Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 60: 'The Lawless Rider' (1954)

Johnny Carpenter (center) in the Ed Wood-written-and-produced The Lawless Rider.

"What is acting? It is to portray with all your ability and sincerity a character, a person, with all your heart and soul. Who is this character? Say she is a horse woman! How can you play a horse woman if you don't know the first thing about horses, or riding them?"
-Edward D. Wood, Jr., Hollywood Rat Race
"I got so bugged I turned it off and turned on another show.
But there was the same old shoot-'em-up and the same old rodeo.
Salty Sam was tryin' to stuff Sweet Sue in a burlap sack.
He said, 'If you don't give me the deed to your ranch,
I'm gonna throw you on the railroad track!'"

-The Coasters, "Along Came Jones"

A posse of sorts.
Imagine for a moment how exciting the Old West -- or at least Hollywood's approximation of it -- must have seemed to a suggestible, excitable kid growing up in unexciting Poughkeepsie, New York during the Great Depression. Today, Edward Davis Wood, Jr. is best known for his one-and-only movie about outer space. But for little Eddie, a faithful attendee and later usher and ticket taker at his hometown movie theater, the wide open, untamed territory left of the Mississippi River on the map provided all the space he could possibly want or need. He saw Universal's take on Dracula when he was seven years old, and it left a permanent mark on his psyche. But it was the cowboy pictures, particularly the cheap ones, which truly and permanently won his heart with their white-hatted heroes, hissable villains, and cut-and-dried moral certainty.

Westerns had a major impact on several generations of Americans, including some who grew up to become titans of science fiction. There are echoes of John Ford throughout George Lucas' Star Wars saga, for instance, while Gene Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek to network executives as a celestial variation on Wagon Train. Ed Wood, meanwhile, grew up to write and direct Plan 9 from Outer Space, an interplanetary struggle which climaxes with an earthbound, O.K. Corral-style showdown and common barroom fisticuffs. The film's ad hoc trio of earthling heroes (an airline pilot, a military man, and a cop) could even be considered a posse. Their ultimate mission, like that of John Wayne in The Searchers, is to rescue a kidnapped white woman from the clutches of a race of outsiders whom they regard with suspicion and contempt.

By the time Ed Wood reached Hollywood in 1947, the uncomplicated and unambiguous Westerns he preferred were on the wane, chased out of cinemas and onto television by grittier fare, a fact he would lament repeatedly in his circa-1965 showbiz primer Hollywood Rat Race, which is chock full of references to and anecdotes about B-list cowboy stars. As both a writer and a filmmaker, Ed Wood was beholden to the demands of the marketplace, which is why he bounced around from genre to genre throughout his career like a common claim jumper. But Eddie kept trying to return to the range however he could, be it as a director (Crossroads of Laredo; Crossroad Avenger), a scenarist (Revenge of the Virgins), or even a stuntman (The Baron of Arizona). He also forged personal and professional alliances with such obsolete screen cowboys as Tom Keene, Tom Tyler, Bud Osborne, and badman Kenne Duncan, throwing film and TV roles their way whenever possible, often in non-Westerns.

But now, we must turn our attentions to another Western would-have-been, a pretender to the thrones of Autry, Rogers, and Cassidy who went by the professional name of Johnny Carpenter, though his true forename was Jasper. For it was with the late Mr. Carpenter that Ed Wood made this week's nearly-forgotten film.

THE LAWLESS RIDER (1954)

A lobby card possibly designed to trick viewers into thinking The Lawless Rider was in color.

A poster touting costar
Texas Rose Bascom
Alternate titles: Outlaw Marshall [working title]

Availability: To my knowledge, The Lawless Rider has never been released on VHS, DVD, or laserdisc. It is only through the benevolence of Ed Wood historian Phillip R. Frey that I was able to view a print of this exceedingly rare film.

The backstory: Let's go back a century, pardners, to the fateful year of 1915. The era of American History we call the "Old West" or the "Wild West" was just barely in our collective rear view mirror back then. Even so, the mythologizing of the period was already in full swing. The bookish Democrat Woodrow Wilson occupied the Oval Office, but he hadn't gotten his country into the already-in-progress World War I quite yet. Babe Ruth, not yet a Yankee, was making his unsuccessful debut as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. (He'd get better.) And Thomas Edison, still vital at 68, had invented some newfangled gizmo for recording telephone conversations.

Meanwhile, the future screen star known as Johnny Carpenter was still Jasper Carpenter, a year-old infant growing up on his daddy's modest farm in Debinsville, Arkansas, a town so small it's since been swallowed up by nearby Russellville just south of Route 40. Jasper grew up riding horses but dreaming of baseball, not knowing his future lay in the former rather than the latter. A horrific hit-and-run accident in 1936 permanently derailed Jasper's baseball dreams and sent him packing for Hollywood, where he'd try to become the next cowboy matinee idol under a semi-new name. (Or, briefly, an entirely new one: John Forbes.) Carpenter's future friend and partner, Edward D. Wood, Jr., wouldn't even be born for nearly another decade and wouldn't make it to the Left Coast until 1947.

Yakima Canutt, stuntman supreme
But the motion picture business was well underway by 1915, even without Ed Wood or Johnny Carpenter to help it along. That was the year of  D.W. Griffith's landmark, still-controversial The Birth of a Nation (also known as The Clansman). And there were already Westerns... and Western stars, for that matter! Most prominent among these was Tom Mix, headliner of nearly 300 silent cowboy films, many of them self-directed. Foreman of Bar Z Ranch, one of about 40 films Mix made in 1915, was the first-ever production to employ the services of a brash, 20-year-old rodeo champion with the memorable moniker of Yakima Canutt.

In truth, Enos Edward "Yakima" Canutt (1895-1986) had been busting broncos since the age of 11 and was among the first rodeo stars to invade the fledgling movie industry in its early days. With his bravery and skill, however, he eclipsed all his rope-slinging contemporaries in the field. Starting from that early Tom Mix short, Canutt's truly legendary career as a stuntman, stunt coordinator, and second unit director lasted sixty action-packed years, finally ending with Breakheart Pass (1975), a Charles Bronson picture distributed by United Artists. In between, along with too many cowboy films to count, he provided his services to Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Stagecoach (which contains his single most famous stunt), Rio Bravo, Old Yeller, and dozens more. For about half a century, when Hollywood needed to pull off a tricky or dangerous action sequence in a motion picture, they turned to Yakima Canutt because they knew he was the man for the job. More than most, Mr. Canutt truly earned his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Steven Spielberg was enough of a fan to work a Canutt-inspired stunt sequence into Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Despite crossing paths with John Wayne and Stanley Kubrick, Yakima Canutt's own directing career never really amounted to a whole hell of a lot: only about a dozen fairly obscure theatrically-released features, mostly clustered together in the mid-to-late 1940s. And on many of these, Canutt had a credited co-director, usually Spencer Gordon Bennet or Fred C. Brannon. (Canutt and Brannon even co-directed some made-for-TV flicks in the 1960s.) Feature films with Yakima Canutt as a solo director are relatively rare. I can only find five, among the literally hundreds of films on his resume. There's 1945's Sheriff of Cimarron with Sunset Carson; 1948's Oklahoma Badlands and Carson City Raiders, both vehicles for Allan "Rocky" Lane (best known today as the voice of TV's talking horse, Mr. Ed); 1948's Sons of Adventure; and finally the movie we're covering this week, The Lawless Rider from 1954. As near as I can tell, the great Yakima Canutt never again helmed a theatrical feature after Lawless. The second-unit and stunt jobs kept coming, though, and those were what paid the bills and made him famous anyway.

A recipe for failure.
In my article about another Wood/Carpenter collaboration of similar vintage, Son of the Renegade (1953), I explained the essential, tragicomic conundrum of Johnny Carpenter's muddled screen career. Simply put, he was about two decades behind the times and was creating antiquated product for a market which had either ceased to exist or which, at best, had moved on to other distractions. Carpenter's big push for screen stardom didn't come until the 1950s when he, then about 40, produced and starred in a series of low-budget, independently-financed Westerns, of which The Lawless Rider was one. By that time, though, the genre had gone through considerable changes, and Carpenter hadn't or perhaps couldn't adapt. This very problem is an important motif throughout Ed Wood's Hollywood Rat Race. To read that book is to understand why The Lawless Rider ultimately failed. Some cogent examples of Ed's complaints:
  • [T]he Western itself ... changed so fantastically. The cowboy film was no longer a cowboy film, it was a "Western." It wasn't a clear battle between hero and villain, good and evil. Now the hero had to have doubts about his achievements. Everyone needed a dose of neurosis, and be up to their ears in Freudian, subconscious problems. (page 68)
  • Even the Westerns got into the swing of sex. No longer did the cleanly dressed cowboy kiss his horse and ride off into the sunset to begin another adventure. Instead, he began to wear the dirtiest clothing, kick his horse in the ass, and take the roughest dance hall broad into the hayloft with him. (page 108)
  • Take the simple Western of the 1930s. It's almost impossible, even with a petition signed by thousands of names, to get one on the Saturday morning kiddie shows. Unless the hero wears a black hat and dirty clothes, rides a black horse, rapes his leading lady, and visits his psychiatrist once a week "it just ain't got it." (page 130)
The Lawless Rider is the exact opposite of everything Wood describes above. It most certainly is a clear battle between a hero (Carpenter) and a villain (Kenne Duncan, forever the heel), and it is never ambiguous for whom the audience is meant to be rooting. Furthermore, Carpenter's uncomplicated, straight-shooting protagonist has no inner life to speak of, hence no subconscious or pesky Freudian doubts. Nor does the hero have any sex life. The movie provides him with a sort-of-romantic interest in the wholesome person of "internationally famous trick roping champion" Texas Rose Bascom, whose husband, Weldon, and brother-in-law, Earl, are also in the Lawless cast. In terms of physical intimacy, however, Johnny and Rose never progress beyond cordial greetings. At least the previous year's Son of the Renegade had given Johnny Carpenter some more interesting sexual options, even if he did not take advantage of them. ("I just don't have time for anybody," he said in that film.)

As for wearing "a black hat and dirty clothes," Johnny Carpenter's morally upright character only dons such items when he is impersonating a hired killer as part of a plan to infiltrate the villain's gang. Otherwise, his clothing, like his hygiene and manners, is impeccable.

This credit makes it official. This is an Ed Wood movie.
Filming for The Lawless Rider seems to have taken place at the same all-purpose movie ranch in the Hollywood Hills where Son of the Renegade and countless other movies and TV shows were shot. Based on what's visible onscreen, there is every indication that this should have been a quick, uncomplicated production which came in on time and on budget. But this website says differently. According to the information there, the movie exceeded its $20,000 budget and experienced "legal troubles" that delayed its release by two years. This is also said to be the first project to unite Alex Gordon with B-movie kingpin Samuel Z. Arkoff, who allegedly negotiated the movie's tardy release. I cannot confirm any of that, but I thought I'd pass it along. You're welcome.

Though ultimately distributed by United Artists, the movie was made through a limited partnership dubbed Royal West Productions. All of the buildings we can see, including a blacksmith's shop and a sheriff's office, look like generic facades with no distinguishing features. All of Ed's Westerns, including Crossroad Avenger and Crossroads of Laredo, share this assembly-line quality, as if they all took place at some cowboy-themed amusement park somewhere off the Interstate.

Eddie's fans, however, will likely have their imaginations ignited by the opening credits. While Ed Wood himself is wrongfully denied even partial credit for the screenplay, he is listed prominently as an "Associate Producer" along with Weldon Bascom. That means The Lawless Rider is not some "apocryphal" or "speculative" Ed Wood movie, like Married Too Young (1962) or Revenge of the Virgins (1959). Nope, it's a bona fide, iron-clad, board-certified addition to the Wood filmography, as deserving of inclusion on that roster as Plan 9 from Outer Space. Appropriately, the cast and crew is dotted with "golden age" Wood regulars. Alex Gordon is the film's executive producer, for instance, while William C. Thompson is the cinematographer. Besides lead baddie Kenne Duncan, grizzled old Bud Osborne is also in the cast. Of course, all of these folks are overshadowed by the headliner's trusty steed, "Skipper, the Fastest Horse in the Movies," who is only second billed to Carpenter himself. That's just the kind of movie this is.

Ringers: Noel Neill and Frankie Darro
Like Ed Wood, Johnny Carpenter had an entourage of his own, and it's not surprising that several of them -- including Bill Coontz, Roy Canada, Bill Chaney, and Lennie Smith -- turn up in The Lawless Rider. As a producer, Carpenter had a habit of bringing in one or two ringers to play supporting parts. When it comes time to distribute and market a motion picture, it's always handy to have a few recognizable and therefore exploitable names in the cast. (That practice continues among independent filmmakers to this very day.)

In Lawless, these were Noel Neill and Frankie Darro. Neill, who portrays a tough, proto-feminist journalist named Nancy James, is best known as one of the two actresses* to portray Lois Lane on TV's The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves. Frankie Darro, who plays the troubled kid brother of heroine Texas Rose, was a former child star and stuntman turned character actor specializing in nervy, loudmouthed punks. His most famous performance, in fact, was as the voice of delinquent-turned-donkey Lampwick in Disney's Pinocchio (1940).

It is no surprise, especially with such bland leads as Johnny Carpenter and Rose Bascom, that Noel Neill and Frankie Darro are easily the most interesting people in The Lawless Rider. Neill's storyline -- she's a frontier journalist who bravely challenges a cattle-thieving crime boss -- deserves more screen time than it gets here.

As for Darro, in my review of his 1941 comedy The Gang's All Here, I called him "a yappy little Chihuahua who goes around snapping at pit bulls." And that's exactly what he plays here, too, to fairly good comedic effect. In fact, the very best scene in the entire movie comes when Johnny Carpenter shoots the guns right out of would-be hotshot Frankie Darro's hands before sending the chastened youngster home with his tail between his legs. It uncannily presages that moment in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) when Uma Thurman's Bride disarms and then spanks an unworthy opponent before telling him, "Go home to your mother!" It's highly unlikely that Quentin Tarantino ever saw The Lawless Rider, but you never know. He obviously watches a lot of movies.

* The other, Phyllis Coates, was in Ed Wood's The Sun Was Setting. Yes, Eddie worked with both Lois Lanes.

Carpenter and company on the Lawless Rider set.
The viewing experience: Surprisingly tame, if reasonably enjoyable. If nothing else, the film is helped along by its economical hour-long running time and relatively brisk pace. Had I chanced upon The Lawless Rider playing at some off hour on TCM and missed the opening credits, I would not have immediately guessed that Ed Wood had anything to do with it or that the movie was special or significant in any way.

Although Bill Thompson is the cinematographer, there are no striking or unusual images here as there are in the '50s films he lensed for Ed Wood. And despite the presence of Yakima Canutt in the director's chair, the action scenes in this film, mostly fistfights with some trick shooting and plenty of horseback riding, seem rote and by-the-book. Lawless is, at heart, a cheaply-made and largely unexceptional Western morality play, more akin with the tastes of the 1930s than the 1950s. Only its naivete distinguishes it.

It is difficult to imagine anyone but a cap-gun-toting child of the Eisenhower era, the kind who wears a toy sheriff's badge on his pajamas at night, becoming truly engrossed in this standard issue shoot-'em-up. As I have already explained, this film proudly eschews the complexity and ambiguity which were the norm in theatrically-released Westerns by the 1950s in favor of the moral certainty of an earlier era. But, unlike most of Eddie's other work, Western or otherwise, this one does not make any hairpin turns or pause for philosophical diatribes. Not even the dialogue is particularly Wood-ian. Let us, then, return to Johnny Carpenter's comment in Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. about how this script was written:
"We were writing The Lawless Rider in [Ed's] house at Riverside Drive and Victory Boulevard. Ed did everything. He was writer, production assistant, helped get people for me. We worked for each other for nothing. He would write a line of dialogue, and I would tear it up and throw it away. His dialogue was a little bit too perfect. The choice of words was not correct for the frontier."
Actor Henry Bederski contradicts this ("Johnny Carpenter couldn't write a story to save his life."), but a viewing of The Lawless Rider backs up Carpenter's version of the events. Having sorted through many, many examples of Ed Wood's writing, I can say that this script does not bear Wood's usual trademark expressions or his patented brand of stilted quasi-formality. I only counted a single, definitive Wood-ism: a spare "So what?" uttered by a thug. (This is also a catchphrase in the Wood-scripted The Violent Years.) It seems possible that someone, likely Carpenter himself (who else would have cared?), must have rewritten the dialogue line by line, systematically removing nearly all traces of Wood's weirdness in order to make the movie as normal and coherent as possible.

In their Cult Movies interview from 1994, Frank Henenlotter and Rudolph Grey accused director Stephen C. Apostolof of doing the same basic thing with Eddie's 1970s scripts, but the Apostolof films are much more eccentric in their own way than The Lawless Rider and allow for more of Eddie's personality to shine through, as well as his language. Since Steve Apostolof was not a native speaker of English, he might have deferred to Eddie when it came to dialogue. As the quote above indicates, on the other hand, Johnny Carpenter had some definite ideas about how the characters in his movies should speak.

Nancy James meets Freno Frost.
Let's set aside the dialogue, then, and focus on the plot, since Ed's presence may still be felt there. What exactly happens in The Lawless Rider? Well, the film takes place in 1896 in a fictional locale called Loma County, presumably in California. (The name is reminiscent of the real-life city of Loma Linda.) A crusading newspaperwoman named Nancy James (Noel Neill) arrives in town and tries to set up shop, only to be harassed and threatened by conniving crime boss Freno Frost (Kenne Duncan) and his gang of henchmen.

Although the local sheriff (Weldon Bascom) and Marshall Brady (Douglass Dumbrille) try to keep the peace, the greedy, violence-loving Frost really runs the town. He makes his money through cattle rustling, and he wants to wrangle a controlling interest in a cattle ranch owned and operated by Texas Rose Bascom (herself). He intends to do this through Rose's punk kid brother, Jim (Frankie Darro), who already owes Frost money and who seems poised to fall into a life of crime in his foolish quest for status and power. Rose has no intention of kowtowing to Frost, however, and violently rejects Frost's sleazy, opportunistic offer of marriage. Meanwhile, virtuous Deputy Marshall Johnny Carpenter (himself) has reluctantly tendered his resignation to Marshall Brady so that he may return home to the family ranch and help his sister.

Another dual role for Johnny Carpenter
Freno Frost buys Jim's interest in the Bascom ranch for a buck, and Frost's men start rustling cattle with newfound boldness from all the ranchers in the area. Rose sends a telegram to Johnny, her ex-boyfriend, asking for his help. The telegram informs Johnny that Freno Frost has sent for a notorious hired killer named Rod Tatum (also played by Johnny Carpenter), which suggests he is up to something particularly nefarious.

By this time, though, Johnny is no longer a lawman and is instead working on his sister's ranch. Johnny learns from his sister that Tatum is currently locked up in jail, so he decides to impersonate the killer and return to Loma County in disguise. (It's a good thing Johnny Carpenter and Rod Tatum look so much alike!) His first assignment as "Tatum" is to kill Jim Bascom! Obviously, he's not about to do that. He merely scares the bejeezus out of the kid and sends him on his way. Once in Loma County, the disguised Carpenter convinces Freno Frost and his thugs that he's really Rod Tatum. Things get a little confusing, however, when the genuine Rod Tatum breaks out of jail and rides into town. The "two" Tatums have a gunfight from which Johnny, the faker, emerges victorious.

In the film's turbulent and rather rushed final act, Texas Rose Bascom  holds a talent show in Loma County to benefit the ranchers who have suffered financial disaster at the hands of the Frost gang. The concert includes (somewhat underwhelming) rope tricks from Rose herself and Western music by Hank Caldwell and His Saddle Kings. In attendance, along with the local gangsters, are some of Johnny's own sidekicks. (He'd secretly gotten a message to them in case he needed backup.) Freno Frost doesn't want the show to go well, so he sends one of his goons, Black Jack (Lou Roberson), to interrupt it. Johnny and Black Jack get into a fight, during which the former's fake mustache falls off. The jig, as they say, is up.

This leads to an all-out melee between the good guys and bad guys: fisticuffs at first, but soon escalating to gunfire. During the chaotic battle, Freno Frost fatally shoots Rose's wayward brother, Jim, but Johnny Carpenter manages to finally kill Frost with a stick of dynamite. This, I guess, solves everything. Once the dust settles, Johnny discovers that Rose's ranch is rich with silver deposits, a fact that Freno Frost had known months earlier. His work done, the newly reborn Deputy Marshall Carpenter rides off toward his next assignment for Marshall Brady. The end.

Clancy Malone as doomed Don Gregor.
Does any of this seem particularly Wood-ian to you, reader? I will admit that, in very vague terms, Johnny Carpenter's The Lawless Rider bears some superficial resemblance to Ed Wood's own Jail Bait from the very same year. It's significant that these were both products of the period in the early 1950s during which Ed Wood was partnered with Alex Gordon. (Gordon, again, was a producer on Lawless and a co-writer on Jail Bait).

In both movies, we have a swaggering, tough-talking gangster type (Freno Frost/Vic Brady), an impetuous, trigger-happy young man (Jim Bascom/Don Gregor) who falls under his sway, and a justifiably-worried older sister (Rose Bascom/Marilyn Gregor) caught between them. I suppose this analogy makes Johnny Carpenter's character in The Lawless Rider the equivalent of Steve Reeves' bland Lt. Bob Lawrence, which is actually a pretty fair comparison.

Furthermore, both Lawless and Jail stop dead for several minutes so that we can watch a variety show act. In Lawless, it's Rose Bascom's lasso-swinging and the amiable music of Hank Caldwell, while in Jail, we are "treated" to several minutes of a minstrel show featuring Cotton Watts and Chick.

And finally, the plots of both films hinge on a man's outrageous and implausible plan to change his appearance and impersonate someone else. In Lawless, Johnny Carpenter slaps on a fake mustache and some black clothes to "become" Rod Tatum. And in Jail, of course, Vic Brady undergoes plastic surgery so he cannot be recognized by the police or identified by an eyewitness.

And yet, for the most part, The Lawless Rider is more of a historical curiosity for Ed Wood completists than it is a truly compelling narrative. Certainly, the prominent inclusion of Eddie's name in the credits and the participation of several key Wood cronies makes it a keeper. Ultimately, though, this is a Johnny Carpenter movie more than it is an Ed Wood movie. As such, Johnny Carpenter got his way on this production, and the finished movie suffers for it, as does the audience.

Carpenter must have considered himself quite the thespian in those days, because he attempts dual roles in both Son of the Renegade and The Lawless Rider. (This was well before comedian Peter Sellers became famous for playing multiple parts within the same film.) In Renegade, if you'll remember, Carpenter played a father and a son both nicknamed "Red River Johnny." Here, in Lawless, his part almost amounts to a triple role: the main good guy, a secondary bad guy, and the main good guy pretending to be a secondary bad guy. The trouble is, he plays all three of these parts pretty much the same.

Johnny Carpenter's riding and shooting skills may have been top notch, but he lacked the charisma to bring a creaky, past-its-sell-by-date affair like The Lawless Rider to life. While watching it, I found myself wishing Ed Wood had been given a freer hand in crafting this script.

Next: Another generous donation from the Phillip R. Frey Foundation! Like The Lawless Rider, this is a film I have been wanting to see and review for years but have never been able to find. It is one of the very few movies -- perhaps the only one -- in which Edward D. Wood, Jr. is simply an actor for hire. Curious yet? Does it pique your interest if I were to say that this is another film from the director of Nympho Cycler and The Love Feast, the legendary Joe Robertson? If so, or even if not, please join me in a fortnight for my dissection of Mrs. Stone's Thing (1970).

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Zomby (briefly) Returns: This is what creative desperation looks like

The first new "Zomby" cartoon in nearly two years. So, um, enjoy, I guess.

Zomby, a zombified parody of Tom Wilson's long-running newspaper cartoon series Ziggy, used to be an important recurring feature at Dead 2 Rights. That was before Ed Wood more or less hijacked this blog and (posthumously) made it his own. The premise was exceedingly simple. I'd take that day's Ziggy panel, turn the title character gray in Microsoft Paint, and change the punchline so that it was about a reanimated corpse who feasted on the living rather than a sweet, bumbling loser who couldn't get decent customer service. The joke, I guess, was that even in this supposedly-terrifying form, Zomby was just as much as an ineffectual, put-upon loser as Ziggy was. It was a way of taking some then-trendy monsters who were dominating films, TV, and video games and removing everything that made them cool or threatening. I did dozens, maybe hundreds, of Zomby panels and then just sort of stopped. Apart from a few stray shamblers in Plan 9 from Outer Space and Orgy of the Dead, zombies are no longer the focal point of this blog, despite its George Romero-inspired name. So Zomby disappeared. He hasn't been seen around here since 2013.

But today, I was trying to think of something I could post to Dead 2 Rights and thought, "Hey, why don't I try to do another Zomby cartoon and see if I can still get back into that mindset." So I Googled today's Ziggy panel and found that it was one of the series' most familiar tropes: Ziggy going to a diner and getting predictably lousy treatment. (The uncouth chef tells Ziggy he's too late to get the "breakfast of champions" and will have to settle for the "brunch of also-rans." Get it? Because Ziggy fails at everything and should totally just kill himself. HA!) It reminded me of another reason I abandoned Zomby: monotony. Ziggy only does five or six basic things, over and over. He watches TV, he takes abuse from his pets (a dog, a cat, and a bird), he tries to obtain goods and services without success, etc. I was going to call him out on this, until I realized that Ziggy's life was actually more varied and interesting than mine. I mean, he has a parrot. I don't. He goes fishing (or golfing or mountain climbing) sometimes. I don't. He freely walks around in public without pants. I...  well, that's none of your business.

Anyway, I realized today that the part of my brain that could easily come up with Zomby jokes must have died a couple of years ago. And unlike Zomby himself, I don't think it can be revived.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A pantry full of hate

This is a picture of clutter, in case you don't know what clutter looks like.

The kitchen in my apartment has a pantry, but I don't cook so I use it as a storage closet instead. Being the lazy, indolent sumbitch that I am, I have allowed this pantry to become laughably, even shamefully cluttered. Recently, I was trying to fill out my 1040 EZ for the benefit of good old Uncle Sam and thus went rummaging through the aforementioned closet in search of a large manila envelope upon which the fateful words "TAX SHIT" are scrawled in Sharpie. It took me a while to find, and so I resolved to finally sort through all the useless stuff in there and throw out or recycle anything I didn't actually use or want anymore. Last weekend, I actually went through with this plan, and it felt kind of good for a while. The pantry is still pretty much a mess, but now at least it's a somewhat more manageable mess.

The reason I bring all this up is that my mind is a lot like that pantry. It's cluttered up with a lot of useless junk. You know what takes up an inordinate amount of room? Grudges. Man, I am the king of grudges. I have grudges going back decades. I'm still mad over shit that happened before I was even in kindergarten. There are slights and injustices I can still remember from every phase of my life, and with only a little effort, I can still dredge up the hurt they caused me at the time and make those incidents seem freshly painful again, as if they just happened yesterday. I'm sure lots of good things have happened to me over the years, but my memories of the bad things are so much more vivid in my mind. Four long decades of birthdays and Christmases blend together into one big, blurry blob of indistinct experience. But if you teased me at recess even once in the third grade, you can bet I still hold onto that memory with a vice-like grip.

If you're one of the very few people reading this, it's likely that you're someone I have known for years. And if you're someone I've known for years, it's almost certain that you have caused me some real (or imagined) grief and that I'm still angry about it. I don't like that about myself. I never meant to become so bitter. It just sort of happened, failure by failure, disappointment by disappointment. I don't know what to do with all this bitterness. It's never done me a bit of good, and yet I can't bear to get rid of it.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Larry: A short story by Joe Blevins

This is the huge, orange face America eventually grew to love.

Prefatory notes by the author: "Larry" was actually written back in 2008 when there was such a thing as Larry King Live on television. The way it came about was that I was browsing through CNN's website and found some old Larry King transcripts there. Reading through them, I realized that Mr. King's particular brand of rambling, disjointed insanity was even funnier when soberly transcribed word for word. Believe me, what you're about to read is only a mild exaggeration of an actual King interview. Also, back when I wrote this, I was a professional transcriptionist and spent many hours and days and weeks of my life listening to recordings of focus groups and telephone surveys and converting them into text documents. So I was in complete sympathy with the person who had the task of transcribing Larry King Live. By the way, woodchucks are funny to me for some reason. Enjoy.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 59: 'Cult Movies' No. 11 (1994) [part 2 of 2]

In 1994, a mere $4.95 (or $6.95 in Canada) would buy you the latest ish of Cult Movies magazine.


"I was classed as a madman, a charlatan, outlawed in a world of science which previously honored me as a genius. Now here in this forsaken jungle hell I have proven that I am alright. No, Professor Strowski, it is no laughing matter."
-Bela Lugosi in Bride of the Monster (1955)

Eddie's image was upgraded from this to this in the 1990s.
Ed Wood's ironic postmortem fame arrived in at least three distinct waves, as I see it. In other words, there have been three  separate and identifiable eras during which the name of Edward D. Wood, Jr. has possessed some pop cultural clout. For the last few decades, Ed's name always meant something to people, but exactly what it meant depended on the tenor of the times.

Wood's first wave of after-death notoriety occurred in the early-to-mid-1980s, spurred by the publication of Harry and Michael Medved's The Golden Turkey Awards. Only the rudiments of Eddie's life and work were widely known to critics and historians at the time, so the first wave was marked by breezy mockery of the man and his career. Wood was merely a cross-dressing clown who made cheap and incredibly amateurish flying saucer flicks. He was a punchline, nothing more.

For many, this is still the predominant image of Ed Wood, thirty-plus years later, so we can safely say that the first wave of Ed's postmortem fame was the most influential and durable of the three. During this wave, Eddie's three most famous films -- Glen or Glenda?, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Bride of the Monster, all from the 1950s -- were staples at revival houses and campus theaters, where they were loudly and joyously jeered by hip audiences.

The second wave happened in the early-to-mid-1990s and was centered around Tim Burton's Ed Wood and its literary progenitor, Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy. It was, in a way, a response to the first wave. Second wavers sought to rehabilitate Eddie's image, while still snickering at his life's work. Much more information about Ed Wood's life was known by then, including his debilitating alcoholism, his war record, his prolific career in pornography, and his tragic and poverty-stricken final years.

Appropriately, Eddie was treated with more sympathy and understanding by second wavers, though he remained a figure of fun to them. Wood was still a clown, but now he was a tragic clown; he'd been upgraded from Bozo to Pagliacci, so to speak. Besides Burton's film and Grey's book, the second wave was notable for the appearance of several loving yet cheeky and irreverent documentaries (typified by Ted Newsom's Look Back in Angora) that sought to put Wood's cinematic lunacy into some kind of understandable context while still having some guffaws at his expense.

Part of the third wave.
Third-wave Woodology (and, yes, I am hijacking this term from "third-wave feminism") is occurring right now, in the new millennium, and has no particular catalyst or obvious rallying cry behind it. If anything, it has been made possible by advancements in technology, including search engines and social media. These online breakthroughs have made it much easier for writers and researchers to access and disseminate information as well as stay in contact with other like-minded fans.

What, exactly, made me decide to write a series of articles about this man, a series that has now grown to something like half a million words? Why him? Why now? I don't know exactly, but there must have been something in the air, because the Wood cult -- which had been largely dormant since the Clinton years -- began to rise from its slumbers in the 21st century with crucial new books (Ed Wood, Mad Genius; Blood Splatters Quickly), DVD reissues (Big Box of Wood; Ed Wood's Dirty Movies), and special events (the gallery exhibition of his paperbacks; a week-long New York film festival). Private Edward D. Wood, Jr. had been officially called back into service.

Hopefully, the third wave of Wood's fame will be the one that finally "gets it right" by painting the most complete and honest portrait yet of this surprisingly complex man. Learning from the first and second waves (without letting our thinking be dictated by them), we third wavers can now use all the information at hand to accurately and evenhandedly assess Eddie's strengths and weaknesses, and we can identify what is still unique and fascinating about Ed's work, while not losing sight of Ed's shortcomings. Perhaps in this sense, time has been a gift to us. As Ed Wood's life recedes further and further into the past, the man himself can get the fair day in court he has been denied for decades.

But now, readers, it is time to revisit an artifact from the second wave of Woodology, specifically a fan magazine produced in 1994, right before the premiere of Disney-Touchstone's Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp and Martin Landau. A multi-million-dollar, star-studded, studio-financed biopic is the kind of honor normally reserved for those we call "heroes": chart-topping singers, record-breaking athletes, paradigm-shifting science whizzes. For such a biopic to be made about a so-called B-movie director whose films were neither critically nor financially successful in his own time was astonishingly, absurdly rare. And the fan community certainly took notice. Twenty-one years ago, when the now-mighty internet was still a mere fledgling, fans of the bizarre and the overlooked expressed themselves not on the screen but on the page.

(NOTE: In case you missed it, the first part of my Cult Movies coverage is right here.) 


Cult Movies magazine, No. 11 (1994):
A continuing examination


"Valda Hansen: Farewell to the White Ghost" (pgs. 54-55)

Valda Hansen in Night of the Ghouls.
Actress Valda Hansen (1932-1993) was the blonde bombshell who vampily portrayed the con artist known as the White Ghost in Ed Wood's Night of the Ghouls in 1959. After years removed from the public spotlight, Valda briefly resurfaced in the 1990s to reminisce fondly about Eddie in Nightmare of Ecstasy and the documentary Flying Saucers Over Hollywood. She died of cancer at the age of 60 in July 1993, a year before this issue was released. Her death, in fact, had already merited mention in Cult Movies #8. "Farewell to the White Ghost" is a fond goodbye to the departed starlet, written by Cult Movies publisher Buddy Barnett, based on an interview with Hansen by Cult Movies editor-in-chief Mike Copner.

Valda Hansen is one of those intriguing peripheral figures in the Wood story, a very sexy actress who might have been a big star had she gotten a few lucky breaks. Drew Friedman was sufficiently interested in Hansen to devote one of his Ed Wood trading cards to her. "Farewell to the White Ghost" helps to flesh her out a little more. Ed first discovered Valda when she was a teenage stage actress. It was he who suggested she peroxide her naturally-tawny hair in order to look older.

Personally, I think it's noteworthy that Eddie's other great loves, Dolores Fuller and Kathy Wood, were also blondes. Hansen's promising '50s career as a studio contract player, unfortunately, was derailed by her scandalous romance with George White, a film editor many years her senior. After White's death, Hansen left showbiz for other pursuits. It was a "torrid affair" with B-movie mainstay Tony Cardoza, himself a supporting player in Night of the Ghouls, which brought her back to motion pictures in the 1970s with such credits as Wham! Bam! Thank You, Spaceman! (1975). She speaks with kindness and generosity about both Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi, though she does relate the canard that Lugosi drank formaldehyde. (This is an urban myth that wound up in the Ed Wood screenplay.)

Of Ed Wood, who clearly had a crush on her, Valda says:
Ed was very metaphysical.  I don't care about all this stuff about him being the world's worst director, who cares, but he was a very metaphysical person. He used to call me late into the night, he always called me lover. He'd say, "Lover, only you understand what I'm going through tonight, only you. My soul is in torment. Do you understand, lover?" He was always a little drunk at the time. But, I understood him. He used to talk about death and his feelings about death. He used to reminisce about Bela Lugosi and missed opportunities of [Ed's] career. But, he was very metaphysical and believed strongly in life after death. I believe he's still with us, I've sensed his presence many times.

An actor: Bela Lugosi.
"The Road to Las Vegas: Bela Lugosi in American Theatre" (pgs. 56-65)

Bela Lugosi may have spent much of his career in a coffin, but the man was definitely born in a trunk, to use a hoary old showbiz expression. This eye-opening historical/critical article by author Frank J. Dello Stritto is easily the lengthiest, most complex, and best-researched piece in all of Cult Movies #11. It's an incredible work of pop cultural scholarship, one that covers over three decades of Lugosi's life in fairly minute detail and offers great insight into a misunderstood figure.

Dello Stritto painstakingly analyzes Lugosi's theatrical career one show at a time, starting with The Red Poppy, which lasted a mere ten days in Greenwich Village in December 1922, and ending with Devil's Paradise, a Los Angeles production that ran for two days in June 1956, only two months before Lugosi's death.

In between these two flops, Bela appeared everywhere from Broadway to summer stock and saw his career ebb and flow like the tide. Dracula was the actor's most famous role, and he played it many times in many venues of varying respectability, including a 1927-1928 Broadway run that Dello Stritto suggests may not have been a runaway success.

This, however, was merely one facet of the actor's surprisingly diverse, genre-hopping career. By methodically following Lugosi from show to show, the author traces the Hungarian emigre's crazily up-and-down life in the States, including the rise and fall of his 20-year marriage to Lillian Lugosi.

There were triumphs along the way, as in 1943, when a 60-year-old Lugosi successfully took over for professional rival Boris Karloff in Arsenic and Old Lace and made the role his own. But there were humiliations, too, as in the poverty row "fright night" shows Lugosi consented to do in the early 1950s. Critics were by turns amused, bemused, impressed, and distressed by Bela Lugosi, who never shook his Hungarian accent and who had to resort to some degree of phonetic memorization of his lines, especially in the early days.

I don't know if Dello Stritto realized this Lugosi-centric piece would end up in an issue ostensibly devoted to Edward D. Wood, Jr., but Eddie is a memorable supporting character in "The Road to Las Vegas." In fact, the author goes as far as making this bold statement, which I will quote verbatim:
"Edward D. Wood, Jr. -- sometimes sports promoter, sometime manufacturer of 3-D Christmas cards, director, producer and writer of unforgettably bad films, and now a cult figure in his own right -- is the pivotal figure in Lugosi's last years. Questionable as his cinematic talents may have been, he did succeed in getting Lugosi work when no one else either could or would." 

Dello Stritto says that Wood was "the guiding hand" in Lugosi's "moving" and "much-needed" public appearance in San Bernadino, CA on New Year's Eve, 1953, during which the actor made a heartfelt, impromptu speech to his assembled fans. The article divides Lugosi's life into different eras, and Dello Stritto identifies the late 1940s and early 1950s as a time of "Lugosimania," when the actor's presence alone created "spontaneous mass hysteria." This, says the author, was the period when Lugosi met and began working with "a new generation of young filmmakers," including Eddie.

Comedian Sparky Kaye's grave.
For Wood fans, the main point of interest in "The Road to Las Vegas" is the section dealing specifically with The Bela Lugosi Revue, a comedic Vegas stage show allegedly written by Ed Wood and performed over the course of two months in the winter of 1954 at a venue called The Silver Slipper. Ever the trouper, the aging Hungarian thespian pushed himself to do three shows a day in Vegas for seven consecutive weeks.

Meanwhile, Wood and his then-partner Alex Gordon tried to drum up more work for Bela: perhaps a radio show or comic book and certainly more film roles. Lugosi made it through the grueling run of the Dracula-spoofing revue like a champ, but the hoped-for job offers did not materialize. Bela's only film work after that was Wood and Gordon's own production, Bride of the Monster.

Dello Stritto helpfully includes, as a sidebar, Variety's entire (positive) assessment of The Bela Lugosi Revue, dated March 1, 1954. From this, we get a much clearer view of what the show must have been like. Though Lugosi was obviously the star attraction, the hour-long show featured a cast of skilled comedians, including Sparky Kaye and Hank Henry, as well as the talents of stripper Terre Sheehan, who "emerges from a large champagne glass of bubbles" at one point in the proceedings. The Bela Lugosi Revue also included a parody of Jack Webb's Dragnet, which is interesting to learn because I've often stated that Dragnet was a huge influence on Ed Wood's movies. Variety even praises Bela Lugosi's ad libbing skills, disproving a line Martin Landau says in Ed Wood as Lugosi: "I never said I could ad lib!" According to Variety, he could.

"Rudolph Grey on Ed Wood" (pgs. 74-77)

Rudolph Grey and Frank Henenlotter
One of the true highlights of Cult Movies #11 is this spirited conversation between Wood biographer Rudolph Grey and cult filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, the man behind such demented horror comedies as Basket Case and Frankenhooker. What fuels the discussion is the fact that both men are unabashed Ed Wood fans who are quite familiar with the most obscure titles in Wood's patchwork filmography. As such, they largely forego talking about such obvious titles as Glenda and Plan 9 and instead dive headfirst into the deep end of the cinematic swimming pool, to coin a phrase.

Besides the Tim Burton film, the big news in Wood-land at the time of this issue was the recent discovery of a semi-complete print of Ed Wood's Necromania, a pornographic feature from 1971. Grey said he had offered a $20,000 reward for the movie, but Henenlotter relates the story of how Necromania really materialized. As it happened, Rudy's book, Nightmare of Ecstasy, was crucial to the film's identification. Henenlotter:
[The film] turned up quite casually. Some guy wanted to sell [Something Weird Video founder] Mike Vraney a bunch of 16mm sex films. Well, Mike didn't want any hard-core so he asked the guy for a list and was trying to weed out the hard-core from the soft. But since there really isn't any reference work for hard-core titles, Mike called me up saying, "Have you heard of any of these?" And we're just racing through the list going, "nope, nope, nope" and then, boom, he says Necromania. And we both just said, "No. Can't be. No way. Better get it!" So he gets the film, puts it on, sees that the head title is missing and calls me up in a panic. "There are no credits! How do I know if it's Necromania?" I say, "Is Rene Bond in it?" He says, "I don't know who she is." I say, "Is Rick Lutze in it?" He says, "I don't know who he is." So I say, "Get Rudolph's book and turn to page 134. There is a picture of Ed Wood on the set." He does and goes nuts, "We got it! We got it!"
The discovery of Necromania seems to have bolstered Grey's spirits. He admits to Henenlotter that his fruitless, decade-long search for the Gothic stag film had depressed him. But the mid-1990s were boom times in the Ed Wood biz, as evidenced by Something Weird's VHS releases of Wood's work, the warm reception of Nightmare of Ecstasy, and the prospect of a Disney-financed Wood biopic. As such, the normally-cagey Grey, whom I've previously described as a cross between Lt. Columbo and Bob Dylan, is unusually effusive, even bubbly.

Since Nightmare is written as an oral history and is built from quotes by Ed Wood's friends and associates, the book doesn't really offer Grey the opportunity to opine about his chosen subject. Here, then, Grey finally gets the chance to speak his mind about Ed Wood's life and work, particularly his late-career, adult-oriented films from the 1960s and 1970s. Some highlights:

  • Rudolph Grey's Ed Wood project began life as a fictional screenplay about a filmmaker who turns to pornography. This was to have been dedicated to Ed Wood.
  • At the time of this article, Grey was still trying to track down two other Wood-directed films from the same era (June 1971) as Necromania. These are The Young Marrieds and The Only House in Town. [Note: both have since been located.] According to Grey, Young Marrieds and Only House were both produced by a company called Caballero Films at a cost of $5000 apiece and then sold to Stacey Films for distribution. Caballero, Grey says, was "affiliated with Bernie Bloom, Ed Wood's publisher." This jibes with my theory about those films as well, so I was glad to read this.
  • Rudolph Grey reads several long excerpts from Ed Wood's novel The Only House, the book upon which (confusingly enough) Necromania  is based. The text is very similar to "Come Inn," a short story I have previously reviewed. The character names (Tania, Madame Heles, Danny, Shirley) are the same in the film, the novel, and the short story.
Ed-sploitation?
  • Grey and Henenlotter candidly discuss Ed Wood's appearances in the films of Joe Robertson, namely Love Feast and Mrs. Stone's Thing. Eddie appears in drag and intoxicated in these late-1960s productions. In the former, says Grey, Wood is wearing "the kind of underwear my grandmother used to wear." Both Frank and Rudy say that these movies are fascinating finds but ultimately depressing because Ed doesn't look well in them. "It's almost as if he's being exploited," says Grey.
  • One Million AC/DC is brought up, then summarily dismissed. Frank Henenlotter calls it "just a lot of stupid jokes abut grapes and an obvious children's toy they're using as a dinosaur."
  • Henenlotter also comments on the indelible theme song from For Love and Money: "so ghastly you just can't get it out of your head."
  • As the two men survey the films Ed wrote for director Stephen C. Apostolof in the 1970s, Grey remarks that Fugitive Girls has "an Ed Wood script that seems complete and hasn't been tampered with too much." Other SCA films of the era are also critiqued (The Class Reunion, Drop Out Wife, Snow Bunnies, Beach Bunnies, The Cocktail Hostesses), mostly disparagingly. Apostolof, they both feel, exerted too strong a hand in editing Eddie's screenplays, so Ed's voice can barely be heard in the finished films, apart from a few stray lines. 
  • Grey explains his own qualifications for being able to identify genuine Ed Wood-written dialogue. He finds it especially odd that Eddie listed Hot Ice on his writing resume, since he doesn't detect any trace of Wood in the script. (In my Hot Ice review, I found some potentially Wood-ian elements.)
  • Both Frank Henenlotter and Rudolph Grey are much happier with the throwback science-fiction film, The Venus Flytrap (erroneously marketed as The Revenge of Dr. X). Grey enthuses that the film exhibits a "crazy logic" which is "definitely Ed Wood." Henenlotter and Grey are both particularly smitten with the lead performance of James Craig as a cantankerous mad scientist.
  • The conversation turns next to John Andrews, a crucial Wood associate who died shortly before the publication of Nightmare of Ecstasy. Grey says that Andrews provided many of the best anecdotes in the book and claims that Nightmare "would have been much less than it was" without John's contributions. Apparently, Forrest J. Ackerman had written an article in Cult Movies disparaging the late Mr. Andrews and accusing him of thievery. Rudolph Grey, in response, calls Ackerman's story "cheap and shoddy."
  • The article ends with a thoughtful Rudoph Grey discussing his overall impressions of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the man he has spent decades studying. Ed, he says, was an "unconventional" man with "a vast store of experience," including fighting in the Second World War and traveling with a carnival as a half-man, half-woman. So why didn't Eddie succeed in this world? "Nobody took him seriously," Grey laments. "No one recognized that Ed had something to offer."

"Casual Company - Part 2" (pgs. 78-79)

Ed's wartime play.
This particular article was the main reason I decided to buy Cult Movies #11 in the first place, and it turned out to be my main source of frustration with the issue as well. Just to refresh your memory: Casual Company was Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s first-ever novel, which he wrote in 1948 at the age of 24, and it was based on his experiences in the Marines during World War II.

Although unpublished during Wood's lifetime, Casual Company served as the basis for a play that actually was produced at a small theater in Los Angeles in 1948, with Ed both directing and playing the role of "Corporal Anthony." I'm not sure how the manuscript for the ultra-obscure novel survived for half a century, but a copy of it somehow wound up in the possession of the editors of Cult Movies magazine.

For some crazy reason, I had the impression that the entirety of the novel was included in Cult Movies #11. This turned out not to be the case. Instead, Cult Movies chose to serialize the novel, and the magazine's eleventh issue merely contained the second installment of that series: two densely-packed, eye-straining pages of text, presented in what looks like a six-point font and divided into three columns per page.

This layout, coupled with the cheap quality of the paper, makes the experience of reading the article more like that of browsing through a telephone directory in search of an honest-looking plumber. According to The Hunt for Edward D. Wood, Jr., the first excerpt from Casual Company appeared in the magazine's tenth issue in June 1993. I do not know if any further installments appeared in the magazine. Perhaps some collectors can enlighten me on this topic.

I was doubly disappointed here: first to realize that the entirety of the novel was not included in this issue of the magazine and then to find out that I wouldn't even be reading the beginning of the novel but would be joining the story already in progress. (On the letters page, a Cult Movies reader even says that the idea of serializing the novel in this fashion is impractical. I definitely agree.) But since I had already purchased Cult Movies #11 and was still very interested in Casual Company, I read "Part 2" anyway and decided to glean what I could from it.

Tim Burton's Ed Wood, with a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, memorably depicts the Casual Company play as being a very earnest and preachy affair set on a grim-looking battlefield. This is understandable, since Eddie claimed to have seen combat in WW2 and even claimed to have survived torture at the hands of the Japanese. But Eddie was also a whiz-bang clerical worker, famed for his typing skills. And when a program for Casual Company recently resurfaced in the infamous Ed Wood auction of 2015, the play was described as "a farce in three acts" and had lots of jokey, pun-filled character names in its cast list.

True to form, this excerpt from the Casual Company novel reveals itself as a very mild office comedy with no combat action whatsoever and barely any conflict at all. It could easily be a episode of Gomer Pyle, USMC or Major Dad, but it's like one of those shows on Quaaludes.

Think Gomer Pyle, USMC on heavy sedatives.
The story -- at least the section of it I read -- is not set in the European or Pacific Theaters at all. Instead, Casual Company takes place stateside, on a Marine base eighty miles outside of Los Angeles. The activity centers around the office of Casual Company, an outfit that exists to process the medical records of hospitalized Marines. A fleeting reference to Marines becoming "wheel chair cases" is the only hint that there are young men being injured and killed abroad.

Instead, the focus of Casual Company is on three happy-go-lucky reservists, Elbo, Jim, and Jerry, who have been pressed into service as file clerks. Their lackadaisical attitude towards their work is what gives the Casual Company its name, and the three men are constantly at odds with their commanding officers: dimwitted Captain Roberts, a would-be rabbit hunter who can't seem to hit anything, and the cantankerous First Sergeant Daniel "Hashmark" O'Hare, who is also known as Top. (It took me several readings to figure out that "Hashmark" and Top are the same guy, by the way. Ed Wood does not make this clear.) Top resents having to deal with these reservists, and the feeling is definitely mutual.

The most major event that occurs in the otherwise snoozy "Part 2" is that Jim receives a personal phone call during work hours from Nadine, a girl he is dating, and Top chews him out for it, only to then receive a nagging phone call from his own wife, who wants Top to pick up some groceries. It's a standard sitcom comeuppance.

The office atmosphere of Casual Company reminded me somewhat of the police stations in Wood's later films, Bride of the Monster and Night of the Ghouls. Wood tells us that one of Jerry's duties is to fetch Captain Roberts' newspaper each day, which is similar to a minor plot point in Bride. And just like the cops in Night, the servicemen in Casual Company are constantly trying to either delegate or shirk various unwanted responsibilities, including the stamping of record books. Ed Wood's eternal muse, booze, makes an early appearance here, too, with Captain Roberts eagerly anticipating an officer's club party "with good scotch and bourbon waiting, for free."

But there are two passages in particular that Wood's fans will want to read. In the first, Top shares some dialogue with a pretty, angora-clad girl at a cigar counter in the Ship's Service.
     The pretty girl in the tight fitting pink Angora sweater set came to him with a smile. "Good morning, First Sergeant," she chirped, cheerily.
     "Yeah!" exclaimed the First Sergeant.
     The girl looked at him closely. "We haven't met before," she informed the man. "But Elbo has told me an awful lot about you. I feel that I know you like a book."
     "I can just imagine what he has told you."
     "Oh, it was all good. Elbo is so wonderful."
     "Elbo, wonderful! This is a new one."
     "Elbo got me my job here. I just started this morning. I like it. Like my new sweater set? Angora ... I just bought it yesterday. I wanted a new sweater set for my new job. So out I went shopping. I saw this angora. It was so soft and cuddly and with this beautiful soft pink color, it is all so feminine. Something new for something new. Isn't that cute? Something new for something new ... I like that."
     "I'm glad you like it."
     "Ohh, I do ... I paid plenty for the sweater set, too."
     Top sighed ... "And I'm glad you like your job, and if you want to continue liking it, I suggest you get me five, fifteen cent cigars."
     The girl let her smile fade. Maybe all those things that Elbo had said about his First Sergeant were true, but even looking closely she didn't see any horns, nor did she see the hole in the man's head.
Apart from the fetishistic attention to the textural qualities (and exorbitant price) of angora rabbit fur, one may note the frequent use of ellipses and the comparison of the First Sergeant to a horned devil or demon. All are trademarks of Ed Wood's writing. Another intriguing, quintessentially Wood-ian quote comes near the end of "Part 2" when Top rants about the reservists, whom he deems less than manly. Were Casual Company more famous, certainly the following line would be among Ed Wood's most famous phrases:
"Ohh, to be with a man's outfit again, and far away from you pantie waist reserves."
I'm not sure if the punning on Wood's part is wholly conscious or intentional, but modern readers will certainly detect some coded messages here to Ed's own, tortured transvestism, which famously caused him anguish during his war years. Also present is Ed's eternal obsession with manliness. Wood himself has been described as "effeminate" by some observers, and his characters frequently brood over their own perceived lack of machismo.

It is interesting to note that self-styled man's man Top is symbolically emasculated by his nagging wife shortly after ranting about "pantie waist reserves," thus calling his own masculinity into question. All in all, even though this book can be classified as mere juvenilia, Ed Wood's Casual Company does show some early promise and still reads fairly well.

The main problem I encountered as a reader is that, about halfway through, the story jumps from one location (the Casual Company office) to another (the Ship's Service) with no transition at all. One second, we're with Jim, Jerry, and Elbo, the next with Top and the cigar girl. I have to wonder if Cult Movies ran two separate chapters together with no break. Otherwise, it's the literary equivalent of a jarring and unexplained jump cut.

Cult Movies ad (pg. 88)

This is a one-page ad for back issues of the magazine. What's notable is that Ed Wood's name appears on the covers of issues #7 and #8. The latter promises: "Coffin Joe, Vampira, Ed Wood, Lugosi & More!" Obviously, Eddie was a regular fixture in the pages of Cult Movies. According to Philip R. Frey's invaluable Ed Wood siteCult Movies #3 (1991) also devoted its cover to Wood with the headline: "Edward D. Wood Jr.: The Story Must Be Told!!!," while the first part of The Casual Company appeared in issue #10 from June 1993.

Inside back cover

We are treated to two more stills ("exclusive first photos") from Ed Wood. The first depicts Lisa Marie as Vampira, hands on hips, standing imperially on the fog-shrouded set of her TV show. The second shows Johnny Depp and Martin Landau as Ed and Bela, watching TV at Bela's home. Below is a darned good approximation of the page. I had to do some searching for a still that showed not only Depp and Landau but the large painting of Bela Lugosi behind them.

Two more publicity stills from Touchstone's Ed Wood with Lisa Marie, Johnny Depp, and Martin Landau.

And that, my friends, is just about all the Ed Wood content you'll find in the eleventh issue of Cult Movies magazine. But even all that is far from everything you'll find in this slim but densely-packed publication. Along with pages and pages and pages of detailed movie and book reviews, there is a lengthy feature story about softcore filmmaker Barry Mahon, plus some Godzilla-related interviews, and even a look at "1937: Hollywood's Year of Tragedy."

In short, this is a goldmine of information about weird, offbeat, and underground motion pictures. One could say that magazines like Cult Movies have been rendered obsolete or redundant by the internet, but I would not agree. This is a professionally-produced piece of work, so it has a sense of authority that may be lacking from amateur fan sites. But it's not a slick, corporate-owned entity either, so it can afford to be more esoteric and niche-specific than most major entertainment websites could ever be today.

The sheer amount of research that has gone into just this one issue boggles my mind, and I don't think all of this stuff has turned up yet online, even twenty years later. Throughout my years as a hardcore movie geek, I've been dimly aware of the importance of magazines like Cult Movies, but I haven't really given them much time or attention until now. Maybe I should have.

Next: Thanks to a generous grant from the Philip R. Frey Foundation, Ed Wood Wednesdays is at last able to return to its original purpose of reviewing actual motion pictures. Can you believe it? I'll be reviewing movies again here! The magnanimous Mr. Frey sent me a whole passel of obscure Wood flicks, ones I'd tried to find without success, and I think it's high time I started digging into them. So that's just what I'll do. Make it back here in two weeks for my long-gestating examination of The Lawless Rider (1954)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Here, this ought to creep you out nicely

In Soviet Russia, The Great Gatsby reads you in high school! 

Not sure exactly why I did this. Just felt it needed to be done, I guess.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Ed Wood Extra! The arrival of Lots #3028 and #3043

Here I am with my new Ed Wood poster, bathed in the greenish fluorescent glow of my small kitchen.

This poster caused me so much grief.
Chalk up one more thing Ed Wood and I have in common. Eddie suffered for his art. And I, too, have suffered for Ed Wood's art, though not for the reasons you might be imagining.

While making my way through, let's say, the '70s softcore romps Eddie wrote for Steve Apostolof involved a certain amount of tedium, I cannot say that Wood's work has inspired in me the same kind of theatrical agony it seems to have caused other observers. No, my suffering has been of a different stripe.

Since Ed Wood Wednesdays began back in July 2013, I have essentially been an indentured servant to a man who died nearly 40 years ago. In my quest to catalog the life and career of Edward Davis Wood, Jr., I have frequently forsaken such niceties as fresh air, exercise, and sleep. The sun may shine and the birds may chirp, after all, but this DVD of The Undergraduate isn't going to review itself! Like Mark Borchardt said in American Movie: "I have to adhere to this keyboard."

Conservatively, I'd estimate I've put on 15 to 20 pounds in the time I've been writing Ed Wood Wednesdays. I chalk it up to all those hours I've spent hunched over my laptop computer, keeping my energy up with a steady intake of frozen dinners and prepackaged snacks. Hey, Eddie got a little doughy near the end, too. That's yet another thing we have in common, except his weight gain came from booze while mine came from gummi worms and microwaved pizza.

And sometimes, this project has inconvenienced me in such silly ways that all I can do is laugh. Take today, for instance. You'll remember, a few weeks ago, that there was a massive auction of Ed Wood memorabilia. I chickened out on the big ticket items, including a suitcase and two trunks owned by Eddie himself, but I wanted to get something out of the auction so I bid on a few of the smaller items. I wound up winning two of these: a vintage one-sheet poster for Glen or Glenda? under the alternate title I Led 2 Lives (Lot #3028) and a set of eight Mexican lobby cards for Plan 9 from Outer Space (Lot #3043).

Today, they are in my possession at last, and getting them into my apartment was a Sisyphean ordeal. It should have been easy. FedEx was scheduled to deliver them yesterday, but I knew I'd be at work when they arrived so I arranged to have Patricia, the lovely lady who manages the office of the apartment complex where I live, sign for them in my absence. My apartment, I should say, is literally next door to this office. We share a wall.

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men. My landlady happened to be dropping by the office when the FedEx guy arrived, and she prevented Patricia from signing for the package, reasoning that if they performed this simple kindness for me, a loyal rent-payer for 12 years, they'd have to do the same for everyone. My landlady, I can say from experience, is not someone with whom you can bargain... or reason.

One of my nifty new lobby cards.
Meanwhile, of course, my package could not be delivered as instructed. So back to the FedEx pickup center it went. Luckily, this is less than a quarter-mile from my home, since I live in a busy commercial district dominated by strip malls, chain stores, and gas stations. The clerk there was only too happy to turn over my Ed Wood poster and lobby cards to me.

But here is where the story turns into a Buster Keaton comedy. RR Auction sent these items in one large, flat cardboard box, and there was no way of fitting this into my cramped 2002 Chevy Cavalier. I tried every configuration I could imagine. Seats all the way forward. Seats all the way back. Passenger seat tilted as flat as it would go. Windows open. Trunk open. Nothing, and I mean nothing, worked.

Here I was, stranded in the FedEx parking lot just a few minutes away from my apartment. I thought of temporarily ditching the car and just walking the damned thing back home. But, again, this is a busy commercial district, and my story was happening during rush hour traffic. How was I ever going to get across those busy, dangerous streets with this ridiculous cardboard box? If I held it in front of me, I couldn't even see the traffic coming.

In desperation, I dragged the package back into the FedEx place and asked if I could just open it there and take the contents out. The lady behind the desk said this was fine, so I borrowed her scissors and cut into the package. And what tumbled out? More styrofoam packing peanuts than I have ever seen in my life. Dozens and dozens of the goddamned things accumulated at my feet. Mortified, I spent a good (read: bad) 10 to 15 minutes crawling around the floor of the FedEx pickup center in a frantic effort to retrieve every last one of those peanuts. The place looked nicer than my apartment, after all, and I didn't want to muck it up.

Eventually, though, I did manage to extract my purchases and get them into my battered, grungy old car. The Glen or Glenda? poster was swaddled in about eight miles of bubble wrap, so it was still quite a large item even outside of its cardboard cocoon. But at least it was now flexible enough to be (barely) wedged into the nearly-nonexistent back seat of my vehicle. I couldn't see a damned thing out the rear window, but then again, I didn't have far to drive. It wasn't 100% safe, but it was safe enough.

Once I got back home, I had a devil of a time chasing after all the additional styrofoam peanuts that were falling everywhere. I'm kind of a zealot about littering, especially in my own neighborhood, so I didn't want to just leave a trail of those tell-tale peanuts outside the apartment complex where I live. It was a windy day, though, so this was tricky to say the least. I'm sure I lost a few soldiers today.

And now? Well, now the poster and the lobby cards are safely ensconced in my apartment. And you know what else? They're really lovely. I have no idea what I'm going to do with them, but they're lovely nonetheless.

The Glenda poster is larger than I was imagining, the size of a small (admittedly very wide and flat) child, and still a satisfying shade of fire-engine red. Right now, still wrapped in plastic, it's leaning against the wall of my kitchen. I'll probably have it framed soon, but I think the kitchen is a good place for it. Much of Glen or Glenda? takes place in kitchens. Even Lugosi's lab where he creates life is a kind of kitchen. Every morning when I have my bowl of cereal, I can look up at Eddie smooching with Dolores Fuller, forever preserved in their 1953 glory. That's a nice thought.

The lobby cards came in a thick, heavy binder of their own. I might just leave them that way. To be honest, I haven't given much thought to the items themselves. I've barely even looked at 'em. For now, I'm just happy they're home.

POSTSCRIPT: In my Clouseau-esque struggles to get the uncooperative poster and lobby cards into my vehicle on Wednesday, I somehow managed to injure my left leg rather badly. By Thursday, that leg was noticeably bruised and achy, making it difficult to walk. For the last two days, then, I have been limping to and from work. Now that I am at last in repose, attempting to recuperate over the weekend, the medicinal smell of a cheap, over-the-counter topical ointment is stinging my nostrils. So when I say I have suffered for Ed Wood's art, I mean it quite literally.