Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Podcast Tuesday: "Shump the Jark"

(from left to right) Laurette Spang, Henry Winkler, and Ron Howard in "Hollywood: Part 3."

Don't blame the shark! Yes, Arthur Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler) water skis over a tiger shark in the 1977 episode "Hollywood: Part 3" from the fifth season of Happy Days. And, yes, a radio host named Jon Hein made a lot of money in the late '90s and early 2000s from the catchphrase "jumping the shark," meaning the moment that a TV show starts to go downhill in quality. If people know nothing else about Happy Days, they know about this one very silly moment. But I say the shark has been scapegoated. Or scapesharked, whatever.

For some arcane reason, Fonzie's shark-jumping stunt has become emblematic of Happy Days' overall decline, even though it's really not much more extreme than Fonzie's garbage-can-jumping stunt from the third season or his wild demolition derby against the villainous Malachi Brothers from the fourth season. Not to mention that the "Hollywood" story arc was highly rated when it first aired in the fall of 1977 or that the series wasn't even halfway through its run!

But, somehow, all the blame gets put on the shark. Did you know that Jon Hein himself didn't even identify this episode as the pivotal moment in Happy Days history? Nope, it was his college roommate at the University of Michigan who had a beef with this one. And from this one guy's complaint, we get a catchphrase that refuses to die. Go figure. What people forget is that the "Hollywood" three-parter also introduced the character of Chachi Arcola (Scott Baio). That has way more of an impact on Happy Days' future than the shark.

Anyway, my cohost and I discuss these issues and many more in our review of "Hollywood: Part 3." I do hope you'll join us.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 106: "The Mads: Glen or Glenda" (2020)

Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu riff on Glen or Glenda.

A poster created for the event.
The global pandemic has changed many people's plans in 2020. That includes the entertainers who regularly perform live in front of audiences. Clubs and theaters have largely been shut down this year, and it's uncertain when they'll reopen. In the meantime, many performers have opted for online-only shows. A streaming session is not exactly like an in-person live concert, naturally, but it's better than nothing. And it does allow performers to interact with fans after a fashion. Compromise is the name of the game here.

Last night, Mystery Science Theater 3000 veterans Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu performed an online "riffing" of Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s Glen or Glenda (1953) for over 2,000 fans. For the last few years, Conniff and Beaulieu have been touring as the Mads, a nod to their MST3K mad scientist characters, TV's Frank and Dr. Clayton Forrester. They've even had a podcast, Movie Sign with the Mads. Conniff and Beaulieu were very familiar with Glenda, having provided live commentary on Wood's semi-autobiographical feature dozens of times previously. But this was their first time riffing it online via Zoom, with Beaulieu in Minnesota and Conniff in New York. Comedian Chris Gersbeck acted as the show's producer and coordinator. Since the riffing streamed live over YouTube, viewers were able to comment via a chat feature.

Considering this was the Mads' Zoom debut, the show went very smoothly. Apart from a few fan complaints about the volume of the movie, which Gersbeck quickly corrected, there were no major technical glitches. Conniff and Beaulieu were in fine form as well. They obviously knew the movie forwards and backwards, inside and out, man to woman, woman to man, etc. In the grand tradition of MST3K, they commented on all the many glorious glitches, gaffes, and oddities of Wood's eccentric movie. When Eddie walks toward the camera wearing a pointy bra under his blouse, Beaulieu implores, "Ed, turn the high beams off!" And when portly, balding Henry Bederski wipes down his sweat-soaked fedora in front of a very minimalist street corner set, Conniff quips, "I didn't know the dark, existential void had a bus stop!"

The great thing about a live riffing like this is that the comedians point out things in Glenda that even I hadn't noticed after dozens of viewings. One of my favorite such moments arrives near the end of the movie when we see stock footage of children playing in a schoolyard. We are supposedly seeing one of the film's characters, Alan ("Tommy" Haines), when he was a boy. Beaulieu points out that there's one kid in the footage who just kind of wanders around aimlessly, then stands at the very edge of the frame with just his elbows and ankles visible. Elsewhere, the Mads noted that certain props, including a bookcase and even a Y-shaped tree, turned up in multiple scenes. Conniff also called attention to the fact that Conrad Brooks is credited as "Banker," even though the film has no bankers in it! How did I never catch that?

After the movie was over, Conniff and Beaulieu stuck around for another half hour to answer questions from viewers, and it was at this point when it became apparent that the Mads were major admirers of Glen or Glenda. Both cited it as their favorite "cheesy movie," and Conniff compared it favorably to Tommy Wiseau's equally infamous The Room (2003), saying that Wood's movie preached a message of tolerance toward the LGBTQ community (long before it even had that name) while Wiseau's movie was hateful and misogynistic. Conniff further offered that Wood's true gift as a filmmaker was his sincerity, while Beaulieu pointed out that Glenda was stylistically similar to the films of David Lynch. When the Mads said that the evening was a tribute to Ed Wood, it was obvious that they meant it.

Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff: Together but apart.

A DVD of the shorter, censored version.
A TALE OF TWO VERSIONS: As many longtime Ed Wood fans know, there are two versions of Glen or Glenda in circulation currently. One is the version I originally saw on the Rhino Video VHS edition of the film in the 1990s. I now call it the uncensored print. It also appears on the two-disc set called The Ed Wood Collection: A Salute to Incompetence. The second, slightly shorter version of the film is more common. I call it the censored print. It's on the DVD releases from Image Video and Legend Films and has been included in such sets as The Ed Wood Box and The Worst of Ed Wood. Both the censored and uncensored Glendas have been uploaded to the internet.

For last night's streaming show, Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu used the longer, uncensored print of Glen or Glenda. But, judging by a pre-show chat Beaulieu had with producer Chris Gersbeck, he and Conniff were more accustomed to the shorter, censored print. Beaulieu estimated that the uncensored print had about five extra minutes of material compared to what he was used to. He pointed out the infamous "cigarette lighting" scene and some extra shots during the dream sequence. Since the Mads have riffed Glen or Glenda on nearly 50 other occasions, Beaulieu had to adjust his timing to the longer edition of the film.

As for the specific differences between these versions, I refer you to my Glen or Glenda transcript. In that article, the material in red type only appears in the uncensored print. After last night's streaming show, I decided to make a side-by-side comparison of the two editions to see exactly how they differed. Even after all these years, there were some revelations in this experiment.

One immediate difference is seen in the main title cards. These have been altered in all existing prints of the film, with the bottom of the frame crudely blocked by a grey cloud and the words "GLEN or GLENDA" added ex post facto by some third party. Since Wood's movie was known by so many titles (I Changed My Sex, I Led 2 Lives, etc.), I'll assume that distributor Wade Williams removed another, lesser known name and substituted the familiar Glen or Glenda handle instead.

The copyright information at the bottom of the screen is another obvious addition to the print, but the wording is a little different between the censored and uncensored versions. In the former, it merely says: "Copyright MCMLIII Screen Classics Productions." But in the latter, the words "25th Anniversary Special" have also been added. Beaulieu and Conniff referred to the longer version of the movie as the "25th anniversary edition."

(left) Title card for the censored version; (right) title card for the uncensored version.

Confusingly, the film's end card carries the "25th Anniversary" banner in both versions, censored and uncensored. However, the uncensored version has an added line: "Copyright Renewed 1981 Paramount Pictures Corporation." This leads me to believe that the "25th Anniversary Special" banner is native to the original print and was placed there at the behest of Glenda producer George Weiss.

(left) The end card of the censored version; (right) end card of the uncensored version.

Watching the two prints side by side was quite educational. I already knew about the major cuts that had been made to the censored version, including the aforementioned "cigarette lighting" scene and the gender-bending twist ending of the foundry sequence. But this time, I noticed that a couple of references to homosexuality had also been cut -- one from Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell) and one from Inspector Warren (Lyle Talbot). The censored print still has multiple references to homosexuality, just fewer of them. And in the censored print, Barbara (Dolores Fuller) is no longer allowed to describe the specific content of that newspaper article about the sex change operation. The Glen or Glenda transcript has been updated to show these lines in red print.

Just as Beaulieu mentioned, Glenda's lengthy dream sequence was also altered. There's a brief pantomime routine shot in front of a black screen that has been entirely excised in the shorter version of the film. Why, I don't know. In the deleted footage, Glen (Ed Wood) is seen walking uphill at an angle. Then there's a matching shot of Barbara walking uphill at the same angle. Glen continues walking uphill, then turns around to face his blonde-haired lover. Barbara walks further uphill with her arms extended, a visual motif Wood repeats in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and Orgy of the Dead (1965). Finally united, Glen and Barbara hug and kiss. But then Glen magically disappears (just as Ed Wood did in his "Magic Man" commercial), leaving Barbara upset and confused. She rubs her temples in agony.

Again, there was no obvious reason to cut this material, since it contains no problematic dialogue and certainly no sex or violence. Perhaps it was removed for pacing reasons. Later in the dream sequence, there's a more salacious shot of Glen ripping off Barbara's blouse in a rage. This, too, has been cut from the censored version. It still blows my mind that author Rob Craig based his analysis of Glen or Glenda on the shorter, censored print in his book Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films (2009). And it was very frustrating that Legend Films chose to use the shorter edition of Glenda for its restoration/colorization. Hopefully, the longer, more complete version of the movie will reach more Wood fans in the future, and the censored print will fade into obscurity.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Podcast Tuesday: "America's Next Top James Dean"

Henry Winkler and Ron Howard relax on the beaches of Malibu.

James Daughton on Happy Days.
Okay, let's just get this out of the way. In today's installment of These Days Are Ours, we are covering the episodes "Hollywood (Part One)" and "Hollywood (Part Two)" from the beginning of Happy Days' fifth season in September 1977. The story has Fonzie (Henry Winkler) going to Hollywood for a screen test at Paramount. Along the way, he develops a rivalry with an arrogant young man named Harold (James Daughton of Animal House) who eventually challenges him to jump over a shark on water skis.

The term "jump the shark" has since become synonymous with creative decline, largely thanks to a radio personality named Jon Hein. Remembering a conversation he had with his college roommate in the '80s, Hein created a popular Jump the Shark website devoted to TV shows that had overstayed their welcome, using Happy Days as the poster child. Because the internet loves a catchphrase, especially a snarky one, "jump the shark" entered the lexicon. Thanks to Jon Hein, Henry Winkler now has to answer at least one question about shark-jumping in seemingly every interview.

But do these episodes actually deserve the scorn that Hein has heaped upon them? Well, it's complicated.

The "Hollywood" story arc certainly did not signal the decline of Happy Days' popularity. The episodes were highly rated, and the sitcom itself remained on the air until September 1984. As for whether the show was "never as good again," that's debatable. The show had already done multi-part stories like "Fearless Fonzarelli," in which Fonzie jumps over garbage cans on his motorcycle, and "Fonzie Loves Pinky," in which Fonzie competes in a demolition derby against the cartoonish villains the Malachi Brothers. Was "Hollywood" really that much of a departure?

We talk about these issues and many more in today's brand new podcast. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Podcast Tuesday: "Oil and Water"

Al Molinaro prepares to baptize Henry Winkler as Tom Bosley and Marion Ross look on.

Somehow, we've made it through four entire seasons of Richie, Fonzie, and the gang from Milwaukee and all their wacky adventures on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast. On today's installment, we review the fourth season finale, "Fonzie's Baptism" from March 1977. These were truly the glory days for the nostalgia-based sitcom. Happy Days was the #1 show on American television for the 1976-1977 season. It would never get more popular than this.

"Fonzie's Baptism" is a very quiet and subtle way to end the season, however. The fourth season began with the very over-the-top, almost cartoonish "Fonzie Love Pinky" three-parter. But it ended with a humble, intimate story about Fonzie (Henry Winkler) getting baptized after nearly dying in a car crash. No wacky antics here. The big musical number of the week is "Faith of Our Fathers," if that's any indication. Happy Days left the air for five and a half months after that and returned in mid-September 1977 with the infamous "Hollywood" three-parter.

Reviewing "Fonzie's Baptism" allowed me to revisit my own Catholic upbringing. Whatever my feelings on religion these days, the church was a big part of my childhood. By an odd coincidence, I was going though some old family photos recently when I found some snapshots of my own baptism. Like most baptismal candidates, I was only an infant at the time, so I can't say I remember much (or anything) about that significant day. I strongly remember my First Communion, though. It was likely the first time in my life I was made to wear a suit and tie. My family treated it like a birthday party, and I got some Looney Tunes stuffed animals that day.

Now I'm rambling. Anyway, here's the podcast. Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Podcast Tuesday: "Bookie Nights"

Don Most and Jack Dodson are son and father on Happy Days.

According to Ron Howard, ABC wanted to re-brand Happy Days as Fonzie's Happy Days during the show's third season. Fortunately, this shortsighted plan was nixed by Howard, who was still the sitcom's nominal star, and the title remained simply Happy Days. Nevertheless, the program's focus had unmistakably shifted to greaser mechanic Arthur "The Fonz" Fonzarelli by this point, a process that only accelerated during Season 4. This was the season that gave us "Fonzie Loves Pinky," "Fonzie the Father," "Fonzie's Old Lady," and much more.

Even during these Fonzie-centric times, though, Happy Days still gave the other characters spotlight episodes of their own. We've had showcase moments for Potsie, Joanie, and Marion during Season 4. For the season's penultimate installment, "Last of the Big Time Malphs," it was practical joker Ralph Malph (Donny Most) at center stage. The plot has Ralph becoming a bookie and incurring an $80 debt to local thug Bruiser (Paul Linke). The best thing about a story like this is that it brings in character actor Jack Dodson (aka Howard Sprague of The Andy Griffith Show) as Ralph's wisecracking father, Dr. Mickey Malph. You can easily see that Ralph is a chip off the old block, for better or worse.

This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days podcast, we talk about "Last of the Big Time Malphs." But our conversation touches on many topics, including succotash and the 1958 Green Bay Packers. Have a listen.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 105: "On the Trail of Ed Wood" (1990)

Conrad Brooks, Ed Wood, Criswell, some graffiti, and Tor Johnson figure in this documentary.

A somewhat forgotten documentary.
Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) can be described as a film about the rise and fall of publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane, a man ultimately thwarted by his own ego and insatiable desire to be loved. But, seen in a different way, it can also be described as the story of a diligent reporter named Jerry Thompson (William Alland) who sets out to discover the meaning of Kane's last word—"Rosebud"—and interviews several of the great man's personal and business associates in order to file his report. At the end of his unsuccessful quest, Thompson dismisses the idea that "Rosebud" would have explained everything about his subject.
"No, I don't think so. No, Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything. I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. A missing piece."
I flashed back to Citizen Kane while watching the little-loved 1990 documentary On the Trail of Ed Wood. This humble, hour-long film, made by Michael Copner and Buddy Barnett of Cult Movies magazine, is essentially an extended interview with Conrad Brooks (1931-2017), Eddie's close friend and an actor in several of his films, including Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). 

Conrad is a lot like the interview subjects in Citizen Kane, ruminating on the life of a famous dead man and trying to glean some meaning from the chaos. The difference is, the remembrances in Kane are full of drama, comedy, intrigue, tragedy, philosophy, etc. while Conrad Brooks' stories are often vague and slow-paced. Connie spent a lot of time with Ed Wood but doesn't seem to possess any special insight into the eccentric filmmaker. As a result, On the Trail of Ed Wood plays like the footage Orson Welles (or Jerry Thompson, for that matter) might have cut from Citizen Kane.

But that's not to say On the Trail is without merit. The documentary turns 30 this year, so this is as good a time as any to look back on it. If nothing else, it offers a snapshot of the Wood cult as it stood a decade after the publication of Harry and Michael Medved's The Golden Turkey Awards and four years before the release of Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood. This was an in-between time for Eddie's fandom. The initial wave of curiosity provoked by the Medveds had cooled off, but the second, more scholarly wave of Woodmania hadn't really begun yet. In particular, Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992) was still two years away from publication, so the closest thing to a career-spanning Wood biography was the homemade 1981 chapbook Edward D. Wood Jr.: A Man and His Films by superfans Randy Simon and Harold Benjamin.

Besides Grey's book and Burton's movie, the 1990s also saw the release of three distinctive, stylized documentaries about Eddie: Ted Newsom's Look Back in Angora (1994), Mark Patrick Carducci's Flying Saucers Over Hollywood (1992), and Brett Thompson's The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1995). Crude as it is, On the Trail of Ed Wood predates all of these, not to mention Grey's book. As far as I know, it's the first full-length documentary about Ed Wood of any real substance. For that alone, it deserves better than its current 3.8 rating at the IMDb.

The DVD version that I reviewed.
On the Trail of Ed Wood begins with a rudimentary credit sequence set to the theme from Swan Lake, a piece of music inextricably linked to Bela Lugosi. Conrad Brooks is listed as the host of the program, with Cult Movies publisher Buddy Barnett as the producer, a man named John Norris as the associate producer, and Cult Movies founder Michael Copner as the director. It would be more accurate to say that Copner, whose life took a tragic turn in the 2000s, is the documentary's true host, since it is he who welcomes us to the film, while Barnett is the one interviewing Brooks.

After these credits, On the Trail offers us some goofy man-on-the-street interviews shot in Hollywood, with Copner asking passersby what they know about Ed Wood and Plan 9. Perhaps coincidentally, this is also how Flying Saucers Over Hollywood starts. While I'm not hugely enthusiastic about this material in either film, this footage at least allows us to see what the busy intersection of Hollywood Blvd. and Cherokee Ave. looked like 30 years ago. (Side note: The legendary Musso & Frank Grill, a key location in Ed Wood and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is just offscreen.) 

"We have just seen the evidence," says Copner to the camera in the style of Criswell. "There are still people out there in the world today who have no idea who Edward D. Wood, Jr. really was. Now we hope to change all that with this videotape." On the Trail was originally marketed as a mail-order VHS tape in the pages of Cult Movies magazine, but the version I reviewed was a DVD edition from Alpha Video.

Copner gives us a very perfunctory, pre-Wikipedia description of Ed Wood (back when people thought Eddie made only six movies), then explains that he and Barnett ran into Conrad Brooks while doing research on a horror movie book. According to Copner, Brooks allowed the Cult Movies team to see rare pictures and other documents from Connie's own personal archives. Throughout the film, we glimpse various posters, lobby cards, and press kits related to Ed's movies, with Orgy of the Dead (1965) being the most recent film thus featured. There are also plenty of photographs, including behind-the-scenes pictures, headshots and promotional photos, and even some personal snapshots. I don't think any (or many) of these were new to me, but maybe this was all virgin territory in 1990. This was pre-internet and pre-Nightmare of Ecstasy.

The vast majority of On the Trail consists of Conrad Brooks, dressed casually in a red sweatshirt and dark blue slacks, slumped on a couch, reminiscing at great length (but not great depth) about Ed Wood. Buddy Barnett occasionally chimes in with questions or prompts. Connie is not exactly a natural raconteur, with his slow, halting delivery, and the slack editing here does him no favors. On the Trail really makes you appreciate those other '90s Ed Wood documentaries I mentioned, all of which feature multiple interview subjects rather than just one. I can imagine clips from this film being used in another, more focused movie.

As it is, Copner and Barnett's discussion with Conrad Brooks is divided into a few major sections, interrupted by occasional field trips to significant locations in Los Angeles. I've done what I can to find interesting or useful information in these parts of the documentary.