Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Sailboat Odyssey, Part 2 by Greg Dziawer

Comedy legend Lenny Bruce glowers in Dance Hall Racket.

Young Lenny in the Navy.
While serving in the Navy during WWII, Leonard Alfred Schneider saw battle in North Africa and at Anzio. Lenny was only 16 when he joined the military in 1942. Serving 30 months during the height of the war on the USS Brooklyn, he would, despite his distinguished service, find himself on the bad side of the brass after a comedic performance for his shipmates in 1945, dressed in drag. Citing homosexual feelings and tendencies he experienced while at sea, he fought for and ultimately won an honorable discharge. It was neither the first nor the last time that Lenny Bruce would offend social norms.

Born in Poughkeepsie, NY, just two hours north of Lenny's birthplace in Long Island, Edward Davis Wood, Jr. likewise dropped out of high school and joined the military in 1941. He, too, served at sea, across the Pacific. Despite his personal mythmaking that he was a war hero, unlike Lenny, Ed never went to battle. Also unlike Lenny, he was an actual transvestite. 

East Coast boys sharing a yen to perform and entertain and "be somebody," Ed Wood and Lenny Bruce were both born in mid-October, albeit a year apart. Ed was born on October 10, 1924, and Lenny on October 13, 1925. After the war, their ambitions led both men to Hollywood, and in 1953, both would land at Quality Studios, a facility run by W. Merle Connell. 

With offices across the street, producer George Weiss often utilized the sets at Quality, as well as tapping Connell's filmmaking ability. While these partners focused upon burlesque shorts, they also made features. Released through Weiss' company Screen Classics, Test Tube Babies (1948) was among the first, featuring actor Timothy Farrell as the empathetic but firm Dr. Wright, who counsels poor, sterile George Bennett (William Thomason) about artificial insemination. Glen or Glenda (1953), written by, directed, and starring Ed Wood, includes interiors shot at Quality and was produced by George Weiss and released by Screen Classics. Its cast again features Timothy Farrell, this time as a very similar character named Dr. Alton.

Later in 1953, George Weiss hired Lenny Bruce to write the screenplay for the feature Dance Hall Racket. Interiors were shot at Quality, with Timothy Farrell playing ultra-scumbag Umberto Scalli, a role he played in two other Screen Classics productions. Lenny portrays his strongarm (not like Scalli needs one), the psychotic Vincent. And just as Ed cast his significant other Dolores Fuller in the key role of Barbara in Glen or Glenda, Lenny's wife Honey is featured in Dance Hall Racket. Even Lenny's mom, dancer Sally Marr, makes an appearance. It's also worth noting that Dance Hall Racket was directed by Phil Tucker of Robot Monster (1953) infamy, the only serious contender to Ed's station as the supposed worst filmmaker of all time.

(from l to r) Lenny Bruce, the sailboat painting, and Timothy Farrell.
I've previously noted the presence of the same sailboat painting in the background in Test Tube Babies, Glen or Glenda, and other films. In Glenda, for instance, it hangs above Glen's head as he talks to Barbara in his apartment. In the manner of 19th century French Impressionism, the painting most closely resembles Claude Monet's series of paintings of the red boats at Argenteuil. Having only spotted this painting in B&W films thus far, I have no idea if the boats are actually red. In any event, the painting appears more often in Dance Hall Racket than in any film I've seen yet, often hanging above Lenny's head.

While Lenny would garner fame as a boundary-pushing stand-up comedian, he paid the ultimate price and overdosed on narcotics at the age of 40 in 1966, outlived by even Elvis. Ed Wood, himself an addict to alcohol, would toil away invisibly in West and North Hollywood for more than a decade before greeting his future. Eddie managed to make it to 54.

As an avid fan of pop culture, Ed must have been familiar with the TV show M*A*S*H (1972-1983). Not only was it a big hit at a time when a big hit meant everyone was aware of it, but the show's subject matter was war. And, of course, there was the character of Corporal Klinger (played by Jamie Farr), one of the first transvestite characters on mainstream TV. Word on the street is that the character of Klinger was based upon a real guy: Lenny Bruce.

You can watch Dance Hall Racket here at Amazon Prime, or here, and at lots of other places.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Set Decoration Odyssey, Part 9 by Greg Dziawer

The former site of Hal Guthu's studio on Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood.

The panther painting in Hetero Sexualis
A black velvet painting of a panther creeping down a staircase makes a memorable appearance in the Ed Wood-scripted-and-directed porn feature Necromania (1971). This artwork is one of many set decorations I've identified across various early '70s sex films, including both features and short 8mm loops, that indicate the interiors were shot at the studio of Hollywood talent agent and cinematographer Hal Guthu.

A significant landmark in the West Coast porn scene, Guthu's much-used studio stood at 7428 Santa Monica Blvd., today an empty lot between a Thai restaurant and a long-defunct pool supply business. Ed Wood shot his last three known features as a director there: the aforementioned Necromania, plus Take It Out In Trade (1970) and The Young Marrieds (1972). In fact, Guthu is credited as the cinematographer on both Trade and Necromania. Ed surely knew him well, but he was far from the only filmmaker to shoot on Hal's sets.

Believe it or not, until last week, I'd gone nearly two years without spotting the panther painting... and then it jumped out at me. Curiously, my most recent spotting of the panther was in a film I'd already seen approximately four years ago. At the time, I was only beginning to notice corresponding items in the backgrounds of Ed's adult features and loops. My eye was not yet fully trained to watch the backgrounds of scenes rather than the action. The set decorations were not so much meant to be seen as to provide an unobtrusive semblance of everyday reality. 

These days, the backgrounds tend to be my principal focus, at least when I'm watching early '70s West Coast sex films from the Wood orbit. For me, the recurring set decorations serve as evidence that a particular film was shot at Guthu's studio. In addition, many of the common items, including a pair of Chinese Guardian Lions, are also ephemeral representations of their era, and they're just plain cool to see for a kid like me who grew up in the '70s.

As it happens, the film where I saw the panther painting again recently was Hetero Sexualis (1973), a softcore romp edited, written, produced, and directed by John Hayes. The panther painting shows up in the background just four and a half minutes into the film and appears often throughout the running time. The distinctive artwork gets far more screen time here than it does in other productions!

A native New Yorker, Hayes was an intriguing filmmaker with his own strange and distinctive touch. His first film, a winsome 1958 short called The Kiss, was even nominated for an Academy Award, kicking off a varied career that lasted through the mid-1980s. If you like oddball '70s exploitation films, you'll enjoy Hetero Sexualis. The cast includes the legendarily pulchritudinous Candy Samples, who also appears in two Ed-scripted films directed by Stephen C. ApostolofDrop Out Wife (1972) and The Cocktail Hostesses (1973). Also appearing is eccentric character actor Michael Pataki, who had a prolific career in mainstream film and television for decades. Hetero Sexualis gives him one of his oddest and most substantial roles ever.

Meanwhile, in addition to providing the best views I've yet seen of the total layout of Guthu's studio, this film features even more familiar set decorations than just the panther painting. Two and a half minutes in, for instance, a familiar piece of bronze statuary can be glimpsed on the floor in the lower left corner of the frame. It's the same fountain-shaped decorative piece that pops up occasionally in Ed Wood's films. You can see it early in Necromania on the floor of Madame Heles' place when Rene Bond and Ric Lutze first enter. And a pair of these statues appear in Take It Out In Trade: The Outtakes, accompanying the travel poster closeups.

The bronze statue in (from left to right): Hetero Sexualis, Necromania, and Take It Out in Trade: The Outtakes.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 95: A review of Ed Wood's "From Birthday Suits to Shrouds" (1971)

Despite its ghoulish title, this story is mostly about clothing.

Blenders do more than blend.
A good blender does not just blend. It also stirs, chops, grinds, mixes, purees, and liquefies. It serves multiple purposes in order to justify its existence. And so, too, must a professional writer, especially a freelancer who needs to sell his work quickly and regularly.

Fittingly, then, Edward D. Wood, Jr. had multiple modes or settings as an author. He could be salacious, explicit, ghoulish, sadistic, grim, gritty, dreamy, wistful, woozy, philosophical, even darkly humorous. Whatever the subject matter demanded of him,  really. But of all Eddie's modes, there is none closer to my heart than "professorial." This is the style he adopts when his ostensible goal is to educate or enlighten his audience.

How do I explain this mode? Well...

In a 2000 episode of The Simpsons called "Days of Wine and D'oh'ses," lifelong alcoholic Barney Gumble is horrified to see footage of himself getting drunk at a party and lecturing a clearly uncomfortable Lisa, age 8, about his vision of an afterlife where everyone is segregated by nationality. ("I'm just sayin' that when we die, there's gonna be a planet for the French, a planet for the Chinese, and we'll all be a lot happier.") The child backs as far away from him as possible on the couch where they are both seated. When she says Barney is upsetting her, he assures her that he isn't. This does not help.

"Gee," Barney remarks to Homer while reviewing the embarrassing tape, "is that what I look like when I'm drunk?"

"You wish!" Homer cheerfully replies. "That's the stage we call 'Professor Barney' -- talkative, coherent, even insightful! Here's drunk!"

Homer then advances the tape to a truly humiliating scene in which a completely blitzed, delusional Barney dresses up as Marge and falls over the banister and onto the floor, where he proceeds to lick spilled alcohol out of the shag carpeting. Not a proud moment, even by the low standards of Springfield.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 94: "Trucking's a Ball" (1974)

The kind of lovely lass that any long haul trucker might meet along the way.

Fans who know Edward D. Wood, Jr. through his relatively innocent early films may tend to think of the man himself as purely a relic of the 1950s. File him alongside poodle skirts, tail fins, hula hoops, and Davy Crockett hats. The 1994 biopic Ed Wood reinforces this quaint, cozy image. The film's timeline is deliberately vague, but its action is largely confined to the 1950s, while the B&W cinematography gives the entire production the glow of Eisenhower era nostalgia. In this way, naive Eddie is preserved in amber, like those insects in Jurassic Park.

But those who followed the man's career into the 1960s and '70s understand that, whether he wanted to or not, Ed Wood was forced to adapt to the rapidly evolving world around him just to stay employed. The times, they were a-changin', and they certainly didn't make an exception for Eddie. And so, in Ed Wood's later work, you'll find hippies, LSD, women's libbers, scuzzy biker gangs, miniskirts, antiwar protesters, acid rock, etc. All the signposts of those turbulent times.

And now we come to this week's article, another supposed "non-fiction" job for which Eddie clearly did no research. It's his wild take on one of the most memorable fads of the 1970s. Really, you can't get much more 1970s than what follows.

Vintage trucker magazine from 1972
The story: "Trucking's a Ball," originally published in Fantastic Annual (Gallery Press, 1974). Anthologized in Short Wood: Short Fiction by Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Ramble House, 2009). Credited to "Dick Trent."

Synopsis: Women's tastes have changed over the years. While they used to prefer neat, well-groomed young men, now they search out hairy, smelly roughnecks for companionship. In particular, they are attracted to long haul truck drivers. When hitchhiking, young women will often disregard late model passenger cars and wait instead for a trucker to drive past in his big rig. Some ladies are so anxious to get close to truckers that they'll even take jobs as waitresses in truck stops.

Ladies seek these truck drivers out solely for sex, rather than money or marriage. Many of these horny truck drivers are married, but they're away from home so long that they must fulfill their sexual desires somehow. And that's where these women enter the picture, gladly servicing the men and even staying with them on the road for hundreds of miles. The author cautions against too much hanky panky while driving, however. Better to find a rest stop along the way.

Wood trademarks: Supposed reportage of changing sex habits in America (cf. "College Cherries," "College Interview"); lots of ellipses (Ed's trademark punctuation); dubious euphemism for sexual intercourse (in this case, "getting your gun off"); anti-hippie sentiment (cf. Death of a Transvestite, "The Devil Collects His Dues"); reference to feet being "encased" (cf. Glen or Glenda); "quiver" (cf. "Insatiable," "Calamity Jane," "The Unluckiest Man in the World"); girls' sweaters (cf. Glen or Glenda, many stories in Blood Splatters Quickly and Angora Fever); "pink clouds" (cf. "Tears on Her Pillow," "Never Up - Never In," Devil Girls); use of color pink in general (cf. "2 X Double"); tongues (cf. "Tom of Finland's Circus," "The Responsibility Game," "Cease to Exist"); "manhood" (cf. "The Last Void," "Cease to Exist"); naughty pun in the title (cf. "Missionary Position Impossible," "Captain Fellatio Hornblower").

Excerpt: "This is the kind of girl who honestly believes that any well dressed, cleaned up man is built like a small child. The only men left in the world who is built big enough to satisfy them is the trucker. And it isn't only his penis that they long for. It's the man smell. The tough, rough man smell that seems to come off to them as all male… and these girls want only that… all male."

Reflections: There had been songs and films about long haul truckers since at least the late 1930s, most of them portraying the profession in a sympathetic light, but the trucker didn't truly assume the role of pop culture icon until the 1970s. That's when "Convoy" by C.W. McCall topped the charts, movies like Smokey and the Bandit and White Line Fever appeared in movie theaters, and prime time played host to rambunctious shows like B.J and the Bear and Movin' On. For a few years there, truckers were hot. There were even board games and action figures for the kids!

Who knows, in retrospect, why these fads occur? It was really the convergence of many factors. In films and songs of the era, truckers were often shown to be at odds with the police, so they had an air of anti-authority cool to them. But they were in the transportation business to make money, so they weren't some unpatriotic commies. As Ed Wood points out in this article, truckers were expected to be grungy and hairy in appearance, but they were also tough and physical, not like  those namby-pamby pacifist hippies on college campuses. I think it's significant, too, that truckers had their own culture that was separate and distinct from that of the mainstream. Truck drivers had a rich variety of slang, for instance, as lovingly depicted in "Convoy," plus their own hangouts and fashions.

Typically, Ed Wood focuses on the sexual aspects of the phenomenon. Always obsessed with gender roles, Eddie depicts truckers as hyper-masculine -- a new paradigm, in fact, for sheer manliness. It's only natural that sexually active young women will all but fling themselves at every 18-wheeler that comes into view. What's semi-miraculous here is that Ed does not judge these lusty trucker groupies who hop from driver to driver in search of pleasure. They're just going after what they truly want. And what's so wrong about that?