ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Savior of Lost Boogeymen: ED WOOD

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David Del Valle

During the filming of RKO's Zombies on Broadway (1945) Bela Lugosi would spent his evenings according to co-star Ann Jeffreys "at a Hollywood Blvd cocktail lounge known as The Green Dragon. Once he arrived at the club, which was decorated like a Chinese opuim den from one of his Monogram programmers, he would then position himself at one of the front tables. The reason he chose this particular spot was all because of the certain positioning of a jade colored spotlight that shone directly down on the actors face giving him a very Lugosi horror film green glow that never ceased to draw attention to the legendary horror icon.

I grew up hearing stories like that, so by the time of Tim Burton's affectionate biopic Ed Wood I fully expected to see some of that bravura in the performance of Martin Landau.  I was not disappointed because Landau captured the great man's ego along with his suffering in the post-apocalyptic era of the early fifties when the glow had long gone from his glory days at Universal and the role that made him immortal that of Bram Stoker's Count Dracula.

The joy I experienced watching Tim Burton's recreation of those days was somewhat spoiled by a then recent encounter I had with a sweet sad little man living off Vermont in Hollywood named Harry Thomas.  Harry was a bit of a Hollywood legend himself because he was the make-up man for some of the most talked about cult movies of the 1950's like Killers from Space to Sam Fullers The Naked Kiss.  He also did Lugosi's make-up on Bride of the Monster, the film that Burton recreates to great effect in Ed Wood. Harry actually wept during the screening he attended because of the scenes in which the actor playing Harry applies make up on the arm of Lugosi to cover the track marks from years of morphine addiction. "Why would this kid Tim Burton allow this lie to be filmed? I knew Lugosi very well from the early 40's until his death and he never shot dope before a take; nor was there ever any need to cover up track marks on Mr. Lugosi with make up because I was the man who made him up for Eddie Wood."

I have learned to accept in biopic films that try and deal with real people's lives that a certain dramatic license in recreating the facts goes without saying. For example Ken Russell had made a career out of; reimagining the lives of his favorite composers and creating art in the process (his work at the BBC is groundbreaking in that regard). However when you are recreating an icon as large as Bela Lugosi he deserves some respect. I know his son Bela Lugosi Jr was not pleased with his portrayal in Ed Wood since it was well known that Lugosi's dependance on morphine was medically-induced and then after years of taking the drug legally, when he became dependent on it the doctors refused to give him prescriptions as they had done in the past so he was forced to look elsewhere for the drug. There is so much to admire in Ed Wood that one can perhaps let it slide as we are watching this inventive and moving tribute to the power of cinema and profound bond of friendship between Lugosi and Wood during the final five years in the actors life.

Robert Cremer who wrote the only authorized biography of Lugosi had access to the hospital records of Bela's infamous hospital stay in the early 50's.In his book The Man behind the Cape he records some of what he discovered in reading the hospital records: Lugosi was at odds with his long suffering wife Lillian and decided to get even with her by checking himself into the hospital on the wedding anniversary which is exactly what he did. The press turned out in full force to record Bela Lugosi check himself into the hospital for drug addiction. When the camera's stopped rolling and the press withdrew he tried to check himself out explaining to no avail it was all a mistake. What Lugosi didn't realize was the fact once you check yourself in there is no turning back.  Bela Lugosi was discovering he had checked into a virtual roach motel since many check in few survive to check out.

The major discovery of this hospitalization was just how much of an alcoholic Lugosi had become over the years of drinking everyday. What happened to Lugosi during the first few days of his stay was a hellish battle with the DT'S and as described in his hospital records the 73 year-old actor went through the torments of the dammed for nearly eight days before he was detoxed to the point where he quit hallucinating and was able to eat solid food. A lesser man could not have survived the ordeal. Billy Wilder's film of The Lost Weekend had nothing on Lugosi's week long bout with his demons.

What Tim Burton does capture so beautifully is the bond between the two men: one so young but also addicted to booze and the other a screen legend in decline, both living in a town without pity. It is just as well the film ends when it does because the Ed Wood that Bob Cremer encountered in 1976 had none of the charms of Johnny Depp's woeful interpretation of Wood we see in Burton's film.  The last time Cremer saw Wood he was so gone on booze he could barely stand up. He even broke a bottle of Wild Turkey against a wall and tried to lunge at Cremer with the jagged glass and this could have been a nightmare except all Bob had to do was push a totally out-of-it Ed away and he simply collapsed to the floor out cold yet again.  I was invited over for one of those evenings only to find out Ed Wood had set fire to his house and watched it burn to the ground.

It is situations like this that made Ed Wood devoid of any memorabilia or records of his films, it would be up to his friends to supply the artifacts for his legacy.  I believe Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy was used to somewhat fashion the screenplay, a lot of what is in that book is questionable since many of the survivors were also alcoholics and a bit deranged themselves, like Paul Marco, known to Wood fans as Kelton the cop.

The story of Paul Marco (above, in police costume) does bear repeating here (as I have discussed him in more detail in my book Lost Horizons beneath the Hollywood sign) You see Paul was a security guard at Paramount who, after a fateful encounter with director Joe Dante--who foolishly referred to Paul as "a cult star" entirely because of his involvement with ED Wood---promptly quit his job took his life savings and began to create the Kelton the Cop Fan Club in preparation for his ascent into superstardom which was, according to Paul, just around the corner.  It is to Paul's credit that he did in one way or another live off that reflected glory for the rest of his life, literally since he was preparing for an interview just hours before he died at the age of 82.

Tim Burton has fashioned an unabashed love poem to the cinema with his film of Ed Wood, creating out of the sad reality of Ed's life a moment where the fallen director could enjoy his golden years. In other words the time between shooting Bride of the Monster until he begins Plan 9 from Outer Space only to lose his greatest friend and muse Bela Lugosi to the grim reaper.  This arch of time is presented here as a wacky Hollywood reinvention, where Ed (Johhny Depp) is just too filled with the joy of cinema to ever see anything but what the way to turn his outcast posse into stars. When hulking Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (playing a deaf mute servant named Lobo) walks into a wall while making Bride of the Monster the director see's no need for a retake since "Lobo would have this problem in his life everyday."  From the moment we first see Martin Landau's Lugosi trying out coffins off Hollywood blvd we are in the presence of a genius at the top of his game, and Depp seems to react to Landau's brilliance as his Wood reacts to Bela--with awe and delight. Martin's ability to make us love and respect this fallen icon is more than worthy of the Oscar he won for playing him.

Ed Wood is a Film that remains a charming reminder of the 1950's in Hollywood where it is possible for a hopeless dreamer like Wood to assemble a pro wrestler; a TV psychic; a chiropractor (who just happened to resemble Lugosi in profile); a horror show hostess; and a mechanical octopus whose last starring vehicle was the Wake of the Red Witch, and create a film that has withstood the tests of time and the critics and remains part of the legacy of Bela Lugosi almost as important as his legendary output of the 1930's. In Burton's universe even Orson Welles materializes performing a cameo as the two auteur's meet at Boardner's bar to discuss the pitfalls of being a maverick in a town that does not want to admit they even exist.

For me there is sometimes a defining moment in  films you tend to watch over and over again like Ed Wood that seems so ripe in detail and dialogue you never tend to forget it.  When Ed goes in search of a distributor for his projects he takes a meeting with a Georgie Weiss played to perfection by the always great Mike Starr who after listening to Ed explains the nature of his next film about a sex change. Ed then produces an 8x10 glossy of Bela to which Georgie asks the immortal line: "Why would Lugosi want to do a sex change flick?"

Why indeed.... it's something Georgie doesn't understand, but we in the audience do-- it's not just for the cash or the chance to get back in the studio. Lugosi had fallen in with the freaks, the dregs, the midnight transvestites and outcasts, the tossed-out trees still dripping with tinsel. Ragtag and drunk as hell as they may be, they had each other's backs. In  dingy, dark poverty row sound stages they made their last stand, their Alamo, their mad dash past quality, sanity and coherence, straight into history... and triumph.

David Del Valle is a regular contributor to Acidemic and a noted film historian par excellence. His column 'Camp David' on Films in Review is a must, and his new book Six Reels Under (Bear Manor Media) is available here.

Next: Ghost Train: The Lost Pauline Kael Review of PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE

c. 2012 - Acidemic / David Del Valle / all pictures c. their studios or owners.

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244