Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 115: The Wild, Untamed Credits of Ed Wood's 'Jail Bait' (1954)

Jail Bait remains mysterious, all these decades later.

Sixty-seven years after its release, Jail Bait (1954) remains the overlooked middle child of Ed Wood's early filmography. Even with its outrageous plastic-surgery-at-gunpoint plot twist, this low budget noir thriller simply isn't as flashy as Bride of the Monster (1955), Glen or Glenda (1953), or Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Jail Bait has no killer octopuses, zombies, or flying saucers to offer its viewers. Criswell, Tor Johnson, and Bela Lugosi are AWOL. The most overtly Wood-ian flourishes are in the wardrobe: Mona McKinnon's furry hat, Dolores Fuller's lacy nightgown, and Theodora Thurman's silk pajamas.

I guess we're not supposed to pay much attention to Jail Bait, kind of like how we're not supposed to focus too much on Zeppo during the Marx Brothers' movies. Perhaps paradoxically, that's why I find it so compelling. I've already written articles about the film's young star, Clancy Malone, and its (sort of) composer, Hoyt Curtin, plus I coauthored a piece about the aforementioned Ms. Thurman. But this week, I just wanted to dive right into the film's credits and see if there were any names that stuck out for whatever reason, preferably names I hadn't given much thought in the past.

Let's take this list of supporting players as a starting point. A seasoned Ed Wood fan should be able to recognize almost all these people, save for one -- the guy at the very top of the list! Who in the heck is John Robert Martin and why is he billed over Herbert Rawlinson, Timothy Farrell, Steve Reeves, and the rest?

Who is that first guy again?

For the record, the man pictured below is John Robert Martin. A lanky, dark-haired actor with a grim countenance and a monotonous delivery, he plays Detective McCall in Jail Bait. This character, a dour plainclothesman in a drab suit, first shows up at about the 26-minute mark and exchanges some terse, Jack Webb-style dialogue with Don Nagel's Detective Davis.
McCall: Did you call the Inspector?

Davis: Oh yeah. Messy things, these shootings.

McCall: (putting his hand on Davis' shoulder) Stick around a couple more years. A bullet makes things real rosy compared to other methods.

Davis: Yeah, I guess you're right, but this is bad enough.

McCall: (barely interested) You think she'll live?

Davis: Oh, sure. The bullet hit her high and passed right on through. In a couple of days, she won't even remember the pain.

McCall: Well, you should've been a doctor, not a cop.

John Robert Martin in Jail Bait.

By this point in the movie, gangster Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell) and thrill-seeking rich kid Don Gregor (Clancy Malone) have already robbed the Monterey Theatre payroll office and killed poor security guard Mac (Bud Osborne). McCall is one of the cops who converge on the theater after the dirty deed is done. He stands a head taller than the actors around him, positively dwarfing partner Don Nagel. When Lyle Talbot's Inspector Johns finally shows up, Detective McCall briefs him on the crime and then serves as his interlocutor for the rest of the sequence.

All of this takes roughly three minutes. McCall then vanishes for about 37 minutes and reemerges during the climactic unveiling of Vic Brady's new surgically-altered face. John Robert Martin doesn't say or do anything of particular interest, though Ed gives him a couple of queasy closeups. When Vic tries to make a break for it, McCall briefly pursues him but does not take part in the climactic poolside shootout. And that's it for this character.

I can't say why John Robert Martin receives such prominent billing in Jail Bait. He gets a fairly decent amount of screen time but doesn't make a terribly strong impression. Detective McCall just seems like another dull functionary, a man doing a job without fanfare. John Robert Martin's only other recorded screen role is in the 1952 female-driven Western, Outlaw Women, where he is billed simply as John Martin, just as he is on the Jail Bait poster.

John Martin's name in Outlaw Women (left) and Jail Bait (right).

Outlaw Women, incidentally, is a great find for Ed Wood fanatics. Eddie would certainly have been excited by the prospect of female gunslingers in the Old West, since he wrote about the same topic in several of his short stories. Like Jail Bait, Outlaw Women was distributed theatrically by Howco. The two films have several actors in common besides John Martin, including Lyle Talbot, Dolores Fuller, and Bud Osborne. Wood veterans Angela Stevens (The Sun Was Setting) and Tom Tyler (Crossroad Avenger) also appear here. 

Moreover, the film was codirected by Sam Newfield and Ron Ormond. The latter name should be familiar to Ed Wood fans, since Jail Bait borrowed its nerve-jangling score from Ormond's Mesa of Lost Women (1953) and an entire blackface sequence from Ormond's Yes Sir, Mr. Bones (1951). Newfield, on the other hand, directed the notorious I Accuse My Parents (1944), yet again featuring Bud Osborne. The plot of I Accuse My Parents is vaguely similar to that of Jail Bait. Both films are about restless rich kids who foolishly get involved with shady gangsters.

Listed in the closing credits for Jail Bait, actress La Vada Simmons caught my interest this time around, too. Jail Bait was her only movie, and she gives the kind of stiff, self-aware performance you might expect from a one-timer. She plays Miss Dorothy Lytell, a cheery, uniform-wearing nurse who works for renowned surgeon Dr. Boris Gregor (Herbert Rawlinson) in his very unconvincing-looking office. We first see her awkwardly pretending to read a book; she then exchanges some dialogue with Don Gregor but apparently doesn't pick up on his troubled mood.

(left) La Vada Simmons models a swimsuit in 1941; (right) La Vada in Jail Bait (1954).

Biographical information on La Vada Simmons is a little tough to come by, since there are multiple women with that colorful name. The IMDb has her being born in Iowa in 1874, which can't possibly be right. A few promising newspaper clippings from the 1940s bear her name, though. On June 26, 1941, for instance, The Tyler Morning Telegraph ran a wire service picture of La Vada in a modest one-piece swimsuit. Apparently, she was a California beauty pageant contestant. The caption reads: 
"La Vada Simmons, above, may not be a water baby, but she may well end up with the 'Beach Girl' title during the annual Sun, Surf and Sand Days celebration at Long Beach, Calif., where she's pictured. Judging from the size of the hat, Miss Simmons expects more sun than surf. Beauties from all over the state will vie for the title."
Additionally, I found numerous articles from 1942 to 1945 about a professional roller skater named La Vada Simmons. She was paired with a man named Hugh Thomas in a touring show called Skating Vanities. La Vada Simmons performed in Los Angeles, Montreal, Cincinnati, and San Francisco, among other locales. Here's a picture from December 5, 1943 edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer. Could it be the same La Vada from Jail Bait? Your call.

Is this the same La Vada Simmons from Jail Bait? Could be.

Speaking of Dr. Gregor's office, this is honestly the first time I noticed that it's the exact same set as the one Timothy Farrell used as Dr. Alton in Glen or Glenda. Same bookcase, same desk, same walls, same door, even the same painting by the door. Only the chair has been moved from one side to the other.

Maybe Dr. Gregor (left) and Dr. Alton (right) share an office.

I was also intrigued by the unnamed female reporter who accosts Don Nagel at the crime scene. Clearly a first cousin to the nosy Janet Lawton (Loretta King) in Bride of the Monster, our gal is first seen talking to her trusty photographer, a short, bald, and somewhat dilapidated man named Louie who does not speak and who communicates only with hand gestures. Ed Wood didn't bother to credit the actor playing Louie, but the end credits tell us that the "newspaper woman" is played by actress Regina Claire.

Regina is another one-film wonder, but her brief sequence crackles with a weird energy that sets it apart from the rest of Jail Bait. Again, I can't believe it's taken me this long to notice this part of the movie. Desperate to get the scoop on the Monterey Theatre murder, the nameless reporter first threatens Detective Davis, then tries to seduce him. All he can say is: "Please, lady, I'm on duty!" I couldn't dig up much info on the actress, but this clipping from the October 20, 1954 edition of The Los Angeles Evening Citizen News looks propitious. 

(left) Regina Claire approaches "Louie"; (right) Regina Claire presides over a Hollywood roundtable.

But let's get back to those opening credits, huh? The screenshot below offers a veritable smorgasbord of interesting names -- too many leads to follow in just one article. We will likely never know who mononymous production assistant "Esko" was, unfortunately. Even Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992) offers no clues as to this person's identity. But there are some other worthy candidates listed here among the crew.

Let's get to know the crew!

What's the deal with dialogue coach Vicki Cottle? She, too, lacks other movie credits, but surely her life did not begin and end with a few days' work on Ed Wood's Jail Bait. As you might expect, Vicki played an active role in the Sacramento theater scene in the 1940s and '50s. Here she is in the November 9, 1950 edition of The Sacramento Bee, costarring in the Sacramento Junior College production of Eugene O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon.

Vicki Cottle in Beyond the Horizon.

On October 13, 1949, The Sacramento Bee reported that Vicki was playing the role of Mary Capp in a production of Charles II as part of the Centennial Play Festival at Sacramento's Eaglet Theater.

Vicki Cottle in Charles II.

There are similar mentions of Vicki Cottle's theatrical career, all of them appearing in The Sacramento Bee, ranging from 1949 to 1954. An article in the May 26, 1950 edition states that Vicki served as treasurer in the Sacramento Junior College Dramatic Art Society. After the mid-1950s, Vicki seemingly dropped off the showbiz radar, and the Bee stopped writing about her. Maybe she gave up on those acting dreams of hers? An ad in the October 5, 1967 edition of The Arroyo Grande Valley Herald Reporter suggests Vicki may have moved south and switched careers.

"Expert wig cutting."

Various California newspaper articles mention a bluegrass musician named Vicki Cottle in the 1980s and '90s, but it seems highly unlikely it's the same woman. The beauty parlor ad was a stretch, but I just couldn't resist including it.

This article is already getting out of hand, and I haven't even started to talk about editor Igo Kantor, whose astonishing career encompasses everything from Russ Meyer sexploitation movies to Bob Hope Christmas specials, not to mention The Monkees, The Kentucky Fried Movie, and Kingdom of the Spiders. Jail Bait might have been his first-ever screen credit! Then there's Ray Mercer, whose filmography is equally as astounding. (Ray even toiled on I Accuse My Parents.) I also wanted to investigate some of the companies thanked in the opening credits, such as Chic & Pandora lingerie and Westwood Knitting Mills.

Let's thank the sponsors, huh? Aren't they great?

I suppose it depends on how well this article is received and whether I feel like doing another one in the future. But there's still a lot to explore in the world of Jail Bait.