Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 177: The Erotic Spy (1968)

There's just something about those 1960s spy stories.

Ian Fleming could scarcely have known what he was unleashing on the world when he wrote Casino Royale (1953), the first of his twelve novels about suave British superspy James Bond. Though hardly fiction's first secret agent, it was 007 who established the template that so many after him would follow. The first big-screen Bond adaptation, Dr. No starring Sean Connery, appeared in 1962. The phenomenal success of that film and its many sequels, especially Goldfinger (1964), cemented Bond's fame and inspired countless imitations, knockoffs, and wannabes. 

"A secret service thriller."
All of popular culture came down with a serious case of Bondmania in the 1960s. And why not? Cold War tensions were running high. (Is it a coincidence that the first Bond film came out the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis?) Spies were simply everywhere—movie theaters, TV screens, toyboxes, bookshelves, our dreams, etc. There was no escape from car chases, gimmicky weapons, top-secret missions, boastful villains, hulking henchmen, and sexy female double agents. Even on pop radio, you could hear Johnny Rivers crooning about that poor "secret agent man" who traded in his name for a number. The great thing about Bond-inspired spy stories is that they could range from silly to serious and could be tailored to any age group.

Did you think the adult publishing industry would ignore this trend? Ha! In 1968, Bernie Bloom's Pendulum Publishing released a photo-illustrated novella called The Erotic Spy. This was another of the company's Pendulum Pictorials, which falsely claimed to be "novelizations" of feature films. Instead, they contained staged, mostly black-and-white photos accompanied by text. There were six of these Pictorials altogether, all released in 1968. The Erotic Spy was the third of them. It retailed for $1.75, which is over fifteen bucks in today's money.

Since the first two Pendulum Pictorials were credited to our very own Edward Davis Wood, Jr., it's reasonable to assume that Eddie may have written the other four under fake names. Notice that I said assume and may; we're not talking about certainties here, just probabilities. 

Officially, The Erotic Spy is credited to Abbott Smith, an author with zero other credits. I doubt he's George Abbott-Smith, who wrote A Manual Greek Lexicon of the Old Testament in 1923. For one thing, George died in 1947. According to reader Shawn D. Langrick, at the time of this book's publication, a man named Abbott Smith happened to be the Acting Chairman of the Office of National Estimates of the Central Intelligence Agency. Shawn speculates that the credited author's name may have been an "inside joke."

But does The Erotic Spy seem like Ed Wood's work? Let's investigate.

What we have here are the adventures of Dick Wilson—and, yeah, our hero is blatantly named after the appendage he uses the most—who works for a government agency called GSS in Washington D.C. Dick's boss (the equivalent of M in the Bond films) is a guy named Kip Arlington, and his partner is a sexy brunette rookie named Ann Barnes. Naturally, in addition to their professional relationship, Dick and Ann have an intense sexual affair that Kip neither condones nor condemns. And they all work out of a three-story brick building that also contains a ladies' dress shop, a shoe repair shop, and a dry cleaning place, all of which operate as legitimate businesses.

A story like this obviously needs a major crisis, and, boy, does The Erotic Spy have one! Briefly, a mysterious but widely-feared foreign agent known only as Gold Girl has purloined a valuable and potentially dangerous item known as the Golden Rooster. And what is that? Well, on his deathbed, an eccentric nuclear physicist named Dr. Harvey Malcolm created a "deceptively simple" formula for "producing a controlled thermo-nuclear reaction" and wrote it on a sheet of vellum, which he then placed inside a lead cylinder. Surprisingly active for a dying man, Dr. Malcolm hid the cylinder inside a gilded plaster figurine of a rooster ("an ordinary chicken-type rooster," the book specifies). And now, the so-called Golden Rooster has been stolen from the Bureau of Standards, and it's up to Dick Wilson to retrieve it.

The Golden Rooster is such an absurdly contrived plot device that it almost serves as a self-aware parody of the MacGuffin, i.e. the object that drives the story but is otherwise worthless. We care about this item only because the characters care about it. It's the thing everyone wants for some reason. One of the most famous MacGuffins in movie history is the titular object in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941). Like the Golden Rooster, it's a statue of a bird. I'm confident that The Erotic Spy is directly referencing the Huston film in a knowingly silly way.

(left) The Golden Rooster; (right) The Maltese Falcon.

The Maltese Falcon is full of colorful and quotable characters, but The Erotic Spy is sadly not. Dick, Kip, and Ann are surprisingly colorless, short on quirks and catchphrases. They drink, engage in various sexual escapades, get into fights and car chases, and talk about the plot. But that's about it. There's nothing inherently interesting about them. They're just the types of people you'd expect to encounter in a spy novel, but Ed Wood (or Abbott Smith?) has not developed them much beyond that.

The villains of The Erotic Spy are more intriguing, though sometimes in upsetting ways. There's a sinister, bearded henchman who tries to plant a bomb in Ann and Dick's bed, only to be dispatched by Ann (her first kill). And there are two more who chase Dick around before accidentally blowing themselves to smithereens with that same bomb. Obviously, the book's most disturbing character is Zan, another of Gold Girl's violent thugs, this one "of oriental extraction." An embarrassing racial stereotype seemingly inspired by Goldfinger's Oddjob (Harold Sakata), Zan is described as animal-like and "absolutely without nerves." He also rapes Ann in a graphic and prolonged sequence, making The Erotic Spy one of Ed Wood's many, many works to contain sexual violence against women.

But then there is Gold Girl herself, the only character in The Erotic Spy to be mentioned on the cover. The book's introduction describes her this way:
Gold Girl is one of the most exciting characters to have emerged from the world of fiction in recent years. Completely amoral, infinitely and diabolically clever, willing to use her voluptuous body in absolutely any way to achieve her ends, Gold Girl is, perhaps, fiction's most formidable adversary since Superman.
That's quite a reputation to live up to. Kip tells Dick that Gold Girl is "the female equivalent of a Black Belt Karate champion," but she's definitely not an "Amazon" or a "lady wrestler type." No, sir, she's all woman—like many of Ed Wood's female characters, the epitome of feminine beauty. She's so clever that she assumes the alias of "Mona Marina," infiltrates GSS, and even seduces Ann to extract information from her. The reader will immediately guess that "Mona" is Gold Girl, but it takes our heroes an embarrassingly long time to figure it out.

Apart from her craftiness and sexiness, Gold Girl's most outstanding trait is that, occasionally, she likes to strip nude and cover her entire body with gold paint. In fact, she has to put on her special makeup to be Gold Girl, like Clark Kent ducking into a phone booth. The gold paint serves no purpose whatsoever and just makes her much easier to identify, which would be a real liability in the spy game. Applying it, too, must be a time-consuming hassle for a woman whose schedule is already jam-packed.

Gold Girl is another example of The Erotic Spy shamelessly imitating Goldfinger. In that film, the character Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) is killed by her gold-obsessed boss, Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), who suffocates her by coating her skin with gold paint. The enticing yet strange image of actress Shirley Eaton wearing only gold body paint was heavily used in Goldfinger's advertising campaign and has since become iconic not only of the entire Bond franchise but of the 1960s in general. Ed Wood and director Steve Apostolof had already ripped off this scene in their adult film Orgy of the Dead (1965), so it's not difficult to imagine Eddie doing it again.

What's funny here is that the interior photos in The Erotic Spy are in black-and-white, so the intended "gold" effect doesn't work at all. At most, Gold Girl merely looks tan, like she just got back from vacation. So let's talk about the pictorial element of this book for a moment, eh? After all, that's why horny men were buying this book in 1968. Again, I'll thank reader Dennis Smithers, Jr. for supplying the photos. Previous to this, I just had the text.

Dick and Ann stare at Gold Girl. Note the latter's drawn-on bikini bottoms.

Visually, The Erotic Spy is almost poignant in its utter lameness and cheapness. The text helpfully confines the action to a few locations and limits the cast of characters to about a half-dozen people. Even so, the models picked to be Kip, Ann, Dick, and Gold Girl don't look much like their literary descriptions. I'm pretty sure the photographer just rounded up anybody who was available that day. Zan is obviously portrayed by a non-Asian actor wearing a fake mustache and eyebrows. As in Bye Bye Broadie, the actors' facial expressions often don't match the material. They don't seem to be taking all this seriously enough. Ann even grins when she's being held hostage!

Also like Broadie, The Erotic Spy is surprisingly prudish in its use of nudity. We see a few bare boobs and the occasional bare buns, but no pubic hair and no male genitalia whatsoever. In the text, again mostly free of profanities, Gold Girl is explicitly described as being nude, and it looks like the model was actually nude during the photo shoot. But in the book, black bikini bottoms have been crudely drawn on her with a marker. Perhaps Bernie Bloom, uh, chickened out at the last moment? 

The single most impressive image in The Erotic Spy shows Kip and Dick reading a newspaper article about Gold Girl's theft of the Golden Rooster. The fictional paper in question is The Hollywood Evening Star, which also turned up in such TV shows as The Monkees (1966-68) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), plus the movie Rock 'N' Roll High School (1979).  It looks like, if you wanted a fake newspaper headline in the 1960s or '70s, The Hollywood Evening Star was a popular choice.

The Hollywood Evening Star appeared in The Erotic Spy and (inset) The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

But what about the text makes me think Ed Wood wrote The Erotic Spy? True, it largely lacks the dreamy incoherence of Wood at his wildest, but a few of Eddie's pet words and phrases are in evidence: "thrills," "lovely," "establishment," "lowered," "soft," "pink," "hell of a...," "pleasant," etc. Boozing here is fairly minimal, but a few scotch and sodas are downed by the thirsty characters.

What about the fashions? The author keeps close tabs on the female characters' outfits, paying particular attention to nighties, negligees, bras, and panties. I felt Eddie's spirit in sentences like: "Ann reached for her shortie nightie and pulled it on." The author even comments on the filminess of one garment, an obsession of Ed's since at least Glen or Glenda (1953). And while there's no angora in The Erotic Spy, the book makes numerous references to Ann's "terry cloth robe" and matching "terry cloth scuffles," which are presumably slippers. I can imagine Eddie loving terrycloth, the desperately poor man's angora.

As in most of Ed Wood's erotic stories and novels, the sex scenes in The Erotic Spy are written with great gusto, with the characters all but transcending their physical bodies and entering a whole new realm of consciousness. The author describes this heightened state as a "fog of passion" and tells us of the "lights" exploding in people's heads. This is quintessentially Woodian, as are phrases like "terry cloth covered temple of her love" and "hot triangle of love." There is the usual attention paid to slashing tongues, stiffening manhoods, and swelling breasts with pink nipples. Gold Girl even admires her own breasts in a mirror, a scene very typical of Ed's writing.

One of the most Woodian passages in the entire book occurs when Ann crawls into bed with Mona, who is supposed to be her bodyguard. Again transported by the experience, Ann flashes back to her own sexual initiation, when at the age of 15, she had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl named Carol. As with Bye Bye Broadie, this flashback material is not represented in the photographs at all. It's merely an embellishment on the behalf of the author, the kind Eddie has been known to include in other works.

(left) Vornoff whips Lobo in Bride of the Monster; (right) Gold Girl whips Zan in The Erotic Spy.

You need more Woodiness? Well, when Gold Girl finds out Zan has raped Ann, she kills him with a whip. Whips are surprisingly common weapons in Wood's writing, going all the way back to Bride of the Monster (1955) in which Dr. Eric Vornoff (Bela Lugosi) lashes poor Lobo (Tor Johnson) for insubordination. "I'll teach you to disobey!" Vornoff yells at his manservant. In The Erotic Spy, before whipping Zan to death, Gold Girl shouts, "You dared to disobey my orders?"

There are further Ed-like moments I could point out to you in this book, like the very Orgy of the Dead-esque sequence in which Gold Girl captures Ann and Dick and then sexually menaces Ann, just as the Princess of Darkness (Fawn Silver) did with Shirley (Pat Barringer). Overall, though, what makes The Erotic Spy feel like an Ed Wood book is simply its audacity. Eddie seemed to go into a trancelike state when he wrote, typing furiously without regard to continuity or plausibility. That's where you get ideas like a woman who paints herself gold for no reason or a nuclear physicist who hides his formula in a plaster chicken. If Eddie didn't write this, who the hell else could have? Or would have?