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)

Note the painting behind Tanya and Danny.
Among the weird and wonderful set decorations in Ed Wood's 1971 adult feature Necromania, one certainly stands out: a velvet painting of a panther walking down a rock staircase. It first appears about half an hour into the film, looming over a bed as the mysterious housemistress Tanya seduces Ric Lutze's bewildered, sexually incompetent Danny. ("I've wanted you!" "But what about my wife?")

The interiors for Necromania were shot at Hal Guthu's studio on Santa Monica Blvd. In addition to running this busy soundstage, Guthu was also the talent rep for literally hundreds of adult actresses, models, and dancers in Hollywood in the 1970s. This was a magical time when sex films, like that panther, finally crept into the mass cultural consciousness.

Set decorations such as that velvet painting were reused again and again in adult movies back then, including the countless 8mm porn loops with which Ed Wood was involved in a variety of capacities. Naturally, since I am forever looking at the backgrounds in such films rather than the sex, it was inevitable that I'd eventually see that panther again. And did I ever!

The painting in Pain People (top) and Pastries (bottom).
A few months ago, for instance, I was watching a '70s bondage loop called The Pain People and spotted the distinctive painting in the background. This short film, like many other bondage loops of the era, contains only softcore (e.g. simulated) sex. Doubtless wary of censorship or even arrest, adult producers were reluctant to mix hardcore sex and violence. So they hedged their bets and left out any unsimulated sex scenes from bondage loops.

But bondage was still a popular niche in the adult film industry, so Guthu had his own dungeon and prison set downstairs at his studio. It's reasonable, then, to infer that The Pain People was shot there. The film's female lead, the one being bound, is actress Virginia Winter, who also appeared in numerous Swedish Erotica loops as well as magazine pictorials beginning around 1975. 

Handed down to us in only a plain white box, The Pain People may not have been part of an ongoing series, but it seems likely that it was yet another X-rated loop produced and distributed by Noel Bloom, son of prolific publisher Bernie Bloom. Bernie, of course, was Ed Wood's most frequent employer in the 1970s. So, while Eddie's possible involvement in The Pain People is unknown, this film is certainly within the Wood orbit

The gold skull in Necromania (inset) and Pastries.
Then, just a few weeks back, I was re-watching director Joe Robertson's 1975 film Pastries. A recycling job, it's really just his 1971 softcore flick A Touch of Sweden fortified with some hardcore inserts. Robertson, you may remember, knew Ed Wood well and worked with him several times on films like Love Feast (1969), Mrs. Stone's Thing (1970), and Misty (aka Nympho Cycler) (1971). 

I'd seen Pastries before. Starring the incredible Uschi Digard, it's a fast-moving and fun comic romp with more than a few scenes shot on interior sets. Though I once was blind to such details, now I see that these sets must have been at Hal Guthu's place, judging by the set decorations. How do I know? You know that's partly rhetorical. Yes, the panther creeps here, too. 

But that's not all that connects Pastries to Ed Wood. In fact, I counted dozens of orbital correspondences to Eddie in this film. Here are just some of the most compelling: 
  • The same gold skull from Necromania appears here, too. This unforgettable prop and its sibling, a white skull, show up in dozens of related loops from this era.
  • Many of the cast members from Pastries worked with Ed Wood. Among them: Young Marrieds star Alice Friedland, who performs hardcore scenes here; Steve Apostolof regular Con Covert, who plays—I kid you not—Marion Transvest; and Undergraduate star Buddy Boone.
  • The film includes a vampire who hypnotizes girls, a la Bela Lugosi in Bride of the Monster (1955).
  • Pastries' score includes the same drum-heavy rock music that accompanies the strip club scenes in Ed Wood's The Young Marrieds. That music plays incessantly throughout Pastries, allowing us to hear far more of this quintessential jam track. In The Young Marrieds, incidentally, one Lou Schwartz is credited with the music. Schwartz has no other known credits.

It's worth mentioning that the panther painting appears in reverse in Necromania, with the stairs on the right side of the canvas. Ed merely flipped the image to create the illusion of his two-walled set being a full room. (Despite what you see in Ed's film, there is, in fact, only one owl wall hanging.) In both The Pain People and Pastries, the painting faces the proper direction, with the stairs on the left side.

We know that Ed Wood wrote and directed Necromania, but it's unclear whether he was involved to any degree on the other two films. Without a doubt, though, it's the selfsame panther in all three. And the plethora of other associations between them has me scratching my head, wondering if Ed somehow were there.

Once I spot that panther again, I'll know more. And I'll report my findings right here.