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Monday, October 21, 2019

Edward D. Wood Jr.

Some of the worst films ever made--most written, directed, and produced by Ed Wood.
He even took on a starring role in one of them.
As a public school art instructor I considered the cinematic arts to be on a par with painting, drawing, art history, sculpture, and other creative art forms. Of course costs made it impossible to give students hands-on moviemaking experience, but like a course in literature, we studied the classics as appropriate to the ages of the students involved. Those included Gone With The Wind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ben-Hur, Bridge on the River Kwai, Fantasia, and a number of others too numerous to mention. Over the years, using this format, I've tended to concentrate on some of the greatest names in the film industry such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Wells, Walt Disney, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, David O. Selznick, Martin Scorsese, and again, a number of others too numerous to mention. Though quite varied in their talents and approaches to filmmaking, they were the best Hollywood has had to offer. Today, as a change of pace, let me highlight a man considered by virtually everyone in the business as the worst filmmaker in cinematic history--Ed Wood.

The resemblance is uncanny, but that's about all the two men ever shared in common.

If you've never heard of Ed Wood until now, believe me, you ain't missed much. And even if you are familiar with the work of Edward D. Wood, it's likely due to Tim Burton's sympathetic 1994 biopic starring a very close lookalike, Johnny Depp. The film received two Academy Awards. Ed Wood was an American filmmaker, actor, and author. In the 1950s, Wood directed several low-budget science fiction, crime and horror films, notably Glen or Glenda, Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Night of the Ghouls and The Sinister Urge. In the 1960s and 1970s, he transitioned towards sexploitation and pornographic films, while also writing over eighty pulp crime, horror, and sex novels. Notable for their campy aesthetics, technical errors, unsophisticated special effects, ill-fitting stock footage, eccentric casts, idiosyncratic stories and non sequitur dialogue, Wood's films remained largely obscure until he was posthumously awarded a Golden Turkey Award for Worst Director of All Time in 1980, renewing public interest in his life and work.

Wood proved to be no better as
an actor than as a writer,
producer, or director.
Edward D. Wood Jr. might be termed the Will Rogers of filmmaking: He never directed a shot he didn't like. It takes a special weird genius to be voted the Worst Director of All Time, a title that Wood has earned by acclamation. He was so in love with every frame of every scene of every film he shot that he was blind to hilarious blunders, stumbling ineptitude, and acting so bad that it achieved a kind of grandeur. But badness alone would not have been enough to make him a legend; it was his love of film, sneaking through, that pushes him over the top. Wood's most famous films are Plan 9 from Outer Space (during which his star, Bela Lugosi, died and was replaced by a double with a cloak pulled over his face), and "Glen or Glenda" (left), in which Wood himself played the transvestite title roles. It was widely known even at the time that Wood himself was an enthusiastic transvestite,
Hacks are nothing new in Hollywood. Since the beginning of the film industry at the turn of the 20th century, thousands of untalented people have come to Los Angeles from all over America and abroad to try to make it big (as writers, producers, directors, actors, talent agents, singers, composers, musicians, artists, etc.) but who end up using, scamming and exploiting other people for money as well as using their creative ability (either self-taught or professional training), leading to the production of dull, bland, mediocre, unimaginative, inferior, trite work in the forlorn hope of attaining commercial success.
The climactic scene from Plan 9 from Outer Space.
The big man in the middle is Tor Johnson whom Wood used often in his films
Ed Wood as Glenda
Wood was an exceedingly complex person. He was born in 1924, in Poughkeepsie, NY, where he lived most of his childhood. He joined the US Marine Corps in 1943 at the height of World War II and was, by all accounts, an exemplary soldier, wounded in ferocious combat in the Pacific theater. He was habitually optimistic, even in the face of the bleak realities that would later consume him. His personality bonded him with a small clique of outcasts who eked out life on the far edges of the Hollywood fringe. After settling in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, Wood attempted to break into the film industry, initially without success, but in 1952 he landed the chance to direct a film based on the real-life Christine Jorgensen sex-change story, then a hot topic. The result, Glen or Glenda (above, right), gave a fascinating insight into Wood's own personality and shed light on his transvestism (an almost unthinkable subject for an early 1950s mainstream feature). Although devoutly heterosexual, Wood was an enthusiastic cross-dresser, with a particular fond-ness for angora. Moreover the film revealed the almost complete lack of talent that would mar all his subsequent films, his tendency to resort to stock footage of lightning during dramatic moments, laughable set design, and a near-incomprehensible performance by Bela Lugosi as a mad doctor whose presence is never adequately explained. The film deservedly flopped miserably but Wood, always upbeat, pressed ahead.

Some might consider Wood's sci-fi epic as being so bad it's good. It rates as a cult classic right up (down there with the 1960s smashed hit, The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.
Wood's 1955 film starring Bella Lugosi, Bride of the Monster (below), unbelievably, somehow managed to earn a small profit during its original release, undoubtedly more of a testament to how cheaply it was produced than its value as entertainment), and Wood only shot a few seconds of silent footage of Lugosi (doped and dazed, wandering around the front yard of his house) for "Plan 9" just days before the actor died in August 1956. What few reviews the film received were brutal. Typically undaunted, Wood soldiered on despite incoherent material and a microscopic budget, peopling it with his regular band of mostly inept actors. Given the level of dialog, budget and Wood's dismal directorial abilities, it's unlikely that better actors would have made much of a difference (lead actor Gregory Walcott made his debut in this film and went on to have a very respectable career as a character actor, but he was always embarrassed by his participation in this film)--in fact, it's the film's semi-official status as arguably the Worst Film Ever Made that gives it its substantial cult following. The film, financed by a local Baptist congregation led by Wood's landlord, reaches a plateau of ineptitude that tends to leave viewers open-mouthed, wondering what is it they just saw. "Plan 9" became, whether Wood realized it or not, his singular enduring legacy. Ironically, the rights to the film were retained by the church and it is unlikely that Wood ever received a dime from it. His epic bombed upon release in 1959 and remained largely forgotten for years to come.

The poster was far better than the movie.
Wood's main problem was that he saw himself as a producer-writer-director, when in fact he was spectacularly incompetent in all three capacities. Friends who knew Wood have described him as an eccentric, oddball hack who was far more interested in the work required in cobbling a film project together than in ever learning the craft of film making itself or in any type of realism. In an alternate universe, Wood might have been a competent producer if he had better industry connections and an even remotely competent director. Wood, however, likened himself to his idol, Orson Welles, and became a triple threat: bad producer, poor screenwriter, and God-awful director. All of his films exhibit illogical continuity, bizarre narratives, and give the distinct impression that a director's job was simply to expose the least amount of film possible due to crushing budget constraints. His 1959 magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space features visible wires connected to pie-pan UFOs, actors knocking over cardboard "headstones", cars changing models and years during chase sequences, scenes exhibiting a disturbing lack of handgun safety and the ingenious use of shower curtains in airplane cockpits that have virtually no equipment are just a few of the trademarks of that Edward D. Wood Jr. production (as seen in the video clip at the bottom). When criticized for their innumerable flaws, Wood would cheerfully explain his interpretation of the suspension of disbelief. It's not so much that he made movies so badly without regard to realism--the amazing part is that he managed to get them made at all.

Check out the full-length movie It Came from Hollywood on YouTube for more of the worst Hollywood has had to offer.


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