Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 101: "Casual Company: The Laugh of the Marines" (1948)

The Marines in Casual Company seem more interested in chasing babes than defending their country.

Did Ed Wood write for Street & Smith?
In the late 1940s, Ed Wood seemingly had no idea where his career was heading. Was it to be in theater? Movies? Television? Writing novels? He didn't know, so he tried all of those things without finding great success in any of them. The popular image of Ed is of the lifelong film fanatic who spent most of his childhood at the local cinema in Poughkeepsie, watching Westerns and Bela Lugosi pictures, and whose life was forever changed by the gift of a home movie camera from his father. There's a lot of truth in that. Movies were a long-time obsession for Ed Wood, and he stayed in the motion picture business as long as he could.

But Eddie seemingly had literary aspirations from an early age, too. In a 1978 interview with Fred Olen Ray, Ed claimed to have sold a story called The Sunset Murders to the New York publishing company Street & Smith, known for dime novels and pulp fiction, when he was only 12. In April 1946, on the precipice of his honorable discharge from the United States Marine Corps, Ed Wood told his hometown paper, The Poughkeepsie Journal, that he was in the process of turning one of his unfinished plays, The Inconvenient Corpse, into a novel. He was fond enough of Corpse to mention it in his mid-1960s showbiz primer Hollywood Rat Race

Neither The Sunset Murders nor The Inconvenient Corpse has ever surfaced, and Eddie's prolific career as a published novelist didn't really begin until 1963's Killer in Drag (aka Black Lace Drag). One early Wood manuscript that did somehow survive, however, is 1948's Casual Company: The Laugh of the Marines. Seemingly based on a comedic play Ed wrote while he was still in the Marines, the novel was unpublished during his lifetime and was finally serialized in Cult Movies magazine in 1993 and 1994 in anticipation of Tim Burton's Ed Wood biopic.

Best described as a novella, Casual Company turns out to be a slight, slim book in which virtually nothing of consequence happens. It's an episodic work detailing the day-to-day lives of Marines in the somewhat drowsy days following World War II. The setting is the Casual Company office at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Beaumont, California. In military terminology, a "casual company" is defined as a holding unit for Marines awaiting discharge from the Corps, special training, or deployment to a unit. In other words, this is purgatory. The action -- or, more accurately, inaction -- of the book revolves around the five men who work in this stuffy office as they banter, argue, and play mild pranks on one another. How mild are the pranks? Their idea of a laugh riot is removing the aces from a deck of cards while one guy is out of the room, preventing him from winning at solitaire.

Since no scripts of the Casual Company play have yet emerged, and since newspaper accounts of the era don't describe the plot or characters in detail, it's difficult to say how closely the novel follows the theatrical version of this material. All we really have to go on are the vintage programs from various Casual Company performances. According to one such document, the characters in the play are: 1st Sgt. I.M.A. Hashmark, Capt. J. Sleepingwell Gutter, PFC Lemmey A. Dime, PFC Elbo Joints, PFC Jim Nastics, Maxine Anthony, PFC Greenberg, Private Pogybate, Corporal Anthony (this was a role Eddie played himself), Lieutenant Muscles, Ilene Sideways, Mary Widow, and WAVE Lois Slowly.

For the novel, Eddie toned down the silly, pun-filled names, but most of the characters listed above have obvious counterparts in the literary version of Casual Company. 1st Sgt. I.M.A. Hashmark, for instance, becomes First Sergeant Daniel "Hashmark" O'Hare, aka Top, an ill-tempered hothead who bellows orders at his underlings in the office but can be easily kowtowed by his wife. Top is also a habitual nose-picker, a habit Ed Wood mentions frequently. I kept imagining him as Sgt. Carter (Frank Sutton) of Gomer Pyle, USMC.

Frank Sutton as Sgt. Carter on Gomer Pyle, USMC.

Corporal Anthony, meanwhile, becomes Captain Robert Roberts, a do-nothing commanding officer who is far more concerned with hunting rabbits than in doing anything useful at the office. The captain, who has never once hit an actual rabbit, frequently goes on hunting expeditions in "the underbrush of the mountainous area behind the hospital zone." Accompanying him on these hopeless excursions is comely Lieutenant "Muscles" Morgan, so named because she's the "female athletic officer of the base." The lieutenant is running out of patience with the addle-brained captain, but he somehow sweet talks her into sticking around a little longer. Both Top and Roberts are staunch traditionalists, wary of any changes to the Corps.

In the novel, Roberts and Top are in charge of three wisecracking, duty-shirking reservists: PFC Jerome "Jerry" Carter, PFC Paul "Elbo" Bender, and Staff Sgt. Jim Armstrong. These men spend most of their time in the office reading mystery novels, napping, and talking about dames. Their main goal in life, other than taking long lunches, seems to be enraging the temperamental Top. They delight in second-guessing his orders and undermining his (minimal) authority. Occasionally, he gets revenge by making them stand at attention while listening to a recording of "The Marines' Hymn." It looks like, in the play, these three characters had slightly different names and were all PFCs, while in the book, one is a staff sergeant and occasionally pulls rank on the other two.

The most interesting passages in Casual Company occur when outsiders come into the office and disrupt the stultifying routine. In one such vignette, a sexy woman named Maxine Anderson asks Top if her husband, Corporal Anthony, can have more liberty. Top tells her he'll see what he can do. When the bemused corporal finally arrives at the office, he does so at the exact moment the three jokers, Jerry, Jim, and Elbo, are staging a farcical mini-mutiny against Top. The disgruntled first sergeant, eager to regain control, tells the corporal he can have plenty of extra liberty... since he's now been demoted to PFC. Because the Anthonys are both listed in the theatrical cast of characters, my guess is that this incident in the novel is taken directly from the play.

The Swedish humor of Yogi Yorgesson.
One of the oddest vignettes in Casual Company revolves around a stereotypical Swede named Yorgenson, who has deliberately scuffed up his pants in hopes of procuring new ones. Jerry, Jim, and Elbo take delight in sending Yorgenson from one desk to another and asking him ridiculous questions that have nothing to do with his request. Eventually, the Swede, who speaks with a comically thick accent a la 1940s comedian Yogi Yorgesson, emerges triumphant. I cannot see any obvious cognate of Yorgenson in the play, but it's possible that this character was drastically renamed.

In case you were wondering about Ilene Sideways, yes, she's in the novel, too. Here, however, her name is simply Ilene. She's described as a pretty young lady who works in the Ships Services, apparently some kind of commissary. She thinks Elbo is "wonderful," much to the annoyance of Top. What makes Ilene especially interesting is that she favors pink angora sweaters. "It was so soft and cuddly," she enthuses about a recent purchase, "and with this beautiful soft pink cover, it is all so feminine." Ed may have based Jerry, Jim, and Elbo on himself and his Marine pals, but Ilene may be his true avatar in this novel.

If there's any drama in Casual Company, it revolves around Jim, who is at the center of a love triangle.  He has a girl back home named Joan and a girl in town named Nadine. Taunted by his fellow Marines, Jim says that Joan and Nadine live thousands of miles apart and will never meet. And, besides, Nadine knows all about Joan. But Joan's letters to Jim remain unanswered, as if he doesn't know what to tell her. When Nadine and Jim are alone, she tells him she loves him, but he's not ready to say those words back to her. This is as close to serious as the novel gets, but the love triangle subplot is never resolved.

Overall, Casual Company: The Laugh of the Marines is a remarkably tame and unadventurous outing for Ed Wood. The tone is closer to Mort Walker's long-running military comic strip Beetle Bailey than it is to any of Eddie's later, wilder movies and stories. When Cult Movies divided this novel into four sections, it billed the final installment as "the exciting, thrill-packed conclusion of Casual Company," but the book's final chapters are just as laid-back as the ones that had preceded them. Other than the description of Ilene's angora sweater, the only time we get a glimpse of the future Ed Wood is when he describes an erotic encounter between Jim and Nadine:
Nadine caught his smile with hers the pressed his head to hers and their lips met. Jim started to slide around her waist again, but Nadine ushered his hand upwards, upwards to encircle her round, firm breasts which were heaving against the loose, white, off the shoulder blouse.
Pausing in the middle of a love scene to describe what the heroine is wearing? That's Ed Wood.

P.S. I've said it before, but the play called The Casual Company glimpsed in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) bears no resemblance to this material whatsoever. The only minor connection is that both are military-themed and set in the '40s. The play-within-a-biopic was written by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander and not based on the original Casual Company at all. Scott and Larry's play is an earnest (if ridiculous) drama and actually takes place during World War II in the thick of battle. Ed's Casual Company is a light comedy that takes place in America after the war.