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.

Filmmaking is often an art of illusion. By the early 1970s, Ed Wood had become quite adept at cobbling together shots into a whole that belied reality. You can see that by comparing his Necromania to John Hayes' Hetero Sexualis. Both were shot at Hal Guthu's studio, but the same sets look quite different from one film to the other. In Necromania, for instance, Lutze and Bond knock on Madame Heles' door via a large lion's head knocker, clearly meant to imply that they are outside of the building. But in Hetero Sexualis, we can see that this door is actually located in an interior hallway.

This shot from Hetero Sexualis shows the layout of Hal Guthu's studio. Note the interior hallway and door.

Similarly, in Necromania, when Lutze and Bond walk down the hallway toward the camera, Wood cuts to them entering Madame Heles' notorious "red room," which houses a gold skull, Criswell's coffin, and other glorious objects. In Hetero Sexualis, when a woman runs into the frame holding a knife, we get a long shot from a high angle showing that the studio possesses one large open room, capable of accommodating numerous smaller adjacent sets. While watching a few loops shot at Guthu's studio, I had previously noticed several shots in which performers walked from one set to a neighboring set in a single, continuous shot. Now I know why.
Hal Guthu's parrot, Max

There is so much more to tell you that it would require a full shot-by-shot comparison of Necromania and Hetero Sexualis to convey it all. One more item on my mammoth to-do list.

But before we go, please indulge me in mentioning one more item. This one is a performer as much as a set decoration: a macaw parrot. The parrot makes a cameo appearance in Take It Out In Trade, and it even has lines of dialogue in Hetero Sexualis, loudly repeating twice, "Up your ass, Emily!" That's Max, Hal Guthu's beloved pet. Max practically lived at the studio, always accompanying Hal. He died there, too, along with Hal.

On February 27, 2000, Hal was found dead at his desk with a bullet in his head. The studio had been set on fire and half-burned to the ground. Although officially ruled a suicide, rumors still persist that Hal could not have done it, that he would have never harmed Max.

It was days after the tragedy when the detectives finally found Max, suffocated to death from smoke inhalation in the prop room, perhaps together to the end with the guardian lions, the gold and white skull, the pair of bronze statues, and many other unsung stars that resided at 7428 Santa Monica Blvd.

The panther painting, though, survived and is still with us today.