Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Death of Ed Wood (December 10, 1978)

Have you seen the movie "ED WOOD", starring Johnny Depp and directed by Tim Burton? Martin Landau won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for playing screen legend Bela Lugosi, who starred in 3 Ed Wood movies at the end of his career.

Depp plays Edward D. Wood Jr., the 1950s B-movie filmmaker behind such movies, to name a few, as GLEN OR GLENDA, BRIDE OF THE MONSTER and his most notorious creation, the infamous PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (which in the 1980 book THE GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS was named 'The Worst Movie of All Time', with Ed himself named 'The Worst Director of All Time'). Was he the worst director of all time, and PLAN 9 the worst movie ever made? I guess it depends on who you poll. 

Edward Davis Wood, Jr. was born on October 10, 1924 and died on this day, December 10, in 1978. The fact that Tim Burton persuaded Disney to back his black & white biopic back in 1994 speaks more to Burton's clout at the time than any widespread appreciation for Wood. However, there was already a strong cult following for Ed Wood and his movies at the time, and Burton & Depp's film really propelled Wood into the mainstream (to a point, as ED WOOD, while critically acclaimed, failed to find an audience at the time).

Ed Wood served in the Marines during WWII, and upon leaving the service joined a traveling circus, where his penchant for wearing women's clothes came in handy when playing the half-man/half-woman!

His Hollywood career started in 1947, when he started directing commercials and westerns, wrote and directed a stage play, and even worked as a stuntman (in drag!) in the Vincent Price movie THE BARON OF ARIZONA.

His first big break though came in 1953 when he wrote and directed GLEN OR GLENDA, a film about a cross-dressing man (played by Wood himself) and his desire to be accepted by his fiance and society at large. Ed was originally hired to make an exploitation movie based on Christine Jorgenson, who had made headlines at the time with her sex-change operation. But instead GLEN OR GLENDA became a somewhat auto-biographical message movie told with a convoluted, surreal narrative with Bela Lugosi playing on omnipotent god spirit overseeing the whole affair. 

 Ed as Glenda.


From there, Ed went on to create more films in his singularly individual, peculiar style. Crime films and horror pictures were his specialty, and using a stable of friends as actors, he was able to knock out over a half dozen movies throughout the 50s. Maligned and criticized by many for his  micro-budget production values, clunky dialogue, slapdash directing, nonsensical logic and often amateurish actors, Ed Wood today remains a cult figure of a status unimagined in his own lifetime.

The pinnacle of his film career is embodied by 1959's PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, an endlessly fascinating picture featuring space aliens resurrecting the dead, in hopes of stopping the Earth from destroying the universe. Now, on paper that's exactly how the story reads, but by the time Ed got done with it he had created his surrealist masterpiece! Footage of Bela Lugosi which Ed filmed before the actor's death in 1956 became the genesis for PLAN 9, and eventually Ed got the local branch of the Baptist Church to finance the movie (their hope being that with the profits from the film the Church they would be able to fund religious-themed films). Populating the film with TV horror hostess Vampira, 400 lb. wrestler-turned actor Tor Johnson, the late Bela Lugosi and the famous television psychic Criswell, PLAN 9 was destined for cinematic cult status.


In addition to his own films he wrote & directed, Ed wrote screenplays for other films as well, including his script QUEEN OF THE GORILLAS which became 1958's THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST and the girl gang picture THE VIOLENT YEARS (1956)

And in a startling bit of trivia a friend of mine informed me of a few months ago, Ed wrote a script in the 1950s called THE VENUS FLYTRAP which in 1970 was filmed in Japan by Toei Studios with an American and Japanese cast. Even today, Ed continues to surprise his fans....

There are several other films which he is reported to have written, but outside of speculation, none of these have ever been proven to be a fact. Although it's believed that Ed was a 'creative consultant' on Ronald Ashcroft's THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER (1957), which starred Wood regular Keene Duncan.

 In 1960, Ed Wood wrote & directed his last 'mainstream' film, THE SINISTER URGE, a crime caper dealing with the 'smut picture racket' and a psycho murderer. From there, Ed's luck at securing evern meager financing for his films dried up, while his drinking seemingly increased to the point of making him unreliable for the film business. With a new career as a writer of trashy sex novels (upwards of up to 75 by one account), Ed managed to keep money on the table for booze, groceries, and a string of living quarters that seemed to get more run down as the years wore on.

Beginning in the late 1960s and throughout the 70s, Ed was writing and/or directing (and sometimes appearing in) a growing number of adult movies (the very same pornographic films his movie THE SINISTER URGE seemed to rail against). He even created a series of 8mm films for the 'Sex Education Correspondence School'. Clearly, the man who created such low-budget, classic B-films like PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and NIGHT OF THE GHOULS deserved better... but due to his own penchant for drinking and unreliability, he had to find some way to earn money.

By 1978, the end was near. He and his wife Kathy, who had been married since 1956, were evicted out of their low-rent apartment at 6383 Yucca Street in Hollywood. By all accounts, the building was a den of derelicts and drug addicts, with plenty of access to liquor stores and neighborhood bars. With most of their personal belongings left behind, the Woods were taken in by a friend, Peter Coe. Within a few days, on December 10, 1978, Ed Wood died in bed, watching a football game. He was cremated and his ashes scattered along the coast. No obituary appeared in any of the Hollywood trade magazines.

With Christmas approaching, I think it'd be nice to remember Ed in a better light. Here's a photo of him at a Christmas party with his friend Bela Lugosi in the mid 50s:

Just like in the film industry though, there is a 'sequel' to this tragedy of Ed's final days. Tomorrow I'll talk about Eddie's stardom rising from the grave, much like the characters in some of his movies. Ed Wood has died, but the legend had now begun it's slow rise to cult film icon!

The set of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Tor Johnson rising from the grave, surrounded by Vampira, Dr. Tom Mason (who doubled for the deceased Bela Lugosi by hiding his face with the cape!) and Criswell.

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