Scholars Spotlight: Ed Wood


Ed Wood has been called “The Worst Director” of all time. Indeed, looking at his output, it’s hard to argue against that label. However, while Mr. Wood is a strong contender for this dubious honor, it’s only fair to point out just how uniquely entertaining some of his pictures can be.
Today, just about anyone can pick up a camera and make an awful movie. Yet under the old studio system, it wasn’t so easy to make films on your own. You needed energy, dedication, money, time, resources, and access to a distributor. Consequently, it took a real concentrated effort to turn out an absolute piece of trash.
However, Ed Wood not only accomplished this feat several times, but he also proved to be a master at it. Indeed, in the process, Wood earned a permanent place in the hearts of bad film aficionados everywhere. To explain further, we need to go back in time. To the year of Ed’s death, in 1978…
Ed Wood

“The Worst Films of All Time”

That was when Harry Medved published a book with Randy Dreyfuss entitled The 50 Worst Films of All Time.  It was an entertaining compendium of obscure z-pictures, misguided Hollywood blockbusters, and overly-praised art house films. But at the end of the book, the authors invited readers to send in their own picks for the “Worst Film of All Time.” And after they received an avalanche of mail, they knew that they had struck a nerve with the movie-going public.
Nearly a thousand films received votes. And not surprisingly, there were more than a few nominated over and over. However, when the authors pulled together the top vote-getters, they found the most popular dozen or so had all been relatively recent releases. Except for the one at the very top of the vote heap. It happened to be called Plan 9 From Outer Space.  It first hit movie screens way back in 1959.
Ed Wood

The Golden Turkey Awards

Harry Medved found this to be remarkable. And it became the starting point for his next book with his brother Michael. It was called The Golden Turkey Awards. There, they invented categories and nominations for the worst actor/actress of all time. The worst dialogue of all time. The worst musical performance of all time.  Even the most brainless “brain” movie of all time.
They also had a category for the worst movie director in Hollywood history. And as part of their research, they delved into the life of the unique individual who had molded Plan 9 From Outer Space into an acknowledged masterpiece of bad cinema. In the process, the legend of Ed Wood was born.
So, let’s take a select tour through the Wood canon. And hopefully provide an appreciation for the depth and dubious scale of his achievements as part of film history.
Ed Wood

Ed Wood the Auteur

Ed Wood always dreamed of being a film director. One of his heroes was Orson Welles. Years later, Wood would brag that only he and Welles were able to simultaneously write, produce, direct, and act in their own movies.
But breaking into the business wasn’t easy for Wood. He got odd jobs at several studios and then lied about his experience in order to land his first directing gig. An independent producer was interested in filming the story of Christine Jorgensen.  This was an individual who was famous during the early 1950s as one of the first well-known people to undergo a sex-change operation.
One of the reasons Wood lobbied so hard for the assignment was because he thought he had some unique qualifications.  Ed, you see, liked to wear women’s clothing. And he used to brag to friends that while a Marine in World War II, he had stormed the beaches of Guadalcanal wearing a bra and panties under his uniform.

Glen or Glenda

It was Ed Wood’s intention to turn Christine Jorgensen’s story into his own personal plea for acceptance as a cross-dresser. As a result, the name of the new film was Glen or Glenda (1953), with Wood casting himself in the title role.
To provide some legitimacy to the production, Ed Wood hired former horror movie icon Bela Lugosi to star in the film. Lugosi was paid $1000 to serve as one of the film’s on-camera narrators. But by this point in his career, the elderly actor was in serious trouble.
In debt and a hard-core alcoholic, Lugosi was at the point where he had to drink formaldehyde in order to get his fix. He was also injecting himself with a whole series of illicit narcotics. Wood never told the actor what the film was really about. Lugosi was so desperate for money, it’s doubtful he even cared.
Ed Wood

Stylistic Oddities

Shot in only five days, Glen or Glenda is a hodgepodge of stock footage, gross-overacting, and incongruous dialogue. At one point, Lugosi sits in an overstuffed chair on what appears to be a horror movie set, intoning such things as:

“Bevare! Bevare! Bevare of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys, puppy dog tails, and big fat snails. Bevare!”

Before shouting in a thick Hungarian accent:

“Pull thee string! Pull thee string!”

Ed Wood

The Worst Film Ever Made?

In addition, there were shots of a buffalo herd stampede superimposed over Lugosi’s monologue. The reason why is never explained. And all this takes place between scenes of Wood and his girlfriend emoting over his particular indulgences (which include a love of angora sweaters).
Film critic Leonard Maltin singles out Glen or Glenda as “possibly the worst movie ever made.” When the producer who had first hired Wood saw the final product, he thought it was a joke. They had been expecting a straight-up exploitation film. Then, after realizing the money which had been wasted, fired the novice filmmaker. Wood’s career as potentially the worst director of all time was off to a flying start.
Ed Wood

Bride of the Monster

Ed Wood’s next major project was Bride of the Monster (1957). Out of his entire repertoire, it’s probably the one that comes closest to being a legitimate movie. In many ways, it’s a standard “mad scientist” tale, with Bela Lugosi out to create an atomic race of “super-beings.” Wood obtained most of the financing for the picture from a rancher who put up the money in return for Wood’s promise to cast his son in a lead role. The only problem was that the young man couldn’t act at all.
Budgetary problems are evident throughout the film. In one scene, Lugosi, along with his hulking man-servant Lobo (played by Swedish ex-wrestler Tor Johnson) has the movie’s heroine strapped to a laboratory table. You don’t have to look too closely to realize that the would-be victim has a metal colander (strainer) strapped to the top of her head.
Ed Wood
There’s also a scene where someone picks up a phone that never rang and begins talking. Wood simply forgot to dub in the ringing phone sound effect. The film also makes hilarious use of stock footage that doesn’t come anywhere near matching the action on screen.
Audiences are treated to shots of lightning bolts, nuclear explosions, and other various animals which seem to come and go without any relation to the plot at all. In one scene, the hero is attacked by an alligator that obviously only exists in a stock footage library.
Ed Wood

A Lifeless Octopus

But the piece-de-resistance comes at the end when Lugosi does battle with a giant octopus. To film the sequence, Wood took his crew one night to Griffith Park outside Los Angeles. Without bothering to apply for permits, they created a makeshift small pond and had Lugosi get in the water. (Before shooting the scene, Lugosi had to do some shooting up of his own… using a needle).
Wood planned to intercut some stock footage of a normal octopus in a fish tank with a giant mechanical one that would attack Lugosi. Toward that end, he sent his crew over to the prop house at Republic Studios. There, they stole the same mechanical octopus that was used in the John Wayne movie Wake of the Red Witch (1948).
The only problem was they also forgot to bring the motor. So, Lugosi was forced to sit on top of the lifeless fake octopus and pull the tentacles up around him and scream in horror. At least until some more stock footage of an atomic explosion put him – and the audience – out of their misery.
Ed Wood

Ed Wood’s Masterpiece

Ed Wood went on from this triumph to start production on his magnum opus: Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Nevertheless, once again, financing proved to be a problem. He approached the Southern Baptist Convention and convinced them that a successful science fiction film would give them a substantial cash flow. The money could then be used to finance a second picture more to their liking: a film about the Twelve Apostles.
However, the Baptists objected to the film’s original title (Grave Robbers From Outer Space). They also insisted that the entire crew be baptized before working on the project. In order to secure the cash, Wood agreed. The title was changed and the crew took part in a baptismal ceremony.
The film which followed was made in only five days for $20,000. Even in the 1950s, this was considered a paltry sum of money.
Ed Wood

Impossible to Forget

One critic points out that Plan 9 From Outer Space exerts a strange fascination over whoever watches it. Once seen, it’s nearly impossible to forget.
Author John Brosnan wrote:

“It appears to have been made in somebody’s garage.”

Critic Ed Naha gave it the following sarcastic review:

“incredibly awful script, acting, special effects, and editing mar the film a wee bit.”

Or, as author Danny Peary summed it up:

“To think that such an inept, berserk picture exists truly boggles the mind.”

Ed Wood’s Creative Casting

When most people start to list all the problems associated with Plan 9 From Outer Space, they usually begin with the fact that star Bela Lugosi died shortly after shooting some test footage. Not wanting the images to go to waste, Wood added them to the front of the movie, covered them with some silly voice-over, and then had his wife’s chiropractor take over Lugosi’s role.
To cover the fact that the new actor didn’t look anything like Lugosi and was a foot and a half taller, Wood just instructed him to hold a cape over the front of his face for the rest of the picture.
But that’s just the starting point. One of the joys of Plan 9 From Outer Space is that you can watch it over and over and still find new things to laugh at. The film is literally riddled with bone-headed mistakes. Repeat viewings merely uncover new sources of merriment at every turn.

Plan 9 High (or Low) Points

As Criswell the psychic narrator intones:

“My friends, can your heart stand the shocking facts about grave robbers from outer space?!!”

If you can, you should check out this perverse cinematic pleasure. And if you do, here are some things to look out for:
  • Unexplained changes between day and night. A woman is chased out of the graveyard and runs across the road. It’s nighttime when she leaves the graveyard, but daytime when arrives on the other side of the street.
  • The airplane cockpit has a shower curtain separating it from the passenger cabin. The plane’s steering wheels are obviously made out of cardboard. At one point, one of the pilots picks up the script to read his lines. And the microphone he uses to call the control tower is just an old-style telephone.
Ed Wood
  • When the saucers rendezvous with the mother ship, they wobble noticeably on their wire hangers in front of an obviously fabricated star background.
  • One of the policemen knocks over a tombstone in the cemetery, revealing it to be made of cardboard.
  • During the funeral scene, about a half dozen people file out of a tiny crypt the size of a phone booth.
  • When the flying saucers fly over Hollywood, they only seem to visit stock footage shots of local TV stations.
Ed Wood

More Hilarity

  • The main characters have the same furniture in their bedroom as on their patio.
  • When the vampire character is shot by the police, his cape falls off. He catches it before it hits the ground and keeps on advancing.
  • The main character goes off on a long journey with only a small pouch to carry all his luggage.
  • The lead alien authorizes the implementation of “Plan 9” when it has already been in effect for half the movie.
Ed Wood
  • The grave diggers are attacked from behind by the person they supposedly just put in the ground.
  • An army general casts a shadow on “the sky” set behind him.
  • Tor Johnson walks and walks to the spaceship… but never arrives. Even though the other characters get there in a few seconds.
  • All the characters point in different directions and fall to the ground whenever a saucer approaches… as evidenced by a stagehand shining a flashlight all over the set.
  • The map in the general’s office at the Pentagon clearly shows the Topeka and Santa Fe Railway logo.

Nutty Dialogue

But these are just visual cues. To fully appreciate the delirious quality of Plan Nine From Outer Space, you also have to listen to some of the dialogue:
Criswell the Psychic: “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”
Policeman:Inspector Clay’s dead… murdered… AND SOMEBODY’S RESPONSIBLE!”
Eros the Alien: “You earthmen are idiots. Stupid! Stupid!” 
Paula Trent (to her husband who’s an airline pilot): “Don’t worry about me while you’re gone. I have your pillow to keep me company. While you’re up there, I’ll be down here. Now off to your wild blue yonder!”
Colonel: “This is the most fantastic story I’ve ever heard.” Jeff Trent: “And every word of it is true. Colonel: That’s the fantastic part of it!”
Ed Wood

“Can You Prove It Didn’t Happen?”

Simply priceless. And every word was written by that master auteur: Ed Wood. As Criswell himself solemnly intones at the end of the picture:

“My friends, you have seen this incident based on sworn testimony. Can you prove it didn’t happen? God help us in the future!”

Ed Wood

Night of the Ghouls

Wood’s follow-up to this masterpiece was something called Night of the Ghouls (1959). It featured many of the same actors from his previous films taking part in a seance at a haunted house. The fun here starts with the opening credits, which list no fewer than six associate producers. Each of whom no doubt chipped in at least twenty bucks toward the film’s budget.
For years, Night of the Ghouls was considered a “lost” film. But a print was located in 1983 after interest had been revived in Ed Wood’s career. Researchers went back to the lab where the film was processed and found the original. It seems that after having the film printed back in the late 1950s, Wood was unable to pay the bill. And so the finished movie had sat there unseen for twenty-three years.
Ed Wood

Ed Wood’s Sad Ending

The rest of Wood’s life was a sad affair. He worked on a series of porn pictures and became a hardcore alcoholic. Moreover, he was also chased from apartment to apartment after consistently failing to pay his rent. Shortly after being taken in by a friend in December of 1978, Ed Wood died after suffering a massive heart attack while watching a football game on television. Little did he know what lay in store for his reputation a mere two years later.

Ed Wood and Plan 9 Live On

Plan 9 From Outer Space has been referenced in everything from “Seinfeld” to Toy Story (1995). On the X-Files, the character of Mulder said he would watch it whenever he needed to de-stress. He claimed simply viewing the movie would shut down the logic centers of his brain.
There have been several stage versions of the film. And perhaps, most famously, after hitting it big with Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), director Tim Burton signed a new contract with Disney. One of his conditions for changing studios was his insistence on making the movie Ed Wood (1994). The film won two Academy Awards and was critically well-received, even if it wasn’t a huge money-maker.
Ed Wood

Another Perspective

Still, maybe we’re missing something. It’s easy to laugh at Ed Wood’s movies. But it’s also important to remember the time frame in which Ed achieved his greatest success. Name another director who was consistently making personal films outside of the Hollywood studio system during the 1950s. Kinda tough, huh?
Taking things a step further, Plan 9 From Outer Space has lots of script elements that no other movie made during that time period even touched. For example, the military and police are portrayed as ineffectual buffoons. In addition, the characters talk openly about government cover-ups and media manipulation. And the aliens are the only ones who seem to know what they’re talking about. (Even if they’re pretty stupid themselves).
Despite his failings, Ed Wood was definitely a bold individual. Furthermore, he got his movies made through sheer willpower and perseverance. And while we can make fun of the ineptitude of the proceedings, the fact is Wood completed his projects against nearly impossible odds. And to him, that was what was important. To fulfill his dreams, no matter what the cost. Maybe there’s a lesson there.
When actor Paul Marco (Kelton the Cop) was asked what Ed Wood would think of all the attention the director received after his death, he responded simply:

“He would have loved every minute of it.”

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