Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 87: "What Would We Have Done Without Them?" (1975)

This week, Eddie takes us back into nudie movie history.

A coin-operated peep show.
Edward D. Wood, Jr. is, for better or worse, still known primarily as a filmmaker rather than a writer. Even though Eddie's books and articles represent a vast and colorful body of work, rich in themes and ripe for rediscovery, most documentaries about the man make only passing references to his writing career. A typical doc might show a couple of paperback covers from the 1960s before going back to talking about Ed's movies. Cue the umpteenth clip of model flying saucers dangling on the ends of strings.

If people haven't read Nightmare of Ecstasy or Muddled Mind, they may have no idea that Ed Wood was a writer at all, other than his screenplays. Part of the problem has been availability. Due to rights issues, only a few of Ed's dozens of novels (Killer in Drag, Devil Girls, Death of a Transvestite) are readily available on sites like Amazon today. The rest are expensive collectors' items. In recent years, the anthologies Blood Splatters Quickly and Angora Fever have made nearly a hundred of Eddie's short stories easily accessible to his fans. But this represents merely a tiny fraction of Wood's written output

And Ed Wood's nonfiction remains even less known than his fiction, if that's possible. While Eddie's short stories and novels have been somewhat neglected over the years, his fact-based articles and books, nearly all of them sexual or sex-adjacent in nature, have been basically abandoned. Almost no one writes about this material, voluminous though it is. So, today, I thought I'd shed some light on one of Eddie's lesser-known nonfiction works from later in his career.

The story: "What Would We Have Done Without Them?" Originally published in Body & Soul, vol. 8, no. 1, May/June 1975. Anthologized in Short Wood: Short Fiction by Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Ramble House, 2009).

A "camp" classic.
Synopsis: Though the porno film may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, it's actually part of a heritage that goes back to the earliest days of filmed entertainment. In the old days, there were arcades with hand-cranked machines that allowed the viewer to flip through photographs. Then there were primitive "peep shows" that displayed brief filmed striptease routines. Eventually these shows evolved, adding color and full nudity. Many of these shows focused on nudist camps, since that setting allowed filmmakers to present nudity in a non-sexual way. Eventually, the appeal of these nudist films wore off, and the coin-operated machines weren't profitable enough for film producers or arcade owners.

The next step was projecting these films onto a big screen for an audience, rather than showing them to one viewer at a time. Nudity started becoming commonplace in theatrically exhibited films made after World War II and shown at burlesque theaters. Some of these films had stories, but many were simply the same old strip shows of the past. Patrons back then would sit through live strippers and old newsreels before getting to see the films. Even though these films were cheaply made and shown in black-and-white, they initially attracted long lines of curious spectators.

But this, too, lost its novelty, and producers realized they would have to invest more money in these movies. Some of that money came from theater owners who depended on the producers to stay in business. By the mid-1960s, the movies featured some "petting and kissing" between boys and girls. And, at long last, color became standard. But the stories were still "weak." Ultimately, knowledgeable audiences simply demanded that the films include actual sex. And this practice continues now, despite the efforts of "pressure groups," who have only succeeded in making sex films into a thriving multi-million-dollar business.

Wood trademarks: Sex film industry (cf. "Sex Star"); strippers (cf. "Flowers for Flame LeMarr"); jollies (cf. "Insatiable," "Never Up-Never In," "Blood Drains Easily"); ellipses (Ed's favorite punctuation).

Excerpt: "Sex simply had to rear its purple head… and that meant sex with no holds barred. The people in the audience weren't going to take any more of this kidding around. When they came to see a sex show that’s what they were going to see or they were going to cut up the seats, tear down the screen and jam the projector where it would do the most good."

What a difference seven years can make!
Reflections: By 1975, if you consider Orgy of the Dead his debut in the genre, Ed Wood had been working in the sex film industry for a decade when he wrote this article. And that decade happened to be a very tumultuous and eventful one for adult entertainment. It's a long way from Orgy, which features topless dancers but no bodily contact between men and women, to Deep Throat (1972), which features full nudity and real intercourse captured on film. The public profile of the sex film had risen as well, with Linda Lovelace and Marilyn Chambers becoming nationwide celebrities and "respectable" couples attending pornographic films without shame. The very idea of "porno chic" would have been unthinkable in 1965.

It's interesting to me that Ed was already looking ahead to the future. "Where the business can go from the movie projector is only up to the scientists who might invent something else," he writes. Note that phrase "from the movie projector." Remember, as of this article, the greatest technological advancement in the history of nudie films was showing them in movie theaters rather than peep show booths. The rise of the VCR was still in the future. Did Eddie sense that something like this was on the horizon? While this article makes no mention of the 8mm home-market loops such as the Swedish Erotica series, the very existence of these films may have suggested to Ed that "home entertainment" was the next frontier for pornography.

Ed Wood was a famously speedy author, cranking out manuscripts as fast as possible to get that quick cash to buy booze. That meant he was probably not doing a great deal of research on his nonfiction pieces, instead relying on his own memories and that old Wood standby, simply making stuff up. There is a noticeable lack of specific dates and proper names in "What Would We Have Done Without Them?" He mentions a few basic time periods ("the late 1940's, just after W.W. II" and "the middle of the sixties") along the way, and gives some sample titles for peep show booths (A Day In The Life Of A Nudist, Nudist Fun,  and Life At A Nudist Camp), but he otherwise skimps on specifics. In general, Eddie seems to view the progression of the adult film as occurring on a few basic fronts: economic, technological, and legal/moral. And on all counts, Ed Wood finds, the nudie has made great strides.

One reason why readers may shun Ed Wood's nonfiction is that they feel it will not offer him as much opportunity for artistic expression as his short stories and novels. But rest assured, Ed manages to put his personal spin on every topic he covers. Here, for instance, is his description of nudist films:
And as advertised the films did depict the goings on at the nudist camps. Mother and father bouncing a ball around or playing tennis in their all-together. There were always the scenes of extremely fat people as well as the more handsome of bodies and this was called taking the curse off. It was thought, at the time, that in showing only the youthful bodies of the males and the females having their nudist fun, that some label of pornography might be put on them and the place would be busted. But by showing all the types of figures which visit such places then the little film remained art.
The tone is rather similar to that of Ed Wood's how-to-break-into-showbiz manual Hollywood Rat Race. Ed was well aware of the legal gamesmanship necessary to stay afloat in the adult movie industry. I can almost hear the producers now. "Pornography? Why, no, your honor! This is art! I mean, just look at all those extremely fat people up there on the screen!"