Ed Wood: The Original Experimental Filmmaker

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Horse Trade Theater Company
Red Room Theater
85 E. 4th Street
New York, NY

Ed Wood in Glen or Glenda

Ed Wood was voted the worst movie director in all human history and given a Golden Turkey Award in 1981, three years after he died. Ironically, that sparked an interest in the man who made Plan 9 from Outer Space and many other 1950s and ‘60s science fiction and horror films and was, well, a very eccentric guy. That renewed interest, plus the wave of nostalgia sweeping the country or 1950s cinema, led to a new boom in the lost work of Wood. Along came superstar film director Tim Burton. He decided to make a motion picture out of Woods life and talked Johnny Depp into playing Wood and Martin Landau into playing old time horror star Bela Lugosi. The move charmed everybody and Landau was so good that he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The Oscar evoked even more interest in Wood and the 1950s and there were books, magazines articles, and television specials. The University of Southern California hosts an Ed Wood film festival and some people even created a ‘Church of Ed Wood’ that has over 3,000 members.

Now the 1950s film works of Wood have landed on stage in a new festival, Final Curtain: the Last of Ed Wood, which opens in New York on Wednesday and runs through July 1. Director Frank Cwiklik, who staged a similar festival ten years ago, is transforming Wood’s old 1950s films into five plays:

  • Bride of the Monster – gory story about a mad scientist who tries to create a race of super beings.
  • Night of the Ghouls – the sequel to Bride of the Monster that takes place in an eerie castle.
  • The Violent Years – a wave of juvenile delinquency washes over America, led by teenaged girls unable to control themselves.
  • Hot Ice – the story of rock stars at a jammed ski lodge on a bizarre night.
  • The Sinister Urge – the clash between goofy cops and a sexy female crime boss.
  • (there are two one hour plays on each theater date)

    Why a play festival on Wood’s long lost works and why now?

    “I have turned several of Wood’s movies into plays over the last ten years and saw how much people enjoyed them. So I figured why not produce a whole festival of them?” said Cwiklik. “Ed Wood has become a cult figure, with a whole new audience of followers.”

    Wood’s story is a ghoulish trip into show business and American history. Wood’s heyday was the prime time of horror movies in America, the late 1950s. The film world gave us Martian invasions, intergalactic wars, bug eyed giant insects, creeping radioactive ants and deranged aliens running amuck in suburban Los Angeles. They were all chased by mad scientists and military generals. Joining all of them, with his nickel and dime budget, was young Ed Wood. The talkative film buff was determined to become a famous director even though he had no money, no backing and no support.

    Wood was born in Poughkeepsie New York to a woman who dressed him up as a girl until he was 12 years old. He often cut school to watch movies at the local movie theater. He read all the movie magazines and pulp fiction journals he could find. He served four years in World War II and emerged to join a carnival, starring in their freak show. After he left the army, he moved to Los Angles and wrote really bad science fiction scripts and a play based on his novel that won dreadful reviews.

    Film producer George Weiss asked him to create a movie that somehow tied to the publicity that surrounded transsexual Christine Jorgensen. He wrote Glen and Glenda and starred in it, playing a transsexual/transvestite, using an alias. He shot the film in four days on a budget of just $26,000. In following films he spent little and produced what critics said were disastrous cheap black and white horror films. They all featured unknown actors, week long shooting schedules, limited budgets and lots of stock footage of plane crashes, wars and deserts, because stock footage was free.

    He struck up a friendship with former star Bela Lugosi, who worked very cheaply in three of his films. Wood’s career culminated with the zany Plan 9 From Outer Space, starring Lugosi, who died during the filming. The movie was financed by the Southern Baptist Convention. Wood convinced them that the profits from the film could be used to make a movie they wanted about the 12 apostles.

    Wood’s career slowed down after Plan 9’s premier in 1956 and he wound up writing scripts and working as a producer for pornographic movies. He died at 54.

    “I have met a lot of people who worked with Ed Wood and knew him well. They all found him a friendly and talented guy. Each of them would then say the same thing – he was a guy who just never caught a break and never made it big,” said director Cwiklik.

    Wood was one of many producers and directors who tried to cash in on the thirst for horror and science fiction in the 50s. The public’s craving was not just for supernatural films, but connected to the world wide fear of a nuclear war and radiation, started by the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. Many horror movies played on that fear, from Them to Godzilla. Wood and writers like him tossed in a few big explosions and a monster suffering from radiation poisoning, a few half naked women, and cheap props and opened the doors of the theater. It was a special genre that never made much money or did much for its creators, but became a vivid part of American life in the 1950s. The horror and science fiction movies of the 1950s spawned landmark movies and television shows (Star Trek, The Twilight Zone).

    Cwiklik says that while it is difficult to turn most movies into play, it was not that hard to do so with Wood’s films. “He did not spend a lot of money on his work, so there are no big on location segments or scenes with a lot of people or fancy costumes. His films were simple and that makes them easy to put on the stage,” he said.

    Cwiklik thinks Ed Wood was special. “He was an idiosyncratic voice; he stood out. He always will. You could do his plays fifty years from now and they would stand out.”

    The director also thinks Woods films, and his plays, say a lot about 1950s history. “The ‘B” movie guys were all working class stiffs. The movies they made reflected what life was really like in the 50s. Your big film directors told you the way they wished life was like in the 50s. I think that if you watch Wood films, or our version of them, you learn a lot about the 1950s and the early 1960s and what real people were like then.”

    The talkative Cwiklik paused, and then leaped in again. “You know what Ed Wood was like in 1956? He was just like some teenager today who makes a fifteen minute movie and puts it on YouTube. That’s what Ed was. He was the original experimental filmmaker.”

    Now, in New York, Wood’s fans will get a two week opportunity to take yet another look his works, this time as plays in the Final Curtain: the Last of Ed Wood festival at the Horse Trade Theater Company’s Red Room Theater.

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