Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 49: 'Take It Out in Trade' (1970)

Ed Wood also published an unrelated  short story in Trois magazine (1972) with the same title as this movie.

"An extraordinary performance."
I have been wanting to see Ed Wood's Take It Out in Trade (1970) for -- dear Lord -- twenty years now. Last week, thanks to the good people at Manhattan's Anthology Film Archives, I finally did. Like many of my fellow Wood-ologists, my interest in Take It Out began with Rudolph Grey's unorthodox biography of Ed, Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

In Grey's introduction, he talks about what he learned about the director while researching his life. "Particularly exciting," he says "was finally locating a print of one of Ed Wood's last feature films, Take It Out in Trade (1970), a surreal sex comedy that proved to be a major discovery."

Later in the book, Ed's widow, Kathy, talks a bit about the film's origin and production, as do cast members Nona Carver (ex-burlesque dancer and former girlfriend of Kenne Duncan) and Michael Donovan O'Donnell, who actually appeared in some legitimate flicks (Paint Your Wagon, Dick Tracy)  as well as many prominent "B" movies (including Russ Meyer's Vixen and Greydon Clark's Satan's Cheerleaders and Black Shampoo) over the course of a 22-year Hollywood career. Towards the end of the book, in the annotated filmography, Rudolph Grey gives a fairly thorough, blow-by-blow description of Take It Out in Trade. Among his observations there:
This movie marked Wood's return to directing after a hiatus of ten years. [...] Visual puns and slapstick are intermingled with conventional softcore sex scenes. [...] There are odd touches of para-psychedlicism and surrealism. [...] The most remarkable sequence is a seven-minute segment featuring Ed Wood (billed under the name "Alecia") decked out in a lime-green dress, fluffy orange sweater, white plastic boots, and a blonde wig in an extraordinary performance.
SWV's version.
Now, tell me, what kind of Ed Wood fan could resist such a movie? I simply had to see it. The problem was, I couldn't. Even after Nightmare of Ecstasy was published in 1992 and became the basis for Tim Burton's Ed Wood in 1994, Take It Out in Trade did not appear on VHS or DVD for public consumption. After the big buildup it received in Nightmare of Ecstasy, Take It Out basically disappeared for two decades.

Those of you who have been following "Ed Wood Wednesdays" for a while may remember that I once reviewed a Something Weird Video compilation tape from 1995 called Take It Out in Trade: The Outtakes, which consists of about an hour's worth of silent bloopers and unused shots from Wood's long-lost movie. In that article, I also provided a thumbnail sketch of Take It Out's convoluted history and supplied a rundown of its principal cast members. TIOIT: The Outtakes gives you an idea of the basic outline of the plot: wealthy Frank Riley (Duke Moore) and his snooty wife are unaware that their daughter, Shirley Riley (Donna Stanley),  has become a high-priced prostitute and is living and working in a brothel, so they hire a sex-crazed private detective named Mac McGregor (O'Donnell) to track her down.

The outtakes also give you a pretty good idea of what the sets, costumes, hairstyles, and actors look like. But even though it's interesting as a historical curio, the Something Weird tape does not even remotely convey the experience of watching the real Take it Out in Trade. This, then, I will try to convey to you. Keep in mind that I have only watched this movie one time and am writing solely from memory:

  • The version that Anthology Film Archives screened looked to have been transferred from videotape. The monaural sound was not exactly Dolby quality, but both the music and dialogue were quite listenable and distinct. The picture was a bit blurry, as if this were a second- or third-generation copy. (The AFA only says that its source was "digital.") Probably due to lack of proper preservation, the whole movie had kind of a yellowish-orange hue to it, like a slice of processed American cheese. But it's definitely watchable and in relatively good shape. The credited cinematographer here is Hal Guthu, who also worked on Love Feast. Guthu is no Bill Thompson, but he does yeoman's work behind the camera in this feature.
  • The opening credits sequence features a nude woman drawing on herself with red lipstick. She first colors in both nipples, then draws a floral-looking border around her pubic hair, and finally puts some dots and scribbles on her ass.  This strange footage is later recycled (verbatim, I believe) during an inexplicable montage midway through the film.
  • As an actor, Ed Wood is only listed as "Alecia," but he gets a proud "Written and Directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr." credit at the end of the main titles. And this isn't an opportunistic, latter-day addition either, like Rhino's DVD of Love Feast. Eddie's credit in Take It Out appears to be organic to the original 1970 print. For those ultra-purists who only count the feature-length films which Eddie wrote and directed under his own name, this is as much an "official Ed Wood movie" as Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda? Those folks can now stop saying Eddie only directed six movies. It's at least seven. (The real total is much higher, of course.)
  • Wood fans will likely be thrilled to note that he has reverted to his old habit of punctuating his film with bursts of thunder and lightning, just as he did in Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster, The Bride and the Beast, Night of the Ghouls, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Here, though, the lightning is just represented by flashes of bright light, and he's added the image of a young lady opening an umbrella indoors for the "rain" which never falls. The effect, as always, is of God Himself angrily commenting upon the proceedings.
Michael Donovan O'Donnell
  • The entire film is narrated by its protagonist, middle-aged, mustachioed detective Mac McGregor. Actor Michael Donovan O'Donnell compared his character to Raymond Chandler's sardonic Philip Marlowe, but McGregor is more like Marlowe on giggle gas. At times, O'Donnell's voice is very similar to that of Ed Wood, so much so that I thought Ed might have been narrating the movie himself. But, no, it's O'Donnell. With his fuzzy sideburns, receding hairline, buck teeth, and slightly flabby physique, Mac is quite the unlikely hero of an erotic movie. Perhaps this character was meant to be relatable to the frustrated middle-aged men in the audience. Today, such a character would be a lean, toned, brooding Adonis about half O'Donnell's age.
  • At the very beginning, Mac tells us that Los Angeles is his "kind of town" and informs us that his main interest in life is sex, of which he gets a lot. He also boasts about his detecting skills, referring to himself as "The Chaser." That self-appointed nickname, of course, is a pun which hints at another major motif in this movie: booze. Seemingly everyone Mac encounters offers him alcohol, usually whiskey, and he always accepts. In one scene, Ed Wood's character all but forces Mac to drink, and the poor detective nearly chokes to death from the foul rotgut liquor Ed serves him.
  • Mac is kind of a shady, low-rent character. He says he has "two offices." One is in the bathroom of the Brown Derby, and the other appears to be in a Salvation Army thrift store. There are several exterior shots of the Derby, by the way, and it's nice to see that iconic Hollywood locale pop up in one of Ed's later movies. The revelation that Mac works out of the john is one of the movie's better-constructed gags. Mac has a handmade placard taped up over the word "MEN'S" on the wall, and we watch him take it down at one point and thus give away his true location. Take It Out is a relative rarity in the Wood canon in that it is a deliberate comedy with intentional jokes. Off the top of my head, the only other examples I can think of are the Wood-scripted One Million AC/DC (1969) and possibly the two Bunnies films Ed did with Steve Apostolof in the mid-1970s.
  • The movie was mostly filmed with synchronized sound, and boom-mic shadows are fairly common throughout. But there are other scenes which were clearly shot silently, with narration, dialogue, and sound effects added later. Eddie seemed to go a little nuts here, using patently silly, almost cartoonish voices and sounds for some scenes. I particularly remember one prostitute who says something like, "Baloney! You probably say that to all the girls!" in a ridiculously nasal voice. This technique is highly reminiscent of Glen or Glenda?, which also leaned heavily on post-dubbing and got some laughs from the odd accents and speech cadences of the voice actors. Musically, Take It Out seems to have been scored with stock music, mostly jazzy in nature. There is one musical motif in particular which I was humming for at least 20 minutes after the movie ended.
Nona Carver's big scene in Take It Out in Trade.
  • Actress Nona Carver remembers there being two versions of the movie: one softcore, the other hard. But the edition of the film I saw was strictly softcore: plenty of female nudity but only a smattering of very non-explicit simulated lovemaking in which the partners simply crawl on top of one another and start bouncing around, occasionally even keeping their underpants on. The fondling of buttocks is a major motif in this movie. 
  • Exposed penises are rare to nonexistent here. Occasionally, there are sex-related gags, as when we see a procession of three women coming down a fuzzy red staircase: the first topless, the second bottomless, and the third nude. Ed Wood was clearly sensitive of the needs of the horny men in the audience, but he still wanted to tell a complete story. Therefore, during the scenes in which characters have to discuss the plot, there are brief, totally non-sequitir cutaways to attractive nude ladies romping for the cameras. These moments are often accompanied by "wacky" xylophone glissandos on the soundtrack. You're never more than about a minute away from nudity at any given point in this film.
  • As you'd expect in an Ed Wood movie, the editing (by Wood himself) adds to the surrealism of the picture. It is flighty and free-associative, rather than strictly sequential and sensible. One shot does not logically lead to another, the way it might in a "normal" film. Unmotivated close-ups and unexpected montages are the keynote here. There is one extremely drawn-out sequence in which several girls dance and strip to psychedelic music. I wasn't sure where this was supposed to be taking place or what connection it had with the rest of the movie, thereby making this montage reminiscent of the  S&M "girly" footage George Weiss clumsily added to the dream sequence in Glen or Glenda? back in 1953. The purpose might have been the same here: to pad the running time.
  • Getting back to the plot: Mrs. Riley calls Mac at the Brown Derby to hire him to find her daughter. This conversation, intentionally or not, is one of the movie's comedic highlights, as the performances are extremely stilted, and the dialogue seems to lurch forward too quickly, as if the actors are only reading every other line of the script.
  • Mac visits the Rileys at their home. This is another quite amusing scene, as the detective tells the couple he gets "$200 a day plus expenses" and asks if they can afford that. The wife, who is reminiscent of Natalie Schafer as "Lovey" Howell on TV's Gilligan's Island, is offended by this and tells Mac that she and her husband are upstanding members of the community who always pay their bills. Her husband, Frank, is more direct: "We can pay." But Mrs. Riley won't let the issue drop and prattles on and on about what respectable people she and her husband are.
  • When Mac asks them if they have any clues to their daughter's whereabouts, Frank remembers that Shirley had been reading a lot about the hippies and flower children. But she couldn't be associating with such people, her mother snobbishly insists, because she wasn't raised that way. Ed Wood, who also edited this movie, takes great pleasure in undercutting Mrs. Riley by juxtaposing this scene with footage of Shirley entertaining her male customers.
  • Over at the brothel where Shirley is working, Madam Penny's Thrill Establishment, the other girls (including our pal Casey Larrain) are a bit annoyed that young Ms. Riley is getting the lion's share of the clientele simply because she's the new girl. It's worth pointing out here that Ed Wood has bestowed his own drag name on yet another female character (see also: Necromania, Orgy of the Dead, The Sinister Urge, Killer in Drag, etc.) and that Shirley Riley is portrayed in this film as an irresistible seductress whom all men desire and all women envy. The actress in this role, Donna Stanley (aka Donna Nation, aka Donna Pussie), doesn't appear to have worked with Ed Wood before or after this film, but did have an active career in exploitation movies from 1969 to 1974, including a lead role in Nick Millard's Fire in Her Bed! (1972). She also worked with Eddie's pal, Don Davis, on the PG-rated Swamp Girl in 1971, where she acted alongside country star Ferlin Husky.
  • It is also noteworthy that Madam Penny's employs at least one black prostitute, as African-American characters are extremely rare in Ed Wood's movies. I don't have a name for this actress, but other female cast members in Take It Out include: Linda Colpin, who also appeared in Love Feast with Ed in 1969; Monica Gayle, a softcore actress who graduated to TV roles (Fantasy Island, S.W.A.T.) in the late 1970s; and Lynn Harris, who's also in The Cocktail Hostesses. Among the male clientele at the Thrill Establishment is Lou Ojena, the mummy from Orgy of the Dead. He's easily spotted because he's a large, imposing guy who's built like a linebacker. Look for him in a scene in which a couple has sex on a pool table and the other revelers just try to work around them and continue their game.
A Canadian travel poster from the film.
  • By far, the single goofiest element of this movie -- and a major source of its entertainment value today -- is what Mac does after he agrees to take the case. Instead of doing any actual work towards finding Shirley, the detective decides to travel the world and charge everything to Frank Riley's credit card. I believe the total cost is something like $7500, which in today's money comes to $46,976.55. There are many shots of airports and travel posters throughout the film, something which is reflected repeatedly in the outtake reel. Mac's destinations include Greece, France, Italy, and Canada And what does he do while he's in these exotic foreign countries? Mainly, he spies on naked women like a back alley pervert while hiding behind fences or shrubberies with an irrepressible grin on his face. How he's able to see these women is unclear, since he's outdoors and they're indoors. He doesn't take binoculars or any other "spy" equipment with him, though. Occasionally, he does manage to have sex with a few of these ladies, perhaps prostitutes. Such travel montages occur at several points in Take it Out in Trade, and they have almost no bearing on the rest of the movie whatsoever, apart from a few scenes in which Mac sends the Rileys postcards, updating them on his progress with vaguely naughty double entendres, e.g. "working on a hot tip." These scenes are so blatantly gratuitous and silly that viewers have no real choice but to give themselves over to laughter, and they're perfect examples of Ed Wood's "decoupage" style of filmmaking, as Maila Nurmi once dubbed it. The director even recycles some footage of a randy Frenchman being slapped by an offended mademoiselle. When Mac sees this scene twice, he explains to us, he knows it's time to go back home. 
  • When Mac returns to America and actually gets cracking on the Riley case, he operates on the assumption that Shirley has dropped out of respectable society and wound up on the streets. His instincts are correct. Like all good detectives in these kinds of stories, Mac knows a few people in the criminal underground, and he starts his investigation by paying a call on Sleazy Maisie Rumpledinck (Nona Carver, also a supposed "Indian" in Revenge of the Virgins). Masie is an aging, broken-down junkie whore who lives on a very discouraging-looking street where soiled and discarded mattresses are accumulating outside. Mac says his flesh crawls every time he approaches Masie's foul abode, and his concerns are justifiable. When the detective arrives, Masie (who has a homemade "No Credit" sign on the wall) is with a customer: a dejected-looking, shirtless man who appears to be down on his luck. Once Mac and Masie are alone, he starts giving her the third degree. "You know all the girls on the streets!" It's actually quite remarkable how quickly the detective resorts to roughing her up to get the information he wants. Their roughhousing is so patently phony, however, that it's difficult to take offense.
Mac and Alecia in a rare calm moment.
  • Suitably shaken, Maisie leads Mac to the next link in the prostitution chain, specifically a drag queen named Alecia played by the rather puffy-looking Ed Wood in a green sweater, a matching green skirt, white vinyl boots, and an ill-fitting blonde wig. Despite his lowly station in life, the haughty and still-proud Alecia tries to maintain an air of respectability and claims that he threw Shirley out of his house because she was such a wildly-behaved hellion. Mac treats Alecia the same way he treated Sleazy Masie Rumpledinck, and before long, Ed Wood does cough up some information to the detective about Shirley's possible whereabouts. Before he leaves, the decidedly ungrateful detective takes the opportunity to snatch the wig off Alecia's head. After his departure, the seething transvestite vows revenge against this cad. "He'll pay. Oh, he'll pay." This sequence is an obvious highlight of the film and one which more Ed Wood fans should have the opportunity to see.
  • Onto the next set of pimps in the film's sexual food chain: a gay couple named (if I remember correctly) Paul and Henry*. Compared to the lisping, limp-wristed "fag" characters in later Wood films like The Beach Bunnies and The Class Reunion, Paul and his mate are somewhat more realistic and believable, if not exactly respectable. They are involved in a prostitution ring, after all. The fiercely heterosexual Mac seems slightly agitated and impatient with this couple, so they introduce him to their so-called "house mother," a curvaceous and flirtatious blonde bombshell named Ruth who wanders around wearing skimpy, see-through lingerie (another Wood motif) and blatantly exposes herself to Mac within a few seconds of meeting him. In the screening I attended, Ruth's improbable sexual aggression towards Mac was another source of audience laughter. After Ruth and Mac spend some time getting to know each other intimately, Mac tells her it was all business between them, and she kicks him out.
            *possibly Harry
  • By this point, Mac knows all about Madam Penny's Thrill Establishment and heads over there, weakly pretending to be a customer. He puts almost no effort whatsoever into establishing his alibi, but this proves irrelevant, as Shirley and the gals have been tipped off about Mac by Paul. Shirley is paranoid about the detective's arrival, since she thinks it means trouble with the law. She therefore devises a plan: when Mac arrives, she and the other prostitutes will gang up on him and tie him up, tearing off his clothing and their own in the process. This is pure male wish fulfillment, and many minutes of screen time are devoted to showing Michael Donovan O'Donnell wrestling around with a half dozen nude and semi-nude girls. In the outtakes, you can see that O'Donnell achieves an erection, but nothing like this appears in the finished movie.
More "pink clouds."
  • When she has Mac tied up and at her mercy, Shirley threatens to force him drink a cup of some beverage which will make him see "pink clouds." This is an expression which Eddie used extensively in his 1967 novel, Devil Girls, again to describe the effects of narcotics. Mac assures Shirley that all he wants to do is take her back to her parents so that they can see she is alive and unharmed. She is amenable to this and agrees to accompany him. The potential conflict which had been building between Mac and Shirley for the entire movie is thus defused in a very anticlimactic way. It was really nothing more than a slight misunderstanding, possibly exacerbated by Mac's rough treatment of previous suspects.
  • The suitably mind-boggling finale of the movie, however, proves that the real antagonists of Take It Out in Trade are wealthy, close-minded Mr. and Mrs. Riley, not their free-spirited daughter. Mac delivers the young lady to the family's very Brady Bunch-looking homestead, and the parents happily receive their prodigal daughter. But the merriment is short-lived, however, when Shirley announces her plans to return to Madam Penny's Thrill Establishment. Things go further downhill, naturally, when Shirley opens her trench coat and playfully "flashes" Mom and Dad. Frank is outraged and tells Mac he won't pay him "one red cent." Mac's retort is one of the best closing lines in any Ed Wood movie: "Then I'll take it out in trade!" With that, he scoops Shirley up in his arms and carries her away as his reward for solving the case. As a movie buff, of course, I couldn't help but think of John Wayne "rescuing" Natalie Wood in John Ford's excellent The Searchers (1956). Also, by having Mac say the title of the movie in its final moments, Ed has craftily turned Take It Out in Trade into a "shaggy dog story" or, perhaps, a dirty joke with an 80-minute setup before the punchline. 
  • Like seemingly one-fourth of all adult movies of the 1960s and 1970s, this one ends with a shot of a woman who has the words "THE END" painted on her bare bottom. Did every director who did this think he was the first to come up with it? Love Feast and The Undergraduate both conclude in this fashion.
And those, my friends, are my reflections on Ed Wood's Take It Out in Trade. Having finally seen this extremely rare motion picture, I can understand why Ed's widow, Kathy, referred to it in Nightmare of Ecstasy as a "cute little film," while Rudolph Grey deemed it a "major discovery." It's both.

Thematically, there's not too much to say. Once again, Ed was chronicling the counterculture -- a phenomenon he was too old and too out-of-touch to understand -- from the perspective of a horny middle-aged man. But this movie is much more forgiving towards the younger generation than many of Ed's other films and novels, and there is even some well-deserved razzing of the establishment, represented by Shirley's stodgy and status-seeking parents.

This is, quite simply, one of the happiest movies in the Wood canon. Compared to most of Eddie's X-rated films, especially those he made with Stephen C. Apostolof,  Take It Out is unusually playful and quick-paced, bawdy rather than raunchy, and refreshingly free of both rape and necrophilia. I got the feeling that Ed and his entire cast were having a dandy time making this movie. Michael Donovan O'Donnell, for one, is clearly enjoying himself all the way. And Ed's giddiness shows through, not only as an actor, but as a writer, director, and editor as well. He strings scenes and images together with the intuitive yet illogical approach he applied to his most famous films from the 1950s, like Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 from Outer Space. And, once again, the responsibility for taking all of these ingredients and making something coherent or cohesive out of them falls on the audience. Maybe that's part of the secret of Eddie's enduring appeal: his work encourages active rather than passive viewership.