By Doug Gibson
Tim Burton's wonderful film, Ed Wood, recently was chosen as one of the "new classics," by Entertainment Weekly. It's a worthy selection. Burton's black & white tale of Hollywood in the 1950s is a romanticized fairy tale. Johnny Depp's exuberant, ceaselessly optimistic Wood carries the day with a triumphant Plan 9 from Outer Space premiere at the Pantages. (That didn't happen, of course. Plan 9 was screened once at the tiny Rialto and then sat on the shelf for three years). When Plan 9 was put into general release, Wood didn't see a cent.
Later, before the credits to Burton's film roll, the epilogue tells us Wood descended into alcoholism and pornography. It's appropriate that not be shown in Burton's film. It is, as mentioned a fairy tale, of optimism and perserverance. In a general sense, it is accurate. Wood battled tremendous odds in the 1950s. He filmed Glen Or Glenda, Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls with virtually no money. He managed to attract a diverse and eccentric collection of well-known and semi-known cast names, including Dolores Fuller, Criswell, Kenne Duncan, Steve Reeves, Bud Osborne, Timothy Farrell, John Carpenter, Harvey Dunne, Lyle Talbot, Vampira, Herbert Rawlinson, Gregory Walcott and, of course, Bela Lugosi. It appears Wood's enthusiasm was contagious, and many thought he might make it. That he didn't have a long career at least in directing low-budget thrillers must be attributed to his alcoholism, which made him unreliable. Even near his death, his writing was amazingly prolific. More than one friend recalls him writing a screenplay in a day. He wrote hundreds of paperback novels.
The following are some inconsistencies between Burton's Ed Wood, the romanticized, fairy tale film, and Grey's often gritty absorbing oral biography account of Wood's short rise and long descent. One day I'll add to this as time goes on. Here are inconsistencies by film:
Glen or Glenda: In the book, George Weiss is shown as short and trim. In the film he is an overweight slob; It is doubtful that Wood's gay friend Bunny Breckenridge auditioned transvestites for the film. By the way, actor Bill Murray does a great job portraying Breckenridge. The film set for G&G though, matches it as described in the book. Lugosi was not divorced, as the film depicts him. He was still with his wife, Lillian, although she left him soon after. In fact, Grey reports that Lillian pushed Lugosi to take the film. It is also very doubtful Wood gave G&G to a major producer to watch, as the film shows. Also, the film shows Depp's Wood as unhappy that the film was not reviewed in LA. Obviously, Wood would have known where the film was debuting and not checked the LA Times for a review. Burton's scenes of Wood's company stealing shots on LA streets are accurate, according to Grey.
Jail Bait: This film is not even mentioned in Burton's Ed Wood (probably for time and continuity reasons) so let's give it some ink. It's a crime thriller that involves a hood (Farrell) pressuring a plastic surgeon (Rawlinson) and his daughter (Fuller) to make him a new face. Interesting co-stars were Reeves (in his pre-muscleman days) and then-top model Theodora Thurman. Also in the cast are Wood regulars Mona McKinnon, Don Nagel and Bud Osborne. The film's score, which is a bit grating, was taken from Mesa of Lost Women. Howco Films released the film, which likely mostly played the southern drive-in circuit. It's too ambitious for its budget, but is not a bad hour-long time waster. According to Grey, scenes were stolen at an LA motel. (Scene stealing is shooting at private and public locations without permission) Grey, and many rumors, claim that ex-silent film star Rawlinson died the morning after his scenes were shot. Lugosi was slated to play the plastic surgeon, but was either exhausted from his recent Las Vegas gig, too addicted to morphine, or perhaps just had a better offer.
Bride of the Monster: Burton's scenes in LA's Griffith Park of Wood filming in the early AM the finale to Bride are accurate to Grey's description with one exception: Lugosi never got in the water to tangle with a rubber octopus. That was handled by his stand-in, stuntman Eddie Parker. Burton portrays Loretta King, who starred as a nosy reporter, as an airhead. Grey's depiction is fairer, and recent interviews support that she was a capable actress who got the job not for her supposed money, but for her skills. Dolores Fuller's anger at losing the role is accurately portrayed in both film and book. Also, Burton is very unfair to leading man Tony McCoy. He is portrayed as borderline retarded. Wood calls him the worst he ever had in Grey's book. But a viewing of Bride of the Monster shows McCoy to be a very average but capable actor. He certainly knew his lines and can be personable on screen. In fact, McCoy and King were both handled by agent Marge Usher, who supplied Wood with several actors.
Plan 9 From Outer Space: First, although it is a marvelous scene in Burton's Ed Wood, Wood and his idol Orson Welles never chatted at a Hollywood bar. That scene is fiction. By the way, Wood's friend and actor Conrad Brooks plays the bartender in that scene. Also, Burton has Vampira and Kathy Wood being baptized as a Baptist with other Wood regulars to get funding for the film. I don't believe Vampira would have done it, and Kathy Wood says in Grey's book she wouldn't get baptized. It is doubtful Wood would have been angry at Gregory Walcott being cast in his film, since he was a minor name actor at the time. Also, Wood never agreed to his film, Grave Robbers From Outer Space, being changed in title to Plan 9 From Outer Space, as Burton's film show. A minor point; but Ed and Kathy Wood did not meet at Lugosi's hospital, as the film shows. In later interviews, Kathy Wood said they met in a bar. The film was not premiered at the Pantages, and certainly wasn't the elaborate affair as Burton's film shows. In fact, Wood sold the rights to Plan 9 to his Baptist financier, J. Edward Reynolds, for $1 (as Grey recounts) and the film received a minimal release from a small firm, Distributors Releasing Corporation of America. It opened as a second bill to a now-obscure British film called Time Lock.
Night of the Ghouls: Again, not mentioned in Burton's Ed Wood, this film was a sequel to Bride of the Monster, as it involved Tor Johnson's giant Lobo, and a semi sequel to Plan 9 as it had Paul Marco's Patrolman Kelton and Duke Moore's Lt. Daniel Bradford in the cast. It involves a phony medium (Duncan, in a role obviously intended for the late Lugosi) and his young squeeze (Valda Hansen) ripping off elderly fools in an old house. The tables are turned on the pair as the police close in on them and the dead really do start to awake. It has Criswell, narrating from a coffin as he does in Plan 9 and having a brief acting role as well. (Let me digress and say that Jeffrey Jones was brilliant as the late psychic in Burton's film). As mentioned, Tor Johnson's Lobo shuffles around menacingly. The film is intermixed with scenes from an unreleased Wood film called Final Curtain. That sequence, which stars Moore and actress Jeanne Stevens, is quite creepy. If anyone knows where to find a complete version of Final Curtain, it would be quite a find. Night of the Ghou;s was premiered but Wood ran out money, couldn't pay a lab bill and the film was seized for about a quarter of a century before Wood fan Wade Williams paid the bill and it was released. The film's budget is threadbare and dirt-cheap. A cut out picture of Ed Wood is posted on a police wall. The police commander's office has no doorknobs. Obviously, Wood planned more editing and shoots before he lost control of the film. Night of the Ghouls was the first in a planned sequence of films that Wood wanted to make.