Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Woodologist Odyssey, Part Four by Greg Dziawer

The infamous Circus Liquor sign in North Hollywood.

I confess that I've become obsessed with Ed Wood in recent years. It wasn't always so. Like a lot of other cultural omnivores with offbeat tastes, I was well aware and highly appreciative of Ed's work for decades. In fact, I'd long thought of Eddie's debut feature Glen or Glenda (1953) as one of the most unique and wonderful films ever made. Unexpectedly, almost five years ago, I found myself swept up into an obsession with Wood and his career. Over time, I'd learn a great deal more about Ed than is contained in the popular myth. I'd soon meet other dedicated Woodologists. I continue to find them an incredibly creative and talented bunch of genuinely great people. 

This week, it's my privilege to ask ten questions of cartoonist, animator, illustrator, and painter Milton Knight. An amazingly talented artist, Milt is also a certified Woodologist, one who is consumed by ephemeral details in Ed Wood's films and who delights in finding fresh insights into Ed and his work. Milton is exploring some heretofore unknown aspects of Woodology, and I wanted to know more about his process.

10 Questions With Milton Knight

Artist and Ed Wood fan Milton Knight.
1. Have you ever worn an angora sweater?

No. I like to wear turtlenecks, though, and love women in them.

2. You recently identified dancer/stripper/burlesque performer Bebe Hughes (aka Bebe Hughs, Bebe Barton, and several other names) in the alleged insert footage from Glen or Glenda reputed to have been shot by W. Merle Connell. She is ubiquitous in Something Weird Video's Nudie Cuties series. Tell us how you identified her and anything else you know about Bebe.

I’ve long followed cheesecake and pinup stuff, and she appeared [in] a lot [of it]. It might have been from Nightmare of Ecstasy that I learned her name. She’s in many of the Connell productions, the shorts, the burlesque and exploitation features. Also in some shorts produced for private viewing by William H. Door, credited by her first name. Never undressed; I've only seen one nude modeling shot of the "artistic" type. She was apparently regarded as the cute comedienne, always pulling faces and doing mincing little walks. I'm wondering if she had a connection because of her husband. Someone involved with Wood was quoted as saying he played the intruder who ravishes her on a couch in the nightmare sequence put into Glen or Glenda. By the way, she is [credited as] "Bebe Berto" in [Connell's] Test Tube Babies (1948).

3. I know you possess an affinity—to put it mildly—for the character Sheila the Fence in the Wood-scripted The Violent Years (1956). What's your attraction to her, and what else do you know about the actress who portrayed her, Lee Constant?

Wood had a thing for female criminals hanging around in their loungewear, waiting for the bell to ring with the next plot development, e.g. Jail Bait, The Violent Years, The Sinister Urge. It really was a lazy kind of storytelling, looking forward to television, but also sexy and incongruous. All the thrills of a criminal life, in ladylike leisure with a cocktail in her hand. So many questions left unanswered and unasked.

I know nothing about Lee Constant herself, whose only film this apparently was. It's possible she specialized in radio, as did Barbara Weeks, the portrayer of Paula’s mom. I was surprised to learn Constant was the wife of Timothy Farrell, the big bad in Wood’s Jail Bait. I like to imagine him in an onscreen criminal teaming with his real-life wife, baiting, berating, and out-"Shaddap!!"-ing each other. 
Author's note: I was also surprised to hear that Lee Constant was married to Timothy Farrell. When I expressed my happiness to Milt, he double-checked this factoid with other Woodologists and learned it was not so. But the truth is equally superb: Tim's wife Shirley appeared in The Violent Years!
4. Why Ed Wood?

It didn’t happen because I sought him out. In the '80s, I was familiar with the iconography of his horror films but had not been seduced. Friends introduced me to the series of Sleazemania tapes [from Rhino Video], and I kinda got hooked. There was something sinister about the exploitation films. I had doubted stuff so crude could be legally distributed as movies. 

Wood strikes me as a director guilelessly willing to drop his heart on the chopping block. Glen or Glenda was exploitation, but was obviously, even tragically, sincere. And, as has been noted by others, the extraterrestrial guy in Plan 9 is speaking the bitter truth regarding the arms race and "stupid minds," and it's the sterling example of the establishment that silences him with a fist. Wood's leads tend to be vulnerable, sensitive, and, when angered, even petulant. With Wood, there aren’t billions of dollars to hide behind. In many cases, [his characters] say things that people don't dare say.

"Athletic soft porn."
5. Scalli's Gym is a Quality Studios set we both know well, Quality being the cramped Santa Monica Blvd. soundstage where Ed Wood filmed parts of Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Please take us there.

A mainstay of W. Merle Connell productions was athletic soft porn—sturdy women bending and stretching, ogled from provocative camera angles. The dingy, chintzy gymnasium sets [at Quality] were used and reused for pseudo-educational cheesecake (The Body Beautiful), burlesque comedy (What Happened to Tom in the Ladies' Gym), and serving in crime features as wholesome fronts shielding evil activities [such as] bookmaking, sports "fixing," and drug pushing, as in The Devil's Sleep and Racket Girls, two films starring Timothy Farrell as the infamous hustler Umberto Scalli. (The third was Dance Hall Racket.) Farrell was probably the most charismatic of the exploitation regulars and always more personable as the villain than in his preachy, law-abiding doctor and reporter roles. 

Dens of crime such as Scalli's Gym and Scalli's Dance Hall were never convincing of menace, however, and were simply a device to provide audiences with the vicarious pleasure of watching characters drink, neck, and get stoned.

6. If there is one mystery about Ed Wood or his work that you would love to solve, what is it?

Not that it would make a major change in my life, but I'd like to know what happened in the lives of the minor players like Harry Keatan, and the actress who played Mary, the exploited Hollywood hopeful in The Sinister Urge.

7. You lived at 5637 Strohm Ave in Hollywood, a mere stone's throw away from two of Ed's residences. He and his wife Kathy were living at 5617 ½ Strohm in late 1972, and they'd lived at 1627 Strohm in 1964. Tell us about that location.

It was actually in North Hollywood, a then unglamorous city in the San Fernando Valley. The section was bland, industrial, but centrally located for film work. The main strip was Burbank Blvd., which had an array of staple businesses: restaurants, used car dealers, sound studios. Buildings over one story tall were few. There still is the "landmark" Circus Liquor [on Vineland Ave.], with its towering neon clown. On the side streets were small and probably inexpensive houses.

5617 Strohm Ave. as it looked in 2018.

From 1991 to 1998, I rented an apartment at the end of a block, near a power station. Dumpy, relaxed. Mostly families with kids. The downside was that it was right under the flight pattern of Burbank Airport. I was on the second floor, and the place shook every five minutes. A few houses down was what I only recently learned had been one of Wood's rentals in the 1970s. During my stay in the neighborhood, it was the pleasant, unobtrusive little place it had probably been twenty years earlier. It isn’t clear to me whether the Wood couple lived in the main or the rear house. Kathy remembered the landlord as living in the rear, but one of Ed's business letters claims that as his address. I believe it was the same house that had a little sale going in the front one afternoon. Didn't get much.

8. You are an accomplished artist and cartoonist, possessing a style rooted in early classic American animation. What's the connection to Ed Wood, and how has he influenced your work, if at all?

The kind of leering, "Pssst… hey!" storytelling. The softcore, high-heeled, red-lipped eroticism.

Two of Milton Knight's paintings. At right is his self-portrait.

9. I have come to believe that Ed was involved in burlesque films in the early '50s in ways we may never know. You know this milieu intimately. What's your take?

There was the W. Merle Connell/Quality Studios connection, and a majority of the burlesque features were photographed by Wood’s favorite [cinematographer], William C. Thompson. Wood may well have been lurking around, writing extra material, but wouldn't have made a great creative dent because these features were, by and large, filmed revues. Dancers and ready made comic bits. Few had plots or clever setups, and never anything as grandly esoteric as Orgy of the Dead.

10. Glen or Glenda?

Absolutely touching.

A poster for Milton Knight's show.
Many thanks to Milton Knight! Check out his incredible work here and here. And if you are in the vicinity of Bloomington, Indiana, his next gallery show Motion and Emotion is little more than a week away.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Woodologist Odyssey, Part Three by Greg Dziawer

This week, Greg takes us on a trivial pursuit.

It's time once again to turn our attention to Woodologists, i.e. those super-devoted Ed Wood experts who transcend mere fandom. In the past, I've quizzed author James Pontolillo and filmmaker Keith Crocker. This week, though, the person I want to quiz is you! 
That's right. I want to see how much you know about Edward D. Wood, Jr. and his various personal and professional associates. See if you can answer the following ten questions. If you can, you're seriously obsessed!

So how'd you do? Was this a breeze or were you utterly baffled? 
BONUS QUESTION: For which group did Eddie briefly serve as a chaplain after the war? 
I'll answer these questions and many more you never thought to ask in future installments of this series.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Sure, let's do a comics roundup! What's the worst that could happen?

Let's just jump into it.

As another summer fades into autumn, blah blah blah... here are some comics. Is it mostly Mary Worth again? Yeah, probably.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 89: "That's Show Biz" (1972)

These are the movies that saved Hollywood, according to Ed Wood.

Hot Flicks magazine from 1972.
During his troubled and abbreviated life, Edward D. Wood, Jr. did the best he could to document his own career as a writer and filmmaker. He was proud of the work he did in those fields and kept updating his resumes with his accomplishments. When Eddie died at the age of 54 in December 1978, he'd only recently been evicted from his final apartment and was unable to keep many of his mementos from 30 years in show business.

Fortunately, since then, Ed's loyal fans have undertaken the responsibility of documenting this man's unique and fascinating life. Some of those fans congregate regularly on a Facebook forum moderated by Bob Blackburn, who befriended Ed's widow Kathy and became co-heir to Ed Wood's estate. Joining this forum has given me access to material I never would have known about otherwise.

Recently, for instance, punk musician and longtime Ed Wood fan Howie Pyro shared an interesting article that Eddie wrote in the early 1970s. Let's take a closer look.

The story: "That's Show Biz," originally published in Hot Flicks, vol. 1, no. 1 (1972) from Gallery Press. According to Bob Blackburn, Ed's resume lists this story as being written in 1971.

Synopsis: The motion picture business has come a long way in just 70 years, and the early pioneers of the medium would be shocked by what's happening on the big screen today. The public lost interest in movies after World War II, and theaters started shutting down. Things got worse in the 1950s when television came of age. People could see big stars in their own homes for free, so they no longer felt the desire to go to movie theaters.

In the 1960s, film production costs kept rising, resulting in higher ticket prices at the theater. Kids could no longer afford to go to the movies. Then pressure groups started complaining about the amount of violence in motion pictures. Meanwhile, viewers with their own projectors began to show 8mm movies at home. Theaters would have to do something bold to survive, so they decided to defy the censors and exhibit movies with nudity and sex. It would generate controversy, but it was worth the risk. Eventually, movies contained full-frontal nudity and "hard-core sex acts."

Movie theaters are once again thriving, thanks to these sexy films. Will it last? Who knows? Naturally, children are not allowed to see these explicit new movies, but they'll eventually grow up and, with luck, become the next generation of ticket-buyers.

Wood trademarks: Hollywood history (cf. Hollywood Rat Race); history of sex in films (cf. "What Would We Have Done Without Them?"); mention of classic cowboy stars Tom Mix and Buck Jones (two of Eddie's real-life heroes); random use of italics (cf. "Filth is the Name for a Tramp," "Cease to Exist"); ellipses (Eddie's favorite... punctuation).

Excerpt: "Nudity hit the screen in all its glorious body exposing delights. Slight nudity had been seen from time to time in foreign films and those theatres which showed such things were about the only ones who were surviving during those disasterous [sic] years for Hollywood."

Reflections: Edward D. Wood, Jr. always loved movies and grew up wanting to be part of the film industry. I believe that, if he'd had his druthers, he'd have made old-fashioned Westerns with white-hatted heroes and black-hatted villains. Either that, or Gothic horror films in the Universal tradition. The simple cowboy pictures and spooky Dracula derivatives that Ed preferred were already falling out of favor by the time he arrived in California in the late 1940s, however, so he made films that were more in sync with the public's tastes. For most of the '50s, this meant science-fiction (Plan 9 from Outer Space, Bride of the Monster) and crime drama (Jail Bait, The Violent Years).

By the mid-1960s, however, Eddie's film career had bottomed out, and the only work he could get was in sexploitation and, eventually, outright pornography. That's where he'd stay for the rest of his life. While this would be a crushing blow to any ambitious artist, Ed Wood tried at least to put a positive spin on the situation. In "That's Show Biz," Ed semi-seriously argues that the nudie flick has saved Hollywood. "Perhaps this second breath for the movie business," he writes, "will be enough to cure the cancer which so nearly devoured it during the last twenty years." So there you have it. Porn cures cancer. Kind of makes you look at the industry with more respect.

Ed Wood wrote quite a bit of nonfiction over the years, much of it for publisher Bernie Bloom. Bernie would hire Ed to write short stories for his mags and stroke books, but he also used nonfiction articles like "That's Show Biz" to pad out his publications. A lot of these articles are what I'd call capsule histories or pocket histories of topics related to sex, movies, crime, the occult, etc. The college articles I reviewed a few weeks ago are good examples. Eddie rarely includes specific dates or facts in these articles, and he uses real names only sparingly. My supposition, then, is that he did these with zero research and instead relied on his own memories.

Did anyone even read these articles back in the 1970s? People just bought these magazines for the pictures, right? Well, Hot Flicks, vol, 1, no. 1 carries a cover price of $4. That's nearly $25 in today's money. This was not a cheap product. So the porn connoisseur might want to get his money's worth out of this issue by reading every bit of text it contained.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 88: "Set To Go Off" (1970)

This week, Ed Wood gives us his subtle, nuanced take on the Vietnam War.

Bob Hope and Raquel Welch in Vietnam, 1967.
More than any other issue, the Vietnam War is responsible for the social divide known as the generation gap in the 1960s and '70s. Sure, young people had differences with their parents over lots of things—sex, drugs, music, art, fashion, hairstyles, race relations, etc. But none of those had the sheer, visceral impact of the war.

Young male baby boomers were being drafted into the military to fight and die in Southeast Asia, and they naturally began to rebel against a war they neither condoned nor even understood. The politicians sending them to Vietnam belonged to the older generation, the one that had survived the Great Depression in the 1930s and fought World War II in the 1940s. America's parents tended to side with the politicians. They'd gone to war, so why shouldn't their sons do the same? How was this new war different? No protest, no matter how vehement, could make them understand.

When I think of Vietnam and the generation gap, I can't help remembering an interview that author Richard Zoglin did with NPR's Terry Gross in 2014. Zoglin appeared on Fresh Air to discuss his biography of comedian Bob Hope, and the conversation turned to Hope's stalwart support of the Vietnam War. The author explained:
Bob had done his work [entertaining the troops] in World War II and then started up again in 1948, doing some Christmas shows for the troops. He did that through the '50s. When Vietnam came along, it was a routine. It was a yearly thing. At Christmas, he would go overseas, and his specials would be televised. Again, he was like maybe a lot of people from that generation. He was from the World War II generation. He could not conceive of a war that the United States wouldn't pursue to victory, that wouldn't be backed by everyone, the way it was in World War II.
Compare that to the sardonic lyrics of "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," a 1965 protest song by Country Joe and the Fish, a psychedelic rock group popular among the youth of the era. This tune, a mock recruitment anthem, became especially legendary after the band performed it at Woodstock in 1969. Sentiments like these assuredly kept Country Joe and the Fish from ever being booked on a Bob Hope Christmas special.

Well, come on all of you, big strong men 
Uncle Sam needs your help again
He's got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun
We're gonna have a whole lotta fun

And it's one, two, three
What are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam
And it's five, six, seven
Open up the pearly gates
Well, there ain't no time to wonder why
Whoopee! We're all gonna die!

Edward Davis Wood, Jr. was decidedly of the older generation. He was born in 1924, lived through the Depression, joined the Marines at the age of 17, and served his country during World War II. Though he greatly exaggerated his heroism, he was extremely proud of his military service and would speak of it often for the rest of his life. It's very doubtful that he would have had any sympathy for protesters or draft dodgers. Note that some of the characters in The Class Reunion (1972) speak with disdain about antiwar demonstrators. ("Nothing like those street apes ever happened when we were their age!")

War and the military are semi-common themes in Ed Wood's creative work, going back at least as far as his late '40s play The Casual Company. Among his short stories, we find "No Atheists in the Grave" (1971) and "The Wave Off" (1971), which both include mentions of combat but avoid naming Vietnam specifically. Jeff Trent, the square-jawed pilot of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), is another proud ex-Marine. And then there is Alan from Glen or Glenda (1953), who is drafted into the Army during World War II and serves successfully but whose penchant for cross-dressing makes him feel alienated from his fellow soldiers.

It's sometimes difficult to discern Ed Wood's true feelings about warfare. His magnum opus, Plan 9, is essentially a parable about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Eros the alien warns us that the human race will eventually build a bomb powerful enough to destroy the entire universe. (Jeff Trent responds, in typical caveman style, by punching Eros square in the jaw.) On the other hand, in Hollywood Rat Race, Ed refers to the atomic bomb as a "magnificent undertaking" and applauds the "many people of many trades" who helped build it.

Until Operation Redlight (1969) resurfaces, we may never get the definitive Ed Wood statement on the Vietnam War. Perhaps until then, we can draw some conclusions from a truly bizarre and outrageous short story published in 1970 and set explicitly during the Vietnam conflict. I'll warn you now that this is an ugly story with some very unpleasant racial and sexual themes. Only its cartoonish absurdity keeps it from being truly offensive.

The story: "Set To Go Off," originally published in Illustrated Case Histories, vol. 1, no. 3, November/December 1970. Credited to "Jacques Rippee." Anthologized in Short Wood: Short Fiction by Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Ramble House, 2009).

De Palma's Casualties of War .
Synopsis: Wally Armbruster is an excellent soldier, even though he does things his own way and doesn't really feel like he belongs in the Army. One day, in Cambodia, Wally and his buddy Thomson are surveying a small village that consists of only a few huts. There, they find a pretty Vietnamese girl of about 16, whom Wally immediately identifies as a member of the Viet Cong. Thomson suggests taking her prisoner, but Wally wants to have sex with her first. While Thomson notes that the girl seems terrified, Wally insists the young woman is "set to go off."

Wally undresses, and the Vietnamese girl initially tries to fight him off before resigning herself to her fate of being raped by the American soldier. She says she is the last living member of her family; all the others were killed by the Americans. Wally asks her why she didn't clear out of the village when she had the chance. "Stayed for you," she answers. When Wally finally penetrates her, he realizes too late that the girl has turned herself into a human landmine.

Wood trademarks: Warfare (cf. "The Wave Off," "No Atheists in the Grave"); war brides (cf. "Tank Town Chippie"); basic training (cf. Glen or Glenda); ridiculous sexual slang (in this case, calling a woman's vagina a "wazoo"); euphemism for penis (in this case, "his staff"); mention of bobcat (cf. Plan 9); ludicrous twist ending (cf. many stories in Angora Fever and Blood Splatters Quickly); feeling a sudden cold sensation throughout one's body (cf. Orgy of the Dead); wordplay (numerous puns on "peace" and "piece").

Excerpt: "He looked down. There was a ragged pile of shredded flesh and splintered bones where the lower half of his body had been. His blood mingled with the blood of the girl. He turned and saw her. The look of horror was frozen on her dead face."

Reflections: I cannot claim to understand what was going on in Ed Wood's mind when he was writing these short stories half a century ago. All I really know about Eddie's creative process is that he wrote extremely quickly, often while eating, drinking, watching TV, and carrying on various conversations with friends. My guess is that he came up with the ending of "Set To Go Off" first and worked backwards from there. The entire reason this story exists is to unleash that ghoulish and improbable final twist.

But how do you get to an ending like that? One interpretation of "Set To Go Off"—and the one that bodes best for Ed Wood—is that this is simply a story about sin and punishment. Eddie is playing God and doling out some cosmic justice to arrogant rapist Wally Armbruster, who ignores the warnings of his buddy Thomson. Wally gets what he has coming to him, while Thomson (a possible nod to William C. Thompson?) survives unscathed. The end. Nothing more to it.

If that were the case, however, why would Eddie go out of his way to set up Wally Armbruster as "one hell of a good man in a fight" and "a true innocent"? The soldier's combat-readiness has nothing to do with the story, and Wally is anything but innocent by the end of it. Ed even includes an itemized description of Wally's clothes and tells us that this man "never felt like a soldier." These details help to humanize the character and make him seem more three-dimensional. The story is told in the third person, but Wally is definitely our viewpoint character until the very end, when he literally gets the last laugh. Does Eddie want us to sympathize with this guy?

Is it possible that "Set To Go Off" is actually an antiwar story, showing us that the conflict has brought out the absolute worst in these soldiers? It's not difficult, after all, to see parallels between Eddie's short story and Brian De Palma's controversial 1989 film Casualties of War, in which some American soldiers kidnap and rape a Vietnamese girl. Eddie is not coy about calling this a rape story. He even has Wally say to his victim, "Never saw a girl this scared to get raped." But Wally also insists that the girl "wanted" this to happen. Does Eddie agree with him or not?

In the end, "Set To Go Off" is one of the more upsetting and disturbing stories in the Wood canon, and it showcases the darkest corners of Ed's imagination. We're a long way from Glenda or Plan 9 here, even if the story does share themes with those movies. If we are to understand this man fully, we cannot ignore stories like this one, as much as we might want to.