The Unsung (Intentional) Comedy of Edward Davis Wood, Jr.

Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood introduces its title character during his days operating on the fringes of the Los Angeles theater scene in the late 1940s. As the film opens, Ed’s directing a performance of his own World War II-themed play, The Casual Company, at an obscure little playhouse with a leaking roof. Onstage, two grim soldiers are talking in somber tones about death, ghosts, and “the indignities of war.” Suddenly, they are visited by an angel — think Tinkerbell or Glinda the Good Witch — who dangles awkwardly over the battlefield and offers the men a “bird of peace.”

The play is patently ridiculous, full of overripe dialogue and heavy-handed symbolism, and yet we see that Ed (Johnny Depp) is taking it very seriously indeed, mouthing every word along with the actors as he watches from the wings. The moment seems to be pure Ed Wood. In his delusion, poor Eddie thinks he’s written a great drama when he’s actually written an absurdist comedy.

The sequence is a perfect setup for the rest of the movie, showcasing Ed’s artistic ineptitude as well as his lofty artistic ambitions and seeming detachment from reality. But there’s just one catch. In real life, Ed Wood’s play actually was a comedy. The Casual Company was based on Wood’s experiences as a Marine from 1942 to 1946, but he served largely in a clerical capacity during those years. Surviving programs for the play refer to it as “an original farce in three acts.” Characters include “Pfc Elbo Joints” and “Private Pogybate.” Never one to shy away from recycling material, Wood also turned Casual Company into a novel, which was serialized in the mid-1990s in Cult Movies magazine. The book’s tone is much closer to, say, Beetle Bailey or Gomer Pyle USMC than it is to Paths of Glory. It bears no resemblance to the play in Burton’s film.

The Casual Company was far from Ed Wood’s last stab at intentional comedy. In fact, it’s a genre he would return to again and again as a screenwriter and author. This should not be a total surprise. In Rudolph Grey’s 1992 book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (a source for Burton’s film), friends and associates routinely describe Wood as a cut-up with an oddball sense of humor. “Eddie would like to have Halloween parties and dress up as Hitler,” remembered actress Mona McKinnon, who played Paula Trent in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). “He was funny.” Wood’s wife Kathy further remarked on her late husband’s “goofy sense of humor.” In his own showbiz memoir, Hollywood Rat Race (written circa 1965 and published posthumously), Wood expressed his fondness for the obscure sitcom Oh! Those Bells (1962), starring the Wiere Brothers, a zany slapstick trio. It’s only natural that some wackiness would seep into his writing.

Though he was often a fun-loving goofball at heart, Ed Wood is still best known for the ostensibly serious sci-fi/horror films he made in the 1950s, including Bride of the Monster, Plan 9, and Night of the Ghouls (all 1959). But even these straight-faced movies feature some comic relief, in particular the bumbling, cowardly Officer Kelton character played by Wood’s longtime friend Paul Marco. For the uninitiated, Officer Kelton is sort of a cross between Barney Fife and the Cowardly Lion, forever grumbling about being dispatched to graveyards and haunted houses.

Wood also added buffoonish supporting characters to scripts he wrote for other filmmakers, such as Bulgarian sexploitation king Stephen C. Apostolof. In Apostolof’s Orgy of the Dead (1965), for instance, the script includes a mummy (Lou Ojena) and a wolf man (John Andrews) who serve little function to the plot other than to stand off to the side and crack smutty jokes. A typical knee-slapper from the mummy: “I don’t like snakes. I remember the one Cleopatra used. Cute little rascal until it flicked out that red tongue and those two sharp fangs. You’d never think such a little thing packed such a big wallop!”

Though he grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and migrated to Los Angeles, Ed Wood made a couple of stabs at writing rural-themed comedy. As reported by his friend artist-writer Don Fellman in Nightmare of Ecstasy, Ed submitted a spec script to the 1962-71 CBS sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, only to have it “rejected at the last minute.” That material has never seen the light of day, but fans can still watch Shotgun Wedding (1963), a corn pone comedy written pseudonymously by Wood (billed as “Brooke L. Peters”) and directed by Boris Petroff. Despite its racy title, the film is a Hee Haw-esque farce about a rascally old coot named Buford (J. Pat O’Malley) who gets conned into marrying a vixen named Melanie (Valerie Allen), who in turn is having an affair with Buford’s dimwit son Shub (Peter Colt). Sitcom mainstay William Schallert even shows up as a sleazy grifter masquerading as a preacher!

Perhaps even more intriguing than this was Wood’s unrealized project from around the same time, Attack of the Giant Salami (aka Operation Salami or Invasion of the Gigantic Salami). As the title indicates, this was to be an all-out sci-fi spoof, decades before Mars Attacks or Spaceballs. The proposed cast included Boris Karloff and comedian Joe E. Brown (of Some Like It Hot fame). Actress Valda Hansen described it as a “crazy script” with “a lot of comedy.” Don Fellman agreed, saying that Wood “was so tickled by the humor of it.” But somehow the project never came together.

Even with that professional disappointment, Wood continued dabbling in comedy. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, he was firmly ensconced in the world of pornography, both hardcore and softcore, yet still managed to bring his trademark humor to his scripts. In 1969, he starred in and wrote Love Feast (also known as The Photographer and Pretty Models All in a Row), the first of three collaborations with director Joe Robertson. The film is a sex comedy in which Wood portrays a lewd, lascivious photographer named Mr. Murphy who calls modeling agencies and has them send over pretty young women he can then seduce. The only problem is, Murphy’s plan works too well, and he soon has more women than he can handle. His bedroom begins to resemble the stateroom from A Night at the Opera, and poor Ed Wood has to take shelter in his backyard.

Even wackier than Love Feast is another Ed Wood movie from 1969, One Million AC/DC. Directed by surf documentarian turned pornographer Ed DePriest, this crude caveman comedy was intended as a parody of 1966’s One Million B.C. starring Raquel Welch. And even by Wood’s generous standards, this one is nuts. It features cavemen doing battle with toy dinosaurs, an amorous gorilla who falls for a human woman, and cornball jokes reportedly swiped from the pages of Playboy magazine. There’s one randy Neanderthal named Banger who asks a fellow tribesman, “Do you have any filthy pictures of your sister?” When the other character says no, Banger replies, “You wanna see some?” In another scene, Banger eagerly pops his head out of a cave when he overhears a cavegirl saying her outfit is “beaver.” This is the kind of movie in which the hero, Olaf (Gary Kent), goes off to slay a dinosaur by announcing, “I’m off to see the lizard!” And then there’s the “bow and arrow” routine, which really has to be seen to be appreciated. The whole film has the tenor of a Laugh-In episode, only with abundant nudity.

The very next year, Ed Wood himself was back in the director’s chair for a softcore feature called Take It Out in Trade. This one, recently reissued on DVD and Blu-ray by Something Weird Video and American Genre Film Archive, is only slightly more restrained than One Million AC/DC. It, too, is an out-and-out comedy, this time Wood’s warped take on a detective film. The plot centers around horny private eye Mac McGregor (Michael Donovan O’Donnell), who has two “offices”: a Salvation Army thrift store and the bathroom at the Brown Derby. Some worried parents hire Mac to find their college-age daughter, who has become a prostitute at a brothel called Madam Penny’s Thrill Establishment. Wood himself plays a supporting role, in full drag, as a broken-down prostitute called Alecia.

Wood directed a few other porno features during this era, including Necromania, The Only House in Town, and The Young Marrieds, but these are fairly straightforward with only occasional comic relief. Take It Out in Trade, however, goes for broke. The tone of the film is exemplified by an extended sequence in which Mac takes his clients’ money and travels around the world, ogling girls and living it up. The chaotic editing gives this portion of the film an air of utter lunacy. Even when the movie decides to focus on the plot, it does so with a wink and a smile. Essentially, the entire enterprise is a “shaggy dog” story, with the film’s title serving as its punchline!

Ed Wood never wrote or directed anything as daffy as One Million AC/DC or Take It Out in Trade again, but he kept working intentional comedy into his scripts, including those he wrote for Steve Apostolof. Arguably, the most broadly comedic film Steve and Ed made together was 1976’s The Beach Bunnies, the last of Wood’s screenplays to be produced during his own lifetime. Focusing on the erotic exploits of a group of young women on vacation, The Beach Bunnies can be viewed as a slight rewrite of a previous Apostolof-Wood film, The Snow Bunnies (1972). But the humor has definitely been turned up a notch here, particularly in the story of Elaine Street (Brenda Fogarty), a gossip magazine editor who wants to find out if handsome movie star Rock Sanders (Marlon Proctor) is gay and having a relationship with his fussy, effeminate manager Bruce (Con Covert). There are even rumors that Rock has had a sex change operation, leading to Elaine’s immortal line, “I’ve got to know if Rock Sanders has a cock!” Elaine spends most of the film sneaking around the beachside hotel where Rock is staying, trying to learn the truth about his anatomy. Her methods are reminiscent of Lucy Ricardo or Wile E. Coyote. In one scene, she tries to impersonate a maid to get into Rock’s room. In another, she pretends to be drowning, in the hopes that Rock will save her. In classic I Love Lucy fashion, these plans fail miserably.

Edward Davis Wood, Jr. will never be known as a master of the comedic form. His name is not one to be mentioned alongside Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch. But it is time to acknowledge that the man was capable of writing comedy and recognizing the absurdity of his own plots. He did not always take himself or his scripts nearly as seriously as we have been led to believe.

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