Saturday, September 28, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #58: "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928)

Buster Keaton is a dandy who tries to impress his father in the surprisingly emotional Steamboat Bill, Jr.

"That boy ain't right." 
-Hank Hill, discussing his son Bobby, King of the Hill

The flick: Steamboat Bill,  Jr. (United Artists release of a Joseph M. Schenk production, 1928) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 7.9

Director*: Charles Reisner (The Hollywood Revue of 1929; The Marx Brothers' The Big Store)

*Buster Keaton was an uncredited co-director.

Actors of note: Buster Keaton (Buster Keaton Festival, Buster Keaton Classics), Tom McGuire (The Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, Meet John Doe, Little Caesar, etc.), Ernest Torrence (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tol'able David), Tom Lewis (a handful of obscure 1920s films; died before this one was released), Marion Byron (Trouble in Paradise, They Call It Sin), James T. Mack (busy 1930s character actor; appeared in Buster Keaton's College; made an uncredited cameo as a prompter in Citizen Kane)

The film's climactic storm.
The gist of it: Rough-mannered sea captain "Steamboat Bill" Canfield (Torrence) receives a telegram informing him that his son, whom he has not seen in many years and who has been away at school in Boston, is coming to visit him in the seaside community of River Junction, as per his mother's wishes. There, Bill and his loyal "last and first mate" Tom Carter (Lewis) operate a battered but durable old steamboat called the Stonewall Jackson, but they are in danger of being run out of business by pompous tycoon J.J. King (McGuire), who owns many local businesses and has just launched his own, super-deluxe steamboat, the King. Undaunted, Bill and Tom go to the depot to meet Bill's long-lost son, but they have a tough time picking him out of the crowd.

Eventually, they meet up, and Bill is utterly horrified to learn that his offspring, William Canfield, Jr. (Buster Keaton) is a foppish, dandified wimp. Worse yet, William almost immediately strikes up a Romeo-and-Juliet-type romance with J.J. King's pretty daughter, Kitty (Byron). Both fathers disapprove of the union and do everything to keep the young lovers apart. Meanwhile, Bill keeps trying to make a man out of William but has little success. When William won't stop seeing Kitty, Bill buys him a ticket back to Boston and tells him to get out of River Junction. But things take a turn for the unexpected when King has the Stonewall Jackson condemned by the safety commission. Infuriated, Bill physically assaults King and is tossed into jail. William throws away his train ticket and attempts to break his father out of jail, but he succeeds only in getting himself taken to the hospital with a closed head injury. But just then, a tremendous storm comes through River Junction, destroying nearly everything but the Stonewall Jackson, and William gets a chance to prove himself a hero to his girlfriend, her father, and his own father all at once.

Hank and Bobby Hill struggle to find common ground.
My take: I never went into Buster Keaton's films with the intent of psychoanalyzing the man, but Steamboat Bill, Jr. makes it tough to avoid the issue. Quite simply, this whole movie is about Buster trying to win the approval of his gruff, imposing father. There are obvious parallels here to Buster's own life, in which he fled from his violent, alcoholic father, Joe, in terror in the 1910s, leaving the Keaton family's vaudeville act for a solo career. After becoming successful, the comedian did not sever all ties with Joe but instead hired him repeatedly to act in his short films. And here is Buster Keaton's most elaborate meditation yet on father-son tension.

I think Steamboat Bill, Jr. will strongly resonate with any weird, nerdy kid who ever felt like he was disappointing his father by never learning to properly throw a football or change a tire. Certainly, there are echoes of this relationship in Mike Judge's animated series, King of the Hill (1997-2010), which was mainly about a proud, traditionally "manly" father, Hank Hill (voiced by Judge), and his goofy, misfit son, Bobby (voiced by Pamela Adlon), as they struggled to understand each other and build a workable relationship. Hank's main interests in life were beer, propane, BBQ, football, and mowing his lawn. Bobby was more drawn to stand-up comedy, puppeteering, music, and other creative pursuits. But to their credit, these two very different people worked to find common ground on a week-by-week basis.

Being only about 70 minutes long, rather than 13 years long like Judge's show, Steamboat Bill, Jr. has to condense this father-son saga into one bite-sized story with little vignettes that speak volumes about the relationship between the two men before wrapping everything up in a way that will satisfy the audience. The incredibly elaborate storm sequence -- which I did not know in advance was coming -- is an admittedly extreme yet effective solution to that narrative challenge. It's also an incredible feat of movie-making, especially considering when it was made, and a sublime showcase for Keaton's fearless, athletic physical comedy. Incidentally, it is here that Buster performs his absolute most famous stunt. During the storm, the wall of a house falls down on top of Buster, but the young man is not harmed because he was standing right where the window landed. It's a joke countless comedians have imitated, including "Weird Al" Yankovic in the "Amish Paradise" video.

Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie (1928)
Sadly, although the film is generally lauded by reviewers today, Steamboat Bill, Jr.'s critical reputation is not quite so sterling as it ought to be. Movie historians rather grudgingly declare it one of the last "classics" of Buster's golden age of the 1920s before he signed on with MGM and lost creative control over his films. However, to a man, they point out that Steamboat cannot be considered on the same "level" as Keaton's The General (1926). But why does there need to be a caste system among films anyway? Why do critics feel the need to turn everything into a horse race or a pissing contest? What good -- what single, tangible benefit -- has ever come from that? Name me one, and I'll bow at your feet.

I'd advise these critics and other viewers to concentrate on the movie they're actually watching and not worry so much about how it stacks up against other, "superior" films. It's all subjective and impossible to "measure" or "prove," so there's little point in worrying about it. I'd give the same recommendation to those folks who fiercely debate such topics as who was the greatest rock drummer of all time or which one novel they'd want on a desert island. Fellas, relax! You're wasting precious brain cells!

Upon its release in 1928, Steamboat Bill, Jr. received a rather vicious panning in the New York Times from short-sighted critic Mordaunt Hall, who in the same column raved about a now almost totally forgotten Dolores Del Rio melodrama called Ramona. While the sole remaining copy of Ramona today collects dust in the Czech Film Archive, Steamboat is available as a special edition Blu-ray from Kino Video, so perhaps history has rendered a different verdict than Mr. Hall did. (This same critic also gave Fritz Lang's Metropolis a rather sniffy appraisal. Could he pick 'em or what?) Despite Mordaunt Hall's objections, Steamboat Bill, Jr. received a high-profile and durable tribute the very same year it was released when Walt Disney's first cartoon with synchronized sound was titled Steamboat Willie. That particular 'toon launched the career of Mickey Mouse and has eclipsed even Keaton's film in fame and popularity. For the record, Mordaunt Hall liked the cartoon, proving that even a stopped watch is right twice a day.

Buster and his umbrella.
Is it funny: Yes. That's what really matters in a comedy, isn't it? Take away the flashy effects and the psychological underpinnings, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. is still a well-functioning and productive joke machine. A lot of the humor comes from the contrast between crude, no-nonsense "man's man" Ernest Torrence and fussy, effete "college boy" Buster Keaton. One review claims that Buster was "too old" for the part, but he looks young enough to me. The thick, almost kabuki-like makeup he wears renders his age difficult to discern.

Buster's very appearance at the beginning, complete with a beret and a ukulele, is funny because it's so out of place and inappropriate for River Junction. At one point, Buster prepares to board the Stonewall Jackson dressed in the fancy uniform of a Titanic crew member, and Tom tells his boss that "no jury would convict" him for shooting his son at this moment. There's a great extended sequence in which Buster tries on a great number of hats (including his signature porkpie, which he quickly discards) while his increasingly impatient father looks on. After all that fuss, Buster's new hat blows away the second he leaves the store, and the young man winds up wearing the same beret that had upset his father in the first place.

There are a few other nice extended comic sequences, like Buster's futile attempts to break his father out of jail with tools hidden inside a suspiciously large loaf of bread. Some of my favorite moments in the film, though, are the little ones -- like the running joke in which Steamboat Bill repeatedly injures his feet by stepping barefoot on the nutshells his son has carelessly left on the floor. Buster also gets some nice comedic mileage out of an umbrella that gets turned inside out and ends up collecting rather than deflecting water.

My grade: A

P.S. - Viewers should know that there is a bit of racial humor in the film, though not much. At one point, Bill is searching for his son and makes several wrong guesses -- including one man who turns out to be black, a situation that provokes gales of laughter from Tom Carter. In another scene, Buster falls into the ocean while attempting to see his beloved Kitty King. Soaked to the bone, Buster climbs back aboard the Stonewall Jackson, which for some reason terrifies a Negro guitar player who runs away in utter horror. Actually, in retrospect, maybe it wasn't so cool to name the heroes' steamboat after a Confederate general.

Ravi Shankar and George Harrison: Their obscure, late-career masterpiece

Two friends, captured decades apart: Ravi Shankar and George Harrison

That's the "om" symbol.
I have written of my atheism on this blog several times in the past, but I wouldn't want people to get the impression that I think I have the universe figured out or that I'm immune to the charms of nature. On the contrary, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the beauty and complexity of this world and of what lies beyond it. Some of my favorite art has been created in service of religions to which I do not subscribe, and sometimes this very art -- particularly music -- makes me wish that I were a believer, too. That's the experience I had when listening to the little-known album Chants of India (1997). I didn't go out looking for the album. I'd never heard of it until I (more or less) accidentally found it through a YouTube search, and even then I didn't know exactly what it was. I just wanted some relaxing music to listen to while I worked, and I prefer longer videos because they're more practical for such purposes. (I didn't want to go looking for new clips every four or five minutes.) I saw a YouTube video of something called Chants of India that ran for 1 hour and 3 minutes, so I clicked on it and went to work. Soon, however, I began to notice how truly beautiful this music was and stopped what I was doing to investigate this album.

As it happens, Chants of India was recorded by world-renowned sitarist Ravi Shankar (1920-2012), the most famous Indian musician of the last century. A great deal of his popularity outside India was due to the fact that his music was strongly advocated by the Beatles, particularly George Harrison. Shankar and Harrison formed a long-time friendship, and the two organized the famed Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Over a quarter-century later, George produced and sang on Shankar's Chants of India LP. Despite the participation of a Beatle, the album is not currently in print as far as I can tell. At the time of this album's appearance, George had not put out a studio album under his own name in ten years; he died only four years after Chants of India's under-the-radar release. Shankar would live another 15 years, but Chants was his last major professional collaboration with the ex-Beatle. Why it's not instantly available on iTunes in 2013 is beyond me. Still in all, one track in particular stands out: "Prabhujee," a devotional hymn whose lyrics translate as:

     Oh Master, show some compassion to me.
     Please come and dwell in my heart.
     Because without you, it is painfully lonely.
     Fill this empty pot with the nectar of love.
     I do not know any Tantra, Mantra or ritualistic worship.
     I know and believe only in you.
     I have been searching for you all over all the world.
     Please come and hold my hand now.

Of course, when I first heard the song, I didn't know any of that because the lyrics are all in Hindi. I didn't even know who had recorded it. My thoughts during that first listen were of a traveler who had spanned a great distance, crossing a vast ocean, and had arrived safely at the shore. I felt that this journey was a metaphor for life itself and that the shore was the afterlife or one's ultimate destiny. Knowing that George's own life was nearly over when this was recorded gives the song a special significance, as does the line about hand-holding, since it beautifully (if unintentionally) echoes the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and gives that uptempo Lennon-McCartney rock number an unexpected religious significance. I was also struck by the fact that "Prabhujee," while not tied to any particular era in music, was so similar to the music being made by contemporary bands. Specifically, the song combines the slow, sweeping grandeur of Sigur Ros with the keen melodicism of Arcade Fire. In fact, if I were describing this song to someone who'd never heard it (as I am doing now), I would say, "Imagine Sigur Ros covering an Arcade Fire ballad and stretching it waaaaaaaay out."

Here is the song which so impressed me. I hope it impresses you as well.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays: Your Complete Guide to the Series

Why not be like Shirley and catch up on your reading this weekend?

Since July 2013, I have been devoting as many Humpdays as possible to the career of writer-director Edward D. Wood, Jr. in a series I've dubbed "Ed Wood Wednesdays." Originally planning only to watch his movies in roughly chronological order, I have since greatly expanded the range and scope of the project and have commented on many facets of Ed's life and work. The project's been running for a while now, so it's possible you may have missed an article along the way. Well, here they all are in a convenient list form. Read them at your leisure... and don't necessarily shy away from the unfamiliar titles. Those are sometimes the most fascinating of all.

Greg Dziawer has largely taken over Ed Wood Wednesdays since October 2015, principally focusing on Ed's writing career in pornographic paperbacks and adult magazines in the 1960s and 1970s. Of special interest to Greg is the question of which books and articles Ed actually wrote during this time period and which were written by others. These entries in the series are of particular value to collectors of vintage porn and experts on the career of Ed Wood. For the most part, Greg has divided his articles into various "orbits" and "odysseys." Enjoy.

The Wood Magazine Odyssey
Titles marked with an asterisk (*) consist of indexed magazine titles from Calga, Pendulum, Gallery, SECS, and Edusex.
The Wood Paperback Odyssey

The Wood Collaborator Odyssey
The Ed-Tribution Odyssey

The Wood Erotica Odyssey

The Wood/Dziawer Odyssey

The Wood Musical Odyssey

The Wood Loop Odyssey

The Wood Poughkeepsie Odyssey

The Wood Magazine Orbit

The Wood Loop Orbit

The Wood Set Decoration Odyssey

The Glen or Glenda Odyssey

The Plan 9 Odyssey

The Young Marrieds Odyssey

The Wood Nudie Odyssey

The Orgy of the Dead Odyssey

The Wood Ancestry Odyssey

The Wood Apprenticeship Odyssey

The Wood Yorty Odyssey

The Wood Photo Odyssey

The Woodologist Odyssey

Greg's Miscellaneous Articles

Thanks for keeping the series alive, Greg.

But there is much more Ed Wood-related content to be found on this blog. From October to December 2014, I wrote a series of articles reviewing each individual story in Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Plus a few Ed Wood extras:

Media sightings of the Ed Wood Wednesdays project:

Happy reading, my dear friends.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, Week 12: "The Sinister Urge" (1960)

"A psycho with the urge to kill": The Sinister Urge isn't coy about naming one of its main influences.

A slightly paunchy Ed in The Sinister Urge.
The year is 1960. Edward D. Wood, Jr., 36 years of age, has been in Hollywood for twelve years at this point and in that time has done virtually everything there is for a young man to do in showbiz. He's acted in films and onstage. He's been employed by a major studio, Universal, in a position of some responsibility as a night production coordinator. He's worked in local television as a writer and director as well, sometimes even getting paid for it. He's written, directed, and produced his own feature films, starring at least one certified movie legend, Bela Lugosi, and a whole host of colorful, nationally-known pop culture figures, including Vampira, Tor Johnson, and Criswell, not to mention several of the "B"-movie cowboy actors (such as Kenne Duncan, Tom Keene, Bud Osborne, and Tom Tyler) whom Ed had once idolized when he was a young moviegoer in Poughkeepsie, NY. Several of Wood's scripts have been purchased and produced by other filmmakers, too, occasionally to financial success. He's staged a Las Vegas revue and even made technical training films for the government.

In short, Ed Wood has been around the block.

But none of this has made him wealthy or famous. In fact, he's always broke. "I should have a million dollars right now," he sadly tells his friends during his moments of self-pity. But his enthusiasm for show business is unshakable, and he's always focused on the next project with a tragicomic sense of optimism. Unfortunately, his drinking will become an increasing problem in the years to come, and Ed will be forced to rely more and more on favors from friends to find work as he steadily descends the ladder of respectability from low-budget science-fiction, horror, and crime films to softcore "nudie cuties," smutty paperbacks, and finally hardcore pornography. In the pivotal year of 1960, his career is at a crossroads, and he seems to know it.

Wood's last mainstream film.
Those, my dear readers, are the circumstances under which Ed Wood directed his so-called "last" feature film, The Sinister Urge (1960), and they're not especially pretty. Actually, a good chunk of the film had already been made back in 1956, when Ed did one day's worth of shooting on a rock-music-themed juvenile delinquent picture to be called Hellborn. Producer George Weiss, who had shepherded Ed's debut film Glen or Glenda? (1953), couldn't raise any more money, and the production shut down.

Several years later, actor Conrad Brooks sold the rights to the precious Hellborn footage to independent producer Roy Reid, who agreed to let Eddie make a "new" movie out of it for Headliner Productions, which had previously distributed The Violent Years (1956). As with Night of the Ghouls (1959), Ed wrote and directed an original story that incorporated the existing film footage. The cast was a mixture of Wood's typical repertory players (Harvey B. Dunn, Duke Moore, Connie Brooks, Kenne Duncan, and Carl Anthony) with a few prominent newcomers, mainly LA nightclub performer Jean Fontaine, who supplied her own wardrobe, and a hungry up-and-comer named Michael "Dino" Fantini, who was culled from an acting school. Perhaps out of loyalty, Ed hired his longtime cinematographer, William C. Thompson, to shoot The Sinister Urge, even though the veteran cameraman was losing his eyesight.

As nearly every single biographer of Ed Wood has noted, the plot of the film, in which a once-legitimate filmmaker has gotten involved in the manufacturing of illegal pornography, very much mirrors Ed's own life and career. Perhaps taken together, Glen or Glenda? and The Sinister Urge form a more complete self-portrait of Ed Wood.

But how does the film stack up today? Let us succumb, you and I, to our sinister urges and investigate.

Title screen from the film.

Alternate titles: Racket Queen, Act of Compulsion, Hollywood After Dark, Immoral Intruder, Chains of Evil, Hellborn.

Availability: The film is available with an introduction by filmmaker Ted Newsom as part of the Big Box of Wood collection (S'more Entertainment, 2010). It's available as a standalone DVD as well (Sinister Cinema, 2008).

The backstory: Much like Ed's previous films, Jail Bait and Night of the Ghouls, the plot of The Sinister Urge revolves around a criminal couple. The twist here is that the no-nonsense, tough-talking mastermind in the relationship is the woman -- brassy blonde Gloria Henderson (singer Jean Fontaine, in her first and last screen role), who runs a pornography or "smut" ring for her thuggish bosses in "the Syndicate." (That's what people used to call the mafia.) Her lover and accomplice is the wonderfully-named Johnny Ryde (Plan 9 from Outer Space veteran Carl Anthony), a formerly-respected movie director who now oversees the making of sleazy, no-budget pornographic films and photos. It's a lucrative but highly dangerous operation, with the police (led by Duke Moore and Kenne Duncan) constantly raiding their studios, confiscating their films, and tailing their every move.

The reason for this drastic police intervention is the fact that Gloria and Johnny's pitiful little racket is somehow the hub of the entire city's criminal community. The immoral pornographers even have a greasy, low-rent thug in their employ named Dirk (played with genuine menace by Dino Fantini in his only notable screen role) who kills anyone who may pose a threat to the operation, i.e. models who squeal to the cops. Dirk is basically Gloria and Johnny's vicious "attack dog," but he's getting to enjoy his work too much, not only killing but sexually assaulting his victims as well... and doing so without much subterfuge in broad daylight. Dirk's exploits have brought on even more police scrutiny, and the Syndicate wants him taken care of "permanently."

From there, it's a series of murders, attempted murders, and double crosses that lead to a very moralistic Dragnet-esque finale, with all of the scumbags either dead or headed to jail.

Disappointingly, there do not seem to be many colorful anecdotes surrounding the making of The Sinister Urge. Perhaps sensing this was his last chance at legitimacy or even semi-legitimacy, Ed Wood very much wanted to prove that he could bring a film in on time and on budget with no screw-ups or shenanigans. Producer Roy Reid had every confidence in him, and Wood submitted a carefully-written proposal called "My Plans for Shooting Arrangement and Why" (sample line: "There is an excellent chance of bringing this picture in in four days and one pre-production.") and an itemized budget (Ed's fee for directing: $2600; total budget: $20,152, which today would be about $160,000).

Much of the shooting was done on a ranch owned by cast member Harry Keaton, brother of Buster Keaton, making his last-ever screen appearance in the role of "girly" photographer Jaffe under the semi-pseudonym "Harry Keaten." The micro-budgeted film seems to have played mostly in LA but did make it to New York's then-infamous 42nd Street "grindhouse" circuit, where it ran for 13 weeks. What's notable is that The Sinister Urge is the first of Ed's directorial efforts to contain a brief flash of female nudity, which occurs when a sex-crazed Dirk rips the brassiere from one of his female victims.

Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy includes a photograph of a "bondage" scene, but no such sequence survives in the existing print. It should be noted that a few frames from one scene, in which Kenne Duncan shows some grisly photos to Harvey B. Dunn, have been clearly chopped out by the censors. Nightmare of Ecstasy also mentions that Ed filmed some "additional scenes" for The Sinister Urge in 1961, the year after its original release. Considering how very tame the film is, it's likely that these scenes were a little racier than what was already in the movie.

A threat to American womanhood? This?!?
The viewing experience: Stultifying and drab, but not worthless. The Sinister Urge is an extremely hypocritical film which preaches against pornography with the same fervor that Reefer Madness condemned marijuana but at the same time invites viewers to ogle the (somewhat) scantily-clad women on display in the film and take pleasure from their debasement. Certainly, the two sanctimonious cops on the case must spend a lot of their time poring over "dirty" films and photos. Could that perhaps be why they're so willing to spend virtually all their waking hours on this case? At one point, Kenne Duncan (also in his last screen role) tells us that smut is even more addictive than dope. This is interesting news, since by pure coincidence, I just read about a recent scientific study that suggests that the brain does not actually react to porn the way it does to narcotics and that "porn addiction" may not even exist.

Perhaps because of censorship issues, The Sinister Urge never depicts anything like real pornography anyway. At the moment of the big police raid, here is what is happening: Jaffe is taking some still photos of three women in swimsuits lying on their stomachs next to each other. When the cops kick in the door and start arresting everyone and seizing everything, it seems like a glimpse of a fascist police state, yet I think the movie wants us to feel glad that these lawmen are doing their job to protect the innocence of American womanhood. I've mentioned before that Ed Wood's personality was a strange, self-defeating combination of swinger and square, playboy and prude, and never is that more clear than in The Sinister Urge.

Before embarking upon this project, I had no idea how much influence Jack Webb and Dragnet had over Eddie, but now it's crystal clear. The hard-working plainclothes detectives portrayed by Kenne Duncan (a sexually-voracious sleazeball, by the way, whose boastful nickname was "Horsecock") and Duke Moore (whose character, just as in Night of the Ghouls, is kept from taking a date to the theater in order to focus on police work) are supposed to remind us of Jack Webb's Sgt. Joe Friday, but instead their scenes play out like an alternate universe version of Dragnet in which two dull sidekicks are paired together without a leading man.

In many ways, The Sinister Urge suffers from a shortage of charisma, a problem that  also plagued Crossroad Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid, another Ed Wood project with Kenne Duncan. In the past, Wood's films had larger-than-life personalities like Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, and Criswell to spark the audience's interest. Here, unfortunately, too many of Ed's loyal but dull second stringers have been promoted to leads. I've already mentioned the tedium of Duncan and Moore's talky scenes at the police station. The boredom there is briefly relieved by a welcome appearance from Harvey B. Dunn as a concerned taxpayer, but then Dunn disappears after being shamed by one of Kenne Duncan's Dragnet-esque sermons. (In his shooting plan, Wood says that the "taxpayer" character, Romain, is crucial. That's perhaps why he cast Dunn in the relatively small part.)

On the criminal side of the film, hard-boiled Jean Fontaine (who was married to a rich man and only pursued showbiz as a hobby) and twitchy, greasy Dino Fantini add some much-needed color and eccentricity, but the central character of Johnny Ryde, who by all accounts was Ed's onscreen surrogate*, is too demanding for a pedestrian actor like Carl Anthony, who seems supremely stiff and uncomfortable. Gloria's "syndicate" bosses, too, are a flop. They seem like bland bureaucrats rather than flashy gangsters. Maybe that was part of Ed's plan, effectively deglamorizing the world of crime by showing mob bosses as bean counters and number crunchers.  I must say that Gloria and Johnny's pad, supposedly a den of sin and vice, looks like the standard living room set from every late-1950s/early-1960s TV sitcom. You get the sense that Rob Petrie might come in and trip over the ottoman at any moment.
*Yes, in a much-noticed "in joke," Johnny's office contains lobby cards for Plan 9, Jail Bait, The Violent Years, and Bride of the Monster. Johnny refers to the maker of those films as "a friend."

Actress Jean Fontaine, aka "Gloria."
But what about the standard "Ed Wood" brand of eccentricity? What about his pet themes? Oh, they're here. Have no doubt of that. First and foremost, The Sinister Urge is a clumsy patchwork job that tries to incorporate old footage into a new story by means of dubbed-in dialogue and cutaway reaction shots. The mismatches aren't as crazy as the ones in, say, Bride of the Monster (1955), but they'll do. Similarly, the dialogue is oddly formal and heavy on exposition and outdated slang. While not as quotable as some of Wood's other films, it's noticeably off-kilter at certain points. ("I don't dig the angel bit," says Dirk after Johnny unsuccessfully tries to bump him off.) If there's a character you'll be quoting or imitating afterward, it's probably going to be Gloria, whose climactic "that's not Dirk" speech is already well-known to fans of MST3K.

In the aforementioned scenes from Hellborn, Ed himself appears as a clearly over-aged, somewhat paunchy delinquent, fighting with Conrad "Connie" Brooks outside a pizza joint, thus making his first major acting appearance in one of his own films since Glen or Glenda? seven years earlier. That pizza joint is highly reminiscent of the teen hangout repeatedly mentioned in Ed's novel Devil Girls (1967), and one of the female spectators is wearing -- you guessed it -- a fuzzy angora sweater. (I almost typed "a fuzzy pink angora sweater" before remembering that the film was in black-and-white.)

Alcoholism runs all through this film, with Gloria and Johnny boozing it up from one end of the picture to the other. And, yes, there is a scene of transvestism. In order to lure Dirk out of hiding, the police send a male officer dressed in drag to Griffith Park (Dirk's favorite crime scene) to act as "bait" for the mad killer. Does he go for it? Like a moth to a flame, baby. And did I mention that the first victim in the film is a model named Shirley? For those of you just joining us, "Shirley" was Ed Wood's drag name. If you get a kick out of technical mistakes, furthermore, you'll be happy to know that the boom mic is prominent in several scenes, perhaps indicating that either Ed Wood or Bill Thompson was getting sloppy by this point.

Meanwhile, just to show you how interconnected Ed Wood's works truly are, there is a portion of The Sinister Urge that plays like a dramatization of his posthumously-published manuscript, Hollywood Rat Race (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998). In that book, Ed writes about would-be starlets who come to Hollywood with big dreams after being the lead in a high school play but then wind up being exploited by sleazeballs and phonies. In this movie, the cops discuss such unfortunate young ladies, and then we get to actually see one such victim  in action -- an ingenue named Mary (with all the innocence that name implies) who winds up owing money to Gloria and Johnny and, in order to pay them back, begins a sordid life of indentured servitude as a model for their smutty pictures and films. Such a shame. If only she'd read Ed's book before coming to Hollywood.

Next week: Have I got a treat in store for you? Actually, to be honest, I don't know because the next film is one I've never seen. Could be great. Could be terrible. Could be somewhere in the middle. One of Wood's occasional collaborators in the 1950s and 1960s was a Russian-born director-producer named Boris Petroff. Wood was an unbilled "consultant" (and perhaps more) on Petroff's Anatomy of a Psycho in 1961, and Petroff borrowed the character of Lobo (as played by Tor Johnson) from Bride of the Monster for his infamous 1957 anti-classic The Unearthly. Well, in 1963, Boris Petroff effectively ended his filmmaking career with a backwoods, "hick-sploitation" movie based on a script ghost-written by none other than Eddie Wood. Join me in seven days for an unabashed look at Shotgun Wedding aka Child Brides of the Ozarks. Sounds tasteful enough, doesn't it? Y'all come back now, hear?