Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: Remembering "Jail Bait: The Director's Cut" (1994)

Dolores Fuller scolds Clancy Malone on the VHS cover of Jail Bait.

This sticker was a common sight in the 1990s.
Ed Wood's notoriety from having been named the worst director of all time in The Golden Turkey Awards in 1980 was wearing off just a little by the end of the decade. But his posthumous career would come roaring back in the 1990s, thanks to two major developments: the publication of Rudolph Grey's oral history Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992) and the premiere of Tim Burton's star-studded biopic Ed Wood (1994).

Suddenly, Eddie  was "hot" again, and his comeback happened to coincide with a general resurgence of public interest in all things considered "camp" and "kitsch." This was back when the internet was still fairly primitive, so consumers were much more reliant on physical media, including compact discs and videotapes. This was, therefore, a golden age of reissues. Lots of old albums and movies suddenly came back into prominence and started appearing in spiffy new editions on store shelves. Yesterday's disposable junk was today's marketable "collectors' item."

Leading the charge was a Los Angeles-based reissue label called Rhino Records. Now a part of the Warner Music Group behemoth, Rhino started in 1973 as a quirky, brick-and-mortar record retailer. Within a few years, Rhino was releasing records of its own (generally novelty numbers), and by the 1980s, it was a thriving reissue label with a wide variety of products. It was only natural that they would transition into marketing video tapes as well, again specializing in kitsch and nostalgia.

Some Rhino VHS tapes.
The work of Edward D. Wood, Jr. seemed tailor-made for a company like Rhino. As I remember it, Rhino Video was the preeminent distributor of Eddie's movies in the 1990s during the heyday of Nightmare of Ecstasy and the Burton film. The first VHS editions of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), Glen or Glenda (1953), Night of the Ghouls (1959)and Bride of the Monster (1955) that I ever owned were all from Rhino. I even had the three-tape set with the pink faux-angora box. I still have it, in fact.

Rhino also released some titles that Eddie had merely written rather than directed. The Violent Years, for instance, was marketed as part of the company's Teenage Theater series, hosted by 1950s glamour girl Mamie Van Doren. Much to Steve Apostolof's chagrin, Orgy of the Dead bore a garish pink and green sticker marking it as part of "The Ed Wood Collection." Meanwhile, Joe Robertson's Love Feast was regurgitated by Rhino as Pretty Models All in a Row, complete with doctored credits fraudulently suggesting that Ed Wood himself had directed it! And, while we're talking about Wood-related films, let's not forget that Rhino bankrolled its own quirky, humorous documentary about Eddie: Look Back in Angora (1994), directed by Ted Newsom.

One of Rhino's strangest yet least heralded Wood releases from this era was a 1994 "director's cut" of Eddie's turgid 1954 crime drama Jail Bait. Even though it was made during Eddie's golden age and features many of his regulars (Timothy Farrell, Dolores Fuller, Lyle Talbot, Mona McKinnon, Bud Osborne, and Conrad Brooks), not to mention future Hercules star Steve Reeves, Jail Bait has never been as loved as its siblings. It lacks the cross-dressing of Glenda and the sci-fi/horror elements of Bride and Plan 9. It also lacks the commanding screen presence of Bela Lugosi, though Herbert Rawlinson makes a valiant effort, wheezing through his final screen role. For all these reasons, fascinating though it is, Jail Bait just isn't as instantly fun as the other Wood films of the 1950s.
Rhino's 1994 version of Jail Bait.
Another problem with Jail Bait, at least for many modern viewers, is that it contains a two-and-a-half-minute blackface sequence lifted wholesale from Ron Ormond's Yes Sir, Mr. Bones (1951). Performed by Cotton Watts and his wife Chick, this comedic routine presents African-Americans as being slow-witted, cowardly, and animal-like. Since the movie's plot revolves around a nighttime robbery of a theater, this footage is supposed to represent a show being staged at the doomed venue.

Rhino's 1994 edition excises the Ormond footage almost entirely -- leaving only a shot of a theater audience and a curtain closing -- and replaces it with a rather tame burlesque routine by Evelyn West (1921-2004), a legendary cabaret performer of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. (Thanks to Ed Wood superfan Milton Knight for making the initial identification!) My learned colleague Greg Dziawer is currently researching both Cotton Watts and Evelyn West, and he'll have much more to say about both of them in the near future.

Rhino, meanwhile, is vague about how this supposed "director's cut" was assembled, since Ed Wood himself had been dead for nearly 16 years by then. The explanatory notes on the back cover of the VHS tape were penned by Kansas City-based film distributor Wade Williams, who has occasionally claimed to hold a copyright on Ed Wood's 1950s films. You can see from this passage that Williams is playing into Ed's campy "so bad, it's good" image from The Golden Turkey Awards, even mentioning that book by name. Williams openly admits that the Evelyn West footage was "not included with the original release of the picture" but was "discovered when the long-lost narrative was unearthed." It is not identified or credited in any way, but a title card says "FOLLIES THEATRE, LOS ANGELES." And Evelyn West did appear in a 1947 film called A Night at the Follies, directed by W. Merle Connell.

Williams also says Jail Bait was "filmed entirely on location in the underbelly of 1950's Hollywood," which is patently untrue. It was, in fact, shot at various places in Los Angeles County, California. A bar scene, for instance, was shot at the Hunters Inn in Temple City. A robbery was filmed at the Monterey Theatre in Monterey Park. (The film was also previewed there, according to Rudolph Grey.) And a scene at a police station was shot in Alhambra, where cast member Mona McKinnon lived at the time. Lyle Talbot remembered filming the climactic swimming pool scene at a motel on Sunset Boulevard. Much of the film appears to have been shot -- like Eddie's other movies of this period -- on a sound stage. Cast member Theodora Thurman recalled working on "a small set."

Anyway, here are Williams' notes:

Wade Williams describes Jail Bait.

Other than the Cotton Watts sequence, the biggest difference between the 1994 version of Jail Bait and all other versions is the title sequence. In most currently-available prints of the film, the credits roll over some wobbly footage of a police car driving down a street at night. In the Rhino version, however, the credits appear as a series of grainy still images. Apparently the "negative" that Williams "unearthed" was in poor shape, and this part of the movie wasn't quite salvageable.

The "director's cut" of Jail Bait didn't have much of a shelf life beyond this 1994 release. Subsequent DVD releases of the movie have reverted to the Cotton Watts footage and are generally sharper in picture quality than Rhino's version, complete with fully-restored opening credits. The 1994 version, however, was included on a 2007 double-disc set called The Ed Wood Collection: A Salute to Incompetence from a company called Passport.

It is from that collection that I gleaned the following clip, to show you how the Evelyn West footage was incorporated into Jail Bait. The burlesque footage seems to have been shot without sound, so some borrowed music has been dubbed in. Curiously, the last minute of this routine takes its audio directly from the Cotton Watts blackface footage! (It kicks in at about the 1:42 mark.) If you listen carefully, you can even hear the audience laughing. Enjoy!