|Barbara Parsons and Conrad Brooks in Range Revenge (1948).
What was Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s first movie? That sounds like a pretty basic question, but the answer is not immediately clear. As with determining his so-called "last" movie, a lot depends on your definitions and parameters.
If you were going strictly by Tim Burton's 1994 biopic Ed Wood, you'd think that Eddie had never stepped behind a camera until he made Glen or Glenda (1953). In Burton's film, he decides on the spur of the moment to become a filmmaker and assembles a cast and crew through his theater and studio contacts. But dedicated fans know that our man from Poughkeepsie had been involved in both film and TV productions for several years by the time he made Glenda.
If you don't limit yourself to Ed's feature-length directorial efforts, the field of candidates for his "first movie" widens considerably. How far back do you want to go? In Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992), a man named Fred Robertson -- apparently a friend of Eddie's father -- remembered seeing about four minutes of footage that Ed Wood shot as an adolescent with his first camera. Robertson recalled "scenes of [Ed] playing G-man with cap pistols" and "a couple of guys playing cops and robbers." So it sounds like there was at least some semblance of a narrative to what I'll call The Robertson Footage.
Do we count this as Ed Wood's first movie? Before you answer, consider that the current IMDb entries for such prominent filmmakers as Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, and the Coen brothers contain similar homemade efforts. Incidentally, I think I've discovered a slight discrepancy in the saga of Ed Wood's infamous first camera. A photo caption in Nightmare says that Eddie received a "Kodak City [sic] Special," as a gift on his 17th birthday in 1941. But in that same book, Kathy Wood relates an anecdote about her late husband filming the doomed Hindenburg airship, which famously crashed in 1937. Was this yet another of Eddie's tall tales?
|Ed Wood clutches a Kodak 16mm camera.
Since The Robertson Footage has never resurfaced, let's confine ourselves to Ed Wood's professional efforts from his 30-year tenure in Hollywood. Most filmographies, including the one in Nightmare, begin with the wobbly Western called Streets of Laredo or Crossroads of Laredo, shot in 1948 but abandoned in post-production and not completed until 1995. When I began this series of articles eight years ago, Laredo was the first Ed Wood movie I reviewed. At the time, I called it "very primitive and somewhat of a chore to watch."
A dark horse candidate for Ed's directorial debut is another 1948 Western -- Range Revenge, starring Wood mainstay Conrad Brooks and his two brothers, Henry and Ted, alongside Barbara Parsons and B-Western star Johnny Carpenter. Rudolph Grey doesn't even mention Range Revenge in Nightmare of Ecstasy. Other books like Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (2001), The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood (2015), and Ed Wood, Mad Genius (2009) skip over it, too.
Conrad Brooks alone kept the memory of the film alive. The first opportunity fans had to see this footage was in 1993, when Connie hosted a grab-bag-style documentary called Hellborn: The Aborted Masterpiece of Edward D. Wood, Jr., produced in conjunction with Cult Movies magazine. That hourlong tape contains previously unseen footage from Eddie's abandoned juvenile delinquent movie Hellborn, but it also includes what Brooks claims is Ed Wood's first professional directing job in Hollywood.
Connie's story about the footage goes this way: In 1948, he and his brother, Henry Bederski, were visiting Hollywood from their native Baltimore for a few weeks. They hadn't come West to be in showbiz necessarily, but they got to know a few people in the industry, including Edward D. Wood, Jr., himself fairly recently arrived from Poughkeepsie. Connie and Ed became fast friends, and Henry told Ed about his plan to make a modest "home movie" of himself and his brother to send back to Baltimore.
Sensing an opportunity, Eddie took over the project, offering to film the little screen test on a "good camera" for $60. That's nearly $700 in today's money, probably a hefty chunk of change for Conrad Brooks in those days. Henry and Connie felt Ed was overcharging them, but they acquiesced because they liked him and felt he needed the cash. The original plan was for Connie to act, Henry to direct, and Eddie to act as cameraman. Once they started filming on 16mm in Griffith Park, however, Ed cajoled Henry into acting and took over as director.
As with The Robinson Footage, it seems like there was at least some attempt at a narrative with Range Revenge. "The script was thrown away," Brooks told Cult Movies editor Michael Copner with a chuckle. This suggests that there was a script in the first place. Despite that, the actor remembers the shoot being a lot of fun. Brooks balks at giving the film a title. "Call it whatever you like," he jovially tells Copner.
In later interviews, however, the actor specifically referred to the project as Range Revenge and said that his brother Henry had written a script for it and was annoyed by Eddie's interference. According to Brooks, Ed Wood "took over the whole picture" and "just shot things at random." The 11 minutes of overexposed black-and-white footage on the Hellborn tape bear out that description.