Hail, the Sultan of Schlock!

You rarely hear him described this way, but Ed Wood was an American success story. Wood, the angora sweater-wearing film producer, director, writer, editor, and actor, died on this date in 1978 at the age of 54.

With buckets of desire (and thimbles of talent) he was able to carve out a noted Hollywood career that culminated in a pinnacle of sorts, when he was awarded the Golden Turkey Award as the “Worst Director of All Time.” While certainly not the type of superlative you aim for in a movie career, it has insured Wood a certain cinematic immortality.

Wood was born in New York to a civil servant father and a mother who dressed him in girls clothes until he was twelve. He would remain a cross-dresser for the rest of his life. He served honorably as a Marine in World War II, often wearing panties and a bra beneath his uniform. After the war he joined a carnival where he worked as a freak show performer dressed in drag as a bearded lady.

Wood made it to Hollywood in the late 40s, and first made news as the director, writer, and star of Glen or Glenda?, an exploitation film about transvestitism. Wood appeared in the title roles, donning a skirt, blonde wig, and angora sweater while playing Glen’s alter-ego Glenda. (Wood, who was straight, loved wearing angora and even used “Ann Gora” as a penname.)

Wood assembled an eclectic and eccentric stock company of Hollywood has-beens and never-weres, including Vampira (Maila Nurmi), Tor Johnson, Lyle Talbot, Bunny Beckinridge, television psychic Criswell, and Bela Lugosi, who was by this time a morphine addict. The troupe appeared in a bevy of Wood’s no-budget “classics” over the next few years, like Bride of the Monster, Jail Bait, and The Sinister Urge.

Wood’s “magnum-opus” is undoubtedly Plan Nine From Outer Space, which he shot over five days in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. The money for the film came from a Southern Baptist church, whose trustees required that Wood and his actors be baptized first into the congregation.

Plan Nine is a story about a race of invading aliens who animate the dead to take over Earth. It has cardboard special effects, terrible acting, and even worse dialogue and direction. It’s so mind-bogglingly bad that it’s brilliant! It’s one of my favorite films.

Wood’s “career” died along with his biggest star, Bela Lugosi. He ended up making smut films around Hollywood until his death. But an auteur like Wood could never be completely forgotten.

In 1994, Tim Burton directed the hilarious film Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp as Wood, and Martin Landau (in an Academy Award winning performance) as Bela Lugosi. Two years later, the “Church of Ed Wood,” a legally-sanctioned religion, was formed by a Sacramento man. Today, the church has over 3000 members, who are known as “Woodites, who were all baptized on-line. The organization’s motto is, “Healing souls and wearing panties since 1996.”

About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

7 responses to “Hail, the Sultan of Schlock!

  • Chad Stephens

    Good article, never knew Hollywood embraced this sort of thing that long ago. People were quite prudish in those days! Interesting they made a movie based around a transvestite character.

    I’ve always wanted to watch “Ed Wood” starring Johnny Depp, now I have to watch it after reading this! I had also seen this movie (Ed Wood) on a top 100 movies you must see before you die list.

  • Chad Stephens

    Also, I love the term: no-budget “classics”.

    • deadwrite

      Thanks, Chad. You have got to see “Ed Wood.” It is incredible. Also, “Plan Nine” is coming out in a colorized 3D version which I can’t’ wait to see. How’s your wife doing?

    • Arlee Bird

      Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is one of my all-time favorite movies. It is a brilliant depiction of optimism, no matter that it is based on mediocrity. To think that Plan 9 was shot is 5 days is pretty amazing. Perhaps Ed Wood came before his time. Can you imagine what he could have done with digital cameras and computers? Nice tribute.

      Tossing It Out

      • deadwrite

        I agree with you about “Ed Wood.” I think it’s one of the sweetest films ever. Especially the relationship between Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi. I wasn’t kidding when I said he was a success story. He did it all with enthusiasm. Thanks for the comments. ejs

  • Chad Stephens

    Good. 28 Days! One more Stephens on planet Earth!

  • The Dark’s First Mistress « DEADWRITE's DAILIES

    […] the film was released in 1959, the title had changed to Plan Nine From Outer Space from director Ed Wood – a film that gained a worldwide cult-following after it was voted “the worst film ever […]

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