Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mr. Write: Ed Wood and the Art of Not Making Sense

English is a beautiful language. Shakespeare wrote in English. Frank Sinatra sang in English. And Edward D. Wood, Jr. butchered English.

Yes, kiddies, today's long awaited post will celebrate the unique verbal flights of fancy by the one and only Ed Wood, Junk Cinema master extraordinaire.

Along with the goofy plots, the horrible acting, the cheap sets and the abundant use of stock footage, the nutty dialogue spouted by his hapless cast of regulars is an integral part of the Ed Wood experience.

Like any artist, Ed's dialogue bore his own indelible stamp. Billy Wilder, for instance, was witty and urbane. Paddy Chayefsky was dark and verbose (if you don't believe me, watch his scream-fest "Network"). But Ed...well...Ed was just plain daffy. Or as the narrator in the documentary "Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora" put it, "His stream of consciousness dialogue was like a ransom note, pasted together from words randomly cut out of a Korean electronics manual."

When his actors spoke to each other on screen, it often seemed as if they were talking past each other instead of to each other. Take this exchange from "Plan 9 From Outer Space" (1959), where two cops discuss the fate of a gal who just had a close encounter with Bela Lugosi's body double:

Cop #1: "Did you get anything out of her?"

Cop #2: "True, she was frightened and in a state of shock. But don't forget, she tore her nightgown and scratched her feet."

Cop #1: "Yeah, I hadn't thought of that."

See what I mean?

Much of the same happens later on, when pilot Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott) tells his wife Paula (Mona McKinnon) about the UFO he saw buzzing around earlier in the week.

Paula: "A flying saucer?! You mean, the kind from up there?"

Jeff: "Yeah, either that or its counter part."

Ed Wood wrote all his scripts himself, without collaborators. He also only wrote first drafts, which might explain part of the problem. The other part of the problem was that Ed's actors were so incompetent that they made the cast of "Baywatch" look like the Royal Shakespeare Company by comparison. Therefore, they could have been mouthing the greatest dialogue ever written and it still would have come out as mush. Take this little vignette from "Plan 9"s. Pilot Jeff has to go back to work and, a typical '50's husband, doesn't want to leave the little woman alone with all that weird stuff happening at the near by cemetery. Plucky Paula reassures hubby with these wise words, with a special emphasis on "there": "Now, don't worry. The saucers are up there. The graveyard's out there. But I'll be locked up safely in there. Now, off to your wild blue yonders!"

It would take an actress of considerable skill to make sense of such blather--and poor Mona McKinnon was no actress, period. She was a friend of Wood's principal leading lady and cuddlemate, Delores Fuller. Throughout "Plan 9" Mona tries to embody the part of a brave housewife fighting off alien controlled zombies (Bela Lugosi, Vampira and Tor Johnson, respectively) but the alien controlled zombies act circles around her. Perhaps the highlight of Mona's performance occurs when Tor Johnson deposits her in the alien's ship: she doesn't utter a peep and merely lies limp as a dish-rag in Tor's beefy arm. It's her best acting of her career.

Even when Ed tried to make sense, he really couldn't. When Lt. Harper in "Plan 9" (Duke Moore) stumbles upon the corpse of Tor Johnson he announces with great insight, "One thing is sure: Inspector Clay is dead. Murdered. And somebody's responsible!"

Although to be fair, the bumbling aliens in "Plan 9" don't come off any better than the humans. "What do you think will be the next obstacle the Earth people will put in our way?" asks female alien Tanna. "Well," muses male alien Eros, "as long as they can think, we'll have our problems."

Ed Wood was not the only writer/director who gave his cast less-than-sparkling dialogue. In "The Swarm", poor Michael Caine (a double Oscar winner) was forced to declare, "I never thought it would be the bees! They've always been our friends!" Meanwhile, who can forget poor Lord Larry Olivier fuming "I hef no zon!" when he learns his kid (Neil Diamond!) plans to quit being a rabbi in order to become a pop singer in the remake of "The Jazz Singer"? Even our animal friends have been badly served by screenwriters. "There has to be more to life than fighting for fish heads!" the bird brained hero in "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" squawks (actually, he has a point).

Still, Ed Wood consistently pounded out scripts that made sense to no one except him. Furthermore, he saw no need to change his style. Maybe he felt he was ahead of his time. Or maybe he really liked what he wrote. Either way,  Ed's unique gift for producing verbal head-scratchers continues to confuse and delight the lovers of bad movies. And because we know Ed was dead serious when he wrote this stuff, it gives his films an extra kick of fun.

For instance, the 1953"s "Glen or Glenda", about the challenges faced by post-World War II cross dressers, was meant to be a serious film about a controversial subject. So why did Ed (who not only wrote and directed the flick, but starred in it, too) begin his "message picture" with Bela Lugosi (billed as "The Scientist") announcing, "Pull the string! Pull the string! A story must be told!"? Even goofier, Ed would have Bela shriek for no reason, "Bevare! Bevare of the big green dragon that sits on your door step! He eats little boys, puppy dog tails and big fat snails!"

Although "Glen or Glenda" tries hard to prod viewers into understanding the pressures cross dressers face (an admirable impulse, considering the era the picture was made in), the film does acknowledge that having a cross dresser in the family takes some getting used to. As Glen's sister Shelia confides to a co-worker, "Just how does one go introducing your friends to your brother when brother's wearing your best sweater, your skirt and make-up to boot?"

Many of the characters Ed Wood created had unusual quirks on top of unusual dialogue. The detective played by Harvey B. Dunn in "The Bride of the Monster"(1955), for instance, spends a good chunk of the movie with a bird perched either on his finger or resting on his shoulder. Bela Lugosi, as a mad scientist again, lives in a swamp with a pet octopus and the lumbering Tor Johnson. Lugosi is perfecting a "super human race" by bombarding hapless victims with radioactive waves via a spaghetti strainer he plants on their heads. He defends trying to create this new breed of humans by explaining, "One is always considered mad if one discovers something others cannot grasp!"

Later, when Bela's lab explodes, Dunn remarks, "He tampered in God's domain."

That sums up Ed Wood's career, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment