Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part 17 by Greg Dziawer

The demonic Captain DeZita shows up in 1954's Bagdad After Midnite.


A poster for Bagdad After Midnite.
A few months back, I finally caught up with Bagdad After Midnite, a 1954 burlesque feature occasionally rumoured to have some connection to Edward D. Wood, Jr.  I endeavored to watch it carefully with patient, searching eyes. It turned out to be breezy and watchable, with tolerable burlesque "comedy," lots of pretty girls, and juggling. Losing myself in the film's thin story, I was soon transported to the far-off, fictional land of Pomonia and happily jettisoned my solipsistic academic mindset.

Released decades ago on VHS by Something Weird Video, Bagdad After Midnite survives solely in that incarnation today, though this transfer has since been digitized and is available as a DVD-R or as a streaming video. The colorful blurb for the film on SWV's website, credited to Rev. Susie the Floozie, provides a synopsis of the plot:
Hubba hubba! PHIL TUCKER, the demented visionary behind the 1953 classic Robot Monster and who exposed Lenny Bruce’s Dance Hall Racket (also 1953), lensed this equally insane short feature the following year. 
Bagdad After Midnight’s delightfully flimsy premise is one long gag featuring comics DICK KIMBALL and WALLY BLAIR, in which Blair is sent by a travel agency to visit the Passionate Pasha of Pomonia and his accommodating harem. 
The first sequence treats us to five (count ’em!) modestly veiled harem-girl hoochie cooch numbers. Well... maybe Girl #1 and Girl #5 are the same, but she dances with a look of exquisite madonna-like suffering which more than makes up for the repetition. 
Then, for some stupid reason, Blair returns to the travel agency and begs to be sent back to the land of exotic Oriental delights. Come to think of it, maybe he returned hoping the agency secretary, played by the stunning young-Marilyn-Monroe-look-alike ARLENE HUNTER (The Art of Burlesque), will drop her duds too but, alas, Arlene stays dressed. Blair’s eager display of juggling on a tiny bicycle (oh, did I forget to mention that part of their act?) wins over the travel agent, and Wally is sent back to Pomonia (what ever happened to Bagdad?), where, this time, there’s some real pasties-and-net-panties strippin’ action! With GENII YOUNG, MAE BLONDELL, DIMPLES MORGAN, MITZI DOEREE, BRANDY JONES, and VALDA. 
Part of producer GEORGE WEISS’ “After Midnight” burlesque series. Collect ’em all! From a 35mm print that’s “Hot As the Sahara Sun!"
As hoped, Bagdad has numerous connections to Ed Wood. The entire film, for instance, was shot at W. Merle Connell's fabled Quality Studios on Santa Monica Blvd, a locale familiar to any serious Wood obsessive. It's the same soundstage where Eddie shot scenes for Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). And director Connell himself was a close associate of Glen or Glenda producer George Weiss. Reputedly, Connell shot the gratuitous "hot" scenes that were spliced into certain prints of Glenda when that film played in more permissive markets. Seeing Bagdad for the first time, I noted that I'd seen some of the dance numbers—and even some of the juggling—in short burlesque films that Weiss distributed through his company Screen Classics at around the same time.

It is a de rigueur practice of SWV to add some related content to each of the films it distributes. This tradition likely dates back to the VHS era, when tapes typically ran two hours. To my delight, Bagdad After Midnite is no exception. The hour-long feature is followed by a 27-minute featurette, Cairo After Midnight, assembled from the same shoot as Bagdad. Same girls, same "comics," more juggling. The tape is rounded out with over 20 minutes of stripper shorts.

The VHS version of Bagdad After Midnite from Something Weird Video.

Tame as it may seem today, Bagdad After Midnight was pretty hot stuff in 1954. Exhibiting high-haired ladies in high heels and pasties or see-thru bras was a dangerous business at the time. Below, at left, you'll find an article from the December 3, 1955 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, describing how Bagdad was seized during a police raid.

Defying time and the censors, George Weiss managed to keep Bagdad alive in the theatrical market well past the point at which it had become a laughable anachronism. Below right is a clipping from the December 19, 1968 edition of the Oregonian, a Portland newspaper, showing that Bagdad After Midnite was playing on a triple bill with Stranger in My House and Smoke of Evil almost a decade and a half after its initial release.

Two clippings related to Bagdad After Midnite.

"Kneel, boy! Kneel!": DeZita (right) in Bagdad After Midnite.
"Kneel, boy! Kneel!"

The voice is thin, though the line is meant to be authoritative, even threatening. A miserable-looking bodyguard barks this order at a clueless American tourist who has stumbled into a throne room where dancing girls are gathered at the feet of a grinning potentate whose outfit includes sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt.

I knew I'd seen this actor before. Despite having become rapt in the simple charms of Bagdad After Midnite, I spotted him again, just over 13 minutes into the feature. Standing at the right edge of the frame in a medium shot was Captain DeZita, the vaguely sinister, bald-pated man who had made brief and silent but indelible appearances as both the Devil and Glen's father in Glen or Glenda. In Bagdad, he's originally seen observing the action from the sidelines, his arms folded across his chest.

A minute or so later, DeZita walks through the frame and collects a suitcase belonging to juggler Wally Blair, the film's goofy protagonist. The Pasha of Pomonia (Dick Kimball) remarks that DeZita's grim-looking character is unhappy since he "buried three wives last week." DeZita had by then blazed a trail of petty crime and flim-flam cons across the United States for four full decades, charged and jailed for voluminous crimes against women along the way.

27 minutes into Bagdad, the Pasha finally identifies this dour man in the fez as Sahib, as Captain DeZita walks across the frame and makes a sour face at the camera.

After more "funny" banter from Dick Kimball and Wally Blair and more exotic dancing, the Captain makes yet another appearance in Bagdad After Midnite roughly an hour into the film. At this point, the movie's action switches from Pomonia to the "good old U.S.A." We cut from the throne room to the stateside travel office where the movie began. Dick Kimball strides in, holding a rope and declaring himself "the ex-Pasha of Pomonia." (He advises the woman behind the counter never to trust a crystal ball.) But it's not a total loss. He tugs on the rope, and we see that he has a string of half-clad imported beauties on a long leash, arranged from shortest to tallest. Holding the other end of the line is Captain DeZita as Sahib, apparently still acting as Kimball's servant.

(left) DeZita at the end of Bagdad; (right) a 1937 article from Brownsville, TX detailing one of his arrests.

DeZita was by then a (discredited) theatrical agent specializing in female "burlesque talent," i.e. strippers. The shot of the Captain with the tied-up women is barely (har har) metaphoric. Some or all of these performers must have truly been in his control. Bagdad After Midnite ends with the Captain eyeing the ladies up and down before the end card. His character doesn't appear in Cairo After Midnight.

In the final decade of his whirlwind, oft-unsavory life, Captain DeZita partnered with Vance Pease, running the Premier Theatrical Agency out of an office above a Warner Bros./Pantages movie theater. The building still exists today, at-current the heart of the diamond district in LA.

William Michael Achilles De Orgler DeZita succumbed to cancer in 1955, just as Bagdad After Midnite hit screens. We'll cross paths with him in myriad ways in future installments of this series, and I'm sure I'll spot him again in other movies, his image forever frozen on celluloid. In the meantime, you can watch a trailer for Bagdad After Midnite here and, if that piques your interest, download the complete film at Something Weird's website.

I'll leave you with some comedy juggling of a higher order from late night TV mainstay Michael Davis, well known for his appearances on Saturday Night Live and Late Night With David Letterman. Wally Blair was never this good.