Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 160: "Taking Stock of Wood" (1993)

Ed Wood, Criswell, and Paul Marco on the set of Plan 9. It appears to be Jeff and Paula's patio.

Alas, I did not grow up with Famous Monsters of Filmland. Never stashed copies under my bed or affixed pictures from it to my bedroom wall. By the '80s and '90s, when I was becoming a dedicated film freak, that legendary horror fan magazine—founded by publisher James Warren and editor Forrest J. Ackerman in 1958—had been nudged aside by competitors like Fangoria and Cinefantastique on the newsstands. But Famous Monsters played an important role in shaping the tastes of a whole generation of viewers, and it even helped create the cult around director Edward D. Wood, Jr. It's safe to say that this entire series of articles would not even exist had it not been for Ackerman and his much-beloved magazine.

Famous Monsters of Filmland #201
We may think of the Wood cult springing up practically overnight in 1980 with the publication of The Golden Turkey Awards by Harry and Michael Medved. That was where Eddie was infamously named the worst director of all time and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) the worst film. But the Medveds had no idea who Ed Wood was before they wrote Golden Turkey. Readers of the brothers' previous book, The Fifty Worst Films of All-Time (1978), had hipped them to Eddie and his films. They, in turn, had learned about Eddie from Famous Monsters and other horror fan magazines that sprang up in its wake, like Castle of Frankenstein.

Forrest J. Ackerman (1916-2008) was a pivotal figure not just in Ed Wood history but in horror history in general. To some folks, he's their lovable "Uncle Forry," the man who got them interested in sci-fi and horror in the first place. Or at least the grownup mentor who took their already-burgeoning interest in the bizarre and encouraged it until it became an obsession. Famous Monsters of Filmland came around at a time when classic horror films of the 1930s and '40s, including those from Universal starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, were finding new viewers thanks to television. Many of these viewers were children, and Ackerman described the target audience for Famous Monsters as "11½ year old boys" who were "pre-girl [and] pro-ghoul."

Ed Wood was considerably out of that age range by 1958, but he had an abiding love for classic horror and never really lost his childlike mindset. His own wife, Kathy, described him as "such a kid" in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992). So it's only natural that Eddie would gravitate to Famous Monsters and to Forry Ackerman himself. But the magazine editor seemed to have little use for Wood, whom he considered a nuisance. This quote from Nightmare typifies their relationship:

At Eddie's request, Ackerman reluctantly served as Ed's literary agent (or "illiterary agent") for a time in the 1960s and provided an introduction for the Orgy of the Dead novelization. Other than that, though, their partnership yielded little. A 1966 letter that Ed Wood wrote to Forrest J. Ackerman suggests that the Famous Monsters editor was intentionally ducking Eddie. Over time, as Eddie was subsumed by alcohol and pornography, he and Forry drifted apart. Any chance of a reconciliation disappeared with Ed's death in 1978.

By the 1980s, with Ed a posthumous quasi-celebrity from The Golden Turkey Awards, Forrest J. Ackerman had seemingly revised his opinion of the Plan 9 director. In 1986, Forry hosted Lugosi: The Forgotten King, a documentary that acknowledges Lugosi's work with Ed Wood but does not revel in the campiness or "badness" of these films. In the autumn of 1993—about midway between the publication of Nightmare of Ecstasy and the premiere of Tim Burton's lavish biopic Ed Wood (1994)—Ackerman devoted ten full pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland #201 to Eddie. Again, I thank Wood fan Jamie Teel for posting those pages to Facebook recently.

Besides the short story "Gemeni," which I reviewed last week, Famous Monsters #201 included an article called "Taking Stock of Wood" by Mark Patrick Carducci, director of the Wood documentary Flying Saucers Over Hollywood (1992).  (I'd love to say this was a cover story, but the great Vincent Price is actually featured on the cover of Famous Monsters #201.) Besides being a major Ed Wood fan, Carducci was an accomplished horror screenwriter whose credits include Neon Maniacs (1986), Pumpkinhead (1988), and a made-for-TV movie called Buried Alive (1990) directed by Frank Darabont.

Because Famous Monsters is a family-friendly publication, "Taking Stock" is a very gentle and generic overview of Wood's career that skips over most of the scandalous stuff (e.g. alcoholism, pornography) and sticks to the highlights. All the usual suspects are here: Orson Welles, Christine Jorgensen, Bela Lugosi, the rubber octopus, Tor Johnson, The Golden Turkey Awards, Bela's chiropractor, Vampira, Criswell, Tim Burton, etc. If you're still reading this blog post, you know all this stuff already. What's notable about Carducci's article is that it comes in the wake of Nightmare of Ecstasy when the public view of Ed Wood was becoming more sympathetic. Carducci calls Ed "infamous" but "tragically desperate" and says that his reputation as the worst director of all time is "somewhat" undeserved. Hey, that's a start.

P.S. There's a neat little detail in this magazine that I neglected to mention in last week's article. At the end of "Gemeni," Ed Wood includes his home address: 3300 Riverside Drive, Apartment 2-E, Burbank California. A few years ago, Bob Blackburn sent me a list of the addresses where Ed and Kathy Wood lived from the 1950s to the 1970s. The Riverside Drive location is a long-gone apartment complex near Warner Bros. That space is now occupied by an institution called the New York Film Academy Burbank. I hope Ed's ghost haunts it. Bob lists Riverside Drive as one of Eddie's addresses from the 1950s, so "Gemeni" may be even older than I thought.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 159: "Gemeni" (1993)

A young beauty meets a watery end in "Gemeni." 

Ed Wood has some of the best fans in the world. The man was either ignored or ridiculed during his own lifetime, but I think he'd be heartened to learn how his devotees have preserved his legacy in the decades following his death. They've saved as many of his films, books, and articles as possible, and they're always searching through the archives for more, keeping me supplied with things to review for this blog.

Recently, a Wood fan named Jamie Teel posted a few pages from a 1993 issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine to an Ed Wood forum on Facebook. These pages included not only an article about Ed Wood by Mark Carducci, director of Flying Saucers Over Hollywood (1992), but also a previously unpublished short story by Eddie himself. I think I'll cover the Carducci article in the future, but I had to offer up my thoughts on the short story while it was still fresh in my brain.

The story: "Gemeni," originally published in Famous Monsters of Filmland #201, Fall 1993.

Some vintage '70s astrology art.
Synopsis: Our narrator, a struggling filmmaker, tells us about his tragic relationship with a woman he nicknamed "Gemeni," referring to both her birth sign and her duplicitous nature. He was deeply in love with the faithless, flirtatious "Gemeni" and even planned to marry her after her divorce was final. Unfortunately, she was only after a man with money, and he was flat broke at the time. Desperate to keep her, he promised he would receive some money from investors soon. She coldly told him to get in touch with her when he had the cash in hand.

After his breakup with "Gemeni," the narrator went through a drinking binge but then decided to raise as much money as he possibly could from potential backers. Driven by spite, he became a successful filmmaker, with his company making both movies and television shows. Newly wealthy, he contacted "Gemeni" again. This time, she agreed to marry him. After three "wonderful" weeks of matrimony, however, she announced her plans to divorce him and take half of everything he owned.

Hatching a plan, our narrator convinced "Gemeni" to travel to Europe with him aboard a cruise ship. She agreed and bought an expensive wardrobe for the trip. Once onboard the ship, she returned to her old ways of flirting with wealthy men and blatantly ignoring her husband. Two nights into the trip, the insanely jealous narrator almost strangled "Gemeni" to death but eventually decided to tie her up with underwear and throw her out a porthole with weights attached to her ankles. She sank into the ocean, dead. But even then, "Gemeni" wasn't quite done with him.

Wood trademarks: Husband murdering his wife (cf. "Scream Your Bloody Head Off"); nighties and negligees (cf. Glen or Glenda, many of Ed's other stories); drinking binge; satin and silk; movie business (Westerns and horror, both genres Ed attempted); money problems; angora sweater (worn by the title character). 

Excerpt: "I got drunk. Two days of it. Two days it lasted. Then the courage of vengance entered my every thought. I would wrap her in my vengance. I would make more money in a shorter time than she had ever seen in her whole life and when I had that money, sure I'd call her. I'd call her and I would laugh right in her face. I would laugh. How I would laugh."

Reflections: Edgar Allan Poe must have had some kind of influence on Ed Wood. I mean, Eddie rewrote Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) as "The Rue Morgue Revisited" (1971), hewing very closely to Poe's original plot and dialogue. As a student of all things Gothic and spooky, Ed must have spent some time poring over the stories of Poe, perhaps even when he was still in school back in Poughkeepsie. Above all, Poe's eroticization of death must have intrigued Ed, since that's a common feature of many of Ed's own films, stories, and novels.

"Gemeni" strikes me as Ed Wood's attempt at a Poe-type story. Not that he attempts to copy Poe's florid writing style, but he seems to be evoking the same mood of haunted, doomed romanticism. The narrator mourns and moons over "Gemeni" as if she were the lost Lenore. He even cries while he murders her, missing her already! The fact that Ed's story is written in the first person makes it similar to Poe's most famous tales, including "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), which is also the confession of a revenge-murderer.

As for the exact provenance of this story, that's difficult to determine. "Gemeni" carries a modest introduction from Famous Monsters editor and founder Forrest J. Ackerman, who very briefly (and ineffectively) served as Ed Wood's literary agent in the mid-1960s. By the late 1960s, Ed Wood had all the writing work he could handle and no longer needed Ackerman's dubious assistance. "Gemeni" seems to have been a story that Ed submitted to Famous Monsters that Ackerman decided not to publish for a variety of reasons: not scary enough, too mature for young readers, etc. And yet, miraculously, Uncle Forry held onto the unused manuscript for decades! We're too lucky.

For me, the greatest aspect of "Gemeni" was that the unnamed narrator was an obvious stand-in for the story's own author. As Ed Wood (1994) demonstrates so amusingly, Eddie spent a lot of his time trying to raise money for various projects, usually without success. By securing funds from his backers, the narrator of "Gemeni" gets to live the kind of life that Eddie would have wanted to live. As he writes:
I made that money. During the next three weeks I borrowed and begged enough through my friends around the industry to open four motion Picture and Television producing companies. One week later the pictures I wanted to make were financed. At the end of the next week the original company was re-financed. The westerns made by that company became an overnight sensation. Two horror features turned out to be money grossing sleepers and a new television series of pictures were accepted by the public with great enthusiasm. In fact, on the television deal I made a five year contract on the series. Five more weeks and my bank account had reached the seven figure mark and steadily growing.
Only in fiction, Eddie. Only in fiction.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "The @#$% Plane Has Crashed Into the Mountain!"

Ted McGinley and Henry Winkler on Happy Days.

During its seventh season, the normally-edgeless Happy Days did a couple of mildly risqué episodes ("Burlesque," "Joanie Busts Out") to compete with NBC's relatively racy The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, starring Claude Akins as a bumbling Southern lawman. Ultimately, the innuendo-laden Lobo was vanquished by Happy Days, but Akins and company had given the long-running ABC sitcom its strongest competition since Good Times back in Season 2. Happy Days soon returned to its inoffensive normal self, but not before being scolded by television critics for (briefly) becoming too smutty.

Happy Days faced an even more serious threat in Season 10 when NBC moved its rip-roaring new series The A-Team to Tuesday nights. How would ABC respond to this fierce rival? Would Happy Days start doing more action-packed stories to lure back former viewers? This may seem like a far-fetched idea, but don't forget that Happy Days had already done a number of stories with stunts and action scenes, including "Fearless Fonzarelli" (Season 3), "Fonzie Loves Pinky" (Season 4), "Hollywood" (Season 5), and most especially "Westward, Ho!" (Season 6), which featured a bull-riding competition and an out-of-control wagon.

The TV landscape was a-changin' by 1983, and action shows were in vogue. While Happy Days was getting outpaced by The A-Team on Tuesday nights, its spinoff Joanie Loves Chachi was getting clobbered by Magnum P.I. on Thursday nights. I don't know if this was purely a coincidence, but Happy Days aired one of its more action-heavy episodes, "Wild Blue Yonder," shortly after The A-Team moved to Tuesdays. The plot of this one has Fonzie (Henry Winkler) and Roger (Ted McGinley) boarding a small plane that crashes in the mountains, leaving them stranded in a snowy wasteland. By Happy Days standards, this is pretty high octane stuff.

But does that make for a good episode? You know how to find out -- listen to the latest installment of These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 158: Ten years of Ed Wood Wednesdays (2013-2023)

Here's how my blog looked ten years ago.

It was never supposed to be like this. Ed Wood Wednesdays, as I have explained many times over the last decade, was planned as a limited series back in 2013. Emphasis on limited. I'd just gotten the DVD box set, Big Box of Wood (2011), and already had a handful of other Wood films in my collection. I thought it'd be fun to put those films into chronological order and review them one at a time, supplementing my commentary with little historical tidbits from Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992), which was pretty much the only Ed Wood book on the market then. I'd start with Crossroads of Laredo (1948) and end with Hot Ice (1978). That was it.

The project came along at a time when this blog was in need of a new direction. Dead 2 Rights started in October 2009 as a spinoff of a zombie movie podcast called Mail Order Zombie, where I was a regular. But that show ended in April 2013, and I was getting a little burned out on the zombie-related content anyway. Less than a year earlier, I'd had a complete emotional meltdown and been hospitalized for suicidal depression, and this blog briefly became a journal of my recovery as I started taking meds and going to therapy. But I got bored with writing about that stuff, too. 

For a while, I busied myself with reviews of public domain comedies, thinking that those lighthearted, often corny movies from the past might help me shake off my melancholy. They didn't, but I'm still proud of that series. Maybe I shouldn't have abandoned it so abruptly. But the Ed Wood stuff eventually became this blog's main focus and crowded out everything else.

Here I am with my mother at Christmas.
But why Ed Wood rather than, say, a more "respectable" director? Well, like many middle-aged people, I was probably trying to recapture some aspect of my lost youth. I first saw Eddie's films at a Halloween movie marathon in October 1992. I was a high schooler at the time, and this would be one of the last positive experiences of my teenage years. Shortly after that, my mother's cancer returned with a vengeance. Her death sent my life into a tailspin, and the next few years were bleak indeed. For me, Ed Wood somehow became an icon of happier times.

I never put myself forward as any kind of expert on Ed Wood, nor did I intend this series as a deep dive into obscure Wood trivia. In fact, that was the very opposite of my intention for this series. My goal was (and, to some degree, still is) to write for a general audience, and I felt these articles should be comprehensible to the average reader, even one who'd never seen any of Wood's movies. The immediate reaction to Ed Wood Wednesdays was largely positive, with each article getting several thousand hits -- small potatoes by internet standards but very good for a niche blog like this. 

Very soon, though, people started to contact me, either by email or through instant messaging. Some were merely curious and wanted to know if I'd be covering certain speculative Wood films or delving into Wood's written work. Some wanted to make corrections or school me on Ed Wood lore. Some wanted to promote Wood-related projects of their own. And some felt I was an interloper, horning in on territory that rightfully belonged to others. Every fandom has its share of gatekeepers, and Woodology is no exception. I have written of a so-called "Hollywood historian" who considers himself a Wood expert and who has been unfailingly hostile towards me for years. I try not to hate anyone, but this guy makes it tough.

There were some upsides to being the author of Ed Wood Wednesdays. Not many, but some. I was interviewed by The New York Times back in 2014. That was kinda neat. My father had no idea how the internet worked, so telling him about my blog was futile, but even he had heard of the Times. A few professional opportunities came my way because of Ed Wood Wednesdays as well. I know that I was asked to contribute to the Girl Gangs, Biker Boys book (2017) because of this series. The book Dad Made Dirty Movies also came about because journalist Jordan Todorov found my lengthy, detailed reviews of the movies Ed Wood made with director Stephen C. Apostolof in the 1970s.

The salad days of Ed Wood Wednesdays did not last long, though, maybe a year and a half. Then things started to turn sour. For one thing, Google's search algorithm changed and stopped sending people to my blog. It was like a faucet had been turned off. I lost 95% of my audience in a very short amount of time, and it has never recovered. A typical Ed Wood Wednesdays article now gets, at most, a few dozen hits. Only the diehards remained, and they wanted obscure Wood trivia that I was not always able to supply. My life, too, remained chaotic. I abruptly quit my corporate job on a whim in August 2015 and made a quixotic attempt at a career as a freelance writer with virtually no idea how that profession works. What was I thinking? I don't know.

This series probably would have ended in 2015 had it not been for Greg Dziawer, one of my most persistent emailers. He'd inundate me with Wood trivia, some of which I could barely understand. At the time, I was trying to make a go of the freelancing thing and didn't really feel like contributing anything substantial to this blog. (I found that, when I wrote for money, I was less willing to write for fun.) So I made the decision to turn the reins of Ed Wood Wednesdays over to Greg. 

I felt a little guilty about that choice. I called myself a writer, after all, but I wasn't even writing my own blog anymore. For the true Wood diehards, though, this was probably when Ed Wood Wednesdays "got good." Greg was much more willing to supply the graduate-school-level trivia that they wanted, and he made no attempt to court a wider audience with his articles. His stuff was for the true believers only. Greenhorns need not apply. He was combing through old magazines and loops and even contacting people connected to Wood in search of material for the blog. (I was never good at that.) More than once, I suggested he start his own blog, but he thought it was better to publish his findings on my blog. So the series continued.

Eventually, as my freelance writing career evaporated, I drifted back to Ed Wood Wednesdays. Between the main series and such supplementary series as Ed Wood Extras and the 2022 Ed-Vent Calendar, plus my individual reviews of Ed's short stories and magazine pieces, I have now written something like 380 articles about Edward Davis Wood, Jr., totaling god knows how many thousands of words. It's possible that I've written more about Eddie than anyone, certainly enough to fill several books. 

What keeps me going? Well, it helps that the last 10 years has been a time of great discovery in the world of Ed Wood. So many of Ed's movies and written works have come to light in the last decade, and more continue to be found. It's truly the best time to be a Wood fan. Plus, as the founder of this blog, I just get stuff sent to me. I especially need to thank Philip R. Fry, Greg Dziawer, and Bob Blackburn for hooking me up with some Wood goodness. That's the ultimate perk of founding this series.

More than that, though, I find some kind of strange solace in the works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. I can't explain it to myself, let alone explain it to you. It's not that Ed is a hero to me, exactly. He was a drunk who beat his wife; that's no role model. But in his films and his writing and, yes, his own life, he created this fascinating alternate universe that I like to explore, even after all these years. It's my own Oz or Narnia or Wonderland or Middle Earth, populated with beings as extraordinary as any you'd find in those fictional places. I got into this series to cover Ed's movies, but it's his prose that actually gives me the most satisfaction these days. There's just a certain cadence to Ed's writing I find comforting, and reading is for me a more immersive experience than watching.

Make no mistake, Ed Wood Wednesdays is a ton of work for me. It generates no money whatsoever -- quite the opposite, really -- and takes up an inordinate amount of time. That's something I have less and less of, especially now that I work a full-time office job again with a commute and also do a weekly podcast that requires hours of writing, researching, and editing.  But I intend to keep this series going as long as I'm physically and mentally able to do it, long after everyone has stopped reading it. Ultimately, the audience for Ed Wood Wednesdays is and always will be myself. I write these things so that I can read them when they're done.

Occasionally over the last ten years, people have asked me if I'll ever write a book about Ed Wood. I tell them that I have. I've just been publishing it online for free, one chapter at a time. And I hope it'll never be finished.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "Full Metal Fonzie"

Henry Winkler and Ed Peck on Happy Days.

Every fan of Westerns knows that a gunfighter's luck can only hold out for so long. As quick as he might be on the draw, he'll eventually get sloppy, careless, or overconfident. His reflexes will slow down with age, and then it's only a matter of time before he's gunned down by some up-and-coming hotshot. In the Coen brothers' Western pastiche The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), the sharp-shooting Buster (Tim Blake Nelson) strides into a showdown wearing a big Cheshire cat grin on his face and boasting of his skills. Mere seconds later, though, there's a bloody bullet hole in his cowboy hat.

"Well," he says with his usual understatement, "that ain't good." He then drops dead in the street. And that's the end of Buster's brilliant career. He's been outgunned by a younger man.

For many years, Happy Days was quick on the draw, too, and gunned down many opponents. The Richard Pryor Show, Cliffhangers, The Man from Atlantis, Grandpa Goes to Washington -- they all wound up on Boot Hill thanks to Fonzie (Henry Winkler) and the gang. The critics hated 'em and the Emmys ignored 'em, but did that bother the cast and crew of Happy Days? Nah. Why should it? They were still winning their timeslot well into the 1982-83 season. But then something truly unexpected happened that changed the face of television: NBC staged the comeback of the decade.

For most of the 1970s, ABC's only real competition was perennial powerhouse CBS. Apart from the rare hit like Little House on the Prairie and Sanford and Son, NBC was in the doldrums. But things changed at the Peacock Network in the 1980s under the leadership of new president Brandon Tartikoff. In January 1983, for example, NBC debuted an action-packed new show called The A-Team featuring breakout star Mr. T from Rocky III (1982). After just a few weeks, the freshman show moved to Tuesday nights at 8:00, directly opposite Happy Days. And Mr. T specifically called out the competition in a widely-seen promo, gruffly informing Fonzie that his happy days were over.

And they were. Happy Days took another year and a half to die of old age, but The A-Team siphoned away most of the show's audience. Tartkoff had sensed that Happy Days was vulnerable, and he was right. The ABC sitcom's ratings plummeted to their lowest levels ever. ABC cut the show's budget, evicted it from its normal timeslot, and eventually dropkicked it from the schedule entirely.

This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, we review the February 1983 episode "I'm Not At Liberty." This was the first episode to go up against The A-Team, so we can call this the beginning of the end of Happy Days. It marks another milestone, too, as Fonzie's longtime antagonist Officer Kirk (Ed Peck) appears for the last time.

What did we think of "I'm Not at Liberty"? Funny you should ask...

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 157: I Watched Football Early the Day I Died (2023)

An unproduced Ed Wood script from the 1970s has now seen the light of day.

Francis William "Frank" Leahy. Now, where did I first run across that hallowed name from sports history? Probably in issue #11 of  Cult Movies magazine, which reported that Ed Wood wrote an unproduced film about him circa 1975 called The Frank Leahy Legend. After a tiny bit of digging, I soon learned that Ed's script was based on a book by Bernard J. Williams and that the unmade screenplay still existed and was languishing in an archive in Los Angeles somewhere. Not being a football fan myself, I probably never would have heard of Leahy, who died in 1973, otherwise. He just wasn't on my radar.

A new book from Bear Manor.
I could have pursued this case further, but I simply never got around to it. What can I say? Ed Wood wrote a lot of things in his 54 years, and a script about a 1940s Notre Dame football coach somehow didn't seem as exciting as a novel about a cross-dressing hitman or a movie about wife-swapping suburbanites. Life is short, as both Ed Wood and Frank Leahy knew all too well. So I let The Frank Leahy Legend stay on the shelf. 

But a couple of dedicated Woodologists, W. Paul Apel and Greg Javer, decided to hunt down the Leahy script, and now their findings have been published in a new book from Bear Manor Media called I Watched Football Early the Day I Died. In addition to the complete screenplay, rescued from the Loyola Marymount University archives, this volume contains a foreword by Bob Blackburn, friend to Ed's widow Kathy, and introductory notes by Greg and Paul. Best of all, Paul provides explanatory notes throughout the entire screenplay; it's like a commentary track for a movie that was never made.

While reading the screenplay, I kept thinking of a quote from the notorious John Andrews in Nightmare of Ecstasy: "Eddie wrote a horror script that would have been fine for 1934 but not 1974." Yeah, even during his booziest, porn-iest, most debauched years, Eddie could get mired in the past sometimes. What's most amazing about The Frank Leahy Legend is that Ed Wood (or anyone) considered it to be marketable to jaded movie audiences who'd already seen The Godfather (1972) and The Exorcist (1973). Even nostalgic movies from the 1970s like Paper Moon (1973) and The Summer of '42 (1971) looked at the past through a modern lens.

Meanwhile, apart from a smattering of profanity, The Frank Leahy Legend is the type of creaky, old-fashioned, highly sanitized biopic you might have seen in the 1930s or '40s, the kind that basically acts as a feature-length commercial for its subject. If you watch enough TCM during the off-peak hours, you'll see these flattering films about politicians, songwriters, war heroes, entertainers, inventors, and athletes. Try sitting through something like Swanee River (1939) or The Babe Ruth Story (1948), and you'll know what I mean. This type of cornball biopic was already old hat when Steve Allen starred in The Benny Goodman Story in 1956, and Eddie was trying to get away with an even cornier script two decades later! Actual line spoken (without irony) by an actual character in this movie: "You know Frank Leahy, you're truly an amazingly, great man..."

Leahy: Neither hero nor villain.
But was Leahy amazing? Or great? Or amazingly great? Eh, I don't know. He certainly won a lot of football games in his day, but he did it by bending the rules just a bit. He got married. He had kids. He yelled at his players occasionally. He sold rubber or something on the side. He really liked Notre Dame. Does that count as a personality?

Leahy's life doesn't really fit any of the standard biopic templates, and in this unproduced screenplay, the reader can sense Ed Wood struggling to turn this material into something resembling a movie. I wouldn't call Leahy a hero or a role model, necessarily, and his life is not exactly inspiring. Then again, he's not a villain or a cautionary tale either. We can't learn anything from his story, because Frank doesn't learn anything from his own story. Even that scoundrel Charles Foster Kane has an epiphany in the last few seconds of his life.

Furthermore, Leahy doesn't seem to have had a quirky, outsized personality, the kind that would make him a good movie character. His coach and mentor Knute Rockne did, though, and Ed's screenplay makes Knute a colorful supporting character. Our protagonist, however, remains opaque. Either Frank Leahy is unknowable or there is just nothing to know about him beyond the surface details.

Either way, W. Paul Apel makes a splendid companion on this journey through the screenplay, jumping in whenever he has something to add or explain. (His commentary definitely helped me understand a few murky plot points along the way.) Unlike me, Paul's actually read the book upon which this script is based, so he can better explain how Ed Wood adapted this material. My guess is that Eddie was merely a hired gun on this movie and banged out this script strictly for the paycheck, but he manages to work some of his obsessions into The Frank Leahy Legend anyway. There are numerous funeral scenes, for instance, and even a prominent reference to Eddie's beloved angora.

For the most part, it seems like Eddie went out of his way to avoid showing any football in this supposedly football-centric movie. We know Wood was no sports fan, so when he wrote The Frank Leahy Legend, he tended to skip over all those pesky games and practices. Instead, we get a lot of scenes of Leahy talking to people in various offices. Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) are similarly chatty in nature, as is Wood's later film The Young Marrieds (1972). While the lack of action in this script could have been a budgetary concern, the stiflingly static nature of The Frank Leahy Legend makes it feel like something from Ed Wood's 1950s heyday.

Overall, The Frank Leahy Legend is an intriguing "what if?" from Ed Wood's strange career. It's a relatively wholesome piece of work from a time when Eddie's own life was anything but. Perhaps that's why he wanted to work on this project. It was a chance to do something with no connection whatsoever to pornography or even horror. This biopic may have been stodgy and old-fashioned, but it was respectable. This was one he could write home to Mother about.

You can purchase your own copy of I Watched Football Early the Day I Died directly from Bear Manor or from online retailers like Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Podcast Tuesday: "Escargot-A-Go-Go!"

William Sumper (center) and Henry Winkler (right) on Happy Days.

Happy Days was not big on serialization. It was a "status quo" sitcom that emphasized tidy endings and problems that could be solved in half an hour. And yet, by virtue of being on the air for eleven seasons, Happy Days was forced to evolve and adapt. Some actors left the show. Other actors joined the show. Everyone grew up or grew old. The TV industry changed. And gradually, little by little, Garry Marshall's nostalgic little sitcom mutated into something other than what it had been. An episode from 1983, like the one we're covering this week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, barely resembles an episode from 1974.

I think the character that changed the most over eleven seasons was Fonzie (Henry Winkler). In Season 1, he was a mysterious, taciturn, and vaguely threatening figure—a greaser hoodlum who dropped out of school to hang out in the parking lot of the local hamburger joint. Garry Marshall thought of him as Happy Days' answer to Gary Cooper. But the show quickly domesticated Fonzie, having him move into the Cunninghams' house and essentially join their family. He got his high school diploma and became a respected member of the community, even returning to his former high school to teach, a la Welcome Back, Kotter. And we learned plenty of things about Fonzie's background and even got to know several of his relatives.

Fonzie's personality also changed over those eleven long seasons. At first, Fonzie's personality was defined by the single adjective "cool." That was Fonzie—tough, unflappable, aloof, and unknowable. But once Fonzie was housebroken, so to speak, he became a real motormouth and showed that he was often a nervous wreck behind his "cool" façade. That's certainly the case with Season 10's "Nervous Romance," in which Fonzie blunders his way through a date with his classy new girlfriend, Ashley (Linda Purl). All hell breaks loose when the two lovebirds go to the snootiest French restaurant in Milwaukee, the humorously-named Quail and Snail.

Does "Nervous Romance" make the grade? Or is this a misfire? Find out by listening to the podcast below!