Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 120: A brief introduction to "Range Revenge"

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. 

Since these 11 minutes of film are silent, Conrad Brooks provides a running commentary on the Hellborn tape. Here is what Range Revenge actually consists of:
  • We begin with footage of Ed Wood and Henry Bederski walking down Melrose Avenue by RKO Studios in Hollywood. Connie must be operating the (rented) camera at this point. Henry is wearing a full cowboy getup. We see a series of billboards for the movie So This Is New York (1948) starring comedian Henry Morgan. 
  • Then the camera pans to the other side of the street, and we see a long-gone restaurant called the Playboy Cafe at 5347 Melrose. This block was long ago annexed by nearby Paramount Studios, so nothing of this restaurant remains. The studio facility across the street is still intact, though.
  • This is followed by footage of Ed and Henry emerging from Western Costume, the famous Hollywood wardrobe rental business. The business was located on Melrose at that point. (It's on Vanowen St. today.) Henry is dressed as a cowboy. Ed looks very dapper in his suit.
  • After a few seconds of Hollywood traffic, we see a structure that Conrad Brooks refers to as Chaplin Studios at Sunset and Labrea. Connie's other brother, Ted Brooks, walks across the street. He, too, is dressed as a cowboy.
  • Ted walks in front of Charlie Chaplin's home on the studio lot, then stands around on Sunset Blvd. Connie says this footage was shot by Ed Wood. Eddie pans his camera upward so we can see the palm trees.
  • More footage of the offices and bungalows at Chaplin Studios. Ted Brooks walks around aimlessly. Connie notes that the footage is overexposed but "we were fortunate to get this much."
  • After a fade to black and a slow fade in, we are now in a large, empty field. Western star Johnny Carpenter, with whom Eddie worked on numerous projects, is balancing on the back of his horse, Patterfoot. Carpenter rides Patterfoot around the muddy field a little, then dismounts. Connie says this footage was shot "on Riverside Drive, right near Los Feliz Boulevard." Carpenter tends to Patterfoot and chases a second, unnamed horse around a little.
  • At last, we get to the footage shot in Griffith Park. Connie tells us that this was the original opening to Range Revenge. The camera pans down from the mountains to show two cowboys -- one (Connie) on horseback and the other (Ted) in a sleeping bag. Is it possible that Ed was renting the horses for the production from Johnny Carpenter and decided to get a little footage of Johnny while he was there? Connie does say that Johnny taught him to ride. Perhaps that was part of the rental process.
  • Wearing a light-colored hat, Connie walks over to his sleeping brother and wakes him. The two get on their horses and ride off. During their preparations, we see an automobile zoom by in the background. Much of this footage is dark, making the action difficult to discern.
  • Now perched heroically on their horses, Connie (white hat) and Ted (black hat) are seen at what Connie calls "a ranch." This is the first footage in Range Revenge that sort of looks like it could be in a real Western. Connie indicates something on the horizon to Ted, and the two brothers ride toward it.
  • Ed Wood then intercuts what must be the first of many stock shots in his career: footage of a busy Western town with plenty of extras, horses, and wagons. We even see a church with a bell tower.
  • Cut back to Connie and Ted, who ride their horses along a trail next to a fence. Modern day traffic whizzes by in the background.
  • Cut to a corral, where we meet the movie's "leading lady," a young, curly-haired woman in a fringed leather jacket. This is actress Barbara Parsons, whom we also saw in the Hellborn footage. Barbara waves to Connie and Ted, and they tip their hats and walk toward her. 
  • Barbara hugs Ted as Connie watches. She then notes the gun in Connie's holster and playfully ties a scarf around his neck. There's a very dark, grainy insert shot of Connie's pistol. Frankly, if the narration didn't tell us what this was, I wouldn't have guessed.
  • Connie and Ted reach for their guns as a newcomer approaches. This is their other brother Henry, who also carries a gun. Connie, Ted, Henry, and Barbara exchange friendly greetings.
  • Henry then gives some instruction to Connie and Ted and gestures to a camera on a tripod. According to Connie's narration, they're going to make a movie within the movie. This second camera is the one that Henry had originally planned to use.
  • Ed Wood himself, looking very young and enthusiastic, waves to the actors and jogs over to them. (You may remember Eddie's distinctive jog from Glen or Glenda.) Eddie gleefully steps behind the camera and starts bossing the actors around. This may well be the only existing footage of Ed Wood directing.
  • Ted, Henry, Connie, and Barbara walk through what looks like a stable. A few seconds later, Ed comes running after them, carrying the camera and the tripod.
  • More brief shots: Henry talks while gesturing. Henry reaches for Barbara's jacket. Closeup of Barbara smiling uneasily. Closeup of Connie turning his head toward the camera. Closeup of Ted staring at something.
  • Barbara walks into some kind of structure that looks like a little house or shop. There's a window with an awning near the door. Fade to black.
  • We fade back in on some very dim, blurry footage of someone -- I believe it's Barbara -- walking toward the camera and clutching a bottle of alcohol. We then tilt up to show a sign advertising Four Roses bourbon.
  • Barbara emerges from the building with the awning, clutching the bottle of liquor. She walks across the screen and gives the bottle to Ted, who swigs enthusiastically. Barbara sets the bottle back down, but Ted picks it up immediately and starts drinking again. This seems to upset Connie, who attempts to intervene.
  • Barbara and Ted struggle for the bottle of booze, with Ted ultimately winning and taking another drink from it. Henry walks over to investigate. "Fighting over that firewater," Connie says in his narration.
  • Apparently giving up on the booze, Barbara starts dancing with Connie, twirling around and around. Then Henry cuts in and starts twirling with Barbara. All the while, Ted stands in the background, swigging from the bottle. He finishes off the bottle and discards it before walking up to Henry and Barbara.
  • A drunken Ted gets into a fistfight with Henry. Henry knocks his younger brother to the ground. Connie helps Ted up, then confronts Henry. After a brief argument, Connie pulls out his guns and shoos Henry away.
  • Connie rejoins Barbara and Ted, but the camera pans over to show Ed Wood still crouched behind the camera. He throws his hands in the air jubilantly, apparently pleased with what he's just filmed. He giddily approaches his actors and calls for Henry to return. Eddie then mimes being knocked out (or shot) and lying unconscious on the ground. Fade to black.
  • We fade in on Ed, again standing behind his tripod. Behind him is a large barn on which the words "HORSES BONDED" have been painted. Eddie shakes hands with Ted and Connie, looking overjoyed to be alive.
  • Cut to additional footage of Johnny Carpenter riding his horse around the field. Traffic is heavy behind him. Narrator Connie again specifies that this is on Riverside Drive. Perhaps Eddie and his actors were returning their rented horses.
  • We are now at the William Mulholland Memorial Fountain at the intersection of Riverside and Los Feliz. Ted fiddles with the camera on the tripod a little, then moseys over to the fountain and playfully splashes some water at the camera that's actually filming him. 
  • More random shots: Connie and Ted joke around. After a jump cut, Ted smokes a cigarette and walks across the screen. I'm not exactly sure where he is, but there's an old truck and random piles of junk (like old tires) behind him. Honestly, he looks like he's on the set of Sanford & Son. He walks away from the camera, and Connie eventually follows him. After this, the screen goes white for a couple of seconds.
  • We're now back at the little house or store from a few scenes earlier. Barbara Parsons is sitting on a bench by herself. Henry, waving his gun around, joins her and gives her a playful hug. She pushes him away. Ted and Conrad then approach. Now all four actors are jostling each other and hamming it up for the camera. 
  • After a few seconds, Ed Wood joins them. He stands next to Barbara, who pinches his cheek. He is quite handsome in this footage, and Conrad Brooks compares him to "a young Errol Flynn." The camera spins around to show a smiling Connie. Fade to black.
  • Fade in on Johnny Carpenter, apparently teaching Henry, Connie, and Ted how to twirl their guns around. Connie says, "In the background there, that's Glendale. City of Glendale."
  • Once again, Ed Wood tilts his camera up to focus on some background detail. In this case, it's a flock of birds resting on the power lines. Suddenly, they fly off together in the direction of Glendale.
  • There's yet more footage of Connie and his two brothers smoking and playing with their guns.
  • Touchingly, the film ends with a final scene of Ed directing. We see him standing in front of the "HORSES BONDED" sign again, the brothers looking on. Then he excitedly runs behind the tripod, holding his hands up in front of him as if to frame a shot.
CONCLUSION: Purely on its own, Range Revenge might not seem like much. It's jumpy and erratic, filled with unmotivated cuts and fadeouts. It offers some intrinsic value as a time capsule, since it does let you glimpse what parts of Los Angeles looked like in 1948. Even this is dubious, though, since the footage is blurry, scratchy, and hard to see -- alternately overexposed and underlit. On first viewing, Range Revenge just seems to be a lot of random images strung together haphazardly with little cohesion to it whatsoever. There's no revenge and barely any range.

As an early filmmaking effort by Edward D. Wood, Jr., however, Range Revenge is precious, and we are fortunate to have it. What Ed has done here is to turn this film into a mini-documentary about its own production. This isn't strictly a Western; rather, it's a film about a troupe of young actors and their overly enthusiastic director trying to make a Western in the middle of Hollywood. We see them renting the costumes and the horses and learning how to handle their firearms. 

The use of stock footage in Range Revenge is also key because this will be one of Ed Wood's signature techniques as a filmmaker. Sure, the Western footage is very clumsily "integrated" into the movie, but its very presence here suggests that Ed already had some ambition as a director, even if he lacked money and expertise. He wanted this film to look good, and he thought the stock shots of the town would help to complete the illusion. 

This little movie was intended as a showcase for Conrad Brooks and his brothers, something to show the folks back home in Baltimore. Ultimately, though, the real star of this production is Eddie himself, and the greatest pleasure of Range Revenge is the opportunity to see Ed Wood when he was, to quote Kathy Wood, "young and gauche and happy."