Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 36: "Wetbacks" (1956)

Ed Wood (maybe) tackles the immigration issue in 1956's Wetbacks. Sorry about that title, folks.

"Zero stars. Perfectly awful blundering situation comedy now dutifully noted by pop culture historians as one of the first series to use that classic TV 'pleasure enhancer,' the dubbed laugh track. You'll probably never see this show on the air, but if you spot it on some home video offering give it a fast scan. Then try to decide which programs needed this innovation the most, yesterday's slapstick or today's caustic innuendo."
-Review of The Hank McCune Show in Harry and Wally's Favorite TV Shows (Prentice Hall, 1989)

Comedian Hank McCune and his big ears.
Very few of us can say that we've left a permanent mark on popular culture, but Kansas City, MO native Hank McCune (born n 1917) could plausibly make such a claim.

If you were raised on television and take an odd sort of comfort in the sound of prerecorded laughter, be it on a 50-year-old episode of Gilligan's Island or a brand-new episode of The Big Bang Theory, you can thank McCune for leading the way in the use of this technology.

Hank's starring vehicle, a situation comedy called The Hank McCune Show, began as a local offering in New York in the fall of 1949 before making the great migration westward to California and a spot on NBC's coast-to-coast Saturday night lineup in September 1950. The program's laugh track was meant to simulate the raucous audiences for whom Hank had performed on the vaudeville circuit. The structure of the series, in which McCune played a fictionalized version of himself, closely resembled that of radio's The Jack Benny Program (1932-1955). That hugely popular series was just about to attempt a television adaptation when The Hank McCune Show came along. McCune, in fact, beat Benny to the national TV airwaves by over a month.

It's possible that NBC hired Hank McCune in anticipation of CBS-TV's The Jack Benny Show (1950-1965). McCune's show, like Benny's, was a backstage farce about a hapless, calamity-prone comedian with his own self-titled variety show. And, just like Benny, McCune had a stable of regular comedic foils. In fact, Frank Nelson—the slicked-back, pencil-mustachioed comedian famous for the catchphrase "Yeeeeee-essssss?" (as frequently parodied on The Simpsons)—appeared on both Hank and Jack's shows. Several of McCune's sidekicks, including Arthur Q. Bryan (aka the voice of Elmer Fudd) and Larry Keating (who later enjoyed a cozy run as neighbor Roger Addison on Mr. Ed), had quite respectable careers of their own.

But McCune was no match for Benny. Jack's more verbal brand of comedy played up his strangely endearing vanity and stinginess, while Hank was more of a generic slapstick buffoon whose only real distinguishing features were his oversized ears. Benny's show ran for a decade and a half, but McCune's counterpart series survived a mere six (some sources say seven) episodes spread out over a miserable 13 weeks, finally sputtering out on December 2, 1950. America, it would seem, said "thanks but no thanks" to Hank McCune. Today, even though it was one of the first TV series to be shot on film, The Hank McCune show is seldom if ever rerun.

In fact, the only clip of the show I could find was from a home video compilation from Rhino Home Video called TV Turkeys: The World's Worst Television Shows (1987) hosted by Skip Young from The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. This rather primitive production, an example of pop culture nostalgia in the pre-Internet era, may be of interest to Ed Wood fans because the opening credits feature music lifted directly from the dream sequence from Glen or Glenda (1953). For many years, before the mantle was passed to other companies, Rhino was the major distributor of Ed Wood's work on VHS. After the introduction by Young, you'll see McCune in action along with performances by both Larry Keating (acting as announcer) and Arthur Q. Bryan (who performs in a seagoing comedy skit with McCune). Enjoy:

McCune in The Go-Getter.
After the coast-to-coast failure of The Hank McCune Show, which was unable to compete against the likes of such kiddie fare as Sandy Dreams, Captain Video and Big Top, McCune himself was not quite finished in the entertainment business. As indicated by this vintage 1954 ad for Chicago's WBKB, McCune may have moved back to local television after flopping nationally. His show seems to have survived as Sunday afternoon programming aimed at a juvenile audience.

But McCune set his sights on the big screen as well. A pal of future B-movie bigwig Samuel Z. Arkoff, who had produced his failed TV series, Hank made a few underwhelming attempts at breaking into the picture business in the mid-1950s. In 1954, his innovative yet rejected series now a semi-distant memory, he resurfaced as the writer and producer of a forgotten film noir called  A Life at Stake, starring Angela Lansbury and Keith Andes. Two years later, he toplined a comedy called The Go-Getter (1956), whose cast included such familiar faces as Ray Collins (of Citizen Kane fame), Beverly Garland (who enjoyed a half-century of work in TV and film, including such classics as DOA and Pretty Poison), and even his old TV chum Arthur Q. Bryan.

That same year, however, came Hank McCune's final hurrah, at least on the national stage. Yes, the jug-eared comic finally got to direct a feature film. And that's where we come in, my dear readers. Because, you see, the screenplay for this feature film was credited to the mysterious "Peter LaRoche," who just may have been our very own Edward D. Wood, Jr. operating under a pseudonym. Rather than rehash the LaRoche saga, I will merely refer you back to my article about Revenge of the Virgins (1959). There, you will find all the information I have about this mysterious man. 

As for Mr. McCune, he largely fell off the radar after the 1950s. When his TV show bombed and his movie career languished, he switched careers and got into boat building. A website devoted to sailboats has this interesting biographical detail about the man's post-showbiz life:

Henry R. McCune, Shipbuilders 

Victory 21
In the early 1960s, actor Henry 'Hank' McCune of television's The Hank McCune Show (the first show to ever use a laugh track) left show business and became one of the earliest builder of fiberglass boats in the US. 
His yard was originally located in the Long Beach CA area. The best known models are VICTORY 21 and the ALL-AMERICAN 28 (designed by McCune). This latter boat, introduced in 1962, was an offshore racer that featured a fin keel and spade rudder. In the '60s McCune started building a series of cruising sailboats to his own design known as Olympians, the largest of which was 35 feet. Few of these seem to be still around. From a later, revamped lineup came the Yorktowns, many of which are still sailing. 
Another boat called the TALISMAN may well have come from a Yorktown mold. Many of the Yorktowns were sold in varying states of construction to be completed by the customer. 
Henry Russell McCune died at the age of 88 in Bend, Oregon on May 16, 2005. In keeping with his later profession, he was buried at sea. In fact, his love of boats may have fueled his interest in the movie we are reviewing this week.


Vintage lobby cards promoting Hank McCune's immigration drama Wetbacks.

Alternate titles: Shockingly, none. But, then again, there is no record of Wetbacks playing anywhere outside the United States.

Availability: The film is currently available on DVD-R (Sinister Cinema, 2009) for under ten bucks from Amazon or $13 directly from the manufacturer. Additionally, you can stream the film right now through Amazon Instant Video. It's two bucks to rent and ten to purchase. Amazon Prime subscribers can watch it for free should they so desire. By the way, even though the film's advertising proclaims that it is in color, the print I saw was decidedly black-and-white. Though not outstandingly sharp in picture quality, the movie has been moderately well preserved and is quite watchable.

The title sequence from Wetbacks (1956).
The backstory: If there is one thing the bottom-feeders of popular culture love to do, it's to take a controversial social issue and exploit the ever-loving hell out of it in the name of cheap entertainment, usually ignoring all the subtleties in favor of shock value. "Torn from today's headlines" has long been a potent cliche in film and television advertising. Surprisingly, some of yesterday's headlines still seem pretty current in 2014, since the American people are paranoid about some of the exact same issues today as they were when Eisenhower was in office. Has so little changed in the ensuing half-century? Perhaps.

Take the issue of immigration, for example. The word "immigration" itself is a polite euphemism, meant to cover up the racial hatred at the very heart of the matter. Let's speak plainly for a moment. What we mean when we say "immigration" is Mexicans, and the general fear among American citizens is that undocumented workers from south of the border will enter our country illegally, take our jobs away from us by working cheaply and off the books, and suckle at the teat of good old Uncle Sam all the while. As heated as the debate is now, it may have been even more prickly in the mid-1950s, by which point Mexican immigration had been increasing exponentially for over a decade, following the end of World War II.

I would guess that, for most white Americans in the 1950s, Mexicans were about as welcome in America as laser-gun-toting Martians. The rash of '50s alien invasion flicks is often seen as a side effect of the Cold War, with the unwelcome visitors from outer space standing in for the hated Russkies (some of whom were clever enough to infiltrate our society by mimicking our ways). But perhaps there was an element of racism in it as well. I say that because of the title sequence from this week's movie. We've just watched a smuggler shoot and kill an immigration officer who was trying to prevent him from sneaking Mexicans into our country when suddenly the word Wetbacks zooms onto the screen, written in a jagged-looking font and accompanied by intense, disturbing music on the soundtrack. It might as well say Invasion the Lizard People or something along those lines.

I suppose this is the time to discuss the now-incendiary title of this movie. The term "wetbacks" dates back to at least the 1920s, when it appeared in The New York Times, and originally referred to Mexicans who entered Texas by crossing the Rio Grande. Over the decades, it took on a more generalized meaning and became simply an ethnic slur for Mexicans. Today, it is considered extremely hateful and crude. Back in 1956, however, it may still have had some level of respectability... at least from the Anglo-Saxon perspective.

In 1954, as improbable as it sounds today, the United States government launched an initiative called Operation Wetback, a project whose aim was the mass deportation of undocumented Mexicans from America. The Texas State Historical Association calls it "repatriation" and tries to put the best possible spin on it, pointing out that the Mexican agricultural workers were being exploited by Americans. So this was all done in their best interest! Only towards the end of its article on the subject does the TSHA acknowledge, almost as an afterthought, that "critics of Operation Wetback considered it xenophobic and heartless."

If you plan on viewing Wetbacks, and I don't necessarily recommend that you do, you should know in advance that the word "wetbacks" is used frequently by all the white characters in the film, both heroes and villains alike, but it is used neutrally and does not seem to have any racist intent behind it.

Was To Have & Have Not the blueprint?
What's important for our purposes is that a shit-storm was brewing, and Hollywood wanted to cash in on it somehow. Enter Hank McCune, the pupils of his eyes no doubt morphing into dollar signs. According to the IMDb, even though "Pete LaRoche" is the only credited screenwriter on this film, McCune himself was (anonymously) responsible for this film's story. He seems to have gotten it third- or fourth-hand, though. In 1937, you see, Ernest Hemingway wrote a novel called To Have and Have Not, in which a morally-upright sea captain named Harry Morgan is forced by economic necessity to smuggle Chinese immigrants aboard his fishing boat into Florida, among other illegal activities.

In 1944, Hemingway's book was loosely adapted into an incredibly successful Warner Bros. film, directed by Howard Hawks, co-written by William Faulkner, and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In the movie version, a world-weary fishing boat captain named Harry Morgan (Bogart) again becomes a smuggler out of economic necessity and ends up bringing members of the French Resistance into Martinique. In 1950, Harry Morgan was back, this time played by John Garfield in Michael Curtiz's The Breaking Point, again for Warner Bros. Only after all of these incarnations did Hank McCune's Wetbacks appear. It would seem that Hank merely took a very familiar and well-worn template and applied it to a then-current news story, bringing in Pete LaRoche to flesh it out into a full-length screenplay.

In the most basic terms, Wetbacks is about a very Bogart-esque sea captain named Jim Benson, portrayed by Lloyd Bridges, who is about to lose his fishing boat for non-payment and then finds himself forced by criminals at gunpoint to use his small-but-sturdy vessel to carry "wetbacks" from the small Mexican village of Delgado to San Diego, CA. If you'd like a more detailed, spoiler-heavy description of what happens in Wetbacks, I refer you to TCM's site.

It should be pointed out here that the film goes out of its way to portray the smugglers, not the Mexicans themselves, as the true villains. One U.S. Immigration Bureau official calls them "the most vicious kind of human scavengers." And the film's #1 baddie, Bodine (John Hoyt, familiar to TV viewers as Grandpa Kanisky on Gimme a Break!), is a gringo. The immigration officials consistently maintain that they're working in the best interest of the Mexican laborers, and the script includes several positive Mexican characters, including friendly bartender Alfonso (Nacho Galindo) and helpful moppet Pedro (David Colmans), who acts as a sidekick to Lloyd Bridges.

Overall, then, Wetbacks is not nearly as insulting and racist as you might think a movie with that title would be, though it's far from politically correct and would not exactly be the greatest selection for a Cinco de Mayo movie marathon.

Familiar faces: Tom Keene (left); I. Stanford Jolley (right)
Is there any hint of Ed Wood in Wetbacks? That is for his fans to decide after watching the film. We'll discuss the overall tone of the movie in greater detail in the "viewing experience" section of the review, but let me say that this is standard-issue hackwork, borderline-competent but largely unremarkable, the kind of paint-by-numbers job that just about anyone could have done. As I've already stated, the plot of this movie was stale before it got anywhere near Ed Wood or Pete LaRoche. For what it's worth, Eddie didn't bother adding this title—or any of the other LaRoche flicks, for that matter—to his curriculum vitae.

However, there are quite a few people in the cast and crew of Wetbacks with connections to Wood. Perhaps most obviously, one of Wood's long-time cronies, Ronald V. Ashcroft, with whom Eddie worked on both Night of the Ghouls (1959) and The Astounding She-Monster (1957), was the editor of Wetbacks. Scott Douglas, who narrated She-Monster, is an immigration officer here.

The cast also includes Tom Keene, who had major starring roles in several Ed Wood productions, including Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), Crossroad Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid (1953), and The Sun Was Setting (1951). A one-time cowboy actor, Keene was a personal hero of Ed's and owes most of his lasting fame to his appearances in Wood's 1950s films. The ubiquitous I. Stanford Jolley, who appeared in such Wood-related films as The Baron of Arizona (1950) and The Violent Years (1956), makes yet another appearance in Wetbacks.

Les Baxter, who composed the score for The Bride and the Beast (1958), wrote the music for this one as well. And viewers familiar with Boris Petroff's The Unearthly (1957), which has a tenuous Ed Wood connection via Tor Johnson's "Lobo" character, may recognize character actor Roy Gordon, who turns up in this film in the role of "Hoppy."

So even if Ed Wood had nothing to do with this film, he would have been very familiar with the folks listed in the opening credits. For its part, Sinister Cinema does not invoke the name of Edward D. Wood, Jr. in its brief listing for the film, but the company's website does acknowledge that "the script is a little flaky." Could that be a sly hint that they know about the film's Wood-ian origins?

Lloyd Bridges and Nancy Gates make coffee.
The viewing experience: Largely a shrug. Despite its combative title and potentially explosive theme, Wetbacks is not particularly memorable or interesting in any way that I noticed during two viewings. It's just another low-budget, generic action thriller from the middle Fifties, the kind of movie that exhibitors used to call a "programmer" because it could conceivably play at the top or bottom of a drive-in bill. With a milder title, something like Incident at Delgado or They Made Me a Smuggler, it could have been turned into a relatively snoozy episode of MST3K. Instead, the name Wetbacks likely keeps it mired in obscurity.

The too-infrequent action sequences are convincingly if unimaginatively staged, and certain viewers may appreciate that this film climaxes with a combination car chase/fistfight/boat chase. A real smorgasbord, this one. Visually, there's not much upon which to comment. Wetbacks contains a fair amount of location footage -- including scenes shot at a beach at night and a marina in the day -- but I doubt that the filmmakers got too far away from California for this, including the passages that supposedly take place in Mexico. Perhaps even San Diego is "played" by Los Angeles, since very little of either city's local color is on display here. Certainly, the fictional Mexican village of "Delgado" is fabricated from a few exterior facades and a handful of sets, all of them disappointingly drab and workaday.

If there is a reason for modern-day viewers to queue up Wetbacks, it is to see Lloyd Bridges, an actor who was a Hollywood mainstay for over six decades in film and television. A native Californian, Lloyd was in his early forties and about 20 years into his movie career when he made Wetbacks, and his signature role as "Mike Nelson" on the syndicated underwater adventure series Sea Hunt (1958-1961) was still a few years away. And it would take a few more decades until Lloyd appeared in the landmark disaster movie spoof Airplane! (1980)*, in which he would quite memorably spoof his serious image ("Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue!") and thus would go on to land some memorable late-career roles in comedies, including Hot Shots! (1991) and TV's Seinfeld, where he snagged an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of grizzled would-be bruiser Izzy Mendelbaum.

For Lloyd Bridges, Wetbacks was probably just another assignment, a few days of work in a career that lasted many years without any significant dry spells. By 1956, he had already perfected the world-weary squint Rene Auberjonois would later imitate in The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). Lloyd Bridges has to carry this movie almost single-handedly, serving as its Bogart-inspired antihero turned regular hero. The script, I'm sorry to report, doesn't give him a great deal of assistance. (Sorry, Ed... or Pete.)

Bridges' best moments come in his banter-heavy interactions early in the film with costars Nancy Gates (mostly a TV actress who had bit parts in The Magnificent Ambersons and The Greatest Show on Earth) and Barton MacLane (who appeared alongside the real Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and High Sierra but is probably best known as "General Patterson" on TV's I Dream of Jeannie). Gates and MacLane portray, respectively, a flirty young lady named Sally Parker and a beer-guzzling blowhard named Karl Shanks who pretend to charter Bridges' fishing boat for an expedition, even though they're really working for the immigration department as part of a plot to use the sea captain to get to the smugglers.

Once Gates becomes a legitimate love interest for Bridges, the actress immediately drops her smart-alecky "gun moll"-type persona and becomes a run-of-the mill ingenue. Unfortunately, that deflates the movie somewhat, but Bridges and Gates have some nice little moments in the early stages of the game, as when he shows her how to make coffee aboard his boat or when they both wind up stranded and near-penniless in Delgado and spend a long evening in a bar there, swapping stories.
* In a truly bizarre coincidence, a running joke near the end of Wetbacks is very similar to one from Airplane! During the final boat chase, one of the Mexicans keeps poking his head in from below deck to check on the action. He does this one last time after the danger is long over, just like Leslie Nielsen does in the famous 1980 comedy.

Scofflaws: Bodine (John  Hoyt) and Ortega (Harold Peary).
But what does any of this have to do with Edward D. Wood, Jr.? Though there isn't a great deal of evidence linking Eddie to this particular movie, I wouldn't be terribly surprised to learn that the script for Wetbacks was churned out by the author of Jail Bait (1954). After immersing myself in Wood's work for months on end, I am now hypersensitive to any traces of the man's personality that may surface in his writing. It is very possible that I am seeing Ed Wood where there is no Ed Wood to be seen. However, Wetbacks definitely shares some DNA with Eddie's other creations.

Take its structure. Though the plot is largely concerned with boat captain Jim Benson, there is a framing story about the U.S. Department of Immigration and its diligent efforts to curb illegal immigration from Mexico. In practice, this means that we spend a fair amount of screen time with square-jawed, suit-wearing men who discuss the plot while sitting in very dull, nondescript offices with maps on the wall. Ed Wood  structured many of his films and novels as police procedurals, and he frequently had cutaways to government and military officials, too. So the "immigration department" scenes from Wetbacks, though not as quirky, have a vaguely Plan 9-esque feel to them.

Ed's frequent muse, alcohol, is another important motif in the film. The character of Karl Shanks seems to be a boozer, and he even sabotages poor Jim's boat by pouring beer in the gas tank. Later, Jim and Sally really get to know each other over drinks while stranded in Delgado. Until his last few years, when he just had his hooch delivered from the nearby Pla-Boy liquor store to his grungy "Yucca Flats" apartment, Ed Wood was a prodigious barfly. His characters spent a lot of time at bars, too, especially the hard-drinking folks in the Stephen Apostolof films of the 1970s.

Most of all, however, what shines through in Wetbacks is Ed Wood's unflagging conservatism. A super-patriotic ex-Marine, Eddie was 100% on the side of law and order and vehemently opposed to anything remotely subversive or counter-cultural. Somehow, his reactionary worldview made exceptions for alcoholism, cross-dressing, and pornography. As critic Mark Craig aptly put it, Eddie was both a prude and a libertine. When the boring government guys rail against the evils of immigration in this movie, it really feels like their words are coming directly from straight-arrow Ed. It's significant that the hero of Wetbacks, Jim Benson, considers using his boat for illegal smuggling only out of absolute financial necessity... and even then, he decides against it! It's only when the film's villain, Bodine, has a gun trained at him that Benson agrees to sneak some Mexicans into the United States on his boat.

Hands down, the film's squarest and most Wood-ian moment comes in this exchange of dialogue between Bodine and Benson, with the former trying to sweet talk the latter into subverting the law. In this scene, set below deck aboard Jim's fishing boat, Bodine is accompanied by his main henchman, a cheerful, smiling Mexican named Juan Ortega (Harold Peary, a prolific TV sitcom actor of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s). The criminals try to rationalize their actions, but Lloyd Bridges is having none of it. Just listen:
Ortega: Well, senor! (laughs) We have been waiting! 
Benson: Don't you guys ever give up? 
Bodine: You know, Benson, for a man in your position, look, I don't understand your attitude. We wanna make some money for you. 
Ortega: Si! All we want you to do is run a few Mexicans into the United States! 
Benson: Oh, so that's it, huh? 
Bodine: That's all. 
Benson: Well, goodbye, boys. (testily) Come on, let's go! 
Bodine: Look, let me put it this way. We don't force anybody. See, these poor laborers come to us, begging for a chance to get across. You know the money they make gives them an opportunity for some sort of a start! 
Ortega: Es verdad, senor. We don't harm anybody. All we want to do is arrange things around so everybody is happy. 
Benson: Except the two respective governments. What about violating international law? 
Bodine: Well, Benson, you're smart enough to know that there are some laws which do more harm than good. Well, like the Prohibition Law from years ago! 
Benson: (with grim determination) That's your opinion, not mine.
Jack Webb couldn't have said it any better. Cue the Dragnet theme.

In two weeks: It's another suggestion from reader Douglas North, aka hifithepanda! Much of this project has been devoted to covering the so-called Ed Wood Apocrypha, but they don't come much more apocryphal than the next film in the rotation. After a few relatively wholesome articles, I'm diving feet first into sex, sin, and the Seventies once again in the form of a pornographic feature from 1972 starring our old pals, Rene Bond and Ric Lutze, aka the Barbie and Ken of skin flicks. Remember them? Rick Cassidy from The Cocktail Hostesses is back, too, in case you had missed him. 
And what is this film's connection to Edward D. Wood, Jr.? Well, an anonymous reader suggested to Philip R. Fry of Ed Wood Online that the movie was written and directed by Ed. And that's literally all the documentation there is. I've asked Philip about this one, and even he has no idea about it. But I watched a few minutes and decided it was bizarre enough to merit inclusion in this series. So include it I shall. Be back here in 14 short days for a look at the charmingly-titled Bloomer Girl (1972).