Sunday, December 10, 2017

Ed Wood documentaries: Three early ones


This is the only Ed Wood documentary, besides The Incredibly Strange Film Show, I am aware of to feature Ed’s wife Kathy Wood in interview segments. That alone makes it a valuable piece of Ed Wood history. Produced by Rhino Home Video in 1994, the documentary takes sound bites and images from Wood’s films and uses them to give the film a humorous narrative.

The opening gives us Kathy Wood commenting on how no one really cared much about Ed Wood until his death in 1978. Now, ironically, there is a renewed interest in his films and life. Ed’s marine buddy Joseph Robertson is also interviewed, and describes Ed’s fascination for wearing women’s clothing, even under his army outfit.

Robertson produced such 1960s cult classics as: The Crawling Hand and The Slime People. He went on to direct the adult feature entitled Love Feast, also known as The Photographer and Pretty Girls All In A Row (see my review of Love Feast on this website.).

This documentary also borrows segments of Conrad Brooks’ interviews from On The Trail of Ed Wood (see my review in this post.). The documentary is presented in segments that use Wood’s name in a clever way, such as: Drift Wood, Holly-Wood, Wood’s Stock Company, and Dead Wood.


Of all the Ed Wood documentaries that have been released, I would have to say that this one is the best.

Not only because it carefully examines the career and films of Ed Wood, but also because it highlights the lives and careers of the key actors of Plan 9 From Outer Space: Bela Lugosi, Vampira, Tor Johnson and Criswell. This documentary also has informative insights and humorous commentary by famous fans of Ed Wood and Plan 9 From Outer Space, such as: Sam Raimi, Drew Friedman, Harry Medved, Bill Warren, Joe Dante, Forrest J. Ackerman and Wood’s biographer, Rudolph Grey.

Of great interest is the segment of Conrad Brooks taking the viewer on a tour of the old Quality Studios in Hollywood where Plan 9 was filmed. The first time I viewed the Plan 9 Companion, my heart raced with excitement in being able to see what Quality Studios looks like today. Conrad even reenacts a famous cemetery scene that was shot there with his co-star Carl Anthony.

Lee Harris, the host and narrator of The Plan 9 Companion, also takes us on a tour of the old cemetery location used in the opening shots of Plan 9. Director Mark P. Carducci produced the film with Harris in 1994 and released it to MPI Home Video. Vampira fans will also be pleased with this documentary, since Maila Nurmi offers many insights into her own career and the career of Ed Wood. 


Although the title of this documentary informs us of being on the trail of Ed Wood, perhaps a better title would have been: On The Trail Of Conrad Brooks. I say this only because the entire fifty-six-minute documentary is from the point of view of Conrad Brooks being interviewed in his home, unlike so many other Ed Wood documentaries that interview many of Wood’s stock actors and friends. I got the feeling that the producer Buddy Barnett and director Michael Copner did not have the time or budget to include other Ed Wood actors and friends in this documentary, or perhaps they weren’t interested in anyone else’s views about Wood?

However, there are some informative aspects of this documentary. Conrad takes us on a tour of Ed Wood’s Yucca apartment complex in Hollywood, the last apartment complex he lived in before his death at Peter Coe’s apartment in 1978.

The tour also takes us to the KFWB soundstage in Hollywood, which was Ted Allen’s studio in the 1950s when Bride of The Monster was filmed there. Conrad explains in the documentary that Tor Johnson demanded double his $100.00 salary for his acting roles in Wood’s films. According to Conrad, Wood almost reconsidered using Johnson in his films because of this demand.

He also claims that Ed took a job as a cab driver in the 1970s to make ends meet. Copner and Barnett, both contributing writers and founders of Cult Movies Magazine, released this documentary in 1990. If Copner or Barnett happen to read this article, we would greatly appreciate it if Cult Movies Magazine was back in publication. The magazine is a valuable resource.

-- Steve D. Stones

More Ed Wood docs

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Criswell: The narrator from the coffin

And now I tell a tale of the threshold people. So astounding that some of you may faint!”
-Criswell from “Night of The Ghouls” and “Orgy of The Dead.”

By Steve Stones

Like so many of Ed Wood’s entourage of stock actors, Criswell had a very unique personality all his own. Born Charles Geran Criswell King in 1907 to an Indiana mortician, as a red-haired, freckled-face young boy growing up in Indiana, Criswell developed an interest in how future events were going to turn out. Like so many young boys growing up, his mind was looking to the future, not to the present or the past. In Criswell’s own words, he describes his family labeling him as a “freak” when he was just a boy. “And perhaps a freak I have remained.”

Prior to his appearance in Ed Wood’s cult masterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space, Criswell began his career as a radio newscaster in New York. Criswell also had a successful career as a newspaper columnist. He once appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and the Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin shows. He later established a reputation as a clairvoyant able to predict the future in very entertaining and strange ways on his television show broadcasted in Los Angeles. His TV show and syndicated column were appropriately called: Criswell Predicts.

Some of his strangest predictions included an influx of cannibalism across America, and seven women serving on the U.S. Supreme Court. Other predictions included a Black Plague to hit the Midwest, the ghost of Napoleon being seen near his tomb in Paris, a secret graveyard being discovered near Denver, and the successful and inexpensive operation to change a woman into a man with the simple transplant of the sex organ.

Perhaps this prediction was fueled by Wood’s Glen Or Glenda, a film dealing with the subject of a man transforming himself into a woman by a sex change, and the rejection of transvestism in modern society. Glen Or Glenda was a film way ahead of its time in the early 1950s. His predictions were chronicled in two books he wrote: Journal of The Future and Your Next Ten Years. Criswell claimed that 86 percent of his predictions were accurate, when in fact they were seldom correct.

Criswell’s appearance in three Ed Wood films: Plan 9 From Outer Space, Night of The Ghouls, and Orgy of The Dead, remain as some of his most interesting and bizarre. His trademark “spit curl” hairstyle and black bow tie make him a recognizable character in contemporary popular culture.

“You are all interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable, for that is why you are here,” Criswell states while reading a cue card in the opening of Plan 9 From Outer Space while atmospheric library music plays in the background. A sequence of Criswell rising from an opened coffin in Night of The Ghouls remains a personal favorite of mine. He rises from the coffin and tries desperately to keep his head looking forward, not to give the impression that he is reading a cue card in front of him, which is quite obvious to the viewer.

Criswell crossed over to the land unknown in 1982. In the future I predict that Criswell and Plan 9 From Outer Space will continue to entertain fans for generations to come. See Criswell on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show below.

Notes: Criswell’s coffin was used in Wood’s adult film, Necromania; a Web site on Criswell is here.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The first vampire of the screen - Theda Bara

Theda Bara as The Vampire in the film A FOOL THERE WAS (1915)

By Steve D. Stones

The lovely Theda Bara in A Fool There Was is not so much a vampire who wears a cape and sucks the blood from victims, like Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931) or Max Shreck in Nosferatu (1922). She is a seductress who sucks the life out of married men – who then lose everything, including their wives, children and social status. A Fool There Was is a tale of lust, infidelity and seduction.

John Schuyler, played by Edward Jose, is a wealthy Wall Street lawyer and statesman called by the President of The United States to sail to England as a special envoy to settle claims with Great Britain. His mistress, played by Bara, joins him on the voyage. Soon, Schuyler's friends and wife find out about his affair. His life quickly begins to crumble, as his friends and loved ones turn their back on him.

Bara was born Theodosia Burr Goodman in Cincinnati, Ohio on July 29th, 1885. She is considered cinema's first female “sex symbol” and “femme fatale.” Her career spanned 40 films between 1914 – 1926. Most of these films are considered lost from a 1937 vault fire at Fox Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey – where Bara shot most of the films.

In 1917, Bara moved to Hollywood to film Cleopatra. Hollywood at that time was quickly becoming the entertainment capital of America. Hollywood was the place to be if you were an actor at that time. A Production Code was not enforced until 1930, so Bara was known for wearing very revealing costumes in her films. This may be one of many reasons why some refer to Bara as a “vamp.”

Only six of her forty films are said to exist today, including: The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), The Unchastened Woman (1925) and two short comedies made for Hal Roach Studios – Madame Mystery and 45 Minutes From Hollywood. Some footage of Cleopatra (1917) managed to survive at the Museum of Modern Art's film collection in New York. Bara never appeared in a sound film, which adds to her sense of mystique and intrigue.

Bara eventually got tired of being typecast as variations of the vamp character. When her contract ended in 1919 with Fox studios, she assumed other roles would be forthcoming. This did not happen. She instead headed to Broadway in 1920 to star in "The Blue Flame." The performance was a success, but the critics thought it was terrible.

The Fort Lee Film Commission in New Jersey dedicated Main Street and Linwood Avenue as “Theda Bara Way.” Her image also appeared on postage stamps in 1994. A 2006 documentary – The Woman With The Hungry Eyes – was made about Bara's career.

For further information about the career of Theda Bara, refer to Phil Hall's book – In Search of Lost Films (Bear Manor Media 2016). Hall's book is reviewed here on Plan 9 Crunch. Happy viewing.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Bert Wheeler in the short Innocently Guilty

It's time for another installment in our occasional series of those old-time Columbia comedy shorts that are not well known (think all of them save the Three Stooges.) Today we recall "Innocently Guilty," a 1951 two-reeler that starred Bert Wheeler. Above is a still from the climax of the short. Yes, Bert was hiding in a baby carriage.

Some information about Bert Wheeler. He was a big name in the 1920s on the vaudeville stage and achieved even more fame on the big screen as the boyish half of Wheeler and Woolsey. They made a slew of wonderful comedy films for several years that made a lot of money. After Robert Woolsey died Wheeler's screen career faded and although a working actor, he was struggling to earn a living by 1950, working in summer stock, etc.

As Ed Watz and Ted Okuda note in their book, "The Columbia Comedy Shorts," the head man at Columbia's comedy shorts, Jules White liked to sign former comedy names to two-picture deals, with an option for more if the shorts caught the public's fancy. White, who directed "Innocently Guilty," is quoted in the book as saying, "I gave him (Wheeler) a job at a time nobody else wanted him." Wheeler only made two shorts for Columbia. The second, in 1951, is called "The Awful Sleuth." (I have not seen that one.) "Innocently Guilty" is mediocre, although Wheeler acts well in it. The fault lies in a mediocre script and director White, who often equated humiliation and violence with humor. Only the Three Stooges were consistently able to take such direction and turn it into quality humor.

The short, which Okuda and Watz note had already been filmed twice with Andy Clyde as "It Always Happens" (1935) and "His Tale is Told," (1944) is remade with Wheeler as Hodkinson G. Pogglebrewer, tractor salesman, leaving his happy home to pitch tractors in the big city to Mr. Bass (the perennial Vernon Dent). Old Hodkinson has an appealing wife, Helen, played by another Columbia perennial supporting player, Christine McIntyre. Unfortunately, the script calls for Hodkinson to have a pathologically suspicious sister-in-law, Marge (Margie Listz), used by White for slapstick physical humor.

Once in the big city Hodkinson helps a sexy woman, Fifi (Nanette Bordeaux)  in the hotel, in her room, with an innocent task. Unfortunately, his crazy sister in law has dragged his wife to spy on him. Catching hubby looking compromised with another woman, she plans to divorce him but quickly changes her mind. All seems OK except that the next day, Hodkinson, to get a sale, pretends to be a ladies man to Bass. He even lies about what happened with Fifi. Bass admits to Hodkinson that he's so jealous of perceived male attention to his wife he'd commit violence if confronted with it.

You guessed it folks, Fifi is Mr.  Bass' wife. And with the imagination of Jules White, Fifi, sans outer clothing, Mr. Bass, and Hodkinson all end up in a car together. Fifi gets back to her room undetected, followed for some reason by Hodkinson, and then followed by pathological Margie and Helen, and finally by Bass, now prepared to kill Hodkinson.

None of this is terribly funny. The short ends inconclusively, with Bass shooting at the fleeing, dressed-as-a-baby Hodkinson. White was known for ending shorts with the stars running away, the conflict unresolved.

So why did I still enjoy the short? It's a part of history, a starring big-screen role for Wheeler late in his career. And Bert Wheeler is indeed good in the short. Even a decade-plus after the glory days, he retains the boyish, aw-shucks, optimistic charm that he had with RKO in the 1930s. He's likable. He's just shoved into an awful script and a poor choice for a director.

It's' also fun to see veterans McIntrye and Dent in any Columbia short, although this is far from their best work. Dent, in particular, is far too passive in his opening scene to be accepted later as a husband jealous enough to kill. Both Dent and Liszt take their knocks more than once as foils for physical humor. Early in the film water from a store awning knocks Liszt for a loop, and of course actors take tumbles in the bathroom scene. It's also nice to see silent star Heinie Conklin in a small supporting role as the janitor.

I was able to see this film thanks to Greg Hilbrich, who runs The Columbia Shorts Department website, which is just full of information all things Columbia comedy shorts. The short is posted on Hilbrich's Facebook wall. It's come to my attention he soon plans to post it on The Shorts Department YouTube page and once that occurs, I will embed the short here.