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?

Unfortunately, I have not been able to peruse too many of Ed Wood's genuine scripts, as I have very little access to them. A couple of Ed's screenplays, including The Vampire's Tomb and Bride of the Monster, have been published by BearManor Media as part of their Scripts from the Crypt series. Journalist Jordan Todorov sent me a copy of Ed's unfilmed Rue Pigalle script, which I may review here someday. There was also a book called Plan 9 From Outer Space: The Original Uncensored And Uncut Screenplay released in 1990 by Malibu Graphics. Supposedly, though, this volume merely contains a transcript of the film, prepared well after the movie's original release. I've never bothered with it, since there's a fairly decent Plan 9 transcript available online. For free, I might add.

A fanciful cast list.
Recently, in a Facebook forum about Ed Wood that I frequent, fan Angel Scott shared a PDF of a vintage Plan 9 from Outer Space script that caught my attention. There were some in the group who doubted the authenticity of this document, based mostly on the script's first few pages. But I was intrigued enough to read through the screenplay in its entirety. This afternoon, in fact, I conducted a little experiment, scrolling through the PDF in one window while watching the finished film in another. I wanted to see how the script and the movie aligned or failed to align.

Here, then, are my random, unsolicited, and extremely preliminary observations:

  • The 109-page PDF seems to contain material from several sources, assembled into one document. The bulk of it consists of a script dated November 22, 1956 and titled "GRAVE ROBBERS FROM OUTER SPACE." However, on page 5, the words "GRAVE ROBBERS" have been crossed out, with "PLAN 9" written in by hand.
  • Throughout the script, there are other handwritten notations, usually pointing out when the script differs from the released film. I don't know who made these marginal notes, but this person repeatedly refers to "the TV print" of Plan 9, using that as a point of reference.
  • After a fairly nondescript cover, there is an entire page (pg. 2) devoted to listing the cast and crew. This fancifully typed page mentions that the film was released by DCA in 1959. Obviously, Eddie would not have known that in 1956. Nor would he have bothered to point out that Vampira's real name is Maila Nurmi. The page also mentions that Tom Keene's character is called "Col. Tom Rance" in the script and "Col. Tom Edwards" in the film. Interesting as that nugget of information is, it has no place in a screenplay. It is my strong suspicion that pg. 2 was prepared by someone other than Ed Wood and amended to the screenplay, perhaps years later.
  • Similarly, I cannot vouch for the authenticity of pgs. 3-4. These pages contain Criswell's opening monologue as well as a description of the funeral that starts the film. They're accurate to the finished movie, but they're formatted a little differently than the rest of the script. Plus they carry the heading "PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE," which we know was a post-production change. These pages, too, might have been typed up by someone else and amended to the screenplay ex post facto.
  • The script literally starts over on pg. 5, this time under the name "GRAVE ROBBERS FROM OUTER SPACE." This appears to be an entirely different document, and it continues until pg. 109. Though I can obviously not speak with 100% certainty on this subject, I am willing to allow that these 104 pages of the PDF are genuine. The formatting is similar to that of the Rue Pigalle script. The odd punctuation, with lots of dashes and ellipses, is highly typical of Ed Wood's writing style. The screen directions have the same cadence as his prose. He makes frequent, distracting mentions of the clothing worn by the character Paula Trent, including her nightgown and negligee. He also has her wearing an angora sweater in one scene. The fact that Tom Keene's character is called Rance is emblematic of Wood, since that was one of his most-used character names.
  • One of the most striking differences between the script and the film is visible at the top of pg. 5. Namely, the screenplay starts with the words "INTRODUCTION BY CRISWELL (To be written)." That's it. Not a word of the original monologue. In fact, almost none of Criswell's offscreen narration is included in the bulk of the screenplay. Occasionally, our handwriting friend has scribbled in a mention of what narration should be there, even comparing it to Night of the Ghouls (1959). It is possible that the Criswell voiceover was a late-arriving change to the film. Perhaps Eddie or his backers felt that certain plot points were unclear and needed to be explained further.
  • There are a few points in the screenplay when Cris' monologues are included. One is between scenes 30 and 31, when Lugosi's character is stricken with grief and wanders into traffic. Another is the coda at the very end of the film. But these appear -- yet again -- to have been typed up by someone else at another time and then inserted into the script. The death of Lugosi's character was originally to have been much more ornate, combining existing footage of Lugosi with newly-shot footage of Dr. Tom Mason. But it seems like Eddie was either too rushed or too cash-strapped to do this scene properly, so he just has Lugosi wander off camera and scream in the finished film.
  • The PDF looks to be a copy of a copy of a copy. In some places, it is clear and legible. In others, it is so faint and blurry as to be indecipherable. At least one page is missing entirely. The screenplay skips from scene 126 to scene 129. This is the part of the movie when pilot Jeff Trent is saying goodbye to Paula and embarking upon another airplane trip with stewardess Edith and copilot Danny. We lose the end of Jeff's conversation with Paula and the beginning of his conversation with Danny. 
  • For the most part, the screenplay hews pretty close to the finished film. Occasionally, Ed will take a small scene -- say, Eros looking out the window of his spaceship -- and move it up or down a little in the running order. What struck me, more than anything else, was that the actors sort of talk around Eddie's script. They communicate the gist of what he's written, but they phrase it in their own way, sometimes just ever so slightly.  In the 1994 movie Ed Wood, Tim Burton repeatedly shows Eddie mouthing the words he has written as his actors say them, either onstage or onscreen. The implication is that Ed was very possessive of his words, but maybe he actually gave his actors some leeway to make the dialogue their own.
We were supposed to see more of Danny.
  • On my first examination of the PDF, the biggest diversion from the finished film is a deleted sequence (scenes 78-80) involving Jeff, Paula, and Danny. While the cops tangle with spooks at the cemetery next door, the Trents commiserate on their patio. Danny drives up to the Trents' house and gets out. Jeff and Danny discuss the gunshots, and Jeff mentions that Paula also saw a flying saucer. Danny reiterates that he and Jeff were told by the US government not to discuss the flying saucers. This scene appears nowhere in the movie, at least not in any prints I have seen. I'd say Danny is portrayed a lot like Officer Kelton in this scene -- cowardly and all but useless.
  • Another fascinating change from the script to the film is that Vampira's character -- consistently called a "vampire" in the stage directions -- was supposed to be ugly. Though this passage is printed very faintly and is difficult to read, scene 17 specifies she has "the hideous head of a once beautiful girl." Her eyes were supposed to be mismatched, too, with one permanently closed and the other "wide and bright red with lust." Maybe Vampira vetoed this, or maybe Ed just didn't have the time and money to make it happen.
  • For years, I have heard the rumor that Bela Lugosi's character, the Ghoul Man, is called "Dracula" or "the Dracula character" in the Plan 9 script. I could never confirm or deny this. Well, now,  having read the script, I can say that it's true. (That is, if the script is genuine.) The terms "Dracula" and "Dracula character" are used frequently in this document to describe the Ghoul Man. In addition, the screenplay denotes when to use stock footage of Lugosi ("L-Stock") and when to use Lugosi's lookalike stand-in ("L-Double"). Since this is a revised (or "changed") version of the script written well after Lugosi's death, this aspect of the document seems plausible. Ed was writing around the existing footage, so he knew what he had and what he didn't have.
  • One small detail from the screenplay I loved was its description of the Ruler's Chamber aboard the space station. Viewers of the film know that this room is dominated by a large curtain, obviously to cover up the fact that there's no money for other scenery. But the script says that the curtain "hides the entrance to his sanctum." Hmm. Wonder what that place looks like?
  • Another great stage direction is this description of the zombie Inspector Clay emerging from his grave: "From out of the earth emerges the giant figure of what was once Inspector Clay; but now a mess of torn flesh and torn clothing. A scarred cut streaks across his bald head. It is a labored thing to see as the giant climbs from his grave, then stands looking around." Speaking of the late Daniel Clay, this script specifies that he was born in 1906 and died in 1957, thus setting this story in a specific year. I never knew what the hell Kelton was supposed to be looking at when he climbs into Clay's grave, but this script explains it's the tombstone that's fallen in.
"It is a labored thing to see." Inspector Clay emerges from the grave with difficulty.
  • At various points in the screenplay, Ed indicates the stock footage he intends to use. An interesting, comical example that didn't make it into the movie is scene 86: "We are moving past the Pantages Theatre, where a mob stands about looking at the movie stars attending a premiere. High in the sky behind we see the saucer formation as it moves across the sky. Still, no one below notices them." Eddie also intended to include shots of the Washington Monument.
  • I mentioned earlier that Ed Wood may have let his actors have some leeway in saying their dialogue in a manner that was more comfortable or natural to them. Perhaps Dudley Manlove abused this privilege a little towards the end. The screenplay has Eros the alien say that "life is not so expensive on my planet." Manlove says that "life is not so expansive on my planet." Only one letter off, but a different meaning nevertheless. Eros' odd declaration has puzzled me for years, and this may explain what Ed Wood originally intended.
  • Speaking of Eros, this screenplay made me realize something I'd never noticed before about one of his many long-winded speeches. Late in the film, the alien explains in a very condescending way to the dumb Earth people how they've been developing more and more powerful weapons without reckoning with the consequences. ("First was your firecracker...") In the finished movie, there's an wonky audio hiccup during one of his sentences. ("Now you... bring the destruction of the entire universe.") The screenplay contains the full text of this speech: "Now you can destroy whole cities of people in one big explosion... There is only one step left until you and your Earthman's stupidity brings the total destruction of our entire Universe served by our Sun." The words in red are the ones missing from the movie.

CONCLUSION: Look, there's no way to detail every single minute change between the screenplay and the released version of the movie without this article being crushingly long and boring. Like I said, I can't even prove that this screenplay is actually Eddie's work. For now, though, I'm operating on the assumption that most of the document was actually written by Edward D. Wood, Jr. in late 1956. I've read a lot of Eddie's fiction, and this script certainly seems to have the same tone and style as those other texts. Besides, if this script proves genuine, I finally have definitive spellings of "Dictial Robetary" and "Solaronite."