Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Set Decoration Odyssey, Part One by Greg Dziawer

Dig those dandy lions: Some interesting set decorations from Ed Wood's Necromania.

A pair of "Foo Dogs."
A new year seems a good time to start a new Odyssey. And truth be told, the set decorations in Ed Wood's films had preoccupied me—obsessed me, in fact—or the better part of the last half of 2016.

In this week's Ed Wood Wednesdays, we're beginning a journey into the next level of Ed-phemera. Beyond credits and collaborators, beyond paperbacks and Poughkeepsie, beyond all sanity, there lies the inanimate objects decorating sets in films involving Ed. 

Set decorations, in common usage, are there to assist in creating verisimilitude, a semblance of reality. When a headstone in a cemetery falls over and calls attention to itself, the illusion of reality is utterly shattered. When those objects become most invisible is often when they are most successful. I don't know how many times I had watched The Young Marrieds before I finally grasped it, consciously aware of it and not just experiencing it as a functionally invisible set decoration. In retrospect, maybe it wasn't even me who noticed it—and certainly not in the bigger picture—as porn archaeologist Dimitrios Otis had brought up the subject of set decoration in Ed's work to me numerous times. And right here at Ed Wood Wednesdays, Joe Blevins previously noted set decoration in his brilliantly exhaustive article about The Young Marrieds. However the idea got into my head, there came an eventual moment when, watching the film, I truly saw the objects for the first time.

The statue upon the dresser along the right-hand wall in Ben and Ginny's bedroom in The Young Marrieds finally clawed its way into my consciousness. For a bit, not really thinking it through, I mistakenly thought it had a resemblance to a tiki idol. Just as I quickly came to my senses, a gracious poster in a private Ed Wood forum politely set me straight, informing me that it is a Chinese Imperial Guardian Lion

From Wikipedia:
Since the introduction of the lion symbolism from Indian culture especially through Buddhist symbolism, statues of guardian lions have traditionally stood in front of Chinese Imperial palaces, Imperial tombs, government offices, temples, and the homes of government officials and the wealthy, from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and were believed to have powerful mythic protective benefits. They are also used in other artistic contexts, for example on door-knockers, and in pottery. Pairs of guardian lion statues are still common decorative and symbolic elements at the entrances to restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and other structures, with one sitting on each side of the entrance, in China and in other places around the world where the Chinese people have immigrated and settled, especially in local Chinatowns.
These lions, sometimes referred to by Westerners as "Foo Dogs," are usually depicted in pairs. When used as statuary, the pair would consist of a male leaning his paw upon an embroidered ball (in imperial contexts, representing supremacy over the world ) and a female restraining a playful cub that is on its back (representing nurture).

Is there meant to be symbolism, the lions guarding the marital bed? If so, they are doing a poor job, sitting idly by as Ben and Ginny's marriage is sorely tested. 

A lion (far right) shows up in The Young Marrieds, guarding the marital bed.

A fascination with these lions now set ablaze, I then saw them again for the first time, upon an umpteenth viewing of Necromania. Perhaps I am the last to the party and this was obvious to all, but for me, it was a revelation. Once again, they guard a bed occupied by the married protagonists. Their marriage also crumbling, the Guardians bear mute witness.

While that reading might sound plausible, and a readerly text produces a unique, shared meaning while being experienced, in all likelihood it's just another set decoration from storage, on hand at the studio. Why do I think this? 

As I've poured through 8mm SoCal porn loops, looking for clues of Ed's involvement, the Foo Dog(s) turn up again and again. The usage is often the same as in The Young Marrieds and Necromania, another piece of bric-à-brac  as aesthetic enhancement. Yet there are times that I often feel that one of the lions is placed this way or that for a reason, seeming to judge these debauched and morally vacant couples, a new breed capable of exchanging mere words at the car wash before quickly arranging a hook-up via black rotary phones, ending in a male-fantasy facial. When I spot one of the statues now, I refer to it—in a "Bela-Lugosi-as-God" whisper—as The Guardian. 

Ah, yesss...The Guardian.... 

The lions have supporting roles in Necromania.

In future episodes of the Wood Set Decoration Odyssey, we'll revisit this curious pair of lions, and shine a light on numerous pairs of table lamps. We'll stare at furniture, ashtrays, wall hangings, blankets and pillows, all the while looking at everything except the sex. Nothing else is safe from our scrutiny.

And in case you're wondering what all of this has to do with Ed Wood and why any of it even matters, just be patient. All shall be revealed to those pure of heart.

Bonus: A gallery of Chinese Imperial Guardian Lions has been added to the Ed Wood Wednesdays Tumblr.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A rant about celebrity impressions

King of the impressionists: Rich Little at the Laugh Factory.

Let me say right off the bat that I have always been fascinated with celebrity impressions and the people who do them. From a very young age, I always looked forward to seeing impressionists when they appeared on variety shows or talk shows. Johnny Carson and David Letterman booked a lot of celebrity mimics over the years, and I was grateful to them for that. Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, Fred Travalena -- these were my boyhood heroes. Sketch shows like SCTV, Saturday Night Live, and In Living Color were always good showcases for celebrity impressions, too, with people like Dana Carvey and Darrell Hammond specializing in aping the rich and famous.

It must be weird and a little lonely being a famous impressionist. No one cares about you. They just care about the characters you do. It's like being a ventriloquist: Your act requires you to all but suppress your own personality. Ever notice how, in most ventriloquism acts, the human always has a very bland personality, and the dummy gets all the jokes? It's the same way with mimics. When they aren't in character, they're the saddest, most boring people ever.

Anyway, celebrity impressions are alive and well in the age of YouTube. Lots and lots of people do them. But it's devolved into a parlor trick. People don't even bother coming up with funny things for celebrities to say and do. They just copy the voice and mannerisms, and that's it. Well, I say, that's not good enough. Here's a YouTube rant on the topic. It's not meant to be an attack on anyone in particular, despite that angry-sounding title.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Loop Orbit, Part One by Greg Dziawer

Only the finest in home entertainment from Danish International Films.

The title screen from Prudish Secretary.
In a recent Wood Magazine Odyssey here at Ed Wood Wednesdays, we took a look at the text accompanying a photo feature in an issue of Danish Films magazine, ultimately surmising that it may have been written by Ed. The photos were taken from a Danish Films 8mm loop released to the home market under the Danish Films label as #1010 Young and Proper, starring the now-legendary pair John Holmes and Annette Haven. The Danish Films label was closely related to Swedish Erotica. The girls wear the tell-tale colored chiffon neck scarves, and the box covers even display the tell-tale "triple-dot" ellipsis. The Danish Films loops, seemingly a brief series, hailed from 1976.

The aforementioned Young and Proper was also released as Prudish Secretary under a different imprint, this time silent with subtitles. The logo opening the loop is that of Danish Films International, a series of 30+ loops made under the aegis of Bernie and Noel Bloom—one of literally dozens before they finally landed on and stuck to their epic Swedish Erotica series—stretching back to 1973. The font style of the credits is the same as in Swedish Erotica loops issues from approximately 1976 through 1978. Credits don't appear in earlier Bloom-related loops going back at least until 1970, and much Swedish Erotica material was undated. Prudish Secretary runs, depending on projection speed, roughly 15 minutes. The Danish Films cut runs at least a few minutes shorter and carries the year 1976 on the back of the box. 

The credit sequence with the characteristic font.

We know that Ed was captioning loops, but as always, the full extent of his involvement is yet unknown. Hence, we're including the subtitles that appear in Prudish Secretary as part of our new Wood Orbit, an endeavor that will merely highlight work in which Ed may have been involved in some capacity, sensitive to making any false claims of authorship via reckless mis-Ed-tributions of the sort you'll find on eBay

The subtitles are characteristically brief:

Thursday, December 29, 2016

And here's another short story I couldn't sell. Enjoy.

Almonds; delicious but deadly. No, that's not what this story is about.

Note: This, too, was another failed attempt at topical humor. It was supposed to be published before the election. It wasn't. But just so it doesn't completely go to waste, here it is. It has aged like fine milk. This is less a short story than it is a cautionary tale about how not to write a short story. Appreciate it on that level. J.B.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Here's a short story I couldn't sell. Anyone want it?

For some people, 11-9 was the new 9-11.

Note: This was a short story I wrote on November 9, 2016. I tried to sell it but couldn't find any takers. Oh well. It was meant, as you'll soon see, to be topical. Which means that it's now embarrassingly dated and will only become more so as time moves forward. Before it completely turns to dust, I thought I'd post it here. J.B.

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Magazine Orbit, Part One by Greg Dziawer

Some gentlemen get to know each other in this 1971 magazine from Calga.

Au-topsy, Au-turvy: Calga's My Boys

My Boys, Vol. 2. No. 3. Aug/Sep 1971.
We ended last week's Ed Wood Wednesdays by mentioning that, in the coming year, we'll venture into a new series of articles I've dubbed the Wood Orbit. The Orbit will be devoted to establishing parameters in which Ed's work might have appeared, sensitive in avoiding any false Ed-tributions while casting a wide and inclusive net.

With upwards of a thousand magazines in which Ed's work may have appeared, and Wood's own claim to have penned a thousand magazine short stories and articles, the Orbit of the magazines is a vast one. This week, in our very first Orbit, we'll summarize a typical Calga magazine from 1971, the very heart of Ed's involvement in adult magazines.

My Boys, Vol. 2., No. 3, Aug/Sep 1971, Calga Publishers, Inc.

Launched in May/June 1970, the gay-themed Calga mag My Boys ran a mere five issues, this number being the last. Calga, you may remember, was the sister publisher to Pendulum, both carrying the W. Pico Blvd. address in Los Angeles were Ed was working as staff writer for publisher Bernie Bloom. Ed was the most prolific of the four or five writers on the Pendulum staff, operating across all fronts. In particular, Ed often wrote the lion's share of nearly all textual content in dozens of gay-themed Pendulum-family mags in the early '70s.

Having seen three out of the run's five issues, I noted that My Boys was unique in being holistic. The photos and accompanying texts are fully integrated in each issue, the former drawing from the same small cadre of models and the latter imagining a narrative and characters for the actions depicted, developing in a pass-the-baton fashion from each photo feature to the next.

The cast of characters for this particular issue of My Boys consists of Don, who is the catalyst of this free-love cohort and who tells the entire story in first person, and his "boys," Kirk, Bruce, Randy, and Pete. All are characteristic of the (largely unknown) models in the Pendulum-family mags: a bunch of nice-looking, everyday guys, presented authentically. The tone of the accompanying texts, which are substantial enough to add up to their own short stories, is almost childlike and innocent, even though the vocabulary is sexually graphic in the extreme. As is also characteristic of the editorial stance of the Pendulum-family mags, the free love ethos is expressed naturally, without judgment, often even celebrated.

This issue of My Boys contains five photo features, as follows:

Monday, December 26, 2016

2016: The year in uncollected comics parodies

My tribute to the sidekicks and second stringers of the comics page.

See that tab up there, the one that says "Comics Fun!" right under the main banner? Click on that, and you'll find all the various comics-related posts on this blog. Generally, these are little spoofs and mashups of long-running newspaper comics, including (but not limited to): Dennis The Menace, Garfield, The Lockhorns, Rex Morgan, M.D., Hagar The Horrible, Blondie, Marvin, Shoe, Six Chix, and Funky Winkerbean.

I post a lot of that stuff to Twitter and Facebook, but not all of it makes it to Dead 2 Rights. So occasionally, I like to do a little roundup of comics stuff I've done recently and semi-recently. That way, people who don't follow me on social media will get to read it. That's what this post is. I was going through the files on my computer, deleting a lot of mages that I don't need anymore, and I came across some of these comics parodies. I figured, this would be an easy way to get some extra mileage out of them.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Ed Wood Extra: Ed, Red, Bela, and Slick (Part 1 of 2)

Martin Landau begs to differ with Bobby Slayton in this moment from Ed Wood.

 Before I head out for the Christmas holiday, I thought I'd share a previously unpublished Ed Wood article I had sitting in my "Drafts" folder. I was inspired by Greg Dziawer's article, "The Wood Halloween Odyssey," to share my own thoughts about Bela Lugosi's June 1954 appearance on The Red Skelton Show alongside fellow horror icons Vampira and Lon Chaney, Jr. The episode in question is a fascinating cultural artifact in a number of ways, and I wanted to write about it. Please enjoy and have a safe and happy holiday. J.B.

The published screenplay.
When Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander were writing the screenplay for the 1994 biopic Ed Wood, they rifled through Rudolph Grey's 1992 patchwork biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. looking for weird details and crazy anecdotes they could use. One passage chosen by the duo appears on page 103 of Grey's book in a chapter called "The Wood Spooks." Here, through new and archival quotes, Maila "Vampira" Nurmi, actor John Andrews, and Ed Wood himself give their thoughts on the time Bela Lugosi guest starred on CBS' long-running comedy series The Red Skelton Show in 1954, allegedly with Ed Wood in tow as his personal dialogue coach.

At that point in history, Skelton had only been with the so-called "Tiffany Network" a single season. A popular radio comedian turned TV star, he'd done two years on NBC before changing networks in 1953, and his show was not yet the ratings powerhouse it would soon be for CBS until its controversial cancellation in 1970. (For its last season, The Red Skelton Show briefly moved back to NBC, finally expiring for good in 1971.) The episode with Lugosi, "Dial 'B' For Brush," occurred as Skelton was in the process of rebuilding his TV brand. Skelton's show was not a Top 30 hit in 1954. In the broadcast, likening himself to a little boat caught in a storm, Skelton elaborately thanks CBS and his chief sponsor, Geritol, for their faith in him.

For Nurmi, this Red Skelton gig occurred during the year-long period when she hosted a celebrated horror show as her Vampira character on Los Angeles television. She showed some of Lugosi's movies on that iconic, now mostly-lost series. But Red Skelton was the first time she actually worked with the legendary Lugosi in the flesh. She'd long since forgotten the script by the time she talked to Rudolph Grey decades later, but she recalled being in "the kind of mausoleum they have where the caskets roll in and out of the wall." She described Lugosi as being an "elegant" and "genteel" man who mostly "stayed in his dressing room alone." The actor clearly made a strong impression on the nascent horror hostess. "He made me feel like a noblewoman," Nurmi enthused. "And here I was, this Hollywood tramp."

It was the contention of actor John Andrews (the werewolf from Orgy of the Dead) that Ed Wood assisted Bela Lugosi on The Red Skelton Show at Lugosi's insistence. "Eddie, they don't know how to write for me. You write. You write," Lugosi is claimed to have said at the time. But Ed himself didn't claim to have written the show.

Ed Wood merely says the following: "I was Lugosi's dialogue consultant. There were certain words which had to be changed because he couldn't form them properly." That's it. A rather modest boast, if it can even be called such.

In the book Bride of the Monster: Scripts from the Crypt by Gary Rhodes and Tom Weaver, this is cited as yet another example of delusional, grandstanding Eddie trying to insert himself into the Lugosi legend where he didn't belong. The skeptical authors won't even acknowledge that Eddie was involved with the show at all. It's important to note that Rhodes and Weaver merely offer their interpretation of the events. But if Wood were trying to make up a tall tale to enhance his own career, couldn't he have done better than saying he was a dialogue consultant on a show that wasn't even that big a hit at the time? One senses that Rhodes and Weaver are overcompensating for the hagiography and hero worship of Ed Wood by consistently portraying Ed as a self-promoting, opportunistic hack.

Comedian Bobby Slayton
Anyway, the story of Ed assisting Bela on The Red Skelton Show—even if apocryphal— must have been convincing enough for Karaszewski and Alexander, because a version of the anecdote makes it into Ed Wood. About a third of the way into Tim Burton's film, Eddie (Johnny Depp) is cold calling potential producers and investors for Bride of the Monster (at that point still called Bride of the Atom), when one respondent asks whether Bela is "available Friday night." Cut to a busy TV studio, where a nervous Bela (Martin Landau) is going over his script with Eddie. The idea that Ed somehow "got" Bela the TV gig is purely an invention of the screenplay. None of the participants, including Eddie, ever made that claim.

Possibly for legal reasons, no direct mention of Red Skelton or The Red Skelton Show is made in Ed Wood. The program Bela is working on is simply "a 1950s variety show" and its brash, gravel-voiced star (Bobby Slayton) is merely identified in the script as "the show host, a cheesy comedian." In reality, Red Skelton was a straight-ahead comedy series consisting of a monologue and some sketches. But here, it's a full-fledged variety showcase, closer to what Ed Sullivan was doing on Toast of the Town on Sunday nights. There are showgirls backstage, and Criswell (Jeffrey Jones) appears on the show to give his incredible, inaccurate predictions about how man will have colonized Mars by 1970.

It is unlikely that Alexander and Karaszewski had seen any footage from the real Red Skelton broadcast from 1954, so -- as with their parallel universe version of Ed's play The Casual Company -- they simply imagined what the vintage broadcast would have been like. In some respects, they weren't too far off the mark, and in others, they were wildly wrong. In their script, the cranky, impatient host appears as "his 'Slick' character, a befuddled moron in a funny hat" in a silly, vaudeville-style sketch opposite Bela Lugosi as "the Count." A sexy female announcer describes the premise to the audience: "And now we take you to a castle in Transylvania. Watch out. The landlord's a real pain in the neck."

In full, the host's character is referred to as "Slick Slomopavitz, seeker of adventure," and he seems to have wandered into Dracula's castle in search of shelter, rousing the centuries-old vampire from his coffin in the process. The idea is for Slick and Lugosi to trade scripted quips, reading from cue cards, but the comedian decides to improvise gags during a live broadcast, and the elderly Lugosi is confused and disoriented. The sketch is cut short, and the furious host storms off, complaining that "we should've got Karloff." Lugosi has thus been humiliated on national television, and it's now Eddie's job to pick him back up again.

It's true that live TV shows in the 1950s were prone to gaffes and unexpected happenings. Sets could topple over. Actors could flub their lines. Complete strangers could wander onto the set. The Lugosi character in Ed Wood is not wrong when he says that "this live television is madness." But it's very unlikely that a professional comedian with his own network show would start improvising brand new lines during an already-in-progress scene with a non-comic who is working from cue cards. It's Slick, not Bela, who would be called on the carpet for this. The surviving footage of the genuine broadcast reveals that nothing remotely like this happened on The Red Skelton Show in 1954. The show went according to schedule, and Lugosi was active and engaged throughout. He really throws himself into the comedy, even singing and dancing a little when necessary.

Red Skelton in character.
And that brings us to the television program itself. The Red Skelton Show is such a product of its time that it may not translate all that gracefully into ours.

The same isn't necessarily true of Skelton's comedic contemporaries of the 1950s. Through numerous series and specials, Sid Caesar set a sketch comedy template that Saturday Night Live would later follow, while giving the next generation of humorists, including Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen, their start in showbiz. Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners is still being aped by sitcoms today, while Lucille Ball's I Love Lucy has never left the air in over half a century. Their work isn't as ubiquitous these days, but Jack Benny and Phil Silvers created onscreen personas that still resonate in scattered reruns and YouTube clips. Today's comics may not be directly influenced by Benny and Silvers, but it's still possible to detect elements of their personalities in their work. Ernie Kovacs, too, is still cited as a pioneer, maybe the first comedian who truly understood what made TV different from other media.

But Richard "Red" Skelton is something else: a holdover from a vanished, now almost forgotten era in American entertainment. Television itself was a relatively young medium in Red's day, and its vaudeville roots were in plain sight back then. A veteran of vaudeville (as well as the medicine show and burlesque circuits), Skelton specialized in comedy that was broadly silly, brazenly obvious, and often shamelessly sentimental, verging on bathetic. Slapstick and pantomime were key to his appeal, as was his folksy, friendly manner. Viewers could sense his warmth and sincerity coming through the cathode ray tubes, and they tuned in every week for more.

In a way, it's extremely bizarre casting that aggressive, motormouthed Bobby Slayton, the so-called "Pitbull of Comedy," should essentially stand in for Red Skelton in Ed Wood. These two performers' styles were vastly different. Skelton's classic character, Clem Kadiddlehopper, does have a few things in common with Slick Slomopavitz, including a low IQ and a goofy, ill-fitting costume.

Modern viewers might dismiss The Red Skelton Show as corny and old-fashioned, and they wouldn't be wrong. The host preferred the more gentle label "clown" to "comedian," and he even made a second career out of his cloying clown paintings. Other than being a relatively early adopter to the television medium, Skelton was not really an innovator. He was more of a traditionalist. That extended to his ultra-conservative political views as well. When he was abruptly ousted from CBS in 1970, after years of Top 10 ratings, Skelton blamed the encroachment of the hippie counterculture. Today, the routine for which Skelton is arguably best known, a word-by-word annotation of the Pledge of Allegiance, has virtually no comedy in it. It is simply a statement of unswerving patriotism.

It was Skelton himself who largely kept his own reruns off the air in the 1970s and beyond. He was embittered over the cancellation of The Red Skelton Show and never got over it. So the series did not become a staple of syndication the way I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners did. As a result, several generations grew up without Red as a cultural touchstone. Skelton died in 1997, and there have been various repackages of his vintage shows since then, marketed mostly to people who remember watching the comedian decades ago.

(left) Red Buttons; (right) Red Skelton
Do people even know who Red Skelton is anymore, apart from the "Pledge of Allegiance" routine? I was just listening to an episode of The Best Show With Tom Scharpling this week, and the host spent a good five minutes, maybe 10, absolutely lacerating Skelton as a one-joke hack from the bad old days of show business. "Do you know Red Skelton? He was a comedian... and he sucked." But the person Scharpling was describing (and unkindly imitating) was clearly Red Buttons. It was Buttons who did the "never got a dinner" routine, not Skelton. Really, Buttons and Skelton were not much alike stylistically. But they had similar stage names, looked somewhat alike, and worked at about the same time, so they might as well have been the same guy. That's how cruel time can be. And it gets worse: Scharpling claimed Skelton was in The Star Wars Holiday Special. He wasn't. That was Art Carney. So now, Carney, Buttons, and Skelton have all been folded into one person. Kinda sad.

But how has that Bela Lugosi broadcast held up? That's the question I hope to answer when I do a moment-by-moment breakdown. Look for that sometime in mid-2017 at the earliest. Or maybe never. Probably never.