Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Paperback Odyssey, Part Two by Greg Dziawer

This week, we delve into some 1960s paperbacks and determine whether or not Ed Wood was involved.

Sorry, folks, this isn't Ed's work.
There has been some lingering speculation that the obscure 1967 pulp novel Camera Action, though credited to one Dirk Malloy, was actually written by our very own Edward Davis Wood, Jr. under one of his many pen names. Eddie did write adult books during this era, but was this one of them? And if Ed didn't write this quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, who did?

Well, to end the suspense quickly, Dirk Malloy wrote Camera Action. And that is a pseudonym, but not for Ed Wood. More on that later.

I bring all this up because in last week's installment of this series, we delved into the true authorship of Norman Bates' Male Wives, sometimes credibly claimed to be written by Ed Wood. There is reasonable circumstantial evidence to support this claim. Ed collaborated frequently with Male Wives' true author, Charles D. Anderson, when the two of them worked at Pendulum Publishing in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, Ed Wood had no involvement with Male Wives. It is solely Anderson's work. Obviously, though, any connection to Eddie might make Male Wives or any such paperback more valuable on the secondary market.

In fact, in my various travels through the world of vintage paperbacks, I occasionally come across far more dubious claims that certain works supposedly involved Ed. As an Ed Wood fan myself and a researcher, that deeply irritates me. And before a spark becomes a fire, we should put it out. Not that these pathetic gambits by book sellers are always successful. Just because someone claims a book was written or cowritten by Ed Wood doesn't mean that buyers will believe it. For example, in the case of that last book, its "buy it now" price on Ebay remained at a mere $22 for months. Genuine Ed Wood paperbacks routinely sell in the hundreds.

A Leo Eaton/Ed Wood collaboration
from the T.K. Peters source.
But even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut. I landed a copy of the super-rare A Study of the Sexual Man, Book One at Etsy for a mere $21.99 a couple weeks back, lucky that the seller had no idea what they had on their hands. This particular vendor didn't list Ed's name in the description of the item. Nor was there a mention of Pendulum or even of the book's credited coauthor Dr. T.K. Peters, even though that name is highly associated with Ed Wood.

I was about 30 pages deep into this seller's listings—I'd gotten there because I had found a non-Ed paperback from Pendulum and kept clicking with blind hope—when the title and the name T.K. Peters on the cover caught my eye. Without the relevant keywords ("Ed Wood," "Pendulum"), no one was going to find this thing.

Truth be told, few people were even looking for this book, and the seller isn't necessarily to blame. Although The Sexual Man, Book 2 is a known work by Ed Wood, information on its predecessor is rare to nonexistent. Almost. I found a listing for this book in the Library of Congress' invaluable Catalog of Copyright Entries Jul-Dec 1971. It is credited there solely to Leo Eaton, another of Ed's fellow staff writers at Pendulum, under his oft-used pseudonym of Frank Leonard. But I later learned that this book is listed on Ed's very own resume, which is as reliably accurate a document as Wood scholars and fans can find. By all indications, then, The Sexual Man, Book One was at least cowritten by Edward D. Wood, Jr. That makes this a very exciting discovery.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to A Study of the Sexual Man, Book One, a passage signed, "Frank Leonard, Los Angeles, 1971":
As Madison Avenue and the advertisers jumped on the band-wagon, the confused and bewildered male looked around to find that all aspects of his nice, safe, male-dominated society were pandering the woman's sexuality. 
Very interesting. But I digress. Let's get back to discussing the book mentioned at the beginning of this article. Because Dirk Malloy's Camera Action will eventually sell and its listing will eventually disappear from the internet, let's document the details of the seller's claim.

A rare Midwood Triple.
The product for sale on Ebay is the adult paperback Camera Action, published in 1967 by Midwood, an East Coast publisher never known to have published any work directly connected to Ed Wood. Nevertheless, the seller optimistically opines: "I believe this is an original Ed Wood Jr. book! I attempted to find out online but found no list for his books written under pseudonyms."

I also "attempted" to "find out" the truth, though perhaps these terms mean something different to me than they do to the seller, who may have been looking for an article on Yahoo! Answers or something similar. Instead, I took the logical step of simply Googling the name "Dirk Malloy." Meanwhile, while there are numerous online lists of Ed Wood's known and suspected pen names, there is no definitive or 100% complete "list for his book s written under pseudonyms," so the seller has at least some amount of plausible deniability. (Hey, I'm being charitable.)

Otherwise, though, this Ebay user's story does not hold up. Dirk Malloy is easily identified as a pseudonym for the very prolific Hank Gross. As Dirk, Gross wrote dozens of sleazy paperbacks, most of which sound either like man's man fantasies or variations on Russ Meyer's softcore comedy The Immoral Mr. Teas. Camera Action seems to fall into the latter category. Hank Gross once had a promotional website of his own, but that web domain is currently for sale. A succinct portrait of Dirk Malloy can be found here. This excerpt makes him sound rather like the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials.
Dirk Malloy is a raconteur, a lover of the ladies, and a writer of books aimed especially at men with lusty and intellectual interests like his own. He is a third-degree black belt in aiki-jitsu, has traveled extensively, rides a Harley, explores both theoretical physics and the wacky stuff, drinks his scotch straight, loves a good belly laugh, and has tasted both victory and defeat in life and in love. In short, a complete man.
The only photo of Hank Gross/Dirk Malloy I could find.
In 2010, Gross/Malloy published many of his work as e-books, which are still available. His fanciful and eclectic bibliography includes everything from Celebrity Sex Scandals to Gourmet Cat Recipes to Raunchy Jokes for Guys to Jesus Plays the Catskills. A description of the latter:
In this sublime retelling of the story and teachings of Christ's life, Jesus himself takes the mike and tells it to a Borscht-belt crowd as a Jewish comic might. It's the New Testament as you've never heard it before! So here he is, ladies and germs, the King of Kings, the Lamb of God...let's give it up, folks, for JESUS!
His bio glosses over his work in adult paperbacks, though he reprinted some of these digitally as well. Personally, I am going to check out the reprint of 1967's The Dirtiest Dozen, a document of the meteoric rise of sex newspapers in the late '60s, covering Screw and its pretenders:
The male could grind his thighs against those of the heroine as much as he pleased, but he could not, under any circumstances, drop in on her cunt – not that it mattered, since she didn’t have one anyway. And of course, heaven help the publisher if, despite the obstacles of having neither a pud nor a place in which to put it, the hero had the temerity to actually shoot his load.
Oh, well. I thought my friends and I had made up the word "pud" in the fifth grade. I'll also be checking out Sexual Fetishism, which covers painfully neglected, harshly real territory, the description getting lost in parentheses:
Take a walk on the wild side with this breezily-written guide to sexual fetishes, from agalmatophilia (arousal by statues) to renifleurism (urine and underwear), to doraphila (fur fetish), including quotes from some of the estimated 50 million practicioners and a comprehensive glossary of over 700 fetishes you probably never heard of.
Many more astounding facts about Edward D. Wood, Jr. will come to light in future editions of this series. Potential articles include the following:
  • Reviews of The Sexual Man, Book One and Pendulum's Young Marrieds, a paperback from 1971
  • “Unknown” fellow staffers at Pendulum identified. 
  • "Down Shirlee Lane"
  • The story of Golden State News and its myriad magazine lines (Classic, Cougar and Gold Line Publications among them), the blueprint for Pendulum, where Ed's work still largely remains unidentified
  • "One Million A.C. Stephens," the first installment of the Wood Script Odyssey; and the epochal revealing of the real T.K. Peters

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Social Media Buzz: Another short story by Joe Blevins

"Eat your soul? Who, me?"

     After gently knocking twice, the dapper young man cracked open the door of his immediate supervisor's tastefully-appointed office and tentatively peered in.
     "Mr. Van Landingham?"
     The other man, fiftyish and conservative, did not rise to greet the young man but remained seated behind his desk as he said, "Come in, Korey. Have a seat, please."
     The young man entered the room, closed the door behind him, and respectfully sat down in a chair across the desk from his boss.
     "How do you think you've been doing in your role of Social Media Manager for the General Mills family of cereals?" said the older man.
     "Uh, good, I guess?"
     "Okay. Okay. Interesting. Now, one of your professional duties these last six months has been maintaining the Twitter account of Buzz the Bee, the cartoon mascot of our Honey Nut Cheerios brand. Is that correct?"
     "Uh, yes, it is."
     "All right. Now we're getting somewhere. Well, Korey, I took the liberty of printing out some of your recent tweets from that account. I have them right here. Do you mind if I read them out loud?"
     "Not at all."
     "Okay, here's one: 'Nothing like a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios to start your morning right.' Now, normally, that would be a damned fine tweet, Korey, but you chose to end it with the hashtag '911WasAnInsideJob.' Can you explain that?"
     "Well, uh, Mr. Van Landingham..."
     "Please. It's Kevin."
     "Well, Kevin, it's not that I personally think 9-11 was an inside job. But, of course, the account is written from Buzz's point of view. It's what he thinks. He's a multi-faceted character."
     "Okay, fair enough. But how about this one? 'Bee happy. Bee healthy. Life begins at conception.'"
     "Well, children do make up a substantial portion of our customer base, Kevin. And if they're not carried to term, they're not going to be eating any of our delicious Honey Nut Cheerios, are they?"
     "Hmmm. I suppose not. But then, there was this tweet that contained only a photo of actress Neve Campbell topless in the 2007 film I Really Hate My Job."
     "What, specifically, is the issue with that one?"
     "The issue, specifically, is that it's a photo of actress Neve Campbell topless in the 2007 film I Really Hate My Job. We try to keep our social media content family-friendly, Korey."
     "Are you saying then, Kevin, that General Mills considers the female body to be inherently shameful, something to be hidden away from view?"
     "Well, no, not exactly. But..."
     "Haven't you heard of the Free the Nipple campaign, Roderick?"
     "Whatever. It's a vital, burgeoning movement in this country right now. Shouldn't General Motors..."
     "...Mills be at the forefront of change for once? There's nothing wrong with breasts, Kevin. Breasts produce milk, and what goes better with cereal than milk?"
     "Yes, but did you have to post that same photo every hour on the hour during the Paris terrorist attacks? People were beginning to wonder if it was some kind of code. Now I have the NSA breathing down my neck."
     "People always fear what they don't understand, Kevin. That's what I'm up against every time I tweet something on behalf of Buzz the Bee. You don't know what kind of an awesome responsibility this is. While you're tucked away in this cozy little office of yours, I'm out there on the front lines! Right now, people are starving for the truth, and I'm there to feed it to them, 140 characters at a time. The new millennium needs its own Che Guevara, and why shouldn't it be a cartoon spokes-bee? The truth will out! Viva the Bee!"
     As the young man pumped his fist in the air and assumed a pose of hard-won victory, the older man reached into a desk drawer, pulled out a small blow gun, raised it to his mouth, and shot a dart directly into his subordinate's neck. The young man slumped over instantly. The older man paused, sighed, then picked up the landline phone on his desk.
     "Gladys? Have maintenance send a crew to my office immediately. We have another Code B to take care of. Say, how many more nephews do you think the CEO has left, anyway?"

Saturday, November 21, 2015

I tried to fix 'The Dinette Set,' and it defeated me.

(left) Julie Larson's original Dinette Set panel; (right) My "corrected" version.

Julie Larson's The Dinette Set, a single-panel cartoon feature, is somehow celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2015. It started in the Los Angeles Reader under the title Suburban Torture back in 1990 and became nationally syndicated under the name The Dinette Set seven years later. The feature's appeal and longevity baffle me. It's a domestic comedy focused on the adventures of two middle-aged sisters, Verla Darwin and Joy Penny, and their respective spouses and friends. It's supposed to be a gentle satire of middle class life, but it comes off as condescending and snide, and the characters are interchangeable and dull.

What really bugs me about The Dinette Set, though, is that it's a humor strip that doesn't know how to tell a joke properly. Each panel is saturated with unfunny, superfluous textual gags: T-shirt slogans, posters and signs, product labels, etc. All of this extraneous text is handwritten in the exact same style. Larson tries to distinguish each panel's primary, dialogue-based joke by writing it in larger letters, but the words push right up against the edges of the balloons, rendering them only semi-legible. The strip is a difficult-to-read eyesore.

Part of the reality of doing a syndicated newspaper comic is that each installment will contain a certain amount of clutter: the artist's signature, a date, a plug for the syndicate, and probably some mention of a promotional website, too. As distracting as these can be, they're a necessary evil. I firmly believe that jokes, at least when presented in the form of comic strips or cartoon panels, need a little breathing room. A certain amount of negative space helps. Charles Schulz, one of the masters of the form, used tons of negative space in Peanuts. But Julie Larson clutters up every square inch of her panels with unnecessary verbiage. Her jokes are suffocating. And they weren't too strong to begin with!

So I took a typical Dinette Set panel and tried to "fix" it. First, I eliminated as many props and background actors as I could without sacrificing the integrity of the scene, i.e. a baby shower with numerous guests and presents. I wanted to focus the reader's attention on the two primary characters, the ones who are actually talking to each other. I especially wanted to remove any distracting details around those characters' faces. When you're drawing a cartoon like this, you're like a director working with actors. I wanted to make sure their faces were the focal point of this scene. I also reduced the dialogue in size so that it had some air around it, while removing some redundant words in Mrs. Darwin's response. I didn't see any reason for both women to say the words "a Clapper for the baby's overhead light." Once was enough.

But my efforts were in vain. This stubborn Dinette Set panel was still pretty bad, even after my so-called "corrections." I think my version is a slight visual improvement, but the cartoon is still stifling and uninspired, and the joke still doesn't land the way it should. In desperation, I tried to convert this into a New Yorker-style cartoon with no word balloons and the dialogue rendered as a caption below the picture.

Nah. Still sucks.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Paperback Odyssey, Part One by Greg Dziawer

Some latter-day reprints of Ed Wood's many, many, many paperback books.
The Barclay House key logo

A veritable cottage industry has arisen around the sale of rare Ed Wood books, artifacts, and memorabilia, and it's an increasingly pricey world. Let's say you have an erotic paperback from the 1970s and it has been suggested—or even implied—anywhere that Wood was its author. Your asking price has just increased tenfold. Naturally, what we as fans really want to do is whether Ed Wood really did have any involvement with this hypothetical paperback. 

As much as anyone, I feel a flush of excitement when I feel I have discovered a magazine article, short story, or pornographic loop that seems plausibly connected to Ed Wood. Call it hope. Call it enthusiasm. However, my reason eventually overtakes my impulsive emotion and reminds me of a Janus-faced truth: there are still tons of unidentified works by Ed.

For the sake of illustration, let's examine just one book, a racy-sounding paperback called Male Wives, and determine whether it is worth our while. And, in the spirit of Ed Wood, let's get at the unvarnished facts, the very haven of truth.

  • FACT: Male Wives was published by Barclay House of North Hollywood. It was released as Psycho-Sexual Study #7031 in 1969 and credited to the obvious pseudonym Norman Bates, a nod to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho.
  • FACT: Like Essex House, Barclay House was an imprint of Brandon House. All of these lines were marketed as sociological non-fiction in order to evade legal scrutiny. Also credited to Norman Bates, Teenage Pimp (1970)—complete with a delirious title and cover—was Barclay House Psycho-Sex Study #7096.
  • FACT: The Library of Congress' Catalog of Copyright Entries Jan-June 1969 lists Male Wives' author as Charles Anderson. Elsewhere in this same volume, the entry for Norman Bates reads as follows: "Bates, Norman, pseud. See Anderson, Charles."
  • FACT: Though not included in either Nightmare of Ecstasy or Muddled Mind, both of which contain extensive Ed Wood bibliographies, Male Wives is listed credibly and authoritatively in Boo-Hooray's video here. Boo-Hooray is a New York art gallery that hosted an exhibition called Ed Wood's Sleaze Paperbacks in late 2011. This is a result of Male Wives having been included in Cornell's extensive Ed Wood, Jr. collection, as listed here. The cover alone may be worth it!

(left) Teenage Pimp: Every boy's fantasy.
(right) Male Wives: Gay pulp fiction masquerading as hippie-era sociology.

You get the point. Apart from the Norman Bates titles, Ed Wood has no credits at Barclay House. In the 1970s, Charles D. Anderson held down dual roles as both editor and staff writer at Pendulum Publishing, Ed's most frequent employer. (Another writer, Leo Eaton, told me he was working at Pendulum's office on West Pico Blvd. until the spring of 1971, and Charles Anderson had not arrived yet. He must have gotten there shortly after Eaton's departure.)

Anderson is reputed to have said—in an interview I have yet to locate—that all of the "Norman Bates" credits were written solely by him. Beyond the books, that also includes a passel of short stories for various Pendulum magazine titles, all written during the same era when Ed Wood was an insanely prolific author for the company. And there is one known, verified collaboration between Anderson and Wood: the 1973 Edusex/Gallery book A Study of Fetishes and Fantasies, credited on its cover to Edward D. Wood, Jr. and Norman Bates and billed as a "sexual encyclopedia for adults only."

 Pendulum's Little Library imprint aped the look and feel of the popular Liverpool Library Press.

People: All going some-vere!
MORE THAN A FACT: Ed Wood did not write or even collaborate on Male Wives. For that matter, he had nothing to do with Teen-Sex Swapping, a 1970 Barclay House title, again credited to Norman Bates. Charles D. Anderson used another pseudonym taken from Psycho—Marion Crane—when he wrote Brother John and Sister Mercy for a Pendulum imprint called Little Library Press in 1972. Incidentally, Little Library Press had also published Ed Wood's own To Make a Homo in 1971.

Connections abound.

Another bit of enticing trivia, though not one meant to suggest Ed Wood's involvement: the 1974 book Satan, Demons & Dildoes (Barclay House #7406) uses a still from Orgy of the Dead. In the picture, redhead Colleen O'Brien cuddles up with a skeleton. The fact that Wood scripted Orgy of the Dead may make some people think that the book's credited author, Eugene Richards, is another of Ed's many pen names. Nope.

Caveat Emptor. Let the buyer be-vare.

Be-vare, take care. Be-vare....

In future editions of this series, there will be more information about Norman Bates/Charles Anderson, as well as Pendulum/Little Library Press. And we'll talk about some genuine Ed Wood paperbacks, too. Stay tuned!

Monday, November 16, 2015

My 21-year-old theory about 'Pulp Fiction'

You know any of them old jokes? No, but I know an old theory.

It's all about Travolta, man!
I don't know why this popped into my head today, but I started thinking about a theory of mine concerning the movie Pulp Fiction. This was an idea I started toying with back when the movie was new in 1994, and it never got any further than some primitive, now-obsolete Usenet discussion groups. In those bygone days, I was probably frequenting or something similar. I think this idea of mine found some traction there, but it probably only amounted to a single stranger saying it was "kind of interesting." That was enough for me back then. Likes and RTs hadn't been invented, so we had to make due with what was available.

Anyway, my theory was that Pulp Fiction, at least the parts concerning the Vincent Vega character, was a movie-length tribute to the career of star John Travolta. It starts with the character's name. Vincent was also the name of Travolta's character on Welcome Back, Kotter. The "Vega" part was simply an acknowledgement that Travolta was a superstar. The actor became famous through television but never did another recurring role on a series after Kotter. That's why Vincent claims never to watch television. He knows he's not on it anymore, so what's the point? And his offhand question to Jules, "What's a pilot?" is a punning acknowledgement of Travolta's own well-known love of aviation. The actor is a certified pilot with five aircraft and a private runway.

Synonymous with disco.
Okay, now we get into more specific nods to iconic Travolta roles. Uma Thurman's Mia Wallace actually calls Vincent "cowboy" at one point, obviously bringing Urban Cowboy to mind. Also, when she's trying to lead Vincent to the intercom in her home, Mia says "disco" when he finds it, referring to the genre of music with which Travolta became synonymous after Saturday Night Fever. Having Vincent and Mia win a dance contest, meanwhile, is another obvious Fever parallel. A less-obvious one is when Vincent's partner, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), decides to give up being a criminal, which he refers to simply as "the life." This is analogous to a sub-plot from Fever in which Travolta's character, Tony Manero, has a brother who is leaving the priesthood. And where does Jules live? Inglewood, CA, a near-perfect sound-alike for Travolta's own home town of Englewood, NJ.

Pulp Fiction references Grease a few times, too. Not only do Mia and Vincent visit the 1950s nostalgia-themed eatery Jack Rabbit Slim's, which he calls "a wax museum with a pulse," but Vincent also says that he'll be "a fucking grease spot" if Mia overdoses while in his care. And then there is Mr. Vega's antagonistic relationship with boxer Butch Coolidge. To say the least, Butch and Vincent get along poorly throughout the entire movie. This, I suggest, is an in-joke referring to the fact that Bruce Willis provided the voice of the baby in Travolta's Look Who's Talking from 1989.

Anyway, that's my theory, which is mine. There's not much more to it than what I've already described in the paragraphs above. I just wanted to record it here for posterity. Thank you for indulging me.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The world is my BarcaLounger. I shall not want.

Men love to recline in their BarcaLoungers. Women like to stand next to BarcaLoungers.

No joke here. No clever insights. No navel-gazing critiques. Just a man and his BarcaLounger. There is, I think, no greater achievement of Western Civilization in the 20th century than the luxuriously-padded reclining chair. A BarcaLounger or a La-Z-Boy is the finest chair a man could hope for in this lifetime, certainly far superior to any king's throne. Have you ever seen a throne, like the ones on Game of Thrones? Not comfy. Some thrones are made of gold and bedecked with jewels. But gold and jewels do not caress the nether regions. The opposite, really. So give me a BarcaLonger any day. In fact, let's just look at some more vintage recliner ads, eh?

"Santa, it's been three days. Is everything all right at home?"

"Okay, Gretchen, you can sit in the special chair, too. When the men aren't using it."

"We need to talk about your drinking, Helen. It's awesome. Keep it up."

Would you believe Ted died 20 minutes ago? You would?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Pharus literally can't even right now

A few panels of Pharus in "action."

Pharus does not have time for your bullshit, okay? In addition to being a major star of the funny pages, he's also dying. Yes, because of us selfish surface dwellers and our rampant pollution, this poor little fish-boy is terminally ill, beyond all medical hope, a goner for sure. He should have an expiration date stamped on his clammy little forehead. And, to make matters worse, Spider-Man's half-crazy, half-stupid wife, Mary Jane, has recklessly decided to pick him up as if he were a big yellow football and just tote him around New York until she finds someplace to put him. That can't be good for him. What's she looking for? A night deposit box, maybe?

Okay, some backstory is necessary here. The current plot in the inaccurately-named newspaper comic strip The Amazing Spider-Man has Spidey duking it out with Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. It's tough to know whom to root against here, since they're both dicks. As readers of the strip know, Peter Parker is lazy, selfish, incompetent, and prone to terrible wisecracks. But Namor's no prize pig himself. He has the snooty, imperious manner and flowery diction of a would-be alien conqueror from a 1950s sci-fi movie. It doesn't help that he habitually wears some kind of shiny, quilted vest-thing over his bare, hairless chest, nor that he has the most jagged eyebrows and the sharpest widow's peak in the comics business.

But it is Pharus, the sick little Atlantean boy, who has truly captured the nation's heart since he was introduced by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber on October 26, 2015. Namor dragged him up to the surface, where he can sort of breathe with the aid of special pills for a short while, as tangible evidence of the terrible effect we are having on those who call the ocean their home. And America has been in the grip of Pharus-mania ever since then. His design seems somewhat inspired by Zan and Jayna, the Wonder Twins from The All New Super Friends Hour, except that Pharus is much less prone to tomfoolery, doesn't seem to have any super powers, and noticeably lacks a monkey sidekick. With those qualities, it's no wonder he's been such an immediate sensation.The character is a non-stop delight, whether he's begging to be let go:

Wasn't "Let Me Go (Surface Woman)" a Billy Ocean song from 1986?

Whining like a bitch:

Manhandled by Mr. and Mrs. Spider-Man.

Or just lying unconscious on his pitiful little stretcher:

Truthfully, this is 90% of what Pharus does.

And if you're still not convinced of the character's innate lovability, just feast your eyes on this little collage, which I humbly call Big Ol' Wall O' Pharus Faces, No. 1.

So. Much. Pharus. (And, yeah, he turns blue on the weekends. I know.)

A star, clearly, is born. Hollywood execs, get out your checkbooks now. This kid's going places.

Ed Wood Wednesdays: Greg Dziawer on 'Operation Redlight' (1969)

Real-life American GIs with Vietnamese prostitutes in Saigon, 1967.

Note to readers: Once again, this is the time of the week when I hand the reigns of Dead 2 Rights over to Greg Dziawer, who has graciously consented to continue the Ed Wood Wednesdays series for me. This week, Greg has been delving into one of the "missing-in-action" films on Ed Wood's screen-writing resume. Let me thank Greg again for the time and effort he has put into reviving this series. And now, without further ado, here's Greg. J.B.

A Descent into Operation Redlight

One of the most elusive titles in Ed Wood's filmography remains Operation Redlight, a film that has yet to turn up. Any reviews from its era have not survived into the internet era (or have eluded me). It was briefly mentioned here by Joe in a previous Ed Wood Wednesdays article, as part of a review of the Ed-scripted The Undergraduate, owing to both films being produced by the  same man, Jacques Descent. I recently contacted Mr. Descent and happily received a quick reply with plenty of fresh details:
Jacques "Jack" Descent
"I purchased the rights to Ed Wood's book called Mama's House, which I produced as Operation Redlight. Ed wrote the screenplay, and Donald Doyle directed, and of course it featured also Ed. It was a co-production with Marty, a friend that put up part of the financing. Marty was the owner of American Film Lab on La Brea Ave in Los Angeles and one of the conditions to obtaining part of the financing from Marty was that his film laboratory would process the dailies. 
The film was shot in 11 days with exteriors in Canoga Park and all interiors at the former house of Norma Talmadge in the Los Feliz Hills. This was definitely a low budget venture and the lab ran into a problem from the first day of production so the whole film was shot without ever seeing a daily. Eventually after the wrap party Marty informed me that all the exposed film was processed in one evening and because of problems and break down over 35% of the exposed film was ruined." 
A Bill Ward cartoon
Jack, as he signed this message to me, may be recollecting an original manuscript with that title. The also-elusive paperback was published by Tiger Books/Powell Publications the same year as the film was produced. Release information is yet unknown. In Nightmare of Ecstasy, it's identified as Mama's Diary. In Jack's own filmography and subsequently on the film's IMDb page, the only actor listed is Ed. 1969 was a busy year for the writer/thespian, including two additional adaptions of his screenplays in which he starred: The Photographer (aka Love Feast) and Misty (aka Nympho Cycler), commonly listed as from 1971 but likely shot in '69 and released in '70. The book summary in Nightmare sounds amazing, and at 224 pages this is one of the lengthiest – if not the lengthiest – of Ed's novels:
A popular sex novelist is “drafted” to run a chain of whorehouses in Vietnam. The characters are caricatures evoking the sex cartoons of Bill Ward. According to Kathy Wood, “Eddie treasured that book. It was something he did that he really liked and I liked it too...” Apparently, Wood wrote a screenplay of the book which was made into a movie Operation Redlight by Jacques Descent Productions. Wood was reportedly not entirely pleased with the results.
It's fascinating to imagine Ed playing the “popular sex novelist”, and a tribute to low-budget exploitation film-making that Vietnam was represented by southern California and the environs of a faded Hollywood star's mansion.

A 16 room/6 bath Venetian villa that Norma Talmadge shared with Buster Keaton's producer Joe Schenck, The Cedars, as it became known, makes quite the luxurious Vietnamese brothel! The property – in the hills overlooking Los Angeles – also appears in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. (1950). More recently owned by fashion designer Sue Wong, the estate has housed Errol Flynn, Jimi Hendrix, Dennis Hopper (scenes from Easy Rider were shot there, and the wrap party was held there), Lou Reed, and Arthur Lee of the band Love through the years. Howard Hughes played the piano in the solarium, and Marilyn Monroe partied there. Bela Lugosi and Ralph Bellamy stayed there. And also Johnny Depp, as he was “channeling Ed Wood."

The Cedars today, its angels, saints, and lions restored.

If Ed was indeed "not entirely pleased with the results" he nonetheless curiously saw fit to supply Jack with another screenplay just a year or two later. The paycheck, understandably, was preeminent. In future Ed Wood Wednesdays, we'll hopefully have much more to share about  Operation Redlight and Jack Descent. Needless to say, we heartily thank Jack for sharing!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

'Apartment 3-G' is going away, and we all need to feel bad about that.

A Sunday Apartment 3-G from the days when the strip was drawn by Alex Kotzky.

November 21, 2015 is fast approaching, citizens. The execution date of Apartment 3-G, the long-running soap opera strip, looms, and there is little we can do to stop it. After 54 years, a staple of the funny pages will be gone forever, virtually unmourned by all but a dwindling handful of fans. Its executioners, the decision-makers at King Features Syndicate, probably consider this a mercy killing. A3G, once one of the best-drawn strips in the business, has been in alarming decline for at least a decade and a half, with the last year in particular being downright embarrassing. The strip's original writer, Nicholas P. Dallis, and original artist, Alex Kotzky, both died back in the '90s. The current creative team consists of writer Margaret Shulock, who also contributes to the underwhelmng humor strip Six Chix, and artist Frank Bolle, a comic book veteran who is now 91 years old and clearly no longer at the peak of his powers.

Sadly, I only caught up with Apartment 3-G during its waning years, and this was due to the strip's regular appearances on Josh Fruhlinger's satirical blog, The Comics Curmudgeon. By then, Dallis and Kotzky were both long gone, and the strip's characters had already devolved into inexpressive, mannequin-like automatons who stiffly interacted with each other in front of bland, interchangeable backdrops, complete with standard props that could pop up anywhere. Some fans even started nicknaming these all-purpose set decorations: "Drapey," "Lampy," etc.

A recent Apartment 3-G featuring Drapey and Lampy in the second panel.

And yet, aided by Fruhlinger's frequent and piquant commentary, I did find myself getting involved in the lives of A3G's lovelorn characters: three ambitious young women sharing an apartment in New York City. There was idealistic blonde teacher Lu Ann Powers, red-haired nurse Tommie Thompson, and, best of all, scheming, man-hungry Margo Magee, who has held any number of ill-defined jobs over the years, including talent agent and event planner. In the strip's heyday, these characters were modeled after, respectively, Tuesday Weld Lucille Ball, and Joan Collins. Today they look -- and act -- more like the generic humanoids you'd find in a first aid pamphlet. The cast is rounded out by the gals' kindly neighbor, Professor Aristotle Papagoras, and a whole host of relatives, suitors, professional associates, and romantic rivals.

I won't kid you folks and say that  Apartment 3-G is one of the greatest comic strips of all time. It's not. In fact, in the last year, it has been allowed to lapse into near-total incoherence. The current, badly bungled storyline, in which Margo suddenly lapses into a coma only to recover almost instantly, may be what killed the strip off forever. It seemed that the only people reading A3G by then were those who were making fun of it. So King Features Syndicate pulled the plug. The long-running feature is not going out with a bang, nor even with a whimper. It's just going. There is some speculation that the strip will not even bother to tie up its existing plots or give its main characters a proper sendoff.

This feels all wrong. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, Apartment 3-G was once kind of magnificent. It was certainly a part of newspaper readers' lives for decades. And now it's unceremoniously being given the hook, like a bad Vaudeville act that's outstayed its welcome. That's almost too sad to contemplate. What the strip really needed was an all-new creative team who really cared about the characters and wanted to tell great stories about them. But that's not going to happen.

So farewell, Margo Magee. May you cause as much havoc in the next realm as you did in this one.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Did I ever tell you about the time I met Gunnar Hansen?

A photo of Gunnar Hansen in his iconic role.

Gunnar "Leatherface" Hansen died yesterday at the age of 68 from pancreatic cancer. I feel I should say something about that, because I routinely count The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) among my favorite films of all time, and Gunnar's a major part of that. I first saw the film sometime back in the '90s, when video stores still existed. I was making a point of seeing just about everything filed under "HORROR" at the local Family Video, and I thought I'd finally check out TCM, a movie I knew by title and reputation but had never actually screened. 

I don't know exactly what I was expecting from a movie with that title, probably something cartoonish and over-the-top, but it certainly wasn't this: a weird, intense, almost artsy movie with the feeling of a genuine nightmare. In fact, this is one of the few movies to ever work its way repeatedly into my dreams. And in those dreams, frequently, is Gunnar Hansen, the man-mountain, with his blood-soaked apron, wildly unkempt hair, and mask made of human skin. 

Danny Peary once wrote that Gunnar Hansen makes one of the most memorable first appearances in cinema history, and it's true. When he comes bounding into the frame, wielding that sledgehammer, well... there's nothing like the finality of that sliding door at the end of the scene. Tobe Hooper wanted audiences to know that the '60s were over, and he sent Gunnar as his 6'4", 300-pound messenger. In this respect, Leatherface is a hammer of God or maybe a chainsaw of God. 

In time, I've come to understand Leatherface as the loyal, simple junkyard dog protecting his family's property. His brothers, the Hitchhiker and the Old Man, are the sadistic sickos in the clan. Their (big) little brother is just following orders. It's interesting that Tobe Hooper rarely, if ever, leaves us alone in the presence of the killers. Besides the iconic "danse macabre" at the end of the movie, the one major exception is that marvelous little scene in which Leatherface is shown in a dither after placing Pam, his home's second intruder of the day, on a meathook. After dispatching Pam, the butcher runs down the hall of his corpse-strewn home, looks out the window to see if anyone else is coming, whimpers in utter confusion and dismay, then sits down and buries his head in his hands. "What else could go wrong today?" he seems to wonder.

I've dutifully watched all (or most of) the Chainsaw sequels and reboots, but no film in the franchise can touch the original for pure visceral power. Those other movies are trying to be shocking; the original is shocking. Maybe it's because its production was famously unpleasant, difficult, and even dangerous. The story is fictional, but some of the horror we're witnessing in Chainsaw is real. I've learned this over the years from DVD commentaries, articles, and documentaries about the subject. In those, Gunnar Hansen proved himself to be the very opposite of his character. When talking about the movie, he was uncommonly gentle, intelligent, and well-spoken, with a good sense of humor.

When I met Gunnar Hansen in person, he proved to be all of those things. Normally, I stay away from the convention circuit, but when my hometown of Flint played host to a massive comic book show about 15 years ago, I decided to attend because... well, frankly, because there was a young lady who said she'd be there and whom I wanted very much to impress at the time. It didn't work out with me and this young woman, a big Sailor Moon fan, but the convention did give me the opportunity to sidle up to Gunnar Hansen's table. This show was mainly geared toward comic books and animation, so Gunnar wasn't at all busy. We talked for quite a while, and he was incredibly gracious and patient. A class act all the way.

Good night, Gunnar Hansen. Maybe we'll meet again in my nightmares.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A phantom menace... named Dennis

It's tricky to put Dennis side-by-side with real people and not have him look freakish.

Today's Dennis the Menace, pictured above left, offers a most intriguing alternate timeline: Dennis Mitchell need never have been born at all. Imagine that world. George Wilson, 30 pounds lighter and sporting a full head of chestnut-colored hair, would be enjoying an active and inventive sex life with his wife, Martha. Their coupling would be so loud, in fact, that it could be easily overheard by their childless neighbors, Henry and Alice Mitchell, whose marriage would still be as cold and loveless as it is now. Oh, yeah. They were always a bad couple. Dennis' birth just exacerbated an already-terrible situation.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Peggy Gravel for President! (We might as well.)

Do you want REAL change in America? Peggy Gravel's the woman for the job!

Foreign poster for the film.
Folks, I have found the ideal candidate for the 2016 presidential election. She's tough, she's well-spoken, and she's definitely not afraid to assert herself. Better yet, she accurately portrays the belief system of millions upon millions of voting Americans. Her name is Peggy Gravel, and she's a married mother of two from the Guilford section of Baltimore.

Does it matter that Peggy Gravel is merely a fictional character played by Mink Stole in John Waters' 1977 film Desperate Living? I honestly don't think so. One of the current GOP frontrunners, Donald Trump, is essentially a fictional character invented for the media, and all of the candidates are "playing a role" to one extent or another. So why not go all the way and nominate a made-up character from a movie?

Does it matter that Peggy Gravel is a murderess with a long history of mental illness? Of course not! This is America, the land of second, third, fourth, and fiftieth chances! And, besides, you think all those previous presidents who served in the military didn't kill bunches of people? Peggy only killed one, maybe two people, tops. As for the mental illness thing, have you heard Ben Carson lately?

But don't take my word for it. Let Peggy Gravel explain herself in her own words. Here are some choice Gravel quotes for the media to pore over. (NOTE: Feel free to substitute "America" for "Mortville" and "country" for "town" when quoting Peggy.)

What is it with the Coen Brothers and immobile old men?

Michael Hogan as Otto Gerhardt in FX's Fargo.

Have you been watching the second season of Fargo, Noah Hawley's vast, expansive adaptation of the 1996 Coen Brothers classic, on FX? I'll assume you have. This season, like the previous, is packed with references not only to the original movie but to other titles in the Coen canon as well. This season's UFO gimmick seems to derive from The Man Who Wasn't There, for instance, while the Waffle Hut location seems like a nod to The Ladykillers

But the weirdest trope to emerge in the series, by far, is represented by Michael Hogan's character, Otto Gerhardt, the patriarch of a regionally-powerful North Dakota crime family. At first glance, Otto is an obvious counterpart of Harve Presnell's business tycoon Wade Gustafson from the '96 film. The two actors even look nearly identical. But a strange thing happens to Otto in the first episode: he suffers a debilitating stroke and is rendered mute and immobile thereafter. He's still very much a part of the plot, but he's doomed to sit and watch the horrible events unfolding all around him, unable to participate. If you saw the last episode, you know how difficult this can be for him.

What's really weird is that Otto is the latest in a whole string of motionless, speechless, geriatric men in the work of Joel and Ethan Coen. The boys can't get enough of this character type, it seems. But why? How has this become such a strong archetype for them? Let's trace this odd behavior back to its roots.

Harry Bugin as Pete in Barton Fink.

Way back in 1991, accomplished New York musician and actor Harry Bugin played the understated role of Pete, the seedy Hotel Earle's terminally-depressed elevator operator, in Barton Fink. Although Pete was a man of very, very few words, he was at least able to engage in some rudimentary dialogue with John Turturro. The Coens must have fallen in love with Bugin's craggy, downtrodden appearance, as they brought him back as the scheming Aloysius in The Hudsucker Proxy three years later. 

Harry Bugin's real claim to pop culture immortality, however, arrived in 1998, when he portrayed Arthur Digby Sellers in The Big Lebowski. In the film's tangled plot, Sellers is a former Branded writer who is now confined to an iron lung in the living room of his modest North Hollywood home. All Bugin has to do in the movie is lie on his back, wheeze, and look miserable. Sellers is little more than a noisy piece of furniture in this film.

"Now, Harry, what we want you to do is..."

Were the Coens done with immobile old men after this sterling example? No way. In 2008, they released their "middle-age panic" comedy Burn After Reading. In it, John Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a hard-drinking, short-tempered man who leaves his job at the CIA rather than accept a demotion. Cox is portrayed as a pretentious nitwit who has nothing of value to say yet refuses to shut up. Ever. 

In one scene, Cox spends an afternoon aboard a yacht with his aged father, also apparently an ex-CIA man, and the son tells his dad about his ill-considered plan to quit his job and write his "memoir." (He insists on pronouncing it "mem-wah.") The father does not talk, move, or react in any way, and at the end of the scene, we see Malkovich pushing him along the pier in a wheelchair. One gets the sense that this unfortunate, helpless man is being held hostage by his useless, long-winded son.

John Malkovich monopolizes the time of his invalid father in Burn After Reading.

And the Coens still weren't done, even after that bravura (uncredited) performance. In 2013, they gave the world Inside Llewyn Davis, the sometimes-comic, sometimes-tragic story of a 1960s folk singer who can't seem to find a foothold in the music business or in life. Throughout the film, the constantly-struggling title character debates whether he should continue on with his music or follow his father's example and become a sailor. This being a Coen Brothers movie, Llewyn is sabotaged by bad luck, bad timing, and his own bad choices at every turn, until virtually all doors seem closed to him. At one point, perhaps out of a vague sense of filial obligation, he goes to see his father, who is now wasting away in some godforsaken rest home. As you may have guessed by now, Hugh Davis (Stan Carp), remains still and silent throughout his "meeting" with his son. His room is so dim that the man himself is almost invisible, practically a ghost.

Stan Carp is a real chatterbox in Inside Llewyn Davis.

And that brings us to the present and season 2 of Fargo, where it looks unlikely that Otto Gerhardt will make any kind of recovery. It seems like Hawley was inspired by the characters from The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, and Inside Llewyn Davis and wanted to create the ultimate immobile Coen Brothers geezer. Unlike his predecessors, Otto is no one-scene wonder. No, he's still in the thick of it, stationary though he is. The last episode, in fact, put poor Otto at the epicenter of the violence and mayhem. It's an interesting twist on one of the strangest tropes I can ever remember. 

By the way, before we leave this topic, we must say a word or two about the mysterious, impossibly ancient Rabbi Marshak, the reclusive cleric portrayed by Alan Mandell in 2009's A Serious Man. Marshak is basically immobile and nearly speechless in that film, which he spends parked behind his impressive desk, but eventually he does open up a little in his momentous-seeming summit with the protagonist's pot-smoking son (Aaron Wolff), who has just survived his bar mitzvah. Only a man with Marshak's old school gravitas could possibly make Jefferson Airplane lyrics sound like a pronouncement from God. Behold: