Friday, January 31, 2014

Mill Creek comedy classics #75: "Three Broadway Girls" (1932)

The Greeks may have had a word for them, but Hollywood had at least two names for their movie.

The flick: Three Broadway Girls (originally released as The Greeks Had a Word for Them* by United Artists, 1932; rereleased and retitled by Astor Pictures, 1947) [buy the set]

*The movie is based on a Zoe Akins play called The Greeks Had a Word for It; Zoe won a Pulitzer, but not for this.

Current IMDb rating: 6.5

Director: Lowell Sherman (successful actor-director of the 1920s and '30s; directed Mae West's She Done Him Wrong; also cameoed in The Stolen Jools; died two years after this while making a film called Becky Sharp)

Joan Blondell
Actors of note:
  • Joan Blondell (durable supporting actress who played a lot of "best friend" parts; lengthy resume includes Grease, The Champ, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, much more)
  • Madge Evans (perennial "nice girl" of the '30s; films include Dinner at Eight, David Copperfield, The Mayor of Hell, etc.)
  • Ina Claire (1920s Broadway star; film career didn't amount to much, but she appeared in Ninotchka, Stage Door Canteen, and a few others)
  • Lowell Sherman (directed this movie; see above)
  • David Manners (frequent star of classic Universal horror films, including Dracula, The Mummy, and The Black Cat)
  • Phillips Smalley (super-prolific actor-director of the 1910s; later appeared in the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races and A Night at the Opera, plus Sunrise, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.)
  • Sidney Bracey (Tod Browning's Freaks, the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, plus Sunrise, Angels with Dirty Faces, hundreds more)
  • Betty Grable (famous and beloved pin-up girl of WWII;  noted for "Million Dollar Legs"; movies include How to Marry a Millionaire and The Gay Divorcee; twelve years after this movie, she was the highest-paid star in America, earning $300,000 a year)

Seductress Jean (Ina Claire) plies her trade.
The gist of it: Roommates Schatzi (Blondell) and Polaire (Evans) welcome their mutual friend, would-be gold digger and habitual schemer Jean (Claire), back to New York after a disastrous trip to Paris which left her (deservedly) penniless. Jean is initially angry that Schatzi is now involved with the unseen Pops, an elderly "sugar daddy," since Jean always wanted to land Pops for herself. But that night, the three single gals go out on the town with Polaire's steady beau, nice guy Dey (Manners), and pretentious concert pianist Feldman (Sherman), who's supposed to be Jean's escort for the evening. Feldman invites them all over to his place and focuses all his attention on Polaire, whom he promises to turn into a successful pianist in her own right. Sensing defeat, Dey slinks off. But Jean sticks around and manages to seduce Feldman anyway.

The humiliated Polaire gets into a cab, which crashes into a milk truck. She survives, but the accident puts her in the hospital. As Schatzi predicted, Jean and Feldman's relationship doesn't last. When Dey finds out Polaire is in the hospital, he rushes to visit her and their romance is immediately rekindled, resulting in an engagement. Seeking revenge, Jean frames Polaire for stealing a strand of pearls, humiliating Polaire in front of both Dey and Dey's wealthy father, Justin Emery (Smalley). Dey and Polaire break up, and Jean ends up engaged to Justin! On the day of Justin and Jean's wedding, Schatzi and Polaire show up at the Emery home, supposedly to retrieve a good luck charm Jean borrowed from Polaire. Instead, they get Jean drunk and convince her to accompany them on a trip to Paris. The three women sneak out of the house while the wedding guests are arriving. Realizing he can't live without Polaire, Dey chases after them, hoping to catch them before they board a cruise ship bound for Europe.

My take: "Throughout the Ages, half of the women of the world have been working women... and the rest have been working men." So says the not-too-funny caption which begins this slight, forgettable battle-of-the-sexes comedy. Three Broadway Girls plays like a Prohibition-era version of a TV sitcom I wouldn't normally watch. It's about three worthless young women who spend their lives in pursuit of some equally worthless men. The characters party, drink, smoke, and lounge around constantly, and no one seems to have any real problems. So it was difficult to give a good goddamn what happened to these folks.

As indicated above, this movie was based on a successful stage play, and its roots in the theater are fairly obvious. This is a very talky, set-bound movie which is limited to a small handful of locations. Director Lowell Sherman, who is also fairly funny as pianist Boris Feldman, moves his camera around a little more than other low-budget comedy directors of the era, but there's no disguising the claustrophobia of this movie. The script is very heavy on self-consciously witty banter, and I think it might have played a little better with a live audience. Onscreen, it just kind of lays there, and the film feels inert and airless.

The trio of actresses at the center try to overcompensate by saying their lines with a lot of nervous energy, but it gets kind of shouty and annoying for my taste. Maybe they're trying to distract us from the fact that the so-called "friendship" between Jean and the two other girls is simply not believable. You could almost call Jean a "frenemy" to Schatzi and Polaire, but she never does a single nice thing for either of them and is eternally ungrateful. selfish, and duplicitous. Why were they ever friends with this woman in the first place? The likely reason is that the movie desperately needs a "wild card" character such as Jean to enliven the proceedings.

Joan Blondell and Madge Evans are given underwritten, unexciting roles, while outrageous, wisecracking Ina Claire walks away with the film and seems to be the only one really having any fun here. It's no surprise that Lowell Sherman also directed a Mae West film, since the sex-loving, man-hungry Jean is very West-like in Three Broadway Girls. She seems to have very little in common with the two others. The character of Jean, then, is both an asset and a liability to this film. She gets most of the script's funniest lines, but her character is so implausible that she's a distraction.

Is it funny: Well, I'd say I got a good, solid laugh about once every 10-15 minutes during Three Broadway Girls. The flirtatious game of cat-and-mouse between Jean and Feldman is good for a few slightly naughty chuckles, and I liked how utterly unimpressed Jean was by Feldman's concertizing. She blatantly snoozes through the one recital she attends and informs Feldman on their first meeting that she hates music. I also liked how Jean skillfully cons a fellow cruise ship passenger into paying for her hefty bar tab early in the movie. There are a few amusing moments that don't involve Jean, too, as when a drunk bumps into a snooty maitre d'.
Drunk: Waiter, I'm looking for a place to wash my hands. 
Waiter: (gesturing) There's a room there marked "Gentlemen," but don't let that stop you. You go right in.
Now I'm waiting for an opportunity to use that line in real life. By the way, there's some good visual humor in the film, too, as when Schatzi and Jean meet at a beauty parlor where women pay to have their hair attached to what look like dozens of ceiling-mounted electrodes.

My grade: C+

P.S. - Racial/ethnic content is fairly low in this flick. Much is made of Jean's status as an "Eye-talian," but I couldn't be sure if it was supposed to be a compliment or an insult. There are a few African-American servant (or servile) characters seen in the background, including our old pal Louise Beavers, but nothing offensive.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week #29: "Son of the Renegade" (1953)

In the early days of his career, Ed Wood assisted B-list cowboy actor Johnny Carpenter.

Party pooper Martin Luther
The word "apocrypha" is most commonly used today to denote ancient religious books that do not appear in the standard Old or New Testaments because their authenticity is dubious or contested. Instead, they are shunted off to their own section of the Bible... and only in certain, extra-complete editions. A great many Bibles skip right past them. The next time you're at a motel, check out one of those standard-issue Gideon jobs in the nightstand. Guess what you won't find there? That's right, the Apocrypha. No Book of Wisdom or Gospel of Gamaliel for guests of the Super 8.

You can blame a lot of this on notorious party pooper Martin Luther, who made a big honkin' deal out of the canonicity of certain books way back in the 1500s. I first encountered the word "apocrypha" as a kid when I was looking through my parents' personal library and found a weird, extended-play Bible with a bunch of middle chapters I'd never heard of. My folks were Catholic, and our faith supposedly considered these books to be full-fledged 100% genuine. I couldn't help notice, though, that these particular works were never excerpted in the missalettes we used at mass each week or mentioned in the sermons either.

The books of the Apocrypha were like those oddball relatives who were still on the Christmas card list, even if they were never actually invited over to our house. I spent about an hour or so thumbing through these vaguely-mysterious pages, probably because the word "Apocrypha" sounded vaguely sinister and I figured that these yellowing chapters might contain some dark magic. But, no, they were just as snoozy and impenetrable as the rest of the Bible was to me at the time. Oh, well. Can't blame a kid for trying.

"Apocrypha" is also a handy term to use when discussing the career of Edward D. Wood, Jr. This was a man who toiled in the often-shadowy outskirts of the entertainment industry for thirty years -- sometimes under his own name (e.g. Plan 9 from Outer Space), sometimes under a pseudonym (e.g. Necromania, where he was "Don Miller"), sometimes anonymously (e.g. Shotgun Wedding). It's that third category that concerns us now as we prepare to delve into what one fan site has dubbed "The Ed Wood Apocrypha." Strictly speaking, these are movies whose connection to Ed Wood cannot be verified definitively. Eddie's participation in these films falls somewhere between "nearly certain" and "quite possible."

Sorry to be so mushy and nebulous here, but it's one of the hazards of the job. The good news is that covering these movies allows me to explore certain facets of Ed Wood's career that I might otherwise not have covered in this series.

Take, for instance, Eddie's early '50s apprenticeship under a B-list cowboy actor...


Images from Johnny Carpenter's Son of the Renegade

Alternate title: Son of the Outlaw

Availability: You purists who insist on physical media can pick up this movie on a bare-bones DVD (Alpha Home Entertainment, 2009). TCM sells it, too. If you're into streaming video, you can rent it for $1.99 or buy it for $9.95 through Amazon. The fact that Alpha Video is handling this movie means it's in the public domain. has made it available for streaming or downloading.

Johnny Carpenter's big four.
The backstory: Jasper "Johnny" Carpenter (1914-2003) is an intriguing peripheral character in Hollywood history. A native of the Ozarks, he learned to ride horseback on his father's Debinsville, AR farm. Carpenter's boyhood dreams, though, were not of cowboy fame. No, he wanted to become (of all things) a baseball player. Could have made it, too... that is, if he hadn't been hit by a car in 1936, broken his back, snapped his leg in seven places, suffered internal injuries, spent four months in a body cast, and taken roughly eight full years to recuperate.

Though his injuries would inspire him to do extensive and commendable charity work with the handicapped for the rest of his life, the terrible car accident definitively put an end to his baseball days and squelched his chances of taking a promised spot on the Chicago White Sox. Instead, Johnny and his brother, Frank, migrated to California, where they sought work as actors and stuntmen in the movies.

 An excellent rider and a capable if uninspiring actor, Johnny Carpenter started racking up lots of uncredited work along these lines in the early 1940s and even did Mickey Rooney's riding for him in National Velvet (1944). A few years later, producer Jack Schwarz started giving Johnny bigger roles in productions like Border Outlaws (1950) and Cattle Queen (1951). As Westerns moved from the big screen to the small screen, Johnny landed acting work on such shows as Death Valley Days, Judge Roy Bean, The Cisco Kid, 26 Men, and more.

If Carpenter has a claim to cult stardom, though, it's from his four self-produced, ultra-low-budget 1950s Westerns: Son of the Renegade (1953), The Lawless Rider (1954), Outlaw Treasure (1955), and I Killed Wild Bill Hickok (1956). In addition to starring in these films, he is also listed as the sole screenwriter for each one. The only problem? "Johnny Carpenter couldn't write a story to save his life." At least that was the verdict of actor Henry Bederski, who claimed that Carpenter was merely trying to promote himself by hogging all the credit. (One might wonder, however, why the supposedly egocentric actor would bill himself as "John Forbes" in Outlaw Treasure and Bill Hickok.)

This is the point where a certain Hollywood up-and-comer named Edward D. Wood, Jr. enters the narrative. Eddie and Johnny were buddies in the early 1950s, right around the time Carpenter was trying feverishly to turn himself into a Western screen idol. In Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy, Carpenter talked about his relationship with Ed. Forty years after the fact, Johnny was somewhat more willing to share the credit for his films... or spread the blame, as it were:
We were writing The Lawless Rider in his house at Riverside Drive and Victory Boulevard. Ed did everything. He was writer, production assistant, helped get people for me. We worked for each other for nothing. He would write a line of dialogue, and I would tear it up and throw it away. His dialogue was a little bit too perfect. The choice of words was not correct for the frontier.
Johnny Carpenter's version of events raises some interesting questions and also gives us some biographical insight into Ed Wood's life.

First off, if Ed had a house at or near the intersection of Riverside and Victory, that would put him in the cozy suburban community of Glendale, CA. Maybe, then, the love nest Ed shares with Dolores Fuller in Ed Wood (1994) is not as far-fetched as I'd originally thought. Several of Eddie's friends remember him acquiring and then losing houses with some regularity. This could have been one of them.

Meanwhile, Johnny's story indicates that Ed performed a number of duties for him, including screenwriting. Interestingly, the title mentioned by both Johnny Carpenter and Henry Bederski in their interviews with Rudolph Grey was The Lawless Rider from 1954. Bederski felt that Eddie wrote Lawless all by himself; Carpenter's comments suggest that the screenplay was at least a collaboration. Either way, we have confirmation of Ed Wood's participation in the project -- straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak.

Unfortunately, despite inquiries to Western film collectors and rare movie buffs, I was unable to procure a copy of Lawless. A few Ed Wood fan sites (and Wikipedia) claim that our favorite auteur also worked on Carpenter's previous vehicle, 1953's Son of the Renegade. Since this was easily located, I watched it instead to gain some insight into this less-documented phase of Ed Wood's career.

Renegade's director, Reg Browne
For all his multitasking, Johnny Carpenter never tried his hand at directing. Instead, Son of the Renegade was helmed by California-born Reg Browne (1911-1981), a multifaceted Hollywood technician with the diverse, "a little of this, a little of that"-type resume of a career journeyman. This was Browne's one and only theatrically-released feature film as a director, however. His other directing work came, not surprisingly, in the very same 1950s Western TV shows that were rapidly making movies like this one obsolete. Two of those series, 26 Men and Judge Roy Bean, also threw some temporary employment Johnny Carpenter's way, if that's any consolation.

Browne also worked as a film and sound editor in television and movies from about 1943 to 1970, eventually branching out (by professional necessity) beyond the Western genre with such future "rerun classics" as The Dick Van Dyke Show, Tarzan and Gomer Pyle, USMC. As for his movie career, poor Mr. Browne was also one of the unlucky bastards tasked with editing the dismal Cold War comedy When the Girls Take Over (1962), trying to shape the hopeless footage into some kind of coherent narrative and failing.

For Ed Wood fans, though, the most interesting names in the crew of Son of the Renegade are Harry Thomas and Bill Thompson, respectively the makeup man and cinematographer for all of Wood's early classics, including Glen or Glenda? (1953)and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

Meanwhile, Renegade's cast is filled with Johnny Carpenter's loyal but not-particularly-talented stock players: Whitey Hughes, Bill Coontz, Roy Canada, Verne Teters, and Bill Chaney. It was Carpenter's usual practice to bring in a couple of high-profile "ringers" for the sake of professionalism. Here, those duties fell to Jack Ingram (Boom Town, Lost in Alaska) and Henry Wills (Stagecoach, Shane).

In fact, Renegade was filmed at Jack Ingram's ranch on Mulholland Dr. -- a popular filming location for TV and movie Westerns, including Ed's unsold pilot, Crossroad Avenger (1953). Unfortunately, one Carpenter regular who does not turn up here is old sourpuss Kenne Duncan, star of Ed Wood's Night of the Ghouls (1959) and The Sinister Urge (1960). Duncan does appear in The Lawless Rider, as you might have guessed. And again, if I could have reviewed that movie instead, I would have. It just wasn't in the cards for this project.

As for female talent, Son of the Renegade has three prominent roles for women -- a rarity for a cowboy shoot-'em-up of this nature. After Carpenter himself, the top-billed cast members are Lori Irving, Joan McKellen, and Valley Keene. None of these young ladies amounted to much in the movie or television industries, but McKellen and Keene (rivals for Johnny's affection here) both wound up with uncredited bit parts in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960).

As for Johnny Carpenter, his earnest campaign to turn himself into a Western screen idol was supremely ill-timed. In his affectionate but clear-eyed essay on Carpenter's career, film historian Boyd Magers laments, "Johnny didn't get started until it was nearly all over." How typical of Edward D. Wood, Jr. to hitch his wagon to a falling star like this.

But Wood must have had a genuine affection for Johnny Carpenter, because he cast the ex-cowboy as Police Captain Robbins in Night of the Ghouls. In his later years, after his TV and movie career had bitten the dust, Johnny devoted himself fully to working with handicapped children, allowing them to tour his "Heaven on Earth" ranch free of charge. He died of cancer almost eleven years ago in a Burbank nursing home at the age of 88, his philanthropy having long since overshadowed his film work.

A dying breed by the '50s.
The viewing experience: Surprisingly enjoyable! Despite its utter corniness -- or, better yet, because of it -- Johnny Carpenter's Son of the Renegade was entertaining enough to sustain me through several viewings. Certainly, the film's quick pace and one-hour running time were points in its favor. Compared to Stephen C. Apostolof's moribund 90-minute skin flicks, which I've been watching for the last two months, this movie was downright nimble!

For a project like this, the supreme question is: Does this movie bear any of the hallmarks of Edward D. Wood, Jr.? Luckily, the answer is yes -- more so in the plot and structure than in the dialogue. (See Johnny Carpenter's comments above to find out why that is.) Keep in mind that Son of the Renegade is not a movie with great philosophical depth, nuanced storytelling, or emotional complexity.

This ain't John Ford or Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah. Instead, this is closer to the film work of Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and Roy Rogers. Hoppy, Gene, and Roy didn't make "Westerns"; they made cowboy movies. There's a distinct difference. The primary audience for cowboy movies was young boys, and until television came along and shuffled the deck, the venue of choice was the Saturday matinee show at the local bijou, where for a few measly coins a viewer would get two features (each about an hour in length), a cartoon, a newsreel, and maybe the latest chapter in an ongoing serial.

A "good" cowboy movie might feature a lot of gunplay, with plenty of smoke and noise, but little to no bloodshed. The hero could have a love interest, generally a loyal "gal" who sticks with him through thick and thin, but a cowboy picture wouldn't waste much time on "mushy stuff." Furthermore, the good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated in these films (often color-coded by their hats), and the script of any decent cowboy picture would end with the former being rewarded and the latter being either killed or jailed.

In Hollywood Rat Race, a book that contains several anecdotal mentions of Johnny Carpenter, Ed Wood talks about the transition from good old-fashioned cowboy flicks to hoity-toity Westerns as he discusses the career decline of actor Tom Keene:
Ironically, it wasn't that Tom couldn't change with the tide, it was the Western itself that changed so fantastically. The cowboy film was no longer a cowboy film, it was a "Western." It wasn't a clear battle between hero and villain, good and evil. Now the hero had to have doubts about his achievements. Everyone needed a dose of neurosis and to be up to their ears in Freudian, subconscious problems. (pg. 68)
Later in Hollywood Rat Race, Ed mourns the moral decline of the genre:
Even the Westerns got into the swing of sex. No longer did the cleanly dressed cowboy kiss his horse and ride off into the sunset to begin another adventure. Instead, he began to wear the dirtiest clothing, kick his horse in the ass, and take the roughest dance hall broad into the hayloft with him. (pg. 108)
Johnny is unmoved by fallen woman Valley.
In these passages, Ed Wood sounds like a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist who was resentful of change and who longed for a return to simplicity and moral turpitude. Son of the Renegade is a perfect example of the old school cowboy films that Ed loved so much. The film is very much a showdown between good and evil.

Leading man Johnny Carpenter not only dresses immaculately, with a fringed buckskin jacket and a neckerchief, but also displays flawless grooming, diction, grammar, and manners, qualities that today make him seem faintly ridiculous in such a rough-hewn setting. And while the script provides at least three potential love interests -- a good girl (trustworthy Joan McKellen), a bad girl (sultry Valley Keene), and a platonic friend (bland Lori Irving) -- for Carpenter, there is nothing even vaguely sexual about his character. Here, for instance, is how he relates to the movie's designated "fallen woman," Valley, who tries to seduce Johnny but is really in cahoots with one of the bad guys, Billy (Bill Chaney):
Valley: Johnny, we've been riding together for three hours, and you've hardly spoken to me. Am I that uninteresting? 
Johnny: That isn't it, Valley. I just don't have time for anybody. 
Valley: (suggestively) There's always time if you want it. 
(Johnny just stares stoically off in the distance.)
Valley's wanton, carnal nature is revealed in her relatively intimate and sensual scenes with the villainous Billy, who vaguely hints that the two have had some "good times" together. It's telling of this movie's Scarlet Letter-esque morality that Valley is killed off even though she switches sides and ends up helping Johnny against Billy. Clearly, this is a woman who has given in to the weaknesses of the flesh, and for that she must pay the ultimate price. Only by dying and thus inspiring a preachy eulogy from Johnny is she truly redeemed. Meanwhile, it's pure-of-heart, tomboyish Dusty (McKellen) who finally coerces a marriage proposal out of Johnny.

I alluded earlier to this movie's thematic and structural connections to the rest of the Ed Wood canon, and indeed there are many of both. Just like Ed Wood's Jail Bait (1954), this film's plot contains a payroll robbery and yet another scheming criminal couple. Like most of Eddie's classics from the 1950s, including Plan 9 and GlendaSon of the Renegade relies heavily on voiceover narration, montages, screaming newspaper headlines, and lots of flat, expository dialogue to help the plot along. Offscreen storyteller Pat McGeehan (The Loretta Young Show) -- who sounds less like Criswell and more like a folksy, backwoods Lionel Barrymore -- gets some of the more colorful lines in the script. Here, for instance, is his ridiculously lengthy opening spiel, which reads like the first page of a Western dime novel:
The infamous duel
Red River Johnny was coming home. With him rode the sons of men who had ridden with his father. They were determined to help him claim his heritage -- peacefully if possible, by force if necessary. Red River Johnny had inherited his father's name. He'd earned his reputation in defense of that name. 
Home had been a ranch in the valley until he was 15. Been on his own ever since then. But the story had begun long before he'd been born. Justice had not yet come to the valley, and each man carried the law in his holster. A split second was the difference between being judge and jury or a bullet-ridden corpse in the dust. His father had earned the bitter resentment of a man named Three-Fingers Jack and the smoldering hatred that erupted into a blazing gun duel. 
With the echo of that last shot, Johnny had blasted himself loose from society. Recovering from his wounds, Johnny had found himself an outcast, wanted for murder. Other men, equally contemptuous of authority, were soon riding with him. Men like himself who lived and died by the gun. Men who'd committed acts of lawlessness beyond pardon. Men with a price on their heads. Men whose guns were notched with the scores of their killings. Men whose pictures bore the caption, "WANTED." 
Condemned to death, his property confiscated, Johnny had become an outlaw. His roaring six shooter had earned him the nickname of Red River Johnny, a synonym for bloodshed and terror throughout the entire Southwest. He deserved his reputation. Fearless and without regard for the risk, he would leave his men outside town and enter alone to plan each holdup.
Whew! That was a workout. It takes four whole minutes before any of the on-camera characters actually speak to one another. Another Wood-ian touch is the use of flashbacks. Rather confusingly, Son of the Renegade introduces its main characters, then almost immediately discards them to tell the story of their progenitors. We don't rejoin the main story until the 15-minute mark. By then, the movie is one-quarter over already! One is reminded of the convoluted Rube Goldberg-esque construction of Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda? script, which stops at one point so that Bela Lugosi can remind us that "the story has begun!"

Like father, like son?: The two Red River Johnnys.

More interesting, though, is the quintessential Wood-ian theme of resurrection. In his book, Ed Wood, Mad Genius, critic Rob Craig astutely points out that many of Eddie's films deal with bringing the dead back to life, either literally (e.g. the zombies of Plan 9) or figuratively (e.g. the surgical "recreation" of Don Gregor in Jail Bait). Perhaps nowhere in the Wood canon is the theme of symbolic resurrection more prominent than in Son of the Renegade. The entire movie is about a group of men -- a whole generation, really -- replaying their parents' rivalries.

The basic plot of the film is this: A ranch owner named Red River Johnny (Carpenter, in not-too-shabby old age makeup by Harry Thomas) shoots and kills his rival, Three-Fingers Jack (Jack Ingram), and becomes a feared outlaw, even quicker on the draw than Wild Bill Hickok (Ewing Miles Brown). In opting for a life of crime, Red River Johnny forfeits his rightfully-owned property and is chased out of the territory by relentless lawman Bat Masters (Frank Ellis). 

Years later, his now-grown son, who is also called Red River Johnny (and is also played by Carpenter) returns to reclaim the ranch and redeem the family name. He is abetted in these efforts by the sons of the same "lawless" men who had once ridden with his father. Bat Masters' son, Bat Masters, Jr. (Verne Teters), has become the new sheriff in town and is prejudiced against the younger Red River Johnny, whom he assumes is a thief and murderer just like his daddy. A crook named Billy (Bill Chaney), who at one point is called "Wild Bill," wants the Red River Ranch for himself, so he frames Johnny for a series of holdups. Billy, however, must vie for control of his gang with brutal, ruthless Jack (Ingram again), son of the man Johnny's father killed.

So we have two Johnnys, two Bats, two Jacks, and two Bills. The whole movie is about people paying for the "sins of their fathers," a phrase that also figured prominently in Ed Wood's Jail Bait (1954). Renegade and Jail Bait make interesting counterpoints to one another, as the first is about an honorable man trying to distance himself from his criminal father's bad name and the second is about a criminal who tarnishes his father's good name.

I had never really thought about it until covering this movie, but Ed Wood himself "had inherited his father's name," too. The life and personality of Poughkeepsie postal worker Edward D. Wood, Sr. has been inadequately documented thus far. Ed's mother, Lilian Wood, actually looms much larger in the legend of the infamous filmmaker. Armchair psychologist that I am, I have to wonder whether Ed Wood identified more with the son from Renegade or the son from Jail Bait. Was the second-hand name of his father a blessing or a curse?

Either way, Son of the Renegade is a fun watch for Ed Wood fans. While I screened it for this article, I could not help but remember Danny Peary's essay on Glen or Glenda? in Cult Movies 3, in which the critic says that Ed's debut movie features "acting such as you'd find on The Lone Ranger." Son of the Renegade features the exact same kind of acting -- monotone, halting, self-conscious, full of ill-timed pauses and mis-emphasized words.

Other reviews point out how juvenile the plot of Renegade is, the kind of thing a slightly precocious twelve-year-old might come up with. To me, these factors add to the charm of this obviously-cheap, obviously-sincere Western morality tale. It's like kids playing "cowboys" in their back yard, only on a much grander scale. As ridiculous as this film is, I found it aesthetically very pleasing, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in either Ed Wood or Johnny Carpenter.

Next week: Our examination of the Ed Wood apocrypha continues unabated with another film the man "probably" worked on. This one should be especially exciting, because it marks a return for this series to the realm of science-fiction, the genre for which Ed Wood is best known. In this case, the movie in question is yet another notorious public domain cheapie from the 1950s, one in which he acted (according to some) as an unbilled "consultant" to director Ronald V. Ashcroft. Did Ed Wood manage to put his indelible stamp on this picture from the sidelines? Is it a worthy addition to the canon? I guess we'll find out about all of this in seven days, when I examine The Astounding She-Monster (1957).

Monday, January 27, 2014

Blurx! Blurx!

Blurx! Blurx!

Blurx, blurx blurx! (Blurx --  blurx blurx blurx -- blurx blurx.) Blurx blurx blurx blurx blurx? Blurx. Blurx, blurx blurx.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 28: "Hot Ice" (1978)

"The zaniest caper of the jet set": And just like that, Ed Wood's film career was over.

"Happy" retirement, you say?
One of the most quietly unsettling things I've ever seen was a Mylar balloon with the words "Happy Retirement" printed on it. 

This particular item wasn't mine. It was tethered to the chair of a retiring coworker -- an amiably cranky, mildly eccentric programmer whose longish gray hair and beard made him look a bit like a Lord of the Rings character. Let's call him Doug. Imagine if Gandalf the Grey got a job in IT. This fellow wasn't the least bit upset about retiring. In fact, he was looking forward to it. He was of Polish ancestry, and he was going to leave Chicagoland and move to the country of his forefathers. Had a house picked out and everything. And, besides, his job was not that exciting. What was there to miss? 

So Doug was doing great that day, but I was shaken by the sight of that balloon -- a pitiful, almost tragically inadequate monument to the end of a man's working life. It wasn't even something durable like a gold watch or an engraved plaque. A balloon is, by its very nature, ephemeral. Inevitably, it will deflate and be discarded and forgotten. In so doing, it serves as a reminder that we, too, will one day outlive our usefulness. 

I can't even contemplate retirement. As sick as this may sound, I want to be gainfully employed for as long as humanly possible. If I were to drop dead at my desk while working feverishly on a project, that would suit me fine. One thing's for sure: I never want to arrive at my workstation and find a Mylar "Happy Retirement" balloon waiting for me. If I did, I'd get that same sinking feeling in the pit of my gut that I used to get in school on those occasions when the teacher would ask us to hand in our papers and I wasn't done yet. "Happy" retirement, did you say?  Bah! Sounds like a contradiction in terms to me.

Ed Wood, age 53, September 1978. 
This week, however, we are confronted with the end of both Edward D. Wood Jr.'s career and his life. Eddie never got to enjoy anything like retirement.. For the last decade and a half of his career, he took whatever film and writing gigs he could get because he needed cash so desperately for rent and alcohol. 

Unfortunately, by 1978, Eddie's old methods of earning money weren't working anymore. From the very beginning of his odyssey in Hollywood, Ed Wood had relied on what we'd now euphemistically call "networking." A funny, likable guy with the gift of gab and an endless supply of good stories to tell, he always had plenty of friends, many of them in the movie and publishing businesses. But by '78, Ed's showbiz connections weren't worth a damn anymore. Many of his pals were either dead or dead broke by then. The few who were still in a position to hire him, like publisher Bernie Bloom, didn't feel they could rely on him. And, besides, these industries had changed, and poor Eddie hadn't kept pace with the times. Dirty old men weren't buying smutty dime novels like they used to, and softcore sexploitation films weren't much of a box office draw anymore either. Low-budget, independent filmmakers were cranking out raunchy sex comedies and blood-soaked slasher films by then, but these were increasingly youth-oriented.

As can be readily seen by watching his collaborations with Bulgarian filmmaker Stephen C. Apostolof, Eddie was distinctly incapable of "thinking young" or in any way sympathizing with people in their teens and early twenties. I'm reminded of a quote from Abraham "Grampa" Simpson: "I used to be with it. But then they changed what 'it' was. Now what I'm with isn't it, and what's it seems weird and scary to me." I think Eddie could have sympathized with that. Steve, too. They were obsolete. Not that that's an entirely bad thing to be, mind you. After all, there is a sizable and lucrative market for antiques. But the public has to desire a commodity before it is elevated from the status of outmoded thrift store trash to pricey curio shop collectible. Tragically, that shift in the zeitgeist had not yet happened for Ed Wood while he was still alive. He was just Salvation Army trash during the Jimmy Carter years, about as coveted as a malfunctioning toaster.

Actor Peter Coe's house, where Ed Wood died in 1978. 
The autumn of 1978 was thoroughly and elaborately cruel to Edward Davis Wood, Jr. The third act of Eddie's life reads like something concocted by Tennessee Williams. The phone wasn't ringing. The money dried up. Bills went unpaid. Ed's landlady at the so-called "Yucca Flats" apartment complex in Los Angeles finally kicked the destitute man and his wife, Kathy, out of the filthy and crime-infested building in early December. The ex-filmmaker had once written a screenplay for her in lieu of payment, but apparently she was more interested in cash. The Woods' savior was one of Eddie's remaining showbiz pals: Yugoslavian-born TV and film actor Peter Coe (1918-1993), who had once appeared in such Universal horror films as The Mummy's Curse (1944) and House of Frankenstein (1944). Peter generously allowed Ed and Kathy Wood to stay with him in his home at 5636 Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood. It's the site where Eddie died on Sunday, December 10, 1978. He'd just turned 54 two months earlier.

The humiliating ordeal of being evicted from a rattrap like Yucca Flats had broken Eddie's heart, and he sought solace in strong drink -- straight vodka, double and triple shots in quick succession. Naturally, Peter was alarmed and made plans to take his inebriated pal to a VA hospital. (This would probably have been the one at 11301 Wilshire Blvd.) But it didn't work out like that, as you already know.

The way the cookie crumbled was this: Peter had invited some friends, including an elderly nurse named Beulah Ames, over to watch a football game on TV that Sunday. Ed wasn't much interested in the game and spent the morning and early afternoon imbibing one vodka after another and squabbling with Kathy, who was understandably tired of being bossed around by her disagreeable husband. Ed retreated to the seclusion of Peter's bedroom, which everyone else in the house seemed to think was for the best. Let him cool off a little, they thought. From within the bedroom, Eddie started yelling and calling out to Kathy, telling her he couldn't breathe. But the booze made Ed Wood paranoid and delusional, so this was not unusual behavior for him. She ignored Eddie's anguished pleas that day -- a miscalculation she was to regret the rest of her life.

When Peter dispatched Beulah to check on Eddie, the man who had given the world Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda? was dead, a terrified expression frozen on his face. The coroner's report cited arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disorder. Heart disease. Ed Wood's body was taken out of Peter Coe's house in a garbage bag and was eventually cremated at the Utter-McKinley Mortuary in Mission Hills, CA. Attendees at Ed's memorial service included Steve Apostolof, Paul Marco, actor David Ward, and The Amazing Criswell, along with Criswell Predicts producer Buddy Hyde. David De Mering, the Plan 9 pilot who wanted to "ball it up in Albuquerque," officiated. The ashes were scattered at sea, so there is no monument or gravestone for fans to visit. There might be a statue of Ed Wood constructed in the filmmaker's hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY, though.

Edward D. Wood. Jr. would most certainly not have wanted his filmography to end with a lowly "assistant" credit on a film written and directed by someone else. But, then again, there were a lot of things about his career that he would have changed if he could have. There were scripts he wanted to film, actors he wanted to work with, business deals he would have reconsidered, etc. One of the few items Ed managed to salvage after being evicted from Yucca Flats, for instance, was a screenplay prophetically entitled I Awoke Early the Day I Died (aka I Woke Up Early the Day I Died). This was something Eddie had been tinkering with for almost twenty years (it had started life circa 1960 as Night of Silence or Silent Night), and it would not actually become a movie until twenty years after Ed's death. Too little, too late, you might say.

As far as Eddie knew, The Day I Died had suffered the same lonely fate as The Vampire's Tomb, The Day the Mummies Danced, and Attack of the Giant Salami. These were cinematic orphans destined never to find a safe, warm, loving home. So instead, the rollercoaster ride that is Ed Wood's filmography sputtered to a halt with an appropriately snakebitten endeavor. This time, however, the miscalculation was not Ed's, as we shall soon see...

HOT ICE (1978)
Should you wish to watch Stephen Apostolof's Hot Ice with "Svensk Text," you have that option.

"En äkta kriminalfars. Fullproppad av läckra flickor, pikanta intriger och ljuvliga vinterscener. Här händer det saker hela tiden. De mänga överraskande situationerna skapar komiska och dramatiska inslag pä löpande band. Detta är stor underhällning -- for alla. BARNFORBJUDEN."
-Swedish text from Breien Film's VHS edition of Hot Ice
"A true criminal farce, loaded with delicious girls, piquant intrigue, and lovely winter scenes. Here, things happen all the time. Many surprising situations create comedic and dramatic elements on a conveyor belt. This is great entertainment -- for everyone. FOR ADULTS ONLY."
-my clumsy translation of the Swedish text above

An excerpt from the Hot Ice pressbook.
Alternate titles: The movie has been consistently known as Hot Ice in both its theatrical and home video releases. The Swedish title translates as Diamond Coup and the Finnish as Diamond Concert. I'm guessing these are the equivalents of "diamond heist."

Availability: Hot Ice is one of the movies included in a six-disc set called Big Box of Wood (S'more Entertainment, 2011). There, it is introduced by Ed Wood historian Ted Newsom. Like other SCA films, this one was previously marketed on VHS by Nitefilte Video and Something Weird Video. Good luck finding either of those editions, however, as they have become collector's items.

The backstory: Waterloo. Little Big Horn. Bay of Pigs. Hot Ice. That's about the size of it when it comes to writer-director-producer Stephen C. Apostolof's final feature film, a seemingly innocuous diamond heist comedy that turned out to be a career-ending fiasco for the jocular Bulgarian emigre. Like many of the great blunders of history, this ill-fated movie was born of overreaching ambition. "He wanted so bad to get into the mainstream," reported his third wife, Shelly Apostolof, "that he did that Hot Ice." Part of the pressure to "go legit" might have come from Shelly herself, who always looked down on sexploitation films (which she found "sickening") and on Steve's audience (whom she considered "perverts"). Steve Apostolof's response was to go after the James Bond market. Never mind that the price tag for producing a Bond movie was doubling with each new entry in the series as ticket buyers' appetite for spectacle increased -- from $7 million for The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) to $14 million for The Spy who Loved Me (1977). (Two years after that, the Star Wars-inspired Moonraker represented another quantum budgetary leap for the franchise.) Naturally, the Bond films were turning hefty profits on those hefty budgets, but this was definitely one of those "spend money to make money" scenarios.

The Apostolofs during the making of Hot Ice.
What was Steve Apostolof hoping to accomplish with the relatively measly amount of money he could scrape together for a rinky-dink film like Hot Ice? That remains the greatest mystery of this unfortunate project. His son, also named Steve, recalled his dad's financial woes during the Me Decade: "As the 1970s rolled on, he didn't have product to sell. He couldn't get investors that wanted to invest in his movies because the return just wasn't gonna be there." Shelly agreed that money was a major problem for the film: "He made a mistake by trying to get into the mainstream with such a low budget." Steve's youngest child, Chris, remembered the devastating consequences of his father's error: "Steve had taken out a third mortgage on his home. It was the last large home that he owned in Studio City on Sarah Street. And that was it. We lost the house. We couldn't afford to put the picture out, and it tanked. And Steve was always one movie away from basically bankruptcy. Each film was funding the next. It had always started like that, from Orgy of the Dead, all the way through. I mean, all the pictures that everybody knows. He made enough money to make the next picture, and when that cycle stopped, it was over. Steve had no savings, and that was it." The Apostolofs would relocate to Mesa, AZ, where they lived on Steve's Social Security and Shelly's pension.

"The reason why he left LA," explained actor Harvey Shane, was that "there was really nothing for him here anymore."

Utterly defeated, Steve spent the rest of his career exiled to the sweltering heat of the Arizona desert, where his will to live slowly but steadily ebbed away. Largely due to his connection to Ed Wood, there was a revival of interest in Steve's career in the early 1990s, with Rhino Video repackaging several of his late-1960s films as part of a VHS series called Saturday Night Sleazies. Something Weird Video, too, had a series of Apostolof videotapes, which it dubbed The Erotic World of A.C. Stephen, after Steve's nom de cine. But Apostolof's moribund directing career was not to be revived, and the man himself died in 2005.

Leading man Max Thayer in his 1970s prime;
(inset) Max in 2001's The Man Who Wasn't There.
While Hot Ice turned out to have pretty grim consequences for Stephen Apostolof, the making of it was not grim at all. It was another family affair, partially filmed at Steve's ski resort of choice, California's lovely Mammoth Mountain. It was the same place where Steve had done The Snow Bunnies (1972) just a few years previously, and the place looked pretty much the same. (As mentioned earlier in this series, Steve was buddies with a hotel owner in Mammoth, a fellow Bulgarian-American named Mike Mikhailof.) Instead of calling the site by its own true name, though, Steve's script referred to the resort as the "Matterhorn Ski Lodge," possibly to keep the exact location of the place vague. In Bunnies, remember, the resort was supposed to be in Canada. The interiors for Hot Ice were, as usual, done on a Los Angeles soundstage. Fortunately, these new sets, though not drastically different from the ones for Steve's previous movies (the man sure did love bright yellow paint), did not consist of the exact same walls, furniture and other props that were recycled endlessly in the SCA films from 1972-1976. These were different hideous eyesores.

The cast? Again, a mixture of Apostolof veterans and newbies. Among the former was Harvey Shane, touchingly given top billing in this final Apostolof film, though Harvey's movie and TV career kept going for decades after that. Several cast members from Steve's previous film, The Beach Bunnies (1976) were back, too, with Mariwin Roberts, Rick Cassidy, and Linda Gildersleeve all returning as members of the rowdy, hard-partying "Matterhorn Ski Club."  Best known as the ex-husband of porn queen Rene Bond, Ric Lutze (who had worked for both Ed Wood and Steve Apostolof several times) was another member of this fictional club and got to do some serious onscreen slaloming in the process. Also doing some stunt work on the slopes was Stephen Apostolof's son, Steve. "I had a small part in that," he remembered fondly. "I got to play the first aid man. Great. Just how perfect was that?" Two of the main female roles, oddly, were played by actresses whose careers amounted to almost nothing: adorable brunette Teresa Parker and Farrah-haired blonde Patti Kelley.

The big news in terms of the cast is the presence of sturdy film and TV actor Max Thayer, billed here under his real first name, Michael. Max (who took his stage name from a Harold Robbins novel called The Carpetbaggers) went on to appear in such big-time films as Pearl Harbor (2001), S.W.A.T. (2003), and even the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), not to mention such well-known series as Dallas and Simon & Simon. At the time of this movie, his most prominent credit was Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976), in which he got second billing behind Ilsa herself, Dyanne Thorne. With his cleft chin, Marlboro Man mustache, and easy charm, Thayer definitely gives this movie a boost, like a big leaguer brought in as a ringer on a triple-A team. He and costar Patti Kelley have a nice, Hart to Hart-esque chemistry, too. Several years ago, Thayer gave a career-spanning interview to the Nanarland website and mentioned his experience on Hot Ice: "I followed [Ilsa] with Planet of the Dinosaurs, then Hot Ice directed by the notorious Ted Apostolof [sic] and also Ed Wood's last attempt at acting."

This brings us to a salient point: what, exactly, was Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s involvement in Hot Ice? Eddie is listed in both the credits and the pressbook as being the film's Assistant Director. Thayer mentions an "attempt at acting," which corresponds with what Ted Newsom says about the movie in his introduction to the DVD. According to Newsom, Stephen C. Apostolof maintained in later life that Ed Wood had no input whatsoever in the script. Eddie simply came in to do a cameo, said Steve, but was so drunk that the director had to send him home in a taxi. Could this be true? Steve granted Eddie full screenwriting credit under his own name for Orgy and gave him co-writer credit for The Class Reunion, The Cocktail Hostesses, The Snow Bunnies, Drop Out Wife, The Beach Bunnies, and Fugitive Girls. No other directors or producers were that generous toward Ed from the 1960s onward. Additionally, Steve gave Ed a prominent acting credit (along with a pseudonymous AD credit) on Fugitive Girls and listed him as an assistant director on Orgy.

Why, after all this, would Steve deny his old friend Ed the credit for authoring or co-authoring Hot Ice, unless Ed truly had nothing to do with the script? It's significant that Steve Apostolof shares credit for the script, specifically "additional dialogue," with two other writers: S.B. Cooper (who had been an associate producer on Fugitive Girls, Drop Out Wife, and The Beach Bunnies and a production coordinator on The Snow Bunnies and The Class Reunion) and Pam Eddy (who worked as a script supervisor on exploitation films from 1969-1979; this was her first and last movie with Apostolof). I can report that there is no Ed Wood acting cameo here either. Newsom's version of the events make it sound like an Ed Wood appearance was scheduled but then scrapped.

A collection of Hot Ice promotional stills.
All we have to go on is that tantalizing Assistant Director credit for Edward D. Wood, Jr. It seems improbable that Steve would take the hard-drinking, unpredictable Ed Wood up to Mammoth Mountain with him, so Eddie would likely have been limited to working on the indoor scenes -- which still accounts for about two-thirds or three-fourths of the completed movie. On the Hot Ice DVD, Ted Newsom asks us, the audience, to listen carefully during the movie to hear if we can detect Ed's influence on the script. Frankly, my answer is that Ed Wood's presence does seem to be felt here in both the plot and dialogue.

The film's basic story involves a man-and-wife con artist team (Thayer and Kelley) who decide to hide out from Interpol by visiting a rather remote ski lodge under stolen identities, posing as wealthy socialites Winford and Charlotte Farthington. Once at the hotel, they learn that a temperamental rock star named "Diamond Jim" is performing at the resort and keeps a quarter-million dollars of real diamonds in a safe behind the main desk. Even though they're on vacation and trying to lay low, they can't resist such a target and steal the titular "ice" by using a rather amazing gadget: a fake jewelry case that can secretly record the numbers of a combination lock. This presents a major crisis for poor, put-upon Victor (Shane), a nervous, bumbling innkeeper who decides to play detective and recover the stolen gems, thus sparing the place's reputation. Victor is so worried about the goings-on at his hotel that he is oblivious to the fact that his wife Danielle (Parker) is having an affair with her ski instructor (one-film wonder Bob Anderson) as well as having a fling with Winford, who distracts her with sex while Charlotte steals the diamonds. Everything gets sorted out in a wacky climactic snowmobile chase, and the film concludes with an award ceremony, along with a tag that (optimistically or naively) sets up a possible sequel.

In a broad sense, we have many, many parallels to previous Ed Wood films. Though presented in a more flattering and sympathetic light than their predecessors, the Farthingtons can be seen as descendants of the larcenous couples in Jail Bait, Night of the Ghouls The Class Reunion, and The Sinister Urge. Meanwhile, the Barney Fife-esque Victor seems like a variation on Kelton the Cop from Plan 9, Bride of the Monster, and Night of the Ghouls. The foul-tempered, long-haired "Diamond Jim" is the kind of pseudo-hippie creep that Ed loved to hate. The safecracking device, meanwhile, seems like another of Ed Wood's far-fetched inventions, like the "dictorobitary" from Plan 9 from Outer Space, the ingenious spying devices of For Love & Money, the dildo/pager from Necromania, and even the miraculous plastic surgery from Jail Bait. Here, as in all Ed Wood movies, science and technology exist to serve the plot, reality be damned.

The consumption of alcohol, I should point out, is a major motif in Hot Ice. The characters occasionally express their love of cognac, and several scenes revolve around a bar called Kelly's, where a few of the female members of the Matterhorn Ski Club get so tipsy that they strip down to their underwear in the middle of the dance floor. One of these poor damsels gets so hammered that she falls down in the snow on her way back to the lodge and has to be rescued. That seems like the kind of predicament an Ed Wood character might get into.

But what about the true mark of an Ed Wood movie, i.e. the dialogue? Well, I'm happy to report that the characters in Hot Ice speak in the stilted, artificial manner of the characters from Ed's other films, even if he didn't write their dialogue this time. I was particularly taken by this conversation between innkeeper Victor, cheating wife Danielle, and Diamond Jim's dorky manager, Allan (Fred Spencer, who had previously been in one of Rudy Ray Moore's "Dolomite" movies, 1976's The Human Tornado). In this particular scene, Victor and Allan are eyeballing some of the sexy ski bunnies in the Matterhorn lobby when they are "caught in the act" by the faithless, philandering Danielle. In typical Wood-ian fashion, these lines contain a mixture of clumsy exposition and on-the-nose characterization.
(Allan is talking to Victor across the registration desk in the crowded lobby, which is filled with happily chatting Caucasian folks in truly abysmal sweaters.) 
Allan: You get some fine lookin' chicks up here! 
Victor: Matterhorn Ski Club! Always got good-lookin' broads around! They're here for the race. 
(Various shots of the female skiers, including one unsettling zoom-in on a vacantly smiling woman. Then back to the front desk. Danielle enters.) 
Danielle: (approaching the men) Hello, Allan. Victor! You should be ashamed of yourself! 
Victor: (sputters a little, then responds) You... you know you're the only woman in my life, sweetheart. (He "air kisses" her.) 
Danielle: Oh, sweetheart! (She "air kisses" him back.) 
Allan: If there were more married couples like you, the world wouldn't be so screwed up! 
(They all laugh.) 
Danielle: Thank you, Allan! 
Allan: Uh.. Vic! I almost forgot! (hands him something) Could you put this in the house safe? Being Diamond Jim's manager, I always have to take care of his valuables. 
Danielle: (leaning in) Valuable stuff, eh? 
Allan: Valuable? Quarter of a million in... (tries to remember the word) (weirdly long pause) And I don't mean the kind that melts! 
Danielle: (impressed) Ooh! 
Victor: You got nothin' to worry about, Allan! We haven't lost so much as a postage stamp outta that safe. 
Allan: Uh huh. 
Danielle: You mean this is real? 
Allan: Yeah. 
Danielle: I mean, I thought most movie stars wore fake diamonds as a rule. 
Allan: Uh uh. Not Diamond Jim! He wears the real thing! It's a thing with him. 
Victor: (having put away the diamonds) There! Locked up and put safe! 
Danielle: Uh, any chance of a girl trying one on for size? 
(Allan and Victor chuckle.) 
Allan: I don't think the insurance company would like that. 
Danielle: Oh, well. Better luck next time. 
Allan: See you later. 
Danielle: Okay. Bye, Allan. 
Victor: Take it easy, Allan. 
Danielle: Take care. 
(Allan exits.) 
Danielle: (to her husband) A quarter of a million dollars? I oughtta trade you in for a guitar player. I didn't know they were so rich!
Victor and Charlie discuss the "three B's."
If you're not too self-conscious about these things, I'd like you to recite some of that dialogue aloud yourself. Maybe recruit some friends and relatives to play the other parts. There's just something distinctly wooden and Wood-ian about a throwaway line like "Being Diamond Jim's manager, I always have to take care of his valuables." Can you imagine any real human being talking quite that way? No one I know bothers to explain themselves so clearly, which is unfortunate. That's what's so great and transportive about hearing people talk in Ed and Steve's movies. The script for Hot Ice sounds like it was written by someone who had never actually conversed with other people, let alone visited a real ski lodge, but instead gotten all his information about these things third-hand through airport paperbacks and out-of-date soap operas. By far, my favorite line in the film, is one delivered by Victor to a slacker employee named Charlie (played by Richard Bergman, another one-film wonder whose twitchy, giggly performance here deserves to be studied). In this scene, Victor is chastising Charlie, who loves to party but seems allergic to actual work. When Charlie says he can't pick up one of the hotel's wealthy guests because the cast on his leg (a fake, we'll soon learn) prevents him from driving, Victor's line is one for the ages:
"Hmm! You know, you young guys are all the same! I mean it! You come here for one reason and one reason only... bummin' around, booze, and broads!"
Now tell me Ed Wood didn't write that. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter if he did or didn't. Hot Ice bombed, disappeared, and was utterly forgotten after its unsuccessful release in 1978. If the often-atrocious quality of the print used for Big Box of Wood is any indication, the film was not treated like a delicate and unique snowflake after its initial theatrical run. The DVD transfer was obviously made from a rather wonky videotape (the color frequently fades in and out during scenes), indicating that the original film elements were lost or disposed of decades ago. Though Steve Apostolof played down Ed Wood's involvement in this film, that very factor turned out to be Hot Ice's only claim to lasting semi-fame.

Love... exciting and new!
The viewing experience: Have you watched a lot of episodes of ABC's The Love Boat (1977-1987)? If so, you will find your bearings easily in Hot Ice. First, take the average Love Boat script and transpose the entire plot to a ski lodge. (This will be easy to do, as the famous TV cruise ship is merely a big floating hotel -- an isolated, slightly exotic location where people interact. The Pacific Ocean has very little impact on the stories.) Then take away the guest stars and the production values and replace them with B-movie nobodies and flimsy sets. Finally, add just enough sex and nudity to earn a "soft" R rating. Voila! You're done! In fact, Hot Ice might actually play a little better if someone were to add a warm, comforting layer of artificial, prerecorded laughter to the soundtrack. Matterhorn staffers Victor, Danielle, and Charlie are analogous to the crew of the Pacific Princess. Kelly's is just a more raucous version of the bar presided over by Love Boat's Isaac Washington (Ted Lange). Characters like the Farthingtons and Diamond Jim are very much like the roles given to the guest stars on the TV series. I can imagine, say, Richard Chamberlain and Stefanie Powers as Winford and Charlotte Farthington, with maybe Meat Loaf as Diamond Jim and Bart Braverman (aka "Binzer" from Vega$) as Jim's squirmy manager, Allan.

The corny, mildly smutty jokes in Hot Ice would be very much at home in a Love Boat episode, too. Take, for instance, the scene in which Danielle tells Victor that she's going to a ski lesson with her instructor, Erik, and says, "He thinks my form is improving!" Cut to: Erik and Danielle in bed together. "Your form is really improving!" enthuses Erik. Ba-dum-bum! Cue the canned laughter. It helps the analogy that Hot Ice was made when The Love Boat was one of the hottest shows on TV, just like how Shotgun Wedding (1963) was clearly influenced by CBS' The Beverly Hillbillies. The hairdos, clothing, and interior decor seen in the Matterhorn Ski Lodge would be right at home aboard the Pacific Princess. The fact that everybody in the movie turns out to be pretty nice, even the con artists, and that all the plotlines are wrapped up neatly with a big awards presentation also contribute to making the film feel like an innocuous sitcom.

Hot Ice's credits, had they been done Love Boat style.
Since this is a Stephen Apostolof film, there is some nudity that would never have been allowed on prime time network television, but it's important to note how careful Steve was here to distinguish Hot Ice from his previous softcore sex romps. The one big nude scene takes place at the bar and involves a trio of female skiers (including our good pal Linda Gildersleeve from Beach Bunnies) getting a little tipsy and showing some skin on the dance floor. Just boobs this time, though. Nothing below the waist. And there's not even the hint of any hanky panky in this scene. It's just some good old-fashioned drunken exhibitionism, divorced from any sexual context. In the film's bedroom scenes, meanwhile, the characters go out of their way to keep their naughty bits under wraps. So Hot Ice has both nudity and sex, just not together. It's a testament to this film's wholesomeness that porn king Ric Lutze never even takes his sweater off in this flick and is actually a little embarrassed by the antics of the topless ladies.

Composer Richard McCurdy's score, while definitely catchy, also has a slightly cheesy "TV feel" to it. It's interesting that this was McCurdy's only straight-ahead "composer" credit. For much of his other TV and film work from the late 1970s to the early 2000s, he's listed as a "music editor" or "music consultant." For a 1984 documentary called Speed, McCurdy was in charge of "library music selection," which meant that he worked with pre-existing stock music. There are plenty of stock cues in Hot Ice, too. You'll hear some of the generic "Alpine," "conga," and "bullfighting" music that you've heard in cartoons, sitcoms, and TV commercials for years. Speaking of music, an organization called the Chasin-Shooter Group provided this movie's theme song, which is crooned by Diamond Jim in a lounge to a smallish audience of tourists. How much more Love Boat can you get than that?

Two of a kind: Giroux and Clouseau.
Besides The Love Boat, the other big cultural touchstone evoked by Hot Ice is the classic comedy The Pink Panther (1963), directed by Blake Edwards and starring Peter Sellers as heroically clumsy Inspector Clouseau. Apostolof may have wanted to make a Bond movie, but he seemingly followed the Clouseau template much more closely. In Hot Ice's very first scene, Charlotte and Winford are in their hotel room planning their next caper, which will take them to Rome, when they are confronted by Giroux (Jean-Claude Smith), a mustachioed, French-accented, trenchcoat-wearing agent from Interpol. (They let him into the room because they think he must be a bellboy.) The impeccably-mannered Giroux also turns out to be incredibly gullible, and our heroes are easily able to trap him in a clothes closet within just a few seconds of his big entrance. After the credits, Giroux is never seen again, so the Clouseau role is filled -- quite ably -- by klutzy hotel-manager-turned-detective Victor.

The similarities between The Pink Panther and Hot Ice go on and on. The original Clouseau film, in fact, takes place in an exclusive skiing resort and revolves around the theft of a valuable diamond. Just as Peter Seller's diligent-yet-clueless Clouseau is unaware that his wife (played by the impossibly lovely Claudia Cardinale) is having an affair with the film's suave thief (David Niven), Victor is oblivious to the fact that his own wife, Danielle, is carrying on with the swaggering Winford. The main comedic setpiece from Hot Ice -- a drawn-out, farcical sequence in which Victor arrives home earlier than expected, forcing Winford to hide in a closet while ski instructor Erik hides under the bed -- is something straight out of a Blake Edwards movie.

 Like Peter Sellers' indefatigable investigator, Harvey Shane's character in Hot Ice takes himself very seriously but is looked upon as a bumbling idiot by everyone else, like Charlie who mocks him the second he leaves the room. Victor and Inspector Clouseau also share a penchant for injuring themselves. The fact that Harvey Shane ends this movie being hailed as a hero while encased in a full body cast is straight out of the Edwards/Sellers playbook. Victor's naivete -- analogous to Sellers' too-trusting nature in the Panther sequel, A Shot in the Dark (1964) -- is demonstrated when he catches the Farthingtons red-handed with the diamonds and just assumes that they "found" them. (He's still convinced that they're classy millionaires, the poor dope.)

As I mentioned before, the version of Hot Ice I watched for this article was in pretty rough shape. That should be taken into account when you read this or any assessment of the film. What you're getting in Big Box of Wood is a semi-competent DVD transfer of a slightly glitchy videotape that in turn was mastered from a deteriorating 35mm print. I say only "semi-competent" because it seems like S'more Entertainment might have slightly goofed up in their DVD authoring process. Towards the end of the film, several minutes of the big snowmobile chase are repeated verbatim. ("Wait, didn't that just happen?" I wondered, as a hapless first aid man played by the director's son wound up hanging from a tree limb.) Someone might have been asleep at the switch there. If so, that helps to account for the fact that this film, with a running time of one hour and forty minutes, is the longest in this entire collection.

As with other SCA films in this set, it is highly probable that Hot Ice was not properly matted for home viewing and that we are seeing the full camera negative, which Steve Apostolof didn't intend. That could explain why this movie has more visible boom mics -- and boom mic shadows -- than any of the other SCA films I've ever seen. One technical snafu was a new one on me, though: a boom mic at the bottom of the screen, pointing up at the actors! And even though Hot Ice was Apostolof's most-lavish production, it still contains some of the same visual mismatches and unconvincing driving scenes as his cheaper movies. His directorial techniques hadn't really changed much. Haphazard zooms are plentiful here, and Apostolof certainly never lost his fondness for ending a scene with the image going blurry... or starting a scene with a blurry image that then comes into focus. In other words, though Steve was aiming for a swankier audience this time around, his essential "cheap filmmaker DNA" remained intact. What's that they say about taking the boy out of the country?
Next week: Did you think just because Edward D. Wood, Jr. died after Hot Ice that Ed Wood Wednesdays would come to an end, too? Of course not! Don't be ridiculous! First of all, Eddie's career only really got started after he died. The so-called "cult of Ed Wood" was merely in its larval stage in the late 1970s. It wouldn't truly "go mainstream" until 1980 and the appearance of The Golden Turkey Awards. Within just a few years of the publication of that book, two USC film students named Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski would meet and bond over their shared interest in the infamous angora auteur about whom they would one day write an award-winning biopic. Meanwhile, musician Rudolph Grey was so intrigued by the Ed Wood phenomenon that he began the research that would ultimately yield the invaluable reference book Nightmare of Ecstasy. It is largely because of Grey that we know as much as we do today about Eddie's often-shadowy career. Starting next week, I'll be delving into some of the films that Ed Wood "possibly" or "probably" worked on, even though his participation cannot be 100% verified. I hope you'll join me as I begin my exploration of THE ED WOOD APOCRYPHA, VOL. I.  


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