Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Sailboat Odyssey, Part One by Greg Dziawer

There's just something about a good sailboat painting, isn't there?

Paintings of sailboats occupy a special place in mid-to-late 20th century kitsch culture. Plentiful and uncontroversial, they turned up in hotels, motels, and living rooms across the country for decades. You can still see one crude example hanging on the wall behind Homer and his family every week on The Simpsons. An oil painting of a sailboat suggests adventure and romance to those who may not have much of either in their lives.

But who actually painted these things? That's not always clear. As my colleague, Joe Blevins, speculated: "Generic sailboat paintings were produced and sold in such large quantities that I doubt anyone has cataloged them to any extent."

Joe's right. They aren't well-cataloged, at least given the results of some cursory searches. What you will find is that the sailboat was a favorite subject of notable French Impressionists of the late 1800s. Gustave Caillebotte painted sailboats prolifically, and to a lesser degree, so did Claude Monet. Paintings of boats, generally, occupied painters for centuries. Not only did the subject afford the opportunity of landscape, but also studies in perspective, movement, and light. 

As you may have guessed by now, sailboat paintings also appear in films by (or related to) Edward D. Wood, Jr. In a previous article, for instance, I noted that the same sailboat painting turned up in several films shot at Quality Studios in Hollywood in the early 1950s, including Eddie's own autobiographical Glen or Glenda (1953). Hanging on the same thin walls in the same flimsy sets in what even appears to be the same frame, this is undoubtedly the same painting being recycled again and again at Quality.

The sailboat painting in Glen or Glenda.

Here's how the painting looks in the 2012 colorized version of Glen or Glenda from Legend Films.

The sailboat painting in color, sort of.

So far, unfortunately, I haven't managed to identify this particular work of art. Was it mass-produced wall filler, the kind you might buy at a discount store and then hang over your couch in the TV room? Was it a renowned maritime study by a talented artist?

My guess is that it was both. I'm no art history major, but the painting appears to be a careful, skillful exercise in perspective. Granted, I've only glimpsed it in a few old black-and-white movies, where it was relegated to the background and partially obscured by actors and props. Nevertheless, I was still able to note a distinct resemblance to Claude Monet's Red Boats, Argenteuil (1875), with the exception that Monet's masts are bare.

A few days ago, for the first time in years, I rewatched Motel Confidential (1969), Stephen C. Apostolof's lurid softcore "expose of the hot sheet industry." Ed Wood and Steve Apostolof worked on many films together in the 1960s and 1970s, with Eddie often serving as Steve's screenwriter. As it happens, Motel Confidential was not one of their collaborations, but the film does contain the same mysterious sailboat painting! It turns up on the wall of a motel room during the film's very first sex scene.

The sailboat painting plays a role in Motel Confidential (1969).

Could this be the exact same piece of set decoration from Glen or Glenda and those other '50s films from Quality Studios? The painting appears to be the same size, but the frame is much thicker in Motel Confidential. And, noticeably, there is more of the image visible on the edges. This suggests that we are seeing a different iteration of the same work.

And this discovery is so odd that it raises more questions. Was Quality Studios still in operation in 1969? Could the interiors of Motel Confidential have been shot there? By then, the studio's owner, W. Merle Connell, had died. But could the business have outlived him? And, most importantly, had that same cheap sailboat painting from Glen's apartment in Glen or Glenda have miraculously survived into the Nixon years, still being used in movies?

I am confident I'll spot this painting again in other films, slotting in a few more pieces of the puzzle. And when I do, I'll report it right here.