Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: 'Take It Out in Trade' - A hot take by Greg Dziawer

Ed Wood is a triple threat in Take It Out in Trade.

A new Ed-ition of an old film.
A copy of the new DVD/Blu-ray edition of Ed Wood's long-lost Take It Out in Trade (1970) was delivered under the tree by Santa, and I just popped it in a bit ago. The Crash Corrigan angle—the veteran stuntman is listed as an associate producer in the opening credits—is awesome, of course. Funny how the whole plot, sans dialog, is there in the outtakes. The film looks to have been shot at a ratio of about 1.6:1 or so. Really lean. But it's polished, far more so than The Only House in Town (1971). 

Wood biographer Rudolph Grey says in the liner notes that Trade was shot in a house in Lake Sherwood, CA. It was also, often, shot on sets at talent agent Hal Guthu's studio on Santa Monica. You can tell by some of the familiar props from that site. The bronze king cobra ashtray is there, for instance, as is the infamous gold skull! The clapperboards in the outtakes should tell the story of where they were shooting and when for those three fateful days.

The liner notes seem to credit Corrigan as the movie's principal producer, but he is officially credited as an associate producer only. Someone named "Edward Ashdown" is one of the two credited producers; it's an interesting name with no ties I can find. The other, "Richard Gonzalez," is also kind of nebulous. Maybe it's an in-joke reference to the tennis player

My surmise is that Take It Out in Trade had to have been financed by an actual film company, even if only a fringe entity. The disc's liner notes give the distributor as Mar-Jon, so I'll have to look into that. I feel like it would have to have some connection to Pendulum Publishing honcho Bernie Bloom or, more likely, Bernie's son Noel. At the time of this movie, Eddie was writing ubiquitously for Bernie's Pendulum (and related) magazines, plus the pseudo-educational "sociosex" paperbacks. And the Bloom family's pornogaphic loops (on which Eddie also toiled) were in a nascent state. 

All of these details aside, inferred or a stretch, it's quite incredible to think that Crash Corrigan produced a softcore sex film written by, directed by, and starring Ed Wood! Yes, Eddie was a "triple threat" on Take It Out in Trade. When you think about it, the only other film in the Wood canon that we know of that fits that bill is Glen or Glenda!

To a New Year!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 77: An alternate version of 'Venus Flytrap' (1970)

James Craig as Dr. Bragan in The Venus Flytrap.

A latter-day Ed Wood film.
Of Ed Wood's latter-day movie credits, few are as mysterious and intriguing as The Venus Flytrap (1970), a Japanese-made sci-fi/horror yarn based on his original screenplay. Aside from being an eccentric production in its own right, rife with Wood-ian dream logic and entertainingly unlikely dialogue, Flytrap stands out as one of Eddie's few non-pornographic or sexploitation projects from that era. It's much closer in spirit to Bride of the Monster (1955) than to Necromania (1971) or Take It Out in Trade (1970). For any fans making their way through the complete Wood filmography, the comparatively wholesome Venus Flytrap can seem like a welcoming oasis in a desert of soul-deadening smut.

The film's production and distribution history is convoluted, and it's been known under a variety of titles, including Body of the Prey, The Double Garden, and The Devil Garden. The Venus Fly Trap seems to be the title Eddie used on the bibliographic listing of feature film credits that he supplied to filmmaker Fred Olen Ray in 1978.

Clouding the issue considerably is that the version generally known to the public comes from a now-defunct company called Regal Video, which released it under the entirely bogus title The Revenge of Doctor X, complete with erroneous credits copied from the 1968 film Mad Doctor of Blood Island.

For the record, The Venus Flytrap is about Dr. Bragan (played by veteran actor James Craig), a volatile NASA scientist who travels to Japan when stress headaches begin to interfere with his work. Once in the Land of the Rising Sun, Bragan sets up shop in an isolated castle and embarks upon a series of experiments to prove that man evolved from plant life. The result of his labors is a lumbering, homicidal plant monster who goes on a rampage and has to be destroyed. To be very clear, no one in the film seeks revenge and there is no character named Doctor X.

Unfortunately, Regal's bogus credits appear at the beginning of the film and on its eye-catching VHS sleeve. And it's this blurry, faded, misnamed VHS version that was later (badly) duped to DVD and included on numerous collections of public domain horror films, such as Mill Creek's Chilling Classics. So now Venus Flytrap is irrevocably known to the B-movie-watching public as The Revenge of Dr. X.

Don't believe the hype!

Even the plot summary on the back is wildly wrong!

None of this happens in the movie.

Recently, I was browsing on Ebay, trying to find a copy of that infamous VHS tape when I found something even more interesting. Potentially, at least. An account called reelwildcinema was selling a $10 DVD edition of the movie under the title The Venus Flytrap. At first, I thought little of it, thinking it was probably just another copy of that same public domain VHS rip. But a screenshot of the movie's main title sequence caught my eye. For one thing, the words The Venus Flytrap actually appeared onscreen, superimposed over a shot of Dr. Bragan's lab. Nothing like that appeared in the version I'd seen. I decided to risk the ten bucks and buy a copy.

As it turns out, this DVD is seemingly taken from the same battered VHS tape from Regal Video. The picture quality is no better than my Chilling Classics copy. In fact, it might even be a little worse, since the image has been stretched slightly to make it appear widescreen. But, sure enough, this edition of the movie boasts an entirely different main title sequence than the one I'd seen. I figure I'd save you the $10 and share the sequence with you right here.

Looks authentic, doesn't it? I've seen another, fan-made edit of the movie with Ed's name in the credits, but it's strictly amateur stuff. Probably done with Windows Movie Maker or some similar software. The Venus Flytrap DVD seems to be the real deal. Most of the actors listed have been positively identified as being in this movie: James Craig, Tota Kondo, Lawrence O'Neill, Al Ricketts, Edward Shannon, John Stanley, and James Yagi. But the female lead, the performer given second billing here, is called Ako Kami. Every other source calls her Atsuko Rome, including a Stars & Stripes article by cast member Al Ricketts.

Ricketts also identified Norman Earle Thomson as the film's director, and that's the director listed on the IMDb, too. But these credits say Kenneth G. Crane. It should be noted that some books do list Crane as the film's director, including Rob Craig's Ed Wood, Mad Genius (2009). And then there is a prominent onscreen writing credit for Edward D. Wood, Jr. under his own given name.

Maybe these credits are authentic. Maybe they're just a clever forgery by an opportunistic fan. Take a look at them yourself and make your best determination. Either way, I thought I'd share this with you.

POSTSCRIPT: I thought of asking the Ebay seller where this print came from and I got this reply.
Hi! I really can't remember. It's possible it came from a place called Video Search of Miami, or another called "Super Happy Fun!"...yes, that was the name! They're both out of business now, but I believe it came from one of those two.
If you were looking for rare or obscure movies in the early days of the internet, Video Search of Miami (VSOM) and Super Happy Fun will both be familiar names. In the era before YouTube and streaming video, these were gray market companies through which customers could order physical copies of hard-to-find movies.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Is it already time for another comics roundup? Apparently.

Yep. In colors. Plural. We're going all out here.

Look. If you read this blog, you already know the deal. Occasionally, I like to clear off the images I have saved to my computer and start fresh. Specifically, these are various parodies of newspaper comics that I've done over the last couple of months. That's what this is. Not into that? Then this isn't the article for you. Move on to something else.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part 15 by Greg Dziawer

(l to r) Maila Nurmi modeling in 1951; Maila as Vampira; Maila with Elvis Presley.

Much has already been written, including a full-length biography, about Maila Nurmi (1922-2008), the slinky actress who so memorably portrayed TV horror hostess Vampira and who—credited as Vampira— appeared briefly yet indelibly in Ed Wood's sci-fi/horror opus Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). While Nurmi's sadly short-lived program, known variously as Dig Me Later, Vampira and The Vampira Show, was strictly a mid-1950s Los Angeles phenomenon, the actress managed to garner national attention during her brief time in the spotlight. Global attention, as a matter of fact, reminding me that pop culture is one of America's chief exports.

Vampira's worldwide fame is evinced by an intriguing article I discovered in the July 17, 1954 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. Headlined "She Lives on Horror" and credited only to "our New York office," the article vividly describes Nurmi's then-outré show and its devoted following. The Vampira Show had only been airing on KABC-TV for a couple of months by that point, but the article already describes Nurmi as "the linkpin in a new American cult." The article is quite a keepsake, considering that it includes an exclusive interview with the hostess herself when she was at the peak of her powers. KABC would cancel the series the next year, and Nurmi would try without much success to duplicate her success at crosstown rival KHJ-TV.

A 1954 article about Vampira.

The Herald article surprised me with its relative depth. The fancifully written text is studded with colorful details about Nurmi and the show she hosted, serving as a reminder that Ed Wood's coterie of collaborators led fascinating lives of their own. Nurmi gives her surname as Syrjäniemi and even helpfully spells it out for the journalist. She lists her place of birth as Petsamo, Finland, a fact that biographer W. Scott Poole disputes, and describes herself as "about 30." Maila and Ed had not crossed paths yet, so there is no talk of Plan 9, but the actress does discuss working with Mae West as well as a gig in a 1946 spook show called Spook Scandals. "I was the hit of the show," she boasts.

Maybe the most noteworthy aspect of the article is that Nurmi begins the interview in character as Vampira before dropping the facade entirely. "She laid aside the act," the journalist writes, "and became herself." Part of the transformation is physical: Nurmi removes her false fingernails and long black wig, revealing "a crop of close-cut blonde curls." She also uncinches her famous 17-inch waist.

If this article intrigues you and you have Amazon Prime, you can watch the excellent 2012 documentary Vampira and Me right here. While you're at it, check out this 1988 interview with Maila, too.

Far more about Maila Nurmi and other Wood collaborators is in the works for this series, so stick around in 2019 as I dive into the lives and careers of Captain DeZita, Tom Keene, Nona Carver and more!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Revisiting a (mostly bad) Christmas album from my childhood

This album was somehow part of my family's Christmas tradition.

Built for comfort, not for speed.
The Winston Singers. They sound famous, right? You're pretty sure you've heard of them. They had that one song. Or was it an album? Or maybe it was a TV special with Jim Nabors and the Marine Corps Band. Whatever. They did something.

Didn't they?

The truth is that The Winston Singers were a bunch of uncredited session musicians who made two quickie cash-in Christmas albums for a low-budget record label in Pennsylvania called Wyncote in the mid-1960s. For the most part, their albums weren't even sold in real record stores. Instead, middlemen called "rack jobbers" would rent space in drug stores and department stores to hawk these inexpensive albums to people who were buying sweaters or talcum powder or lawnmowers.

One of those LPs, simply titled Christmas Carols (aka 14 Christmas Carols and released in 1964), found its way into my family's music collection, along with my dad's Joan Baez albums and the Sound of Music soundtrack. We used to bring it out every December, though the only thing we had to play it on was a Fisher-Price portable turntable that was designed to be sturdy rather than acoustically pleasing. Eleven months out of the year, this album was collecting dust in some hall closet.

In retrospect, that was probably for the best. I recently revisited The Winston Singers' album and found it to be mostly terrible. The jacket does not include any sort of credits or liner notes, just plugs for other holiday-themed Wyncote LPs like Organs and Chimes and Silent Night. No legitimate singers, musicians, or producers would want their names on an album like Christmas Carols. Wyncote may not have been at the absolute bottom of the American record industry, but it was in the lower third. The nicest thing I can say about the LP is that it's pressed on good quality, durable vinyl, much better than some of the flimsy compilation albums I've found from the '70s and '80s that are so wobbly they're almost like flexi-discs. (Even the sleeves on those are thin and cheap.)

The short-lived, low-budget Wyncote Records.
As its title suggests, Christmas Carols—which was available in both stereo and mono (our family splurged for the stereo)—consists of chintzy, rinky-dink choral renditions of Yuletide songs like "Jingle Bells," "I Saw Three Ships," and "Joy to the World." The stuff everyone knows, in other words. Of the 14 selections, there were only two titles I didn't immediately recognize: "Hail to Christmas" (from the Babes in Toyland operetta) and a somber number called "Christmas Hymn," which closes the album.

The music is best described as loud and shouty, with very little subtlety or nuance. Dynamics are not in evidence here. I can't quite tell how many Winston Singers there are. It sounds like maybe five to ten, both men and women. They are accompanied by an organist, whose shrill tones occasionally threaten to drown out the vocals. The mixing seems noticeably "off" somehow. I'm not sure if the singers could hear the organ at all, since they're never quite on pitch. Musically, Christmas Carols is just not of professional caliber. It's more like what you'd hear at a smallish church or school with limited resources.

The one track I remembered most vividly from my youth was "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." That's a carol I've always liked anyway because it has an eerie, spooky vibe to it. Plus it name checks Satan—rare for a holiday tune. And, sure enough, "God Rest Ye" is probably the strongest part of the entire Christmas Carols experience. The tinny organ and curdled vocals actually kind of work to the song's advantage.

"Go Tell It on the Mountain," on the other hand, is a disaster. I don't know why the very Caucasian Winston Singers thought they could tackle a spiritual, but they were misinformed. At least this rendition is brief. In fact, all 14 songs on this album are brief. I doubt anything goes past three minutes. A wise decision. Christ is merciful; albums recorded in his name should be, too.

Overall, despite its many technical shortcomings, Christmas Carols fulfills its destiny, which is to be generic, instantly recognizable holiday music. On that count, it succeeds where the bombastic Mannheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra so often fail. The Winston Singers' LP is something (mostly) unobtrusive to have on in the background at a holiday party, for instance. My folks used to have big Christmas parties at our house every year, inviting mostly work friends, and I'm sure this record got some playtime there. You could also listen to the album while wrapping presents or trimming a tree. Maybe we used it for that, too.

The sophomore (and farewell) LP.
And so, this obscure, indifferently made Christmas album from 1964—probably the result of an afternoon's work by people who did not care how it turned out—became an integral part of my family's holiday traditions. It served in that capacity for at least a decade, maybe more. Because I associated this record with vacations and presents, I was even excited to see the ugly LP cover, which depicts some creepy, dead-eyed Dickensian caroler figurines in an unflattering close-up.

I'd say we got our $1.99's worth out of this LP.

No other Christmas album ever had quite the same importance in our household as the Wyncote budget record, but there were a few pretenders to the throne. My mother bought a copy of A Very Special Christmas in 1987, for instance, only to be horrified that it contained a newfangled rap song, "Christmas in Hollis" by Run-D.M.C. Even the offerings by Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, and Bruce Springsteen were too noisy for her liking. About the only track that met with her approval was "The Coventry Carol" by Alison Moyet.

Maybe The Winston Singers were on to something. Or maybe not. They released a second album, Little Drummer Boy, in 1966. The title track was the only new recording on it; the other nine songs were borrowed directly from Christmas Carols. Neither "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" nor "Go Tell It on the Mountain" made the cut. Wyncote Records went under the next year.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Loop Orbit, Part 13 by Greg Dziawer

A creep in the early '70s loop Notorious Landlady.

A few months ago, I was screening some 8mm pornographic loops made on the West Coast in the early 1970s. Specifically, these were loops produced by second-generation smut peddler Noel Bloom and distributed by alleged mafioso Mickey Zaffarano. These include the early Swedish Erotica loops—the  first 19 of which are unchallenged as the work of Edward D. Wood, Jr.—plus dozens of other series, totaling hundreds of subtitled loops. One film in particular, Notorious Landlady, was released as the sixth entry in the VIP Series, which was produced in the wake of those first 19 Swedish Erotica loops and studded with remarkably similar attributes.

Like what, you ask? Well, for one, the subtitles, baby!  We can be confident that Eddie himself wrote at least some of the onscreen captions in these silent movies. Given their internal consistency, in fact, it's safe to say that he wrote lots, if not all of them, right until his passing in December 1978. Even then, some of those loops did not hit the market until 1979.

What follows is my transcription of Notorious Landlady. For you textual analysts, there are 26 lines of subtitles here, totaling 85 words, giving us a word-per-line average of 3.27. That's toward the mid-to-low end for loops in this family, but it's within the accepted range.

A sexy brunette returns to her apartment, walking into and away from the camera under the film's title card:  
A potential tenant meets his landlady.

Maria Arnold
yes, the actress who plays the beautiful and inscrutable Tanya in Ed Wood's feature Necromaniaenters a room and undresses. The first subtitle appears onscreen.
Girl: OHHH!!!!!!! 
This opening line is extremely common in Bloom-produced loops of the era, with only the number of H's and exclamation points varying. It's usually used to denote the moans of pleasure during sex, but here it's repurposed as the sound made by the girl as she stretches before beginning to undress.
And then, in an astonishingly superfluous moment the horny audience likely barely noticed, the camera pans away from the girl in mid-close-up as she removes her top. The shot then drifts off into the edge of the room where it blends into a shot beginning at the left-hand edge of the same room, finally uniting on a mid-close-up of the now-topless girl as she begins to remove her skirt. 
A split-screen edit reveals a close-up of a man's eyes, suggesting our heroine is being spied upon. There is another split-screen edit as the girl dons her slip at right, while a finger presses her doorbell in close-up on the left. The imagery, in this contextor perhaps only in my mindevokes the pad of a finger pressing against a clitoris. A preceding close-up indicates the leading lady is the MANAGER.
She answers the door wearing the slip. Her dwelling seems to be part-real apartment and part-movie set.


A man enters, looking distinctly unlike Jack Lemmon. I'll explain that reference in a moment.




Characteristically functional opening lines, as the pair settle on the inevitable couch against a completely curtained "wall" with a lamp on a small table in the corner. Guess what happens next?


As he spies her thighs, a dreamy dissolve manages to move the narrative forward while concurrently maintaining the guy's status as a creep. Nothing personal against this actor, but he looks the part.

Foreplay ensues, with a focus on eager tongue-kissing in close-up.

Girl: UN ZIP!

Apparently, "unzip" counts as two words in her sexual vocabulary.

She goes down, accompanied immediately by another trademark subtitle in these loops:

Girl: UMMMMM!!!!



"Lick it up!" and "comfy" are both common utterances in these loops.

The actors walk into the camera and a dissolve deposits them upon a bed.



Girl: OHHH!!!!!

More dissolve edits and the guy goes down on her.

Girl: AHHH!!!!!! 
Since that's three H's and six exclamation points, we can reasonably infer that she's quite excited. Our leading man must be doing a good job. 



Kudos to the couple for crystal-clear communication.

Girl: NOW!



Anal sex, of course.

The camera is now looking over the girl's shoulder in close-up. There is no sound, but she clearly mouths, "More! More!"

More close-ups come, indeed, for the literal climax.

Highly un-PC, I know, but this line has me wondering how many times the word "lick" has appeared in these subtitles.

The phenomenal ending sees the camera zoom in on the girl, ultimately into an extreme close-up right into her mouth, as she looks directly into the camera while the final subtitle appears in a larger font:

The other Notorious Landlady.
And thus ends Notorious Landlady. Apart from the subtitles, this loop features other stylistic tropes in common with the Swedish Erotica films and other related series of the time. It's a one-camera setup, for instance. The editing, too, is similar. Dissolves are a signature of this family of loops, and the use of split-screens is waaaaay over the top for low-budget '70s porn. Seriously, when it comes to split-screens, Brian De Palma had nothing on Eddie Wood!

That is, of course, if Ed really had a hand in the editing. It seems plausible to me. Could he have been on set, in some directorial capacity? Maybe. He did oversee earlier loops for Noel Bloom's inaugural loop series Cinema Classics circa 1971. Without a doubt, he often wrote the box cover summaries.

After I processed the loop, which I had seen before and decided was worth further scrutiny, I punched in the title on Google and was happily surprised to discover that The Notorious Landlady was a 1962 comedy starring Jack Lemmon, Fred Astaire, and Kim Novak, with a supporting turn by dotty old Estelle Winwood (The Producers, Murder by Death). I was quite the old Hollywood movie buff as a teenager back in the '80s, but this film was unfamiliar to me. Despite some good notices and a reputation that has improved with time, the film was not a box office hit and fell into relative obscurity. Perhaps it was Eddie the movie buff who recollected it a little over a decade later when the Notorious Landlady loop was produced and distributed as part of the VIP Series circa 1974. 

The 1962 film, for the record, was a comedy thriller based upon a short story by Marjery Sharp, published in the February 3, 1956 issue of Collier's Weekly. The 8mm loop is the realization of the implicit male fantasy frustratingly embedded into the opening of that film, in which dapper Jack Lemmon rings sexy Kim Novak's doorbell in hopes of renting a room from her. Little does he know, his life is about to become a lot more complicated.

Hollywood, here we come!

Note: Various scans of the Notorious Landlady loop are extant, in both color and black-and-white. Some stills feature subtitles, others do not, and some have the subs falling out of the bottom of the frame. The film itself is the next to last entry in the Blue Vanities Peepshow Loops #295 compilation and also appears in the Something Weird Video compilation Bucky Beaver's Stags, Loops and Peeps #64

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Wood/Dziawer Odyssey, Part Nine by Greg Dziawer

Joanne Cangi as Geraldine in The Violent Years (1956).

Joanne's big movie role.
Duluth, MN-born actress Joanne Cangi (1937-2014) had only a brief TV and film career in the mid-1950s. In 1955, she notched a couple of appearances on a forgotten NBC sitcom called It's a Great Life (featuring a pre-Andy Griffith Frances Bavier). She also acted in one low-budget juvenile delinquent picture for a small independent studio called Headliner Productions in 1956. But that Poverty Row JD picture was the Ed Wood-scripted masterpiece The Violent Years.

Joanne played Geraldine, a member of the all-girl gang headed by doomed debutante Paula Parkins (Jean Moorhead). Ed's script dishes out harsh punishments to its young miscreant characters; bad girl Geraldine, for instance, is gunned down by the cops after trashing a schoolroom as part of some subversive conspiracy. Those are the breaks, honey.

I'm currently mired in research for other, longer articles in this series, but in the meantime, I'd like to share with you some clippings about Joanne Cangi that I've recently discovered. The Cangi clan migrated from Minnesota to California when the actress was very young, so Joanne spent her adolescence in sunny, touristy Orange County, CA. Spurred on by her mother, she entered and won numerous local beauty contests. By 16, in fact, she was already chosen to be queen of the annual summer bacchanal known as the Orange County Fair. Her duties included posing with an ostrich, as seen in this whimsical newspaper clipping from 1953.

"Preparing for ostrich races." Aren't we all?

A statuesque blonde, Joanne seems to have attained some degree of renown in northern Orange County in the mid-1950s. She attended Garden Grove High School back then, and during her junior year, she was named queen of the Camp Pendleton Rodeo. A few years later, after having graduated from GGHS, Joanne graciously returned to her alma mater to crown a young woman named Pat Wood as the new "Miss Garden Grove." That event was documented in the school's yearbook, with Joanne all smiles in the accompanying photo.

Excerpt from the Garden Grove High School yearbook; Inset: a news clipping about the Camp Pendleton Rodeo.

Joanne Cangi's local celebrity status was such that she was even called upon to visit the sick and bedridden, as seen in the clipping below in which she "exchanges holiday greetings with iron lung patient Allen Conkwright." Note that the photo caption refers to Ms. Cangi as a "starlet," suggesting her film and TV career was already underway. The actress' address is supplied in the text as well. A quick Google search reveals a short dead-end street lined with modest one-story houses.

Mr. Conkwright in the iron lung.

The Violent Years aside, movie stardom was not in the cards for Joanne Cangi. She later married a man named Doug Nicholls, moved to Michigan in the early '60s, got into real estate, and had four children. Her 2014 obituary in the Orange County Register alludes to a "brief acting career" and an encounter with John Wayne but makes no mention of her role as a teenage nogoodnik in an Ed Wood movie.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Holiday Sampler by Greg Dziawer

Don't say we never got you anything. We got you this.

As the holidays approach and we gather with loved ones to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, let's whet our appetites with some vintage newspaper clippings related to Edward D. Wood, Jr. and his incredible cast of repertory players. These are just some interesting tidbits I've uncovered while doing research for upcoming articles.

Let's dig in, shall we?

I. Valda Hansen and her pollen pills

Valda's ad from 1984.
Although she appeared in only one of Ed Wood's films, playing the fraudulent White Ghost in 1959's Night of the Ghouls, flaxen-haired starlet Valda Hansen is still remembered fondly as one of Eddie's inner circle of performers. She's a memorable interview subject in Rudolph Gray's Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992) as well as the documentary Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion (1992). Valda's disctinctive but sporadic appearances in exploitation films like Wam Bam Thank You Spaceman (1975) sputtered out by the mid-'70s, so I was suitably surprised when I stumbled upon her in a 1984 print ad for Pollitabs. This mysterious product, still available today, was a pollen-based (get it?) nutritional supplement endorsed by none other than Valda herself and superstar gymnast Mary Lou Retton, then America's sweetheart after her gold medal performance at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Julianne McNamara, another gold medal gymnast from the '84 games, is also cited in the ad copy.

The supplement ad is a fascinating little artifact of its era. Note, for instance, the North Hollywood address for ordering Pollitabs. This appears to be the same environs in which Valda resided throughout her adult life to the end, as well as the very same geography in which Ed Wood lived and an epicenter of the porn industry as it came into existence and flourished there in the 1970s.

Valda began modelling professionally right out of high school, perhaps even sooner, and appears to have continued doing so, at least locally, for decades. In the Pollitabs ad, which ran in the December 5, 1984 edition of the Indianapolis Jewish Post, she certainly appears to possess  the "energy" and "vitality" that the copy promises. Less than a decade later, however, still in her early 50s, Valda succumbed to cancer all too soon. 

II. Tor Johnson's tour of London

Tor Johnson in London, 1947.
Featured in three of Ed Wood's best-known films, including the aforementioned Night of the Ghouls, the bald, hulking professional-wrestler-cum-actor Tor Johnson remains one of the most beloved members of Ed's eccentric stock troupe. A Swedish immigrant, Tor began his wrestling career as a heavy, ironically dubbed "The Swedish Angel." In those early days, the wrestler did indeed possess hair, but it was long gone by the late 1940s. 

An odd little item from the June 28, 1947 edition of the Perth Mirror in Western Australia, depicts Tor wearing a comical beanie cap, plus a baggy suit, knee-length overcoat, and ludicrously undersized necktie. He towers over the gentleman standing next to him.

Headlined "Giant Goes To London," the clipping in question is a wire-service photo of the wrestler's visit to the British capital. The caption explains what he's doing there:
TOR JOHNSON, 30-stone [420-pound] "Man Mountain," who played the part of the great ape in the film "King Kong" 15 years ago, in playful mood on his arrival in London to take part in an International "catch-as-catch-can" wrestling contest at Harringay [sporting arena] next month. Johnson claims to be the strongest man in the world.
The caption writer has taken some liberty with the facts. According to the IMDb, Tor's known acting appearances date back only to 1934, the year after Kong Kong was released. Alas, though he may well have been "the strongest man in the world," Tor Johnson did not play the doomed ape in the RKO classic. The creature was instead bought to life through stop-motion animation.

Happily, Tor's 1947 appearance at Harringay was captured for posterity by newsreel cameras. The plummy Pathe narrator again refers to Tor as "King Kong" and repeats the wrestler's weight as 30-stone. The newsreel's claim that Tor was seven feet tall was an exaggeration of about nine inches. "The promoters [of the wrestling contest] evidently wanted to put over this farce as a serious sport," the narrator quips. "So far as we're concerned, it was one long series of laughs."

Tor did make an early, uncredited appearance in a 1936 Ronald Colman film called Under Two Flags, set amidst the French Foreign Legion. Glen or Glenda actor Captain DeZita, who was mostly going by the name Baron De Orgler at the time, would claim involvement in this same film as a consultant. DeZita frequently alleged—likely bullshit—to have been in the French Foreign Legion himself.

Tor Johnson died at the age 67 in 1971 and is buried in the San Fernando Valley, hub of the 1980s porn industry.

III. Dolores Fuller plays it safe

Ed Wood's live-in girlfriend as well as the co-star of his 1953 masterpiece Glen or Glenda, Dolores Fuller would break up with the idiosyncratic writer-director by the middle of the decade. Dolores' acting career, including occasional appearances in episodic television and films, had seemingly dried up by 1959. But she kept finding work as a print model, as in this ad sponsored by the National Safety Council. This picture ran in the Valentine's Day 1959 edition of the Boston Daily Record.

Dolores Fuller: "A cute Valentine herself."

"Valentine, I love you true—sure hope no one runs over you." True poetry. Appropriately, then, Dolores shifted careers shortly after this ad and became a professional songwriter herself. Within a few years, she was busy writing lyrics for hit songs by Elvis Presley. A frequent interviewee in documentaries and articles about Ed Wood, Dolores lived to be 88. She was buried in Las Vegas.

Happy Holidays, and don't choke on that Golden Turkey!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Here are two stories I couldn't sell! Enjoy!

"Can't be a winner every time, hon." - Edith Massey

What can I say, folks? Every once in a while, even a seasoned professional writer like myself comes up with a loser. A flop. A stink bomb. A turkey. It happens. I'm sure even Jackie Collins had the occasional bad day. Not everything can be Hollywood Wives. And when it happens, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on. Jackie knew it. I know it.

Some of the stuff I write is purely for my own amusement, but most of it is written to reach an audience, either through this blog or through some online platform that actually pays me. But what is funny or interesting to me is not always funny or interesting to other people. I have learned that lesson many times in the past, and I will learn it many times in the future.

With that said, here are two articles I wrote in hopes of making a sale. Neither one sold, and since they were both time-sensitive, they are no longer relevant or salable. Past their expiration date, both of them. Still in all, I hope that you will either enjoy them or at least learn from my mistakes.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 76: Johnny Duncan in 'Plan 9'

From Batman & Robin to Plan 9, Johnny Duncan had a colorful career in pictures.

The morgue wagon boys.
Strange things are afoot at the old cemetery near Jeff and Paula Trent's house. Two gravediggers have been killed—torn apart, as if by a bobcat—and a handful of police officers have arrived on the scene to take the witnesses' statements and search the grounds for any clue as to who or what committed these murders. The investigation is led by plainclothesmen Inspector Daniel Clay (Tor Johnson) and Lt. John "Johnny" Harper (Duke Moore), aided by two uniformed patrolmen (Paul Marco and Carl Anthony). Lt. Harper tells Inspector Clay that the "morgue wagon oughta be along most any time" to collect the bodies. The sooner the better, since this boneyard stinks to high heaven.

Confident that Lt. Harper has the foul-smelling crime scene well in hand, Inspector Clay departs to explore the rest of the cemetery. An unwise decision, we'll soon learn. Remarkable events transpire in rapid order. A single flying saucer zooms over the area, bringing with it a blinding light and an incredible wind that is neither hot nor cold, just powerful. The Trents (Gregory Walcott and Mona McKinnon) are on their back porch at the time and find themselves thrown to the ground while having a heart-to-heart chat. Lt. Harper and the two patrolmen witness the UFO, too.

By this point, two morgue wagon attendants—decked out in matching jackets, collared shirts, and white pants—have arrived to carry away the bodies. They're carrying one of the gravediggers on a stretcher. When the saucer flies over their heads, however, all five men are knocked to the ground. The morgue wagon guys unceremoniously dump the gravedigger's body into a nearby field. Somewhere else in the cemetery, the man-mountain Inspector Clay remains standing. Fate has something far worse in store for him that night.

A body (Hugh Thomas, Jr.) is thrown into a field.

Batman and Robin (1949)
I've seen Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) countless times over the last 26 years, but it was only recently that I paid any attention whatsoever to those two guys from the "morgue wagon." (And, incidentally, that does not seem to be a standard industry term. Ed Wood simply made it up.) Part of what drew my attention to them was revisiting the colorized version of Plan 9 released by Legend Films in 2006. The addition of color to a black-and-white film brings out details that might otherwise go unnoticed, including props, sets, and, yes, background actors.

In the Legend Films edition, for instance, the two morgue attendants are tinted in such a way that they look like a set of twins in matchy-matchy outfits, as if they'd been dressing alike since childhood and carried that habit into their adult years. Once you notice them, it's difficult to ignore them as they theatrically throw themselves to the ground, then regain their composure and confer among themselves.

One of these stretcher bearers has been positively identified as actor-dancer Johnny Duncan (1923-2016), best known today for having portrayed Robin the Boy Wonder in the 1949 Columbia serial Batman and Robin. He was the second actor to play the famed DC character, following Douglas Croft in a 1943 Batman serial. And, yes, that's definitely Duncan in Plan 9. He confirmed as much in a lively, career-spanning 2005 interview. He had little recollection of the film or of Ed Wood, other than the fact that Eddie "made some cheap pictures." For the actor, it was just another job in a screen career that spanned about two decades.

That's the damnedest thing about Johnny Duncan, a Kansas City, MO native who started as a professional dancer in the 1930s when he was a teenager before leapfrogging to a movie contract with Fox. He worked with many famous people over the years, including esteemed directors like John Ford and Stanley Kubrick, and yet he did not seem to take himself especially seriously.

Duncan was the very epitome of a journeyman actor, going from job to job with no real thought as to building a reputation or personal brand. As he tells it, he never actively sought out a film career. It just sort of happened. An agent saw him and signed him, and that was that. From Westerns to musicals to comedies, Johnny was up for anything. He just went wherever he was wanted until he wasn't wanted anymore. After his career dried up in Hollywood, Johnny got out of movies and into the business world; by the 1990s, he was Vice President of Fall Creek Resorts in Branson. He seemed content to live out his days in his native Missouri, though he occasionally missed California and its people.

In his later years, long since retired from showbiz, Johnny Duncan gladly appeared at conventions to meet fans and discuss his role as Robin. Though Duncan's diverse resume includes such titles as The Wild One (1953), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and Spartacus (1960), his name will forever be connected to the deathless Batman franchise. And Johnny seemed perfectly fine with that, having been a fan of the comics before he ever took the role of Dick Grayson. He claimed he even read Batman books on his honeymoon, much to his bride's annoyance.

Filmed over the course of about three grueling months in 1949, Batman and Robin was eventually released in 15 separate chapters, each one averaging about 17 minutes. These would be shown as appetizers before a main feature. The series, directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet, is notable for including the first live-action depictions of such seminal Batman characters as reporter Vicki Vale and Commissioner Gordon. The latter is played by another Plan 9 from Outer Space actor, Lyle Talbot, bringing his usual reassuring stoicism to the part.

Lyle Talbot as Commissioner Gordon in Batman and Robin (1949).

Johnny Duncan in The Flaming Urge.
Johnny Duncan had some funny anecdotes about making Batman and Robin, including how his paunchy costar Robert Lowery had to be squeezed into his costume each day. The costumed crime fighters called each other "Fatman and Bobbin" on the set. Already 26 at the time, Duncan was technically too old to play the adolescent Boy Wonder, but his short frame and tousled hair made him look younger than he was. His high, thin, affectless voice also contrasted with Lowery's deeper, more nuanced vocals.

Though the Columbia serial is considerably more serious than William Dozier's 1966 Batman TV series, the former was clearly an influence on the latter. It is jarring, however, to see that the 1949 version of Wayne Manor is an underwhelming two-story suburban dwelling that looks like it could be the home of Ward and June Cleaver. And the Batmobile is simply a 1949 Mercury convertible straight off the lot. A nice vehicle, sure, but not nearly as customized as other Batmobiles we've known.

Batman and Robin was just one of Johnny Duncan's many showbiz adventures. The Missourian's career as a dancer and actor brought him into contact with such luminaries as Sammy Davis, Jr., Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney, Lana Turner, Alan Ladd, future president Ronald Reagan, and more. Several of these Hollywood legends, including Bogey and Cagney, became close personal friends of his. He even did a number of films with the East Side Kids, including Million Dollar Kid (1944), which he called "probably the worst picture I ever did." He befriended several of the Kids along the way, including Huntz Hall. That connection was lasting. Shortly before Hall died in 1999, he called Duncan to talk over old times.

"You know it was really a sad thing," Duncan reflected, "because Huntz was really nothing like he was on the screen—stupid like that, you know?"

Johnny Duncan had never worked with Edward D. Wood, Jr. before Plan 9 from Outer Space, and the two would never again cross paths professionally. But Duncan did appear in an arson drama called The Flaming Urge (1953) with Harold Lloyd, Jr. of Married Too Young (1962) fame. Duncan had filmed his part in the movie under the more innocent title The Spark and was dismayed by the suggestive name switcheroo. "I've never seen it yet to this day," he admitted.

When asked in 2005 whether he would write an autobiography, Duncan said, "My life has been interesting to me. It really has." But he worried that younger people would not recognize such names as Joan Crawford or James Cagney. "So I don't know if it would be an interesting book to them or not." Nevertheless, in 2011, Richard Lester published a biographical volume called Johnny Duncan: Hollywood Legend. As always, Duncan was depicted on the front cover in his Robin costume. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 75: The Mocambo (1941-1958)

A UFO hovers ominously over the Mocambo on Sunset Blvd.

The VHS release of Look Back in Angora.
There are several fine, lovingly made documentaries about Ed Wood. The three best known examples—Look Back in Angora, Flying Saucers Over Hollywood, and The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr.—were all released in the early-to-mid 1990s. That tracks. Rudolph Grey's book about Eddie came out in '92, Tim Burton's biopic followed two years later, and several of Ed's movies were either being issued or reissued on VHS back then. It was a good time to be an Ed Wood fan.

Perhaps the best documentaries about Edward D. Wood, Jr. are the man's own films. From his crude cowboy drama Crossroads of Laredo (1948) to the formulaic porn loops he worked on in the 1970s, these motion pictures truly capture Eddie's life and times. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that "film is truth 24 times a second," and Ed Wood's movies show how true that (slightly pretentious) maxim is.

Take Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) as an example. You want to see what Vampira, Tor Johnson, Bela Lugosi, and the rest of the Wood gang looked like back in the 1950s? They're all in Plan 9, alongside many other members of Eddie's oddball entourage. And you can't tour Quality Studios as it was during those years, but you can see the scenes Eddie filmed there, including that infamous cockpit aboard American Flight #812. You know, the one with the shower curtain and the circular slide rule.

Plan 9 is a treasure trove of detail about life in Eisenhower-era America. Here, you'll see examples of 1950s fashion, technology, social attitudes, architecture, and consumer products. Just look at the huge Fords, Dodges, and Buicks that zip across the screen. People didn't know what "fuel economy" even was back then. And check out the Coca-Cola bottles and the L&M cigarette package on the table outside Jeff and Paula's home during the scene in which the Trents are interviewed by Col. Edwards (Tom Keene) and Lt. Harper (Duke Moore). Nostalgic movies set in the 1950s, including Ed Wood (1994), scramble to get these kinds of period details correct. Plan 9 doesn't have to scramble. Eddie just used what was available in Los Angeles at the time.

Coke and cigarettes in Plan 9 from Outer Space.

One of the most remarkable passages of Plan 9 arrives at about the 17-minute mark. Much has already happened by this point in the movie. Vampira and Bela's characters have died, had their respective funerals, and risen from the dead. Pilot Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott) has spotted a flying saucer and confessed this remarkable event to his supportive wife Paula (Mona McKinnon). Two bumbling gravediggers (J. Edward Reynolds and Hugh Thomas, Jr.) and lumbering Inspector Clay (Tor Johnson) have been killed by zombies. After all this, Reverend Lynn Lemon presides over Clay's funeral ("The bell has rung upon his great career.") with Vampira watching from the bushes and UFOs hovering overhead.

What follows is a remarkable, newsreel-esque montage lasting about a minute and a half, comprised of both stock footage and newly filmed pick-up shots, augmented with hyperbolic narration by Criswell and dramatic library music. The point of this montage is to show that the three saucers are brazenly flying over major American cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, ultimately attracting the attention of the military. What had been a series of intimate, interconnected stories about a few characters (a grieving old man, a married couple, some police officers) is now a national phenomenon.

Unsurprisingly, most of the montage focuses on Eddie's adopted hometown of Hollywood. Criswell tells us that the three saucers were spotted "high over Hollywood Blvd." as we see amazed motorists pointing at the sky. A fictional newspaper called the Hollywood Chronicle is first seen coming off the printing press, then being read by a suit-wearing man (supposedly Ed Wood himself). Its banner headline reads: SAUCERS SEEN OVER HOLLYWOOD. A slightly crumpled copy of the Chronicle is laid out on a table at a diner, surrounded by various cups and silverware. Finally, a tubby drunk staggers through an alley and picks the paper up off the sidewalk before waddling out of frame.

Meanwhile, the saucers fly over the headquarters of CBS, NBC, and ABC. But then, for reasons known only to himself, Eddie has the aliens visit Sunset Boulevard, and we get a glimpse of what the glitzy Sunset Strip—a 1.5-mile stretch of road through West Hollywood cluttered with clubs, stores, and billboards—looked like 60 years ago. There's a shot in which a saucer soars over the Crescendo, a nitery that lasted from 1954 to 1964 and played host to top jazz, folk, and comedy acts of the day. Everyone from Louis Armstrong to Bob Newhart gigged there. The joint was named after the GNP Crescendo record label and was owned by GNP honcho Gene Norman. (The club is long, long gone, but the label is carried on today by Gene's son, Neil.)

On the night this footage was shot, "cool jazz" singer June Christy was performing there. An appreciative write-up in the June 10, 1957 edition of Billboard said that the chanteuse "seems to have reached full showbiz maturity." Soon-to-be-controversial comedian Lenny Bruce was also on the bill. A banner advertising cabaret singer Frances Faye is seen in the background. Faye's 1959 album Caught in the Act was recorded at the Crescendo.

Flying saucer over the Crescendo club. Inset: a Billboard review of June Christy's act.

Eddie cuts to another drunk (production assistant and future For Love and Money director Don Davis) staggering out of a cocktail lounge, a bottle of wine still in his hand. He shields his eyes, apparently from the brightness of the UFO, then looks down skeptically at the bottle. "There comes a time in each man's life," says Criswell, "when he can't even believe his own eyes." This bar, incidentally, seems to be a real location. The address over the door is clearly visible as 4092. If this is meant to be Sunset Blvd. as well, that address now corresponds to a parking lot.

Don Davis shields his eyes from the harsh light of truth.

The Mocrumbo in Slick Hare (1947).
When the film cuts back to the UFO, it's no longer dangling over the Crescendo but over the Mocambo, a plush night club that stood at 8588 Sunset Boulevard from 1941 to 1958. The place was demolished decades ago, barely outliving its co-founder Charlie Morrison; an H&M now stands in its approximate spot. Throughout most of the 1940s and 1950s, however, it was one of West Hollywood's true hot spots, attracting movie star customers and top-flight musical and comedy talent.

(Our poor Plan 9 drunk, incidentally, is so disoriented by this that he sets the bottle of wine down. It's a classic example of the "no more for me" trope.)

Abbott & Costello, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Piaf, Bob Hope, and too many more to mention played the Mocambo. And the clientele? Everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Judy Garland went there. Practically every major movie star you can name from that era. Liz Taylor, Clark Gable, John Wayne. The list goes on and on. They came for the exotic, Latin-inspired decor (including many live birds!), the big band music, and the opportunity to dance the night away. This was a place to see and be seen.

Ed Wood himself visited the Mocambo at least once, according to Kathy Wood. "We went to clubs like the Brown Derby, Ciro's, Mocambo," she told Rudolph Grey in Nightmare of Ecstasy, "but not much. We sort of stayed home and got drunk."

For a club that lasted less than two decades, the Mocambo had a seismic impact on popular culture. Remember the Tropicana, where Ricky worked on I Love Lucy? Yeah, that was based on the Mocambo. Lucy and Desi were fans of the place. Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny spent a whole cartoon, Slick Hare (1947), at a parody of the Mocambo called "the Mocrumbo," where a flashing neon sign advises patrons that they'll have to make a "small down payment" on the $600 dinners offered within. In the cartoon, the restaurant is depicted as a star-studded but chaotic and disorganized place, where crates of vegetables are left to rot on the floor and the refrigerators are dripping with grease. This was supposedly based on writer Michael Maltese's real-life observations! But who cares when Bogey and Bacall are regulars?

Eartha Kitt is the purrrrrfect headliner for the Mocambo.

In the stock footage from Plan 9, seductive singer-actress Eartha Kitt is headlining at the Mocambo. This film might have been taken during Kitt's much-publicized 1953 stint at the club. How wonderful, then, that Ms. Kitt made a cameo in the Ed Wood-scripted I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998). Below is a blurb from the December 10, 1953 issue of Jet about Kitt's three-week stand at the Mocambo, plus a vintage photograph showing an alternate angle of the famous marquee. Apparently, Greece's King Paul and Queen Frederika had attended a Mocambo floor show, and Los Angeles mayor Norris Poulson was shocked by the lyrics of Miss Kitt's flirty songs like "C'est Si Bon" and "I Wanna Be Evil." The scandalous publicity only made her performances at the Mocambo more popular.

A press clipping about Eartha Kitt's appearance at the Mocambo in West Hollywood.

Broadcast pioneer Larry Finley.
You sharp-eyed viewers will have noted by now that there is another venue visible next door to the Mocambo. That's Larry Finley's Restaurant, located on the same premises and named after the New York-born radio and TV broadcaster. Larry was then appearing on radio station KFWB (980 on your AM dial). These days, KFWB plays all Mexican music, but from the 1920s to the 1950s, the station aired a variety of programming during radio's so-called "golden age." Stars like Bing Crosby and Ronald Reagan got their start on KFWB, in fact.

By the 1950s, the beefy, balding, gregarious Finley—said to have possessed "the voice with a smile"—was hosting his nightly, six-hour talk show, Larry Finley Time, from the Sunset Blvd. restaurant. That fact was advertised quite prominently on the sign outside. I guess the idea was that you could stop by for a meal or a drink and see a genuine radio show, complete with celebrity guests, being produced right in front of you. Good old Larry kept the party going until 4am every night. By the end of the 1950s, however, KFWB had switched over to playing rock & roll music and would become quite a powerhouse in that field.

Largely forgotten today, Larry Finley (1913-2000) was an interesting character in his own right. Over the course of his 86 years, he pursued a number of careers, including nightclub manager, with various degrees of success. His after-hours broadcasts made him one of the first late-night talk show hosts. He tried to start his own radio network but could never get it off the ground. On the plus side, though, he was one of the first to see the potential of video and audiotape and became a leader in that industry. When he died in April 2000, the Los Angeles Times eulogized him as such but also mentioned the radio shows and the Sunset Blvd. restaurant.

Had it not been for Plan 9 from Outer Space, I might never have heard of Finley, the Crescendo, or even the Mocambo. That's why I say that Ed Wood's movie, as outlandish as it is, serves as an incredible documentary of the 1950s.