reefer Madness before it, doesn't forget to show the sinners having a hell of a lot of fun before the heavy consequences.

The main sinner, of course, is poor little rich girl Paula Parkins (Moorhead), whose father is an overworked newspaper editor and whose mother is a charity-obsessed socialite. Mr. and Mrs. Parkins give their daughter everything... everything but love, that is. To fill the emptiness inside her, Paula adopts a nihilistic attitude -- "So what?" is her credo -- and forms an all-girl gang who rob gas stations and have scandalous co-ed pajama parties. In one particularly absurd plot point, Paula and her gang are hired by "foreign" interests (read: communists) to trash a school room, which somehow leads to a shootout with the cops and fatalities on both sides of the law.

I have no idea if Ed was sincere when he wrote this script (based on a story by B.L. Hart) or whether he was laughing like a maniac after every stilted, artificial line. I kind of hope both are true. Jean Moorhead is absolutely gorgeous and gives a terrific, spirited performance, aided immensely by Bill Thompson's flattering cinematography.

So many of Ed's motifs are here, from alcohol (booze plays a prominent role in the girls' social life) to The Daily Chronicle (a fictional newspaper also seen in Glen or Glenda?, Jail Bait, and Bride of the Monster). The fact that the four main girls all use masculine nicknames based on their own names (Paula becomes "Paul," Georgia "George" and so on) and dress as men while committing crimes is an interesting reversal of the gender fluidity in Glen or Glenda? A scene in which a young woman is forced at gunpoint to hand over her angora sweater is a shocking variation on another famous Glenda scene.

Even more fascinating is the insight the script gives us into the mind of its author. In Glenda and Jail Bait, Wood tried to explain the odd or aberrant behavior of his heroes by analyzing the issues they had with their parents. In the first film, Glen was unloved by his parents, an indifferent father and a mother who wanted a girl, and so grew up to be a cross-dresser. In the second, Don Gregor's mother died early in his life, so he grew up to be a small-time thug.

In this film, Mr. and Mrs. Parkins seem like perfectly nice people, but they just don't spend enough quality time with their daughter. So spoiled Paula becomes a thief, murderess, and unwed mother. Other than Paula herself and the completely unhinged Judge Clara (whose speech advocating religion and a return of the "woodshed," i.e. corporal punishment, is completely inappropriate under the circumstances), the most intriguing character in this movie is Paula's mother, Jane (played by B-movie stalwart Barbara Weeks in one of her last roles).

Eternally optimistic, childishly innocent, and in a constant state of denial, Mrs. Parkins reminds me very much of Lillian Wood, Ed's own mother, the one who dressed her son as a girl to punish him. She might have scarred him for life, but in interviews, she seems to have no idea that her actions had any impact whatsoever on her son. She's completely insulated from reality. "They didn't know what the hell they were doing to me," Ed once confided to a friend when talking about his own parents. That's exactly the theme of The Violent Years.

Next week: Ed's magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space, was still three years away. In the interim, Ed completed (but failed to sell) a fascinating television pilot and saw yet another one of his scripts brought to cinematic life by another director. I hope you will join me next week for coverage of Final Curtain (1957) and Bride and the Beast (1958).