Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 98: Some preliminary thoughts on the 'Plan 9' screenplay

An excerpt from the Plan 9 from Outer Space screenplay.

Pure, uncut Ed Wood.
Discovering the novels and short stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr. was a major turning point for me as a fan. Reading Eddie's words on the page, I felt as though I were one step closer to the man himself. Even at his most artistically inspired as a director, which I would say was his debut feature Glen or Glenda (1953), Ed was a perfunctory, awkward filmmaker at best. It's not like he was drowning in resources either. Props, sets, costumes, and makeup cost money. Perennially strapped for cash, Ed often had to improvise or do without these niceties.

Moreover, when making a film, Ed was always at the mercy of his actors. A performer might flub or forget a line, and Eddie would just have to leave it in because he couldn't afford to waste any scrap of footage. Operating on the fringe of show business for his entire career, Eddie had to take whatever actors he could get, skilled or otherwise. If his actors gave monotonous, inept, or unintelligible line readings, what was Eddie to do?

When you delve into Eddie's literary work, you can leave aside many of the limitations that plagued his motion pictures. There are no actors or technicians standing between you and Ed. I doubt if Eddie's manuscripts were even edited to any great extent. Publishers like Bernie Bloom simply ran whatever text he supplied without question. This was the pure stuff -- uncut.

To be sure, Eddie's novels, stories, and articles possess the same curious magic (or anti-magic) that infuses his films. The plots lurch forward nonsensically like dreams, the characters converse in a strangely stilted fashion, and the author seems obsessed with certain topics, especially angora, beyond all reason.  Several years ago, I said that "if you give [Ed Wood] a million-dollar budget, his films would still be strange. They have a weirdness that a low budget or inexperienced actors can’t explain away." That's the same feeling I got from his text-only work. The oddness is marrow-deep.

I have long wondered about the screenplays Ed wrote over the years, both the ones that were produced and the ones that never made it that far. Would reading these films be a drastically different experience than watching them? Would the films and scripts differ drastically? Were there things Ed wanted to do but couldn't afford to film?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Set Decoration Odyssey, Part 13 by Greg Dziawer

Neola Graf poses with a famous cobra statue.
"Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n."
-John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)
I confess. As I've delved into early '70s West Coast sex films, including those made by Edward D. Wood, Jr., I've become obsessed with background decor. Specifically, I'm interested in the set decorations at a studio that once stood at 7428 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. It was here that Ed Wood shot interiors for three of his last four directorial efforts: Take It Out In Trade (1970), Necromania (1971) and The Young Marrieds (1972). This was also where hundreds of silent 8mm porn loops were shot. Eddie was surely there, in more ways than we may yet know.

The studio was run by talent agent and cinematographer Hal Guthu, a man best known for representing models and exotic dancers. The building housed a small set upstairs and another downstairs—multiple sets in one, really, as the walls, light fixtures, and paintings were reshuffled and rearranged from film to film. 

Among the most recognizable, striking, and ubiquitous set decorations at Guthu's studio are a pair of Chinese Guardian Lions and a black velvet painting of a panther descending a stone staircase. Certainly another star, albeit one not yet highlighted in this series of articles, is the bronze statuette of a King Cobra poised to strike. I've wondered at times if it's an ashtray, given its era, but likely not.

Here is the cobra, an obvious phallic symbol, in just some of its onscreen glory. Several of these films are directly connected to Ed Wood, while others exist in Eddie's professional orbit in the adult film industry of the late '60s and early '70s.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Why was Beast Man demoted from lead villain to sidekick? I have a theory.

Beast Man was almost the main villain in the Masters of the Universe franchise.

Beast Man was among the earliest MOTU figures.
Now poised to make a comeback on Netflix, Masters of the Universe (or MOTU) was one of the dominant multimedia franchises of the 1980s, with a successful toy line from Mattel and a hit syndicated cartoon series from Filmation. And the character of Beast Man—a bright orange, gorilla-like villain with dominion over the animal kingdom—has been a key part of the franchise since the very beginning. Beast Man was among the first four Mattel figures released in 1982, and he was a major character in the 1983 TV series, where he was voiced by John Erwin. As portrayed by Tony Carroll, he also turned up in the live-action 1987 movie from Cannon.

In all these forms, Beast Man has consistently been portrayed as the right-hand man of the franchise's main villain, the demonic sorcerer Skeletor, as the latter fights the heroic warrior He-Man for control of the far-away planet Eternia. Prominent as Beast Man is, he's always been a mere sidekick, deemed a "savage henchman" on Mattel's toy packaging. One early '80s document from Mattel describes Beast Man as the "number one stooge for Skeletor." That word "stooge" gives you some indication of the character's IQ.

But another internal document from Mattel shows that Beast Man was originally intended as MOTU's main antagonist. A wonderful MOTU site called Battle Ram: A He-Man Blog recently shared a fascinating early MOTU story treatment called "The Fighting Foe-Men" written by sci-fi/fantasy author Don Glut. Here is how Beast Man is described in that document:
Each of the villains is out for his own gain, usually to obtain the Power Gem for himself, but they occasionally accept one of them as their leader — Beast-Man 
BEAST-MAN — Another native of Eternia’s jungles whose tribe — or pack — has seemingly always been at war with their natural enemies, the human tribe of He-Man. Beast-Man has formidable strength, but it is his ferocity that makes him a natural leader. He has the agility of a gorilla. But when he dons his various costumes, he takes on the powers of other animals — the speed of a gazelle, the charging force of a rhino, etc. Beast-Man, though he despises He-Man’s tribe, yearns to take one or more of its females as a bride. He is totally evil and corrupt. His only redeeming quality is the “love” he bears for his own race, though it is actually more like instinct than any real emotion. His voice is guttural, almost a growl.
When I saw this passage, I was taken aback because it seemingly confirmed some suspicions I'd had while revisiting the Filmation Masters of the Universe TV series from the '80s. Namely, I began to wonder if Beast Man were being subtly (or not so subtly) coded as African, to serve as the opposite of the blond, Nordic-looking hero, He-Man. And "The Fighting Foe-Men" demonstrates that this was not merely my imagination. Note the terminology Don Glut uses in his description of Beast Man: "native," "jungle," "tribe," "race," etc. These can be neutral terms, but they are also the building blocks of hateful racist stereotypes. Note, too, that Beast Man is denied humanity and is likened to a gorilla. In particular, he is held apart from "the human tribe of He-Man."

Glut's story outline acknowledges Beast Man's athletic ability and brute strength but not his intellect. More alarming, though, is the detail that the villain "yearns to take one or more [human] females as a bride." Is this a reference to the stereotype about African men lusting after white women? Maybe the most disturbing sentence in this entire description is: "His only redeeming quality is the 'love' he bears for his own race, though it is actually more like instinct than any real emotion." Glut feels obligated to put quote marks around the word "love" and again makes it clear that Beast Man acts on mere "instinct." The message here is clear: Beast Man is not like us. He is apart from us, less than us. He is a thing to be hated and feared.

Here is my theory. Someone at Mattel recognized that the company could not possibly build its flagship toy line around a blond-haired white man battling a gorilla-like jungle denizen. The ugly implications of this match-up would be impossible to miss, and the company would be accused of spreading racist propaganda to children. Beast Man, therefore, was demoted to a subservient role. Is this, in a way, actually worse? This way, Skeletor and Beast-Man have a master/slave relationship, with Skeletor sitting in a throne, giving commands to his underlings like the interlocutor in a minstrel show. And still, on the other side of Eternia, you have a hero who looks like the poster child for the master race.

Perhaps, when I was playing with my Masters of the Universe action figures in the early-to-mid-1980s, I was also unknowingly getting a lesson in racial politics. And I haven't even started talking about Jitsu yet.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Set Decoration Odyssey, Part 12 by Greg Dziawer

Look for tridents and skulls in the films of Edward D Wood, Jr.

Is this a lost film?
Inevitably, as I revisit the pornographic films Ed Wood made late in his career, I find myself staring again and again at the same studio space in a building at 7428 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. In its heyday, this was a film set run by talent agent and cinematographer Hal Guthu. For years, this small facility was continually redressed and reconfigured for countless low-budget adult features and pornographic 8mm silent shorts called loops, including many made by Ed. Hal's studio was a testament to the magical illusion of the movies, never identically rendered from one film to the next. The sets were intended to be invisible, tricking us into believing this was a distinct and real space.

In the early 1970s, dozens, perhaps hundreds of loops were shot on Hal's sets, many of them with subtitles penned by Ed Wood. Eddie even appears on camera in one such loop set in a Mexican prison. That turns out to be the downstairs set at Guthu's place, the one with the fake brick wall backdrop. As these articles have detailed ad infinitum, commonly reused set decorations—everything from statues to sheets to paintings—identify Hal's space. These familiar items appear not only in loops but pornographic features as well, including three of Ed Wood's latter-day directorial efforts: Take It Out In Trade (1970), Necromania (1971), and The Young Marrieds (1972).

Which brings us to this week's specimen, a softcore sex film without a title card released under the fabricated name Documentary of a Madam. Now widely available across streaming sites from cult disc label Vinegar Syndrome, the film has often been misidentified as The House Near the Prado (1969). The film's star, Marsha Jordan, was a mainstay of softcore features of the 1960s and '70s, including those directed by Stephen C. Apostolof. A couple of Jordan's collaborations with Apostolof, including 1972's The Class Reunion and The Snow Bunnies, were even scripted by Ed Wood! In Documentary of a Madam, Jordan gives one of her most engaging performances as a madam.

It seems The House Near the Prado was also issued under the title Diary of a Madam back in the day, causing it and Documentary of a Madam to be conflated. But, given its theatrical poster, The House Near the Prado is an entirely different, more mainstream film that seemingly remains lost to this day. Apart from Jordan herself, the cast lists of Prado and Documentary are distinct. Joe Rubin of Vinegar Syndrome agreed with me that they are different films.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 97: "Drag Trade" (1967)

Time to dive into one of Eddie's books from the Summer of Love.

Some other Triumph Fact Books.
You know what's crazy? This series has been running for nearly seven years, dissecting seemingly every aspect of Edward D Wood, Jr.'s life and career, and yet we've barely touched on the dozens of full-length books Eddie wrote between 1963 and 1978. I've reviewed exactly three of Ed's novels, plus the posthumously published showbiz treatise Hollywood Rat Race. My colleague, Greg Dziawer, has been more focused on the books Ed Wood didn't write, i.e. the smutty paperback novels and sex manuals written by his colleagues and contemporaries but sometimes mistakenly attributed to Ed.

And yet, all the while, there's a mammoth body of literature that we've hardly made a dent in. These aren't "speculative" or "possible" Wood works either. These are undisputed and iron-clad. Ed put his real name on the cover of many of them! For whatever reason, though, we just haven't gotten around to them.

Well, for a change of pace this week, I've decided to cover Drag Trade, a paperback book released in 1967 by Triumph News Co. Inc. of Van Nuys, CA. Eddie went by his own name on this project. He's listed as "Ed Wood Jr." on the cover and "Edward D. Wood, Jr." on the title page. According to Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey, that's Eddie himself in drag on the cover. I have no reason to doubt it; the eyes and chin look about right. But the fellow on the cover does look a bit more put-together than Eddie usually did.

Drag Trade's cover bears the legend "A Triumph Fact Book." Other books in this series include Virginity: Its Causes and Cures (1968) by Lydia Swann, The Money Lovers (1968) by Richard Christy, The Changing Sexual Deviant (1968) by Lance Boyle, She Prostitute (1968) by Wallace Arthur, The Mind Benders (1967) by Jonathan Smith, and the ever-popular Sodomy (1968) by Matt and Kathleen Galant. It seems this franchise was rather robust in the late '60s. 

According to the Technical Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, Triumph was "one of the most important publishers in the industry" during this time but was "reportedly not publishing as of July 1970."

The cover page for Drag Trade identifies the book as "A Triumph Novel" and "A Novel by Edward D. Wood, Jr." Rudolph Grey, too, refers to it as a novel. So what is this thing, a factual account or a fictional novel? I'd say neither. 

Frankly, Drag Trade reads more like a series of short stories than it does like a novel. Each chapter—and there are eight of wildly varying length—contains its own individual set of characters. There is no overarching plot here. Instead, Drag Trade is structured (mostly) as a collection of case studies, as if Ed were relating real-life stories ripped from the headlines. A quintessentially Wood-ian disclaimer at the beginning declares: "These chapters are based on fact. Only the names of characters have been changed... for obvious reasons." (If Jack Webb and Criswell had a baby, that's how it would talk.)

I'm tempted to call Drag Trade a compendium of fictional nonfiction. Like "Drag It Out" or "Trucking's a Ball," it's purely the product of the author's booze-soaked imagination, but it's presented as the truth. The book is such a jumble of unrelated anecdotes and pseudo-journalistic digressions that it defies summarizing. Luckily, at the beginning of the penultimate and longest chapter, Ed Wood does manage to explain the premise with some degree of clarity:
"[I]t is not the plain transvestite who interests us here. What is of interest is the homosexual transvestite and the temporary drag who puts on women's clothing for the purpose of criminal activities."
Keep in mind that, throughout this book, Ed uses the word "drag" as a noun to describe a cross-dresser. So, in a larger sense, Drag Trade is about the overlap between transvestism and criminality. In some areas of the country, Ed Wood reminds us, cross-dressing was a crime in and of itself. But this book is really about men who exist at the fringes of society because of their transvestite tendencies and who turn to a life of crime, including robbery and prostitution, because they see this as their only viable option. In the book's final chapter, labeled "EPILOG," Ed clarifies:
"There are few 'true' transvestites who become criminals, few ever even get themselves into any kind of trouble. But the world is very big, and in it are many houses."
Nevertheless, this book is filled with stories of boys who start dressing as girls and end up either dead or, more commonly, in prison.

One such sad case is that of Charles Myers, aka Charlotte Myers, aka Shirley Myers. The son of a migrant farm worker and a gold-digging "beer-bar floozy," Charles is appalled by his mother's greed and promiscuity and responds by becoming closer to his father. Things go wrong for Charles when he introduces his girlfriend Shirley to his dad. The old man makes such a fuss over the young lady that Charles decides to feminize himself. 

One fateful night, Charles convinces Shirley to switch clothing with him as some kind of foreplay. Unfortunately, Shirley's parents catch the couple at a most inopportune moment and charge the boy with rape. From there, he spirals into a life of crime from which he never recovers. It ends up with him killing a Hollywood cabbie while in full drag. I doubt even Charles could explain exactly how he got to that point.

That's how Drag Trade is. These stories take place all over the United States—with a couple of side trips to Japan—but feature a lot of common elements.
  • These men often come from unhappy or broken homes, with one parent either absent or emotionally distant. 
  • Some of these cross-dressers decided to become more feminine in order to please their fathers, while many more were turned into pseudo-daughters by their coddling, overprotective mothers. (Shades of Ed Wood's own, oft-repeated origin story.) 
  • Either way, the one loving parent dies, and the child is left to fend for himself. 
  • Many of these characters travel to a big city in search of opportunities. There, they commit crimes in order to feed their addiction to women's clothing. 
  • Ultimately, after a period of success, they go too far and are arrested. 
  • Their stories usually end with them going to prison and having to wear drab denim uniforms and get their hair cut short—the ultimate punishment in this universe.
Was Ed Wood inspired by Tor Johnson?
What stands out, then, are the weird variations on the book's basic themes. Ed devotes Chapter Three, for instance, to Stephen/Sadie, "a 240-pound, 35-year-old man" from a Swedish-American family. "He favored sheath dresses," Ed writes, "but his great hulk didn't really look good in them." I could not help but imagine Stephen as Tor Johnson. 

Chapter Two concerns Ranee Smith, a young African-American man from a family of poor Arkansas sharecroppers. This part of the story is written in a ridiculous ersatz "Negro" dialect possibly inspired by the works of Mark Twain.

Interestingly, Ranee leaves the family farm partly to get away from meddlesome Civil Rights workers who just want to stir up trouble. Ed Wood's thoughts on race relations have no business being in a fetish book like Drag Trade, but that doesn't stop him from getting on his soapbox occasionally. 

In Chapter Six, he tells the story of some black cross-dressers who, at the suggestion of a New York agitator, attempt to infiltrate an all-white gay bar. ("It was a White Bar and catered only to the White swish crowd.") The "stout" owner, Nellie, is a lifelong member of the Ku Klux Klan and is willing to do whatever it takes to keep out these interlopers. At the climactic moment, however, a wealthy Hollywood star enters the bar and recognizes the leader of the protesters. Not wanting to offend this high-paying client, Nellie allows the black cross-dressers to stay. I think most people would consider this a small step forward for tolerance and sanity. Not Eddie. He writes:
"The Swish-in sit down was abated by that simple action, and the whites took to the idea like a duck to water. But the man from New York would have used his regular violence if necessary. The black hats won that round. It certainly is time for the white hats to do as much. The great vote is still undecided."
It boggles my mind that Eddie would make repeated pleas for tolerance on behalf of cross-dressers yet still be in favor of racial segregation. At moments like these, he seems like some wild-eyed prophet ranting at passersby on a street corner.

When it comes to the sections of Drag Trade set in Japan, I don't know what to say so I'd better say very little and avoid displaying my ignorance. According to Ed, the Japanese have a great fondness for feminized men called "sister boys." Lesbians, much less common, are called "brother girls." Furthermore, says Ed, "many of these clubs which support the female impersonator as a means of entertainment, prefer American or European acts against those of the Japanese." Is any of this accurate? I don't have the foggiest idea, and I doubt Ed does either. He's either fabricating all of this or repeating things he has heard or read elsewhere.

As I said before, I've barely looked at Ed's novels, but I've reviewed plenty of his short stories. I can confidently say that Drag Trade is made from of the same basic material as those stories. As ever, Ed Wood's main motifs are cross-dressing, sex, booze, and death. Typically, Eddie devotes many paragraphs to describing items of clothing, particularly fuzzy angora sweaters. But there are the usual skirts, blouses, nighties, negligees, and undies, as well. Silk, satin, and nylon retain their customary importance in this novel as they do in other Wood works.

Many of the scenes in this book take place in grubby bars or sleazy cocktail lounges, Ed's usual locales. Drag Trade is peopled by drunks, hustlers, bums, hookers, and con men, exactly the same kind of people who populate Blood Splatters Quickly and Angora Fever. Eddie also flat-out cannibalized this novel for ideas for his later short stories, including "Super Who?" (the "female" robber who turns out to be a guy) and "Island Divorce" (blackmailing a prominent man with embarrassing gay photos).

But this wasn't all a familiar experience for me. I learned some things, too. A stealth theme of Drag Trade is that of acceptance, both by individuals and by society at large. Eddie uses the word "accept" a lot throughout Drag Trade, as in Chapter Seven when he opines:
"It is never enough to dress up in girls' clothes, in one's room, and parade for one's self in front of a full length mirror. They must get out on the street and be accepted in the role by all of society. The female impersonator, on stage, accomplishes just that. He is seen and accepted for what he is."
This made me realize how important the idea of acceptance is in Ed's debut feature Glen or Glenda (1953) as well. Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell) advises Barbara (Dolores Fuller) that she "must take the place, give the love, and accept the facts that [her boyfriend Glen's alter ego] Glenda has always accepted." Ed uses the idea of acceptance throughout Glen or Glenda, as when Dr. Alton says that Glen and Barbara "accepted each other" on the night of their engagement or that Alan/Ann ('Tommy' Haines) was "accepted" into the United States Army. That word must have meant a lot to Ed.

Dr. Alton makes a plea for tolerance in Glen or Glenda.

Although Drag Trade contains many of the same themes —and even some of the same scenes—as Glen or Glenda, it utterly lacks that film's sense of can-do optimism. In Glenda, for instance, Dr. Alton says that "Glen/Glenda should consult a competent psychologist." But in Drag Trade, Ed tells us that "Charlie would have to stand Psychiatric treatment for another three years, but there was no Psychiatrist who would ever be able to help him."

In Glen or Glenda, the good doctor assures the audience that a happy, well-adjusted transvestite "can be more of a credit to his community and his government" once he receives the proper feminine attire. But these same items of clothing only inflame the criminal impulses of the characters in Drag Trade. These men guard their wardrobes jealously and are willing to resort to robbery and worse in order to obtain more feminine finery. Not a good citizen in the bunch.

Honestly, there is so much information contained within Drag Trade that I couldn't possibly describe it all to you without this review turning into a 10,000-word behemoth. I thought about reviewing each chapter individually, as if they were separate short stories, but even that approach wouldn't work since the chapters range from just half a page to nearly 50 pages in length. At first, it seems that each chapter is going to contain one case study apiece, but Eddie gives up on that sensible structure about midway through. The back half of Drag Trade is a random scrapheap of stories and ideas, with crime and cross-dressing as the only connecting threads.

All in all, Drag Trade is everything a fan might conceivably want out of an Edward D. Wood, Jr. novel. It's campy. It's delirious. It's idiosyncratic in that very particular, stilted, Wood-ian way. It certainly gives you insight into how Eddie thought, what he valued, and how he viewed the world at large. But I would suggest that readers start with the short story collections instead. I'm beginning to think that the short story, rather than the novel, was Eddie's ideal medium as a writer. I can handle six or seven pages of this stuff at a time. After 159 pages, I felt discombobulated.