Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 19: "Take It Out in Trade: The Outtakes" (1970)

Ed Wood as "Alecia" in Take It Out in Trade: The Outtakes.

"You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string. You can do the same with a biography."
-Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot (1984)
"When people ask me about my career, I always say to them, jokingly, that I am basing my career on Orson Welles. I started right at the top, and I am gradually working my way down to the bottom."
-British actor Stephen Calcutt (2002)

Critics and movie buffs tend to be neat freaks. Let's just admit it. The serious study of motion pictures is a field that attracts list-makers, scorekeepers, number-crunchers, trainspotters, and obsessive-compulsives. They're always ranking, cataloging, categorizing, and comparing movies, while habitually storing away utterly useless trivia in their memory banks in case it ever comes up on an exam. It seems to me that they're all hoping to get an A plus; they just don't know from whom yet. Enter into a conversation with one of these people, and you will inevitably find yourself in an inescapable quiz game, with each participant trying to dazzle the other with his or her mastery of cinematic arcana. ("Actually, I believe you will find that film came out in 1932." "It was made in '32, but it was not released until '33.")

Movie experts, by and large, appreciate order and neatness. They are systematic and fastidious people. Perhaps through art, they seek to make sense of the chaotic world that surrounds them; the ritualistic listing, sorting, and grading of movies helps them do that. Those who critique films, both in the professional and amateur realms, know that certainty trumps ambiguity every time. Therefore, when penning their reviews and essays, these folks will freely intermingle facts and opinions, stating both with equal confidence. ("This director was born in 1956. His later movies are not as inspired as his early ones." One a fact, the other an opinion, both employing the same verb: to be.) 

"Rosebud!": Cinema's greatest, most mysterious demise.
The filmography of Edward Davis Wood, Jr. is a neat freak's nightmare. The man's career is, quite simply, a collection of holes tied together with string. No one knows for sure which or how many films Eddie made or didn't make during his thirty-year stint in Hollywood. Many of these films have gone missing. The others, the ones we actually can see and therefore review, serve only to further confound us. Are they trash? Are they treasure? And what do they tell us about the man himself? Was he a genius? A hack? An artist? A film-flam man? Mad genius or the worst director of all time?

Ed might have been remarkably self aware about his career and his own foibles, or he might have been sadly delusional, a Willie Loman figure lying to himself because the truth was too upsetting to face. There is evidence to support both conclusions. Even the woman who should have known him best, his wife of 22 years, Kathy Wood, has admitted that her husband remained an enigma to the very end, when he expired suddenly on December 10, 1978 after retreating to a back bedroom in the home of friend and actor Peter Coe. Kathy's last concrete memory of Eddie, in fact, is the look of unknowable horror that was frozen on his face at the moment of his passing. "What do you suppose he saw in those last few moments?" she later mused to biographer Rudolph Grey. "What do you suppose he saw?"

This deathbed intrigue reminds me of cinema's greatest and most mysterious demise: that of Charles Foster Kane, the character created and portrayed by Ed Wood's idol, Orson Welles, in Citizen Kane (1940). That entire film is devoted to deciphering Kane's last word -- "Rosebud" -- the baffling final utterance of a once-great man. Welles gives us in the audience an "answer" of sorts to this riddle by revealing that Rosebud was the name of Kane's childhood sled, but the reporter who has been researching Kane's life, Mr. Thompson (played by William Alland), never actually does find out what the word meant. In the film's last scene, now feeling only pity for Kane, he declares "Rosebud" ultimately irrelevant: "Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything. I don't think any word can explain a man's life."

Nor, I might add, can any one facial expression... or any one movie, for that matter. I suppose I've felt a lot like Mr. Thompson during this "Ed Wood Wednesdays" project, except instead of one "Rosebud," there are dozens of them to chase after.

"It's okay. I don't have an erection."
It is here that I take consolation in philosophy. Late author and mischievous pundit Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007) advocated a brand of thinking he called "maybe logic," which acknowledges that doubt and uncertainty are inherent in the human condition. Nobody really knows anything, after all. We're all just guessing, using our imperfect sensory organs to gather data and interpreting that data with our equally imperfect brains. Our language, then, should reflect the subjectivity of existence. Instead of saying something like "Beethoven is better than Mozart" as if it were a factoid in an encyclopedia, Wilson would have us say, "Beethoven seems better to me than Mozart."

Appropriately, Reality Is What You Can Get Away With (Dell, 1992), Wilson's philosophical manifesto in pseudo-screenplay form, contains several references to Ed Wood's inscrutable magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). This witty and enlightening script appropriates scenes and images from any number of sources, including old movies, which Wilson then re-dubs and/or re-purposes to suit his ideological and comedic needs. In one representative scene from Reality (found on pgs. 76-77), Bela's Plan 9 stand-in, chiropractor Tom Mason, advances upon terrified housewife Mona McKinnon but reassures her, "It's okay. I don't have an erection." Just two pages later, Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten appear as their characters from The Third Man (1949), only Wilson has them arguing about that great four-legged paradox, Schrodinger's Cat.

Two full years before Tim Burton's fanciful biopic did likewise, Robert Anton Wilson had gleefully juxtaposed Orson Welles and Ed Wood, all in his effort to thumb his nose at that stubborn old codger of a concept we call "reality." (And we cannot forget Jane Wagner's immortal and useful observation that "reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it.")

I have started to come to terms with the fact that I will likely never "understand" Edward Davis Wood, Jr. I'm also making peace with the fact that, despite the best efforts of the completists and bean-counters of the world, many of Ed Wood's movies -- vast swaths of his filmography, really -- are not currently available for viewing. The gaps appear very early in his career and continue all through it. Here are some especially glaring omissions:
  • Double Noose (1952) - A made-for-TV western Eddie scripted for Tom Keene.
  • Boots (1953) - A 25-minute sequel to Crossroad Avenger, likely featuring the further adventures of the Tucson Kid. Ed might have also edited the two films together into a feature.
  • The Night the Banshee Cried (1957) - A 22-minute dramatization of Ed's short story, likely intended as a TV pilot.
  • The Autonetics Aviation films (circa 1960) - Ed's industrial training films, which he made for a California aviation firm that had secured a top-secret government contract. Ed writes about these in Hollywood Rat Race.
  • Gun Runners (1969) - A feature-length crime film written by Ed Wood and directed by Don Davis (of For Love & Money fame).
  • Operation Redlight (1969) - Another lost feature, this one written by Ed and directed by Jacques Descent.
  • Excited (1970) - Yet another AWOL feature film written by Ed, this one directed by Gary Graver. 
  • The Only House in Town (1971) - Originally thought to be an alternate version of Ed's Necromania (which is available), this is now known to be a separate movie written and directed by Ed Wood. While a planned DVD release from Fleshbot Films never emerged, the film has been located and will see the light of day eventually.
  • Various XXX loops and mail-order sex educational films (1970s) - While some of these have surfaced online, there are dozens perhaps hundreds more that have not.
  • Countless made-for-TV productions (1950s-1970s) - Seemingly made for Los Angeles television and aired only once, these programs were likely not preserved. You can find some titles here.
So that's what I'm up against, folks. But occasional miracles do happen from time to time, even all these years later! Adult movie collector Dimitrios Otis, for instance discovered an unedited print of Ed's The Young Marrieds, a hardcore feature from the early 1970s, several years ago, and that film has since been released to DVD (twice!) and has even had some public screenings since then. So there is still hope. For every advancement like this, however, there seems to be a corresponding retreat in the fascinating yet frustrating field of Wood-ology. Consider, for example, the movie under review this week...


Alternate titles: None.

Availability: Ed Wood's Take It Out in Trade (1970) remains unavailable either legitimately or as a bootleg. Some silent outtakes from the film, however, have been compiled as Take It Out in Trade: The Outtakes. This compilation is available from (where else?) Something Weird Video, either as a DVD-R or a download. Each is $10. SWV has padded the running time of the program to two hours by tacking on Ed Wood's Crossroad Avenger (1953) plus what amounts to a Something Weird informercial with clips from various exploitation movies organized into several categories.

The backstory: What kind of project could coax Ed Wood back to the director's chair for his first feature-length effort in ten years, thus ending the auteur's lengthy drought after The Sinister Urge (1960), a movie that warned us of the evils of pornography? Well, apparently, in the ensuing decade, during which he penned lurid novels and leering screenplays for the adult market, Eddie decided to heed the wisdom of a certain wise adage and join those whom he could not beat. The born-again director explained it himself in a 1971 issue of Sensual Films magazine:
The Pussycat chain's logo.
A year ago, I made my first film in the nudie racket. It was called Take It Out in Trade, and although it may be classified with an X rating, I kept away from any sexual contacts simply so that I wouldn't be lying in faking such a scene. It is simply filled with pretty naked girls which any private eye might meet. But I was able to make it real, and filmed it in real localities. This one will not be turned away from the box office.
As ever, Eddie's external optimism shines through in that passage. As you probably have already guessed, Take It Out in Trade was handily turned away from the few box offices it managed to reach. MarJon Film Distributors (the company behind Dracula Sucks, Orgy in the Ozarks and more) briefly listed this title in their catalog but never actually released it. It is possible, though unsubstantiated, that the film played at some of LA's infamous "Pussycat Theaters" as well as a topless bar in Glendale. Distribution outside of California seems to have been nonexistent.

Ed's euphemistic description gives you a vague idea of the film's basic plot: Detective Mac McGregor (Russ Meyer vet Michael Donovan O'Donnell) is hired by wealthy Frank Riley (Ed Wood stalwart Duke Moore) to find his missing daughter. She turns up in a brothel called "Madame Penny's Thrill Establishment," so the lucky detective gets to meet and bed a lot of pretty young ladies while investigating the case. Author Rudolph Grey, who discovered a print of the long-lost film in the early 1990s and made it one of the cornerstones of his book on Ed Wood, Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992), described Take it Out in Trade as a "surreal sex comedy" in which "visual puns and slapstick are intermingled with conventional softcore sex scenes."

Kathy Wood had some memories of this "cute little film" (her words), which Ed made in early 1970, right before he and his wife lost their home at 6136 Bonner Street in North Hollywood. At the time, Kathy "wasn't quite in [her] own mind," due to the pressure of being evicted from her house. As usual, she lamented, this project didn't seem to be bringing in much (or any) money. Eddie, meanwhile, was typically absorbed in his work, staying up to all hours editing Take it Out in Trade on a Movieola machine in his den.

Having fired his original editor after an argument and not being much of an editor himself, however, Ed somehow got the audio and video out of sync at one point in the process and had to call his one-time Night of the Ghouls assistant Ronnie Ashcroft for help. When Ronnie arrived at the Woods' home that night, he found Eddie dressed in a pink nightgown with matching fuzzy slippers and initially mistook him for Kathy, despite his heavy beard. (Steven Apostolof shared similar memories of Ed dressing in drag even when he sported a beard.) Ronnie managed to look past this, though, and helped Ed sort out the technical snafu.

Nona Carver in her younger days.
The cast of Take It Out in Trade included some of the Woods' neighbors, plus the remarkable Nona Carver, who had been a headliner at the now-demolished Gaiety Theater at 523 Main Street in Los Angeles. Carver (described by makeup man Harry Thomas as a woman with "big bazooms but very thin little legs") was the ex-girlfriend of Ed Wood's friend and frequent star, Kenne Duncan, and was cast by Ed in the peripheral but memorable role of Sleazy Maisie Rumpledinck, a broken-down madam who in one scene is shown shooting up with a needle and a tourniquet. Before making this movie together, Nona and Ed had met several times through Kenne.

Rudolph Grey interviewed and photographed Ms. Carver for his book, in which the erstwhile actress recalled that Take it Out in Trade had been filmed over the course of a few days at a private residence in Lakewood, California. She had a few vivid memories of the principal photography, including an incident in which her overly-realistic screams in one scene had attracted the unwanted attention of the police.

She also gave Grey some insight into the film's typically Wood-ian origins. As she tells it, Ed Wood had met a man at a club who was looking to purchase some pornographic photographs. Always the huckster with the dynamite sales pitch, Ed convinced the man to put up a few thousand bucks for the production of a motion picture, and Take It Out in Trade was on its way to glory. Carver remembered there being two versions of the film: one softcore (which was "perfectly legit" and could be freely sold to distributors) and one hardcore (with scenes that could be cut out for the producer's "private collection").

The existing version on DVD-R.
For the male lead in the movie, Ed hired middle-aged, mustachioed Michael Donovan O'Donnell (with whom he'd later work on Steve Apostolof's ill-fated Hot Ice in 1978) to play the swaggering, macho private eye, Mac McGregor. O'Donnell based his portrayal on Raymond Chandler's famed Philip Marlowe character and recalled that, as a director, Ed Wood "gave you free reign" and "let you improvise a lot." This is consistent with most actors' accounts of Ed's hands-off, laissez-faire directorial style. While O'Donnell obviously loved this way of working, not all of Ed's actors were as comfortable with it. Plan 9 star Gregory Walcott, for instance, remembered that he had felt adrift during the making of that film, receiving no guidance whatsoever from its director.

Other Trade cast members included some of the same girls from 1969's Love Feast, including Linda Colpin and Casey Larrain. Based on the existing footage, it's clear that the movie also includes a gay male couple ("a couple of faggots," says Nona Carver). In fact, a scene of these two men kissing in a kitchen was the very sequence Eddie had been trying to cut together when he got into a fight with his editor! Ed Wood himself has a major role as a tranvestite named "Alecia," though from the available footage I could not really tell how Ed's part fit into the larger jigsaw puzzle of the movie.

In any event, after its brief, ignoble run in Los Angeles in 1970, Take It Out in Trade was largely forgotten and did not achieve a videotape release during the home video boom of the 1980s. Rudolph Grey's extensive coverage of the film in Nightmare of Ecstasy was the most attention it had received in twenty years, and fans naturally expected that the "rediscovered" film would soon be out on VHS and (later) DVD. Nothing of the sort happened, though. Then, in one of those historical quirks so common to the Ed Wood saga, three reels of silent outtake footage from the film were discovered in the projection room of a movie theater in Santa Monica in 1995. These reels became the basis for the patchwork version of the film which is available to consumers today

The viewing experience: What's it like watching this video? Well, it's like watching an hour-plus of silent outtakes from a porno movie, that's what. Though Hal Guthu's cinematography is workmanlike and not at all fussy or artistic, the existing footage from Take It Out in Trade is surprisingly watchable and visually interesting. The brightly-lit images are clear and in focus, and the colors still pop, which is important because of the film's often garish costumes and decor. But don't get your hopes up too high, partner. This is still raw, unedited stuff. No effort -- and I mean none -- has been made to organize this footage or shape it into any semblance of a cohesive, chronological narrative.

Much of the footage is repetitive or uneventful, and some scenes are repeated again and again with virtually no noticeable variation. There aren't even any opening or closing titles. The program starts suddenly and unceremoniously, and a little over an hour later, it ends just as suddenly and unceremoniously.

Something Weird Video has done viewers a service by at least adding a hip, vintage soundtrack, mostly instrumentals like "The Hell Raisers" by Syd Dale, plus kitschy 1960s versions of golden oldies like "Take the A Train" and "I'm in the Mood For Love." One song on the soundtrack seemed to be a note-for-note ripoff of "Loop De Loop" by Johnny Thunder, only with the lyrics changed so that it was about doing the limbo, while another was a bluesy lament from the perspective of a sunbather. The compilers of this video have kinda, sorta attempted to time the music to the action onscreen or the general mood of the footage, but this is inconsistent.

Bottom line, if you're hoping for a viewing experience even remotely close to that of watching a narrative feature film, you're going to be disappointed by Take It Out in Trade: The Outtakes. In a just world, this would be a DVD extra -- the kind you'd maybe watch once.

Paul Schrader's Hardcore: Ed Wood did it first!
But this is not a just world, so Take It Out in Trade: The Outtakes is the only visual evidence we have of an entire feature film written and directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr. What will you see if you sit through all three reels of silent footage? The central plot -- a rich couple hires a detective to retrieve their daughter, who is working at a brothel -- is actually comprehensible from the footage on hand. That part, I would have been able to guess even without consulting Nightmare of Ecstasy.

The story of a young daughter from a respectable family somehow winding up in the sex business and then being found and "rescued" by a male hero presages two high-profile screenplays written by Paul Schrader: Taxi Driver (1976) and Hardcore (1979), both of which were intended as variations on John Ford's The Searchers (1956).

But Ed Wood has a twist on this plot! When the detective returns the daughter to her mother and father, they are naturally overjoyed to see her. The mother and daughter hug affectionately, and all three members of the family start talking to one another. But then the daughter takes off her coat to reveal that she is wearing only panties underneath, shocking her parents by blatantly baring her breasts to them. Naturally, they express their outrage over this. For some reason, Ed Wood must have filmed many, many takes of this scene, as it recurs at least eight times in the outtakes. Some iterations (though not all) end with the detective taking the nearly-nude girl in his arms and carrying her off caveman-style to some unknown destination.

What else will you see in Take It Out in Trade: The Outtakes? Naturally, there are many glimpses of the production's clapperboards, i.e. the hinged wooden slates that "clap" shut at the beginning of each take. From studying the writing on these boards, we can glean the name of the production (Take It Out in Trade), its director (Ed Wood), its cinematographer (Hal Guthu), the dates it was shot (January 14-16, 1970), and the numbers of the various scenes. So at least we know that Eddie was working from a standard screenplay and was not merely "winging it." I would guess that, like the making of The Sinister Urge ten years earlier, the production of this film was orderly and businesslike. Since this DVD is a disorganized jumble of footage more than anything else, I will merely enumerate some of the other details that jumped out at me during my viewing:
  • Like Love Feast, this movie features a lot of shockingly red décor -- namely, little accents here and there that stand out against the white walls. Above all, viewers will probably remember the fuzzy, red "shag" carpeting on the stairs of the brothel. There are many shots of young women, either nude or wearing flimsy lingerie, ascending and descending this narrow staircase. Elsewhere, these cute but bored-looking gals are seen lounging around, playing records and sitting on a couch. Ed's famous fixation on sheer, lacy nightgowns comes to the fore here.
  • First and foremost, this is a "skin flick" for frustrated middle-aged men, so there is abundant female nudity -- yet again, mainly toplessness -- on display. Generally, the nude women are either prostitutes, bed partners for the detective character, or both. There are several cutaways to another couple romping in bed, but it is never established who these people are or how they fit into the overall film. 
  • Ed's eroticizing of death continues here as well with the prominent appearance of a metallic skull. Skulls are one of the more persistent motifs of Ed's work, as are snakes. The bronzed cobra from Love Feast also reappears here.
  • The homosexual couple is not presented in an entirely negative light. One is more traditionally masculine and has a modified pompadour. The other is androgynous and has a wavy hairdo. He seems to play the more feminine role in the relationship, as we see him wearing an apron and preparing a salad in the kitchen. This scene reminded me very much of the transvestite Alan/Ann from Glen or Glenda? (1953). Ed Wood also depicts the (fully clothed) couple kissing as the macho detective watches from a distance with either boredom or low-key hostility.
  • It was nice to see Duke Moore -- he of "Inspector Clay's dead... murdered... and somebody's responsible!" fame -- back again. He looks a little older here but basically unchanged. I felt embarrassed for him, though, as he was "flashed" by his fictional daughter again and again to the apparent delight of the detective on the case.
  • Speaking of our detective friend, his bushy sideburns and mustache unfortunately reminded me of Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), so I had trouble accepting him as a sexual being. Like the characters in Love Feast, the detective winds up wrestling around with a bunch of nude women on an overloaded bed, and like Ed Wood's "Mr. Murphy" from that movie, the detective finds himself at the mercy of the young women at one point. (I think they tie him up against his will. It's not 100% clear whether the bondage is consensual.) 
  • Nothing these people do on that bed actually resembles sex, but the actor does sport an erection anyway -- the first of its kind to appear in any of the Ed Wood films I've reviewed for this series. But Take It Out in Trade: The Outtakes is definitely softcore. If this production yielded any hardcore footage, it is not depicted in this compilation.
  • Apparently to establish the fact that the detective is a world traveler, there are several shots of airplanes taking off and landing, plus a few cutaways to travel posters displaying the names of countries he has allegedly visited. The most exciting location footage, though, is a shot of Los Angeles' famed Brown Derby, an establishment that looms large in the Ed Wood saga. Maybe the private dick goes there to meet a client or something. Having not seen the full movie, I couldn't tell you.
  • For what it's worth, Ed Wood looks a little healthier here than he did in Love Feast. I don't think he was ready for any marathons, exactly, but he'd seemingly lost some weight and did not appear as bloated. His character, a drag queen named "Alecia" is glimpsed in one location: parked on a lumpy couch in a nondescript room, usually alone but occasionally being grilled by the detective.
  •  Wood sports a blonde wig, makeup, a sleeveless green mock-turtleneck sweater with matching green skirt and necklace, stockings, and white vinyl go-go boots. The detective divests him of the wig in one take, and Ed himself removes it and throws it toward the camera in another. Without sound or any real context, it's difficult to assess Ed's performance.
So there you have it, folks! Watching Take It Out in Trade: The Outtakes was a mildly rewarding and somewhat educational experience for me. If you are truly curious about Ed Wood's return to directing after a ten-year hiatus, this program will provide a little bit of insight. Mostly, though, it will make you wish that the full-length Take It Out in Trade, complete with audio, eventually finds a general release on DVD so that this work may be more properly assessed.

Next week: Oh, have I got a fun movie for you next time, space cadets! Filmed in 1966 but not released until 1970, this loony American/Japanese horror film was based on a script by an unbilled Ed Wood (according to Wood himself!) and is perhaps his last significant effort at writing an old-school "creature feature." This one basically follows the template of James Whale's Frankenstein (1931), except that its monster is flora, not fauna. Bounced around from distributor to distributor and known by a variety of titles, most of them quite inaccurate and misleading, this charmingly obscure motion picture eventually found a comfy home in the public domain and has been made freely and easily available to the public. Mark your calendars for 11/20/13, which is when I'll discuss Venus Flytrap (1970).