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.

1. How I Got My Mink (1969)

The cobra appears just above the hand-held camera in How I Got My Mink.

Although this film is credited to prolific softcore auteur Nick Millard, Nick himself told me that it was actually directed by Alan Colberg, a sometime partner of his. The film's interiors have that bright day-glo look characteristic of Guthu's sets. Stunning Donna Stanley of Take It Out In Trade features. The epic panther painting appears in the same room as the cobra. The latter appears very briefly in quick cutaways, but we can clearly see it sitting on a dresser in front of a large mirror, facing us and forcing us to self-assess. 
Note: Visible in the background and in the mirror during two different sequences is a crew member who superficially shares the outward attributes of Ed Wood at the time, including dark, shoulder-length hair and a habit of going shirtless on set. Admittedly, there is no evidence proving this is Eddie.
An Ed-like crew member is seen in the mirror in the upper left corner.

2. Love Feast (1969)

The cobra stars in the title sequence from Love Feast.

This film has a clearer connection to Ed Wood, since Eddie himself scripted it and appears throughout as his "Mr. Murphy" character, through a mix of exterior shots, real interiors, and set-bound interiors. Among Eddie's regular collaborators here are director Joseph F. Robertson and actress Casey Lorrain, both of whom also worked on Nympho Cycler (1971). That film, also known as Misty, again showcases the screenwriting and acting talents of Ed Wood! In Love Feast, the familiar cobra stars in the garish, psychedelic credit sequence, moving beyond set decoration to active performer as a body-painted female dancer gyrates over it.

3. Take It Out In Trade (1970)

The cobra plays a small but noticeable role in Take It Out In Trade.

Ed Wood is back in the director's chair for this erotic detective comedy! In fact, he does triple duty, since he also wrote this one and acts in it, too. Winsome brunette Casey Lorrain again appears, as well as the incredible gold skull, another of Hal Guthu's indelible props. This appearance must be considered one of the cobra's subtler screen moments, especially compared to Love Feast. The serpentine statue merely quietly sits atop a coffee table as the sexual hijinks swirl around it. 

4. Pit of Perversion (1971)

The cobra rests on a coffee table, facing away from the action in Pit of Perversion.

By 1972, the cobra seems to disappear from Hal Guthu's sets. It's absent from Ed's final two features, Necromania and The Young Marrieds. It's also AWOL in the 1970s loops produced by the Bloom family and featuring creative contributions from Ed Wood. But the familiar snake does show up in this crime-themed sex film, whose cast includes Sandy Carey of such Ed-scripted films as The Snow Bunnies (1972) and The Class Reunion (1972). In Pit of Perversion, the cobra statue again appears on a coffee table. Editorially, it seems, the snake has taken a turn for the prudish. It looks at us instead of at the people on the couch behind it, as they engage in that which the cobra will not look upon.

5. Vice Versus Vice (1971)

Ric Lutze, Starlyn Simone, and a cobra in Vice Versus Vice.

Another erotic film with a criminal theme, this time focusing on corrupt "vice" cops. The cast includes actors Rick Cassidy and Ric Lutze, both of whom appeared in feature films written by Ed and directed by softcore kingpin Stephen C. Apostolof. Additionally, Lutze had been the male lead in Necromania. Both actors also worked in Bloom family loops. Starlyn Simone (aka Starline Comb), another Apostolof veteran, is here as well. For its part, the cobra sits on the same coffee table in the identical place as in Pit of Perversion, and the films share identical interior locations throughout. The interiors for these films are clearly real, lived-in locations, begging two questions. First, whose place is this? And, second, how did the cobra wind up there?

CODA: Beyond its busy filmography, the cobra also slithered its way into photo shoots, appearing with the breathtaking Neola Graf in a series lensed by the noted adult photographer Castano. Here are some (censored) examples.

Neola Graf cuddles up with a cobra.

Also known as Malta, Graf (sometimes "Graef") appeared in approximately 200 sex films from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, just as the industry was transitioning from softcore to hardcore. One of her credits was the aforementioned Love Feast. She also appeared in The Only House In Town (1969), directed by none other than Ed Wood. It was only natural that she and the cobra would eventually meet, just like Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Special thanks to the esteemed Charles Devlin, whose relentless research into vintage adult films inspires me and who spotted the cobra yet again in Pit of Perversion!