The real-life Edward D. Wood, Jr. was far more interesting than the character depicted by Johnny Depp in the 1994 Tim Burton campy Ed Wood. Yes, Wood was a seriously bad film director who made seriously bad films filled with seriously bad dialogue and amateur actors. But, in Anthony Mostrom’s view, he deserves better than being labeled ‘the worst director of all time’. He combs Wood’s legacy to explain to PKM readers why…
“It may be that there is something to be learned about genius by contemplating its obscure double: its mirror image. It can be said that the only truly bad film is a boring film. The recent interest in Edward Wood’s work demonstrates that these films are not boring.” (Randy Simon and Harold Benjamin: Edward D. Wood, Jr. A Man and His Films, 1981)
Whatever happened to Ed Wood? I don’t mean the 1994 Tim Burton biopic that was called Ed Wood. I mean the real-life subject of said film and his posthumous reputation: Edward D. Wood Jr. (1924-1978), the half-talented movie director and Hollywood bottom feeder who died penniless less than a year before he was immortalized in a best-selling book (The Golden Turkey Awards, published in 1980), which essentially canonized him as the “worst director of all time” (and according to Wood’s friends, he would have enjoyed even that much attention…at least to some extent).
Wood’s movies, whether monster-horror or sex-and-crime exploitation, seemed to exist in a strange, cheap world of claustrophobic, zero-budget sets: bland 1950s kitchens masked off with tarps and backed by shower curtains instead of doorways…airplane cockpits employing that very same shower curtain…fake cemeteries with the occasional wobbling cardboard tombstone…not to mention weirdly inappropriate edits, like a close-up shot of an old room heater dropped into the middle of a dramatic suicide inquest…all of this graced by long, irrelevant stretches of stock footage that very often had nothing to do with the, uh, story.
So many of Wood’s films, in fact, feel like a collection of out-takes strung together: don’t reshoot it, nobody will notice seems to have been the cash-strapped director’s attitude whenever an actor would flub a line or a tombstone wobble.
So who watched these films back in the 1950s, anyway?
Just as a refresher: the “major” Ed Wood features from his heyday were Glen or Glenda (1952), Jail Bait (1954), Bride of the Monster (1955), The Violent Years (1956), and his best known, the immortal, celebrated, parodied on stage, sci-fi-meets-horror classic that included those legendary ever-wobbling tombstones: Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)…and after sliding even farther down the Hollywood food chain by the early 1960s, there were lots of softcore and, near the end, hardcore porn films cluttering up Ed Wood’s “oeuvre” as well, some of which still had your typically cheesy Ed Wood touches: check out, for example, Orgy of the Dead (1965), a full-color, grind-house softcore porn dream that features some hapless actors actually trying to talk through store-bought rubber monster masks…it’s a howl. Ed Wood is where Poverty Row meets skid row.
Wood’s reputation seems to have faded a bit since the original excitement of his rediscovery occurred, back in the less jaded 1980s. After the Tim Burton film it went the way of other cultish ‘90s phenomena, like shoegaze music or David Lynch films. But to those of us who savor Ed Wood’s deliciously inept monster and crime pics, filled with bad dialogue and (often homely) amateur actors, his filmic legacy deserves better, not worse…even though it was worse. In the current era of hopelessly bland Hollywood fast-food cinema, the handcrafted, tape-and-chewing-gum, all-too-human badness of an Ed Wood film is still (trust me) a mighty good tonic for us flesh and blood humans.
From the beginning, Ed’s movies were grade-Z “genre” pictures, intended mainly for kids or the kids-at-heart and or the proverbial Main Street audience of debased winos in trench coats: horror, crime, ‘50s-style sexploitation…so it’s not as if Ed Wood was attempting high art in the first place; they would’ve been trash even in the hands of a competent director. But Wood became notorious for the sheer awfulness of his writing, his budgets and even his inept editing. All of these are seen in harsh relief in Plan 9 from Outer Space.
To be merciful to my fellow earthlings, I won’t go into the plot of Plan 9…it’s not worth telling (oh, alright: some outer space aliens raise some of the “earth dead” from their graves to scare us)…but the movie is definitely worth your time, in a mind-bogglingly inept, anti-worth-it kind of a way.
From the beginning, Ed’s movies were grade-Z “genre” pictures, intended mainly for kids or the kids-at-heart and or the proverbial Main Street audience of debased winos in trench coats: horror, crime, ‘50s-style sexploitation
Plan 9 features the singular Ed Wood version of an “all-star” cast: virtually the entire Wood “stock company” of schlocky actors and monster-freak characters who would appear in many of his low-budget features one after the other, actors well on the downward slide, whose young director was thrilled to get them: old and frail Bela Lugosi, ‘30s character actor Lyle Talbot, baldheaded wrestler Tor Johnson, and the corny TV psychic Criswell, just a few of the actors and non-actors who appeared in his skid-row sci-fi epic about “grave robbers from outer space” (its originally planned title). Even Vampira, a still-popular horror hostess from Los Angeles TV, seems to have been nabbed by Wood at just at the moment she was badly in need of some bread.
If you’ve never seen Plan 9, I’ll spoil one fun thing for you: Wood’s disregard for keeping certain scenes consistent as far as day-and-night. That’s right, you might see a woman running away from old Lugosi at night, but he’s pursuing her in broad daylight! And Criswell’s haughty voiceover “narration” is weird and cheesy, something that’s almost never done in movies, period. As Ed Wood scholar Lee R. Harris said, on camera, in his 1992 documentary Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: the Plan 9 Companion, “Of all the things written about the film, perhaps this quote sums Plan 9 up best: ‘no matter what time it is when you watch Plan 9 from Outer Space, it always feels like 3 o’clock in the morning.’”
It’s true that Wood’s taste was always on the comic book level. He was the product of a 1930s childhood spent mainly at his local movie theater (the Stratford) in Poughkeepsie N.Y., where he absorbed Universal monster movies, cowboy serials and the early, crude sci-fi cheapness of Buck Rogers films…no doubt a major influence. Some biographers claim that “young Wood was a bookworm,” but there is demonstrably no evidence for this. Thus Wood’s “aesthetic” (okay his bad taste) was tailor-made for genre pictures, which included his late-‘50s drug dramas and sex-tease pics, like The Violent Years (1956), which featured “girl gang terrorists,” a.k.a. dangerous suburban white girls holding up gas stations in hot, pointy-titted sweaters…for kicks!
The trailer for TheViolent Years:
Lines like that were a major part of Wood’s special genius: to push the already-cheap into the realm of the ridiculous. If a line of dialogue could be mangled, eager-beaver Ed Wood was sure to mangle it:
“Four months ago, I was given six months to live!”
“Only the infinity of the depths of a man’s mind can really tell the story.”
“And yet I wonder if we…ever stop learning. Learning about which we see! I’m a man who thrives on learning… We only have one life to live. We throw that one away, what is there left?”
“The world is a strange place to live in: all those cars, all going someplace! All carrying humans which are carrying out their lives…”
“The shadowy effect of this passage, with its evenly-spaced doors makes a deep impression on my mind, and…beads of sweat…on my forehead.”
MAN: “This is the twentieth century.”
WOMAN: “Don’t count on it.”
The sheer ineptness of such lines tends to stick in your craw, ensuring Ed’s immortality as, oh I don’t know, maybe the world’s worst prose stylist? Anti-genius indeed:
“Modern man is a hardworking human. Throughout the day his mind and his muscles are busy at building the modern world and its business administration.”
“His clothing is rough, coarse, starched, according to the specifications of his accepted job.”
“I must explore further into the deep blackness! To enter into the costume rooms, the scenery rooms, the makeup rooms! All those rooms where…one may change his appearance, to any character…nameable!”
“The newspapers heard of it, and hit the story with their usual fullness.”
It seems strange to think that there was once a time, not that long ago, when no one except a few bad-movie-fanatics in L.A. and New York had ever heard of Ed Wood or Plan 9, his anti-masterpiece.
Throughout the early 1980s a slew of Ed Wood Film Festivals took place in colleges and art house theaters, and the thrill of a new kind of discovery was in the air, unleashing a whole new field of study: Ed Wood film scholarship, a kind of Warholian irony on a vast scale but one that was rich with humor as well as large doses of John Waters-ish gaudiness, thrown in for good measure (shots of husky Ed Wood in his sexy ‘50s tramp-drag surely classify as gaudy, a kind of proto-Divine). The Ed Wood cult that started to gain momentum and percolate in pop culture throughout the ‘80s and reached its climax with the Tim Burton film was a rare popular example of “camp,” that smirking, gay-friendly attitude toward cultural objects that fit the “so-bad-it’s-good” category. (Strangely, John Waters, the king of so-called bad taste, sounded rather dismissive about the whole Ed Wood revival thing in his books and interviews at that time.)
But from the beginning, Wood’s more reflective fans stayed with him, thanks to a certain… something simmering in the Ed Wood stew: “There is something here that makes one sit up and take notice,” to quote one early essay written on Wood’s work. After the initial smirking and mockery, it became clear that these bottom-level-of-Hollywood productions might have been “badly” made, but they were the opposite of boring. With all of Wood’s klunky dialogue, the amateur acting and the at-times laughable sets, they were captivating!
Whether it was Plan 9 or a Wood “horror” that featured Lugosi as a (yawn) mad scientist who keeps a gorilla in a cage (Bride of the Beast), sure it was schlock, but it was what Eddie Wood loved doing. “He really believed what he was doing…he was sincere,” his widow Kathy told biographer Rudolph Grey in the ‘80s.
“I’d like to hear the story to the fullest.”
“Do you realize what would happen if every man in the country that wanted to wear women’s clothes or felt like a woman went to their doctors and wanted their sex changed?” — Glen or Glenda (1952)
Wood’s most serious and most adult-oriented movie was also his first full-length feature: Glen or Glenda or I Changed My Sex (1952). Critics love to point out that, like its hero, a tortured young crossdresser of the 1950s, Glen or Glenda? apparently can’t seem to make up its mind who or what it wants to be: Was it a sober-minded quasi-documentary about the shocking (for 1952) sex change phenomenon which had just “hit the headlines” with the pioneering sex change of the ex-GI-turned glamour girl Christine Jorgensen? Or was it a sensationalistic exploitation film that gets bizarrely interrupted by dream sequences of sexy girls tying each other up in full-frontal, writhing bondage? The answer is it’s both, just like Glen and “his Glenda,” played by none other than director Ed Wood, a lifelong transvestite himself.
What’s really shocking about Glen or Glenda is that Bela Lugosi acted in it. An elated and starstruck Ed Wood found himself realizing a lifelong dream by casting the great hero of his youth in this oddly fascinating, cheapo masterpiece, the aging and severely drug-addicted Lugosi playing a kind of omniscient narrator-God who sits in a rattan chair surrounded by skulls, hovering over stock footage of crowds as they walk the streets of downtown L.A., while he intones some of the weirdest Wood lines ever:
“Pull the string! Pull the string! Dance to that, which one is created for!
“Tell me! Tell me, dragon! Do you eat little boys? Puppy dog tails and big fat snails?”
Can you imagine Bela Lugosi saying lines like these? Then you’ve got to see Glen or Glenda?.
Here’s a trailer for the film (and notice here the interesting silent outtake of Ed in drag, mouthing the word “cut”):
Glen or Glenda’s fascinating, recurring street shot (it almost seems like a loop) of Wood, dressed in full drag, walking down Santa Monica Boulevard in a blonde wig and tight skirt, can feel to the “modern” viewer like a cross between a ‘50s Dragnet episode and I Love Lucy: the seamy underbelly of ‘50s Hollywood before our eyes in the (very tightly wrapped) flesh.
Wood was lucky to find an open-minded producer for Glen or Glenda: ‘50s exploitation schlockmeister George Weiss, who produced “grindhouse” softcore sex stuff, the pre-‘60s version of adults only films. Weiss was interviewed decades later by Rudolph Grey, author of the fantastic Ed Wood biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: the Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Feral House, 1992).
As he revealed therein, Christine Jorgensen was not the only so-called “he-she” in America by the time the film was ready to shoot:
“I tried to get others that had sex changes. Especially one from North Carolina. And I went up to Washington to meet with her, and she said she wouldn’t want to go out on personal appearances, because Lugosi signified ‘horror’ and any sex change, therefore, was horror…
“(Wood) assembled a hell of a cast…he swore up and down that they were transvestites. It was ahead of its time.”
Wood was lucky too that his co-star and real-life girlfriend back in 1952, Dolores Fuller, didn’t mind letting him wear her clothing at home: “And he would ask. He’d say he could write much better if he could wear my angora sweater.”
By the way, now is the time to give long-overdue credit to young Ed Wood for being 70 years ahead of his time in dealing with this subject matter, which of course has been so important to so many concerned journalists in our time: transsexuals, hermaphrodites, cross-dressing, “gender” (I wonder now too, if Glen or Glenda didn’t perhaps inspire the makers of The Rocky Horror Picture Show? The very idea of transsexual Transylvania seems to jump right out from this film’s scrambled ingredients).
It was important to Wood, a young former Marine living in the 1950s who’d once killed a Japanese soldier with his bayonet, to make sure to distance “transvestism” in his movie from, well, gayness. “Glen is not a homosexual. Glen is a transvestite, but he is not a homosexual,” the film’s 1952 narrator forcefully insists, over clips of Wood-Glenda taking a woman’s angora sweater out of his dresser drawer. One assumes Ed was speaking for himself.
But Wood, in the “depths” of his mind, harbored a clearly unhealthy, lifelong obsession with the idea of dying in drag. Not a fear, but a wish. It seems to have been a permanent “primal scene” in his psyche. Hence the publication, decades after Glen or Glenda, of the Wood novel titled Let Me Die in Drag, or Death of a Transvestite. It came out in 1967, a time when Wood was having trouble getting film work, but during an era of loosened sensibilities that dovetailed with his own.
Notice the time lag: the same emblematic image of a dead crossdresser stretched out on a bed, which first appeared in one of the opening scenes of Glen or Glenda, then pops up again, in 1967, in the paperback novel Let Me Die In Drag. If this doesn’t qualify as a tortured obsession, what does? This is something the so-called “worst director’s” detractors didn’t want to acknowledge: for all the humor and novelty of his half-talented output, Ed Wood was indeed an obsessed artist (he was obsessed, he was an artist), a man who lived by certain themes that haunted him for his entire life whether you laughed at the result or not.
Wood basically lived a hard, hand-to-mouth existence in Hollywood from start to finish. A fellow paperback writer in L.A. during the mid-1960s who ran into him a few times was the future true-crime author John Gilmore (Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder), who was also writing sleazy paperbacks for one of Wood’s publishers, FRANCE: Your Guarantee of Exciting and Entertaining Reading!
In his 1997 memoir Laid Bare, Gilmore was semi-sympathetic to Wood, whom he’d met around 1965: “Ed Wood Jr. was also in the business of writing dirty books,” he remembered, astonished that Wood “often wrote under his own name, as opposed to using a pseudonym…
“Ed and I met a couple of times when he was wearing a woman’s rayon blouse, which had a sort of metallic sheen except where he’d sweated through the armpits.
For all the humor and novelty of his half-talented output, Ed Wood was indeed an obsessed artist (he was obsessed, he was an artist), a man who lived by certain themes that haunted him for his entire life whether you laughed at the result or not.
“He looked disheveled…talking about getting a few grand together to get a picture on the board. I thought maybe it was pills: he had a pill-head’s agitation over things that rubbed him wrong…He went to (one) publisher, then another, writing book after book at a pace like dribbling a basketball.”
Gilmore claimed that Wood used odd phrases in conversation like, “In face of fact,” and recalled his fellow hack-writer’s literary method: “Ed had an extraordinary ability for jamming together bunches of disparate material, which he could somehow present with a kind of coherence…two or more totally unrelated stories could be crammed into the middle…and somehow it would seem intended…the world he operated in, the insane nine-day novel-writing and ten-day moviemaking world, never allowed him a moment of reflection.”
It’s a collection of scripts that Ed wrote for his friend Bela, scripts that didn’t make it by the time Lugosi died suddenly in 1956, as well as some learned essays on a few of Wood’s least-known films. Harris contributes a witty chapter called The Almost, Penultimate Final Curtain:
“The technological advances since Ed Wood’s death have brought his films to his true audience. In his time, watching a movie in (the) home meant 16mm projected through a haze of cigarette smoke…
“Night of the Ghouls is dull. It not only lacks Plan 9’s fever-pitch histrionics but plays as if Wood had been saddled with an unwanted homework assignment.”
This book also includes a fascinating memoir by author Robert Cremer, about his “weekend with Ed Wood” in the early 1970s when he was conducting interviews for his Lugosi biography. In it, you read Wood’s own words on his ‘50s friendship with Bela Lugosi: “Boy, those were unforgettable times. When we got to talking, you could see the gleam in Bela’s eyes as if he was a million miles away…” Classic.
My second-favorite Ed Wood film is Jail Bait (1954). It’s a crime picture. Slow, steady, cheaply shot, mostly at night in Alhambra, California, it feels like it was actually filmed at 3 AM. The acting and the editing are…better than usual, the story told straight-ahead, none of the narrator-on-top-of-another-narrator stuff that muddles the schizoid Glen or Glenda. It involves a gang of thieves who kill cops:
“So what’s with him?” “Oh, he shot his first cop.”
It’s quite an improvement for Wood, a movie that makes you take him a bit more seriously. (Wood’s direction always seemed to work better when he was dealing with sober, adult themes: crime, cops, drugs, etc.) Longtime, rock-solid Hollywood character actor Lyle Talbot is in it too, and he’s great as a police captain (he and Ed Wood must have been great friends and of course drinking buddies). The music track to Jail Bait, however, was truly bizarre, atmospheric and late night-ish, a duo of hushed, acoustic guitar and a weird clanging and discordant jazz piano…it’s all very smoky.
Filled with unusually long, almost static black and white car chases that were, in fact, shot after midnight, Jail Bait is also a spooky time capsule of the far Valley fringes of Los Angeles in the early 1950s, and for that reason alone it’s a precious jewel of weirdness.
Here’s a suitably spooky trailer for Jail Bait:
The UCLA Film Department held one of the first Ed Wood Film Festivals back in 1981, shortly after the publication of the Golden Turkey Awards book which made his name, posthumously.
At 22, I didn’t care that much about movies except for some John Waters films and those of “Bunuel” (ah, youth), but the Wood phenomenon and its promise of unintended comedy was gripping.
The audience in the hall was excited: we were about to see some real Ed Wood movies! The hall went dark. As the film rolled, tense, dramatic orchestral music filled the hall, the violins racing as the opening credits started to run in the scratchy-dusty gray tones of old black and white, the music sounding like some old major-studio Alfred Newman-ish, “romantic” score typical of a “prestige picture” of the late ‘40s. Remember, this was when people were ready to be seduced by anything Wood filmed, said or wrote, so the audience was primed to scream with laughter no matter what, and they did.
A booklet was printed up for this filmic landmark of an occasion, one of the first-ever publications on the subject, and it contained quotes from some of the actual press reactions to Wood’s films back in the 1950s:
“Jean Moorehead, Art Millan, Barbara Weeks, and Stanford Jolley claim the principal roles but they are not actors by any stretch of the imagination. No matter, the script is a horror anyhow.”
“This preposterous story has some unconsciously funny moments, but the working out is too clumsy to make it in any way rewarding…the moral would appear to be addressed to newlyweds: don’t keep large animals in the house.”
And from Variety itself: “Jail Bait was brought in for $21,600, and one wonders where all the money went. For that price, however, the film could show a profit, and producer-director-writer Edward D. Wood, Jr. can sneer at his critics. Technically, this film leaves much to be desired, the music even being from another picture.”
The authors of this booklet, Randy Simon and Harold Benjamin, tried to be kind to the recently deceased, but some criticism inevitably crept in:
“Unfortunately, Wood did not have the talent to wear all the hats. Having no training in direction and no inborn feel for it, he produced static scenes, heavy with dialogue and lacking any real use of the visual medium (try listening to a Wood soundtrack without the picture: little is lost). His scripts, in fact, actually read better than the finished films turned out…
“Wood’s writing itself tended to become snarled up in unwieldy dialogue. His penchant for completely unidiomatic turns of phrase completely ruined otherwise acceptable scenes. The inability to reshoot scenes on a meager budget compounded the problem by allowing numerous flubbed lines to creep into the films…”
Exactly. And to see all of this in front of your eyes, especially on the big screen in a movie theater, felt gloriously unreal and hilarious. (You have to wonder, what if Ed Wood had read, say, one great poem in his life? Maybe, just maybe a single injection of eloquence into his bloodstream would have made a difference. But then we wouldn’t have Ed Wood now, would we? Even his widow Kathy had to admit, on camera, years later: “Ed was always so serious when he was at the typewriter…but it didn’t always turn out that way in the movie!”)
The aforementioned booklet included an interesting essay by a writer named M.J. Kelar, called Signals from a Dark Saucer, which tried to come to terms with the anti-genius writer and director:
“Wood, we find, pursues the aesthetically bad with real determination. His choices are not haphazard or random, for if they had been, they would have come out right sometimes, when in fact the percentage of correct decisions is close to zero. We are presented…with the figure of an auteur, sacrificing himself in order to make these atrocious works.
“Nor can any of the blame be shifted to the conditions under which Wood worked. It is true that these were sub-poverty productions. But if all were a matter of economics, then one would expect dull, low-profile hackwork, and not the staggering non-sequiturs and malapropisms which fill the script. They are the purposeful means of someone with a vision.
Kelar then sums up something very important about all the attention that’s been paid to Wood since then: “In the face of works like Plan 9, one experiences, not restlessness or boredom, but rather, a feeling of being gripped, a rapt anticipation of the next wrong move. It is the mirror image of what one feels while watching a work by a master, and awaiting the next splendid piece of invention.”
So was Plan 9 really the “worst film?” “Of all time?” Hell no. It’s actually very entertaining, even on its own terms, that of a cartoon level sci-fi movie. And you can probably think of much worse movies yourself: how about, say, any made-for-TV movie from the 1970s? (She Lives! First You Cry, etc…)
Cartoonist Drew Friedman, who loved drawing comic strips about Tor Johnson and Ed Wood, was asked the worst-movie question in Lee Harris’ Flying Saucers… documentary: “Meryl Streep’s last movie to me would be the worst film of all time, or any film that she’s in.”
On a recent clear blue sky day in Los Angeles (March 18) I visited the aforementioned Lee R. Harris, co-producer and narrator of the 1992 Flying Saucers Over Hollywood documentary at his home in Burbank, to take a long-planned tour of “Wood sites” up in the San Fernando Valley, Wood’s old stomping grounds.
We took the freeway north to the city of San Fernando (which is mentioned by actor Lyle Talbot in Plan 9), to see the old, and I mean old, cemetery (San Fernando Pioneer Memorial Cemetery), where Wood shot some daytime scenes for Plan 9…and it is a spare, small old graveyard, dating back to the old Spanish days of California in the early 1800s. The entrance was chained shut, locked. It’s now California Historical Landmark # 753.
“There are no family members left to visit here,” was Lee’s educated guess. The cemetery was “legally abandoned” in 1959, and I’m sure that was when Ed Wood’s ears perked up and he figured he could go in and steal a few shots inside.
Later, we went to a more “contempo” cemetery nearby, the Eternal Valley in Santa Clarita, a beautiful, sleek, sloping-hills affair where, as Lee remembered, Tor Johnson is buried. We found him, and I commented to Lee that Ed Wood must have been here for Tor’s funeral:
Lee filled me in on some tasty fun bits of Ed Wood lore, including the name of the composer of Glen or Glenda’s amazing, ornate musical soundtrack: Sanford H. Dickinson. “Not only did he compose the music for Glen or Glenda, he had an office in the Quality Studios Building where some of it was shot…he also operated a ‘song poem’ business there.”
“Well, it’s interesting,” Harris said when I asked him about Wood’s possible sexual preferences. “The gay and transvestite paperbacks, he wrote under his own name, but the straight sex ones he wrote under pseudonym!”
Back at Lee’s house, we watched Take It Out in Trade, a soft-core porn film that Wood directed in 1970 and is now available from Something Weird Video. Wood is onscreen in it for several scenes (the best scenes, and we get to see him, finally, in living color). He appears as “Alecia.”
To watch Take It Out in Trade is to be…how can I put it? Disillusioned about Ed Wood, and sad. Once again: the plot? Let’s just skip it. But you do get to at least see pathetic drunken Ed, in full angora-turtleneck sweater drag, with stubble, and a blonde wig, making little effort to actually act or even be heard: his voice is practically a whisper.
Wood seems hungover saying his lines, and the grimacing faces he makes for no apparent reason are clownish and embarrassing…it’s painful to watch, but of course fascinating.
So getting back to that “worst movie of all time” bit: if extreme repetition of the same shot, over and over in the same movie equals boring, which equals really bad, then hoo boy, this was murder. It’s definitely an Ed Wood cheapie, like elementary school play cheap: a plot that involves world travel? Why, just stick a travel poster up on a wall to represent “a country,” point a camera at it and, voila, you’re in Greece! So much money saved! Meanwhile the soft-porn rules of no penetration that Wood had to work with in 1970 meant the seemingly endless “sex” scenes in this interminable thing were pretty pointless: young people writhing around on a bed, endlessly, boringly, nothing touching, bodies bouncing, male organs forbidden to be shown…it’s something weird alright.
The only thing that stands out about this film (and this is very interesting) is the brief appearance of a strangely resonant, odd character: a woman heroin addict whose name is Sleazy Maisie Rumpledink. She comes across as a whiny criminal, and her voice and her character are weirdly similar to that of Edith Massey’s in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos.
The similarity was so uncanny I found myself thinking “holy cow, Ed Wood created this comical character that seems a lot like ‘the egg lady’ in Pink Flamingos,” and “is it possible John Waters might have seen, in some trashy Baltimore venue, Ed Wood’s Take It Out in Trade, circa 1970?”
Aside from that brief amusement, and after those incredibly long stretches of sexual non-penetration and repeating shots of planes taking off from airports were finally over, I turned wearily to Lee:
“Okay, this is the worst movie of all time.” Lee, his usually ample stock of wit seriously numbed by the experience, could only say: “Yeah.” And: “Well, now we’ve seen Take It Out in Trade.”
“Well, they weren’t making any more B-pictures,” Wood’s actor friend Conrad Brooks reminisced, in the Flying Saucers Over Hollywood video:
“He took this place on Yucca, in Hollywood. He gave me the address, so I thought I’d go and see Ed. And when I went over there, it was, uh…just a run-down area, you know, it was derelicts around that area. You know, winos and dope addicts…worse than Main Street. And it really hurt me: how’d he get here? I couldn’t believe it. And I think I went down there 3 or 4 times to visit him. But he was always drunk…he was out of it. Always talking about doing a movie, says ‘I got a guy who’s interested in financing me,’ but that’s one of Ed’s wild stories. But I hoped for the best for the man. But…he really hit rock bottom.”
The sadness of Wood’s sorry end, as a desperately poor, alcoholic, ex-director cranking out occasional porn paperbacks while living in a series of fleabag Hollywood apartments, and dying just months before being canonized in a best-selling book (which he would have loved, no matter what) is so crushing that it’s good to come across those few reminiscences of Wood from his friends (as interviewed by author Rudolph Grey) about his long-gone happy moments:
“Bela Lugosi loved Ed. Personally as a friend he loved him. Bela was over to see him many times at the house. He just enjoyed his company. They got along great.”
“(Ed) also was what you’d call a pure gypsy by heart. He never was responsible. He was not a responsible person. He was just sort of living off in his own little world…”
“It seemed that Ed caught up with a lot of his favorites from his school days. And then when he met them in Hollywood, Ed would use them. He was elated by the things he’d done.”
“We went to a preview of some film one time, and Ed invited us over there, my wife and I, we went…and it was all the old-timers. And you’d think it was Cecil B. DeMille coming in there, the fuss that they made over Ed and how everybody was just…idolizing him. And they were all big professional people in the business at one time, but they all remembered Ed for…treating them as great as he did.”
So it turns out that, at least during the 1950s, Edward D. Wood Jr., the real one, in his own little world did experience some moments of glory, among the very people he himself had idolized since he was a boy.
His ex-girlfriend Dolores Fuller, meanwhile, had moved on to remaking her life, and found some success writing songs for Elvis Presley. Here is one of her masterworks:
“I feel the fans must be responding to the love and dedication Eddie had for the business,” an aging Lyle Talbot told his daughter Margaret, who wrote an affectionate biography of him called The Entertainer (2012). “Because even at his most absurd, Ed Wood believed so much in what he was doing. He wanted to keep making them and he wanted to improve. And he worshipped actors like Bela!”
Let’s give the final word on Ed Wood, the man who loved the movies more than they could ever love him, to actor Dudley Manlove who played “the Ruler” in Plan 9 (an “alien” from outer space who looked more like a bank manager wearing a weird shirt):
“In all the years, from when Dolores first introduced me to him ‘til he breathed his last, there was never one time where he was ever angry towards me. Our entire relationship was one of laughs, happiness, good fellowship, optimism and encouragement. And that has been the extent of my relationship with Ed Wood: good fellowship.”