Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 46: 'The Undergraduate' (1971)

Lessons in love: Professor Collins (John Dullaghan) instructs his students about sex in The Undergraduate.

Betsy: You've got to be kidding.
Travis: What?
Betsy: This is a dirty movie.
Travis: No, no, this is, this is a movie that, uh, a lot of couples come to. All kinds of couples go here.
Betsy: Are you sure about that?
Travis: Sure. I've seen 'em all the time.

-dialogue from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976)
Remember this dude? Yeah, that's been my life lately.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am sick. And I don't mean "sick" in the sense of "perverted or deranged," though I may be those things. That's for society to determine, I guess. And I don't mean "sick" in the sense of "sick and tired of writing about Ed Wood." That could never happen. No, I mean "sick" as in since last Wednesday, my life has been like one non-stop Nyquil commercial without the upbeat ending. I somehow came down with the mother of all summer colds that day, and it's been hanging around for a good, long spell ever since.

Other than to go to work or the grocery store, I haven't gotten out of bed much in the last few days. My head feels like a block of concrete. Glue runs through my veins rather than blood. And the rest of my body has been converted into an extremely efficient factory for the production of mucous. I am fairly drowning in a river of snot, to borrow a turn of phrase from John Waters' Female Trouble. I am writing this paragraph through the haze of weak over-the-counter cold remedies that serve only to scramble the mind as they leave one's symptoms unscathed. A humidifier gurgles in the background, and there is a wastebasket right by the bed for those too-frequent times when I need to hack up phlegm. I have all the strength and stamina of a wad of chewed gum.

I tell you these things not to engage your sympathies, though I will gladly accept your pity, but rather to give you some insight into the creation of this particular entry of the "Ed Wood Wednesdays" series. Right now is an exciting time for the Ed Wood fan. Lots of previously-lost material is being re-released, and I wish I were fully awake and alert enough right now to enjoy it. But that's not how this particular cookie crumbled. As it happens, I am writing this article from a cocoon of illness, slumped in my sick bed like a neglected rag doll. Everything seems a bit hazy and distant, and it is difficult for me to concentrate on any particular task for too long before nodding off.

But I have a new Ed Wood DVD to review, goddamnit, and neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will stay this courier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds. I suppose what I'm asking is that you, the reader, grade this particular article on a generous curve.

And speaking of generous curves...

Feeling collegiate yet? The title screen from The Undergraduate has nothing to do with the rest of the movie.

The sleeve for ABA's new edition of The Undergraduate.
Alternate titles: None of which I am aware. However, a few reviews imply that this film is a follow-up to a movie called The Postgraduate Course in Sexual Love (1970), which also stars John Dullaghan as Professor Collins. Whether the two films share any footage, I do not know.

Availability: This movie is now available as part of a series of Ed Wood reissues from Alpha Blue Archives. You can order it directly from them right here. For some reason, Amazon doesn't have it in stock right now, but that may change.

The backstory: Do you happen to know what Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. has to say about The Undergraduate? Well, I've saved you the trouble of looking it up. On page 212 of this 230-page book, in the otherwise-lavishly-annotated filmography section, it clearly states:
Jacques Descent Productions
Screenplay: Ed Wood
That's a fountain of information, man. That's a geyser. I mean, woah, daddy. Stand back, man. And that is, quite literally, the only reference to The Undergraduate in Grey's entire book. Clearly, this is going to be one of those times when I have to piece together some semblance of "the truth" from whatever table scraps of knowledge are available to me. I will admit at this juncture that I am not the world's leading authority on pornographic films from the early 1970s. Fortunately, there are folks on the Internet who have devoted more of their lives to this topic than I have, and it is upon their shoulders that I must stand this week. I thank you, noble scholars of pornography.

A poster for Kroger Babb's Mom and Dad.
The term that affixes itself like a particularly stubborn barnacle to the hull of this movie is "white-coater." Named for the traditional garment worn by a physician, a white-coater is a pornographic or sexploitation film, usually presented in documentary form, which purports to be educational in nature rather than salacious. This shady subgenre exists largely out of legal gamesmanship on the part of crafty filmmakers. If hauled in front of a judge on obscenity charges, the producer of a white-coater could claim that his movie was made to educate rather than titillate viewers. And the disingenuous strategy seems to have worked!

Though I cannot pinpoint an exact starting date for this subgenre, the earliest example of the form I can recall is the sensational and controversial Mom and Dad (1945), produced by Kroger Babb and directed by William "One-Shot" Beaudine. This film, which incorporated footage of live births (both natural and Caesarian) and played to gender-segregated audiences, was "the consensus top-grossing picture of 1947," according to the Internet Movie Database. John Waters has speculated that part of Mom and Dad's success was due to the fact that Babb had found a way to sneakily incorporate full-frontal female nudity into an ostensibly "educational" picture. Men in the audience just had to ignore the baby emerging from the woman's vagina. Or so the theory went.

In any event, Kroger Babb's phenomenal success did not go unnoticed by other independent filmmakers, who made white-coaters of their own for decades and may have enjoyed a level of respectability not shared by other pornographic films. In her book Porn Studies (Duke University Press, 2004), Linda Williams notes that "white-coaters were most often released in 35 mm and shown in larger venues" than other hardcore features. In a way, Ed Wood's own Glen or Glenda? (1953) can be considered a white-coater, as it takes a documentary approach to the subject of transgenderism and features two white male authority figures: a medical doctor and a police officer. Neither wears a literal white coat, of course, but their purpose in the film is to lend the project an air of legitimacy.

So powerful was the allure of the white-coater that as late as 1976, Robert De Niro could be seen escorting a highly-skeptical Cybill Shepherd to an X-rated pseudo-documentary entitled Swedish Marriage Manual. It's worth noting that Ms. Shepherd is not fooled by the dispassionate, newsman-style narration of the Swedish movie for even a minute and storms out in a huff. It should also be noted that when De Niro visits a porn theater on his own in another scene from the film, he does not choose a white-coater.

The Undergraduate immediately establishes itself as an example of the subgenre by virtue of its setting and structure. The film's narrator is a college professor, and the bulk of the film is presented as an examination and lecture in one of his supposed courses. The professor's opening monologue, recited over the sparse opening credits, serves as a good plot summary of the film:
Professor Collins
I'm Professor Collins. I want to welcome you to the undergraduate second course in sexual love. The, uh, society is becoming more aware of the need for every individual having a complete knowledge of the sex act, its psychology and technique, in order to fulfill his or her life in a complete way. The producers of this film feel that you as an adult individual have the right to view this entertaining and instructive motion picture and better your sex life. Husbands and wives will learn how to more completely satisfy each other's needs and desires, thereby leading to greater mutual satisfaction and greater compatibility. 
The producers of this film feel that if one member of the audience learns something which will save one marriage, then their efforts have been worthwhile. As a serious student of the epitome of expressing love, the emotionally and physically complete sex act, I'm grateful for this opportunity to share my knowledge with you. In this film, we will broaden your knowledge of contraception, masturbation, and also we will delve into, uh, premature ejaculation. We'll look at fear and its effect on the lovemaking process. I have a midterm essay test that I'm going to give to my students, then we're going to discuss the Presidential Commission's report on pornography and obscenity. 
I would like you to meet some of the students of this college who will be helping me in presenting this course to you.

Required reading: Penthouse February '71.
Professor Collins then goes on to introduce us to the seven students (three boys, four girls, all Caucasian and heterosexual, ranging in age from late teens to early twenties) whom we'll be seeing for the rest of the movie. It is significant that the male students are discussed in terms of their athletic accomplishments ("He plays football, wrestles, and swims.") and personalities ("He seems to be intelligent but restless, very restless."), while their female counterparts are denoted by their physical attributes ("There are doubts as to whether or not she's a natural blonde.") and sexual habits ("I think she's majoring in chasing boys. Boy, is she wild!"). Collins makes sure to give us the height, weight, hair color, and measurements of all of these female students. He does not do the same for the boys.

The first half of the film is dominated by the students. Professor Collins hands out a midterm essay examination about certain sex-related topics like contraception and masturbation, and as the students ponder their answers, the film cuts away to little vignettes in which the young actors demonstrate various erotic techniques in front of colorful but nondescript backgrounds. Since the students take over the voice-over duties during these cutaways, The Undergraduate has the same "multiple narrator" feel as Ed Wood's previous Glen or Glenda? (1953).

Once the tests are handed in, the rest of the class time -- and, consequently, the movie -- is taken up with a lecture by Professor Collins. He talks a bit about the infamous Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson and presented to Johnson's successor, Richard M. Nixon, in 1970. That report, which urged leniency on sexually-explicit material and found "no evidence" that pornography leads to crime, was roundly rejected by a scandalized congress and an outraged president. Professor Collins, on the other hand, fully supports the findings of the commission and recommends that his students check out a couple of then-new publications: Bob Guccione's Penthouse (specifically the February 1971 issue) and Al Goldstein's Screw. He also shows them a few minutes of a genuine "stag film" and gives a thumbnail history of pornography in America.

Before dismissing them for break, Professor Collins first warns his students to stay away from such drugs as LSD, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Here, Ed Wood's staunch anti-drug stand comes to the fore.

Jacques Descent at home in 2009.
But who else was responsible/to blame for making this particular motion picture, apart from screenwriter Ed Wood? Well, if you know anything about the porno biz, you have probably already guessed that the film's opening credits are composed entirely of bogus names and are therefore worthless. The listed production company, Yellowbird Films, has no other credits that I can find. An online directory of Florida companies lists Yellowbird Films Inc. as a "domestic for profit business incorporated in Florida, USA on June 25, 1970" and states that the business is now "inactive." If this is indeed the Yellowbird Films that made The Undergraduate, then the timeline just about makes sense. And the Florida thing makes sense, too, once you learn about the film's producer.

All sources seem to agree that the film was produced by a man named Jacques Descent (1937- ), who has an intriguing if spotty filmography of his own. Although Descent hails from and currently resides in Montreal, Quebec, he seems to have spent a good chunk of his career in Florida, including a stint as the "founder and chairman" of something called Fort Lauderdale International Film Market, Inc. in the early 1990s. He was also given a "Man of the Year" award at a documentary film festival in Clearwater, FL in 1999. In addition, he served as an assistant auditor on the Jane Fonda/Gregory Peck drama Old Gringo (1989) and an accountant for the Florida production unit of the James Bond movie License to Kill (1987). If that's not enough to impress you, Jacques Descent is also an inventor who holds several patents, including a self-cleaning, disinfecting toilet he calls Sanisafe. And he made at least three unreleased movies with Sylvester Stallone's mother, Jackie!

Clearly, Jacques Descent is a man who has been around the block a few times. He proudly includes The Undergraduate on the list of accomplishments on his personal web page and even trumpets the involvement of Ed Wood. Jacques had previously produced another Wood screenplay, Operation Redlight, back in 1969. This earlier film has yet to resurface, unfortunately. Curiously, Descent has no directing credits of his own. Though the bogus credits say that this movie was "produced and directed" by the (apparently) fictional "John Flanders," the current director of record for The Undergraduate is one "Ron Black," whose IMDb entry is otherwise blank. His true identity is a matter of speculation.

The movie's cinematographer, however, is quite accomplished. Harold Schwartz (1919-1990) started his career as an uncredited assistant cameraman on Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942 and was a camera operator on Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World in 1951, but he made his real mark on television, with credits ranging from The Adventures of Superman and Batman to Wyatt Earp, Perry Mason, Rawhide, Land of the Giants, and Love American Style.
John Dullaghan
A movie is nothing without its actors, and there are a few notable names in the cast of The Undergraduate. Front and center is our teacher, Professor Collins, portrayed by the redoubtable John Dullaghan (1930-2009), an actor whose stoic demeanor and graying temples lend authenticity to this thankless, unexciting role. At the time, the Brooklyn-born Dullaghan (billed here as "John Dugan") was a mainstay of X-rated films, racking up appearances in Sex and the Single Vampire (1969), the aforementioned  Postgraduate Course in Sexual Love (1970), and even Big Beaver Splits the Scene (1971).

But by the mid-1970s, Dullaghan had established himself solidly in episodic network television, a world he would inhabit for the rest of the '70s and into the 1980s, with recurring roles on such shows as Battlestar Galactica, B.J. and the Bear, Barney Miller, and Night Court. And these are but a mere fraction of an extensive and impressive resume that includes numerous theater (Major Barbara, Blood Knot, Little Sheba) and film (Kalifornia, Apollo 13, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) credits as well. Dullaghan seems to have given up the nudie racket by around 1973, though not before appearing in another obvious white-coater called The Flanders and Alcott Report on Sexual Response. (For the record, he was Flanders in that one.)

Among the porno starlets appearing in The Undergraduate, the main attraction (at least according to the manufacturers of the DVD) is Suzanne Fields (1950- ?), a kittenish brunette who was active in the adult movie world from 1970 to 1975 and who is probably best known for portraying "Dale Ardor" in the sci-fi parody Flesh Gordon (1974). Other well-known actresses on display in this motion picture include Deep Throat Part II's Tina Russell (1948-1981) and Cindy West of Devil's Due and It Happened in Hollywood fame. Interestingly, as part of his class, the good Professor Collins shows his students a vintage black-and-white "stag" film that features the talents of a prolific porn actress named Eve Orlon, whose path would intersect with that of Ed Wood again in a few years when they both participated in Steve Apostolof's Fugitive Girls (1974).

Incidentally, although both the Internet Movie Database and Jacques Descent's personal website allege that Ed Wood himself appears in The Undergraduate, this seems to be mere wishful thinking. Search all you want, but you won't find him.

Suzanne Fields uses frank verbal communication.
The viewing experience: Slightly unpleasant but nevertheless worthwhile. I have come to a definite conclusion, readers, from watching far too many hours of vintage 1970s pornography in the process of researching these articles: the sex act is simply not photogenic. Or, rather, it can be photogenic, but this requires a delicate combination of attractive performers, flattering camera angles, and careful lighting. And even those aesthetic niceties are not enough to compensate for the stubborn ugliness of the scrotum, a red and wrinkly body part that gets many long, lingering closeups in this film. While most of the performers in The Undergraduate are attractive enough, the camera angles and lighting do them no favors. The movie, which was transferred to DVD from a 1980s Betamax cassette since no film elements still exist, is technically competent but has the flat, drab look of a 1950s industrial or instructional film.

For all the sexual heat it generates, this movie might as well be about how vacuum cleaners work or the importance of maintaining neat penmanship. Following the unwritten code of the white-coater, The Undergraduate stresses keeping up the illusion of respectability even at the expense of enjoyment, this movie is fairly rigorous in its abstinence from anything remotely sensual. Our test subjects fellate, fornicate, and masturbate in a variety of permutations, but they do so in a nearly-featureless void and do not seem to be deriving substantial pleasure from their activities. As befits a classroom film, this is sex as science experiment, carnality as classwork.

The one major deviation from this template comes during the first half of the film, when Suzanne Fields herself demonstrates the importance of "frank" verbal communication during the sex act. As she romps with her mustachioed bed partner, Suzanne gives the following, stunning monologue, which runs a full four minutes. I'd like to think Ed Wood wrote every word:
I love the way you kiss me. Mmmm. Put it in deep. Run it all around me. Put your tongue in my ear and run it all around. Pull me against you so I can feel your hard cock. Mmmm. Put your cock against my pussy. Undress me. Squeeze my tits. Oh, bite my nipples! Squeeze my nipples! Oh, kiss my tits! Oh! Use your tongue! Work down towards my pussy! Mmmm. Eat me. Oh, eat me! Oh, eat me! Oh, eat my pussy! Oh, it feels so good! Mmmm. Oh, eat my pussy. Deeper. Deeper! It's like a little prick. Oh, lick my clit! Eat me! Oh, eat me! Fuck me! I want your hard cock in me. Oh, fuck my pussy. Oh, your big cock is tearing my pussy up! Oh, it feels so good! Oh, your big cock in my pussy! Oh, screw me! Screw my pussy! Oh, screw me! Oh, screw me hard!
I don't know whether this kind of talk will work for you in your relationship, but it's fairly typical of the advice doled out by The Undergraduate.  Among the more memorable kernels of wisdom embedded in this film: olive oil makes an acceptable lube if you're fresh out of K-Y jelly; coitus interruptus can be psychologically damaging for both parties as well as being a lousy method of birth control; and, most importantly, many women actually enjoy the taste of semen. Also, women like to feel secure during sex, so this movie recommends a lovemaking position in which a woman more or less uses her partner as a beanbag chair.

That brings up another salient point about this movie, incidentally. During the sexual demonstrations, the participants are sometimes labeled simply "the man" and  "the woman," but they are more often referred to as "the husband" and "the wife," even though none of the student characters in the movie are married. Typical of the Janus-faced duality (or should I say duplicity?) of the white-coater, The Undergraduate invites middle-aged white male viewers to leer lustily at members of the younger generation but still maintains a dusty, fusty Eisenhower-era definition of sex as something that happens between mommies and daddies who love each other very much. Quite an artifact, this one.

In two weeks: "Get your motor runnin'. Head out on the highway. Lookin' for adventure and whatever comes our way." Such was the exhortation of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" in 1968, and the song's passionate call was heeded by an entire generation, including Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who "went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere" in the landmark film Easy Rider (1969). A few years later, Ed Wood thought he'd give it a try and see if he could do a little better than Peter and Dennis had. Biker films were the order of the day, so of course Eddie had to give them a try. And naturally, he brought his own unique spin to the subject matter. The result was the film we'll be discussing right here in a mere fortnight. Be here in two weeks for Nympho Cycler (1971).