Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 114: "I Awoke Early the Day I Died" (1974)

This particular screenplay was not produced until nearly two decades after Ed Wood's death.

Some academics think that the best, purest way to appreciate William Shakespeare is to read his plays as though they were novels. And, for several generations now, that's how millions of American schoolchildren have experienced Shakespeare; they're given mass market paperbacks of Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet in high school and instructed to read them in stages over a period of days or weeks. On the one hand, this approach allows students to savor and scrutinize Shakespeare's language at their own pace. On the other hand, we sometimes forget that these works are scripts, i.e. blueprints for live performances. The author fully meant for them to be acted out in front of an audience. Would Shakespeare even want us reading his plays this way, divorced from a theatrical setting?

It may be folly to equate William Shakespeare with Edward D. Wood, Jr., but I have similarly conflicted thoughts whenever it's time to review one of Eddie's screenplays. In many ways, these documents are fascinating and offer us tremendous insight into Ed's creative process. On the page, these movies can be every bit as good as Ed Wood wanted them to be, without clumsy performances, shabby sets, or other technical or budgetary limitations getting in the way. But the only real test of a screenplay is whether or not it can be made into an entertaining, involving film. Scripts generally aren't meant to stand on their own as works of art.
A vintage Ed Wood screenplay.

Recently, in a Facebook forum devoted to Ed Wood, Bob Blackburn shared his copy of one of Wood's most famous screenplays: I Awoke Early the Day I Died from 1974. Though Eddie labored over this script for over a decade, it never went into production during his lifetime. The Day I Died first came to the attention of Wood's fans in 1992, thanks to Rudolph Grey's seminal biography Nightmare of Ecstasy. In that book, Wood's widow Kathy recalled that the script was one of the few items Eddie managed to save after being evicted from his so-called "Yucca Flats" apartment in 1978. Then, in the "Unrealized Projects" segment of the filmography, Grey offered a relatively lengthy and lavish description of the script, calling it "quintessential Ed Wood with its thematic obsession with death, graveyards, burlesque and the grotesque." Grey also said: "Of all Wood's projects in his last years, this was his personal favorite."

Just six years after Nightmare of Ecstasy (and four years after Tim Burton's Ed Wood), the long-gestating screenplay was finally produced under the title I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. It was directed by newcomer Aris Iliopulos and starred Billy Zane (of Titanic fame) and an eclectic all-star cast. I reviewed that film extensively back in 2014, calling it "a cross between a very long music video and an extremely chic high-fashion photo shoot." Above all, however, it is important to remember that it is not really an Ed Wood movie in the purest sense; it is an Aris Iliopulos movie. This new director interpreted Wood's script in his own unique style, making aesthetic choices that did not strike me as particularly Woodian. While I Woke Up Early the Day I Died is an enjoyable, worthwhile experience, I'm not sure if Eddie would have been flattered by it or just confused. Maybe both.

Reading Ed Wood's screenplay allowed me to imagine the movie that Ed himself would have made, if he'd been able to scrounge up the money. Right away, the document presents us with an intriguing mystery. A blue, printed cover page calls the script I Awoke Early the Day I Died, but this is followed by a typed title page that calls it I Woke Up Early --- The Morning I Died. Similar sentiments, but different phrasing. Again, this was a script that Eddie worked on for years, and it seems to have undergone numerous title changes during that time. Perhaps the final title came from Kathy Wood herself, since she refers to the project as I Woke Up Early the Day I Died in her interview with Rudolph Grey.

The plot should be familiar to anyone who saw the 1998 movie. A crazed young man, known only as The Thief, escapes from a mental hospital disguised as a nurse and proceeds to go on a wild crime spree lasting several days. He robs a loan office, killing the manager in the process, and unwisely stashes the loot in an open grave. I say "unwisely" because it turns out that this run-down cemetery belongs to a mysterious cult and the bodies buried in it are being transferred somewhere else. In his obsessive quest to retrieve his money, The Thief ruthlessly stalks and kills anyone he thinks has wronged him until he meets his own inevitable fate.

The chief gimmick of this script is that it is a feature-length story told entirely without dialogue. There are references to music and sound effects throughout, but not one articulate word is uttered in 70 pages. Perhaps Ed Wood was giving himself a writing challenge with this project, just to see if he could really do it. Or maybe he simply wanted to shoot a movie without the hassle of synchronized sound as a potential cost-cutting move. Either way, this gimmick does set The Day I Died apart from Eddie's other feature scripts. Unfortunately, those who usually enjoy Eddie's extremely quotable dialogue and narration are out of luck here.

I Awoke Early the Day I Died is virtually all action, and it's marked by a lot of quick cuts. Eddie seems intent on keeping the pace of the movie frantic, with scarcely a moment for The Thief or the audience to relax. One thing I couldn't help but notice is that the script is very specific in its listing of camera angles, edits, and camera moves. People think of Eddie as being totally unschooled in the technical side of filmmaking, but this document suggests otherwise. He had a very strong idea of how he wanted this material to be shot. By 1974, he'd probably played these scenes in his head dozens of times. Again, I can only wonder what he'd think of the 1998 film.

Thematically, just as Rudolph Grey described, I Awoke Early the Day I Died is rich in Woodian themes and motifs. The story takes place in back alleys, flop houses, dive bars, cemeteries, carnivals -- all of the places Eddie loved to visit in his fiction. You get the sense that he was exploring the sleazy underside of Los Angeles that he knew all too well. Perhaps even The Thief is a manifestation of Eddie's own worst tendencies, especially when he was driven to violent anger by alcohol. All of Ed Wood's classic muses are here: death, booze, sex, and women's clothing. Yes, he even goes out of his way to mention negligees and marabou in his stage directions, even though these items have little impact on the plot. They're important to him.

Purely as a reading experience, this is rather choppy and disjointed, with the technical jargon getting in the way of the narrative somewhat. But as I've been saying, this script wasn't meant to be experienced as a piece of literature. Ed had his short stories and novels for that. This was meant to be a film, and Eddie definitely wrote this for himself to direct. The most fun passages of I Awoke Early the Day I Died arrive when Ed Wood takes the time to set the scene, as in this description of a depressing bar and its equally depressing inhabitants:

An excerpt from I Awoke Early the Day I Died.

That's some classic Wood prose, worthy of one of his short stories. Passages like that ultimately make reading the script a rewarding experience. As for the movie Eddie would've made of this, all we can do is dream.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Podcast Tuesday: "Sweethearts of the Rodeo"

Marion Ross and Tom Bosley in their Western duds.

"Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above. Don't fence me in." That was apparently the thinking behind "Westward Ho," the three-part Western adventure that kicked off Season 6 of Happy Days in September 1978. For this epic cowboy saga, featuring both a rodeo and a hoedown, Garry Marshall took pretty much the entire cast out to the Paramount Studios ranch in Agoura Hills, CA. (The only absentees were Scott Baio and Lynda Goodfriend, who were busy filming Who's Watching the Kids? for NBC.)

The plot has the Cunninghams traveling to Colorado in order to work on Marion's uncle's failing ranch, the Bar A. They take Ralph, Al, and Potsie along with them, and Fonzie even drops by, too. While there, they tangle with a nasty rival ranch owner, H.R. Buchanan (played by the wonderfully hammy Jason Evers of Brain That Wouldn't Die infamy). Meanwhile, Richie begins an awkward quasi-romance with comely cowgirl Thunder McCoy (Ruth Cox). Oh, and Joanie somehow winds up on a runaway hay cart.

Why take the Happy Days gang out of Milwaukee and have them wear cowboy hats and ride horses? Variety, that's why. By this point in the series, most of the action on the show took place on three main sets: the Cunninghams' living room, Fonzie's apartment, and Arnold's Drive-In. After a while, the writers must have gone a little stir crazy and longed to write scenes that took place anywhere else. Besides, after Season 4's "Fonzie Loves Pinky" and Season 5's "Hollywood," there was a precedent for Happy Days starting its seasons this way.

As it turned out, "Westward Ho" was the last of the movie-like Happy Days three-parters. It's nice, then, that it's the most ridiculous and over-the-top of them all. But is it any good? And is it still worth watching today? Find out by listening to the latest episode of These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Ed Wood Summit Podcast #5 by Greg Dziawer

Dr. T.K. Peters was a seemingly endless source of books.

Sketchy as they might seem, Ed Wood's textbooks on human sexuality from the 1960s and '70s do have some vague basis in actual scientific research. And that is due to the groundbreaking work of one Dr. T.K. Peters (1879-1973), a highly accomplished man I find immensely fascinating. In fact, I talked all about him in last week's edition of The Ed Wood Summit Podcast. Among other things, I wanted to clear up the misconception that Wood and Peters were one and the same person.

After that deep dive into Peters' life, I thought I would continue the story in this week's video. Earlier today, the mailman delivered to my home a vintage Peters book that was entirely new to me called A Study of Intimate Sexual Problems. This particular volume was written in 1970 and published in 1971 by SECS Press, an arm of Pendulum Publishing. It's credited to Frank Leonard and Dr. T.K. Peters. But who really wrote it? Could Ed Wood have been involved? Take a guess before pressing play on the video. Here are your choices:
a. Dr T.K. Peters 
b. Leo Eaton 
c. Hal Kantor 
d. Frank Leonard and Ed Wood 
e. Leo Eaton, from a source by Dr T.K. Peters

Before you go, let me add one last anecdote about Dr, Peters. In 1908, he constructed a studio set for Biograph, an early film company, at Pico Blvd. and Georgia St. It was quite a historic site. The legendary D.W. Griffith even shot there. When Peters visited the Pendulum magazine office on W. Pico Blvd sixty full years later, one can only imagine his sense of deja vu.

P.S. For the first time in the history of The Ed Wood Summit Podcast, I'm pleased to present a very special and unexpected guest, my cat Ivy.

Ivy and Greg are vlog buddies.

Previous episodes of The Ed Wood Summit Podcast can be found here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Podcast Tuesday: "Three Angry Men (And Nine Quiet Ones)"

Barney Martin and Tom Bosley on Happy Days.

How do you keep a sitcom on the air for 11 seasons? How do you possibly come up with over 200 stories for your characters without blatantly repeating yourself? Well, naturally, you have your writers draw from their own lives... as well as the lives of their family and friends. If you've exhausted that material, you look for a hook, i.e. any element you could possibly hang a story on -- a holiday, a sport, a vacation, some kind of weather event, etc. You take your characters on a camping trip in the woods to see how they'd react to that environment. You send them to Hawaii. You have them celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter or Halloween or whatever. You send a storm to their hometown.

But another thing you can do is simply borrow plots that have worked for other writers in the past. It seems like every long-running show eventually does its own version of A Christmas Carol or It's a Wonderful Life. Maybe both. And there are few plots more evergreen than 12 Angry Men. Reginald Rose originally wrote this tense legal drama for television back in 1954. With Robert Cummings in the lead, it aired as an installment of Studio One in Hollywood. But it was Sidney Lumet's 1957 film with Henry Fonda as Juror #8 that turned 12  Angry Men into a true American classic, destined to be copied and parodied by other shows for decades.

"Fonzie for the Defense," the Happy Days Season 5 finale, is just one of many such homages in popular culture. What makes this one especially interesting is that it features Barney Martin of Seinfeld fame as one of the jurors -- in fact, a virulently racist juror who wants to hang a young Black man (Ralph Wilcox) for purse snatching.

What did we think of this unusual episode? Find out by listening to the latest episode of These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast. Since this is a season finale, my cohost and I both weigh in with our thoughts on the entire season, including our Top 5 lists!

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Ed Wood Summit Podcast #4 by Greg Dziawer

This week, Greg examines the mysterious yet prolific Dr. T.K. Peters.

My mind never strays far from Dr. T.K. Peters (1879-1973). A true pop-culture enigma, this man's prodigious life of adventure continues to inspire me, nearly half a century after his passing. Thomas Kimmwood Peters was many things -- scholar, historian, inventor, author, etc. What makes him relevant to us is that, through his writings on sex, he played a small but significant role in the Ed Wood saga.

Shed no tears for Dr. Peters, however. He accomplished a century of living while maintaining an unquenchable thirst. Peters is not, despite some fan theories, a pseudonym for Ed Wood. He was very much his own man, and this week, I aim to tell you all about him. Join me for the fourth episode of The Ed Wood Summit Podcast in which I give you an overview of his life and set the stage for an eventual full reckoning of his incredible legacy.

If that video piqued your interest, check out these previous articles, which provide a little related color around the esteemed Dr. Peters.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Podcast Tuesday: "More Like Lumber JERKS, Am I Right?"

Ben Davidson hoists Lynda Goodfriend as Ron Howard watches on Happy Days.

It's inevitable. Sooner or later, the writers on every sitcom grow tired of utilizing the same few sets over and over. How many scenes can you write featuring the same kitchen, living room, and restaurant week after week? It begins to feel like you're trapped in TV purgatory! Eventually, you want to take your characters and put them somewhere else -- anywhere else -- just to see how they react to a new environment.

That's how we get episodes like "Rules to Date By" from the fifth season of Happy Days in 1978. This story takes young Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and his pals to a remote lumberjack bar in northern Wisconsin during a snowstorm. Why are they there? Don't worry about it. It has something to do with rocker Leather Tuscadero (Suzi Quatro) needing a backup band. Why Fonzie (Henry Winkler) tagged along, I cannot say. 

The point is, the plot of this episode takes the Happy Days characters far out of their comfort zone. See, this week, Richie's been arguing with his girlfriend Lori Beth (Lynda Goodfriend) because he thinks she's too friendly with other men. Well, at the Blue Ox Inn, Lori Beth's friendliness attracts the unwanted romantic attention of a hulking lumberjack called Oaktree (Ben Davidson). Can Richie and Fonzie save Lori Beth from this log-rolling lothario? Tune in and find out!

You can find out what we thought of "Rules to Date By" by listening to the latest episode of These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast. It's embedded below. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Summit Podcast #3 by Greg Dziawer and Joe Blevins

Are you ready for socially conscious Ed Wood?

For this week's Ed Wood Summit Podcast, I sat down with blogger Joe Blevins to discuss Watts... The Difference, the first of Eddie's two Watts paperbacks, both originally published by Pad Library in 1967. (Watts... The Difference was also reprinted in 1969 by Selected Adult Library as Burn Baby Burn and credited to the nonexistent Ray Jones.) While Ed wrote many erotic novels during this time, the Watts books stand out because of their connection to historic events.

Following the adventures of an African-American actor named Rocky Alley and told largely in flashbacks, Watts...The Difference is set in South Central Los Angeles during the Watts Uprising of August 1965. For nearly a week, the Watts neighborhood was the site of intense civil unrest, with the destruction eventually spreading across 46 square miles of L.A. At the time, newscasters compared the area to a warzone. While the violence in Watts was rooted in longstanding racial inequality, it was a traffic stop that set it all ablaze.

Apparently, Ed Wood's imagination was also set ablaze by these events. Curious what Ed will make of this incendiary backdrop? Watch the review to find out!

The original cover art.
And just to give you a little flavor for this astonishing book, here's a selection of memorable quotes from Watts... The Difference:
  • "I carry an angora sweater with me all the time."
  • "Lover...I believe you're an advocate of the bottomless bathing suit also..."
  • "One day you're standing around on a street corner looking at everybody, then the next there is only the big black."
  • "You might be causing them a time of it in their jeans..."
  • " IS control!"
  • "Good Christ, man, I knowed it was you all the time."
  • "The girl was a petite little negro with long raven black hair which fell lavishly down the back of her yellow mohair slipover sweater."
  • "Her little butt rode the yellow stretch capris like jello in a perfect mold."
  • "Rape me Rocky...Hurt me Rocky...Rape me..."
  • "He was never in male attire if he could help it and absolutely never without panties..."
  • "...loot - burn - kill - burn Whitey to his knees..."

ADDENDUM: To provide further insight into this era, I have uploaded this 1967 sermon by pastor and politician Adam Clayton Powell entitled "Burn, Baby, Burn." Powell talks about the Watts rioters and explains why he sympathizes with their plight but does not endorse their actions. - J.B.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Podcast Tuesday: "Al by Himself"

Al Molinaro on Happy Days.

Al as Murray the Cop.
It is now time to sing the praises of Al Molinaro (1919-2015). With his soulful eyes and drooping nose, this lovable character actor from Kenosha, Wisconsin became familiar to generations of TV viewers due to his roles as Murray the cop on The Odd Couple and Al Delvecchio, proprietor of Arnold's, on Happy Days. These two characters are essentially the same: sweet, befuddled, naïve, and more than a little gullible. Hey, sometimes it pays to specialize.

Molinaro didn't actually join the cast of Happy Days until the fourth season in 1976, when he stepped in to replace the departing Pat Morita. When Al finally debuted, it was as part of the bonkers "Fonzie Loves Pinky" three-parter -- you know, the episodes with Pinky Tuscadero (Roz Kelly) and the Malachi Crunch. Somehow, even amid all that chaos, Al managed to stand out. Molinaro stayed with the show off and on until the end of its run in 1984, though he was temporarily furloughed to the Joanie Loves Chachi spinoff. Rest assured, Al Molinaro is part of the series finale, "Passage (Part 2)." He also appeared as his Happy Days character in the 1994 Weezer video "Buddy Holly," directed by Spike Jonze. 

Acting had been a dream deferred for Molinaro, who wasn't able to pursue the profession he loved full-time until he was financially independent from real estate. Eventually, in the 1960s, he started landing guest roles on show like Bewitched and Green Acres. Actress Penny Marshall introduced Al to her brother, TV producer Garry Marshall. That led to the roles on The Odd Couple and Happy Days. The rest, as they say...

This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, we talk about "Second Wind." First airing in May 1978 as part of Happy Days' fifth season, this was the first episode to focus on the character of Al Delvecchio. Is this episode worthy of him? Find out by listening to our latest episode.