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Ed Wood (Edward D. Wood Jr., Director): From Grade-Z Auteur to Cult Favorite

Ed Wood aka Edward D. Wood JrEdward D. Wood Jr., a.k.a. Ed Wood, wore numerous professional hats: Director, producer, screenwriter, and, at times, editor and actor. He is seen above in the semi-autobiographical 1953 cult classic Glen or Glenda.
  • Edward D. Wood Jr., a.k.a. Ed Wood (Oct. 10, 1924 – Dec. 10, 1978): Labeled by some “The Worst Director of All Time,” the Grade-Z auteur responsible for modestly budgeted fare like Glen or Glenda, Jail Bait, and Plan 9 from Outer Space has become a cult favorite in recent decades.

Popularly known as Ed Wood, Edward D. Wood Jr. went from largely ignored Grade-Z auteur to cult fave

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Throughout his career, screenwriter-director-producer and sometime editor and actor Edward D. Wood Jr. (born on Oct. 10, 1924, in Poughkeepsie, New York) had to resort to shooting his movies with the microscopic-est of budgets, as he was unable to find reliable backers.

These productions – a handful of titles released during the 1950s – were generally ignored by reviewers and the public alike. The name Edward D. Wood Jr., in fact, meant all but nothing to the vast majority of film fans, critics, and scholars of the period.

Fast-forward to the last couple of decades of the 20th century, when the filmmaker, now popularly known as Ed Wood, gained posthumous notoriety as “The Worst Director of All Time,” which in turn led to a large cult following for his technically, artistically, and financially challenged features.

Below is a brief overview of four of them.

Glen or Glenda (1953)

A plea for the social acceptance of cross-dressers – still very much an issue in reactionary/right-wing circles – writer-director Ed Wood’s partly autobiographical drama Glen or Glenda stars the filmmaker (billed as “Daniel Davis”) as Glen, a young man who, though not gay, enjoys wearing women’s clothes.

Problems arise when his fiancée (Wood’s real-life girlfriend Dolores Fuller) starts suspecting that Glen has another woman on the side – not realizing that the “woman,” Glenda, is actually Glen in drag.

Also in the Glen or Glenda cast: Dracula and The Black Cat star Bela Lugosi – by then a morphine addict whom Wood had befriended – as an enigmatic “scientist”; small-time actor Timothy Farrell as an understanding doctor and the film’s narrator; and 1930s Warner Bros. second lead Lyle Talbot (The Purchase Price, Mandalay) as a police inspector.

Glen or Glenda remains one of the few movies centered on cross-dressers, long predating titles like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), La Cage aux Folles (1978), Just Like a Woman (1992), and Kinky Boots (2005).[1]

Jail Bait (1954)

Directed by Ed Wood, and cowritten by Wood and his early 1950s roommate, Alex Gordon,[2] the cautionary crime drama Jail Bait features early silent era star Herbert Rawlinson (Pythias in the 1914 Damon and Pythias) as a plastic surgeon[3] coerced into changing the looks of a gangster (Timothy Farrell) wanted by the police – a plot device previously seen in, to name one title, Delmer Daves’ 1947 crime drama Dark Passage, in which a prison fugitive gets himself Humphrey Bogart’s face.

The Jail Bait cast also includes Clancy Malone,[4] in his only appearance in front of the camera, as the doctor’s delinquent son who gets his father in trouble; Dolores Fuller as the doctor’s daughter; fashion model and future radio star Theodora Thurman as the gangster’s lover; Lyle Talbot once again as a police inspector; and future Hercules star Steve Reeves as the inspector’s associate.

Bride of the Monster (1955)

Also directed by Ed Wood and cowritten by Wood and Alex Gordon, the sci-fi/horror thriller Bride of the Monster took its title from James Whale’s 1935 classic The Bride of Frankenstein.[5]

Bela Lugosi stars as a Mad Doctor intent on using atomic energy to transform regular humans into Marvel-like superheroes – a plot point seen (with some variations) the following year in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release Forbidden Planet.

Things go from mad to worse after one of the doctor’s assistants (Swedish-born professional wrestler Tor Johnson) becomes a super-monster and a journalist (little-seen actress Loretta King) starts nosing around before being hypnotized into the title character.

Finished in 1959, the sequel Night of the Ghouls, also featuring Tor Johnson, had a brief showing that year before disappearing for a quarter of a century – reportedly because Ed Wood hadn’t paid his lab bills. Long thought lost, Night of the Ghouls would resurface in videocassette in 1984.

Plan 9 from Outer Space VampiraPlan 9 from Outer Space with Vampira: Probably the best-known Ed Wood movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space features extra-terrestrials, a doomsday machine, and Vampira, seen above in a pose reminiscent of Gloria Swanson at the end of Sunset Blvd.

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Written, directed, and coproduced by Ed Wood, the sci-fi/horror camp fest Plan 9 from Outer Space – clearly inspired by Robert Wise’s 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still – has extraterrestrials coming up with the titular “Plan 9” to prevent humankind from creating a doomsday machine that could destroy not only their planet but the whole wide universe.

Plan 9 entails resurrecting recently deceased humans to keep the living ones too stressed out to work on the cataclysmic weapon and perhaps more willing to listen to their alien counterparts. If that doesn’t work, armies of the undead will do the planet and the universe a favor by eliminating all living humans.

Shot in late 1956, previewed in 1957, and finally released in 1959, Plan 9 from Outer Space would develop a cult following in the ensuing decades. The cast includes minor actors Gregory Walcott and Mona McKinnon (the latter featured in Jail Bait) as the human leads, and radio announcer Dudley Manlove and The Brain Eaters actress Joanna Lee as, respectively, Space Station 7 commander Eros and Space Girl Tanna.

Also: Vampira (a.k.a. Maila Nurmi) as the Vampire Girl, the psychic (The Amazing) Criswell as the movie’s narrator, former B-Western star Tom Keene (best remembered for King Vidor’s 1933 non-Western Our Daily Bread) as a military specialist on flying saucers, and Ed Wood regulars Tor Johnson, Lyle Talbot, Duke Moore, and Bela Lugosi – who, as it happened, died before production began; Lugosi’s Plan 9 from Outer Space footage had actually been shot for another Ed Wood film project that was never finished.

Latter career: Erotic narratives

From the mid-1960s on, Ed Wood devoted his energies to writing crime and sex-themed stories, in addition to erotic/pornographic screenplays.

In the early 1970s, he wrote, directed, and produced several adult-oriented efforts, among them the groundbreaking – in terms of their explicit content – Necromania: A Tale of Weird Love (1971; billed as “Don Miller”), featuring Ric Lutze and Rene Bond as a young couple erotically awakened by lustful witch Maria Arnold, and The Young Marrieds (1972; billed as “Richard Trent”), featuring Louis Wolf and Alice Friedland as another young couple with relationship/sexual issues.

Besides, Wood wrote/co-wrote a handful of scripts for director Stephen C. Apostolof: Drop Out Wife (1972); The Cocktail Hostesses (1973), headlining Necromania actress Rene Bond; Five Loose Women (1974), also with Bond, and, as per online sources, featuring Wood in a cameo; and The Beach Bunnies (1976).

Nearly destitute and suffering from chronic alcoholism, Ed Wood died of heart failure at age 54 on Dec. 10, 1978, in the Los Angeles suburb of North Hollywood. His passing went unnoticed by news outlets.

Tim Burton’s Ed Wood: Critical hit, commercial dud

In Tim Burton’s 1994 fantasy “biopic” Ed Wood – warmly embraced by critics but a box office dud – Johnny Depp plays a, however amusing, caricature of the Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster filmmaker.

As a decrepit Bela Lugosi, veteran Martin Landau (North by Northwest, Crimes and Misdemeanors) was that year’s Best Supporting Actor Academy Award winner. Furthermore, Rick Baker, Ve Neill, and Yolanda Toussieng took home Oscar statuettes in the Best Makeup category.

Also in the Ed Wood cast: Sarah Jessica Parker (as Dolores Fuller), Patricia Arquette (as Kathy O’Hara, Wood’s wife from 1956–1978), Jeffrey Jones (as Criswell), G.D. Spradlin (as the Reverend Lemon, one of several Baptists who helped to finance Plan 9 from Outer Space), Vincent D’Onofrio (as Orson Welles), and Mike Starr (as Glen or Glenda producer Georgie Weiss).

Plus: Max Casella (as Ed Wood regular Paul Marco), Lisa Marie (as Vampira), George ‘The Animal’ Steele (as Tor Johnson), Bill Murray (as Plan 9 from Outer Space actor and drag queen Bunny Breckinridge), Juliet Landau (as Loretta King), and, in cameos, Plan 9 from Outer Space alumni Gregory Walcott and Conrad Brooks (played by Brent Hinkley in the movie).

Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were credited for the screenplay inspired by Rudolph Grey’s 1992 book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Art and Life of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

“Ed Wood (Edward D. Wood Jr., Director): From Grade-Z Auteur to Cult Favorite” notes

Cross-dressing complexities

[1] Titles like Madame Behave (1925), Charley’s Aunt (various versions), Queen Christina (1933), Some Like It Hot (1959), and Yentl (1983) don’t count, as the cross-dressing in these movies is a circumstantial necessity, not an innate urge.

Alex Gordon

[2] In the mid-1950s, British-born Alex Gordon became a top producer at the recently founded B studio American International Pictures.

His credits include Day the World Ended (1955), The She-Creature (1956), and Runaway Daughters (1956), all notable for featuring veterans like Chester Morris, Anna Sten, Jack Mulhall, Adele Jergens, and Raymond Hatton.

Would-be surgeon Lugosi

[3] The role of the plastic surgeon was originally intended for Bela Lugosi.

Jail Bait turned out to be Herbert Rawlinson’s final feature film. He died at age 67 in July 1953, nearly a year before the movie’s release.

Clancy Malone

[4] According to Andrew J. Rausch and Charles E. Pratt, Jr.’s The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood, the filmmaker met Jail Bait actor Clancy Malone when the latter showed up to deliver his groceries.

The actual bride of Frankenstein

[5] As the bride and eventual wife of Colin Clive’s Dr. Henry Frankenstein, Valerie Hobson has the title character in The Bride of Frankenstein.

Elsa Lanchester is the bride of Boris Karloff’s Monster.

Ed Wood movie cast via the IMDb.

Ed Wood Glen or Glenda movie image: Screen Classics.

Vampira Plan 9 from Outer Space image: Valiant Pictures | Image Entertainment.

“Ed Wood (Edward D. Wood Jr., Director): From Grade-Z Auteur to Cult Favorite” last updated in October 2023.

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