Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, Week 13: "Shotgun Wedding" (1963)

Jenny Maxwell covers herself on the lurid poster for the very tame Shotgun Wedding (1963).

The Comedy of Terrors
Ed Wood's movie career slowed down considerably in the early 1960s. After The Sinister Urge (1960), he would never again direct a mainstream film, and in 1963, he embarked upon what turned out to be a long-lasting career as the author of sex-and-violence-strewn paperbacks. During the JFK years, most of Ed's proposed film projects went nowhere. He envisioned, for instance, a sequel to The Sinister Urge called The Peeper. Since all the villains from The Sinister Urge had been dispatched in one way or another during that film's eventful and violent third act, the dull detective characters played by Duke Moore and Kenne Duncan would have investigated a brand new sex-crazed fiend in the follow-up—a murderous peeping tom. Financing, again, proved elusive.

In 1961, in addition to filming some new sequences for The Sinister Urge (still apparently pinning his showbiz hopes on that one, little-loved film), Ed produced a couple of new screenplays that were fated to remain unproduced during his lifetime. Last Town North has been lost to time, I suppose, but The Silent Night evolved into one of Ed's most famous screenplays, I Awoke Early the Day I Died. That script took on a life of its own and became the basis for two separate adaptations in the late 1990s, long after Ed's death.

Perhaps the most fascinating of Ed's unrealized projects from this era is Invasion of the Gigantic Salami (aka Operation Salami and Attack of the Giant Salami), a sci-fi spoof intended for Joe E. Brown and Boris Karloff, both of whom had discussed the project with Wood. Friend Don Fellman informed biographer Rudolph Grey that Ed was inordinately "tickled" by that title and was especially eager to produce this movie.

Unfortunately for Ed, The Comedy of Terrors (American International Pictures, 1963) stole his thunder with a cast that included Brown and Karloff, plus Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, and Vincent Price. How could he compete with that? It is possible that AIP, the studio that owed its existence to Ed's Bride of the Monster, might have gotten the idea to put Boris Karloff and Joe E. Brown in a movie together from Ed Wood. That's just speculation, however, on Don Fellman's part. Either way, it didn't do Ed much good.

Tor Johnson is Lobo in Boris Petroff's The Unearthly.
One thing Ed had going for him, even during the lean years, was that he knew a lot of people in the entertainment field—actors, directors, writers, producers, and craftsmen of various descriptions. And all of those people knew even more people, thereby increasing Ed's professional circle exponentially. A lot of the crucial people in Ed's career were friends and friends of friends. Ed was clearly proud of this fact, since he shamelessly drops "famous" names throughout Hollywood Rat Race (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998), even if some of those names are so obscure today that they make no impact whatsoever when they drop.

Among Ed's professional contacts was a Russian-born filmmaker named Boris Petroff (1894-1972), who as "Brooke L. Peters" had a roughly decade-long run as the producer and director of low-budget independent films in the 1950s and early 1960s. Easily Petroff's best-known film is 1957's The Unearthly, a stultifying horror tale whose intriguing cast features legendary actor John Carradine, whom Ed later tried to wrangle for the lead role in To Kill a Saturday Night, plus one of Wood's best-known regulars, Tor Johnson, playing a somewhat-more-articulate version of his Lobo character from Wood's Bride of the Monster (1957) and Night of the Ghouls (1959).

The Unearthly has no narrative ties whatsoever to Ed's movies other than Lobo and owes most of its relative popularity to an appearance on MST3K in 1991, where it was deservedly savaged. Ed Wood later served as an uncredited "consultant" on Petroff's Anatomy of a Psycho (1961), and some film historians think Eddie either wrote or co-wrote it.

Boris Petroff ended his career two years later with a film that attempted to cash in on a trend then dominating American popular culture. And, as luck would have it, the unbilled (hopefully not unpaid) scenarist for this particular project was one Edward D. Wood, Jr.


Alternate titles: Child Brides of the Ozarks; Talk Sexy, Y'all

Availability: I found my original bootleg on an internet auction site. Fleshbot Films planned to release a Shotgun Wedding DVD in the early 2000s, but it never happened. Another edition of the film was released on DVD by Films Around The World (FAT-W). It's available here. I'll discuss the pros and cons of that edition in the "viewing experience" section.

Al Capp's hillbilly sex goddess, Daisy Mae.
The backstory: Producer Paul Henning's The Beverly Hillbillies debuted on CBS in September 1962 and quickly became the #1 show on all of television, a title it would hold for two consecutive seasons. So popular was the series that the network commissioned two more hayseed sitcoms from Henning: Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. But Henning hadn't stumbled over anything new so much as he had reawakened America's interest in a long-gestating pop culture phenomenon. As late comics historian Don Markstein's invaluable Toonopedia puts it:
In the early-to-mid 1930s, hillbillies were becoming popular in American entertainment. In comic strips, Joe Palooka, did an extended sequence about a mountain man named Big Leviticus in 1933; and in '34 the author of that sequence, Al Capp, started his most famous work, Li'l Abner. And [Barney Google creator] Billy DeBeck was heavily researching Appalachian culture.
DeBeck handed the reins of his comic strip over to assistant Fred Lasswell, who shifted the focus of Barney Google to a hillbilly character called Snuffy Smith. The ornery, diminutive mooonshiner remains the star of that comic to this very day. The groundwork for this pop culture fad had been laid in the world of literature. Erskine Caldwell's hot-blooded early 1930s novels such as God's Little Acre and Tobacco Road (both highly recommended), gave readers a bleak yet also sexy and sordid view of the region and its people.

It was during the time of Caldwell's popularity that Al Capp launched his phenomenally successful strip, Li'l Abner, which presented a cheerier, cleaner, more abstract view of "hillbilly" life with a strong element of sex appeal. Specifically, the character of Daisy Mae Scragg—a busty, lusty, scantily-clad blonde with tremendous physical strength and a penchant for wearing cutoffs—became an archetype for hillbilly womanhood. There is little doubt in my mind than Henning created the Ellie Mae Clampett character on The Beverly Hillbillies as a reference to Capp's comic strip. 

As late as 1977, Hanna Barbera's Laff-A-Lympics contained a very Capp-esque character called Daisy Mayhem. (And it's no coincidence that the cutoff-wearing heroine of The Dukes of Hazzard was named Daisy either.) In fact, until the Henning sitcoms came along in the 1960s, Li'l Abner, which spawned a successful stage show and several movies, was the "gold standard" for depicting the poor whites of the South, as evidenced by this clearly Capp-influenced vintage Mountain Dew commercial.

Novak's hicksploitation.
With Jed Clampett and his countrified kinfolk dominating the airwaves, low-budget independent filmmakers were quick (some quicker than others) to jump on the "hillbilly" bandwagon. Such B-movie legends as Russ Meyer, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Harry H. Novak tried their hands at the so-called "hicksploitation" subgenre, sometimes invoking their progenitors directly. Novak, for instance, produced Tobacco Roody (1972), its title a pun on the Erskin Caldwell novel, and a rural female character in Lewis' Two-Thousand Maniacs (1964) is disparagingly referred to as "Daisy Mae."

It is little wonder, then, that a dyed-in-the-wool schlockmeister like Boris Petroff (working under his own name for a change) would want a piece of the action, yet his one attempt at this type of film is mild and wishy-washy when viewed next to those of his contemporaries. Hicksploitation films tend to be heavy on sex, violence, and mountain music. Shotgun Wedding is noticeably light on the first two and lacks the third entirely.

On the other hand, you will find some important mainstays of the subgenre here: a couple of scantily-clad blondes (in the Daisy Mae/Ellie Mae tradition), at least one strapping but oafish lad (in the Li'l Abner Yokum/Jethro Bodine mold,) plus some furtive moonshine-swigging and a long-standing feud between two families. Feuding is an important tradition in hillbilly-based popular culture. As Wikipedia helpfully informs us:
Due to the Celtic heritage of many whites living in Appalachia, a series of prolonged violent engagements in late- nineteenth-century Kentucky and West Virginia were referred to commonly as feuds, a tendency that was partly due to the nineteenth-century popularity of William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, both of whom wrote semi-historical accounts of blood feuds. These incidents, the most famous of which was the Hatfield-McCoy feud, were regularly featured in the newspapers of the eastern U.S. between the Reconstruction era and the early twentieth century, and are seen by some as linked to a Southern culture of honor with its roots in the Scots-Irish forebears of the residents of the area.
So there you have it, folks! The feuding subplot in Ed Wood's Shotgun Wedding is the result of a tradition going back to William Shakespeare. (Bet you didn't think Eddie and Bill had much in common!)

Interestingly, in the opening title sequence for Shotgun Wedding, the script is credited to "Larry Lee," supposedly working from a story by Jane Mann, Boris Petroff's wife. Jane's only other writing credits are on her husband's films (The Unearthly, Anatomy of a Psycho).

Ubiquitous William Schallert
To bring Shotgun Wedding to the screen, Boris Petroff recruited a cast teeming with familiar faces. Chief among these is veteran movie and TV stalwart William Schallert, right before he joined the cast of The Patty Duke Show (1963-1966) in what would become his most famous role. To give you some idea of this actor's career, he had 173 credits before this one and 189 after, including films like Singin' in the Rain (1952) and Gremlins (1984) plus recurring roles on TV shows like The Waltons and St. Elsewhere. And that's not to mention his extensive work in TV commercials, shilling for Pop Tarts and life insurance. Trust me, you've seen and heard this guy many times. Shotgun Wedding was likely just another assignment for him, a few days' work in a career that seemed to never stop.

I also immediately recognized veteran English-born character man J. Pat O'Malley, who gets a rare chance to be top-billed in this film. O'Malley's film career is dominated by his work in Walt Disney movies, both animated (The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians) and live-action (Son of Flubber). But that pales in comparison to his television work, guest-starring on... well, pretty much every popular network show you can remember from the 1950s to the early 1980s. In fact, I recognized O'Malley from his role on a very good Taxi two-parter called "The Road Not Taken" from 1982, in what turned out to be his very last screen appearance before his 1985 death.

Elsewhere in the cast, pretty Jenny Maxwell starred with Elvis Presley in 1961's Blue Hawaii. Shotgun Wedding was technically her last film role, but she kept working in television throughout the 1960s, guesting on My Three Sons, Death Valley Days, and The Wild Wild West. (In 1981, she was tragically killed in a botched robbery.) Other Shotgun Wedding cast members Valerie Allen, Jennie Maxwell, and Jackie Searl all did a lot of TV work in the 1960s, too. Allen, in fact, went on to marry and divorce Troy Donahue a few years after this picture.

A misleading ad for the film.
This movie's commercial fate is not terribly well documented, but Shotgun Wedding's almost total disappearance from the pop culture radar is a pretty good indication of its reception. Were it not for Ed Wood's involvement, the film might not even be available on the gray market as it is today. A major problem may have been that the film's sensational ad campaign set up unreasonable expectations that the movie itself could not possibly meet. One poster boldly proclaims that the movie will give us "the whole SHOCKING story of Child Brides of the Ozarks," which uncomfortably evokes a notorious and controversial 1938 exploitation film Child Bride (which billed itself as "a throbbing drama of shackled youth"). Shotgun Wedding offers nothing of the kind.

Unlike the cast of the 1938 film, which actually did feature some underaged performers in a sexualized context, the "gorgeous gals" of Petroff's movie are all easily in their 20s and don't reveal much more of themselves than you'd see at the beach. Yet one of the posters for Petroff's film lewdly asks, "Was she too old at 15?" Drive-in filmgoers lured to Shotgun Wedding with such panting taglines could not have been satisfied with Petroff's gentle film. It's much closer in spirit to The Beverly Hillbillies or Li'l Abner than to Child Bride and could easily play, unedited, on prime time network television. Word of mouth must have been disastrous. Boris Petroff never stepped behind a movie camera again. Ed Wood, as always, soldiered on despite the public's indifference.

Valerie Allen, the film's vixen.
The viewing experience: Light, fun, and charming if a bit preposterous. Compared to Russ Meyer's lusty, violent hicksploitation films (Lorna, Mudhoney, etc.) and Herschell Gordon Lewis's gory contributions to the subgenre (This Stuf'll Kill Ya, Moonshine Mountain, etc.), Shotgun Wedding is supremely goofy and naïve. By the end, it's revealed itself as merely a mild comedy of errors, hardly the daring exposé promised on the posters.

Take, for example, the pivotal character of Melanie (Valerie Allen), a brunette vixen who serves as the catalyst for most of the plot. She's shacked up in a rickety houseboat with doughy, unkempt "river rat" Buford (J. Pat O'Malley), but she's having an affair with Buford's handsome-yet-dim son Shub (Peter Colt). Buford's daughter Lucianne (Nan Peterson) knows all about the extracurricular hanky panky, but she doesn't tell her father. Instead, Lucianne uses her knowledge to blackmail her own brother out of $100.

Speaking of blackmail, the only reason gorgeous Melanie stays with Buford is that the old coot knows that Melanie killed a circus strongman named Steelo (Edward Fitz), and he's hiding Melanie's money somewhere on the property. While she and Shub conspire to find the money and get away from the small town, Melanie tricks Buford into marrying her by falsely claiming to be pregnant. The only clergyman nearby to perform the service, however, is the two-faced hypocrite Preacher Parsons (Schallert), a con man who recognizes Melanie from their days on the carnival circuit (when she was "Tiger Rose") and threatens to expose her unless he gets some of that money.

Now, if this were a Russ Meyer or H.G. Lewis film, several of these characters would probably be murdered... and "fallen woman" Melanie would definitely be among them. Her dark hair and sultry manner would make her a good contrast for the film's resident ingenue, Honey Bee (Jenny Maxwell), a guileless but sexy blonde whose sweet-natured romance with Buford's other son, Rafe (Buzz Martin), is sort of a hillbilly variation on Romeo & Juliet. Honey Bee's small-minded father, Silas (Jack Searl), despises Buford and even forms a lynch mob to kill the river dweller and his whole good-for-nothing clan, women included. Meyer and Lewis would definitely use the third act to dole out some punishment to these characters for their various sins. Perhaps Rafe and Honey Bee would be spared, thus wiping the moral slate clean.

But Ed Wood's script for Shotgun Wedding goes in an entirely different, much more forgiving direction. No one is killed. No one is punished. Old sins are forgiven. (Continuing Ed's "resurrection" motif, strongman Steelo is found to be alive and well, not even holding a grudge against Melanie.) Feuds are set aside. Truths emerge. Most of the characters seem to be headed toward brighter, more optimistic futures at the end of this movie. During Shotgun Wedding's final scene, Buford may be on the verge of repeating his past mistakes with a new woman, just as he did with Melanie, but the movie treats this like one of those "here we go again!" endings from a sitcom.

The ladies of Petticoat Junction, minus their petticoats.

Boris Petroff is a much more conventional, traditional director than Ed Wood, so Shotgun Wedding feels more like a "normal" movie than Ed's own efforts from the 1950s. There are no glaring continuity errors, crazy visual mismatches, or impossible narrative leaps here. Police cars do not zoom across the screen with their sirens blaring, and the gods do not demonstrate their disapproval of the characters through bursts of thunder and lightning. The editing, framing, and composition are all very standard, similar to what you'd see on a network television show of the era.

While Peter Colt and Buzz Martin give the stilted, unconvincing performances you'd expect in an Ed Wood movie, most of the small-ish cast is very professional. J. Pat O'Malley and William Schallert are even good! It's great fun to see Schallert, often cast as a bland, wholesome sitcom dad, play a real sleazeball here—a one-time grifter named "Stacko" Parsons now pretending to be a man of the cloth so he can sponge off this obscure rural community. And as the incorrigible Buford, J. Pat O'Malley is in clover, clearly having fun with the mostly-comedic part.

While hardly the backwoods bacchanal promised by the posters, Shotgun Wedding does feature some lovely young ladies of the type you'd expect to see bathing in the water tower on Petticoat Junction. In fact, Honey Bee has a (quite chaste) shower scene that seems like a precursor to that series.

The deluxe Shotgun Wedding special edition DVD.

If Ed Wood has an onscreen surrogate in this movie, it's probably Melanie, the worldly-wise outsider who finds herself stranded (and bored) in an isolated rural community but still has a taste for the finer things in life. Significantly, Melanie does not dress like the other characters in the movie and enjoys turning the heads of the local menfolk as she wiggles seductively past them. One of the first things we see her do is air out her sexy lingerie on a clothesline. Ed was definitely a connoisseur of women's undergarments, so this is not terribly surprising.

Moreover, Melanie's background in the carnival circuit all but certainly owes its existence to Ed's own (alleged) experiences touring with a freak show as a "half-man, half-woman" before going to Hollywood in 1948. Circuses and carnivals are frequent motifs in Ed's writing, more so in his paperbacks than in his film scripts. Having apparently done no research for this project, Ed the screenwriter makes not the slightest effort to realistically capture the rural dialect of Appalachia, and the movie actually seems to go out of its way to avoid using any "mountain music" on the soundtrack. Petroff obviously did not notice that The Beverly Hillbillies made prominent use of bluegrass music by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

There are two credited composers for Shotgun Wedding, by the way. Alexander Starr, who is so obscure that he does not even merit an IMDb entry, wrote the somewhat jazzy, often comical background score for most of the movie. The film's provocative "dance music," on the other hand, is attributed to Jerry Capehart (1928-1998), a prominent songwriter and producer in the early days of rock & roll. Interestingly, Capehart wrote "Come On, Everybody" and the perennial favorite "Summertime Blues" for Eddie Cochran in the 1950s. His Shotgun Wedding music is awesomely catchy, but it is in no way appropriate for this film. In one big dance scene, we see a bluegrass band playing, including one guy strumming a banjo, but what we hear is electric guitar-driven rock. Does this town even have electrical outlets?

During the title sequence, which also features Capehart's rock music, we get a look at the main street of "Mudcat Landing," the incredibly small community (pop. 47) where these characters all reputedly live, and it's quite obviously a façade from the set of a Western. The place resembles Disney's Frontierland rather than the hill country of the Southeastern United States. In terms of authenticity, Shotgun Wedding makes The Beverly Hillbillies look like Winter's Bone.

But that's part of what makes this film so much fun. If you like stories about bumpkins, rubes, and hayseeds, but you've never actually been south of the Mason-Dixon line, this is the movie for you!

ADDENDUM: Viewers who choose to purchase Shotgun Wedding on DVD have two options: the bootleg version and the Films Around The World (FAT-W) version. Ed Wood fans should know what they're getting into either way. Neither edition is perfect. Far from it. The bootleg version is very badly faded, for instance, to the point that it's almost in black-and-white, while the FAT-W version is considerably more colorful and vibrant, if not sharp. But the bootleg version is only slightly cropped, while the FAT-W version is more severely cropped. The bootleg version is also more stable, too, while the FAT-W version is more wobbly, with the picture bobbing up and down. In addition, the FAT-W version has a major skip during the opening credits sequence, as Valerie Allen exits a store and walks by the menfolk in town.

Here's a side-by-side comparison:

(left to right) The bootleg version and the the FAT-W version.

Now at first glance, you'll probably think that the FAT-W version is superior. And, in many ways, it is. But take a look at that milk jug in the lower right hand corner by Valerie Allen's leg. You can see the whole thing in the bootleg version, but only a corner of it in the FAT-W version. And how do I know both versions are cropped? From these credits:

(left to right) Same comparison as above. 

Both are bad, but the FAT-W version is worse. At least in the bootleg version, the actors names are intact, if not their character names. In the end, you pick your poison.
Next week: He was Criswell. For years he told the almost unbelievable, related the unreal, and showed it to be more... than a fact! Then, almost 50 years ago, he told a tale of the threshold people so astounding that some of you may have fainted if you had been there. This was a story of those in the twilight time... once human, then monsters... who were caught in a void between the living and the dead. Monsters to have been pitied! Monsters to have been despised! A night with the ghouls.. the ghouls who had been reborn... from the innermost depths of the world! And now, my friends, we will dare to revisit that infamous tale. Let us reconvene in seven days for an appraisal of Orgy of the Dead (1965)!