Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Halloween Odyssey by Greg Dziawer

Vampira and Bela Lugosi get comfortable.
Red Skelton (left) and Bela Lugosi.
To celebrate the upcoming holiday, we're delving into a crevice of Woodology: the fabled (sometimes claimed nonexistent) TV episode of The Red Skelton Show featuring Bela Lugosi as a guest star in the feature skit "Dial 'B' for Brush." Airing on CBS from 8:30pm-9pm on July 15, 1954, the program also featured Lon Chaney, Jr. and Maila Nurmi, the latter initially unrecognizable from her Vampira persona, excepting the unmistakable, truly bloodcurdling scream, but billed as such in the spoken credits, in addition to the necessarily ubiquitous Red Skelton, again essaying his signature character, "wise fool" Clem Kadiddlehopper.

Let's assemble a brief annotated timeline around this episode:
  • February-March, 1954: Bela, spoofing his vampire persona, headlines a self-titled burlesque revue at the Silver Slipper. Ed Wood is Bela's self-styled (and self-identified) "producer" at the time. His involvement in the revue is likely limited to self-interested promotion and assisting Bela with his dialogue, though Ed variously claims to have "designed" it, scripted it (or part of it), or even to have directed the rehearsals. 
Maila Nurmi as herself.
  • April 30, 1954: The Vampira Show debuts on KABC-TV, ABC's Los Angeles affiliate. A first of its kind, the show stars model Maila Nurmi stars as Vampira, a ghoulish hostess of vintage horror films. Vampira is an immediate sensation, featured in Time, Life and Newsweek. Darkly comic, clearly smarter than the rest of us, and strikingly beautiful, Nurmi's Vampira garnered her an Emmy nomination for 1954, despite the show being abruptly cancelled a little less than a year after it debuted. "Bela Lugosi and Ed Wood sat and watched The Vampira Show in Lugosi's modest suburban home. Lugosi thought that her appearance on the cultural radar screen meant that gothic horror had made a comeback." (Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror by W. Scott Poole). It's not hard to imagine them enraptured, watching Vampira hosting an airing of Bela's mad scientist programmer The Corpse Vanishes from 1939. 
  • July 15, 1954: Lugosi guest stars on The Red Skelton Show alongside Skelton, Lon Chaney Jr. and Vampira. Not surprisingly, the sketch concentrates on horror comedy and includes everything from dancing skeletons to a musical quotation of J. Bodewalt Lampe’s "Misterioso Pizzicato." Along with standard horror jokes (Lugosi complains, "They don’t make girls like they used to. I know; I take them apart!"), the episode features topical humor, including allusions to Dial M for Murder (1954), Liberace, Ralph Edwards, and -– quite subtly, through Skelton selling a brush from Denmark that can be used for "either his or hers" –- Christine Jorgensen, whose sex change story had partially inspired Wood’s Glen or Glenda
  • October 29, 1954: The episode of The Red Skelton Show featuring Bela airs in repeat on CBS, fittingly two days before Halloween. Bride of the Monster, directed and written by Ed (with Alex Gordon) and starring Bela, had begun shooting earlier that week, on a Tuesday, October 26th.
Gary D. Rhodes and Tom Weaver describe the fateful Red Skelton episode in their highly recommended book, Bride Of The Monster: Scripts From The Crypt (Bear Manor Media, 2015):
"Once again, Wood insinuated himself in Lugosi’s history, later purporting to have acted as Lugosi’s dialogue coach. Perhaps he did; perhaps he didn’t. At any rate, the Skelton episode is curiously (even if coincidentally) prescient in terms of Bride of the Atom. 'Prof. Lugosi' wears a lab coat for two of its three key scenes. He orders about a dumb henchman. And on a threadbare lab set, Lugosi affixes a silly apparatus to Skelton’s head that – after Lugosi throws a switch – transforms Skelton into a monster. These plot points and props would be echoed in Wood’s film."
Red Skelton's film.
The "Dial 'B' for Brush" skit, inspired by Skelton's feature The Fuller Brush Man (1948) , is oft-claimed to feature Peter Lorre. We won't go into all of that now, but suffice it to say that Lorre is not present here. He did, though, appear frequently on Skelton's shows, both TV and radio. Perhaps the historical record has conflated an appearance as a mad scientist in one episode, and alongside a dead-ringer Vampira lookalike in another. Skelton's January 1955 spoof of The Honeymooners, for instance, affords us the priceless opportunity to see Lorre growl, "POW! Right in the kisser!" It also ladles on the requisite, one-note physical "comedy" by Skelton as Norton, more foolish Clem than graceful Carney.

Meanwhile, highlights of the "Brush" skit include Bela dancing off into the commercial break fadeout, and Maila Nurmi's mute (almost), near-motionless intensity throughout, a sharp counterpoint to all of the overacting by everyone else.

And I'll highlight one more moment from the show: At the 14:32 mark, there's this brief pitch from Clem: "This is a genuine Mohair bristle. This is Mohair bristle, and you should have heard Mo scream. This wood is imported from Denmark.This brush is either his or hers." 

Mohair garments, as any self-respecting Woodologist knows, are made from angora fur sourced from sheep. Angora garments are also made of angora fur. Angora from rabbits. This brings to mind a quote from an article called "From Birthday Suits To Shrouds," as published in Flesh & Fantasy, Vol. 4, No.4, 1971 (Pendulum Press):
"Furry sweaters such as angora, mohair and brushed wool are high on the list of fetishes which are desired, tremendously so with the male transvestites. The garments with any fetishist might be worn or they might amply be felt and rubbed or even looked at. It is at such times that the human partner becomes almost secondary as the sexual illusion and stimulation comes strictly from the fetish love-object. The partner is simply a receptacle."
Aggregating newspapers of the era, a site called TakeMeBack.To lists Dial M for Murder as among the most popular films of May 1954 and The Vampira Show as one of the most popular TV shows. Criswell, incidentally, wrote in one of his monumental books of predictions, 1969's Your Next Ten Years, that the top male star of the 20th century, whose fame would last, would be Red Skelton. His female pick? A fact: his friend and benefactor, Mae West. Alas, Criswell is another matter, one to be taken up in the future.

Happy Halloween from Ed Wood Wednesdays!

Bonus: You can catch a full (albeit reconstructed) episode of 1954's The Vampira Show streaming here, featuring The Corpse Vanishes, along with Vampira's intro ("Everyone knows EE-leck-triss-ity is for chairs.") and outro, plus original commercials from that era.