Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Dziawer Odyssey, Part Six by Greg Dziawer

This week, a particular book caught Greg's eye.

The book as it appears in School Girl.
Last night, I was scanning through some 8mm silent loops from the early '70s, loops I had seen before and that had connections to Ed Wood if not his direct involvement. It seems like I've spent the better part of 2017 poring over loops in the target zone, trying to piece together Ed's possible contributions. 

It was while watching School Girl, the third loop in the long-running Swedish Erotica series—the first 19 believed to have been made by Ed, and certainly subtitled by his hand—that I had a flash of recognition as the onscreen couple sat in bed doing homework. Of course, the sitting and the homework didn't last long, a typically flimsy narrative conceit always immediately leading to sex.

What I noticed was the book on the bed. As they paged through it, it dawned on me that I had seen a similar book before in the loop Incest. Like School Girl, it carries a number of signatures shared by the larger family of loops produced by Noel Bloom. 

Though I don't know if there is any documented proof, I agree with the general consensus that Ed Wood made (or at least contributed to) the earliest Swedish Erotica loops. These short films can be identified by a number of stylistic signatures. But I've also seen these same signatures in hundreds of other non-Swedish loops, none of which to my knowledge has ever been definitively ascribed to Ed.

That's the larger, perhaps quixotic and even completely wrongheaded endeavor in this series: interrogating the larger of family of loops to find the telling intersections. And it's in those intersections, too many to suggest mere coincidence, that I've concluded Ed Wood worked on hundreds of loops in a variety of capacities.

I'll refer obsessive Woodologists to the details from my previous Odysseys and Orbits, all of which you can find here. Below are my basic findings in summa, some taken from the public record, some derived solely from my own inferences:

  • Edward D. Wood, Jr. worked in some capacity for the notorious Swedish Erotica series for a period in the early 1970s.
  • Wood wrote subtitles for numerous loop series that, like Swedish Erotica, were produced and distributed by Noel Bloom.
  • He wrote various promotional texts for these loops, too, including box cover and catalog insert summaries.
  • The set decorations for these loops draw from the same common pool of bric a brac: wall hangings, pillows, blankets, lamps, nightstands, etc. Some of these same items turn up in the final two feature films Ed is known to have directed, Necromania and The Young Marrieds.
  • I know more than a few experts who also feel strongly that Wood was involved in decorating the sets of these pornographic loops, and there's even the notion out there that he may have edited them, too.

The book as it appears in Incest.
Back to that book. When I checked the loop Incest, sure enough, the same book appeared immediately. It's obvious from the size of the book and also the view of the spine. In School Girl, you can see the finger-grips on the edge of it, as well as gilt edging, earmarking it as a dictionary or encyclopedia. Well, the actors in the movie must have been studying vocabulary, because in Incest, we see that it is indeed a dictionary. We get a close up of the page on which the word "incest" is defined, just before Rick Cassidy laughs and casually tosses the book to the corner of the couch.

While there are numerous other correspondences between these two loops and the larger family of loops, this was a nice little moment for me. The sort of moment that rewards patience and continues to spur me on. I'm sure I'll see that book again, now that my eyes are open to it, and when I do, you'll hear all about right here at Ed Wood Wednesdays.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Plan 9 Odyssey, Part One by Greg Dziawer

Ed Wood's name has long been synonymous with "turkey."

The First "Worst" 
When the Medved Brothers, Harry and Michael, released their book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (1978), coauthored with Randy Dreyfuss, it contained nary a mention of Ed Wood or any of his movies. In the Medveds' follow-up, The Golden Turkey Awards (1980), that all changed dramatically: Ed seemingly appearing from nowhere to be dubbed the Worst Director of All Time and Plan 9 from Outer Space the Worst Film Ever. Thus, the story goes, began the film's—and its producer/writer/director's— reassessment as "so bad it's good" cult object.

Of course, by 1980, Ed had passed. While certainly aware of the negative reviews of Plan 9 that appeared during his lifetime, he couldn't have imagined the film becoming revered—and for that very reason—within just a few short years of his death. Plan 9 had enjoyed nearly two decades of afterlife in TV syndication before reaching this dubious pinnacle. By the time the first Medved book asked readers to submit their nominations for the Worst Film Ever, receiving 3,000 votes, with Plan 9 from Outer Space the winner, a small following had begun to emerge, shaping the "worst" viewpoint.

This attitude hardly originated with the notorious Medved book. If we dial it back a few years, in soon-to-be-director Joe Dante's serial column "The Frankenstein TV Movieguide" from Castle of Frankenstein magazine (specifically issue 22 from 1974), we see that the "so bad it's good" viewpoint is already fully developed. Dante's capsule review of Plan 9 is delirious, deeming the film an "unalloyed delight," owing to its "rank amateurishness" and incompetence. Ed is a name "to conjure with." Effusively, Dante ends the review: "Wow." Still, he steers clear of the "worst" moniker. 

On the index page for that issue of Castle of Frankenstein, the listing for the article mentions two films beginning with the letter P: Psycho and—you guessed it!—Plan 9 from Outer Space. Already, in 1974, the film had begun its reassessment. This prompts some questions:
  1. Just how far back can we go to find the "worst" root? 
  2. Is it really a reassessment? 
To which I would answer:
  1. All the way back. 
  2. No, Plan 9 was assessed in this same manner right from the beginning. 
Ad for an early showing of Plan 9.
When I found an ad for a showing of Plan 9 in the November 8, 1959 edition of The Sarasota News, I was happy to see the movie playing on a quadruple bill mere months after its initial widespread distribution. One of the Big "Space-O-Rama" showings that night at the Siesta Drive-In, Plan 9 was the only film to play twice on that sprawling bill. 

I immediately spotted the lengthy "special note" included in the ad, which turned out to be penned by one of the film's two associate producers: Hugh Thomas, Jr. Like co-producer J. Edward Reynolds, Thomas  was a member of the Southern Baptist Convention of Beverly Hills.

Thomas appears in Plan 9 as as the taller and thinner of two gravediggers, with Reynolds as his stockier companion. He's credited as the movie's sole producer in the ad. His note is simply amazing. Unique details include the mention of another film "we" produced entitled The Peacemaker. Thomas is surely speaking of the low-budget religious propaganda Western from 1956. The word "we" likely refers to Reynolds specifically or to the church generally. In that film, although Thomas and Reynolds were uncredited, they successfully managed to Trojan horse their religious views. Not so with Plan 9, and perhaps that partly explains Thomas' startling decision to run down the film in print, in fact right in an ad for a showing of the film. 
Special note about "PLAN NINE" . . . Some months ago we called to your attention we had spent a few years (And numerous dollars) in Hollywood having a fling at making pictures. Our first effort was "THE PEACEMAKER" which we played back in June. Well, now comes another one in "PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE". Not only did I produce it, I had a hand in developing the thin story, and I am even in the darn thing. If you'll study the above ad you will see two grave diggers, that's me on the right. I don't want to be misleading, so I'll just tell you in all honest that the picture stinks!!! It's strictly from corn. There have probably been worse pictures made; but I haven't seen one yet. Anyway, I had a lot of fun making it and you will have more of the same watching yours truly making a vain attempt to copy Marlon Brando, etc. Come down and have a big belly laugh on and at . . . Hugh Thomas, Jr.

The reference to an earlier message from "some months ago" suggests that this note was repurposed from some communication between Thomas and his church. The would-be producer also indicates that the church went to Hollywood expressly with the intent to make films. 

Although he remains gregarious overall, Thomas flatly states that the film "stinks." And, yes, for likely the first time in print, he says the magic words: "There have probably been worse pictures made; but I haven't seen one yet."

Echoing these sentiments, it certainly wouldn't be the last time.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Poughkeepsie Odyssey, Part Five by Greg Dziawer

Wed Woods: Ed Wood's parents, Edward and Lillian, tied the knot in 1923.

Save the Date

Submitted for your approval: an item from the Saturday, December 1, 1923 evening edition of The Kingston Daily Freeman.

Married on a Wednesday: Ed Wood's parents.
Miss Lillian Charlotte Phillips, daughter of Mrs. F.J. Phillips of 10 Columbia street, Poughkeepsie, and Edward Davis Wood, son of Mr. and Mrs. Bryan Wood of Stone Ridge, Wednesday evening, were married at the parsonage of the Hedding Methodist Church. The ceremony was performed at 7:30 o'clock by the pastor, the Rev. George H. Chesebro. The bride wore a gown of gray satin with over dress of canton crepe, a blue hat with gray trimmings and her flowers were white roses. Miss Ina Wright attended the bride as bridesmaid. She wore a blue cantou crepe gown with hat to match and carried pink roses. Philip Depew was best man. Following the ceremony, a reception was held at the home of the bride which was attended by about twenty-four guests, relatives and intimate friends of the couple. The couple have received a number of wedding gifts. After a wedding trip, they will make their home at 10 Columbia street, Poughkeepsie.

That modest announcement details the matrimony of Edward Davis Wood, Sr, and Lillian C. Phillips. They are—you are quite right—the parents of Edward Davis Wood, Jr, born 93 years ago in Poughkeepsie, New York, on October 10, 1924.

Kingston, New York, was 20 miles or so north of Poughkeepsie, just over the Hudson on the western side. The article no doubt appeared here owing to this area, West by northwest of P'oK across the river and over the bridge, being the patriarchal ancestral home of the Wood family after settling in Ulster County on the west side. His maternal ancestors hailed from the east side of the river, just north of Poughkeepsie. Ulster was known for its fertile farmland and rich limestone quarries. 

Poughkeepsie was an early urban center as Dutch settlers flocked there, as they did a generation before in Ulster County (the first explorers having landing there in the 1640s), and west across the Catskills and north into Quebec. As early as 1680, Dutch immigrant land barons were granted deeds from Native Americans, and in 1692, the first house was built in Poughkeepsie, just on the the edge of the river on the east side of town, half a dozen or so blocks north of the home in which Ed's parents first resided. 

I had previously mentioned that Ed's parents were married in 1922. Seeing this article, that was clearly wrong; they were not married until 1923. Within mere months, Eddie was conceived, likely at the residence mentioned in the article, 10 Columbia Street. Columbia ran and runs perpendicular to the river, and—I don't know if this is the building that stood there or not—the street corner today crossing a narrow street, with a narrow sidewalk on the residential side toward the river, in a vicinity sparsely populated by homes. On the southeast edge of P'oK is the exclusive Hudson Pointe, now (houses selling in the range of $300-400K, the corner of 10 Columbia St in front and to the right of the development's entry sign, looking across the river). 

In late 1923, when the young married Woods moved in with Frances, Eddie's maternal grandmother, the river was a stone's throw away. I haven't ascertained, just yet, exactly where Eddie's parents were living when he was born in late 1924. Half a dozen years later, Ed, his younger brother Howard (commonly known as William) and his parents were still living with the mother-in-law (Frances J. Phillips) at 44 Conklin Street. Until he joined the Marines and left Poughkeepsie in the spring of 1942, Ed and his family moved around—half a dozen or so addresses—within a narrowly circumscribed radius of a dozen or so blocks. Over time, doubtless impacted by the Great Depression, his family resided in increasingly spartan digs. 

Ed's maternal great-grandfather Samuel Phillips married his great-grandmother, Martha Emory. The Phillips side of the family hailed from the east side of the Hudson, just north of Poughkeepsie, where his mother Lillian is now buried. 

Eddie's maternal grandfather Frank Phillips, born in 1871, married Frances, his maternal grandmother. Ed's mother Lillian Charlotte Phillips was born in 1901. The reputed influencer of his transvestism, she lived until 1989. 

The marriage announcement incorrectly names Eddie's paternal grandfather Byron as "Bryan," married to Emily. Byron passed in 1925, so it's unlikely Eddie had any remembrance beyond family photographs and anecdotes. 

10 Columbia Street (as seen in this interactive map) was, in 1923, half a dozen or so blocks south, closer to the river than any other residence of Ed's in P'oK, of the soon-to-be-constructed Mid-Hudson Bridge. Columbia runs right into Franklin St, moving east, the oft-cited place of Ed's upbringing. 

When Ed was born, the beginning of the Mid-Hudson bridge project was 6 months away, and not completed until 1930. Ed's ancestral roots, lying tantalizing close just across the river, remained remote as his consciousness dawned. South of Albany, in 1923, there was no vehicular crossing of the Hudson.

Far to the west, Hollywood must have seemed a long way off.
Additional images for this week's article, including the original marriage announcement for Eddie's parents, are available at the Ed Wood Wednesdays Tumblr. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Oh my god, I've been watching SNL wrong my whole life.

David Koechner and Mark McKinney as the Fops on Saturday Night Live

The cast of SNL in the early 1980s. Eddie Murphy in foreground.
My parents weren't lenient about everything, but they were very understanding about letting me stay up late and watch TV as long as I didn't have school the next day. In the summers during my elementary school years, for instance, I got to watch The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and even Late Night With David Letterman. I had the same privilege on Friday nights during the school year, so it really bothered me that Dave's show originally only ran from Monday to Thursday, ceding its place on the NBC schedule to Friday Night Videos once a week. But I still saw plenty of after-hours talk shows back then. By junior high, I was already writing my own Top 10 lists. So thanks for that, Mom and Dad.

As near as I can figure, I must have started watching Saturday Night Live when I was 8 or 9. It was the early 1980s. Dick Ebersole was running the show then, and Eddie Murphy was the star attraction. I've been a faithful SNL viewer ever since, regardless of the show's quality. Whether it's good, bad, or (most likely) mediocre, I'm there for every new episode. I'll keep watching SNL until either it expires or I do.

So what? Well, I've come to realize that my way of watching SNL is actually all wrong and directly in opposition to the wishes of the show's creator, Lorne Michaels. Except on those rare nights when the cast and crew are firing on all cylinders, Saturday Night Live  can be a chore to watch. With commercials, it's 90 minutes long -- almost the length of a feature film -- and most weeks, you can feel every minute of that. The musical guests are often of little interest to me, so I wind up muting them. When the show isn't hosted by a comedian, the opening monologue is often torturous, too.

Even the sketches -- the jewels in the show's crown -- can be painful. We've all heard the stories about how cast members and writers compete ferociously to get their sketches on the air, and yet SNL often feels like it's desperately filling up time with any material it has available. Many sketches follow a pattern I call "ever-escalating variations." This means that the performers do different versions of the same basic joke over and over for five minutes, only making the central joke slightly more intense with each repetition. SNL studio audiences have become so familiar with this formula that, occasionally, they won't laugh at a joke until it's repeated. They're waiting for the pattern to emerge. Over four decades, essentially, the show has trained them how to watch sketches.

This problem is more noticeable in the sketches that involve recurring characters. From the Coneheads to Stefon, SNL has had many, many, many, many such characters over the years. They're the lifeblood of the series. And each of these characters generally has his or her own catchphrases and signature routines that become well-known to viewers. A classic SNL recurring character typically does the same exact things in the same exact order in each appearance. Even if you love the character, it can get a bit boring for the every-episode viewer like myself because you can predict exactly what this person is going to do well in advance.

But here is where I've been screwing up. Check out this 2013 interview with comedian Mark McKinney, who served as a writer on SNL in the 1980s and came back as a cast member in the 1990s. This guy knows what he's talking about from an insider's perspective. And here's what he says about Lorne Michaels and recurring characters:
"Lorne pointed out, and I think this is absolutely true, that even if you have big fans who are really into your show, they'll probably only see every second one. Or sometimes every third one. So that's the logic, at least on SNL I know, about why they sort of repeat characters."
So there you have it, folks. Straight from the source. I've been watching SNL incorrectly for decades. Lorne wants you to watch every second or third episode. Maybe you're not even supposed to watch all 90 minutes each week. I've noticed that, the Sunday after a new episode airs, there are highlight videos all over YouTube and the rest of the internet. And, generally, it's only two or three sketches that get any real attention out of any given show.

SNL usually is well-served by judicious editing, i.e. cutting away all the filler and getting to the handful of funny sketches. The earliest episodes of the show -- with Belushi, Aykroyd, etc. -- were just a little bit before my time, but I saw highlights from this era through a half-hour syndicated series (called, I believe, The Best of Saturday Night and masterminded by Lorne himself) that played both on a local affiliate and, later, on Nick at Nite. I loved it. It wasn't until years later that I finally saw full-length episodes with the original cast. I thought it would be even better, but I realized I greatly preferred the condensed half-hour editions. Even "classic" SNL had a lot of dead time.

The weird thing is, I probably won't change the way I watch SNL, even if it prevents me from fully enjoying the show. I'll still be there for every new episode, and I'll still watch from beginning to end each time. Sorry, Lorne.