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.