Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 107: Some thoughts on 'Ed and Bela' (1986)

Jim Singletary (left) and Bart Aikens appear in the short film Ed and Bela.

Scott Allen Nollen, director of Ed and Bela.
The Ed Wood cult is said to have begun officially in 1980 with the publication of The Golden Turkey Awards. And, indeed, this humorous book by Harry and Michael Medved brought Wood and his work to mainstream fame, ultimately leading to numerous screenings of Eddie's early films and even a Tim Burton-directed biopic in 1994. But the truth is a little more complicated than that. B-movie fanatics had long known about Eddie and his bizarre career through magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and various drive-in, grindhouse, and late-night TV screenings of Ed's movies. Those hip fans brought Eddie to the attention of the Medveds, not the other way around.

Before the dawn of the internet, the best source of information about Edward D. Wood, Jr. was undoubtedly Rudolph Grey's oral history, Nightmare of Ecstasy, published in 1992. This was the first attempt to cover Ed's life fully in one place, from his early years in Poughkeepsie to the well-known films of the 1950s to his ultimate descent into alcoholism and pornography in the 1970s. Drawing on dozens of interviews with those who knew Ed personally, Nightmare was a sincere effort to tell Eddie's complete story.

But there was a strange, shadowy era between 1980 and 1992 when interest about Eddie was widespread, yet reliable information about his life was scarce. The film I am reviewing this week is very much a product of that era. It is a 21-minute short from 1986 entitled Ed and Bela, written and directed by the team of Bart Aikens and Scott Allen Nollen. As the title suggests, the film focuses on the relationship between Wood and aging Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. Though crudely made and extremely low-budget, Ed and Bela is in many ways a precursor to Burton's Ed Wood and a fascinating artifact of its time.

First, a synopsis is in order. The film begins with a clip of the real Bela Lugosi in Invisible Ghost (1941). Lugosi's character, Charles Kessler, stares intently at a portrait of his AWOL wife (Betty Compson) and hopes that she will someday return to him. As we will see, this is foreshadowing, since the Lugosi character in this short is experiencing similar issues. The opening credits for Ed and Bela then appear over a still of Lugosi in Dracula (1931), accompanied by that much-recycled Universal horror music. This short film, we learn, is "dedicated to the memory of Dr. Edward Lowry, who would have enjoyed it immensely." Lowry was a film professor from Texas who befriended co-writer/director Nollen in the 1980s.

After the credits, we see a portion of a real 1950 interview with Lugosi. The legendary actor appears in very good spirits and seems at peace with being typecast as "Dracula and the bogeyman." Cut to Bart Aikens as a down-and-out Lugosi, circa 1954. The once-great star is passed out on the floor with a liquor bottle in his hand. This scene, like many in Ed and Bela, is filmed in a small, cramped office. Aikens would have been in his early 20s when this movie was made, and he looks it. Other than slicking the young actor's hair back and having him wear a tie, very little effort has been made to transform Aikens into the decrepit septuagenarian Lugosi of the 1950s. To enjoy Ed and Bela, you have to ignore the lack of verisimilitude. Aikens does attempt a Lugosi impression when he speaks later in the film, though to me he sounded more like Udo Kier or SCTV's Count Floyd.

A blurry dissolve later, we are seeing what is supposedly Bela's worst nightmare: his rival Boris Karloff (George Yatchsin) hijacking the role of Count Dracula and saying the famous "I never drink wine" line as Tod Browning films him. Back in "reality," Bela writhes in agony on the floor of the office as young Ed Wood (Jim Singletary) walks in and finds him. This character's appearance in Ed and Bela is extraordinary, as actor Jim Singletary looks uncannily like Johnny Depp in Ed Wood. In the scene, Eddie manages to pick Bela off the floor and get him into a chair, though the delusional Bela initially mistakes Ed Wood for Boris Karloff. "You took Dracula away from me, the greatest part I ever could have played!" he yells. "Then you took Lilian and Bela. Jr. away from me!" In this film, Bela is very much obsessed with his fourth wife, Lillian, who left him in 1953.

Two Ed Woods: Jim Singletary and Johnny Depp.
Bela eventually recognizes his current employer and benefactor, but Eddie sadly informs him, "You're hooked on booze and dope, my friend. Welcome to the club." On the bright side, though, Ed has some good news: "I've finished the screenplay! Yes, Bride of the Monster!" Bela is disappointed Eddie isn't making The Bela Lugosi Story. Eddie's alibi: "I don't know how it ends." But the director convinces his star that Bride of the Monster will be Lugosi's "comeback vehicle." Bela responds by guzzling from the bottle he still clutches.

Up next is a sequence showing the filming of Bride of the Monster. Remember, this is eight full years before Tim Burton's Ed Wood dramatized the same events! In Ed and Bela, Bela is depicted on the set of Bride with Tony McCoy (Robert Girardi) and Tor Johnson (Yatchsin again). The latter sports a full head of curly hair. His excuse: "Tor not bald in movies anymore!" The way Tor speaks, referring to himself in the third person, I have to wonder if the filmmakers were influenced by Drew Friedman's comics. Anyway, Bela starts boozing it up after saying only a couple of lines, causing Ed to scold him. Bela also seems dissatisfied with costar Tor Johnson: "Why can't he speak properly?"

Bela further complains about the filming of Bride being moved from the spacious Ted Allan Studios (located at the corner of Argyle and Yucca) to the more cramped Centaur Studios (at 7657 Melrose Avenue). So apparently that relatively obscure detail of the production was known to the public before Nightmare of Ecstasy. "It was never like this at Universal or Monogram," Bela laments before storming off. Tony McCoy is not amused. "I'm the associate producer on this picture," Tony reminds Ed, "and Dad put up all the money!" Eddie assures Tony he'll lure Bela back to the set.

Next up is a scene between Bela and his ex-wife Lillian (the ironically named Ann Boris), whom he calls "Lily." As it turns out, Lillian is no fan of Ed Wood. "Bela," she tells her former spouse, "that man is strange." She assures her ex-husband that Bela, Jr. is fine, but she has an ultimatum: "Commit yourself or I'll get rid of all those racy letters from Clara Bow." The steamy affair between Lugosi and Bow is a major motif of Ed and Bela, but it's something I really hadn't known about before watching this short. In the next scene, a very solitary Bela guzzles yet more booze while talking to a picture of Bow. He runs through his whole career, from Broadway to Poverty Row. Eventually, he just starts reciting a list of names: "Tod Browning! Helen Chandler! Davey Manners!" And, naturally, there are a few curses aimed at Boris Karloff along the way.

Eddie walks in, despondent, having failed to find a single poster for Glen or Glenda. Bela expresses his wish to retire temporarily from films due to the "shooting pains" in his legs and head. Eddie won't have it; he's got projects lined up for Bela through 1960. This scene really depicts Ed as a ghoul taking advantage of the feeble Bela. Resigning himself to the fact that Bela is going to rehab, Eddie asks, "Could I take the camera along to the hospital?" He says he wants to film it for The Bela Lugosi Story, but Bela angrily nixes this idea. Fade out.

Fade in. Ed is now reading a story in Variety about Bela's recovery. We then see that he's reciting the article aloud to a reinvigorated Bela, who claims to feel "ten times the man I was in 1931." Ed laments that Bela doesn't have "ten times the money you had in '31. We could make a decent picture!" Bela wants to make Dracula 3-D, but Eddie has other plans. Bela is to play "Mr. Ghoul" in the new movie Graverobbers from Outer Space. This provokes an amusing argument between Ed and Bela.
Bela: (frenzied) "You assured me you would direct me in Dracula 3-D!" 
Ed: (not looking up from his paper) "Yes, but, uh, Tor said we could shoot Graverobbers at his house, so it won't cost us anything."
Ed insists that the profits from Graverobbers will be funneled into Dracula 3-D and predicts: "I'm sure Graverobbers will be my magnum opus!" Ed and Bela then drink to Bela's newfound sobriety!

What follows is another sequence startlingly similar to Tim Burton's Ed Wood. Eddie shoots the silent footage of Bela that will eventually be used in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Bela walks toward the camera in his Dracula cape with his arms outstretched. The only difference is that he has his ever-present bottle of alcohol in one hand.

But this leads to some kind of fantasy sequence in which Ed and Bela actually work on Dracula 3-D. Eddie even wears 3-D glasses as he directs. Bela struggles through a few lines of dialogue ("I am Dracula! I bid you welcome!") but then segues into a rambling monologue from Glen or Glenda. You know, the stuff about "the big green dragon" and "big fat snails." Bela then dons his own pair of 3-D glasses and starts railing against (the absent) Boris Karloff. The actor has gone seriously off-script, but Eddie isn't fazed: "This'll be great for The Bela Lugosi Story!" Bela works himself into a frenzy, then collapses dead on the floor. At first, Eddie thinks the actor is just pretending. Eventually, he realizes the great man is deceased. "We haven't even finished Plan 9!" Eddie whines.

The mourners at Bela Lugosi's indoor funeral.
The next sequence is utterly bizarre and inexplicable. Eddie laboriously drags Bela's corpse out of the studio and into the hallway. In the next scene, the lifeless Bela has been propped up in a chair, where he is discovered by his horrified wife Hope (Ann Boris again). Since Lillian and Hope look identical, most first-time viewers will probably assume them to be the same person, but the end credits clarify that this is a dual role. What any of this material is doing in the film is unknown. It could be a comment on Bela making a posthumous appearance in Plan 9 from Outer Space, i.e. Eddie is using Bela's body even after the actor is dead.

The next scene is supposed to be Bela's funeral, though it's shot in the same dinky office space where most of the rest of the movie takes place. The mourners include Ed, Tony, Lillian/Hope (could be either one), and Tor/Boris (ditto). Co-director Scott Allen Nollen, mustachioed and wearing a fedora, paces in the background. Someone off-camera somberly intones: "Bela Lugosi, dead! Cause -- not dope, not drink, not heartbreak, but filmmaking!" Ed delivers a rambling eulogy, quoting a little of Glen or Glenda's prologue himself, then vowing: "I'll avenge you, Bela! I swear it! Film is my medium, and you are my cause!"

After that scene, Ed is shown watching Bride of the Monster on TV in haunted silence. Again, this is very similar to the scene in Ed Wood in which a grieving Eddie obsessively watches the silent Lugosi footage again and again.  After a blackout, Eddie is shown shuffling into the office, a stack of letters in his hand. He slumps down in a chair and laboriously opens one envelope. It's an eviction notice. Unfortunately, the movie is too blurry for this document to be legible, but it looks very much like the real eviction notices Eddie was getting by the late '70s. The date at the top of the letter says 1977, so the film has apparently jumped forward in time.

In the film's dialogue-free finale, Eddie walks unsteadily down the same sidewalk where he'd previously been filming Bela. As usual in this movie, there's a bottle of booze in his hand. He staggers toward what looks like a small chapel. In fact, it's Danforth Chapel at the University of Iowa -- appropriate, since this short was made in conjunction with the University of Iowa Bijou Film Board. I don't know if it's supposed to be Eddie's home in this movie or what. Inside, Eddie is watching a football game. (It appears to be Super Bowl XX from January 1986. Walter Payton is clearly visible.) Eddie collapses on the floor, also dead. The end. Roll credits.

What are we to make of Ed and Bela? This is obviously a labor of love on behalf of directors Scott Allen Nollen and Bart Aikens. The two kept collaborating on multiple projects for years afterward, including both independent films and music albums. In addition, Nollen became a noted historian and nonfiction author, publishing a series of film and TV-related books, most recently Henry Brandon: King of the Bogeymen in 2020. Unsurprisingly, Nollen has penned two books about Boris Karloff (in 1991 and 1999, respectively), plus volumes about Laurel & Hardy, Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, and much more. This is a man whose interests are varied and whose talent runs deep.

Ed and Bela is basically a student film, and it almost feels like something that was done in lieu of writing a term paper. I can imagine Aikens and Nollen digging into the life of Bela Lugosi, finding out about Ed Wood in the process, and then deciding to turn their findings into a short film rather than an essay. As I said earlier, information about Eddie was a lot more scarce in 1986, so the filmmakers had to find what few scraps of information they could and then extrapolate the rest. Interestingly, Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski attempted to make a Wood documentary of their own, The Man in the Angora Sweater, during their time at UCLA in the 1980s but were turned down by the school's film department. Who would have guessed that the University of Iowa was more open-minded when it came to these things?

The resulting short film by Aikens and Nollen is not exactly a technical marvel. More than anything, it resembles a grainy home movie. It's akin to watching an earnest but amateurish school play filmed on a camcorder. All through it, you hear the persistent, buzzing drone of the equipment. The editing, lighting, and camerawork are perfunctory at best. The acting comes in two distinct flavors: over and under. (See Aikens for the former, Singletary for the latter.) There was no money spent on niceties like sets, costumes, makeup, and props. The film's attempts at comedy, like having Bela blatantly swig from a bottle in literally every scene, are more head-scratching than funny. The narrative isn't crystal clear at all times, especially when the action leaps forward several decades near the end.

And yet, there's something undeniably appealing, even inspiring about this movie. The directors were telling the story of Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi years before Rudolph Grey or Tim Burton got around to it. Some of Ed and Bela is plainly hogwash, like Eddie's Weekend at Bernie's-style shenanigans with Bela's corpse. But there is an admirable amount of historical information crammed into these 21 minutes. I'm impressed that the filmmakers knew so much back then in those primitive, pre-Google days. Hell, I'm impressed that this film exists at all! The fact that they finished it and got it seen is perhaps their greatest accomplishment.