Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 76: Johnny Duncan in 'Plan 9'

From Batman & Robin to Plan 9, Johnny Duncan had a colorful career in pictures.

The morgue wagon boys.
Strange things are afoot at the old cemetery near Jeff and Paula Trent's house. Two gravediggers have been killed—torn apart, as if by a bobcat—and a handful of police officers have arrived on the scene to take the witnesses' statements and search the grounds for any clue as to who or what committed these murders. The investigation is led by plainclothesmen Inspector Daniel Clay (Tor Johnson) and Lt. John "Johnny" Harper (Duke Moore), aided by two uniformed patrolmen (Paul Marco and Carl Anthony). Lt. Harper tells Inspector Clay that the "morgue wagon oughta be along most any time" to collect the bodies. The sooner the better, since this boneyard stinks to high heaven.

Confident that Lt. Harper has the foul-smelling crime scene well in hand, Inspector Clay departs to explore the rest of the cemetery. An unwise decision, we'll soon learn. Remarkable events transpire in rapid order. A single flying saucer zooms over the area, bringing with it a blinding light and an incredible wind that is neither hot nor cold, just powerful. The Trents (Gregory Walcott and Mona McKinnon) are on their back porch at the time and find themselves thrown to the ground while having a heart-to-heart chat. Lt. Harper and the two patrolmen witness the UFO, too.

By this point, two morgue wagon attendants—decked out in matching jackets, collared shirts, and white pants—have arrived to carry away the bodies. They're carrying one of the gravediggers on a stretcher. When the saucer flies over their heads, however, all five men are knocked to the ground. The morgue wagon guys unceremoniously dump the gravedigger's body into a nearby field. Somewhere else in the cemetery, the man-mountain Inspector Clay remains standing. Fate has something far worse in store for him that night.

A body (Hugh Thomas, Jr.) is thrown into a field.

Batman and Robin (1949)
I've seen Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) countless times over the last 26 years, but it was only recently that I paid any attention whatsoever to those two guys from the "morgue wagon." (And, incidentally, that does not seem to be a standard industry term. Ed Wood simply made it up.) Part of what drew my attention to them was revisiting the colorized version of Plan 9 released by Legend Films in 2006. The addition of color to a black-and-white film brings out details that might otherwise go unnoticed, including props, sets, and, yes, background actors.

In the Legend Films edition, for instance, the two morgue attendants are tinted in such a way that they look like a set of twins in matchy-matchy outfits, as if they'd been dressing alike since childhood and carried that habit into their adult years. Once you notice them, it's difficult to ignore them as they theatrically throw themselves to the ground, then regain their composure and confer among themselves.

One of these stretcher bearers has been positively identified as actor-dancer Johnny Duncan (1923-2016), best known today for having portrayed Robin the Boy Wonder in the 1949 Columbia serial Batman and Robin. He was the second actor to play the famed DC character, following Douglas Croft in a 1943 Batman serial. And, yes, that's definitely Duncan in Plan 9. He confirmed as much in a lively, career-spanning 2005 interview. He had little recollection of the film or of Ed Wood, other than the fact that Eddie "made some cheap pictures." For the actor, it was just another job in a screen career that spanned about two decades.

That's the damnedest thing about Johnny Duncan, a Kansas City, MO native who started as a professional dancer in the 1930s when he was a teenager before leapfrogging to a movie contract with Fox. He worked with many famous people over the years, including esteemed directors like John Ford and Stanley Kubrick, and yet he did not seem to take himself especially seriously.

Duncan was the very epitome of a journeyman actor, going from job to job with no real thought as to building a reputation or personal brand. As he tells it, he never actively sought out a film career. It just sort of happened. An agent saw him and signed him, and that was that. From Westerns to musicals to comedies, Johnny was up for anything. He just went wherever he was wanted until he wasn't wanted anymore. After his career dried up in Hollywood, Johnny got out of movies and into the business world; by the 1990s, he was Vice President of Fall Creek Resorts in Branson. He seemed content to live out his days in his native Missouri, though he occasionally missed California and its people.

In his later years, long since retired from showbiz, Johnny Duncan gladly appeared at conventions to meet fans and discuss his role as Robin. Though Duncan's diverse resume includes such titles as The Wild One (1953), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and Spartacus (1960), his name will forever be connected to the deathless Batman franchise. And Johnny seemed perfectly fine with that, having been a fan of the comics before he ever took the role of Dick Grayson. He claimed he even read Batman books on his honeymoon, much to his bride's annoyance.

Filmed over the course of about three grueling months in 1949, Batman and Robin was eventually released in 15 separate chapters, each one averaging about 17 minutes. These would be shown as appetizers before a main feature. The series, directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet, is notable for including the first live-action depictions of such seminal Batman characters as reporter Vicki Vale and Commissioner Gordon. The latter is played by another Plan 9 from Outer Space actor, Lyle Talbot, bringing his usual reassuring stoicism to the part.

Lyle Talbot as Commissioner Gordon in Batman and Robin (1949).

Johnny Duncan in The Flaming Urge.
Johnny Duncan had some funny anecdotes about making Batman and Robin, including how his paunchy costar Robert Lowery had to be squeezed into his costume each day. The costumed crime fighters called each other "Fatman and Bobbin" on the set. Already 26 at the time, Duncan was technically too old to play the adolescent Boy Wonder, but his short frame and tousled hair made him look younger than he was. His high, thin, affectless voice also contrasted with Lowery's deeper, more nuanced vocals.

Though the Columbia serial is considerably more serious than William Dozier's 1966 Batman TV series, the former was clearly an influence on the latter. It is jarring, however, to see that the 1949 version of Wayne Manor is an underwhelming two-story suburban dwelling that looks like it could be the home of Ward and June Cleaver. And the Batmobile is simply a 1949 Mercury convertible straight off the lot. A nice vehicle, sure, but not nearly as customized as other Batmobiles we've known.

Batman and Robin was just one of Johnny Duncan's many showbiz adventures. The Missourian's career as a dancer and actor brought him into contact with such luminaries as Sammy Davis, Jr., Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney, Lana Turner, Alan Ladd, future president Ronald Reagan, and more. Several of these Hollywood legends, including Bogey and Cagney, became close personal friends of his. He even did a number of films with the East Side Kids, including Million Dollar Kid (1944), which he called "probably the worst picture I ever did." He befriended several of the Kids along the way, including Huntz Hall. That connection was lasting. Shortly before Hall died in 1999, he called Duncan to talk over old times.

"You know it was really a sad thing," Duncan reflected, "because Huntz was really nothing like he was on the screen—stupid like that, you know?"

Johnny Duncan had never worked with Edward D. Wood, Jr. before Plan 9 from Outer Space, and the two would never again cross paths professionally. But Duncan did appear in an arson drama called The Flaming Urge (1953) with Harold Lloyd, Jr. of Married Too Young (1962) fame. Duncan had filmed his part in the movie under the more innocent title The Spark and was dismayed by the suggestive name switcheroo. "I've never seen it yet to this day," he admitted.

When asked in 2005 whether he would write an autobiography, Duncan said, "My life has been interesting to me. It really has." But he worried that younger people would not recognize such names as Joan Crawford or James Cagney. "So I don't know if it would be an interesting book to them or not." Nevertheless, in 2011, Richard Lester published a biographical volume called Johnny Duncan: Hollywood Legend. As always, Duncan was depicted on the front cover in his Robin costume.