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.

Although the existing print of Documentary of a Madam lacks a title card, it does include credits. One can be forgiven for surmising that the film's credited writer/producer, "E.E. Eward," was actually Ed Wood himself. Don't be hornswoggled.

Was this Ed Wood? Don't bet money on it.

The credited director, "Godfrey Daniels," is actually a nom de porn of prolific adult filmmaker Stu Segall, a veritable legend of the golden age of X-rated feature films of the '70s. Stu can boast of an amazingly varied resume. He went mainstream in the late 1980s and eventually found work as a government contractor. Circa 1972, Segall made this film as well as one called The Suckers, which featured cinematography by none other than Hal Guthu. Not coincidentally, Guthu also shot Wood's Necromania.

The Suckers was produced by Ted Paramore, a veteran of sex films who would continue on to great success in the adult film industry for decades as producer Harold Lime. Yes, that name is borrowed from Orson Welles' character in The Third Man. Ted's father, Edward E. Paramore, Jr., was the basis for a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Beautiful and Damned (1922). Stu Segall told me a few years back that, early on in his career, he worked for Ted Paramore and shot at Hal Guthu's place.

If your head is swimming from all these details, I'll simplify and paraphrase:

There is no reason to believe that Ed Wood had anything to do with Documentary of a Madam, a no-budget, "one day wonder" sex film produced in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Documentary was, however, likely shot by Hal Guthu in his usual fashion, i.e. head-on, no frills, lots of medium shots. It was certainly filmed on Guthu's sets on Santa Monica Blvd. and in close chronological proximity to Necromania.

And this leads us to the most important detail of all: Madam Heles' Red Room from Necromania appears to be depicted again in Documentary of a Madam, albeit in a more minimalist way. The distinctive trident hanging on Madame Heles' front door in Necromania, appears on a bright red wall alongside other bondage gear (handcuffs, chains, etc.) in Documentary.

A trident appears in both Necromania (left) and Documentary of a Madam.

Even more notable, however, is the incredible gold skull. This extraordinary prop and its matching white counterpart appear ubiquitously in features and loops shot at Guthu's studio. Each had an ersatz spider and rat sculpted onto its crown. In Documentary of a Madam, the gold skull noses (well, maybe not quite) its way close to the action, looking dead-on at the humans engaged in their debauchery. This is in contrast with the familiar Chinese Guardian Lions from the same body of loops and features, who characteristically look away from the sex in disgust, if not entirely turning their backs upon these wanton souls.

Intended as a mere background prop, the gold skull is indefatigable, routinely defying its invisibility. Just ask Madam Heles herself, so far the only recipient of the skull's lovemaking I've had the privilege to witness.

The gold skull sees action in Documentary of a Madam and Necromania. Inset: The White Skull in Necromania.

But I'm confident that I'll see the skull(s) again, likely in proximity to Hal Guthu's beloved macaw Max, who was a fixture on his sets and his closest companion in life... and even in death. In Documentary of a Madam, Max merely warbles faintly in the background without any lines during the film's opening orgy. Like the skulls, he serves as an up-close eyewitness to sociosexual transformation.

As this upheaval took place, Ed Wood was there, right in the thick of it.

Max (at left, in cage) cameos in Documentary of a Madam.