Darling Readers, this weekend Theresa at Cinemaven’s Essays From The Couch hosts the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon, celebrating great actor-director combinations. Most folks will choose to cover films we can call high art, I am diving into the murky rubber octopus infested waters of ultra-low-budget exploitation and horror: the kitschy-campy world of Edward D. Wood Jr. and Bela Lugosi!
I know, I know, I know, if you seen Wood’s films, you’re thinking, “Really, Summer? How is this Wood-Lugosi combination anything other than parasitic? There is nothing symbiotic about this relationship! Lugosi was sick, destitute, and Wood made Plan 9 From Outer Space, with random Lugosi footage, he made the film without the actor’s consent!”
Lugosi fans vilify Wood as a shameless “opportunist”, his relationship with Lugosi is “parasitic”, and Lugosi wasn’t the vampire. He just looked like one.
But stick with me, this is a symbiotic relationship.
Most people recognize Wood’s work thanks to Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood. Burton’s film re-introduced the world to what should have been an incredibly forgettable director.
Wood’s films weren’t bad. They were downright awful, filled with confusing and repetitive stock footage, rambling senseless dialogue, static camera positions, mediocre acting, cheaply painted sets, and costumes falling off the actors, his films serve as a cautionary tale entitled How Not to Direct a Film.
Wood rarely told an actor what to do, he didn’t have time – Dolores Fuller, Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora
And yet almost everyone knows exactly who he was and sat through at least one Ed Wood film, including the non-movie geeks.
It is not difficult to see that Edward D Wood Jr was a very poor filmmaker. What is difficult, and arguably runs the risk of missing the point, is evaluating his oeuvre in purely qualitative terms. If what you value in films is the voice of an artist, or even just a person, trying to express themselves through their art, then we can assign value to the art of Edward D. Wood Jr, even if that art is in qualitative terms, trash. -O’Brien
Be it fame or notoriety, I imagine Wood happy knowing his film Plan 9 From Outer Space is recognized.
It was screenwriter Alex Gordon who introduced Wood to Lugosi. Gordon served as Lugosi’s personal assistant during Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.
Wood and Lugosi’s director-star relationship spanned from 1952-1956, they made three films Glen or Glenda, The Bride of The Monster, and Plan 9 From Outer Space.
During his tenure with Wood, Lugosi had a guest appearance on The Red Skelton Show and one non-Ed Wood film, The Black Sleep, his character was mute.
Lugosi desperately wanted and needed the dignity of work. And yes it was Wood who, albeit for his own exploitative purposes, gave Lugosi the chance to wake up in the morning knowing he had a job that day with someone who admired him. – Mitchell
And while many consider Wood’s films a sad end to Lugosi’s brilliant career, they weren’t.
Lugosi had unsteady employment since the mid-1930s, he took any work he could get, and the films while entertaining were far from brilliant (beyond Tod Browning’s Dracula).
Wood’s films were work.
Wood hired an actor no one else in Hollywood wanted, Wood saw Lugosi’s value when few others did and gave him roles suited to his talents and monologues that sparkle despite Wood’s clunky direction.
Glen or Glenda (1953)
The film is inspired by the first successful transgender operation Christine Jorgensen and is semi-autobiographical for Wood. Wood stars as Glen a transvestite.
Despite the poor production, this film is socially significant, addressing transvestism in the 1950s. Later filmmakers tackling a transvestite performance such as Charles Busch and John Waters are synonymous with camp performance. While Wood’s camp was unintentional, we automatically equate camp with trans-performance, and I have a feeling, this is thanks to Ed Wood.
Exactly how much Lugosi knew about the plot during production is unknown, stories vary from Lugosi being completely in the dark to being horrified. We do know Lugosi was paid $1000 for a 1-day shoot.
In the film, Lugosi plays a sinister all-knowing spirit: click here for video
The Bride of The Monster (1955)
In The Bride of the Monster, Lugosi plays Dr. Eric Vornoff a mad scientist determined to create a race of supermen! It features Lugosi’s famous “home” monologue, co-written by Gordon and Lugosi. Click here to see the video
For many this is Bela’s finest hour. Frighteningly gaunt and drawn, he mixes his familiar flamboyance with a very profound bitterness that is almost painful to watch. (Mank 559)
After filming ended, Lugosi checked into a rehabilitation facility. At a time when Hollywood swept problems under the rug, Lugosi came forward and admitted his morphine addiction.
Alex Gordon worked with legendary cowboy Gene Autry, and while Lugosi was in rehab, Wood began work on a new script. The Ghoul Goes West was to star Autry and Lugosi.
Read portions of the manuscript for The Ghoul Goes West from Filmfax Magazine.
Having a project to look forward to, gave Lugosi a reason to get better.
Lugosi at the hospital with Wood’s script The Ghoul Goes West
After seeing Wood’s films, Autry backed out of the project (can we really blame him). Wood took the money from this project to film footage of Lugosi for their next upcoming project The Vampire’s Tomb.
The Vampire’s Tomb (fragment)
Wood got his hands on $800 worth of “front money” and began work on The Vampire’s Tomb. Naturally he called Bela, who needed the cash and agreed to lend his presence even though his role, once again offered no dialogue. Wood later claimed Bela was to ill to speak (Mank 578).
Lacking funds, Wood stopped production and Lugosi passed away before Wood was able to raise enough capital to continue production.
Wood’s Lugosi footage remained unused until 1959 when Wood made his film Plan 9 From Outer Space. You can watch the film here!
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956-9)
This is my favorite Wood film. Lugosi’s vampire footage became a part of a science fiction film about aliens trying to save the universe from senseless destruction by raising the dead.
Off-camera Lugosi and Wood were friends. And contrary to the film Ed Wood, Lugosi took care of Wood, both men suffered from their addictions.
Okay, that sounds co-dependent, is it symbiotic?
Any bio-geek will tell you there are several forms of symbiosis, and I believe Wood and Lugosi are the perfect examples of obligate symbiosis, a symbiotic relationship which is necessary for survival.
Wood’s small patronage gave Lugosi dignity and an income, at a time when no one else in Hollywood did that for Lugosi. Lugosi’s collaboration with Wood was the pinnacle of Wood’s career. Wood’s films would tumble into obscurity (save for Glen or Glenda which may have thrived as a curiosity) had Lugosi not been involved. Wood gave an aging actor hope. I think the relationship exemplifies a necessary personal symbiosis, Lugosi’s presence lent credibility to Wood’s films. And though the collaboration was not a hotbed of creative genius, it was nevertheless entertaining, and what is show business, if not entertainment?
Make sure you visit Cinemaven’s Essays From The Couch and the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon and check out some more exciting Star-Director Collaborations!
Ciao for Now, Dearies!
Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora. Dir. Ted Newsom. Rhino Home Video, 1994. DVD.
Mank, Gregory W. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, with a Complete Filmography of Their Films Together. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2009. Print.
Mitchell, Lisa. “‘Wood’ Tarnishes a Good Man–Lugosi.” Los Angeles Times [Los Angeles] 24 Oct. 1994: n. pag. Print.
O’Brien, Harvey. “Edward D. Wood Jr, Tim Burton and the Apothesis of the Forsaken.” Ed. Gillian Pye. Trash Culture: Objects and Obsolescence in Cultural Perspective. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010. Print.
All the cool kids follow me, join the party, darling!
Follow Me on Twitter: @kitschmeonce