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).