Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Set Decoration Odyssey, Part Five by Greg Dziawer

Gallery goers ponder the subtle intricacies of Panther Descending a Staircase (artist unknown).

"Bright paint on black velvet creates an image so plush it makes you want to touch it, or maybe even wriggle your naked toes against the part of the painting's fuzzy pile that isn't covered by paint."
-The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste (1990)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Set Decoration Odyssey, Part Four by Greg Dziawer

Actress Lita Grey stands in front of a very familiar painting in The Devil's Sleep (1949).

Poster for The Devil's Sleep.
Last week, I identified a familiar-looking sailboat painting in the background of a shot from The Body Beautiful, a one-reel glamour short from the early 1950s. This same work of art also hangs on the wall of Glen's apartment in Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda (1953). Hoping to build on this connection, I decided to go hunting for the painting elsewhere, starting in the most likely place: movies that were made at hole-in-the-wall Quality Studios in Hollywood. 

We know that Eddie filmed the interiors for Glen or Glenda at Quality on Santa Monica Blvd., the same facility where he filmed Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). I surmised, therefore, that The Body Beautiful was filmed there as well. Reusing set decorations in the interest of economy is a longstanding practice in the world of low budget films. For example, it is quite common in the adult 8mm loops and features that Ed Wood worked on during the 1970s.

In the 2015 book Dreaming in Angora: The Life and Films of Ed Wood, author Pablo Bendix III notes: "The Pentagon office depicted [in Plan 9 from Outer Space] includes a map of the United States with the sign of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The same map appears in Bagdad After Midnight (1954), which was also filmed at Quality Studios. It was probably a standard prop used by the studio." Bendix was undoubtedly correct, and it wasn't the sole instance of a prop being recycled at Quality. 

In The Devil's Sleep, a Screen Classics title from 1949, another map (different from the one in Plan 9) shows up in two different rooms within the same film. Actor Timothy Farrell, Glen or Glenda's understanding Dr. Alton, appears in The Devil's Sleep as sleazeball Umberto Scalli. This was the first of his three appearances for producer George Weiss, and it's eerie to see him channel the same soothing empathy he would use as Dr. Alton, only this time for sinister ends. A cheap noir drugsploitation flick, The Devil's Sleep was shot at—where else?—Quality Studios. 

And the cluster of correspondences only begins there. 

The Devil's Sleep was shot by none other than William C. Thompson, who served as Ed Wood's trusty, colorblind cinematographer on all his features from Glen or Glenda in 1953 to The Sinister Urge in 1960. Furthermore, The Devil's Sleep was directed by W. Merle Connell, the same man credited with creating the burlesque and whipping footage inserted into Glen's nightmare in Glen or Glenda.

Connell is an interesting figure in his own right. A veteran of exploitation cinema, he began making burlesque shorts for Quality Pictures in 1946, partnering with a man named Nathan Robin. Initially making one-reel striptease flicks like Dancing Dolls of Burlesque, featuring girls performing at the Follies Theater in Los Angeles, Connell soon opened Quality Studios. After a brief run of films with Robin, many of which were shot at actual burlesque houses, Connell partnered with George Weiss in 1947. 

Weiss' office was almost directly across the street from Quality Studios. Together, over the course of about a half-dozen years, Weiss and Connell would churn out an amazing string of low-budget exploitation shorts, features, and features compiled from shorts. For instance, the aforementioned Body Beautiful was shot at Quality Studios and directed by Connell. 

The painting appears in The Devil's Sleep.
But getting back to The Devil's Sleep. The recycled map in that film is not the only set decoration that jumped out at me. The map appears in two different rooms—actually, the same set redressed. In one of those rooms, the infamous sailboat painting makes yet another appearance. In one shot, it can be seen tucked away at the extreme right edge of the frame. In another, it can be glimpsed over the left shoulder of actress Lita Grey, the second wife of movie legend Charlie Chaplin.

This seemingly ordinary, nondescript painting was obviously a much-reused prop, appearing repeatedly in films shot at Quality Studios. But just how ubiquitous was it? And what other recurring set decorations might we find in these films? Those are questions to be answered in future installments of this feature. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Glen or Glenda Odyssey, Part Three by Greg Dziawer

Captain DeZita, as depicted by the redoubtable Drew Friedman.

The fateful compilation.
A few weeks ago, I was scanning through some vintage burlesque and related shorts, not really looking for anything in particular on the Ed Wood research front. I was aware, though, that I was in a potential target zone of connections to Ed and that, given those fertile conditions, some startling ideas for articles can blossom unexpectedly. Startling because they seem... new! Sudden!

Eventually, I arrived at the final short on a now-decades-old compilation from Something Weird Video called Grindhouse Follies, Volume 2. I did a double-take at what I saw on the screen. 

The short in question was The Body Beautiful, credited to Roadshow Attractions, a company begun by exploitation pioneer Dwain Esper in the early 1930s. Roadshow was still distributing exploitation films two decades later, except by that time it was being run by Esper's former partner Louis Sonney. In their prime, Esper and Sonney had been among the original "Forty Thieves" of film exploitation lore. Legendary B-movie magnate George Weiss often produced shorts and features in the early '50s that were distributed by Sonney. The name George Weiss should certainly ring a bell even for casual fans of Ed Wood's work, since Weiss was the producer of 1953's Glen or Glenda and was colorfully portrayed by Mike Starr in Tim Burton's Ed Wood

A masseur in The Body Beautiful.
What initially made me do that double-take during The Body Beautiful was the presence of a certain very familiar-looking masseur. In the first half of this 13-minute film, this slight, balding, mustachioed man demonstrates a variety of massage techniques on the body of a voluptuous young lady. He works carefully, woodenly, and inexpertly, with a towel just barely covering any exposure of his customer's taboo flesh. 

Reaching for my trusty copy of Eric Shaefer's indispensable Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959, I looked up the short in the appendix and discovered that it had been written and directed by one W. Merle Connell. Connell often shot and/or directed films for Weiss' company Screen Classics, including such exploitation perennials as Test Tube Babies and The Devil's Sleep. Wood obsessives likely recognize both of those titles as films in which actor Timothy Farrell appeared early in his astonishing, albeit brief, career. 

Farrell gives one of many breathtaking performances in Glen or Glenda, narrating the film as well as portraying kindly, sympathetic Dr. Alton. The amazing Farrell rates a Wood regular, also appearing in Jail Bait (1954) and The Violent Years (1956). Connell, incidentally, is credited with shooting the insert footage that comprises Glen's nightmarish fantasy of burlesque dancing and S&M in Glen or Glenda

Captain DeZita in Glen or Glenda.
For us true Wood obsessives, the director's movies contain many fleeting but memorable appearances by outlandish characters. Chief among these is Satan himself, who pops up during the nightmare sequences in Glen or Glenda. Considering how brief his screen time actually is, this shadowy, demonic figure has had quite a long-lasting impact on viewers and must rank high on any list of indelible performances in Wood's films. 

As portrayed by the mysterious, Austrian-born Captain DeZita (1890-1955), Satan is an odious presence in Glen or Glenda with his truly wicked grin and piercing eyes. The makeup by Wood regular Harry Thomas must also be noted, as it contributes brilliantly to the overall effect. But ultimately it's DeZita himself—with his otherworldly, even scary intensity—that burns itself on the brains of all who have seen this movie.

Although the actor is not given any onscreen credit, the IMDb lists Glen or Glenda as DeZita's sole movie role. Specifically, he is credited with playing both Satan and Glen's father, an evocative duality worth pondering. It's a bit like the theatrical tradition of having the same actor portray both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook in productions of Peter Pan.

Once I saw the masseur in The Body Beautiful, I immediately pulled up Glen or Glenda on my computer in a separate window. Comparing the two films side by side validated my surmise: The masseur is indeed played by Captain DeZita, who in reality was a booking agent for strip clubs. He looks slightly younger in Beautiful, and given its relative chastity, the short appears to have been shot a few years prior to Glenda. Actresses were routinely baring their breasts onscreen (albeit with pasties) by around 1953 or '54, as evidenced by Connell's Bagdad [sic] Over Midnite. That film, also from Screen Classics, is suspected to have some possible involvement by Ed Wood

Shaefer notes The Body Beautiful being in color, but Something Weird's version is black-and-white. Shot with synchronized sound—although the soundtrack of this print lags terribly behind the image— this film affords us the opportunity to hear the Captain's rather matter-of-fact, heavily Austrian accented, and even somewhat soft-spoken voice. Oddly, he sports a small, white, square object—a bandage, perhaps?—below his left ear.

The Body Beautiful has the feel of an early white-coater, i.e. a salacious movie unconvincingly disguised as an educational documentary. As DeZita massages the girl, he recites a dry, technical explanation of the efficacy of massage and how it impacts the curves of the beautiful bodies on display. The latter half of the short features footage of girls exercising, as well as a girl-on-girl massage. Magnificently prosaic, the short leaves all of the dirty up to the imaginations of its targeted male audience.

To use a phrase beloved in the world of ballyhoo: But wait! There's more!

I continued comparing Glen or Glenda and The Body Beautiful side by side on my computer screen. In one window, I scanned forward in Glenda to find the shots of Glen's father sitting at the bar. In another window, I paused on DeZita in Beautiful as he hovered over the girl on his massage table. While doing all this, I happened to notice a curious background detail in Glenda: a painting of sailboats on the wall in Glen's apartment, seen when Glen and Barbara are finally establishing mutual empathy.

Sure enough, in The Body Beautiful, this very same painting hangs in the background of the spartan set over DeZita's left shoulder. It shows up on the wall in the next sequence, too, as the girls exercise. The painting makes its final appearance during the film's girl-girl massage sequence.

Curiously, in Glen or Glenda, the sailboat painting is draped by a curtain, an aesthetic nicety that would be ubiquitous in the pornographic loops produced by Bernie Bloom and his son Noel in the 1970s. Those films, on which Ed Wood also labored in various capacities, feature a multitude of recurring paintings and other recycled set decorations.

A sailboat painting shows up in both The Body Beautiful and Glen or Glenda.

The recurring presence of the sailboat painting suggests that The Body Beautiful was shot at the same facility as the interiors for Glen or Glenda, namely Quality Studios on Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles. (Quality was a frequent home to producer George Weiss.) It further suggests that Captain DeZita may have appeared in more films that are floating around out there. Perhaps, like The Body Beautiful, there are undiscovered DeZita performances that have been right under our noses all along.

Most importantly, a discovery like the sailboat painting suggests a whole universe of intriguing Woodian interstices. It's a subject that demands further investigation... and more.

We'll follow up on all of these suggestions in future editions of this feature, delving deeper into Ed Wood's depictions of Satan and his execrable arts across various media. And, naturally, we'll dive headfirst into the sizzling, sulfurous career of William Michael Achilles De Orgler DeZita.

Captain DeZita as both Satan and Glen's father in Glen or Glenda.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

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

Paula shows off some Victor Most-designed duds in The Violent Years (1956)

"I felt myself a victim rather than a victor in the realm of pictures."
-Gloria Swanson

Victor's onscreen credit in The Violent Years.
A few weeks ago, I popped in the new Blu-ray release of the Ed Wood-scripted crime thriller The Violent Years (1956, dir. William Morgan) from the American Genre Film Archive and Something Weird Video for the first time. We'll review that disc here in the near future, but first, indulge me a tangent.

The surprisingly profitable film, written when Eddie was at the peak of his creative powers, concerns the descent of flippant, spoiled Paula Parkins (Playboy Playmate Jean Moor(e)head) and three of her female classmates (Theresa Hancock, Joanne Cangi, and Gloria Farr) into juvenile delinquency. It's meant as a stern cautionary tale for those in the audience, since the wrongdoers come from a "respectable" suburban upbringing. And yet, The Violent Years lends its wayward, amoral characters a definite sense of glamour and excitement.

Watching the ill-fated "teenage" girl gang in their clingy sweaters, calf-length skirts, and shiny leather jackets, exploding from the screen in pristine HD, my 14-year-old daughter Elyse remarked, "Wow! They're all sooo pretty!"

Indeed they are. And they possess some really tremendous outfits. That thought led me to wonder about the film's intriguing wardrobe credit: Victor Most of California. Who was this man who'd supplied these fabulous clothes? What was his story? I decided to find out. Again, census records and old newspapers tell much of the tale.


Details from the 1940 census.
Before he was Victor Most, he was Victor Mostowy, born in New York City on August 17, 1918, to Morris and Fannie Mostowy, two immigrants who'd only gotten here from Russia earlier that decade. Victor's sister Millie was three and a half years older. When Morris filled out his draft registration card in 1917, he listed a Cleveland address and his employ as bricklayer. By 1920, the family, still carrying the name Mostowy, was recorded living on East 110th Street in Manhattan in the US Federal Census. 

Flash forward two decades: Victor, now 21, is still living with his father Morris, but they've relocated to San Jose, CA. The family surname is recorded as Most in the 1940 Census. By this time, Morris is on his second wife: Aida, also of Russian descent. In the process, Victor has picked up a couple of siblings: a 17-year-old stepbrother named Leonard and a baby half-sister named Zondra, only a year old.

So over the course of 20 years, a New Yorker named Victor Mostowy became a Californian named Victor Most. What could be more American than moving 3,000 miles to the west with a de-ethnicized surname? That's American history in a nutshell.


A Most garment from the '60s.
Victor Most's eventual entrée into the fashion world came during a prosperous and exciting time for that industry. 

As noted in the mammoth, four-volume work Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe (2015; coauthored by José F Blanco, Patricia Kay Hunt-Hurst, Heather Vaughan Lee, and Mary Doering): "Greater prosperity after the Great Depression meant that consumers could spend more on clothing, entertainment, and recreation. The increase in consumption also allowed department stores to prosper." The authors note that many of these new shoppers were women. Teens, too, were now employed and had money to spend on clothes.

And Victor was living in one of America's fashion hubs. "Southern California was considered the Riviera of the United States," the authors further declare, "and designers and manufacturers sprouted up in California during the early 1940s." These designers created what was dubbed the "California Look," a style that found favor with the movie industry because it "exuded youth, celebrity and leisure and pioneered a movement toward more casual fashions."

By 1944, Victor was living on Beverly Blvd. in Los Angeles and working as a salesman. He married in 1951, and by 1953 he was living in Hollywood. His address then was 919 Screenland Drive in Burbank, a block or so off Magnolia, in a four-room/four-bath house newly built in 1951. At just over 2,000 feet of living space, the modest digs occupy pricey terrain today, the house valued at three-quarters of a million bucks. 

The following year, Victor moved to 1927 N. Bronson St (now a retail storefront) in Los Angeles, just a few blocks from Hollywood Blvd. He registered to vote as a Democrat. Within a few years, he had landed the only film credit of his that I can locate: dressing Paula Parkins, et al. in The Violent Years.


A Long Beach newspaper ad from 1963.
Though his film resume is scant, Victor Most would remain, right through the 1960s, an everyday name brand in casual mainstream retail fashion, his affordable "California Look" obtaining on the shelves and racks at strip mall storefronts and in suburban malls.

While garments carrying his label still turn up (very sporadically) across the vintage fashion market niche, Victor Most's lasting legacy will certainly be those costumes in The Violent Years, defining of their era and burned into the brains of those privileged to have seen it.

He passed on November 24, 1984, in Woodland Hills, CA, a short drive west of the Hollywood sign. Like Ed Wood, he had toiled mightily in its long shadow.

We'll probably never know, but could Ed have ever worn a piece by Victor Most?

Note: Additional images for this week's article have been posted to the Ed Wood Wednesdays Tumblr. You can check out some of Victor Most's costumes for The Violent Years right here. And you can peruse some ads and labels from Victor's fashion career right here. Enjoy.