Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 91: The long uphill road of 'Dames and Dreams' (2019)

Palmistry is a major part of the newly-restored Dames and Dreams.

Every movie that manages to be completed, released, and distributed represents a triumph for its creators, no matter how it's ultimately received at the box office or by critics. Let's face it, most movies never get past the "brainstorming" or "daydreaming" stage, i.e. "Hey, here's an idea that might make for a good film." Some of these half-formed notions eventually get written into actual screenplays. And, of those screenplays, only a percentage ever make it in front of cameras.

Two directors commiserate in Ed Wood.
Once a screenplay enters the production phase, the potential hazards increase exponentially. Money could run out or be withdrawn. Locations could become unavailable. The weather could refuse to cooperate. Cast or crew members could prove unreliable or unsuited to the project. Props could malfunction. Sets could topple over. Or maybe, once the project is already underway, everyone involved might realize this wasn't such a great idea for a film after all.

As the old hymn says, "Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come." Only the heartiest of movies survive the stressful and expensive production process.

And the brutal winnowing-down only continues from there. After shooting is done, a film might stall in the post-production phase when the existing footage is processed, edited, scored, color corrected, etc. Even after all those hurdles, a completed movie might still never reach its intended audience due to a lack of distribution and/or advertising. What good is a movie if there's no easy way for people to see it? Or if they never even hear about it?

Edward D. Wood, Jr. knew about all these dangers, toils, and snares. He had projects that never got past the "intriguing notion" phase (such as his unmade Mickey Cohen biopic), ones that languished as screenplays (The Basketballers, Rue Pigalle, and probably dozens of others), films that fell apart during production or post-production (Hellborn), and films that struggled to be released even after they were completed (Night of the Ghouls). Even Ed Wood's inaugural project, Crossroads of Laredo (1948), was itself a miscarriage, destined to remain unreleased until long after Ed's death. The filmmaker's longest-gestating project, I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, only became a film in 1998, two decades after Ed Wood's death, and even then had trouble getting distribution and reaching audiences.

But Ed Wood was hardly alone in this respect. His compatriots in the film business, most of them working well outside of the studio system, all had their share of headaches and setbacks in getting their movies completed and released. Hollywood is a tough town sometimes. In their introduction to the Ed Wood (1994) screenplay book, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski discussed the completely fictional scene in which Eddie meets his hero, Orson Welles:
"The juxtaposition was ludicrous and thematically pleasing: both men were scrambling to raise money, shooting films haphazardly in pieces, and having their work recut by others. The greatest film-maker in the world and the worst film-maker in the world had landed in the same boat; they had identical problems."
A neglected '70s classic finally released!
My colleague Greg Dziawer has just survived a crash course in completing and releasing a motion picture. Since late 2016, Greg has been intimately involved in finishing a softcore movie that producer Jacques Descent began all the way back in June 1974. Jacques, who collaborated with Ed Wood on multiple projects, died in June 2018, but Greg continued with the project as a tribute to his departed friend.

Now, happily, that film is finally available on Blu-ray under the title Dames and Dreams from Darkside Releasing. You can buy the film and watch a trailer here. Darkside is offering the film on its own or bundled with a Herschell Gordon Lewis documentary called Bloodmania. The Dames disc also includes an audio commentary and some bonus footage, plus a booklet containing Jacques Descent's final interview. As for the film itself, Darkside luridly proclaims:
"The men are pawns and the women only look innocent! Four wild, willing and wanton ladies are read their fortunes at a swinging ´70s Hollywood revel. They tangle in every way with cons, cheats and corrupt cops, brandishing sex as their weapon. When reality ends, their bared fantasies are just beginning. Hot girls and supercool ’70s backdrops erupt in an orgy of danger and sexual intrigue in this lost exploitation artifact, unseen in and now fully restored after nearly half a century."
So, after all this rigmarole, how is Dames and Dreams? I'm happy to report that the film is quite enjoyable, especially for those who are already into movies of this vintage and genre. Keep your expectations at a realistic level. This is a modestly budgeted mid-1970s sexploitation film. That should tell you what you need to know regarding the quality of the acting and the overall production value. Those in search of heart-rending drama or eye-popping special effects should look elsewhere.

That said, Dames and Dreams is in remarkably pristine condition, a testament to how well the original elements from 1974 were preserved over the decades. This movie both looks and sounds great. The colors are vibrant, and the dialogue is nice and crisp. It's a shame the film never made it out of post-production the year it was actually filmed, because it would have been a very salable item back then. I've sat through numerous hardcore and softcore sex films from this era, and few are in such good shape as this one.

Dames and Dreams is a priceless keepsake of its era, a real throwback to the days of ABBA, Gerald Ford, and streaking. (Note: The film does not actually include Gerald Ford streaking with ABBA. But it could.) Adult film aficionados will love seeing the legendary Serena at the beginning of her career, while Ed Wood experts can enjoy spotting actresses Marjorie Lanier and Tallie Cochrane, both of Fugitive Girls (1974) fame. Prolific character actor George "Buck" Flower, best known for his recurring role as a bum in the Back to the Future franchise, also turns up here as a smuggler.

Based on Greg's earlier descriptions of the film, not to mention the word "dreams" in the title, I thought the movie might be a random, plotless jumble of footage. Greg also mentioned that he and the restoration team had added establishing shots to the existing footage, including a few clips taken from Fugitive Girls. I worried, then, that Jacques Descent and his crew had not gotten the footage they needed back in 1974, and so we'd be watching a patchwork job or a very rough draft of what the movie could have been.

All of these fears proved unfounded. Thanks to some skillful editing, Dames and Dreams is quite coherent and easy to follow. The film is structured around a very of-its-time cocktail party (the aforementioned "swinging '70s Hollywood revel") where a palm reader (Toni Telo) is solemnly predicting the futures of various guests. The film periodically cuts away to dream/fantasy sequences based on the psychic's predictions, but it always returns to the framing device of the party.  As a viewer, I never felt lost or disoriented.

Toni Telo reads the palm of April Showers in Dames and Dreams.

This is, at heart, an anthology film, telling a handful of short stories rather than one long one. An especially savvy decision was to parcel each of the individual fantasies out a few minutes at a time rather than all at once. We get to sample Story A, then move on to Story B, then back to Story A again. That editing strategy allows Dames and Dreams to avoid the clunky start-and-stop rhythm of many anthology films. It also lets the actors appear throughout the entire running time, rather than having their footage confined to just one part of the movie.

The individual stories themselves are a lot of fun. My favorite is probably the one about the counterfeiter, since it involves an absolutely daffy series of double and triple crosses. In another part of the movie, Margie Lanier, the guileless ingenue of Fugitive Girls, gets to play a very different role as part of a diamond heist subplot with an extremely wacky, wonky gimmick. Between these two stories, there's almost enough action-oriented crime material here, complete with violence and bloodshed, to market Dames and Dreams as a softcore precursor to Pulp Fiction (1994). This is the kind of movie Quentin Tarantino would have loved to have discovered during his days as a video store clerk.

I was also extremely intrigued by the story of a young redhead (Brandi Saunders) who wakes up the morning after a party and finds a strange man asleep in her bathroom. She soon shares this news with her roommate (Tallie Cochrane), leading to some amorous entanglements. This plot bears remarkable similarities to the pilot of the hit ABC sitcom Three's Company. Granted, that show did not premiere until 1977, but it took its central premise from the 1973 British series Man About the House. Maybe this is all one big cosmic coincidence, but classic sitcom fans will no doubt do a double take during this portion of Dames and Dreams.

A vintage Pioneer tape recorder.

Beyond that, this movie is an invaluable time capsule of 1974. I could not help but focus on various background details in the film that really evoke the era in which it was made. When some characters drove past LAX, for instance, I noticed the signs for all the defunct and obscure airlines. Remember Eastern? How about Varig? The original National Airlines, the one that closed in 1980? Elsewhere in the movie, there's a huge box of Cheer detergent, just like the kind your mother probably used when you were a kid. There's also a great, clunky-looking Pioneer tape recorder that gets a satisfying amount of screen time. Naturally, Dames and Dreams gives us a generous sampling of mid-1970s hairstyles, fashions, and furnishings, all of it beautifully rendered on film.

I even learned a little bit about the Los Angeles Municipal Code. In one scene, Serena brazenly rides her bike past a tree with a "NO BIKE RIDING" sign on it. The fine print on the sign specifies "L.A.M.C. 63.51," so I decided to delve further into this. And what I found was, uh, enlightening. It turns out this section of the code gets very specific, and it goes far beyond bike riding.

No natal cleft, eh?

By the way, there is no evidence to suggest that Edward D. Wood, Jr. had any direct involvement with this film, though he would have known many of the people who worked on it. Nevertheless, the movie has a distinctly Wood-ian feel at times. In particular, there's a subplot about a woman who claims to have been raped so that she can lure another woman into bed with her. As a prelude to making love, these two ladies rant about men and what bastards they can be. That's very typical of Eddie's film scripts and short stories of the time. And then there's a fellow who protests, "What do I look like? Spinach?" That's a classic Wood line, even if someone else wrote it.