|It Came from Hollywood... and went to videodisc somewhere along the line, apparently.|
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
-Percy Bysshe Shelley
"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment."
|Ramesses II on display in the UK.|
One such likeness, called the Younger Memnon, was shipped off to the British Museum about two-hundred years ago and is still there now. It's object EA19, if you're interested. It was this particular piece, eight feet tall and carved in over seven tons of granite, along with the inscription on another massive statue of Ramesses, that inspired British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to compose his famous sonnet, Ozymandias, in 1817. In Shelley's poem, a statue of the once-great ruler stands abandoned and forlorn in the desert. All that remains are "two vast and trunkless legs of stone," a "shattered visage," and a pedestal upon which is carved a boastful message about the importance of this long-dead man and his triumphs. These accomplishments have obviously been erased by time, however, since the shattered relic is surrounded on all sides by a bleak and barren landscape.
Interestingly, Shelley gives us all this information third-hand, so to speak. The narrator of Ozymandias tells us that "a traveler" once described the scene to him, and now he is passing the story along to us. The point of the poem, I think, is that Ozymandias is a chump. At least, that's the way Shelley sees it. The pharaoh thought he had it all figured out, lording over his magnificent empire that was supposed to last forever. And now, all that's left of it is a busted-up statue in some crummy desert. Time, Shelley implies, has neutered Ozymandias. In his lifetime, he accomplished a great deal, but in the long run it was all for naught.
Percy Shelley's brief life was also pockmarked by scandals -- expulsions, suicides, charges of blasphemy -- yet his work has survived at least two centuries and seems good for at least a few more. I can't imagine high school English teachers dropping Ozymandias from the curriculum anytime soon. We can all rest assured that students will be writing perfunctory, semi-incoherent essays about it for years to come. And what about the inspiration himself, Ramesses II? Sure, his empire didn't last forever, and his statue is just another exhibit at which tourists will likely gawk for a few moments before heading to the gift shop. But here we are, three millennia hence, and I'm still puzzling over him. Percy and Woody have a long way to go to catch up to Ozzy in terms of longevity. So maybe he wasn't such a chump after all. He didn't live on the way he wanted, but he did endure after a fashion.
|Columbus' reputation is fading.|
In the oddest of coincidences, both Christopher Columbus and Edward D. Wood, Jr. died at the age of 54. Ed is another case of a man whose reputation has taken some weird detours after his demise. The debate over Eddie's image has continued for decades now. Who was Ed Wood, Jr., exactly? A drunk and transvestite who made the worst movies of all time? A mad, misunderstood genius? A misguided but sincere outsider artist? A martyr? A fool? The film I'm covering this week, Paramount's comedic semi-documentary It Came from Hollywood, played a not-insignificant role in shaping the legend of Ed Wood in the early 1980s. In this motion picture, released only four years after Eddie's untimely death, the man's life and work are represented through the merest of remnants -- brief clips, a few questionable factoids, and some comedic conjecture.
These fragments strike me as the equivalent of the "trunkless legs of stone" described by Shelley. They don't give you the whole picture, certainly, but they do offer some insight to the life and times of a noteworthy individual. This isn't Ozymandias. It's Eddie-mandias.
IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD (1982)
Alternate titles: Direct from Hollywood (Venezuelan title)
Availability: Naturally, because of all the clips it contains, It Came from Hollywood is rather a nightmare from a copyright standpoint. Paramount intended on releasing it to DVD circa 2002, and one can still locate official-looking cover art for the disc. Due to rights issues, however, this DVD never made it to market. Used copies are still available in other formats, however. You can still purchase the film on VHS ($34) or laserdisc ($60) through Amazon. Additionally, a site that specializes in "Rare, Out of Print and Lost Cult Films on DVD," markets a DVD-R of the movie for $20. I have never dealt with this site and cannot say how reputable it is. Caveat emptor.
Additionally, an iOffer user named doctorkildare366 is selling it for $14. Used copies in a variety of formats -- VHS, laserdisc, and video disc -- are up for bid on Ebay, with prices ranging from $22 to $60. If that's out of your price range, the entire film has been uploaded to YouTube.
|NYC's (sadly) long-gone Sutton Theatre|
In the vast parade of motion pictures,
there are a few that marched to a different drummer.
Some were one of a kind originals.
Like "Citizen Kane."
Some told their story on a wide emotional canvas.
Like "The Godfather."
Some were provocatively bold, thumbing their noses at convention.
Some were lost, like "Napoleon."
They all had one thing in common.
They were different, more special than the other movies around them.
Beginning on April 1st at 8:00 P.M.
The Sutton Theatre and
Paramount Pictures Presents
Edward D. Wood, Jr's
"Glenn or Glenda."
|An ancestor of It Came from Hollywood|
These particular movies, born of both Cold War paranoia and the rise of the American teenager as a cultural force, had a unique and potent effect on viewers of the 1980s, who reacted to them with a combination of befuddlement, incredulity, delight, and cynical superiority. The supreme and definitive expression of this phenomenon, television's Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999), would not arrive for several more years. In the meantime, Paramount gamely bankrolled an unusual "grab-bag"-type compilation film consisting of clips of dozens of these movies, interspersed with newly-shot vignettes featuring top comedians of the era.
The result, It Came from Hollywood, certainly stood out from the rest of Paramount's 1982 release schedule, which included 48 Hrs., Some Kind of Hero, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. There were a few Paramount films that year that spoofed the cinema of the past, including Airplane II: The Sequel and Jekyll and Hyde... Together Again.
This movie's clearest antecedent, however, was from another studio entirely: MGM's massively successful That's Entertainment (1974). That film, a surprise $19 million box-office hit, was a tribute to the golden days of movie musicals and consisted of clips from vintage films, interspersed with newly-shot introductions featuring such familiar stars as Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, and Liz Taylor. It Came from Hollywood was structured vaguely along those lines, only minus the reverence. Like That's Entertainment before it, this new film was a "greatest hits" reel of a particular chapter of movie history and also contained freshly-minted interstitial material.
In this case, however, the presenters were comedians who had come up through National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live and the Second City franchise in the 1970s and were poised to become major movie stars in the 1980s. And instead of offering fond reminiscences and pertinent background information about the films they were exhibiting, as the co-hosts had in That's Entertainment, the stars of It Came from Hollywood performed in madcap comedy sketches and offered smart-alecky comments about the various brief clips. Some of these cheeky remarks, in fact, were used as narration over the clips themselves, making It Came an apparent predecessor of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Perhaps we can think of this movie as a missing link between MST3K and some earlier efforts at redubbing and repurposing movies for comedic effect, including Jay Ward's television series Fractured Flickers (1963-1964) and Woody Allen's feature, What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966).
|Solt and Leo's Elvis doc.|
As for the star-studded cast, the first three comedians recruited for the film were all Second City alumni who had attained national fame through television. Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner had only recently left Saturday Night Live, while John Candy was still a cast member on SCTV, the shape-shifting sketch series then airing in a 90-minute block on NBC. Candy had already had prominent roles in The Blues Brothers (1980) and Stripes (1981), but according to biographer Martin Knelman in his book, Laughing on the Inside: The Life of John Candy (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998), the comedian's TV workload (he stayed with SCTV in one form or another from 1976-1983) had put a crimp in his burgeoning film career:
Because he had been consumed with SCTV, 1982 was the only year in which Candy did not have a movie coming out, except for It Came from Hollywood -- a forgettable anthology of clips from amusingly dreadful movies about aliens. Candy was one of the narrators, along with Cheech and Chong, Gilda Radner, and Dan Aykroyd. Candy's main contribution was to make jokes putting down that prodigious director of cheap, amateurish movies, Ed Wood. But the jokes seemed every bit as tacky as Ed's movies.As for Cheech and Chong, the only performers in the film outside the Second City bubble, their appearance seems to have been an afterthought by a worried studio. In Cheech & Chong, The Unauthorized Autobiography (Simon and Schuster, 2008), Tommy Chong tells an anecdote about going to Vancouver Island for his mother's funeral, only to be met there by two Paramount executives, who had chartered a Cessna to track him down. After expressing their condolences, they gave him a pitch:
"We need a favor from you and Cheech. Cheech is already onboard. So now we need a favor from you. We are doing a movie, a spoof actually, about Hollywood. It's called It Came from Hollywood and we need you and Cheech to do a cameo. And like I said, Cheech is already onboard, so..."So for Cheech and Chong, whose partnership was nearing its end, this was a pleasant experience on the back half of their career. (The duo broke up in 1985.) It Came from Hollywood was not a complete commercial failure, as I had remembered. It grossed $2 million on what must have been a very modest budget. The new segments were all shot within the confines of Paramount Studios in L.A., with only a few rudimentary interior sets (a movie theater, an operating room, a suburban home) and exteriors that were obviously filmed on the backlot, with its permanent cluster of fake-looking buildings. After a brief theatrical run, it enjoyed a fairly healthy afterlife on VHS and cable before disappearing into obscurity. In a truly bizarre coincidence, the film opened two days before Halloween in Los Angeles but did not go national until December 10, 1982 -- the fourth anniversary of Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s death.
"Sure. I would be glad to be in your movie," I answered. I still wondered why they went through all this trouble.
The very next morning bright and early, we boarded the little Cessna and flew to Seattle, Washington, and then took a commercial flight to Los Angeles. The "we" being Jeffrey Katzenberg, Larry Marks, and me. Katzenberg was one of the top guns at Paramount at the time. The movie It Came from Hollywood was in trouble and needed some star power to put some butts in the seats. Cheech and Chong were the hottest movie stars at the time, so Jeffrey flew to Vancouver Island to get my support. [...] Cheech and I shot our part in It Came from Hollywood in one afternoon, ad-libbing the entire shoot and having a ball with the rest of the celebrity cast -- Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, and Gilda Radner among them.
|Ed Wood gets a posthumous "salute" from Paramount.|
In fact, about 22 minutes into the film, there is an entire segment entirely devoted to the infamous auteur entitled "A Salute to Edward D. Wood, Jr." This passage is anchored by John Candy, who begins by delivering the following monologue directly to the camera while standing amid a variety of props, including a flying saucer:
One man who usually gets singled out when people talk about third or fourth-rate movies is Ed Wood, the man who brought you such classics as Glen or Glenda? and the science-fiction epic Plan 9 from Outer Space, which could have used this flying saucer here. As a matter of fact, I'd like to present a salute to Ed Wood, a true master of the B-movies. Well, D-movies. You judge for yourself.Candy then shows the audience a few representative excerpts from Plan 9 and Glenda, remarking on the chintzy special effects ("You can hardly see that string!") and unconvincing acting ("Oh, look at the motivation! The deep concern! The confusion! Marvelous performance!"), but also mixing in a few factoids about Ed and his career, information likely cribbed directly from the Medveds' book. Some of what Candy says is accurate. Yes, Ed wrote and directed these films and played the lead in Glen. Yes, that's a shower curtain in the cockpit from Plan 9. Yes, Ed used his wife's chiropractor as a stand-in for the late Bela Lugosi. Some of the information, though, is the stuff of urban legends. No, Plan 9 was not made for $37 and those flying saucers are not hubcaps.
Generally, the clips here are well-chosen -- Duke Moore scratching himself with his gun; wobbly UFOs zooming past a matte painting; Dolores Fuller dramatically removing her sweater -- the kinds of memorable moments that would make strong impressions on viewers who had never seen Ed's work before. By far, though, the most stunning aspect of "A Salute to Edward D. Wood, Jr." is its ending, in which a bra-wearing Dan Aykroyd joins John Candy onscreen and the two comedians, their voices dripping with mock sincerity, re-enact the crucial "angora sweater hand-off" scene from the climax of Glen or Glenda? before zooming off in Aykroyd's motorcycle.
|Dan Aykroyd (left) and John Candy re-enact the climax of Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda?|
And this surreal scene is far from the only Ed Wood-related content in It Came from Hollywood. In fact, clips of Eddie's work are interspersed throughout the entire film.. and not just the familiar titles like Plan 9 and Glenda, but the obscure ones as well, including The Violent Years, The Bride and the Beast, and even Married Too Young. The very first glimpse of Plan 9 arrives about two minutes into the proceedings, with a clip of Dudley Manlove and Joanna Lee as aliens Eros and Tanna prompting this reaction from a baffled Tommy Chong: "I want my money back!"
In a later segment sarcastically called "Technical Triumphs," John Candy offers some whimsical thoughts on the production values of Ed's Bride of the Monster. He describes a laboratory scene between mad scientist Bela Lugosi and test subject Tony McCoy thusly: "A man with a spaghetti strainer strapped to his head gets tortured by a photo enlarger on a microphone stand." Maybe not the greatest compliment in the world, but this is (again) one of the rare instances in which the stars of It Came from Hollywood bothers to name one of the movies he is mocking. Ed Wood might have very well appreciated the fact that he was getting some name recognition from a major studio production like this. After all, there's no such thing as bad publicity, right?
*Interestingly, one of the editors who labored on this movie was Janice Hampton, who was John Waters' resident cutter from Hairspray (1988) to Pecker (1998).
|The ill-fated DVD release.|
Personally, that last point bothered me more in theory than in practice, since the jokes lobbed at these movies throughout It Came from Hollywood are strictly softballs. "On Earth, we throw a dog a bone. We don't turn him into bones," goes one of Dan Aykroyd's typically toothless non-zingers after witnessing an alien casually dispose of a defenseless pooch with a laser gun.
The script for It Came is credited to comedian and writer Dana Olsen, whose CV includes such cartoon-to-screen adaptations as George of the Jungle and Inspector Gadget. Olsen is currently working for an upcoming Nickelodeon series called Henry Danger. As you'd expect from those credits, Olsen's work here is innocuous -- amiable, if not exactly funny. (To his credit, Olsen has also written screenplays for beloved cult directors like John Carpenter, Greydon Clark, and Joe Dante.) Given the improvisational backgrounds of literally all the film's stars, it's difficult to say how much of the finished movie can truly be attributed to its screenwriter.
By any yardstick, however, the sketches in It Came from Hollywood are fairly weak, and the commentary by John Candy and the others is fairly puerile and witless. The clips themselves are the true stars here. The comedians mostly get in the way. I will say, though, that the hosts genuinely appear to be having fun, which in turn made this film more fun for me as a viewer. Aykroyd gets to ham it up as a German-accented mad scientist. Gilda Radner trots out her famous "Judy Miller" character, a hyperactive and talkative child, from Saturday Night Live. She also stars in one of the more successful interstitial routines, portraying a hapless housewife who all but destroys her own living room trying to heed the urgent advice of a radio announcer. And Cheech and Chong chortle at the pitifully-inaccurate depiction of the dope-smoking lifestyle in Reefer Madness (1936), with Chong pointing out that the potheads in that film don't hold the smoke in their lungs but just puff and puff.
|John Candy: Canadian sincerity.|
Make no mistake: It Came From Hollywood is a PG-rated major studio comedy aimed at a broad audience. The actors in it are clearly playing to the gallery, to borrow an idiom from the theater.
Perhaps for more timid viewers, It Came could serve as a "gateway drug" to MST3K or at least a "sampler platter" of the sci-fi and horror flicks of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. If only the clips were better labeled, this would be a terrific "what to see next" guide for adventurous viewers. In addition, It Came from Hollywood is recommended to Ed Wood fans, as it is one of the first mainstream acknowledgements of the Wood cult, more than a decade before the famous Tim Burton-directed biopic. Although the principal point of this movie was to hold Ed and his work up for ridicule, it is difficult to become too offended by It Came from Hollywood.
A lot of that has to do with the onscreen persona of the late John Candy, who was one of the most gregarious and ingratiating screen personalities of the 1980s. With his tousled hair and rumpled, loose-fitting attire, Candy very much resembles an overgrown kid in this movie. And there's a touch of humble Canadian sincerity to this ostensibly comedic monologue, which Candy delivers about two-thirds of the way through:
You know, up until this point, there's been a lot of laughing and sneering going on, directed at some of the films we've been watching. And I've gotta admit, I've been laughing a bit myself. Thing is, you've gotta keep an open mind about these things. Most of these guys were working under a very tiny budget. And when that's the case, even the most fundamental things become difficult, if not impossible. Like makeup and wardrobe. Just because you can't afford the best doesn't mean it's bad filmmaking.I'm sure Eddie would have agreed very heartily with that sentiment. After all, he knew from first-hand experience just how true those words were.
In two weeks: My humble little "Ed Wood Wednesdays" series takes a tuneful detour with its first album review. "The sick musical flowering of a twenty-year obsession with the extraordinary life, work, and sexual paraphilia of Ed Wood, Jr., pornographer, war-hero, director of unspeakable celluloid tortures, big-time lush and cross-dressing angora adorer." So says the ad for a bizarre concept LP about Poughkeepsie's favorite son. And it was created by a musician and journalist of some prominence, no less! How could I resist such a trinket? Mosey on back here in a fortnight, folks, when I sink my fangs into Josh Alan Friedman's The Worst! (2007)