Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mill Creek Comedy Classics #77: "Made for Each Other" (1939)

Jimmy Stewart's mother faints when she meets her new daughter-in-law, Carole Lombard.

The flick: Made for Each Other (Selznick International Pictures/United Artists, 1939) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.5

Director: John Cromwell (Dead Reckoning, Of Human Bondage, Since You Went Away; acted for Robert Altman in A Wedding and 3 Women)

Lucile Watson
Actors of note
  • James Stewart (popularly known as Jimmy, he appeared in Hitchcock's Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, and The Man Who Knew Too Much; Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; much, much more; the AFI ranked him the #3 male star of all time, behind only Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant)
  • Lucile Watson (appeared in Hitchcock's Mr. and Mrs. Smith along with Carole Lombard; also acted in Song of the South, The Women, The Razor's Edge, etc.)
  • Eddie Qullian (The Grapes of Wrath, Mutiny on the Bounty; episodes of TV's Batman, The A-Team, Moonlighting, Columbo)
  • Alma Kruger (Hitchcock's Saboteur; Hawks' His Girl Friday)
  • Raymond Bailey (best known as Milburn Drysdale on TV's The Beverly Hillbillies, but also appeared in Vertigo, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tarantula, Picnic, The Absent-Minded Professor, etc.)
  • Donald Briggs (After the Thin Man, Captains Courageous)

Other notables: The film was produced by legendary movie mogul David O. Selznick, the man largely responsible for the Oscar-winning film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. That movie, Selznick's signature production, was released the very same year as Made for Each Other. According to multiple sources, the medical drama that constitutes the third act of this film is derived from a real-life incident involving David's brother, Myron.

Weaselly Donald Briggs
The gist of it: Young New York attorney John Mason (Stewart) returns to the Big Apple from a brief business trip to Boston, bringing with him a surprise new bride, Jane (Lombard), a woman he wed impulsively after their first meeting. John's boss, crotchety, hard-of hearing Judge Doolittle (Coburn), is a little peeved at the news. After all, everyone expected John to marry Doolittle's daughter, Eunice. (John claims never to have had any interest in Eunice.) John's rather snooty, old-fashioned mother, Harriet (Watson), faints when she hears the news. John and Jane, however, insist that Mrs. Mason will continue to live with them.

The two lovebirds soon encounter problems. First, their honeymoon is canceled due to John's work obligations. Then, John is passed over for partnership at his law firm in favor of scheming, brown-nosing Carter (Briggs). Several housekeepers either quit or are fired. John and Jane then have a baby, which only makes their financial problems worse. Bills go unpaid, and John worries that he's never going to make it as a lawyer, despite his talent for the profession. Jane and Harriet's relationship is also quite strained, with the young wife enduring a constant barrage of criticisms from her interfering mother-in-law.

Just as the Masons' marriage seems to be falling apart, a tragedy occurs. Their infant son contracts pneumonia, and his only hope is a serum that has to be flown in from Salt Lake City in a very dangerous snowstorm. Only Conway (Quillian) is brave and/or insane enough to attempt the mission of mercy. Meanwhile, the baby's life or death struggle brings John, Jane, Harriet, and even Doolittle closer together.

Just shy of a classic.
My take: The makings are here for a classic. After all, Made for Each Other boasts two iconic leading actors, an obviously talented director, above-average production values, and an excellent supporting cast. The performances here, especially by put-upon everyman Stewart, are engaging and believable, and the film is quite impressive from a technical standpoint, too, with inventive camera angles and dramatic lighting effects.

But I'll wager you've never seen or heard of Made for Each Other, and I only discovered it as an obscure public domain offering in a Mill Creek boxed set. Why is that? Well, I'd say a rather hokey and melodramatic script is what keeps this movie from being truly essential. Part of the blame for that rests on the shoulders of producer David O. Selznick, who insisted on shoehorning his brother Myron's medical crisis (which he deemed "too good to waste") into a plot where it didn't belong.

That gets to the heart of this movie's real problem: tone. As in, this movie never settles on one for very long. This is a story about two decent, reasonable people who get married on a whim and then find themselves entirely unprepared for the consequences of their actions. There is a lot of comedy to be mined from that situation, and the script occasionally acknowledges that, but every time the movie threatens to become fun, it takes a nosedive into soap opera misery. Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard are never able to enjoy themselves -- or each other -- for more than a minute or so at a time, since the plot requires them to take their problems seriously... and those problems occur at regular intervals for the entire running time.

Judging from his filmography, director John Cromwell's forte was clearly drama, not comedy. He revels in the dark and depressing aspects of this story, even when he doesn't have to. Take the sequence in which John and Jane's baby is born. Jimmy Stewart wakes up in some sort of guest room at a maternity hospital, then runs to his wife's room, which is unoccupied. He dashes to the delivery room, only to be told by a nurse that everything is fine. Which it is. But the sequence has a spooky, film-noir quality to it that makes it feel like a Twilight Zone episode.

That same eerie, uneasy feeling seeps into the very downbeat New Years Eve sequence, during which the miserable Masons are surrounded by drunken revelers and garish party decorations on the worst night of their lives. And the last half hour or so, with pilot Eddie Quillan trying desperately to deliver the life-saving medicine to the hospital, seems like it was imported from another movie entirely. It's a well-paced, exciting sequence, but it's obviously at odds with anything even approaching comedy. Again, this is a script problem, not an acting or directing problem. (One minor quibble about the storytelling: There are four, perhaps five montages in this movie. Maybe two or three would have been enough.)

James Stewart and Donna Reed
But there are good aspects to the script, too, and they arrive in the form of intimate little moments that reveal the nature of the characters. I was especially taken, for instance, by a sequence in which a dejected John returns home from his college reunion, feeling like a failure compared to his classmates, then is cheered up by Jane, who has never stopped believing in him.

I think it's noteworthy that the script for Made for Each Other was written by Jo Swerling, who also contributed to the screenplay for It's a Wonderful Life (1946), arguably James Stewart's signature role. In many ways, Made for Each Other plays like a decent first draft of the enduring Capra classic. In both movies, Jimmy Stewart is an honest, hardworking guy who can't seem to catch a break and nearly loses his faith in himself and humanity until a last-minute miracle changes his mind.

Since I've seen Wonderful Life several dozen times, I could not help but find cognates, counterparts, and parallels in Made for Each Other, right down to the prominent use of "Auld Lang Syne" and the presence of a generous and wise African-American servant character. There are no supernatural elements in the 1939 film, but the two characters played by Jimmy Stewart face many of the same obstacles and anxieties. John Mason, for instance, is just about to take a honeymoon cruise to Europe with his new bride when he is summoned back to work. That's exactly the kind of thing that keeps happening to George Bailey. There are even matching scenes in which these fellows find out -- in equally cute ways -- that their wives are pregnant. And Carole Lombard's character, too, has a great deal in common with Donna Reed's Mary Bailey. Both are playful, intelligent, loyal, and justifiably worried about their husbands. At the beginning of Wonderful Life, Donna Reed's character is heard praying for the deliverance of her husband. In a similar scene in Made for Each Other, Carole Lombard visits a hospital chapel to plead with God to spare her baby.

Is it funny: Well, that's a little tricky since Made for Each Other isn't strictly a comedy. It's more like a domestic drama with occasional comic relief. What comedy is there works pretty well, I'd say, though I got a little tired of Charles Coburn's unreliable hearing aid after a while. Probably the funniest sequence in the film is one in which John and Jane struggle to get through a truly awful dinner party with doddering Judge Doolittle, slimy Mr. Carter, and Doolittle's obviously-spiteful daughter.

But there are funny little moments scattered throughout the proceedings, as when James Stewart seriously considers punching a wind-up toy drummer or when Harriet faints upon hearing of her son's nuptials. Though not named in the credits, Frank Ryan (The Cowboy and the Lady, A Night to Remember) is said to have contributed "humorous situations" to the film. Mr. Ryan, your efforts were appreciated. I just wish you'd found more opportunities to add some levity to a disconcertingly down-in-the-mouth movie.

My grade: B

P.S. - The modern-day viewer may cringe a little at Lily, the character portrayed by Louise Beavers, again playing a black domestic. It's true that Lily's philosophy is, "Never let the seeds stop you from enjoying the watermelon." And it's also true that, during the New Years Eve sequence, Lily stops by the Masons' apartment to deliver a chicken. So chicken and watermelon are both associated with the character. But Lily is also one of the film's most positive and honest characters, much superior to the other domestics in the film (the rest of whom are white). And she is Carole Lombard's only female friend in the entire movie... really, the only person with whom she interacts other than her husband and mother-in-law.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Mill Creek Comedy Classics #76: "Swing High, Swing Low" (1937)

Love behind bars: Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray's  memorable first date in Swing High, Swing Low.

The flick: Swing High, Swing Low (Paramount Pictures, 1937) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.6

Director: Mitchell Leisen (known for romantic comedies like Midnight, Remember the Night and Easy Living; directed three episodes of The Twilight Zone; was a costume designer on The Thief of Baghdad)

Charles Butterworth
Actors of note
  • Charles Butterworth (Forsaking All Others, Second Chorus, and Love Me Tonight; no connection to the pancake syrup lady)
  • Jean Dixon (My Man Godfrey, Holiday, You Only Live Once; not to be confused with the famed psychic Jeane Dixon)
  • Harvey Stephens (Hitchcock's North by Nortthwest and Alfred Hitchcock Presents; plus Sergeant York, The Young Lions, Beau Geste, and more; not the Harvey Stephens who played Damien in The Omen)
  • Cecil Cunningham (despite the masculine-sounding name, an actress; The Awful Truth, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)
  • Anthony Quinn (Mexican-born Oscar winner for Viva Zapata! and Lust for Life; nominated for his signature role as Alexis Zorba in Zorba the Greek; varied film career includes La Strada, Lawrence of Arabia, The Guns of Navarone, much more)

Other notables: Among the contributors to the screenplay was Oscar Hammerstein II, half of one of the most successful musical theater writing duos of the 20th century. The pair's Broadway shows were frequently turned into movies, including Oklahoma!, Flower Drum Song, The Sound of Music, State Fair, Carousel, and The King & I. R&H compositions include "My Favorite Things," "Some Enchanted Evening," "People Will Say We're in Love," "Getting to Know You," "You'll Never Walk Alone" and dozens more. There are several songs in Swing High, Swing Low, but Oscar had no hand in writing them. This movie is actually based on a hit play called Burlesque, which ran on Broadway from 1927-1928 and 1946-1948 and whose original stage cast included Barbara Stanwyck.

Carole Lombard considers her romantic options.

The gist of it: Accompanied by her pal Ella (Dixon), Maggie (Lombard) works as a beautician aboard a passenger ship so that she can travel to California and meet Harvey (Stephens), a wealthy California "cattle baron" she doesn't love but who wants to marry her anyway. At a stopover in Panama, Maggie meets Skid Johnson (MacMurray), a hotshot trumpet player just out of the army. Maggie and Ella decide to hit the town with Skid and the trumpeter's piano-playing buddy, Harry* (Butterworth).

That night, though, one of the locals (Quinn) tries getting "fresh" with Maggie, and Skid decks him, setting off a full-scale melee. Maggie and Skid spend the night in the clink, so Maggie misses her boat and has to move in with Skid and Harry. Sensing the trumpeter's true talent, Maggie gets Skid a job at a prominent night spot owned by crusty old Murphy (Cunningham). To get the club owner's sympathy, Maggie tells her that she and Skid are already married, and the young lady starts working there herself as a showgirl, putting her in direct competition with singer Anita Alvarez (Lamour), a sharp-tongued vixen who has a romantic past with Skid. Anita lands a job at New York's El Greco Club and moves to the Big Apple, and Skid soon gets a contract to work at the very same place. This is his shot at the big time! He and Maggie, who have recently gotten married for real, much to Harvey's disappointment, tearfully depart with the understanding that the trumpeter will send for his bride as soon as he can.

Skid is a sensation in NYC, quickly being crowned "the King of the Trumpeters," but he gets distracted by the fast life and doesn't send for Maggie like he said he would. Maggie then asks Murphy to pay for her ticket and travels to New York herself. Scheming Anita, however, has intercepted Maggie's telegram to Skid, and he doesn't pick her up when her ship arrives in town. Instead, Skid goes clubbing with Anita and then falls asleep on her couch. When Maggie calls Anita's place and Skid answers, she assumes the worst and begins divorce proceedings against Skid. The trumpeter is devastated and goes into a career tailspin, and Maggie isn't too thrilled either, even though she plans to now marry nice guy Harvey. Can Skid and Maggie's marriage be saved? And what about Skid's trumpeting career? Harry has a band of his own now, and they need a trumpet player for a big radio show. But Skid might be too tipsy to make his big comeback.
* Confusingly, this movie has characters named Harry, Harvey, and Henri.

Screenwriter Virginia Van Upp
My take: I didn't know how my luck was going to break when I cued up Swing High, Swing Low. After all, Carole Lombard was the star of one of the films I'd liked best in this series, Nothing Sacred, while Fred MacMurray had toplined one of the flicks I'd truly despised, My Love for Yours (aka Honeymoon in Bali). The DNA of Swing High, Swing Low is actually much closer to that of the latter than the former. They even share a co-screenwriter, Virginia Van Upp. They have other elements in common, too: an exotic locale (Bali vs. Panama), a frumpy female best friend for the heroine (Helen Broderick vs. Jean Dixon), a vampy romantic rival for the heroine (Osa Massen vs. Dorothy Lamour), a wimpy romantic rival for the hero (Allan Jones vs. Harvey Stephens), and a pivotal song which reminds the hero and heroine of the good times they once had ("Mama Don't Want No Peas..." vs. "I Hear a Call to Arms"). Little wonder that both My Love for Yours and Swing High, Swing Low measure a 6.6 on the IMDb.

But Swing High isn't nearly as objectionable as My Love for Yours, largely because it isn't so preachy and misogynistic. Fred MacMurray's character is again a smarmy, overconfident jerk whose personality should make the heroine run, not walk, in the opposite direction. But at least Swing High knows better than to treat MacMurray as a god among men. When Skid and Maggie's romance temporarily hits a rough patch -- as the central relationships in pretty much all romcoms must do at some point in the narrative -- it is Skid who really falls to pieces, becoming a penniless, zombie-like alcoholic who staggers around New York in a daze. And it's Maggie who comes to his rescue, even though she has a viable second option in dull but reliable Harvey.

Still in all, I didn't see why it was necessary for this movie to become so weepy and depressing on the back nine. Carole Lombard is a delightful screen comedienne, with a personality that's part Lucille Ball and part Dorothy Parker, and this movie would have been well-advised to emulate the anarchic, anything-goes spirit of Nothing Sacred. Instead, Lombard gets to have lots of fun in the opening passages of the movie, but the frivolity basically evaporates after Maggie and Skid get married. Although it's heresy to say so, I would have been fine if Skid had wound up with Dorothy Lamour's character, the slinky, sexy Anita, whose "Panamania" is probably the film's most arousing musical number.

Director Mitchell Leisen keeps things moving nicely but largely tries to stay out of the way and not make his presence overly felt. From the look of it, Swing High was a fairly low-budget picture, with generous use of stock footage and some not-too-convincing rear projection shots. None of this is helped by the fact that the film is in pretty terrible condition these days, obviously mastered from a video tape transfer of a scratchy film print rather than the original negative. Anyway, the public must have liked the Lombard-MacMurray pairing, as they made four other films together.

Is it funny: Tough to say. I didn't laugh much, especially during the film's soggy, melodramatic last half. The first half is pretty heavy on the rapid-fire 1930s romantic comedy banter, with MacMurray and Lombard trading scripted-sounding quips within seconds of their first meeting. But through most of this, I was just nodding in appreciation and thinking, "Heh. That's cute." Now, as I see it, "cute" and "funny" are not mutually exclusive, but they are distinct from one another. Swing High is one of those movies which gets along on its likability. The film is so darned ingratiating that many viewers won't actually notice that it really isn't that funny and that the jokes are just sitcom-type zingers done at twice the normal speed.

That said, I will allow I quite liked the scene in which Lombard tells MacMurray why she hates trumpet music ("It's just noise!")... only to learn that her date plays trumpet music. (Whoops!) And it's kind of funny that Maggie and Skid's first date lands them in jail and that their total incomprehension of Spanish gets them in further hot water with the annoyed judge, who keeps raising their fine each time they try to argue their way out of paying. There are some nice supporting turns here, too. When she's still on the ship, for instance, Carole Lombard tests the patience of her boss, our good pal Franklin Pangborn, with her total incompetence on the job. She's not really a beautician, you see, and she manages to burn off the hair of one of her customers -- an unfortunate situation she unconvincingly blames on the humidity.

Anyway, Pangborn does his usual long-suffering fussbudget routine, and it's about as funny as it always is. Charles Butterworth, too, manages to steal some scenes with his deadpan, detached bemusement as Fred MacMurray's unflappable buddy. I can't recall anything particularly funny that he says, but he says them in a funny-enough way. Oh, there's one weird little scene where he takes off his coat only to reveal a second coat underneath the first. It's just a nice little moment of unexplained absurdity. I would have prescribed a few more.

My grade: B-

P.S. - Just like My Love for Yours, Swing High is not too sensitive in its depiction of non-white characters. The actual Panamanians in the Panama scenes are treated as little more than gibberish-spouting primitives who must acquiesce to the English-speaking white characters, i.e. the only people whose lives truly matter. And the movie does use a subservient, "yes, ma'am"-type Negro in a Santa Claus costume as a quick visual joke. Again, the movie is not as heavy-handed in its racism as My Love for Yours. But modern-day viewers should expect to cringe a little at the depiction of Central American people in this film nevertheless.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 35: "The Baron of Arizona" (1950)

What kind of project could bring Ed Wood, Sam Fuller, and Vincent Price together?
"He worked at Universal, and he never recovered."
-actor John Andrews on his friend Ed Wood

"First I was a cowboy and then a guru priest, any little thing that would keep my palm greased."
-R. Crumb, "Fine Artiste Blues"

The movie that wowed Eddie.
Where was Ed Wood by March 1950 when he made his brief, nigh-undetectable -- yet not inconsequential -- appearance in Samuel Fuller's intriguing early effort The Baron of Arizona? Well, let's see. Eddie would have been 25 at the time and a denizen of Hollywood for about three years. He'd already had some success as a stage actor and had made inroads into the TV commercial business as well. But the young man had his sights trained on the big screen, not the little one. 

Unfortunately, Ed's one attempt at theatrical filmmaking, the would-be Western known as Crossroads of Laredo, was abandoned in the post-production stage. It was, to be blunt, a miscarriage. But ambitious, indefatigable Eddie Wood always had an iron or two in the fire. This was roughly the time in his life, for instance, when he was employed by Universal Studios as a night production coordinator.

Actor Don Nagel, who appeared in Bride of the Monster, Jail Bait, Night of the Ghouls, and other Wood productions, told biographer Rudolph Grey that Ed worked for Universal "for a while, about six months" and could have carved out a career for himself at the entertainment powerhouse but "blew it by not staying there when he was there." John Andrews, who played the Wolfman in Orgy of the Dead, felt that Eddie left Universal because "he wanted to go out on his own."

The only lasting legacy of Eddie's time at Universal is a passage in Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood in which we see Johnny Depp as a young go-getter working at some unnamed movie studio in some vaguely defined role as a gofer, schlepping a potted palm across a backlot teeming with costumed extras. Though no one in Ed Wood ever says this is Universal, the clues are there in the dialogue... sort of. At one point in Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszeski's script, Eddie's ill-tempered boss, Mr. Kravitz (a composite character portrayed by Biff Yeager) dispatches our hero to the Carl Laemmle Building. Laemmle (1867-1939) founded Universal in 1912, and it was under his leadership that the studio made such films as Dracula and Frankenstein. The latter, in fact, begins with the famous preamble delivered by Edward van Sloan: "Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning."

Weirdly, in Tim Burton's finished film, the reference to Laemmle is mysteriously excised, and Eddie's destination is merely designated "the executive building." An opportunity to name check an important film pioneer is missed. But in another conversation between Ed and Mr. Kravitz, there is an unmistakable reference to Universal's past. In trying to defend Bela Lugosi's reputation, Eddie asks his boss, "Do you realize how much money he made for this studio over the years? Dracula! The Raven! The Black Cat!" All three of those were Universal productions.

Another product of the studio is obliquely referenced as well in the Ed Wood script. While carrying out his menial duties, Ed happens to catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the making of Abbott & Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950). In the screenplay, just as in real life, Eddie was awed by the fact that this movie was able to afford truckloads of real sand to add verisimilitude to its desert scenes. Burton, apparently feeling that piles of sand were not visually interesting enough for his movie, substituted live camels. And, naturally, no specific mentions of the famed comedy team are ever made in Ed Wood. According to artist Phil Cambridge, who worked with Wood at Pendulum Publishing in the 1970s, Lou Costello made quite an impression on young Eddie:
Ed told me that he had been on the set with Lou Costello on couple of films. Lou, unlike the personable little guy that he was [in the movies], was really an S.O.B. in person and hated Bud, along with everyone else. Ed said Lou had a chauffeur, and he would always humiliate the chauffeur when he was angry with anyone. He would hit him or kick him -- whatever he felt like doing. One day he got the guy to come inside, and he got a bar of soap and said, "Now you eat that." And the guy ate it. It was a bad business, bad business.
Bad business or not, Abbott & Costello in the Foreign Legion is an intriguing curio for Ed Wood fans and is well worth a viewing. For one thing, it gives you the real-life origins of a memorable moment from Ed Wood. More intriguingly, the movie has a wrestling-themed plot and features Wood regular Tor Johnson, the hulking Swedish grappler so memorable as a zombie in Plan 9 from Outer Space, portraying an Arabic character named "Abou Ben." This was one of about two dozen films Tor made over a 20-year period before he started appearing in Eddie's low-budget productions. The assertion in Ed Wood that Eddie somehow "discovered" Tor while watching him wrestle is wishful thinking on the part of the writers. There is no truth in it.

Samuel Fuller: An inspiration to Ed Wood?
Although Ed Wood was obviously impressed by Universal Studios, he chose not to make the company his home. Why the wanderlust? Allow me to do some biographical theory-spinning. In 1950, as we know, Eddie worked for probably no more than a day as a stuntman on Samuel Fuller's independent production The Baron of Arizona, but it's possible that this experience was inspirational to him. At one of the hero's low points in Ed Wood, the director's live-in girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker) gives her sulking paramour this fateful advice: "Maybe you're not studio kind of material. Maybe you need to raise the money yourself." Towards the end of the movie, Ed's hero Orson Welles (Vincent D'Onofrio) gives him further counsel on the importance of artistic freedom: "Ed, visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else's dreams?"

It is just possible that Ed Wood drew some inspiration from career of writer-director Samuel Fuller (1912-1997), a filmmaker nearly always described as a "maverick" for his fierce and unwavering individualism. There are further parallels between the two men. Like Ed, Sam was born on the East Coast (in his case, Worcester, Mass.) and saw combat action in World War II. Both saw cinema as a medium for personal expression yet knew they had to work within the confines of the movie industry to get their ideas up on the screen. 

Filmmaking is a curious profession in which art and commerce are inconveniently shackled together at the ankle -- something both Ed Wood and Sam Fuller knew all too well. Largely refusing to compromise his vision past a certain point, Fuller spent much of his career working outside the studio system, yet he still managed to garner adoration from fans and respect from critics, particularly French ones. Though he appreciated his cult following, a fraternity whose members include Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Fuller never stopped longing for mainstream success.

"I want," Fuller once said, "to join the cult of the $100- and $200-million grossers and still make an artistic picture."

That dream was never to be realized, nor did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ever see fit to bestow its blessings upon Fuller. He did work for a time at one of the majors, 20th Century Fox, and did one of his most famous films there: Pickup on South Street (1953) with Richard Widmark. Much of Fuller's reputation, however, rests on low-budget indie flicks like Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964), both of which received theatrical distribution through a low-rent company called Allied Artists, which traces its cheapskate lineage back to Poverty Row's own Monogram Pictures.

Even Fuller's single biggest movie, the controversial WWII epic The Big Red One (1980) with Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill, was financed by Lorimar, a now-defunct company best known for its made-for-TV movies (such as Sybil and Helter Skelter) and its many popular television series (including Family Matters, Dallas, and The People's Court) rather than its theatrical feature films. Interestingly, Lorimar temporarily had the rights to many films formerly owned by Monogram and Allied. Maybe that is where the connection to Sam Fuller originates.

In any event, a quick study of Fuller's career shows just how interconnected the low-budget movie world was in the middle decades of the last century. The people who worked on Sam's films were often the same who worked on Ed's. Samuel Fuller's first produced script, for example, was the comedy Hats Off (1936), which was directed by none other than Boris Petroff, who, like Sam's immigrant parents, was of Russian birth. Petroff worked with Eddie on some of the very same films I've covered in this series, including Shotgun Wedding (1963) and Anatomy of a Psycho (1961). The makeup man on Fuller's Naked Kiss, meanwhile, was our good pal Harry Thomas (1909-1996), who worked on all the famous Wood movies from Glen or Glenda (1953) to Night of the Ghouls (1959) and was even portrayed onscreen by Leonard Termo in Ed Wood. (In Burton's film, Harry is the one who has to cover the track marks on Bela Lugosi's arms and is the first to notice that stand-in Dr. Tom Mason needs a toupee.)

And then there's ubiquitous character actor I. Stanford Jolley (1900-1978), who is best known to Ed Wood fans as the pontificating Judge Clara in The Violent Years (1956) but who appeared in literally hundreds of films and TV shows from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s, including a supporting role in the unusual film we are covering this week...


The Baron on DVD.
Alternate titles: None in America. It was known as The Baron of Arizona in most of Europe and South America, too, as the title was easily translated into foreign tongues. In Brazil, though, it became The Baron Adventurer, which puts a positive-sounding, heroic spin on the plot. Finland, apparently less optimistic, called it Gambling in Arizona. In Denmark, it was charmingly renamed The Scammer from Santa Fe. The film is based on the life of James Addison Reavis, who in reality was from Henry County, Missouri, not Santa Fe. In the movie, however, the character based on Reavis does say he's from "the land office in Santa Fe." So good for Denmark for catching that little detail.

Availability: For years, The Baron of Arizona was only sporadically available on VHS from specialty providers like Burbank Video and Other World Video. But now, the film has been preserved by the Museum of Modern Art and is readily available on the three-disc collection Eclipse Series 5: The First Films of Samuel Fuller (Eclipse/Criterion, 2007) along with I Shot Jesse James (1949) and The Steel Helmet (1951). According to the DVD's back cover: "Eclipse is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions. Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer." In other words: don't expect any extras, folks. The picture and sound quality are excellent, however, making this a very worthwhile set.

The backstory: "Eddie mentioned he did a stunt, falling off a stagecoach in The Baron of Arizona, dressed in drag as a double for a female star. Vincent Price starred. When he was younger, [Ed] told me he was mentioned as a lookalike for a young Errol Flynn." Such was the testimony of Ed Wood's wife, Kathy, back in 1992 when she spoke to Rudolph Grey for his book Nightmare of Ecstasy. As expert Wood-ologist Philip R. Frye notes in his discussion of the film, while there are a few stunt sequences throughout The Baron of Arizona, including a stagecoach crash, there is only one possible scene in Sam Fuller's movie that corresponds to Kathy Wood's memory, and it occurs at the 90-minute mark in this 96-minute movie when an angry vigilante mob swarms around a horse-driven carriage and forcibly ejects its passengers, including the film's leading lady Ellen Drew.

I have given this section of the film the Zapruder treatment, studying it frame by frame to see if Ed is recognizable. Naturally, a vigilante mob scene is going to be chaotic, and the stuntman's face is deliberately obscured so as not to spoil the filmic illusion. But after considerable scrutiny, I will concede that the unfortunate soul being manhandled by a group of fearsome-looking extras may indeed be Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Are we looking at the face of Edward D. Wood, Jr.?

This was way back in 1950, three years before Glen or Glenda and a decade before the effects of Ed's alcoholism really became apparent in his appearance and physique. Eddie had delicate features in those days and maybe could have been believable in drag. There's a reason he was played by former teen idol Johnny Depp in his biopic and not, say, Randy Quaid or Willem Dafoe. And this wouldn't have been Ed's only attempt at stuntwork either. He did some horseback riding in both Crossroads of Laredo and Crossroad Avenger and performed a fight scene with Don Nagel in The Sinister Urge. During the making of Plan 9, Eddie even dressed in drag to double Mona McKinnon for a scene in which Mona's character, Paula Trent, staggers out of the woods after being pursued by the vampirish Ghoul Man (Bela Lugosi/Tom Mason) and is rescued by a kindly passing motorist (Karl Johnson). In fact, Ed had the utmost respect for those in the stunt field and wrote highly of the profession in his mid-1960s guidebook to the movie industry called Hollywood Rat Race.

So the idea that Ed would dress up as Ellen Drew and allow himself to be dragged violently from a horse-drawn wagon is quite plausible indeed and fits in comfortably with the rest of his biography. Here is a visual breakdown of Ed's supposed scene in The Baron of Arizona. Vincent Price is the bearded fellow with the black hat in the upper left hand corner of the screen.

Damsel in this dress: Does Edward D. Wood, Jr. appear in drag in The Baron of Arizona? You make the call.

The great pretender: James A. Reavis
But what about the rest of the movie? Well, that's worthy of discussion, too. Outlandish as it is, The Baron of Arizona has its basis in historical fact. This is a biopic of a forger, con artist, and gentleman scoundrel named James Addison Reavis (1843-1914), whose strange rollercoaster life might some day make a damned fine episode of NPR's This American Life. I can just imagine it now, with Ira Glass cuing up little audio clips from this movie, interspersed with more historically-accurate testimony, to help tell the story of Reavis' rise and fall. Naturally, The Baron of Arizona -- which director Sam Fuller also wrote -- does the things just about all biopics do: it simplifies, romanticizes, condenses, glosses over, cherry picks, ignores, rearranges, reshuffles, and flat out invents whatever it has to, whenever it has to, in order to tell a satisfying three-act story in an hour and a half.

In other words, this is no documentary. Instead, it's entertainment that dips its big toe -- but not much more than that -- into the big swimming pool of history. The basics, at least, are there. Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States agreed to honor all previously-existing property rights in the territory it had just won. This was in the Southwest, so we're talking about the area that is now Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, and California. Well, it's one thing to make a promise and quite another to stick to it. For the next few decades, the US spent a lot of time in court determining which of these land grants held by Mexicans and Spaniards were real and which were phony. Decidedly in the latter category was the famed "Peralta land grant," which was supposedly owned by James Reavis, who claimed to be the rightful heir to a barony granted by the King of Spain to a nobleman. In reality, this fellow was a former Confederate soldier who had honed the craft of forgery during the Civil War, when he wrote phony passes to get himself (and a few paying customers) out of army duties. If the United States had honored this bogus grant, Reavis would have owned a huge chunk of modern-day Arizona and thus become one of the richest men in the United States.

Once you know that, you can understand why James Reavis went to such extreme lengths to keep the charade going -- painstakingly forging documents both here and abroad, creating counterfeit monuments in the desert, and even marrying a poverty-stricken half-Indian woman and passing her off as the last surviving member of the powerful (and fictional) Peralta family. Naturally, Uncle Sam was none too eager to fork this land, especially its valuable mines, over to the so-called "Baron of Arizona," and our government dragged its collective feet in honoring Reavis' claim. Meanwhile, the ersatz Baron made a tidy sum charging the people of Arizona for using the land they already rightfully owned. The whole Peralta saga dragged on for decades, from roughly the mid-1870s to the mid-1890s, when James Reavis was convicted of perjury after forensic scientists discovered his supposed 'documentation" to be pure quackery. The would-be landowner served a couple of years in prison, then tried his hand without success at a variety of careers, including journalism, before dying in poverty at the age of 71.

One might say that James Addison Reavis was altogether too bold in his attempts to defraud the country, but then again, tycoon J. Paul Getty once famously said, "The meek shall inherit the earth but not the mineral rights." And Reavis certainly wasn't meek.

By 1950, Vincent Price was most definitely ready for his close up.

Over the ensuing decades, the legend of "the Baron of Arizona," James Addison Reavis grew into a sort of American folk legend, with the details getting more and more grand with each retelling. It wasn't until 1950, however, that Hollywood came a-calling. Samuel Fuller had been a screenwriter since the mid-1930s, but he didn't start directing movies of his own until 1949, when he offered up another fact-based Western, I Shot Jesse James starring Preston Foster, Reed Hadley, John Ireland, and Tom Tyler. Interestingly, Tyler was one of Ed Wood's heroes and appeared in Ed's unsold Crossroad Avenger pilot.

Samuel Fuller's next directorial efforts, The Baron of Arizona and The Steel Helmet soon followed. These were low-budget pictures -- small potatoes by Hollywood standards -- and didn't make much of a commercial splash. But they were manifestly well-made and established their maker as a talented up-and-comer. Sam Fuller was clearly one to watch. His career wasn't always as steady or prosperous as he would have liked it, but with his early films, he at least got off to an auspicious -- if modest -- start. Fuller's earliest films were all produced by the legendary Robert L. Lippert (1909-1976), known semi-affectionately as "the Quickie King." Lippert's surprisingly-diverse resume includes many films that wound up on Mystery Science Theater 3000, including Jungle Goddess (1948), Last of the Wild Horses (1948), Lost Continent (1951), and Rocketship X-M (1950). Those titles eventually helped make him a laughingstock.

But producer Lippert also had a longstanding professional relationship with an actor who is rightly beloved by all horror and B-movie fans: Mr. Vincent Price (1911-1993). In addition to this week's movie, Price worked for Lippert on both The Fly (1958) and The Last Man on Earth (1964). The Baron of Arizona might just be Price's first assignment for Robert L. Lippert, and it was something of a turning point in the actor's long career. Although born in St. Louis, MO, Price studied drama in England and began his theatrical acting career over there as well. Back home, he started landing film roles in the late 1930s. The most prominent credit in the first decade of his movie career was a supporting part in Otto Preminger's Laura (1944).

By 1950, however, Price was nearing the age of 40 and still had not established himself as a leading man. Though admittedly a low-budget film, The Baron of Arizona gave Vincent Price his first true starring vehicle. The picture is undeniably his. Even without the participation of Samuel L. Fuller, it is likely that The Baron of Arizona would eventually have attracted a cult following simply because of Price's performance. A few years later, Vincent Price starred in the classic 3D film, The House of Wax (1953). From that point on, the die was cast for Vincent Price, and he would spend most of his remaining career as a horror icon -- a role he cherished, partly because it financed his passions for gourmet cuisine and fine art. Though not actually a horror film, The Baron of Arizona is nevertheless an important landmark in Price's career, as it helped to establish his half-suave, half-sinister screen persona.

The viewing experience: Quite a pleasant surprise. The Baron of Arizona is the kind of movie I might not ever have seen if it hadn't been for a project like Ed Wood Wednesdays, but I am grateful for having discovered it. It's a little gem... and a difficult film to precisely categorize. It takes place in the Old West, but it's not exactly a Western. It offers a loving depiction of a skilled conman at work under often high-stress conditions, but it's not quite a heist film either. And you can't quite call it a courtroom drama or a crime thriller, though it has elements of those genres, too. There's even an element of Shaw's Pygmalion, with Vincent Price as a skewed variation on Professor Henry Higgins. 

It's an oddity, this one, which might have made it a little tricky to market back in 1950. For most of the lesser-known movies in this series, the only reason that they're available on DVD at all is because of their connection -- however tenuous -- to Edward D. Wood, Jr. But that's not the case this time around. Not by a long shot. The Baron of Arizona has been preserved by the Museum of Modern Art and released by the prestigious Criterion Collection because it was written and directed by Samuel L. Fuller.

Though Wood and Fuller's careers overlapped chronologically and they worked with some of the same people, they are not particularly similar as filmmakers. Here's a representative quote from Sam Fuller on his profession: "I write with the camera. It is my typewriter." I think for Ed Wood, the very opposite was true: the typewriter was Eddie's camera! Throughout this project, I've come to see Ed Wood as an idea man who struggled to communicate his ideas to the rest of the world through the technology and media available to him. Much more so than the camera, the typewriter was Eddie's most direct means of artistic expression. Although obviously sincere in his work, he was a clumsy, often flat-footed director. As a writer, he could communicate more easily without all the technical stuff getting in the way. Films as varied as The Violent Years, The Bride and the Beast, and even One Million AC/DC give the viewer a very satisfying "Ed Wood experience" without Eddie actually being the director.

Vincent Price makes his dramatic entrance.

Not so with Samuel L. Fuller. It's clear from beginning to end that The Baron of Arizona is the work of a man who was born to sit in a director's canvas-backed chair. While the script is mostly functional, with a third act that strains to make its protagonist more sympathetic, the film remains an engrossing, engaging experience, and a lot of that is due to the sure and steady hand at the wheel. Fuller clearly has good instincts for working with actors. He can build up convincing suspense and tension, particularly during a passage in which James Reavis becomes a monk at a Spanish monastery to falsify some documents there and spends years sneaking around the place under the suspicious gaze of the intimidating Father Guardian (Gene Roth).

 Fuller also shows great facility with action scenes, as when Price's character panics -- unnecessarily as it turns out -- and flees the monastery in a stolen horse-drawn wagon he then crashes on a mountain road. Even better, Fuller knows how to compose a frame like a true artist, and he is fortunate to have legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe (of Seconds, Hud, The Thin Man, and many other films) on hand to create evocative, eye-catching shots reminiscent of the Universal horror classics or even Citizen Kane in their use of exaggerated light and shadow.

Certainly, Howe's consistently sharp and deep focus in Baron is reminiscent of what cinematographer Gregg Toland did on Kane. Of particular note is the way Fuller and Howe use doorways and entrances throughout this movie. (Doors and entryways are also a motif in Citizen Kane.) Very often, Fuller positions his camera so that doorways are framed within other doorways. 

The very first good look we get at Vincent Price in this movie comes at the six-minute mark, when he shows up at the doorstep of kindly Pepito Alvarez (Vladimir Sokoloff), who is raising Sofia (played by Karen Kester as a child and Ellen Drew as an adult), the woman Reavis plans to mold into the fraudulent Peralta heir. This is a pivotal moment in the story, and Sam Fuller lets us know with the way he dramatically introduces his leading man. It's a "dark and stormy night" when Reavis knocks on Pepito's door, and Vincent Price is memorably dressed in all black. The actor was a big man -- 6'4" -- and Fuller and Howe do their best to make him look even bigger as he towers over his costars, aided perhaps by the set design. The entrance is pure Price: regal yet vaguely satanic, enticing and unsettling all at once. It's a star-making moment.

Gypsies Tina Pine and Angelo Rossitto
One of Fuller's few missteps in The Baron of Arizona is a totally unnecessary framing story that adds little to the film except a lot of talky exposition. The movie starts on Valentine's Day, 1912. Arizona has just been granted statehood, and its first governor, George W.P. Hunt (Jonathan Hale), is celebrating the occasion with some of his political cronies. One of the attendees is John Griff (Reed Hadley), the Department of Interior investigator who brought down the great swindler James Reavis. Griff tells the others -- a bunch of tux-wearing geezers -- that he considers Reavis a personal friend and even proposes a toast in his honor. When the Governor is puzzled by this, Griff -- who, by the way, seems to be a fictional character -- launches into the story of the Peralta land grant and its devilishly clever creator.

From there, the rest of the movie is told in flashback form, while Fuller allows the older John Griff to narrate. It's possible that the rookie writer-director felt a little insecure about his ability to tell this unusual story, but he need not have been. Fuller was already such  a strong visual storyteller and was blessed with such a commanding, indelible performance by Vincent Price in the lead role that the sledgehammer exposition is superfluous. I'm guessing Fuller figured this out somewhere during the making of The Baron of Arizona, since he does not bother returning to the Governor and his pals at the end of the movie. In fact, he just kind of forgets about them, probably guessing (correctly) that the audience had forgotten them, too.

Sam Fuller's most eccentric choice as a screenwriter was to include a self-contained passage in which James Reavis falls in with a band of gypsies and even fleetingly romances pretty but troubled Rita (Tina Rome aka Tina Pine), who is smitten with this mysterious outlaw and wishes to abandon her people to join him on his adventures. The most memorable of the gypsies, however, is the dwarf Angie, played by Angelo Rossito, the 2'11" actor whose 60-year career includes indelible turns in such cult hits as Freaks (1932) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). While the gypsy scenes have little to do with the rest of the movie and don't really advance the plot, I'm not sorry that Fuller included them in The Baron of Arizona simply because they add variety and give this film an almost picaresque feel. Besides, gypsies are integral to several of the classic Universal movies, so their presence here is welcome.

Are there any moments in The Baron of Arizona that have the feel of an Ed Wood movie? As a matter of fact, yes -- though it's just a brief flicker of goofiness in an otherwise very un-Wood-like production. It arrives very late in the movie, appropriately during the very same scene in which Ed Wood served as a stuntman. At this point in the story, the jig is up, and James Reavis and his wife are being hauled off by the authorities. But the local townspeople are understandably angry at the so-called "Baron of Arizona" because of the money he's basically extorted from them, and they don't want to wait for the slow-moving justice system to punish Reavis. They just want to lynch him in the middle of town, so they hide themselves in the shadows until he makes his appearance. Two slightly dim-witted policemen on horseback are riding ahead of Reavis, and they get the sense that something isn't quite right, so they stop and have a conversation in front of a black backdrop that is supposed to represent the night sky. 

A side by side comparison of Baron and Plan 9.

It's one of the only shots in this masterfully-made movie that betrays the low budget. And the dialogue itself has a Wood-ian feel to it:
Man #1: Joe, I don't like this quiet. 
Man #2: Funny, I never seen the square so empty this time of night.
Mere seconds later, all hell breaks loose, as an angry mob attacks the dapper conman and his wife. Our poor law officers knew something bad was about to go down, but they were still unprepared for it. Visually, this scene is very much like the moment in Plan 9 when Conrad Brooks and Paul Marco -- also playing uneasy cops -- prowl around the patently-artificial cemetery, unsure of what they're supposed to be doing but scared nevertheless. ("It's tough to find something when you don't know what you're looking for," says Brooks in the defining moment of his career.) A side-by-side comparison between the two films reveals remarkable parallels. 

I was also reminded of the memorable exchange between the doomed Plan 9 gravediggers, who are also experiencing vague paranoia but are nevertheless clueless as to the tragedy about to befall them. In their case, though, it is not silence but noise that bothers them. ("Don't like hearin' noises. 'Specially when there ain't supposed to be any.")

Is it too fanciful to suggest that Edward D.Wood, Jr. saw The Baron of Arizona, took special note of the scene with the two police officers and filed it away in his brain as an idea he could use later in one of his own movies? Or is this just a coincidence? Such are the mysteries of Ed Wood Wednesdays.

A special thanks goes out this week to Derek M. Koch, who convinced me to cover this film as part of Ed Wood Wednesdays. Derek, this one's for you!

In two weeks: More Ed Wood apocrypha! But nothing so classy as The Baron of Arizona. No, I'm afraid that next time, we will be dipping back into the disputed canon of "Pete LaRoche," the shadowy screenwriter who may or may not have been Edward D. Wood, Jr. Thanks to the kindly intervention of reader Douglas North, aka hifithepanda, I've managed to track down another LaRoche-scripted film. I'm almost hesitant to tell you the title of this one, for fear that you'll avoid reading the article. But I assure you, this is all done in the name of film scholarship. Does it sweeten the deal to tell you that the film in question stars Lloyd Bridges? Anyway, be here in two weeks for my look at Wetbacks (1956).

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

And here I am, talking about Ed Wood on Monster Kid Radio

I recently appeared on Monster Kid Radio to discuss Ed Wood Wednesdays.

Well, folks, I've returned (albeit temporarily) to the medium of podcasting this week. This entire blog started as a spinoff of a podcast, specifically Derek M. Koch's late, lamented Mail Order Zombie. That series signed off in April 2013, and Derek has moved on to a great new show called Monster Kid Radio

While MOZ focused almost exclusively on zombie movies (mainly the direct-to-video variety), MKR is a more general-purpose show that tends to stick to the low-budget sci-fi and horror films of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Past topics on Monster Kid Radio have included the King Kong and Godzilla movie series, plus the careers of actors like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and the Mexican wrestler known as El Santo. This week, Derek was gracious enough to have me as a guest on his new series, and he and I discussed the career of Edward D. Wood, Jr. and my ongoing "Ed Wood Wednesdays" project.
  • Here's part two. This time, Derek and I discussed some Ed Wood movies which might appeal to Monster Kid Radio listeners. Films include The Bride and the Beast, Necromania, Venus Flytrap, and The Astounding She-Monster.
  • And here's part three. This is an informal "warm-up" conversation Derek and I had before the interview.
Big thanks to Derek M. Koch for letting me appear on his show and talk about this project!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Here's my check from the Onion

Almost too cool to cash: a $45 check from The Onion.

I'm still debating whether or not to cash this: it's a $45 check from The Onion, and just as I had hoped, it has the slogan "America's Finest News Source" written on it. To me, this is a really cool little pop culture collectible. I also haven't decided whether I'm going to try to pitch any further stories to them. It was something I had wanted to do for a while. Now, I've done it, and I kind of want to leave it at that, like I just crossed off another item on my personal bucket list. I actually don't have a pop culture bucket list (and I didn't even see the movie), but that would have been on there. Maybe I can try to win the New Yorker caption contest or something. I was a finalist once and then kind of gave up on it. The late Roger Ebert stuck with the contest and, after many attempts, finally won. Maybe I should follow his example. I don't know.

Friday, March 7, 2014

See, this is why I'm an atheist...

I kept seeing this dumb ad on every website, so I had to fix it. You're welcome. (The one on the left is the original, by the way, in case you weren't clear on that.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 34: "Married Too Young" (1962)

Married Too Young, a movie featuring (let's never forget) Alluring Provocative Marla.

"Wouldn't it be nice if we were older? Then we wouldn't have to wait so long."
-The Beach Boys, "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" (1966)

"They try to tell us we're too young."
-Nat "King" Cole, "Too Young" (1951)

"I have a girlfriend. She says I'm her only one. We wanna get married, but we're so young."
- The Students, "I'm So Young" (1958)

The conjoined Hilton sisters in Chained for Life.
It is now time to turn our attentions to George Moskov (1893-1970). Never heard of him? You're forgiven. His filmography tells the story of yet another hardworking foot soldier of the mid-20th century movie industry, in which he worked mostly "below the line" as they say in Hollywood.

In a bizarre coincidence that I swear is not meant to capitalize on recent headlines, Mr. Moskov is Ukrainian by birth. Way back in 1932, in fact, he wrote a Croatian-language film called Ljubav i strast (which translates as Love and Passion) for an outfit called Yugoslavian Pictures, Inc. Other than this early outlier, his credits are largely confined to the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Along the way, George worked as a producer, writer, and second unit director, but most of his career was spent as a production manager, making sure that various small-time film productions operated on-schedule and on-budget.

About a week ago, I heard an interview on the Projection Booth podcast with a producer-director named Larry Cohen (It's Alive, The Stuff, Maniac Cop), who said he usually paid his production managers to stay home and out of his hair. Then why have them on the payroll at all? Union requirement, explained Cohen. But George Moskov seems to have been one of the good, reliable ones in the biz, lasting over 30 years and encompassing all kinds of films, from a Western with Ronald Reagan (1955's Tennessee's Partner) to an entry in the Charlie Chan franchise with Sidney Toler and Mantan Moreland (1944's Charlie Chan in the Secret Service). Moskov seems to have worked on plenty of low-budget crime dramas but wasn't tied to any particular genre or subgenre. He only directed one feature -- the penny-ante flick we're covering this week.

For fans of outre cinema, Moskov's most intriguing credit is probably Chained for Life (1952), for which he is listed as both a producer and a production manager. This rather notorious film, directed by Harry L. Fraser (whom I discussed a bit in my article on The Bride and the Beast), was a never-to-be-repeated vehicle for Violet and Daisy Hilton, the conjoined twin sisters from Freaks (1932). It is from a book about the Hilton sisters, Dean Jensen's The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins (Random House, 2006), that I was able to get this biographical sketch of Moskov:
Jensen's book
A movie man of long, rich, and varied experience, Moskov had apprenticed with the highly regarded producer Lewis Milestone. In the late 1930s, Moskov launched his own career as a producer, shepherding the development of such solid hits as Angel Island (1937), Joe Palooka, Champ (1946), Isle of the Missing Men (1947), Heading for Heaven (1947), and Search for Danger (1949). Only months before he was approached by [idea man Ross] Frisco, Moskov had completed Champagne for Caesar, a sparkling, critically well-received comedy about radio quiz shows. The film featured such A-list stars of the day as Ronald Colman, Celeste Holm, and Barbara Britton, and boasted a score by Dimitri Tiomkin. It was perhaps surprising that a producer of Moskov's credentials would agree to participate in a film project as amorphously defined as Frisco's Chained for Life. He may have been impressed that the sisters themselves were entirely underwriting the project and that he would be spared the responsibility for raising any of the production costs.
Author Dean Jensen then goes on to describe the screenwriter of Chained for Life, Nat Tanchuck (1912-1978), who is also the credited screenwriter on Married Too Young:
A graduate of the University of Southern California, Tanchuck worked as a newspaper reporter, a short story writer, a movie reviewer for trade publications, a public relations flak, and a developer of scripts for radio and television. But at the time he was tabbed by Moskov, Tanchuck could only claim credits as an assistant writer on three pictures, all of them forgettable: Federal Man, I Killed Geronimo, and Timber Fury. Moskov was probably not in a position to attract a more seasoned writer for the project.
The relative novice Nat Tanchuck must have done something to impress producer George Moskov, since they worked together a decade later on another film -- that is, the one we're covering this week. For the most part, though, Tanchuck stuck to the small screen, penning lots and lots of TV Westerns, including episodes of such ratings titans as The Virginian, Bonanza, and Wagon Train... as well as such slightly less-remembered oaters as Fury, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, and The Restless Gun. By the time Married Too Young rolled around, director Moskov would have been in his late sixties, while writer Tanchuck would have been approaching 50. Neither had any experience in writing youth-oriented films at all. Is it possible, then, that these men sought the input and guidance of Edward D. Wood, Jr., who would have been a relatively youthful 38 and had at least some background in teen-sploitation? Well, that's the going theory. Let's examine the case up close, eh?

M A R R I E D   T O O   Y O U N G   (1962)

Apparently, this was a big issue back in 1962.

Alternate title: I Married Too Young

Availability: That's sort of a bugaboo when it comes to this film. There have been a few VHS editions of the film, including releases from Hollywood Home Theater and Sinister Cinema, but these are out of print. Sinister later put this film out as a DVD-R, but the company no longer lists the film on its website. A Retromedia DVD release was supposed to have happened in the 1990s, following on the heels of Tim Burton's Ed Wood, but nothing whatsoever seems to have come of this, other than a trailer (which you can see on the Big Box of Wood DVD collection).

Filmmaker Fred Olen Ray has recently promised via Facebook that Married Too Young is "coming to DVD 16x9 from the original 35mm negative this year." In the meantime, if you are truly horny to see this flick, I will direct you to the Video Beat, a Something Weird-esque company that specializes in DVDs of vintage rock movies and TV shows. Their edition of the film ($19.99) comes complete with a few trailers and a 1966 episode of The Donna Reed Show featuring guest star Lesley Gore.

The backstory: Russian-born director? Check. A star whose father is a famous comedian? Check. Early 1960s release date? Check. Socially-relevant, torn-from-the-headlines plot? Check. A bunch of twenty-somethings portraying troubled high schoolers? Check. Uncredited, possibly apocryphal script work by Ed Wood? Checkmate. With all these factors in common, Married Too Young makes an obvious companion piece to last week's film, Anatomy of a Psycho. Both films are essentially byproducts of the newfound freedom and autonomy American teenagers attained during the 1950s, as they now had money of their own to spend and free time in which to spend it. Thanks to improvements in technology and a postwar economic boom, young people were, for the first time in the nation's history, building their own parallel society divorced from that of their parents. More than ever, films, magazines, clothing, music and more were being manufactured specifically for kids, with little regard for what their parents might think.

Obviously, many grownups were alarmed about this state of affairs and felt they were losing control of their own children. Thus was born the Golden Age of Juvenile Delinquency, a natural topic for the movies. But while Psycho dealt with violence, Married Too Young dealt, albeit obliquely, with an even more uncomfortable topic -- sex -- even though that troublesome word is never once even uttered in the film. And like so many schlock films of the era, the tone of Married Too Young is dour, preachy, and judgmental, so the filmmakers could always claim that their work was intended as moral instruction rather than crass exploitation.

The newlyweds, Helen and Tommy.
The plot is very simple. High school senior Tommy Blaine (Harold Lloyd, Jr.) is a part-time race car driver and auto mechanic who aspires to become a doctor. He also wants to go "all the way" with his steady squeeze, rich girl Helen Newton (Jana Lund), but they know that having sex outside of marriage is wrong. So they zip across the state line, where the Justice of the Peace (David Bond) is only too happy to unite them in holy matrimony. Helen's snooty parents (Trudy Marshall and Brian O'Hara) are aghast at the news, and Tommy's working class slob parents (Nita Loveless and Lincoln Demyan) aren't too thrilled either, but they're stuck with the unfortunate situation.

The young marrieds try living at Tommy's house, which doesn't work, then at Helen's house, which is worse. After Tommy gets a modest raise from his boss at the garage (George Cisar), he decides to buy a house for himself and his bride, but he quickly gets into serious debt. So against his better judgment, he gets involved with a slimy gangster appropriately named Grimes (Anthony Dexter), who hires him to modify then deliver stolen cars. Not too long into this assignment, Tommy manages to attract the attention of the cops and, in his panic, drives himself and poor Helen over a cliff. Barely scratched, Tommy and Helen go to court, where a benevolent judge (Richard Davies) releases them into the custody of their parents, to whom he gives a stern lecture about the importance of love and understanding. The end.

Heather Tanchuck
But how, exactly, does Edward D. Wood, Jr. fit into the picture? Did he work on Married Too Young at all? Well, Heather Tanchuck, the daughter of credited screenwriter Nathaniel "Nat" Tanchuck, has some very strong opinions on the subject, which she expressed to an Ed Wood fan site through e-mail. To wit:
The movie Married Too Young was NOT partially written by Ed Wood. My father, Nathaniel Tanchuck, wrote the entire movie, and I would truly appreciate this if you would correct your site. I was a child, I have a copy of the script, I visited the movie set. Ed Wood worked at Hal Roach or some other studio at the same time as my father, but my dad, Nathaniel Tanchuck, is the only writer of Married Too Young.

Weldon's film guide.
Is she right? Married Too Young is not included in Rudolph Grey's exhaustive Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. None of the interviewees even mention George Moskov or Nat Tanchuck. And Ed didn't include the film in his own self-curated list of movie credits that he presented to Fred Olen Ray. But the film is nevertheless indexed in Ed Wood's filmography at both the Internet Movie Database and Phillip R. Frey's Ed Wood Online site. It also receives a full write-up in Rob Craig's Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films, where it is sandwiched between Revenge of the Virgins and Shotgun Wedding in the "Sexploitation Superstar" chapter. And in his seminal book, The Psychotronic Video Guide to Film  (Macmillan, 1996), critic Michael Weldon says, "Apparently, while Ed Wood was making The Sinister Urge for Headliner Productions, they had him co-write this very dated movie about overage 'teens.'"

The Video Beat's DVD of the film also plays up Ed Wood's involvement, and it seems likely that any further life Married Too Young may have is due entirely to its connection to Wood. Rob Craig's book traces the attribution to Sinister Cinema, the film's erstwhile home video distributor: "According to Greg Luce at Sinister Cinema, a producer for Headliner Productions claimed that Wood was brought in to finish up the troubled production, and can be credited with the last 15 minutes or so of the completed film."

Ed Wood did work for Headliner on multiple occasions. That company produced two iron-clad, bona fide Ed Wood movies: The Violent Years (1956) and The Sinister Urge (1960). Craig concentrates his critical attention on those last 15 minutes and finds within them several Wood-ian motifs, including a "bizarre dream-montage," plus "the miraculous 'resurrection' from certain death of the heroes," and a "stern moral lecture." The critic concludes: "Surely, the spirit of Ed Wood hovers over this final reel of Married Too Young." It may or may not. And don't call me Shirley. (Could Craig, in fact, be punning on Ed Wood's drag name here?)

One crucial fact missing from the film's opening titles is the name of its producer. We are merely told that Married Too Young was "produced by Headliner Productions, Inc." Roy Reid was the producer of The Violent Years and The Sinister Urge, but his familiar moniker does not appear here.

Sexy "bad girl" Marianna Hill steals a few scenes.
The most famous name in the film's credits is easily that of Harold Lloyd, Jr. (1931-1971), youngest son of the famed silent comedian of the 1920s whose sound films never quite caught on as they should have. Having made a disastrous attempt at a comeback with 1947's The Sin of Harowhld Diddlebock for director Preston Sturges, Lloyd the Elder was retired by the time his son decided to take a crack at the family business in 1950.

Never a great success, often an outright failure, Lloyd the Younger landed his first big role in his early twenties in the arson drama The Flaming Urge (1953). From there, he stuck mainly to lowbrow, low-budget fare, such as Frankenstein's Daughter (1958), Girls Town (1959), and Sex Kittens Go to College (1960). His eccentric father is said to have been unusually supportive and forgiving through all of his son's personal and professional pitfalls. Lloyd's private life, in which he overindulged in alcohol and had a penchant for rough gay sex, was infinitely more interesting than any of his films. The bland Married Too Young was pretty much his last hurrah. After a supporting role in Mutiny in Outer Space in 1965, he was done. The debilitating effects of a stroke left him unable to work, so there were no further film or TV appearances. A decade after Married Too Young, Harold Lloyd, Jr. was dead at the very young age of 40.

Lloyd's Married costar, Joanna Lund (1933-1991), has at least one Elvis movie (1957's Loving You) on her resume, plus appearances on TV shows like Dragnet and Sea Hunt as well as such classic rocksploitation flicks as Don't Knock the Rock and High School Hellcats. Villainous Anthony Dexter (1913-2001) was on the back half of his film career when he did Married Too Young. He'd previously played the title role in the biopic Valentino (1951). Other notable credits include a couple of MST3K movies, Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956) and The Phantom Planet (1961), plus the lavish musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and the usual slew of TV work.

The most accomplished member of the cast, however, is probably the requisite "bad girl," Marianna Hill (b. 1941), one of the few major cast members who's still alive. This was very, very early in her long and varied Hollywood career -- her first feature film, though she'd already been racking up TV gigs for two years by that point. Hill's credits include the Oscar-winning sequel The Godfather: Part II (1974) plus High Plains Drifter (1973) as well as episodes of Star Trek and Batman. Given her sultry good looks, it's no surprise to learn that she also worked as a model.

By the way, here's a little delight that recently turned up on an Ed Wood Facebook group: an original 1962 Married Too Young pressbook that was sent by Headliner Productions to exhibitors planning to show the film. It contains some production details about Married Too Young, as well as newspaper advertisements, radio copy, and suggestions for theater owners who book the film.

Headliner's strategy for hyping the film seems to have been emphasizing the famous family name of its male lead. "Altho Harold Lloyd was a famous comedian to the theatergoers of a generation ago," it says, "his son, Harold Lloyd, Jr., chose a dramatic career in the acting profession." The pressbook declares that Married Too Young is Junior's "first starring role," which falsely implies that the young man is a newbie.

The "controversial" nature of the plot also merits a mention or two. According to the euphemistic and vague ad copy, our hero faces "the premarital problems leading to a hasty marriage with his high school sweetheart," while the film's plot concerns "young marrieds experiencing marital incompatibility because of uncontrolled biological urges of immature youth." That's an awful lot of words to say that two dumb high schoolers got hitched because they were horny. The film's exploitable auto racing angle, curiously, is ignored. Anyway, enjoy! (Click on the individual pictures to see them full size.)

The Donna Reed Show's cast.
The viewing experience: Like crossing the length of a football field through hip-deep mud. Married Too Young is a lugubrious, sluggish film that feels longer than its modest 76-minute running time. It's important to remember that "the Sixties" as we know them hadn't really gotten underway by 1962. The sexual promiscuity, creative experimentation, and hedonistic indulgence we now associate with the decade were still on the horizon, along with zeitgeist-shifting events as the JFK assassination and the British Invasion. The rigid, stultifying morality of the Eisenhower-era 1950s was very much in effect back then. You can see that in every frame of Married Too Young, which plays like a particularly dour, laughless installment of a domestic TV sitcom.

In fact, that's why it's especially appropriate that the Video Beat chose to pair this flick with a vintage episode of The Donna Reed Show. Aesthetically, they're very much alike. Donna Reed ran from 1958 to 1966, and the episode in question ("By-Line--Jeff Stone") turned out to be the series finale, even though it isn't written as one. Everyone is so clean-cut and well-behaved that you'd never guess that the Velvet Underground, Timothy Leary, acid trips, love beads, and Sgt. Pepper were just around the corner. Donna and her kin had no idea what was in store for them.

To understand Married Too Young at all, you have to cast your mind back half a century to a time when two teenagers would actually go to the trouble of getting married before having sex. Obviously, they could just skip the marriage and go straight to the sex, but then they'd wind up like the doomed, weeping teenagers in Too Soon to Love (1960), whose trailer is included on the Married DVD. In that film, poor Cathy (Jennifer West) is "betrayed by [her] innocence" and winds up pregnant after her out-of-wedlock sexual rendezvous with boyfriend Jim (Richard Evans), who frets, "I'm 17 years old! I'm in high school!" The trailer shows Cathy and Jim visiting an unlicensed abortion clinic run by, of all people, Billie Bird, who is best known for playing sweet old ladies on TV shows like Dear John and Benson. As Cathy and Jim ascend the stairs to the clinic, they see another couple coming down. A young man props up his shell-shocked girlfriend, who looks like she's just been through the Night of the Living Dead. "Oh, God, Jim," sobs Cathy. "I can't!" One might point out that if the youngsters from Too Soon to Love and Married Too Young had access to birth control, they could avoid any inconvenient pregnancies and wouldn't have to get married to have sex either. But that's 2010s thinking, not early 1960s thinking.

Anthony Dexter makes time with Marianna Hill.
Tommy and Helen are squeaky clean, goody-two-shoes characters with very few distinguishing personality traits, so it's difficult to become terribly involved in their story. In his leading role, Harold Lloyd, Jr. is mostly a wholesome dullard, sort of reminiscent of Peyton Manning, but without the quarterback's self-aware humor. Jana Lund is scarcely more interesting, though she does flounce around in a frilly nightgown during a few scenes, a detail that helps build the case for this being an Ed Wood movie. (Eddie, in case you're just joining us, loved such garments and included them in many of his scripts.) And her character, Helen, does get a pretty snappy comeback in one scene. When her mother asks her, "Helen, are you still here?" Helen responds, "I'm not a mirage." Zing!

Overall, the parents are just clueless authority figures who have no idea how badly they've warped their own children. Helen's mother, in particular, is a snooty socialite whose life seems to revolve around the country club. The fact that she gives her daughter money with which to buy dinner is an early warning sign, especially for anyone who has seen either The Violent Years or Sam Newfield's I Accuse My Parents (1944). The oblivious, social-climbing mother seems to be a stock character in cautionary tales of this nature, as does the slick, overconfident gangster who is all too eager to lead naive young people into hellish Faustian bargains. Filling that role here is the unctuous Grimes (played by "guest star" Anthony Dexter), whose very name has a Dickensian aptitude to it, like Scrooge or Gradgrind or Havisham.

Tony Dexter struts through this film like he just won first prize in a bullshitting contest and couldn't be prouder of that fact. When he blatantly steals another guy's girlfriend away from him, he's more concerned that the cuckolded rival will rumple his expensive suit: "This custom-made fiddle set me back a hundred and fifty clams." As far as I could determine, Grimes remains unpunished by the end of the film. In the heavy-handed, moralistic world of Ed Wood, that's a rarity.

The girl at the heart of this little love triangle is Married Too Young's own personal jezebel, Marla (Marianna Hill), a flirtatious, vivacious vixen who gives the movie its only real eroticism. Marla is also given some of the film's most colorful, slangy dialogue. When the local malt shop owner objects to being called "daddy-o," for instance, Marla casually replies: "Be a rectangle then." Together, Marla and Grimes are yet another example of what I call the "scheming criminal couple," a staple in many of Eddie's films.

What else is there to distinguish this script as Ed Wood's handiwork? Eh, a little bit here and a little bit there. Nearly every reviewer has pointed out the tonal and structural similarities between this film and The Violent Years, both of which have sermons delivered by judges to neglectful parents. But as Rob Craig points out, such preaching is commonplace in youth-oriented exploitation films. Similar adult authority figures appear in other, non-Wood films, like the aforementioned I Accuse My Parents and even the cult classic Reefer Madness (1936), the ultimate cinematic example of innocent youth gone astray.

If anything, Married Too Young is more liberal and forgiving than most of Ed's other films. Note, for instance, how hard the hammer of justice comes down on the pretty little noggin of the heroine in The Violent Years. One especially Wood-ian trait I noticed in Married Too Young, however, is that the characters have a habit of making sweeping condemnations of the opposite sex. Wood's male heroes lamented the inscrutable ways of womankind in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and Bride of the Monster (1955), and it seems like every Stephen Apostolof film from the 1970s had a "men are bastards!" speech by one of the female characters. Here, both genders are taken to task:

  • Tommy: "Women! What's a guy get mixed up with them for?" (This line has special resonance, since the actor speaking it -- Harold Lloyd, Jr. -- was gay.)
  • Helen's mom: (angrily, to Helen's dad) "Oh, you men! How naive can you be?!"
  • Tommy: (to Helen) "What's with you dames? A fella just wants to dance, and immediately, out come all the cat claws!" 

And then, there is the matter of the brief dream sequence, which doesn't occur until the movie is about 80% completed. Surprisingly, since Ed's movies are often considered to be surrealist in nature, you'd think he'd have such scenes in a lot of his movies. But the truth is, he really doesn't go down that particular path very often in his scripts. The actual, day-to-day waking reality in films like Plan 9 and Bride of the Monster is already so skewed and bizarre that a dream sequence would merely be gratuitous. A pedant could argue that virtually the entirety of Orgy of the Dead (1965) is a dream or fantasy, but that quality makes Orgy an exception.

The one big dream sequence in the Wood canon, the one that makes further scenes of this nature unnecessary, occurs in Ed's debut feature, Glen or Glenda? (1953). It is a lengthy, imaginative, wildly free-associative passage that marks a major, jarring departure from the "reality" of the rest of the movie. By contrast, Helen's paranoid dream near the end of Married Too Young is tame and sensible. But it does bear a passing resemblance to the infamous Glenda dream. Both scenes rely on the layering of images, with one bit of film transparently superimposed over another to create a gauzy or ghostly effect. And both also employ the taunting repetition of certain words or phrases. Glenda fans will undoubtedly recall that poor Glen was vexed by the voice of what sounded like a snotty young girl, chanting fragments of the old nursery rhyme about what little boys and little girls are made of. ("Puppy dog tails" and "everything nice," respectively.)

In Married Too Young, there is a series of blurry images, most of which are projected over the sleeping form of Jana Lund. First we see a bridal magazine, then a marriage license, and then the wedding ceremony itself, with Tommy and Helen once again exchanging "I do"s in front of the Justice of the Peace. All the while, we hear a chorus of adult voices -- I'm guessing these are meant to represent Tommy and Helen's disapproving parents -- repeating a single sentence over and over. At first, the parents speak one at a time. Then they chant in unison. But the phrase doesn't change. There's a lot of echo on the soundtrack, as well as some eerie sci-fi-type music in the background (is that a theremin I hear?), so it's difficult to make out exactly what they're saying. It sounds like: "Now, you get married too young, too young!"* The particular cadence of the actors makes it sound a lot like the "lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" chant from The Wizard of Oz (1939) or even "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" by Napoleon XIV.

After reading the description of the dream sequence in Rob Craig's book, I was a little disappointed when I saw the movie and learned that the scene only accounts for about a minute of screen time. Such are the hazards, I suppose, when one excavates the dusty, cobwebbed corners of Edward D. Wood Jr.'s filmography. As a souvenir of the morality of another era, Married Too Young is a somewhat valuable little trinket. Purely as entertainment, it's a real drag, daddy-o.

* It could also be "Now you can get married too young, too young!" or even "How'd you get married too young, too young!"

Here's my visual breakdown of the dream sequence in Married Too Young.

In two weeks: From here on out, Ed Wood Wednesdays is going to a biweekly schedule. Why? Well, friends, I won't mince words. The cupboard is not entirely bare, but it's sure getting there. I have already covered all the movies reviewed in Rob Craig's Ed Wood, Mad Genius, plus a few more. What's left? Well, if we're strictly talking about movies that involved Ed Wood and were made during his lifetime, then to my knowledge I've reviewed everything that's currently available to the public on DVD and/or VHS. If you know of something I've skipped, please tell me about it. After that, what remains are the posthumous tribute films and documentaries. Movies I could cover include: The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1996), Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora (1994), Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion (1992), The Vampire's Tomb (2007), I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998), It Came from Hollywood (1980), and Ed Wood (1994). At this juncture, what I really need is some reader input. Do you have any interest in seeing this series continue? If so, what sorts of movies would you like to see included? Let me know in the comments section.