Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 74: The Canned Film Festival (1986)

Laraine Newman (fourth from right, in usherette costume) heads the cast of The Canned Film Festival.

Let's face it. Old B-movies, especially those of the horror and sci-fi variety, are inherently funny to many viewers. The plots are often far-fetched, the dialogue improbable, the acting dubious, and the special-effects shoddy. Audiences see these films, and their first instinct is to laugh. And yet the characters onscreen are required to take themselves and their situations very seriously indeed. Which, in turn, makes the movies even funnier.

This is the central truth that has fueled the Ed Wood cult for decades. People come to his movies mainly to laugh at their cheapness and naivete. I've been in these theaters. I've heard the laughter. I've done some of the laughing myself. I couldn't help it.

Vampira: One of the early horror hosts.
This phenomenon hardly began with the publication of Harry and Michael Medved's The Golden Turkey Awards in 1980. Television horror hosts have been poking fun—and not always in a gentle way—at sci-fi and horror movies since the 1950s and 1960s. One such wisecracking host was Maila "Vampira" Nurmi, who actually appeared in Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and forever after became associated with the director, much to her embarrassment. In Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), Eddie complains that Vampira "doesn't show [the movies] the proper respect."

A certain level of kidding is present, too, in the fan magazines of that period. Rudolph Grey maintains that the Ed Wood cult really began in the pages of Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, where stills from Eddie's movies would run with captions like "one of the un-best movies of all time." Ackerman's readers were the ones who grew up and and alerted the authors of The Golden Turkey Awards to the existence of Edward D. Wood, Jr. and Plan 9.

The Medved book brought this type of humor into the mainstream, and it introduced Ed Wood's movies to a larger audience, too The "bad movie" cult thrived in the 1980s as never before. In 1982, Paramount released It Came From Hollywood, a compilation of vintage "Grade Z" movie clips hosted by a gaggle of comedians, including Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd from Saturday Night Live. That film devoted an entire segment to Eddie. In 1988, Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted as a local program in Minneapolis before going national on Comedy Central the next year. That series eventually dissected several of Eddie's films, including Bride of the Monster (1955), The Violent Years (1956), and The Sinister Urge (1960).

The Canned Film Festival
A less-heralded, indeed largely forgotten, example of this trend was a syndicated series called The Canned Film Festival. Lasting for 13 wacky weeks in the summer of 1986, it was hosted by another Saturday Night Live veteran, Laraine Newman, whose thin frame and Los Angeles twang had typecast her somewhat as a Valley Girl ditz. The show's title served as both a pun on the famed Cannes Film Festival and a reference to the program's sponsor, Dr. Pepper. The soft drink maker had long prided itself on its eccentricity (see the "I'm a pepper!" spots with David Naughton), so underwriting a series built around wild and woolly B-movies somehow seemed a natural fit for the brand.

At the time, Dr. Pepper was running its own ambitious Mad Max-inspired science-fiction ad campaign. That campaign, like The Canned Film Festival itself, was devised by a New York-based marketing firm called Young & Rubicam. This company had handled Dr. Pepper's marketing since 1969. Y&R finally lost the Dr. Pepper account in 2008 after nearly 40 years of truly creative, memorable advertising.

If The Canned Film Festival hadn't debuted two years before Mystery Science Theater 3000, one might almost be tempted to call it an MST3K ripoff. Like that series, Canned has its own high-concept premise, explained at length in the introduction. Laraine Newman plays Laraine, the owner of a small, struggling movie theater called the Ritz in the fictional town of Limekirk, Texas. She runs the place with her reclusive, rarely-seen mother—Mom running the projector, daughter serving as usherette—but business is lousy. At first, Laraine tries to lure customers by adding laundry facilities and selling eccentric snacks at the concession stand. (Chocolate Covered Lug Nuts, anyone?)

An announcer (Bill St. James, uncredited) informs us: "And that didn't work, so she gathered together a collection of the strangest, silliest, most unusual movies ever made, stocked every refreshment imaginable, and she called it The Canned Film Festival! Will she pull it off? Will Laraine and her mom survive?" Based on the show's short shelf life, the answer was obviously no. While MST3K lasted a decade and has recently been revived on Netflix, Canned came and went in a few months. The two series covered a lot of the same territory. Of the 13 films shown on Canned, seven wound up on MST3K. And one of those was Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster.



Tor: The ultimate door prize?
The Bride of the Monster episode gives you a good idea of what The Canned Film Festival was all about. Running an hour and a half with commercials, the show intersperses movie segments with sitcom-like vignettes centered around Laraine and her group of zany regulars who come in to wash their clothes and watch the flicks. Of these supporting players, I recognized amiably dopey character actor Patrick Garner from his appearances on Chappelle's Show, where he made an ideal "clueless white guy" stereotype. (You Square One Television fanatics might remember him as "Simon Legume" on Mathnet.) Kathryn Rossetter and Phil Nee have also had durable careers in TV and film without ever becoming household names. Unlike MST3K, there is no commentary from the cast during the movie portions.

At the outset of the show, Laraine Newman is proudly handing out genuine Tor Johnson masks from Don Post Studios. Perky, naive Becky (Laura Galusha, whose resume is largely barren) is freaked out by Tor's visage, while gossipy Doris (Rossetter) is thoroughly unimpressed. Two nerds, talkative Fitzy (Garner) and taciturn Chan (Nee), are more enthusiastic. Laraine's character, meanwhile, can be described as a trivia-spouting film fanatic. She describes the feature to her patrons this way: "Tonight's film is Bride of the Monster, written and directed in 1953 by the legendary Edward Wood. It stars Bela Lugosi. You know, he was hoping this movie would launch his comeback, but it never did." And, yes, the film really was made in 1953 despite not being released until 1955. Good catch, Canned Movie Festival.

Both the announcer and Fitzy point out that Bride of the Monster was Bela's "last speaking role." This is something I hadn't considered, but it turns out to be true. After Bride, Bela appeared in The Black Sheep (1956) for director Reginald Le Borg but was not given any dialogue. His final role in Plan 9 was obviously silent. So, yeah, Bride is the last time Bela speaks in a movie. After staggering out of the theater, Fitzy and Chan debate what Bela's ultimate line actually is. Chan seems to think it was "AWWWWW!" but Fitzy insists it was more like "AHHHHHH!" ("AWWWWW!" was Tor's last line, Fitzy clarifies.)

Later, swapping trivia with Fritzy and Chan, Laraine drops this bombshell: "When [the filmmakers] rented the sea monster from the Disney studios for this film, they didn't have enough money to rent the motor to make it move. They had to make it move themselves!" Where she got the part about Disney, I have no idea. Maybe writers Ken Smith and Mike Wilkins thought the monster was from Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). For the record, the rubber octopus came from Republic's Wake of the Red Witch (1948) with John Wayne

In a lot of ways, The Canned Film Festival serves as a snapshot of the Ed Wood cult as it stood in 1986. This was six years before Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the first comprehensive book about the director, so there were a lot of rumors, half-truths, and urban legends circulating about Eddie. Some of those stories are so entertaining, they've become permanent parts of the myth. When Fitzy mentions Tor Johnson breaking Ed's toilet seats, Laraine counters with: "He directed all his films wearing women's clothes! And no one knows where he's buried!" The toilet seat thing appears to be true, but the rest is hooey.

The show also tries to discuss Wood's movie from a critical/analytical standpoint. Fitzy opines that Bride "shows how absolute power corrupts absolutely. And never let a stranger strap a spaghetti strainer to your head!" For her part, Becky identifies with the Janet Lawton character. She's going through a rough patch with her boyfriend Jack (F. Richards Ford, largely absent from this episode) and offers this feminist interpretation of Bride of the Monster:
I see a woman who has taken charge of her own destiny. Well, she's engaged to Tony, but she goes out on her own. She's not afraid. She... she turns down dinner, and she goes to the swamp! The forbidden swamp! The swamp that everybody's afraid of! Oh, the men don't like the swamp. The men stand around outside the swamp, smoking cigarettes and talking about the weather and how much they don't like the swamp. But she... she rushes right in! Maybe that's what I have to learn! I have to learn how to go into the swamp all by myself and find out what it is I'm really afraid of. And then what? Go home and change and go out to dinner. (laughs) Is that what it's really all about?

The female characters wander away from the movie from time to time to check on their laundry. The Canned Film Festival does show its age during a scene when Doris comments about Chan: "For a Chinaman, he doesn't know diddly about laundry!" Becky helpfully keeps her pal updated on the plot: "Tor Johnson throws a scientist to the sea monster, then he took the girl up to Bela Lugosi's room." And just like Johnny Depp in Ed Wood, actress Laura Galusha attempts to imitate Bela's hypnotic hand gestures.

"I and my so called droogs wore our maskies."

The episode ends on a hopeful note. Lovers Becky and Jack have reunited, and Laraine has even persuaded her hermit-like mother to come out of hiding and play the calliope at a nearby benefit show, though the diminutive old lady hides her face behind a Tor Johnson mask before slowly exiting the Ritz. The other characters all don their Tor masks and cheerfully follow her, except Doris, who doesn't want to mess up her pristine hairdo.

The Canned Film Festival was clearly a non-starter for both Dr. Pepper and Laraine Newman, so there was no second season. Maybe it was difficult for producers to sell an oddball, 90-minute program like this to stations across America. The show is nowhere near as well known as Mystery Science Theater 3000, and it lags behind such comparable series as Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection (1985-1986), Jay Ward's Fractured Flickers (1963-1964), and Joe Bob Briggs' MonsterVision (1991-2000) in terms of popularity.

Judging by its highly detailed Wikipedia page, however, The Canned Film Festival obviously has its fans. And it's pretty easy to see why. The series offered up some memorable B-movies at a time when those were not readily accessible on home video. The wraparound segments, while not staggeringly brilliant, are quite amiable. Laraine Newman is clearly having fun here; she probably didn't get a lot of opportunities to play know-it-all film buffs. The Bride of the Monster episode is a terrific time capsule item. Besides the movie and the vignettes, it includes a variety of truly loopy, sci-fi-inspired Dr. Pepper spots plus some promos for Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986). And keep an eye peeled for a Sports Illustrated ad with a very young Rob Morrow.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 73: The saga of Eddie and the Famous Monsters album

Eddie desperately wanted a copy of this album, Famous Monsters Speak (1963), but never got it.

Forrest J. Ackerman and friend
By the summer of 1966, Edward D. Wood, Jr. was 41 and making his meager living mostly from writing lurid paperbacks and the occasional screenplay. The magazine work wouldn't start coming in steadily for a couple more years.

Forrest J. Ackerman (1916-2008), editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland for 26 years and one of America's preeminent collectors of horror and sci-fi memorabilia, has described himself as Eddie's "illiterary agent" during this era, though there's no evidence that he ever got Ed much work outside of the Orgy of the Dead tie-in paperback published by Greenleaf in 1966. Based on existing interviews and articles, it seems that Ackerman had little regard for Eddie's talents and considered him more of a nuisance than anything else.

"For a while, he called me up a great deal on the telephone, but he was always smashed out of his skull," Ackerman told Rudolph Grey in Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992). "There was nothing much I had to say to him or could do for him or anything."

Still in all, Forrest J. Ackerman was a man with at least some connections in the publishing industry, and Eddie needed whatever work he could get by the mid-1960s. This letter from Ed to Forry perfectly captures the tenor of their relationship. It comes from the collection of a fan named Dennis, who purchased it at an auction of Ackerman memorabilia. In the letter, Ed is sniffing around for work, and Forry is trying to duck him at all cost. Along the way, though, Ed brings up an unusual LP he'd seen advertised in the pages of Forry's magazine.

                                          EDWARD D. WOOD, Jr.
                                          6136 Bonner Ave.
                                          North Hollywood, Calif.

                                          1 August 1966

         Mr. Forrest J. Ackerman
         915 S. Sherbourne Drive
         Los Angeles 32, Calif.

         Dear Forry
          Going into the second month that I haven't heard from you.   I certainly know all things take time, but do drop me a line and let me know if, and how things are progressing.  
          Two new paperbacks through San Diego.   "69 RUE PIGALLE" and "NAKED BONES".   Both should be interesting for Foreign sales.   "BONES" will be especially interesting to you for its horrific qualities.   Deals with many a carnival murder - monsters and mad men.   I am working on "DEVIL GIRLS" for this months sale.  
          Also, just as some information for your benefit.   Some time ago I put my little three bucks in an envelope and mailed for "FAMOUS MONSTERS SPEAK."   After much time I wrote, "Why do I not receive the record?" and of course there was the return - "We never received the money."   BETTER ADVISE YOUR READERS NOT TO SEND CASH.   Thus this time I sent a check which was cashed from New York to here by the Captain Company on June 27 - also for one of the back issues of the serials magazine -- but have not arrived as yet. 
          Let me hear from you from time to time and what is happening.   As soon as I get the phone back, and a car, we'll see you.
                                          My best for both our advances

                                          Ed

Almost breaks your heart, doesn't it? At this point, Ed didn't have enough money for a car or even a telephone line, both necessary for life in Los Angeles, and yet he was still ordering movie memorabilia from Forry's magazines. But that was Eddie. He was always a fan at heart, enamored by movies and the people who made them. Among his few remaining possessions when he died was a copy of the book Movie Monsters (1969) by British author Denis Gifford. Eddie also owned at least two volumes of Famous Monsters reprints: The Best of Famous Monsters of Filmland (1964) and Son of Famous Monsters of Filmland (1965), both from Paperback Library. Ed's copies of these books wound up in the possession of fan Bob Blackburn.

Books from Ed Wood's personal collection.

As it turns out, the album Eddie wanted so badly is pretty easy to track down today. Famous Monsters Speak (A.A./Wonderland/Golden) was first issued in 1963 and then re-released on vinyl in 1970 and 1973. Under the title Classic Stories for Kids: From the Mouths of Monsters, it was reissued on CD by Digiview Entertainment in 2005. Image Entertainment released the album under its original title on CD in 2000. A vinyl copy will run you about $25 to $50 today on Ebay. The CD versions are much cheaper than that. Factoring in inflation, the CD is actually cheaper than the original release from 1963!

Here's the ad that would have enticed Ed Wood over five decades ago. The copy describes Famous Monsters Speak as "50 minutes of sheer terror," though the actual album clocks in at about 41 minutes. Note that the LP is said to be "brought to you by the editors of Famous Monsters magazine!" Curiously, the listed price is only $1.98. Had the price gone up by 1966 or was the extra dollar for shipping?

An ad for Famous Monsters Speak.

Here's a second, full-page ad for the album. Again, the price is given as $1.98, and readers are advised to mail in "two one-dollar bills." The canard about the album being 50 minutes long is also repeated. There is a reference to the album being sold in stores, so maybe poor Eddie should have gone that route instead.

Ed Wood obviously couldn't wait for this album to appear in stores.

The original LP cover in all its glory.
Like the magazine for which it is named, Famous Monsters Speak is aimed largely at children. But that would have suited Ed Wood perfectly. His own widow, Kathy, described Ed as "such a kid in a way" in Nightmare of Ecstasy. This is a spooky, atmospheric spoken word LP, enhanced with sound effects but lacking music. It consists of only two tracks: "Frankenstein's Monster Talks!" (19:54) and "Dracula's Return!" (21:12). For the CD reissue, these titles were simplified to the comparatively mundane "Frankenstein Speaks" and "Dracula Speaks."

The premise of Side One is that some scientists have converged in Zurich, Switzerland to hear some "crude recordings" that Dr. Frankenstein made of his monster. The monologuing monster, in chains, ponders how and why he was ever created and vows revenge on his maker. "I have one purpose," he snarls. "To end your life!" The tapes then seem to capture the creature as he escapes from bondage and goes on a killing spree. (Did he take the tape recorder with him and then send the reels back to the doctor, I wonder?) For a kids album, Famous Monsters Speak is pretty explicit in describing acts of violence. At one point, the creature makes this observation about his human victims: "They come apart so easily!"

In a strange way, with its verbose, vengeance-obsessed monster, this recording is actually closer in tone to Mary Shelley's gloomy original novel than James Whale's 1931 film ever was. This half of the LP ends with a dire warning from the immortal, unstoppable creature: "No one is safe from me! Which one of you is next?"

Side Two is given over to Count Dracula's return. It is presented as the desperate memoir of a most unfortunate man who found Dracula one night when he decided to snoop around the British Museum after hours. We hear him typing as he narrates his story aloud. According to this story, the old vampire's crypt is housed in the rat-infested basement of the Covent Garden museum. Dracula gives the interloper a message to deliver: "You will tell the people who walk above the ground that Count Dracula lives."

After explaining his modus operandi at length, the jovial, cackling Dracula takes his new "friend" out to the streets of London. The vampire likes to do his dirty work on crowded, well-lit thoroughfares with lots of people around. "That is horror," he explains. In no time at all, he hypnotizes a young lady with his magic ring, then drains her blood until she dies. When Drac takes the narrator to some kind of underground vampire convention, the man foolishly tries to escape. The count generously lets the narrator return to his normal life but warns, "I will come for you. Slowly, quietly." The narrator finishes typing his story just in time for Dracula to reclaim him, and the album ends abruptly.


Writer Cherney Berg
There was some intriguing talent behind this record, too. These two horror stories were written by Cherney Berg (1922-2003), son of radio and TV comedienne Molly Berg. In the 1950s and 1960s, Cherney worked as a writer and producer on Molly's show, The Goldbergs, as well as The Molly Berg Show. But he got other writing work as well, including scripting a 1967 Troy Donahue vehicle called Come Spy With Me. He was also a story editor on the 1966 animated King Kong series from Rankin-Bass and adapted The Nutcracker into an ice show starring Dorothy Hamill for a 1983 TV special. Cherney also worked on spoken word albums for children, including Scary Spooky Stories (1973) and  Great Ghost Stories (1973). In 1963, the same year as this album, Cherney also authored A Hideous History of Weapons, a mass market paperback from Collier.

Meanwhile, the voices on the album were provided by actor and comedian Gabriel Dell (1919-1988). As a young man, Gabe had been a member of the wisecracking screen troupe variously known as the Dead End Kids, the Bowery Boys, and the East Side Kids. In fact, I've reviewed some of his ESK films, including Smart Alecks (1942), Million Dollar Kid (1944),  and Mr. Wise Guy (1942). After aging out of that gig circa 1950, Gabe Dell kept working fairly regularly in TV and film until the early 1980s, including a role in the dreadful When the Girls Take Over (1962). To be fair, I should say Gabe was also in the 1974 disaster movie Earthquake and guested on shows like I Dream of Jeannie, The Fugitive, Ben Casey, McCloud, Sanford & Son, and more. He has all sorts of bizarre credits to his name, including playing Mordu in the two-part Legends of the Superheroes (1979) and voicing Boba Fett in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978).

Gabe was also something of an impressionist. While he makes no attempt to imitate Boris Karloff or Colin Clive during "Frankenstein's Monster Speaks!" he obviously models his performance as Dracula after Bela Lugosi. This leads to some strange pronunciations along the way, like  "The vampire is kink!" and "Shit on that coffin!" For a while in the late 1950s and early '60s, Gabriel Dell served as a sidekick to TV comedian Steve Allen. Here he is on Allen's show, doing his Lugosi impression. The mood is lighthearted, but the voice is pretty much the same as what he uses on Famous Monsters Speak.


History does not record whether Ed Wood ever received his copy of the album... or at least received a refund for his $3. I'll leave you with this clip of Gabe Dell reuniting with fellow East Side Kid Huntz Hall in 1987 on the USA Network's Robert Klein Time. He appears to be in great spirits here, even doing some rudimentary slapstick, but he died of leukemia the very next year at the age of 68. A trouper to the end.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 72: The unsung supporting players of 'Plan 9'

There are no parts, only small actors. Even in Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Recently, in a Facebook forum devoted to Ed Wood and his films, a fan named Corey Recko made what I felt was a brilliant observation. The same stock footage of lightning that shows up during the opening credits of Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) is also used in Mel Brooks' horror comedy Young Frankenstein (1974).

These two films were released a decade and a half apart and are miles away from each other in terms of production value, commercial success, and critical reputation, and yet they contain some of the exact same material. It reminded me of how the same stock footage of military planes shows up in both Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964).

Corey even helpfully provided side-by-side photos for comparison. Here are two screenshots from Plan 9 from Outer Space:

Lightning effect in Plan 9 from Outer Space.

And here are two screenshots from Young Frankenstein:

Same lightning effect, different aspect ratio.

Sturdy actor Ben Frommer
Corey's incredible discovery led me, for the umpteenth time, back to Plan 9 from Outer Space. Was there more in this film that I had missed? Something that had been hiding in plain sight the whole time, like the reused lightning? I watched it with my finger hovering over the pause button.

Alas, I didn't make any great finds in this cinematic snipe hunt. But I got caught up in the film's sci-fi-meets-gothic-horror plot all the same. And I did start noticing something in the movie, namely its many eccentric and memorable but brief supporting performances. The film has a wealth of them. In a way, Plan 9 is as densely packed with colorful and bizarre characters as Star Wars (1977).

Sure, most of the attention rightfully goes to Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Vampira, Bunny Breckinridge, and Criswell. The "Wood spooks," they've been called, and they were immortalized in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994). But Plan 9 isn't populated entirely by "spooks" and misfits. Our cast of characters includes: harried suburbanites (Mona McKinnon, Gregory Walcott); snooty aliens (Joanna Lee, Dudley Manlove); stalwart military men (Tom Keene, Lyle Talbot); and—Eddie's favorite—grousing, stressed-out policemen (Duke Moore, Conrad Brooks, Paul Marco, Carl Anthony). How Eddie loved his cop characters.

But there are more performances worth noting in Plan 9, even as you move down the credits and start delving into the supporting and bit players.

For instance, there's Bill Ash, a toothy, drawling, Georgia-born character actor. He plays the otherwise-unnamed "Captain" who convivially confers with Col. Edwards (Tom Keene) during a shootout with the flying saucers. It's Bill who says, "Visits? Well, that would indicate visitors!" That line has been provoking incredulous laughter from midnight movie audiences for decades. And Bill's sincere, guileless delivery really sells it. The actor remained a marginal presence in film and TV for decades, with credits including The Heavenly Kid (1985) and a couple of Kenny Rogers films, Coward of the County (1981) and Six Pack (1982). He died at the age of 84 in 2011.

Meanwhile, two of my favorite cameo players in the film are raven-haired Gloria Dea and jowly, stubbly Ben Frommer, who show up as befuddled mourners at the funeral of Bela Lugosi's nameless "old man" character and exchange some highly stilted dialogue as they maneuver through the plywood cemetery.

The veteran of dozens of film and TV productions, Ben (1913-1992) also appeared as a belligerent drunk in Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster (1955), and Eddie wanted him for a third production, the never-to-be Masquerade into Eternity (1959). He was one of the interview subjects in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy and even got his own card in Drew Friedman's The Ed Wood, Jr. Players.  Gloria was on the back end of a career in low-budget pictures, probably peaking with the role of Princess Pha in King of the Congo (1952) with Buster Crabbe.

The faces of Plan 9 (from left): Bill Ash, David De Mering, Gloria Dea, Karl Johnson.

Friedman describes Ben Frommer as one of Eddie's cronies. Indeed, as you'd expect for a low budget production of this nature, the cast of Plan 9 is filled with friends who rarely found work outside of Eddie's orbit. There's Tor Johnson's equally stocky son Karl Johnson (1924-1993) as kindly Farmer Calder, who stops to help Paula Trent (supposedly Ed in drag at this point in the movie). You can also spot Karl in Night of the Ghouls (1959). Eddie's pal David De Mering (1931-1980) turns up as chatty, party-hearty co-pilot Danny in Plan 9, the guy who wants to "ball it up in Albuquerque" with stewardess Norma McCarty. He had another bit part in Ghouls, but his greatest contribution to the Ed Wood saga is probably delivering the eulogy at Eddie's funeral in 1978.

(left) The alien herald; (right) Charles Crafts.
But the most mysterious speaking actor in Plan 9 has to be an alien who turns up about 20 minutes into the film. He's a slightly pudgy, middle-aged guy with a receding hairline, and his character seems to act as a page or herald to Bunny Breckinridge's fussy Ruler.

In a scene set aboard the breast-like mothership, this strangely sad man walks into the Ruler's curtained office as the boss is doing some paperwork or light journaling at his cluttered desk. Our herald enters, does a two-armed cross-chest salute, and says one line: "Your space commander has returned from Earth." His voice—nasal, thin, and flat—is almost comically unimposing. Barely bothering to look up, the bored Ruler waves him away, telling him to send Eros in. The alien then exits the scene.

About 25 minutes later, this actor returns for a second brief appearance, again in the Ruler's chambers aboard the mothership. At the start of the scene, he is standing behind the Ruler's desk. Dudley Manlove's Eros and Joanne Lee's Tanna flank him on either side. Then, the Ruler enters through the curtain, causing the other three to make the familiar cross-chest salute in unison. Bunny Breckinidge gestures grandly with his right arm, then sits down at his desk and snaps on some machine. At this, our man exits the room and the movie.

Our man reappears.

Who is this man? He's not listed in the credits, and even the IMDb skips over him. Ted Newsom, director of the Ed Wood documentary Look Back in Angora (1994), jokingly identifies him as comedic character actor Grady Sutton's "comparatively butch baby brother." On that Ed Wood forum I mentioned earlier, Davey Pulleyblank suggested this actor was Dudley Manlove's stunt double, while Kathy O'Brien guessed he was a member of the same Baptist church that financed Plan 9. Maybe he was just another of Eddie's drinking buddies. For just a moment, I thought he might be Charles Crafts, aka Johnny from Glen or Glenda (1953), but the voices don't sound alike.

Director John Waters has talked about being obsessed with one particular extra in The Wizard of Oz (1939): a glamorous, rouge-abusing young woman who lives in the Emerald City. It's her pet cat that causes Toto to jump out of the hot air balloon at the worst possible time. That intriguing bit player has now been identified by movie trivia experts as B-movie actress Lois January (1913-2006).

The fourth, anonymous alien in Plan 9 has now become my own personal Lois January. Hopefully, he, too, will be identified someday.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Ed Wood extra: On his 94th birthday, the state of the Ed Wood union is strong

Ed Wood as Alecia in Take It Out in Trade (1970).

Not many of us live to be 94, and Ed Wood didn't even come close. His heart conked out after decades of alcohol abuse when he was 54. So, yes, in a couple of months, we'll be observing the 40th anniversary of his untimely though hardly unexpected passing. He died in poverty and obscurity, mourned by his long-suffering wife Kathy and a handful of longtime friends and professional associates.

Eddie's posthumous career famously took off only two years after he died and has ebbed and flowed in terms of popularity ever since, arguably peaking in the 1990s with the publication of Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992) and the release of Tim Burton's star-studded biopic Ed Wood (1994). Those events sparked a series of new VHS and DVD editions of Ed's most famous movies. Even a handful of his books came back into print. But Nightmare and Ed Wood came out over two decades ago. How is the Ed Wood cult holding up in 2018?

Ladies and gentlemen, I can safely report that the state of the Ed Wood union is strong. While the last couple of years have witnessed the deaths of such Wood associates as Conrad Brooks, Jacques Descent, and David Ward, they have also witnessed lavish Blu-ray reissues of Wood-scripted films like Orgy of the Dead (1965), The Violent Years (1956), and Fugitive Girls (1974). Ed's own Take It Out in Trade (1970) is finally due to be issued on DVD and Blu-ray this November, nearly half a century after its original release.

Ed Wood-related books continue to pour in as well. Four years ago, Wood superfan Bob Blackburn oversaw the publication of Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr. And now, he is completing work on two further anthologies of Eddie's many, many short stories from the 1960s and '70s. Other quintessential Wood volumes from recent years include two books by Gary D. Rhodes and Tom Weaver: Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster (2015) and Ed Wood and the Lost Lugosi Screenplays (2016). The definitive critical tome on Ed's movies remains Rob Craig's Ed Wood, Mad Genius (2009), but more are being written, such as The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood (2015) by Andrew J. Rausch and Charles E. Pratt, Jr.  And then there is James Pontolillo's The Unknown War of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (2017), which sets the record straight on Eddie's war record once and for all.

But what has really changed since the 1990s is the rise of the internet, which has made researching Ed's life and work so much easier. Thanks to Google, Amazon, YouTube, Ebay, etc., Eddie's fans have more access to films, stories, and articles related to the notorious writer-director than ever before. And the advent of social media has allowed his fans, including me, to exchange information and insights about Ed Wood in a way that would have been impossible a few decades ago.

When I first became interested in the Wood cult in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was difficult to find even Eddie's most famous films, like Glen or Glenda (1953) or Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). No more. Now I have copies of those films and dozens more at my disposal. What has changed? Technology.

Nearly every week, Greg Dziawer knocks me out with some fantastic new discovery he has made in his truly painstaking research into Ed Wood's life and career. While Nightmare of Ecstasy remains a valuable source of information, one in which I am still making new discoveries, Grey's patchwork biography is now profoundly out of date and becomes more so with each passing year, as new information continues to trickle in.

When Ed and Kathy Wood were evicted, penniless, from their Yucca St. apartment in Los Angeles a few weeks before Christmas in 1978, it would seem like Eddie's legacy was in danger of being erased entirely. Four decades later, that legacy has never been more thoroughly documented.

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Nudie Odyssey, An Introduction by Greg Dziawer

What was the connection between Ed and Elvis? Nudie Cohn, for one.

Kenne Duncan's colorful shirts.
When you think of Elvis Presley and Ed Wood and what, if anything, might connect these two men's careers, the obvious answer is Dolores Fuller. After spending a few years as Eddie's significant other and leading lady, including co-starring in his 1953 masterpiece Glen or Glenda, Dolores went on to success as a songwriter, penning lyrics for such Elvis Presley songs as "Spinout," "Rock-A-Hula Baby," and "I Got Lucky." 

But you probably knew that already. Does the Wood/Presley connection go deeper?

A few weeks ago, I was re-watching Trick Shooting, the early '60s short written and directed by Ed and starring his friend and associate, Western baddie Kenne Duncan. Just a few days earlier, I'd been surfing the internet, completely independent of Kenne or Eddie (or so I thought), when I came across a beautiful collection of photos of suits designed by Nudie Cohn for bluegrass musician Dale Berry. Shot by acclaimed cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, Midnight in Paris), these images starkly capture Cohn's bold, otherworldly designs, which were somehow both richly ornate and elegantly simple. I realized immediately that I'd seen examples of custom-made "Nudie suits" all my life, but the existence of their common maker eluded me.

In his review of Trick Shooting, Joe Blevins remarked on the "rhinestone cowboy" outfits Kenne dons in the film. Although he didn't mention Nudie by name, he was right in recognizing the lineage. Nudie Cohn had, in fact, designed shirts, coats and suits for everyone from Roy Rogers to Sonny and Cher. And, yes, even Glen Campbell was a client. With his evocative, expressionistic embroidery, mixing the figurative and abstract seamlessly, Cohn dressed the cowboys and angels of Hollywood for decades.

Like Ed and Kenne, Nudie Cohn resided in North Hollywood at the peak of his career. But he'd been born Nuta Kotlyarenko some 10,000 miles away in Kiev in 1902. Before designing clothing for the stars, Nudie was making costumes and lingerie for burlesque performers.

All of this brings me back to Trick Shooting. A little over four minutes into the film, Kenne Duncan is seen wearing an embroidered, powder blue shirt with a hat to match! A minute and a half later, he's wearing another eye-catching shirt, this one beige and featuring a large embroidered image of a Native American with a feathered headdress. Even in the newsreel clips of Kenne's promotional trip to Japan in the early 1950s, the screen villain wears these fancifully decorated shirts.

As many dozens of times as I'd seen Trick Shooting, I'd never once thought about who might have designed those awesome garments! With Darius Khondji's pictorial still fresh in my mind, I knew instantly that they were the work of Nudie Cohn!

A man. A suit. A legend.
If you're still wondering about how this intersects with Elvis Presley, consider the following: Ed Wood wrote and directed a film featuring costumes by Nudie Cohn. Although these outfits were not created specifically for this project, they were unmistakably Cohn's work nevertheless. And Nudie also created the famous gold lamé suit worn by Elvis in 1957's Loving You. It's an outfit so closely associated with the singer that he wore it on the cover of his LP, 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong (1959). Comedian Jerry Seinfeld even donned a faithful copy of the suit when he impersonated Elvis on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1994. 

In other words, Nudie Cohn created an indispensable part of the Elvis Presley legend.

In future installments of The Wood Nudie Odyssey, we'll return to the short film Trick Shooting, Ed's friend Kenne Duncan, the L.A. burlesque stages of the 1950s, and much more.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 71: Some recent acquisitions to the collection

Thanks to Amazon and Ebay, I do have some Ed Wood-related purchases.

A Jail Bait souvenir.
After all these years, I really don't have that much of an Ed Wood collection, at least not compared to some fans I know. And the reasons for that are pretty simple: I don't have the money to buy memorabilia or any place to put it if I had it. So for the most part, I've settled for some DVDs and books—nothing rare—and little else. Sure, I did buy an I Changed My Sex poster and some Mexican lobby cards for Plan 9 at auction a few years ago, but that was very much an anomaly and something I probably wouldn't do again.

Still in all, there are a variety of Ed Wood-related items that can be snagged pretty cheaply on Amazon and Ebay. Not long ago, for instance, I snapped up a matchbook from The Hunter's Inn, a long-gone bar and restaurant in Temple City, CA where Ed filmed a pivotal scene from his crime melodrama Jail Bait (1954). It's a neat little keepsake, complete with one of those old-timey phone numbers: "ATlantic 6-3441." The matchbook promises that The Hunter's Inn is a place "where good food is a reality" and all dishes (including "choice steaks" and "ocean fresh sea foods") are "tailored to your taste." I don't know about that, but I know the place catered to hoodlums like Vic Brady.

Speaking of Vic Brady, that was just one of many roles brought vividly to life by Timothy Farrell, a busy working actor who also contributed his talents to The Violent Years (1956) and Glen or Glenda (1953). Tim was definitely one of the mainstays of Eddie's repertory company, which makes him a fitting candidate for The Ed Wood, Jr. Players, a collection of 36 trading cards from Kitchen Sink Press with artwork by Drew Friedman. I've long been familiar with Drew's surreal yet hyper-real work, sometimes done in collaboration with his brother Josh Alan Friedman, and I've discussed it several times during this series. But I'd never actually owned a physical copy of the trading cards.

Well, I was able to snag a brand-new copy of the second edition, still in the plastic wrap, for about $15 recently. This was a great purchase. The cards are fantastic to look at, with Drew's marvelous artwork on the front and miniature bios of the actors on the back. The usual suspects are here—Bela, Tor, Criswell, Vampira, Ed himself (both in and out of drag)—but Drew includes people like Charlotte Austin, Herbert Rawlinson, Fawn Silver, and Joanna Lee as well. The biographical information is now a little out of date for some of the performers, but that helps make these cards an artifact of the era (mid-1990s) in which they were produced. In a sense, The Ed Wood, Jr. Players is sort of a biography of Ed Wood, just formatted in a highly unusual way on individual 2.5" x 3.5" cards.

Some of Drew Friedman's incredible cards.

Mostly, though, what I've been purchasing lately have been books related to Ed Wood. Not by him, unfortunately, but tangential to him. Call them "Wood-adjacent" books. I knew for instance, that Eddie's friend and frequent coworker Criswell had penned several volumes of his grandiose predictions, and I reviewed two of them, Criswell Predicts from Now to the Year 2000 (1968) and Your Next Ten Years (1969), in this column already. But I hadn't acquired a copy of his third and final prophetic volume, Criswell's Forbidden Predictions (1972), until very recently.

Let me tell you, this one is a doozy. It's not formatted like Cris' other two books at all. The book claims to be "based on Nostradamus and the tarot" and includes Criswell's loopy account of his face-to-face meeting with Nostradamus himself. There are pages and pages depicting tarot cards and various charts showing how to lay them out. So far, I can't make heads or tails of it, but I'm going to try. Incidentally, Cris dedicates his book to someone named Brad Jayson, apparently a buddy of his, who was also to have appeared in The Dead Never Die (1957), a never-to-be movie written by and starring Criswell and directed by Ed Wood.

Another recent addition to my Ed Wood collection is Richard Bojarski's The Films of Bela Lugosi (1980), a very straightforward movie-by-movie guide to the Hungarian actor's work. I first learned about this book in 2014 when I attended Rudolph Grey's presentation at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan. Bojarski was one of the last people to interview Eddie, chatting with him in 1977 about Bela Lugosi's career. The author made audio tapes of these interviews, too, several of which wound up in The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1995). Bojarski (1935-2009) was a writer-cartoonist whose work appeared in such magazines as Castle of Frankenstein and The Monster Times. He also wrote a volume called The Films of Boris Karloff in 1974. Grey interviewed Bojarski for Nightmare of Ecstasy, and he shared this strange memory of meeting Eddie:

Author Richard Bojarski.
I entered the apartment and introduced myself, and he was very friendly. It was hot and stifling in that apartment and he was lying flat on his back. He offered me a drink, and we both started drinking. I was asking him about Bela, which was the reason I went out there, and he gave me a few standard answers to a few standard questions. Eventually, a stranger came in and exchanged some friendly insults with Ed Wood, threw down a few dollars on the coffee table. After he left, Ed resumed drinking and brought out a 16mm print of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I think he was going to offer it to me for sale, but I didn't push the conversation in that direction. His wife opened a can of spaghetti and warmed it up on the stove. He did say, "It's tough for a guy to make a living in L.A., I should have gone to Oregon. Or Colorado." He said he could make a better living out there, I didn't know what he was talking about. 
I kept on drinking, and I was getting really drunk. I soon found myself very sick, crawling on my hands and knees to the bathroom, that's how sick I was. I heard his wife say, "Dick, why did you drink all that booze, you didn't leave any for me and Ed."

Good times, huh? Ain't we lucky we got 'em.

My final recent purchase is a book I never would have acquired or even known about if it hadn't been for a picture posted to an Ed Wood forum by superfan Bob Blackburn. Bob befriended Ed's widow Kathy near the end of her life and became co-heir to the Wood estate. She shared with him a number of personal family photos, including this incredible snapshot of actor Kenne Duncan's wake in 1972.

A photo of Kenne Duncan's wake. From the collection of Bob Blackburn.

Among the guests that day were actors David Ward, Paul Marco, and Nona Carver, plus Criswell and Hope Lugosi, Bela's fifth wife. In front, naturally, are Kathy and Ed Wood. Eddie appears to be feeling no pain and is cradling a book in his lap. Upon closer inspection, this is The Hall of Fame of Western Film Stars (1969) by Ernest N. Corneau. Little information is available about Mr. Corneau, but his book is a hefty, 300-page reference work about the actors who appeared in Western movies. At the time, such a book was a rarity in the literary world, with most film books concentrating on major figures like Charlie Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks and overlooking the big screen cowboys.

Idolizing Buck Jones, whose films he watched religiously back in Poughkeepsie, Ed Wood was famously obsessed with Westerns as a child and continued that obsession into his adult years, with projects like Crossroads of Laredo (1948), Crossroad Avenger (1953), Son of the Renegade (1953) and The Lawless Rider (1954). Eddie's aforementioned repertory company included such Western stars as Kenne Duncan, Tom Tyler, Bud Osborne, Tom Keene, and Johnny Carpenter.

For someone like Ed Wood, a book like The Hall of Fame of Western Film Stars, would have been a goldmine of information. It was an odd choice to bring to Kenne Duncan's wake, though. Despite his prolific career, Kenne is only given a brief mention in a chapter called "The Villains We Loved to Hate," where his name is only one of dozens listed. Tyler, Osborne, and Keene are all given complete profiles, however, as is Yakima Canutt, who directed The Lawless Rider. Moreover, the entire book is dedicated to Buck Jones, whose picture takes up a full page. And Osborne, who played the doomed security guard in Jail Bait, is given prominent thanks in the acknowledgements.

Poor Johnny Carpenter doesn't fare so well, though. Here's what Corneau has to say: "He produced, directed and starred in his own horse-operas in the 1950's, but never reached any important status." Ouch.