Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays: Bela's Letter to a Fan by Greg Dziawer

This ad for The Bela Lugosi Revue appeared in The Las Vegas Sun in February 1954.

NOTE: Happy greetings and seasons holidays, dear readers! Before I head out of town to visit relatives for Christmas, I thought I'd post this week's Ed Wood Wednesdays. Again, it comes to us through the courtesy of Mr. Greg Dziawer, who has been delving through the archives to find rarities related to Edward D. Wood, Jr. This week, he has discovered a most interesting document: a 1954 letter supposedly penned by Bela Lugosi with a brief addendum by Ed Wood himself. Please enjoy and have the merriest of Christmases. I'll see you on the other side of the holiday. J.B.

Image courtesy of the Movie Monster Museum.

Ed Wood clearly wrote this entire letter, signed from Bela in response to a fan – not just the added note to encourage others to write Bela, signed by Ed as Bela's "Producer." The letter perfectly summarizes the projects Bela and Ed were then working on. On March 19, 1954, Bela was in the second and last month of a run at the Silver Slipper ("More & More Jackpots") in Las Vegas. The Bela Lugosi Revue was a burlesque show, spoofing among other things Dracula, Bela hosted four shows a night – the first at 9pm, the last at 2:30am - for two straight months. He checked himself into rehab just a few months later. The show featured Tere Sheehan's ("The Girl in the Champagne Glass") burlesque act, "Champagne Fantasy," which she performed at the Slipper through the 1950s as part of Hank Henry's house troupe.

(left) The Silver Slipper advertises The Bela Lugosi Revue.
(right) Pull da string! Tere Sheehan's Champagne Fantasy.

The fan, whose first name is redacted, was easily identified as Henry Mazzeo, Jr. of Yonkers, who also submitted a letter to "Dear Uncle Creepy" in the sixth issue of Warren's Creepy magazine, from 1964, making the controversial claim that vampires can come out in sunlight. Reading between the lines of the letter, the "group" Ed refers to that Henry is urged to encourage to write Bela is a fan club.

Henry Mazzeo wrote more than just fan letters.

Don't just take my word on it that Ed wrote this entire response. On an IMDb board in 2012, a user called billymac107 made this astute observation:
I came across a letter from Bela to a fan which was obviously typed by Ed, I say obviously because as I am sure you are aware Ed was a lighting fast typist and if you examine the letter you can see that most of the capital letters are at a different level than the rest of the text, indicating the shift key did not have time to properly return, if you get my meaning.
Speaking of which, makes me wonder if Bela could even type?

Happy Holidays!

Special thanks to Movie Monster Museum for their help with this article.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Did Frank Zappa somehow predict Mötley Crüe?

Frank Zappa (black tux, yellow shirt) on the cover of his Tinseltown Rebellion album.

The infamous glam metal outfit Mötley Crüe formed in 1981, the same year Frank Zappa released his mostly-live Tinseltown Rebellion album. Why is that significant? Well, the title track of Zappa's LP is a screed against the shallow, image-conscious music scene in Los Angeles. Two genres, punk and new wave, are mentioned specifically in the harsh, satirical lyrics. The song is about how musicians in L.A. were more concerned with how they looked than how they sounded, leading to a glut of crappy, amateurish music. According to "Tinseltown Rebellion," the bars and clubs in Hollywood were being besieged in the early 1980s by "record company pricks" looking for flash-in-the-pan acts to exploit and then most likely abandon after "a week or two perhaps," and there were plenty of young musicians lining up to be exploited in this way.

In his lengthy Zappa-analyzing book, The Negative Dialetics of Poodle Play, author and punk loyalist Ben Watson takes Frank to task for unfairly and inaccurately portraying punk rock here. Real punkers, he insist, did not use cocaine, as Frank alleged in "Tinseltown Rebellion." Sure, the arena rockers of the 1970s snorted plenty of the stuff, but punk was rebelling against all that. Besides, Watson argues, punk rockers couldn't have even afforded coke if they'd wanted it back then. It was an expensive drug, and punk was commercially negligible in those days. I might argue that Zappa also mentions new wave, a slicker, more commercial genre that rose from punk. Certainly by 1981, some new wavers were selling enough records, tickets, and T-shirts to afford cocaine. Whether they did or not, I don't know. But they could have if they'd wanted to, is my point.

Maybe Frank Zappa was just using the terms "punk" and "new wave" because those were the only labels available to him at the time to describe a kind of music that was cropping up in Los Angeles in the 1980s. I mentioned at the start of this article that Mötley Crüe formed in '81. They were, of course, a fixture of the Los Angeles club scene in the 1980s, but I don't think anyone would describe them as punk or new wave. Not by a long shot. Instead, they were part of a movement now known as "glam metal" or "hair metal," a subgenre that definitely did regrettably emphasize image at the expense of music. Zappa would not have known who Mötley Crüe were when he wrote "Tinseltown Rebellion," but that's nevertheless the band that comes to my mind when I hear this song. Take a listen.

Mötley Crüe at the Whisky.
So now we get into specific references in the lyrics. The song starts: "From Madame Wong's to Starwood to the Whisky on the Strip, you can hear the crashing, blasting strum of bands that come to be real hip." Okay, I can't find any documentation that the Crue ever played Madame Wong's, an establishment that catered to punk acts, but they were famous for their appearances at both Starwood and the Whisky A Go Go. So two out of three ain't bad. Here's another line from the song: "So off they go to S.I.R. to learn some stupid riffs and practice all their poses in between their powder sniffs." That's Studio Instrument Rentals, a famous rehearsal space in Los Angeles. When you go to S.I.R.'s website, one of the first things you'll see is a paragraph about the company's history: "Artists including Miley Cyrus, Queen Latifah, Snoop Dogg, Katy Perry, Jane’s Addiction, KISS, Mötley Crüe, Green Day, No Doubt, Maroon 5 and Mariah Carey all call SIR home." So another reference checks out.

And what about those "powder sniffs?" Well, Mötley Crüe is justly famous for its love of chemical intoxicants. Even the cover of their official autobiography, The Dirt, is designed to look like a Jack Daniels label. The band is most closely associated with alcohol and heroin, but they did their share of cocaine, too. In my research, I even found a cute little story about lead singer Vince Neil buying a baggie of cocaine that turned out to be baby powder. The unnamed band in the song plays music that is "real dumb" and "somewhat insincere." Check and check. (Though the Crue's masterpiece, "Girls, Girls, Girls," is probably very close to their hearts.) Zappa also mentions "leather groups and plastic groups and groups that look real queer." The Crue certainly wore plenty of leather, and their over-the-top stage makeup gave them an androgynous appearance. So, once again, the song fits them very well. Zappa did not accurately predict the Crue's longevity, however. While there probably were plenty of flash-in-the-pan groups on the glam metal scene in Los Angeles, Mötley Crüe stayed popular for decades, only recently retiring.

Again, let me emphasize that "Tinseltown Rebellion" is not about Mötley Crüe. It couldn't have been. When Frank Zappa wrote it, the band was just starting out. But what the song manages to do very well is predict where the Los Angeles music scene was heading in the 1980s. Mötley Crüe simply exemplified that era better than just about any other band.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays: Eddie or Not? by Greg Dziawer

There's more than one Ed Wood in the world, you know.

NOTE: Greg Dziawer has been doing some serious, time-consuming research into the career of Edward D. Wood, Jr. This week, he tackles an issue that plagues every Ed Wood fan eventually. Both "Edward" and "Wood" are very common names, so our Ed Wood is by no means the only Ed Wood. I regularly receive Google alerts about the name "Ed Wood," and most of these items are indeed about the director of Plan 9 from Outer Space, but occasionally one of those other Ed Woods will find his way into my Gmail inbox. It's not always clear which Wood is which. Relax. Greg's on the case, and he's here to impart some knowledge about some of those other Ed Woods. J.B.

I. “Sourdough” Ed Wood

Bread Wood? This Ed Wood has a couple of buns in the oven.

There are plenty of real people named Ed Wood. One, along with wife Jean, devoted his life to "studying the science of real sourdough, baking and batching the perfect loaf, and traveling the world to uncover the hidden history of sourdough for National Geographic Society."

Eddie or Not: Interesting folks. But this Ed Wood isn't our favorite pulp auteur.

II. Edward Wood: Sci-Fi Lit-Crit

A better candidate, surely, is one Edward Wood, who authored numerous articles for the newsletter The Science-Fiction Times from 1958 through 1960. For issue #309 from Feb 1959, he penned the cover story 1958 in Science-Fiction. Its opening lines: "It was a bad year. No compromise with the truth can disguise this elementary fact." An article called "1959 in Science Fiction" followed for issue #330 from Jan 1960. The magazine reviews are consistently scathing.

Two Science-Fiction Times cover stories by Edward Wood.

One degree of separation:
"Forry" knew both Ed Woods.
Essentially a fanzine, Science-Fiction Times was a (mostly) monthly, mimeo-printed 8 ½ x 11 newsletter typically running 4-8 pages. It began life in 1941 as Fantasy Times, switching its emphasis and its name in 1957, amidst an explosion of homebrew sci-fi 'zines influenced into being by – among many other things that defined an era – Einstein, the Bomb, and Sputnik.

Science-Fiction Times largely contained news, book, and magazine reviews. Forrest J. "Forry" Ackerman was a regular contributor. It moved to offset printing before its lengthy run finally ended in 1970. The milieu seems right, the same that nurtured Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Ed knew Forry, and he did – albeit later in a much different milieu – write magazine articles.

Eddie or Not: Nope. Turns out this is a sci-fi fan who was active in the fanzine press during the 50's and '60s. Issues of Science-Fiction Times can be readily located online. There are currently two issues over at Ebay containing pieces by Edward, and I must commend the seller for divulging in one of these listings that "this is not the movie director but rather in the 1950s and 1960s there was an active SF fan who was also named Edward Wood."

III. Spurious Attributions

Not all Ebay sellers have been as forthcoming, and some made lazy pronouncements (whether deliberate or not, an attribution to Ed would almost certainly substantially raise the selling price) that I've delved into before. You can read more about the manner of listing by hitting either of the links in the preceding couple of sentences.

To cut right to the chase, this seller "believed" Ed may have written two more items up for auction. I say that in the past tense because the listing for Office Sex Circus has been fairly and thankfully revised.

Office Sex Circus and Desert Lust, two novels dubiously attributed to Ed Wood.

Desert Lust is an undated Club Novel paperback from the '60s, credited to Bob Roth. A few quick searches don't reveal much about an adult paperback writer of that era with this name, nor have I ever seen any claim tying it to Ed. Given the source of the claim, utterly incorrect twice before, we can fairly shoot this one down.

Office Sex Circus is an April Morgan Bee-Line title from 1968. Though the title is certainly up Ed's alley, he never wrote for Bee-Line, a prolific New York publisher. (Hal Kantor, who wrote for Calga when Ed was at Pendulum, wrote 1967's The Vegas Trap for Bee-Line under their common Pinnacle Books imprint.) April Morgan, likely a pseudonym, wrote other titles for Bee-Line, but a quick scan revealed little else. Bee-Line often copyrighted their titles without listing an author, or listing a pseudonym without listing the actual author's name. That only makes the haze murkier as to the true authorship of Office Sex Circus and the identity of April Morgan.

Two more Bee-Line titles by April Morgan.

Eddie or Not: There's no good reason to think so.

We must be honest also. We must not be so anxious in our attempts to make new converts that we forget to remind them of the cost. Consider The Quandary of Discipleship, a sermon by a retired Southern Baptist minister named (you guessed it) Ed Wood.

The devil, dear readers, is in the details.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Let's judge the 2016 candidates by their website photos

Circle gets the square! One of these people could walk away with $10,000 in cash and prizes!

We're all very busy these days. Well, I'm not. But you probably are. And I'm guessing you don't have time to get to know all the candidates for president: who they are, how they spell their names, and what they generally stand for. You may only have enough time to visit each candidate's official campaign website for 5 to 10 seconds apiece, stare at the picture on the homepage, and move on with your life. After all, that gaping chest wound of yours isn't going to cauterize itself. The clock is ticking. Well, don't you worry, because I've visited the websites of the major remaining candidates, and I'm here to make some snap judgments about them, drawing mostly on purely superficial crap. Please do join me.

Talk to me. Pull up a chair and bend ol' Benny's ear for a while. That's why he's here.

HOT TAKE: Okay, this is just plain weird and unsettling. Ben Carson is the only one of the major candidates whose welcome photo seems to have been shot in a gray, featureless void. All the other candidates opted for real, recognizable locations. Was this pic actually taken in one of the corridors on the Death Star? Is that what's happening here? That queasy half-smile of his is creeping me out, as is his leaning-forward posture, and the way he has his hands folded. Is he a Bond villain? A serial killer who only kills other serial killers? "Heal * Inspire * Revive." Is this a political campaign or a goddamned day spa? Anyway, I have this theory that the candidates' photos will reveal how liberal or conservative they are. You'll notice that Dr. Carson is all the way to the right in his picture. Enough said. Also, couldn't he get a comfier chair? That's the kind of chair you sit in when you're sent down to the principal's office for talking in class.

Is that a peace sign? What is this, Woodstock? GET A JOB, HIPPIE!

HOT TAKE: Of all the candidates whose sites I visited, Trump had the biggest welcome image. No surprise there. I actually couldn't get the whole thing on the screen at once, so the red banner with the the word TRUMP at the top got cut off. Sorry. The rest is what you see here: Donald doing the classic "bunny ears" thing over his own campaign slogan, as if that slogan were some clueless underclassman he's been hazing all week. "Seniors rule! Freshmen drool!" You'll notice he's on the right side of the screen, too, just like Ben Carson, and they both have that "I'm a bad widdle boy" smile going. The most badass thing about Trump's site is that you can get there by typing into your web browser. Try it. I'm not kidding. Otherwise, this is very dull. I wanted everything to be written in money font, with maybe a shiny gold border around the edges. Step up your Scrooge McDuck game, Donald!

I swear, this is not a picture of a crooked faith healer.

HOT TAKE: Ooh, black and white! Classy! Notice where Ted is standing? Right in the center of the picture. I think that's to show that he's not an extremist like Trump or Carson, even though the former just called him "a maniac," so make of that what you will. It cannot be ignored that Ted Cruz has basically given himself a halo here, and he has his hands pressed flat together like a Precious Moments figurine of a praying child, so he's just maybe courting evangelicals with this image. Much more interesting to me, though, is the rambling slogan at the right. It's just a delicious, cheesy omelet of pure nonsense. "I'm running for President because we need to build a dynamic nation where anybody with nothing can achieve anything." So, conversely, nobody with something can achieve nothing? I'm lost, Ted. Stop praying to baby Jesus for a second and toss me a life preserver. At least he knows how to smile properly.

RubioBot is ready to lead America. And he makes crushed ice, too!

HOT TAKE: Well, are you ready for a new American century? A century in which the cyborgs take over the country and wrest control of the government from us lowly, imperfect meatbags with all our messy emotions? What is this thing you hu-mans call love? Marco Rubio is not programmed for love. Marco Rubio is confused by hu-mans and their hu-man feelings, but he cannot help but be curious and perhaps even yearn for something beyond the parameters of his pre-programmed system specifications. There's a prog rock concept album in this somewhere. His heart is human. His blood is boiling. His brain IBM. Even those words in the lower left-hand corner sound like something a lurching, clanking 1950s robot might say in a monotone. "Must.... watch... videos... Need... sensory... stimulation... Beep... Boop..." Another odd decision here is to put the candidate behind what looks like a tinted windshield. Is that so we won't touch him and get our oily hands on his delicate circuits?

"That's how you're gonna beat 'em, Jeb! They keep underestimating you."

HOT TAKE: This campaign has been an endless, joyless death march for Jeb Bush, and the strain is clearly showing in this picture. The mouth is smiling. The rest of the face is... not. It's too late to say we're sorry. How would he know? Why should he care? Please don't bother trying to find him. He's not there. Saturday Night Live just made fun of the poor guy for using "Jeb!" with an exclamation point as his campaign slogan, but I kind of like it. It reminds me of the old days of the Internet, when there were exclamation points at the end of seemingly every name. Maybe I'm misremembering that, and it was just Yahoo! Anyway, I don't know if Jeb (or Jeb!) stole the red "I'm In" button from Ted Cruz or vice versa, but I genuinely like the fact that he's being photographed with American servicemen. After all, they're the ones who ultimately have to risk their asses for the politicians of world. Why shouldn't they be front and center in this election?

She goes through so much Purell on the campaign trail. So, so much Purell.

HOT TAKE: Hillary has, by far, the most modest welcome image of any of the major candidates. It's actually more of a banner and only takes up half the screen. By the bottom half of the screen, Hil's already into her talking points. ("Hillary's economic plan: raise middle-class incomes." Sounds pretty sweet.) In this respect, she's the anti-Trump. I wonder if this is just efficiency, or are women in politics expected to maintain a certain level of decorum and refrain from bragging about themselves too much, lest they upset the menfolk? I sensed that Condoleezza Rice was under this particular kind of strain when she was Secretary of State under Bush #2. It was like Condi was always telling herself, "Be good. Smile. Be nice." And then she'd go home at the end of the day and just scream for a half hour until her vocal cords were shredded. Anyway, you'll notice that Hillary is all the way to the left of the screen in her picture. And clad in bright blue, too! Is this subtext or just regular text?

That's very interesting, sir, but can you PLEASE tell me your order? There are people waiting.

HOT TAKE: Well, Bernie ruined my theory. He's the furthest left on the political spectrum, but he's standing on the right in this photo. GODDAMN YOU, SANDERS! Anyway, the Bern-meister always looks haggard and disheveled whenever he's filmed or photographed, but at least his hair is relatively under control here. Smiling's not his bag, though. Never has been. I wonder about the shirtsleeves. They don't reach his wrists, yet they're not really rolled up in the classic "let's get to work!" fashion either. It's like he pushed his sleeves to the top of his forearms and rebuttoned the cuffs just south of his elbows. Is that comfortable? If not, is that why he's so grouchy all the time? It's hard to tell at this size, but I think he's wearing jeans. That's a nice touch. Really, a button-up shirt with jeans is how I dressed for work for years, so Bernie and I have a lot in common, fashion-wise. I also notice something odd about the photos of Bernie, Hillary, and Jeb. Why are there never any black people in these pictures? All three candidates are awash in a sea of peach-colored flesh.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Look at this pattern. What do you see? The answer will prove your sanity.

Stare deeply at this image until it begins to make sense.

What I want you to do now is examine that pattern up there. Stare at it for a while. What do you see? A lot of pink, tan, yellow, and blue rectangles with a red border in between? Good. Because that's all it is. Utterly meaningless. Any significance you might glean is all in your mind and a possible symptom of a condition known as cosmicam dementia provecto. Better have that checked out.

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

The front and back covers of Sheldon Lord's Savage Lover.

Lawrence Block, aka Sheldon Lord
If you're an aficionado of vintage adult paperbacks, you'll probably have no trouble at all guessing the authorship of 1968's Savage Lover, published by Softcover Library.  The book's credited author is Sheldon Lord, one of the best-known pseudonyms of hyper-prolific New York crime writer Lawrence Block (1938-2012). After all, Block is said to have written numerous books under Love's name in the 1960s.

So Lawrence Block wrote Savage Lover, too, right? Easy question! There would seem to be no mystery here. Well, let's hang on a second. In the murky world of adult paperbacks and their pseudonymous authors, there is always room for doubt and speculation, as we'll soon see.

It's true that Lawrence Block did use the pen name Sheldon Lord. In fact, it's one of the earliest and most used of his numerous pseudonyms, with upwards of two dozen titles published under that name by my quick count. 

Block's substantial career as a pulp author started in the late 1950s when he began submitting short stories to men's magazines at the tender age of 19. He produced a slew of sordid paperbacks for the adult male demographic during the 1960s and into the early '70s before achieving mainstream success as a writer of crime fiction.

But what has any of this got to do with with Edward D. Wood, Jr.? Well, I'm afraid we have another book being falsely attributed to Eddie on Ebay. Just as in last week's article, we are again confronted with another lazy, spurious claim  by the same seller. In this case, the book actually did sell, so before the listing disappears entirely from the site, I'm documenting this case here for posterity. Here is the questionable part of the auction listing: "I believe this may be an original Ed Wood Jr. book – I attempted to find out online, but found no list for his books written under pseudonyms."

Again, a quick internet search turns up plenty of lists of Ed's paperbacks, none of which includes Savage Lover or any titles by Sheldon Lord. In fact, there is no record of Ed Wood or even Lawrence Block ever having written for Softcover Library, a company whose house style included photo covers instead of drawn art. (The latter was the norm for the publishing companies who hired Wood and Block, both under their own names and pseudonyms.)

Another quick internet search easily confirms that Sheldon Lord was an early pen name of Lawrence Block. That fact is not in dispute. Block himself admitted it. He verified the titles he'd written under that name and even reprinted some of them under his own name decades later!

A Lord original and its retitled Block reprint.

Alas, here's the rub: Lawrence Block did not claim ownership or authorship of Savage Lover. By the time Savage Lover came out in 1968, Block was no longer using the Sheldon Lord pen name. Back in those days, it was common practice in the adult paperback milieu for authors to share pseudonyms. Sheldon Lord's books had been mostly, though not exclusively, written by Block in the early 1960s. But three different authors are believed to have shared that name during the latter half of the decade: Hal Dresner (who later wrote episodes of M*A*S*H) as well as Peter Hochstein and Milo Perichitch. So which of these guys is the author of Savage Lover? Take your pick. It's a shell game.

I only hope that the person who bought Savage Lover on Ebay didn't really think it was an Ed Wood book. Or even a Lawrence Block book. Unfortunately, it appears that this unfortunate buyer paid about twice the average price for this book as compared to other Ebay listings for the very same title!

So, really, who wrote Savage Lover? It definitely wasn't Ed Wood, and it almost definitely wasn't Lawrence Block either. Of the three possible authors mentioned above, Block himself shoots down Dresner, which leaves either Hochstein or Perichitch. In the world of vintage sleaze paperbacks, that's sometimes as close as you're gonna get.

As always:

Caveat Emptor. Let the buyer be-vare.

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

Friday, December 4, 2015

7 into 28 is 13: The politics of joke thievery

Bud Abbott screws his landlord out of the rent money with mathematical trickery.

How do jokes get started? Hell if I know, but back in the days of vaudeville, certain successful comedic routines got passed around a lot between different acts, with very little thought given as to attribution. I guess there was a lot of borrowing or just outright stealing in those days. Maybe there were turf wars over the "ownership" of certain bits. These were live performances, of course, and no one was recording them, so what was the harm ultimately? But then a strange thing happened to the entertainment biz. Two strange things, actually: film and television. Suddenly, performances were being immortalized and shown to audiences from coast to coast. And yet, those same hand-me-down vaudeville routines kept popping up on screens both big and small well into the 1950s and beyond. Hey, the material has to come from somewhere. There's a famous quote sometimes attributed to Larry Gelbart and sometimes to Bob Hope: "When vaudeville died, television was the box they put it in." Many decades later, a variation on that line wound up in a Family Guy episode: "Vaudeville's dead, and TV's the box they're gonna bury it in." So even the quote about vaudeville has some miles on it.

There is one routine in particular that shows up with remarkable persistence in old movies and TV shows, performed by a variety of comedians with very little variation in the basic premise or structure. Simply put, one character tries to convince another character that 28 divided by 7 is 13. The first character will "prove" this assertion in three ways: long division, multiplication, and addition. Always in that order. I guess the bit is most closely associated with Abbott and Costello, who went from vaudeville to film to television over the course of their long career. They certainly did this math routine a lot of times. Like this, for instance:

And this:

Not to mention this and this.

So Bud and Lou sure performed the hell out out of the "28" bit. But the routine was not their exclusive property by any stretch. Ron Ormond's 1951 film, Yes Sir, Mr. Bones is meant as a tribute to minstrel shows, which were already on their way out by then (for good reason). This is the movie from which Ed Wood's producers plundered the Cotton Watts and Chick routine he used in Jail Bait in 1954. Two of the other performers in the original Ormond film are Emmett Miller and Ches Davis, doing their version of the old "28" routine, though they don't get around to it until about two minutes into this clip.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main were doing this same routine in one of their low-budget Ma and Pa Kettle films at Universal. The only difference is that they use 25 and 14 instead of 28 and 13. But the joke is exactly the same, as is the order: division, then multiplication, then addition.

Remember all this before you ever accuse anyone of stealing a joke. Joke-stealing is a proud show business tradition. Comedy could barely exist without it. I mean, who came up with this mathematics routine? Abbott and Costello? Davis and Miller? Ma and Pa Kettle? Probably none of them!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

New theory: 'Fargo' season 2 is basically 'The Ladykillers' in slow motion

The Blomquists should not be alive. And yet they are. How?

As anyone who watches it knows, FX's television adaptation of Fargo is no mere regurgitation of the 1996 film by Joel and Ethan Coen. It frequently references that movie, yes, but it also draws upon the Coens' entire 30-year career for source material, in addition to its scads of newly invented, wholly original characters and situations. This season alone has seen major homages to Miller's Crossing, The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? But it's taken me until today to realize that the Coen film most heavily referenced in the TV show, outside of the original Fargo itself, might just be The Ladykillers, the brothers' little-loved, much-criticized 2004 remake of the classic 1955 Ealing comedy with Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.


Now, I've tried to argue in the past that The Ladykillers is a grossly underappreciated, widely misunderstood film that holds up very nicely in a side-by-side, point-by-point comparison with its predecessor. I still feel that way, but I've come to accept the fact that critics and movie nerds have their minds made up about the movie and will not budge. Their loss. Obviously, Noah Hawley, creator of the Fargo TV series, has some affection for The Ladykillers. Early on in the show's second season, a pivotal scene takes place at a restaurant called the Waffle Hut, which is also the name of a crucial location from The Ladykillers and the source of that film's best-known line: "You brought your bitch to the Waffle Hut!" I figured the Waffle Hut locale was going to be Fargo's token nod to The Ladykillers. But I miscalculated. If you'll recall, The Ladykillers centers around a group of thieves, led by Tom Hanks, who decide they have to kill an old lady, Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), who has found out about their casino heist. In their slapstick efforts to kill the elderly woman, the would-be ladykillers fail every time. One by one, they die, and the woman remains alive and unharmed.

Flash forward eleven years. The second season of Fargo has largely focused on the travails of a North Dakota hairdresser, Peggy Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst), and her likable if rather oafish butcher husband, Ed (Jesse Plemons). The seemingly naive and vulnerable Blomquists find themselves smack dab in the middle of a mafia turf war when Peggy accidentally runs over Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin), a member of a regionally powerful crime family. The Gerhardts have dispatched numerous would-be assassins to erase Ed and Peggy from existence. The result? A lot of dead Gerhardts and no lasting harm visited upon the Blomquists. Ed and Peggy have demonstrated a lot of unexpected toughness and resourcefulness this year, but they've also benefited from tremendous luck and good timing. Just like a certain Marva Munson. Meanwhile, the Gerhardts are a lot like the inept thieves from The Ladykillers, always squabbling among themselves when they should be acting as a team.

But the similarities don't end there. In The Ladykillers, Ms. Munson is a somewhat delusional, deeply religious woman who lives in her own isolated little world. She spends a great deal of time talking to an oil painting of her deceased husband, Othar, and imagines that the painting talks back to her. On Fargo, Peggy is also delusional and believes in a "religion" of sorts based around self-help seminars and women's magazines. Peggy's devotion to her chosen faith rivals that of Marva Munson. While Ms. Munson talks about getting into Heaven as her ultimate goal, Peggy prattles on about becoming "actualized" as her highest ambition.

And, like Marva Munson, Peggy Blomquist is more than capable of carrying on both halves of an imaginary conversation. Last night's episode, for instance, had her seeking advice from a spectral self-help guru, perhaps a psychologist, who had magically materialized in her basement. In reality, she was addressing Dodd Gerhardt (Jeffrey Donovan), a dangerous criminal she had taken hostage and tied up. Peggy's insistence that Dodd mind his manners while in her presence is very Munson-esque. In The Ladykillers, Marva repeatedly slaps poor Gawain McSam (Marlon Wayans) when he uses profanity around her. Peggy, for her part, has no trouble stabbing  Dodd in both shoulders when he fails to say "please" and "thank you" while bound to a chair in a remote cabin. Interestingly, Gawain McSam's timid, utterly botched attempt to shoot Marva Munson in The Ladykillers is mirrored by a sequence in Fargo in which young Charlie Gerhardt (Allan Dobrescu) totally louses up what should be an easy execution of Ed Blomquist. In these moments, both McSam and Charlie are boys sent to do a man's job. Not that the men do any better, mind you.

So there you have it, folks. Fargo's second season is one big extrapolation of The Ladykillers.