Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 100: "Trial by Terror" (1958)

Ed Wood wrote Trial by Terror with the mysterious Maj. J.C. Foxworthy.

"Piranhas -- What a way to die."
-Ed Wood's Trial by Terror (1958)

A flattering credit for Major Foxworthy.
Ed Wood must have been quite the salesman in his day. From the '40s to the '70s, he had a surprising amount of luck getting others to underwrite his movie projects. Crawford John Thomas, George Weiss, J. Edward Reynolds, Hugh Tomas, Jr., Anthony Cardoza, Bernie and Noel Bloom -- they were all persuaded to go into the Ed Wood business, despite any proven track record of financial success on Eddie's part. This aspect of his career is central to the 1994 biopic Ed Wood, in which Eddie is depicted as a consummate pitchman always ready to go into a sales spiel. During those fundraising parties at the Brown Derby, he acts like a shady used car dealer.

One of the least known of Eddie's backers is Major John Carlisle Foxworthy, with whom Ed formed a short-lived company called Atomic Productions in 1958. Wood and Foxworthy had high hopes for Atomic. According to Rudolph Grey's 1992 book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the two had "plans to film 18 low-budget pictures over the next three years." Unfortunately, the only film to result from this partnership was 1959's Night of the Ghouls (aka Revenge of the Dead), which seemingly vanished after a preview screening and went more or less unreleased until the 1980s. Among Atomic's unrealized projects was a 1958 film called Trial by Terror.

My guess is that Wood and Foxworthy bonded over their shared Marine past, with Eddie no doubt greatly embellishing his own, modest war record. In Night of the Ghouls, Foxworthy is prominently, flatteringly billed as "Major J.C. Foxworthy (U.S.M.C.R. Ret.)" in the main title sequence. Ed loved to talk about his days in the Marines, and he used his supposedly heroic past to make business connections. That's how he connected with producer-director Joe Robertson, with whom Ed made three films in the late '60s and early '70s. "[Ed] was in the Marine Corps," Robertson told interviewer Ted Newsom. "I was in the Marine Corps. And so we had a certain empathy. We felt for each other on that portion of it. Semper fi. And we talked a lot. And he was quite decorated. And then I got friendly with him." Foxworthy probably got the same or similar treatment from Wood.

Of Foxworthy himself, some online records say that he was born to George Wallingford Foxworthy and Ruth Power in Mt. Carmel, a community in Fleming County, Kentucky on November 5, 1907. Foxworthy married a woman named Bertha Schuldheisz on March 28, 1937. By 1943, Foxworthy was living in Long Beach, California. An article from the October 29, 1943 edition of the Long Beach Independent reports that Foxworthy, then 35, had recently graduated from Reserve Officer training in Quantico, VA after serving nine years in the Marines and would now be reassigned to a specialist school or combat unit. The article mentions his wife Bertha but no children.

A news article from 1943 about John Carlisle Foxworthy.

Foxworthy's own draft card, seemingly filled out by the man himself, gives his birth year as 1905 and his wife's name as Margaret, though it is misspelled as "Margret." The name Margaret does appear as his spouse in another online ancestry record. The draft card also has him employed by the Credit Bureau of Long Beach, which doesn't necessarily jibe with him being in the Marines for nine years. But it's possible he was a reservist for most of that time and was only called up to active duty during the war.

J.C. Foxworthy's draft card, circa 1940.

Foxworthy's credit from Night of the Ghouls specifies he's retired from the United States Marine Corps Reserve. Furthermore, he is listed on page 53 of a document called Register of Retired Commissioned and Warrant Officers, Regular and Reserve, of the United States Navy and Marine Corps, published July 1, 1968. His name is also included in a 1957 publication called Combined Lineal List of Officers on Active Duty in the Marine Corps. So maybe he had just retired from the Marines when he teamed up with Eddie. His retirement must've happened between 1957 and 1968.

Is it possible that there were two Marines named John Carlisle Foxworthy who were both born in Kentucky in the early 1900s and who both moved to Long Beach in the 1940s? One was born in 1905 and married Bertha, while the other was born in 1907 and married Margaret? Or vice versa? For what it's worth, the 1940 census has John and Margaret living together in Long Beach. John is 34, Margaret is 28. He was born in Kentucky, she in Colorado. He was a salesman manager for a collection agency, while she was a secretary and stenographer for a real estate agency. She'd completed four years of college; he'd completed one.

By 1971, Foxworthy had headed south. He was living in Chula Vista and dabbling in real estate. An article in the December 2, 1971 edition of the Chula Vista Star-News reported that Foxworthy had leased some land from the San Diego Gas and Electric Co. with the intention of growing Christmas trees. To protect his trees, Foxworthy had fenced off the property with barbed wire, leading to a dispute with a neighboring property owner. About a year later, John Carlisle Foxworthy died on December 29, 1972 in San Diego, California. The California Death Index and the U.S. Social Security Death Index agree on the date of his demise, though they disagree on his birth year. California says 1907; Social Security says 1905.

Here are my conclusions about Major John Carlisle Foxworthy: I think these records all refer to the same man, even if the details are slightly inconsistent. The broad details are the same from one source to the next. He was born in the 1900s in Fleming County, Kentucky. In the mid-1930s, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve and stayed with it until the late 1950s, when he retired as an officer. Along the way, he moved to Long Beach and got married but had no children. He likely served in World War II and Korea. After leaving the military, he was looking for investment opportunities, and fellow ex-Marine Ed Wood sweet talked him into starting a film production company. Almost nothing came of it. Eventually, he relocated to the San Diego area, tried other business ventures, and died in his mid-60s.

Title page for the Trial by Terror script.
But let's get back to Trial by Terror, that unproduced script from 1958. Nightmare of Ecstasy is vague about this one, filing it under "Unrealized Projects" and describing it as "one of a series of horror films for Atomic Productions which Wood was to have directed." In reality, despite its title, Terror is not a horror script but more of a jungle adventure story. It is credited to "Edward D. Wood, Jr. and John Carlisle." Apparently, John wasn't comfortable putting his last name on this one, though by Eddie's standards this is quite a respectable offering.

There are those who praise Bride of the Monster (1955) and Jail Bait (1954), both cowritten with Alex Gordon, because they are among Ed Wood's most "normal," coherent films, the ones most like "real" movies in the Wood canon. Perhaps Eddie needed a coauthor, they argue, to keep from lapsing into surrealism, fetishism, and absurdism. Such commentators will find more corroborating evidence in Trial by Terror, which could have been made into a competent, believable B-movie. I can see this one playing the drive-in circuit for years, probably as part of a double or triple bill, without attracting undue attention. But this is still Eddie's work, and you'll find plenty of overripe dialogue, shameless use of stock footage, and abundant narrative confusion, as well as a highly memorable final twist.

At heart, Trial by Terror is the story of five thieves who hijack an armored car, kill three guards, and take off with $1 million in a small airplane, only to crash in the South American jungle, apparently in Peru or Ecuador. Our main character is Duke, the ringleader of the operation and the only one with the necessary survival skills. Duke's principal rival within the group is short-tempered, hot-headed Mark. Mark's unhappy wife Game (yes, she's called Game) tags along, generally serving as a damsel in distress and occasionally flirting with Duke. Plus there are two nondescript, ancillary characters, Larry and Lance, who serve no particular function to the narrative. Can you guess which two characters die first?

The Peruvian (or Ecuadorian) jungle is full of hazards: alligators, anacondas, piranhas, quicksand, and headhunting Jivaro tribesmen. As you'd expect, our thieves run into all of these problems, and there are the requisite internal tensions as well, especially within the Duke/Mark/Game love triangle. Since the movie begins with these folks committing the robbery and killing the security guards without conscience or remorse, we don't really hold out too much hope for their eventual deliverance. In a 1950s B-movie, these tainted characters have only two possible fates: death or imprisonment. "Getting away with it" is not an option. Without spoiling the ending, I will say that the characters in Trial by Terror get what's coming to them, and Ed doesn't leave any "jungle movie" cliches unused.

A Jivaro shrunken head.
As for the gators, anacondas, and other beasties, Ed Wood fully intended to use stock footage and plenty of it. The designation "STOCK" is used throughout Trial by Terror. A good 30% of this movie would have been scratchy B&W nature footage, with the rest probably shot on small interior sets or in the wilder-looking sections of Griffith Park. Although Eddie probably intended to direct Trial by Terror himself, he does leave open the possibility of selling the script to someone else. The stage directions indicate that certain scenes, including a musical performance and a fistfight, are left "to the discretion of the director." Keep in mind that 1958 was the year that another Wood-scripted jungle film, The Bride and the Beast, was directed by Adrian Weiss.

I mentioned some narrative confusion. Like Glen or Glenda (1953), Trial by Terror has an abundance of framing devices, narrators, and flashbacks within flashbacks. Ostensibly, this is the story of the five thieves, and we spend most of our time with them. But it's presented as a case file that an insurance investigator named Lake McCall is telling to Mr. Marrow, the boss at the Ace Armored Car Co. As McCall describes his investigation, he recounts traveling to South America and dealing with a buffoonish local official named Captain Callio. Callio, in turn, introduces McCall to a Jivaro tribesman who has been arrested for murder and is awaiting execution. It is the Jivaro who fills McCall in on the details of the five thieves and what happened to them. Occasionally, Ed remembers to include cutaways in which the Jivaro silently watches the thieves from the bushes.

This script's nested structure reminds me a little of Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, in which we learn about the diabolical ivory trader Kurtz only third-hand. It's possible that this book was on Eddie's mind, too, when he wrote Trial by Terror. The insurance investigator, meanwhile, seems analogous to Tom Keene's Tucson Kid character from Crossroad Avenger (1953). While an insurance investigator may seem an unlikely hero to us, remember that there was a popular, long-running radio show called Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar from 1949 to 1962. And don't forget NBC's mystery series Banacek (1972-1974) with George Peppard. Also, the Lake McCall character allows Wood to frame this story as a police procedural, as he was wont to do.

The real joy of Trial by Terror is its hard-boiled dialogue, all of which sounds like it comes directly from pulp novels and men's magazines. Tough guy Mark, especially, has some colorful turns of phrase, sounding like a wannabe James Cagney. Here's an argument he has with Game.
GAME: You just wait -- you'll get yours. 
MARK: I ain't much for waiting. 
GAME: Maybe that's your trouble. 
MARK: Maybe you want to get knocked across the dam. 
GAME: Forget it. 
MARK: That's what I'm figuring on doing.
Isn't that beautiful? And there's plenty more where that came from. Everybody in Trial by Terror talks that way. Even if this movie is never made -- and at this point, it probably shouldn't be -- the script would make for an incredible live reading, providing that the actors don't try to ham it up too much or oversell the campiness of it.

I am grateful to Bob Blackburn for having forwarded me a copy of this script. In my recent analysis of the Plan 9 from Outer Space script, I complained that I hadn't read too many of Eddie's screenplays because I didn't have access to them, so Bob quickly sent me Trial by Terror. When I asked where he had gotten it, he responded:
"Well, I am pretty sure I got it from the guy who for a short while was selling bootleg copies of a couple of Ed's scripts -- this and 7 Rue Pigalle, The Vampire's Tomb, and The Ghoul Goes West or at least a couple of those. I actually bought one, then messaged him after I got it to let him know I was one of Kathy's heirs, and he got all apologetic, wasn't aware there were any, etc., and said he'd be happy to send me a copy of the others he had, which was like two. Of course, these are all copies of copies. He never did say how or where he got them, and he said he would stop selling them, which he did, and I thanked him for being honest and doing that, and as far as I know he hasn't."
Bob added that David C. Hayes, author of Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (2001), had once contacted him about Trial by Terror. Hayes' plan was to turn the script into a graphic novel, which might work nicely for this material. Unsure about the ownership of the script, Bob registered it under his own name with the WGA, filling out the forms and paying the $20 fee. "I have a two-year registration and can renew it," Bob explains, "which I'm sure I will do. I didn't copyright it yet with the Library of Congress."

I don't know what, if any, future Trial by Terror may have. I don't think it would be a good idea to turn it into a film at this point, since the result would probably be a self-conscious, faux-camp parody. A graphic novel seems like a better bet, providing the material is presented in as serious and straightforward a manner as possible. Any winking to the audience would be disastrous. I could also imagine Trial working as a radio drama, which would eliminate the need for stock footage. Really, though, the best possible outcome would be for this and other unproduced Wood scripts to be published in book form. That way, fans could reenact this thrilling jungle saga and other adventures in their own homes.