Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "I Married Joanie's Boyfriend's Mom"

The once-mighty Happy Days empire was in definite decline by the end of the 1981-82 television season. Two of its spinoffs, Blansky's Beauties and Out of the Blue, had failed outright by then. A third, Mork & Mindy, was ending after four tumultuous seasons. That left only Happy Days itself and the most successful of its spinoffs, Laverne & Shirley, still on the air. Neither was a ratings powerhouse anymore, though, and Laverne was in its death throes due to the imminent departure of costar Cindy Williams. (That show limped along for one last season without Williams before expiring in 1983.)

Nevertheless, Happy Days still managed to end the 1981-82 season in the Nielsen Top 20, which meant someone was still tuning in. Was there any juice left in this turnip? If so, it was mostly due to Scott Baio, who had become a second-tier teen heartthrob as the wisecracking Chachi Arcola. The producers of Happy Days, no doubt prompted by network executives, decided to give Chachi his own show. Naturally, he brought his girlfriend Joanie (Erin Moran) along with him. Joanie Loves Chachi, the last and most infamous of the Happy Days spinoffs, premiered to great fanfare on March 23, 1982, immediately after the Happy Days Season 9 finale.

When Joanie and Chachi departed Milwaukee for Chicago and a show of their own, they took two of Happy Days' supporting players, Al Molinaro and Ellen Travolta, with them. Ellen had only appeared a couple of times as Chachi's loving mother, Louisa, so her exit was no great shock. But Al had been a mainstay of the show since Season 4 as local restauranteur (and perennial bachelor) Al Delvecchio. Why would Al ever leave Milwaukee and his beloved hamburger joint, Arnold's? Simple: to marry Louisa and become a stepdad to Chachi on the new show.

This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, we review "Love and Marriage," the episode that (sort of) sets up Joanie Loves Chachi. The plot centers around Al and Louisa getting hitched after only a month of dating. Talk about a whirlwind romance! But does it make for a good episode? Only one way to find out...

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Ed Wood Summit Podcast #29 by Greg Dziawer

This week, we discuss one of Ed Wood's rarest and strangest books.

One of the more obscure (and arguably least-read) among Ed Wood's paperbacks must be the 1971 sociosex title Black Myth. Copies turn up so rarely that you could likely count its numbers of readers in recent decades on one hand—your free hand, of course.

James Pontolillo, author of The Unknown War of Edward D. Wood, Jr. 1942-1946 (2017), is one of the few people to own a copy of Black Myth, and he graciously afforded Joe Blevins and me the opportunity to read it as well. This week on The Ed Wood Summit Podcast, I sit down with James and Joe for an epic dive into this very strange, racially-charged text. We invite you to join us, but beware: this one is not for the faint of heart.

And now that you've seen the podcast, learn more about just one of the many real-life figures who turn up in Black Myth.

While I hope you enjoy the podcast, I know that all serious Wood obsessives will at very least find it, shall we say, Ed-ifying...

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "Gossip Girl"

Cathy Silvers is the secret weapon of Happy Days in its later seasons. As Jenny Piccalo, the flirty, rumor-spreading, fun-loving best friend of the more reserved, responsible Joanie Cunningham (Erin Moran), Silvers gives the aged series a much-needed shot in the arm. Jenny is wilder and more impulsive than the other Happy Days characters, and she has a sharper, edgier sense of humor, too. I'm guessing that the writers loved writing for Jenny, because this character gave them the opportunity to do more risque jokes and stories than they would otherwise do. Plus, Cathy Silvers always makes the material come alive. She seems to be having a great time making the show.

Jenny Piccalo may also be, along with Fonzie (Henry Winkler) one of the more complex and layered characters in the entire series. I'm serious. In a way, Fonzie and Jenny have some key character traits in common. On the surface, both seem to be extremely confident and outgoing. But both are extremely fragile and insecure underneath and may act out in inappropriate ways as a result. They just want to be loved and accepted, and they're terrified of losing people close to them.

This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, we're reviewing the Season 9 episode "Tell Tale Tart," which focuses on Jenny and her insecurities. The plot has Joanie bonding with the new girl in school, Mikki (guest star and soon-to-be regular Crystal Bernard). Jenny is so jealous of Mikki that she spreads a nasty rumor about her. 

What kind of rumor, you ask? Well, you can find out by listening to our latest episode. And what a coincidence! Here it is, all cued up for you!

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 143: Cult Movies 3 (1988)

Danny Peary returns to the subject of Ed Wood in Cult Movies 3 (1988).

Over the course of his three highly influential Cult Movies books, originally published between 1981 and 1988, critic Danny Peary covers a wide variety of offbeat films with devoted fan followings. This makes sense, since "cult" is more of a mindset than a narrowly-defined category. Fittingly, the films Peary discusses hail from different eras, ranging from the 1910s to the 1980s, and represent a number of cinematic genres: comedy, drama, science fiction, horror, action, Western, musical, fantasy, and even pornography. Along the way, Peary also covers a wide variety of filmmakers, everyone from John Ford to John Waters.

An interesting photo collage poster.
Still in all, there are a scant few cult directors whose films merit multiple essays in Peary’s Cult Movies books, including Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese,  Michael Curtiz, John Carpenter, George Romero, Stanley Kubrick (to my knowledge, the only director to inspire three essays), Russ Meyer, and our very own Edward D. Wood, Jr. That's right! Eddie's a two-time Cult Movies inductee. That ties him with his idol, Orson Welles. 

Seven years after reviewing Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) in the original Cult Movies, Danny Peary reviewed Glen or Glenda (1953) in Cult Movies 3 (1988). I'm not sure how I learned of this third volume in the Cult Movies series, but when I did, I special ordered it immediately from the same Flint bookstore where I'd previously purchased the other two Cult Movies books. As I remember, it arrived at the same time as the elaborate, oversized script book for Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979). Getting those two books simultaneously must've been one of the most exciting days of my adolescence. 

Keep in mind that I read Danny Peary's books before I ever saw one of Ed Wood's movies, so Peary's essays about Plan 9 and Glenda helped shape my perception of those films. I'm sure Peary has deeply affected the way I write about Ed Wood, even today. So does Cult Movies 3 still have anything to teach me in 2023? Let's find out.

Like all the films included in the Cult Movies series, Glen or Glenda merits a few pages of coverage. We get a cast and crew list, some publicity photos (all B&W), a plot synopsis, and an explanatory essay. The cast and crew list comes directly from Glenda's own credits. No complaints there. The seven-paragraph plot synopsis is surprisingly accurate and lucid, considering the disjointed and often surreal nature of Glen or Glenda. Good job, Danny! Bonus points for working in a reference to "Morpheus, god of sleep."

As for pictures, we get a "slightly out-of-focus shot" (the book's term) of Bela Lugosi mixing chemicals in the lab set. ("It's always enjoyable to see Bela Lugosi," says the caption, "but it's impossible to figure out what his role is in this film.") Peary also gives us a photo-collage poster for the film, supposedly from its original release in 1953. (Tagline: "Strange Case: ONE BODY--TWO SEXES.") Remarkably, Cult Movies 3 includes a publicity still from Glenda's extended nightmare sequence. I was so taken by this picture—showing a woman bound-and-gagged on a couch and being menaced by a second woman—that I included it in the very first article in this series back in 2013.

This Bear is no golden turkey, says Peary.
Peary's essay starts with a broader discussion of the "bad movie" phenomenon, of which Ed Wood is only one part. Harry and Michael Medved's book The Golden Turkey Awards (1980) was fresher in people's memories back then, and it was still the driving force behind the Wood cult in those pre-Tim Burton days. Peary seems to have soured on the Medveds somewhat in the years since reviewing Plan 9, saying that he finds "worst film festivals" to be "particularly annoying" and "the equivalent of self-pleasing sports fans who do 'the Wave.'" (Peary has also written several books about baseball, so his irritation is earned.)

Overall, Peary concludes that Plan 9 and Glenda aren't really among the worst films ever made, "just the worst watchable movies." In this respect, he puts Ed Wood's movies into the same category as Phil Tucker's Robot Monster (1953) and Arch Hall, Sr.'s Eegah! (1962), among others. But Peary has some strict criteria for what constitutes a true "golden turkey." Films like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978) don't count, he says, because they're self-aware and trying to be campy. ("The hilarity must be unintentional," Peary insists.) Meanwhile, films like I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Bloodsucking Freaks (1976) are too offensive to be enjoyable. He also rules out movies that are too boring to be fun and cites Michael Chapman's The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) as his prime example.

Frankly, all this "so bad it's good" stuff doesn't really interest me anymore—even though it's what initially got me into Ed Wood's movies when I was a teenager—so I was relieved when Peary started discussing the specifics of Glen or Glenda. Peary takes a measured approach here, admiring Wood's film for its sincerity and daring while pointing out the film's numerous technical and aesthetic shortcomings. On the one hand, it took genuine courage for Ed Wood to make a movie about cross-dressing and transgenderism in 1953. If you've been following the news at all lately, you know that these issues are still controversial seven decades later in 2023! Eddie not only wrote and directed Glenda, he played the title role himself! Peary gives Wood all due credit for this, even complimenting him for tackling a sensitive "taboo" subject in "a non-exploitive, non-sensationalistic way."

On the other hand, even Glenda's most fervent admirers must admit that this film is cheaply made, haphazardly assembled, and patently ridiculous in many ways, from its stiff acting and its stilted dialogue to its stream-of-consciousness editing style. Peary discusses all of these topics and more in his review of Glen or Glenda. He writes:
Like other Wood films, Glen or Glenda? is distinguished by embarrassingly bad acting, dialogue, direction, cinematography, editing, music, cheap sets, and, significantly, ugly costuming. As usual there are zany moments that are guaranteed to make you both laugh and cringe. [...] The scenes with Lugosi contribute to the film's structural problems and incoherence. Even without his mindless banter, there is enough confusion caused by flashbacks within flashbacks, the use of several narrators, stylistic changes throughout, nonsensical dialogue, and the inclusion of meaningless images (lightning, stampeding buffalo, cars on the highway) only because Wood had free use of these stock shots.
I must say that, when I finally saw Glen or Glenda a few years after reading Cult Movies 3, the film actually exceeded my expectations. Peary's review, descriptive as it is, could not have prepared me for the real movie.

Don't get the impression that this review is all mockery, though. Along the way, Peary makes some cogent points about Glen or Glenda and its approach to transgender issues. I think my favorite observation is: "This is a rare film where men sit at a table (like old-style soap opera women) and converse about their personal problems!" I also appreciated a passage that compares Ed Wood's film to the educational "civics films" that we used to show to middle school and high school students. Peary deftly points out that the "Alan/Ann" sequence near the end of the film, in which a man becomes a woman through surgery and hormone injections, is similar to the process of an immigrant becoming an American citizen.

By the way, if you have any interest whatsoever in those vintage educational films, I highly recommend Ken Smith's book, Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970 (Blast Books, 1999). And from there, spend some time browsing the Prelinger Archives. I think you'll find that Danny Peary's comparisons are quite apt.

P.S.  One interesting aspect of Danny Peary's review of Glen or Glenda is that it includes numerous quotes from the film's producer, George Weiss. Peary says he took these from "an interview with Rudolph Grey for a book on Wood." Peary does not name the book, but Cult Movies 3 came out in 1988, four years before Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy saw the light of day. Reader Willie Murrah informs me that these quotes came from a 1987 issue of Filmfax magazine with a twelve-and-a-half-page article about Ed Wood. Thanks, William! 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "Yabba Dabba Scooby Doo"

Scott Baio and Danny Wells on Happy Days.

Something was definitely brewing on the set of Happy Days in 1982. Ron Howard was long gone and Henry Winkler had aged out of being a teen idol, but Scott Baio could elicit screams from the studio audience just by walking onto the set. When Scott joined the ABC sitcom in 1977, he was just a scrawny adolescent best known for playing the title character in Bugsy Malone (1976). Five years later, though, he was prime Tiger Beat material—an object of desire for the Clearasil set.

The producers attempted to capitalize on Baio's popularity by turning his character, Chachi, into a bona fide rock and roll singer, the kind who could make teenage audiences squeal with joy. The problem was, Scott couldn't really sing all that well. His voice was thin and scratchy, like he was just getting over a bad cold. Luckily, during his (frequent) musical numbers, he was paired with Erin Moran, who was a much more able vocalist. Still in all, though, it was difficult to take Baio seriously as a rock musician. And, true to form, his pop music career never really materialized beyond Happy Days. He put out one vanity LP in 1982, complete with an album cover that blatantly ripped off Michael Jackson's Thriller, but Baio never made a dent in the Top 40.

This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, we're reviewing an episode called "Chachi's Future" in which Baio's character decides he wants to pursue music as a career. Naturally, his prospective father-in-law, Howard (Tom Bosley), is less than thrilled. Chachi even begins to doubt himself and considers becoming a janitorial supplies salesman instead. But this is Happy Days, so I think you know where the story is going.

What did we think of "Chachi's Future"? You can easily find out by listening to our latest episode, conveniently located below.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part 25 by Greg Dziawer

(from left) Rob Huffman, Greg Dziawer, Jean Marie Stine.

This week on their podcast, Sin & Sci-Fi in the '60s, Rob Huffman and Greg Dziawer talk with Jean Marie Stine, the author of Ed Wood: The Early Years (2001) and a colleague of Ed's when he was writing adult paperbacks in the 1970s. Join them for this interesting and far-ranging discussion!

You can find more Sin & Sci-Fi content right here.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "We're in Our Flip Era"

Billy Warlock and Ted McGinley on Happy Days.

TV sitcoms rarely age gracefully. Even if the writers don't run out of ideas (and they all but certainly will), the actors will inevitably age. This is especially a problem on shows with young characters. It's never a good sign for a long-running show when the producers bring in a new kid character because the previous ones in the cast have gotten too old. It's called Cousin Oliver syndrome, and it has infected many long-running family sitcoms from All in the Family to Married... with Children.

The initial focus of Happy Days (1974-84) was on teenagers in high school. In other words,  it was a show about young people for young people. The producers did their damnedest to keep Richie (Ron Howard), Ralph (Don Most), and Potsie (Anson Williams) in high school for as long as possible, but these characters finally graduated from Jefferson High alongside "night school valedictorian" Fonzie (Henry Winkler) at the end of Season 4 in 1977. Then, at the beginning of Season 5 just a few months later, Happy Days added a new adolescent character: Fonzie's smart-alecky cousin Chachi (Scott Baio). Controversial as this character was—with some viewers outright hating him and others adoring him—he nevertheless became a love interest for Joanie (Erin Moran) and allowed the show to focus on high school stories for a few more years.

But by Season 9, (1981-82) even Joanie and Chachi were starting to age out of their adolescent years, so the desperate producers added yet another teen character: Flip Phillips (Society star Billy Warlock), brother of Jefferson High basketball coach Roger (Ted McGinley). I think this was a breaking point for some viewers. Roger was already an auxiliary character, and now the auxiliary was getting his own auxiliary! It was a bridge too far. In particular, I remember my father complaining about Flip and calling him "Flop," but I don't remember if he stopped watching the show altogether at that point.

This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, we review Season 9's "Hello, Flip," the episode that introduced Flip to a skeptical America. Did we all judge Flip too harshly in 1982? Was Billy Warlock the Scrappy-Doo of Happy Days? Or had Scott Baio already taken that title several years earlier? Find out the answers to all these questions by listening to our latest podcast!

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 142: Graphing Ed Wood

Ed Wood stares at the peaks and valleys of his debut film, Glen or Glenda.

This whole thing goes back to Michael Bey. (Don't worry. It eventually leads to Ed Wood.) Back in 2007, Michael's hit film Transformers, based on the 1980s Hasbro toy line, had cinephiles everywhere in an uproar. Was this loud, ugly, CGI-laden toy commercial the future of movies? And, if so, what kind of future was that

Was this the downfall of movies?
Film fanatics were especially appalled by Transformers' average shot length or ASL. That's the average amount of time that elapses between edits—cuts, fades, dissolves, etc. Michael Bey is known for his frantic, fast-paced style, so his Transformers movies have a very low ASL, somewhere around 3 to 4 seconds. Some of Bey's action sequences have an ASL of just 2.7 seconds. Bey wasn't the only director doing this—not even close—but he was the most prominent, so he became the poster child for directors with short attention spans.

This ASL controversy garnered a bit of attention at the time from Chicago film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote about it in his Sun-Times column. He, too, fretted about those ever-declining shot lengths and longed for the more leisurely-paced films of the past. I was a regular reader of Ebert's reviews and columns, so that's how the phenomenon came to my attention. I'm not sure I would have known about it otherwise, since I didn't attend a lot of big budget action blockbusters back then. (I still don't.)

Nevertheless, I was curious about this whole ASL phenomenon because it gave me a different perspective on movies and TV shows. In one of his articles, Roger Ebert mentioned a site called Cinemetrics, which housed a database of user-submitted ASL graphs for various movies. I was interested enough in this topic to submit a few graphs of my own using Cinemetrics' own handy measurement software. The software really does most of the work for you. All you do is watch the movie normally, while clicking every time there's an edit. The software completes the graphing and calculating when you're done.

Between August and September 2007, not long after the release of Transformers, I submitted nine different ASL graphs to Cinemetrics: two episodes of The Simpsons (I wanted to compare different eras of the show), a notorious Sid Davis "educational" short, and six feature films, one of which was Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda (1953). I recently revisited Cinemetrics for the first time in years and found to my delight that those graphs are all still there! You can find them by going to the database page and searching for my last name, Blevins.

As for the Glen or Glenda graph I made over 15 years ago, what information does it yield? Hell if I know. I'm neither a filmmaker nor a statistician, so a lot of this is beyond my ken. I suppose I just wanted to see how Ed's movies were put together. Here's what I had to say about the editing of Glen or Glenda back in 2007:
A truly schizophrenic movie, editing-wise. Ed Wood alternates long takes with rapid-fire montages. There is a definite chasm between the scenes filmed with sound (lengthy static shots) and the scenes filmed silently (quick montages, often consisting of stock footage with post-dubbed narration). I must note here that this analysis is based on the Image DVD, which itself was made from a censored print of the film. Various small cuts, normally a phrase here or there, occur throughout the film. The censor clearly wanted to get rid of the word "sex" whenever possible. Whether this actually affects the number of shot changes, I do not know.
What's great about the Cinemetrics site is that you can customize the graph in a number of ways. For fun, try messing with the various settings, including "step," "degree of trendline," and "moving average range." Maybe, if you know filmmaking or statistics, these terms might even mean something to you. They don't mean much to me, I must confess. Anyway, here's how the Glenda graph looks at the sixth degree of the trendline.

A Cinemetrics ASL graph for Glen or Glenda.

I did find out that Glen or Glenda has a leisurely average shot length of 10.6 seconds. Ed's movies tend to be pretty sluggish, so this didn't surprise me. But I noticed there were three separate passages during which Glenda's ASL plunges precipitously. The first occurs about 11 minutes into the movie when Ed gives us a montage of stock shots and narration. ("If the creator wanted us to fly...") The second starts at about the 35-minute mark when Glen has a lengthy nightmare that ultimately evolves (or devolves) into a burlesque show. The third and final such passage occurs nearly an hour into the movie when Alan is transitioning into Ann. This, too, is presented as a rapid-fire montage.

Amazingly, I was not the only Cinemetrics user to graph an Ed Wood film! Back in 2008, a user named Hilary Mogul submitted a graph for Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). Hilary found that the movie had an ASL of 7.8, nearly three seconds shorter than Glenda, so maybe Ed's movies were getting a little livelier as he went along. Here's how the Plan 9 graph looks:

A Cinemetrics ASL graph for Plan 9 from Outer Space.

I think you'll agree that the editing is much less, uh, idiosyncratic this time around. In terms of pacing, Plan 9 lacks the big ups and downs of Glenda. The only major dip in ASL occurs about 15 minutes into the movie. That's when we get the montage of flying saucer sightings, accompanied by Criswell's narration. You may notice that the pace picks up right near the end of the movie, too. That's when Jeff, Lt. Harper, and Col. Edwards confront Eros and Tanna in the spaceship. By Ed Wood's standards, this is a fast-paced action scene. Compare the Glenda graph to the Plan 9 graph, and you'll see that Glenda actually slackens the pace in its last few minutes!

In all, I was really heartened to know that the ASL graphs I had made back in 2007 were still available in 2023. Talk about a blast from the past! Back then, I didn't even have a blog, but it's clear that Ed Wood and his movies were on my mind already. What I really hope is that this article leads people to Cinemetrics, and they use the resources there to study Ed's movies (and other directors' movies) in a new way.