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 here 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. 

P.S. On February 17, my good friend and fellow Wood obsessive Mike Hickey—a man with a particular talent for identifying film locations and who supplied priceless details for this article—paid an early afternoon visit to the site where Quality Studios once stood. Currently under construction, the building is being remodeled as a recording studio. Luckily for us, Mike managed to evade a worker who was on a smoke break and walked through an unlocked gate to capture some footage of the place as it appears in 2018. This video answers the question: Whatever happened to Quality Studios? And here are some pictures taken at the site by Mike. Enjoy.