Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 110: The life and career of Ann Wilner

Ann Wilner: More than just a file clerk.

Toonerville's Katrinka: "I fix!"
She plays a memorable role in one of Ed Wood's most-seen movies, but very little has been written about character actress Ann Wilkins, aka Tillie the chatty file clerk in Bride of the Monster (1955). Even the exhaustive book Scripts from the Crypt: Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster (2019) by Gary Rhodes and Tom Weaver mentions Ann only in passing, saying that she gives a good performance. Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992) dutifully includes her in the cast list for Bride but misspells her name as "Anne" and gives no additional information about her. Eddie must've thought somewhat highly of Ann, since she's billed one notch higher than his own girlfriend Dolores Fuller in the opening credits.

Ann's first big scene in Bride of the Monster arrives about 18 minutes into the film. Crusading gal reporter Janet Lawton (Loretta King) is investigating some mysterious disappearances around Lake Marsh and the old Willow mansion, but she's getting stonewalled by her cop boyfriend, Lt. Dick Craig (Tony McCoy), and his jovial boss, Capt. Robbins (Harvey B. Dunn). She thinks there's a monster on the loose; the cops say otherwise. Acting on a hunch, Janet visits the file room at the newspaper office, where Tillie sits behind a cluttered desk. She looks like she never leaves this rather dark, shadowy room. Maybe she doesn't. As she tells Janet, "Take your time. I ain't going anyplace." Tillie is like some eternal guardian of the newspaper files, doomed to watch over them for all time.

Janet asks Tillie if she remembers when the old Willow place was sold "against back taxes." Tillie answers that it was sometime in late 1948 and directs her toward a conveniently handy filing cabinet. One dissolve later, Janet finally finds the item she was seeking and takes off to do more investigative journalism. Before departing the file room for what could be a wild adventure, Janet asks Tillie to make excuses to both the editor-in-chief  and to Dick. Tillie doesn't mind. "Leave it to me," the file clerk says with a wink. "I fix!" This may sound like an odd turn of phrase to us, but "I fix" was the catchphrase of the character Katrinka in the then-popular comic strip Toonerville Folks. Katrinka and her catchphrase also appeared in the Toonerville Trolley series of cartoons. So this moment in Bride of the Monster is basically like someone in your office doing a Borat impression. ("My wife!") Tillie's very name is reminiscent of another comic strip, Russ Westover's Tillie the Toiler.

Tillie's second scene arrives about 47 minutes into the film. This time it's Capt. Robbins who comes to Tillie's desk in his quest to find the missing Janet. Ann Wilner and Harvey B. Dunn bicker comedically for a while, but eventually the file clerk tells the cop that Janet was investigating the old Willow place. Throughout this entire scene, a pencil behind Tillie's ear comes and goes between shots. This must be one of Ed Wood's most famous continuity errors. When Bride was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1993, Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu) made a little game of keeping track of the disappearing/reappearing pencil.

Ann Wilkins struck me as the kind of sturdy, reliable actress who would probably have a long list of credits, but her IMDb page is shockingly sparse -- just Bride of the Monster and two measly appearances on the long-running sitcom The Jack Benny Program. One of those appearances came in a 1954 episode entitled "Jack Dreams He's Married to Mary," which sounded too intriguing to pass up. That title also serves as a handy plot summary. In Jack's dream, he and Mary Livingstone have been married for 21 years and have a 19-year-old daughter. Mary still works as a sales clerk at the May Company, while Jack stays home and does the cooking. He is unmistakably feminized by his frilly striped apron.

Ann turns up at about the 14:10 mark as Jack and Mary's beleaguered neighbor. Her name, said only once, sounds something like "Mrs. Krasmire," but the audio is a little staticky. As Mary sits on the front stoop of her brownstone apartment, exhausted after a long day of work, Ann sticks her head out a nearby window and strikes up a conversation. It seems that ten of this neighbor lady's twelve children have colds, and only one is old enough to go to school. Mary and Ann do not discuss religious matters, but I'd say Ann's character is not so subtly coded as Jewish, judging by her speech cadences straight out of Yiddish theater and the fact that her children have names like Irving, Herman, Leonard, and Sophie. Benny himself was Jewish.

So Ann Wilner did Bride of the Monster, a couple of Jack Benny episodes, and nothing else? That didn't seem plausible. I decided to investigate a little further. As I soon learned, Ann Z. Wilner was born on October 11, 1904 in Ohio. She died at the age of 59 on January 21, 1964 in Los Angeles and was buried at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City. Her grave lists her as a "beloved wife, mother [and] grandmother." A modest death notice ran in the January 23, 1964 edition of The Los Angeles Times. It listed a husband (Jack), four children (Robert Wilner, Dr. Freeman Wilner, Joyce Stone, and Linda Wilner), four siblings (Ben Zimmerman, Manuel Zimmerman, Lilian Maerson, and Hilda Goldberg), and seven unnamed grandchildren. No mention is made of her acting career.

Ann Wilner's obituary (left) and grave.

Anything else? Well, according to her voter registration records, she was a registered Democrat in 1944. She was living at 4515 W. 29th St. in Los Angeles and gave her occupation as "housewife." Ann was living at 1784 Garth Avenue in Los Angeles and was a registered Republican by 1952. (Not surprising, since that was the year Dwight Eisenhower first ran for president.) This residence turns out to be a quaint, smallish ranch-style house with one of those ubiquitous Spanish tile roofs. By 1960, Ann was a registered Democrat again and was living at 1704 S. Ogden Drive, still in Los Angeles. A death notice offered up her Social Security number (563-36-5981) and her mother's maiden name (Blumenstein). Interestingly, her birth date there is given as October 12, 1904 rather than October 11.

Anything else about Ann's acting career? Her headshot ran in the October 12, 1951 edition of a Hollywood newspaper called The Los Angeles Citizen News and identified her as playing a "leading role" in a Moss Hart play called Light Up the Sky at the Sartu Theater. Long gone, the Sartu Theater once stood at 7080 Hollywood Blvd., now home to a high-rise office building with a yoga studio in the lobby. The venue is perhaps best remembered for having played host to dancer Thelma Johnson Streat in 1951. 

Ann Wilner's name was up in lights in 1951.

Ann Wilner was again mentioned in The Los Angeles Citizen News on December 13, 1951. According to a very brief blurb, this "well-known character actress recently completed an important role in a Boston Blackie film at California Studio." A popular fictional detective in the first half of the 20th century, Boston Blackie appeared in 25 movies between 1918 and 1949, the last 14 of them made at Columbia Pictures with Chester Morris in the lead role. This was in addition to the character's adventures in print and on the radio. If there were additional Boston Blackie movies after 1949, they have not survived into our time.

Then there is what we must classify as "the Florida stuff." Specifically, Ms. Wilner (or someone with the same name) attracted some attention in the Florida press in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There's a brief but nice little article about her career, for instance, in the April 5, 1959 edition of The Miami Herald. The story identifies her as "a Miami Beach resident" but says she was working as a stage actress in Pasadena, CA as well. The story makes it sound as though Ann Willner ("a specialist in dialects") divided her time between California and Florida. That may be true. The article states that Ann's past characters include "a salty-tongued busybody." That certainly sounds like the lady from Bride of the Monster.

An article about Ann Wilner from The Miami Herald, 1959.

A much bigger story about Ann, however, appeared in the March 11, 1962 edition of The Miami Herald. On that day, the newspaper ran a rather elaborate story -- complete with multiple photographs -- about a real estate kerfuffle involving Ann Wilner's Miami duplex. It seems, through some administrative error, she was living in one residence but paying the mortgage on the place next door. The article itself, reproduced below, is not outstandingly interesting. It does, however, describe Ms. Wilner as "a one-time actress and now part-time painter." Better yet, the article includes a photo of Ann, who certainly does look like our friendly file clerk from Bride of the Monster.

A legal nightmare unfolds for Ann Wilner in 1962.

So is this all the same Ann Wilner or are there two actresses or perhaps even three with the same name? That I will leave for you to decide. Before we go, however, let's make things even more confusing. Remember The Los Angeles Citizen News, the paper that ran two articles about Ann in 1951? They also ran this item on February 17, 1953. This little paragraph raises a number of issues. First, it suggests that Ann had four sons, one of whom was named Norman. The earlier obituary said she had two sons, two daughters, and no Normans whatsoever. Second, it describes her as a "radio-TV actress." The TV part I can vouch for, but I know nothing of her supposed radio work. And the Ann Wilner I've been documenting thus far seems to have been better known for her stage work.

Norman? Who the hell is Norman?

I started this journey wanting to know a little bit more about Tillie the file clerk, and I think I got there in the end. She was a stage actress of Jewish descent from Ohio who moved to California, got married, raised a family, voted in some presidential elections, acted in a few stage plays, and did a smattering of TV and film work before dying at the too-young age of 59. After that, the details get a little hazy. By appearing in an Ed Wood movie, however, her place in pop culture history is secure.