Friday, 5 February 2016

JAIL BAIT (1954): THE BEST "WORST FILM NOIR EVER MADE"




“Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity.”  Vladimir Nabokov


Once upon a time, Friday night just wasn’t Friday night on college campuses without a screening of one or both of Ed Wood’s famously bad Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956) or Glen or Glenda (1953), a demented cult classic that still baffles to this day. The latter is notable for its groundbreaking, if weirdly unhinged portrayal of LGBT issues (Wood himself was an enthusiastic cross-dresser, with a particular fondness for angora).  

Wood’s story is well-known (if not entirely understood), mostly thanks to Plan 9’s epic exposure on late night television beginning in 1961, followed by its citing as ‘The Worst Film Ever Made’ in Michael Medved’s best-selling book The Golden Turkey Awards (1980). Wood along the way had become an object of cult fascination himself, an obsession fed further with the release of Tim Burton’s small masterpiece, Ed Wood (1994), one of The Best Films Ever Made Not to Receive an Oscar Nomination.  




In 1947 Wood came to Hollywood and began writing scripts and directing commercials and TV pilots along with several micro-budget westerns.  Glenda or Glenda was Wood’s first feature and it was probably a miracle that he ever got to direct another one.  However, two years after Glen or Glenda, Wood teamed up with Alex Gordon, a writer from the UK and together they set to work on a grungy little crime drama called Jail Bait

The title was provocative and meant to be, even though the film itself had nothing to do with under-aged girls. Gordon, who would go on to co-found American International Pictures, provided Jail Bait a semi-coherent story line and narrative flow, something to which few other Ed Wood films can lay claim. For that reason alone, it stands as one of the least woeful movies the director ever made. 


The jail bait in question is a gun and Jail Bait is the story of how a gun can get a person into a lot of trouble.  As the film opens, Don Gregor (Clancy Moore), the wayward son of a world-famous plastic surgeon is being bailed out of jail by his sister, Marilyn (Dolores Fuller), for possession of an unregistered firearm. Keeping an eye out are the two cops in charge of the case, played by Lyle Talbot and a pre-Hercules Steve Reeves in his first shot at stardom.  The pair knows that Don has fallen in with a low-rent gangster, Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell) and that they’ve pulled off a couple of small time heists together. Otherwise, the cops haven’t been able to nab them on anything more than weapons possession. 
  
When Don gets home, he grabs another gun and goes out to meet Vic. Brady and Don go off to rob a movie theater but not before the action cuts to a striptease show (in some expurgated versions of the film, it’s a blackface minstrel show), something that has absolutely nothing to with anything, a hallmark of most Ed Wood productions.  Later the robbery goes awry when Don panics and kills a security guard and a woman is shot. Things pretty much go to hell after that. To protect himself, Vic kills Don and then blackmails Don’s father into giving him a new face. However, before the operation, the good doctor discovers Don’s body at Vic’s apartment (Vic already had been muttering, “I don’t like dead men cluttering up my place.”) Overcome with anger, Gregor Sr. makes plans to take his revenge. 

Doctor Gregor is played by Herbert Rawlinson, a former silent era leading man who scratched out a living afterwards by taking any roles he could get, a lot of them uncredited.  It’s hard to say who gives the worst performance in Jail Bait but the winner (loser?) might as well be Rawlinson, who suffers the lion’s share of bad dialog in a film which revels in it. As he says after a hard day at the office, “You know, I had to perform a very difficult operation this morning…and it was very strenuous and complicated. Plastic surgery seems to me at times to be very, very, complicated.”  Or when he allows Don to escape from the police: “Out the back door and into the alley! The Doctors of the Night will hide and protect you!” And, "This afternoon we had a long telephone conversation earlier in the day”. Maybe it was just as well that Rawlinson died the night after shooting his last scene in the movie.

But then ripe dialog is all to be expected in an Ed Wood movie. That and sets and décor so impoverished and tacky that one of the biggest laughs comes when Fuller calls Brady a ‘cheap crook’, only to have his girlfriend, Loretta (Theodora Thurman exclaim, “Cheap? Just look at the place! Vic is anything but cheap!”  
     
However, given that the budget on the film was only $21,000 for a 4-day shoot, Wood did well by it and there’s arguably something more there than might meet the uncommitted eye. Jail Bait is the closest Wood ever came to making a legitimate movie and entering the Hollywood mainstream. Though he was out of his depth as a director, especially with actors, the movie manages to be far more enjoyable than many run-of-the-mill crime dramas and B noirs of the period that are far less suspenseful. Jail Bait’s wacko plot and daft dialog are all just part of the movie’s aberrant charm. It’s so consumed with its own internal logic and so thickly riddled with clichés that they almost stop being clichés and the movie takes on a strange, otherworldly, intoxicating sense of its own (or almost of its own. Always looking to cut corners, Wood used the same dream-like flamenco-guitar score as he did in Mesa of Lost Women, 1953).  

A good chunk of Jail Bait’s perverse allure can be credited to Timothy Farrell, an actor with mustachioed good looks, an authoritative baritone and a smarmy, suspect manner. Farrell actually was purpose-built for film noir and played the lead in half a dozen crime titles involving Wood. The problem for Farrell was that he wasn’t that much of an actor and Wood was just about the only one who would hire him. But no matter how chintzy the production, incongruous the story, or cheap the patter, Farrell managed at least to give a conscientious performance, often at sizeable odds with material. Perhaps he just had ambitions at sizeable odds with reality. 



Farrell, born Timothy Sperl, grew up in Los Angeles and after serving in the Army Air Corps in WWII, got a job as a bailiff with the Los Angeles Marshal’s Office. Around the same time he started getting bit parts in low-rent B titles. The first was Test Tube Babies (1948) in which Farrell played a sympathetic doctor who counsels a young couple that there’s no shame or scandal in test tube fertilization and artificial insemination. Of course the information is sandwiched between gratuitous nudity, wild parties, a striptease and a cat fight.

Farrell’s bedside manner won him a similar part in Hometown Girl (1949) another ‘sex hygiene’ film that dealt with unwed motherhood. Both films had been produced by schlockmeister George Weiss who then cast Farrell as a scumbag gymnasium owner and drug pusher in a trio of crude quickies, The Devil’s Sleep (1949), Racket Girls (1951), and Dance Hall Racket (1953). The first of them was mostly an excuse to showcase endless lengths of female-wrestling and cat-fighting footage, the last a cheesy curio written by and co-starring stand-up social satirist and fall-down substance abuser Lenny Bruce who died of a morphine overdose at age 40.  



Shortly after, Farrell appeared in another seedy Weiss-produced title Paris after Midnight (1951) which boasted famous stripper, Tempest Storm. During production, Farrell along with everyone else on the set was busted in a highly-publicized vice-raid, never a good thing to happen to a sworn peace officer.

However, none of the shit seemed to stick and in 1954 life met art when his legal and theatrical careers dove-tailed in the George Cukor film, A Star is Born in which he was cast as a an officer of the court. It happened again when Farrell secured a regular part as court bailiff in a late ‘50’s television series, Accused, starring among others Robert Culp and Pamela Mason.  
    
Farrell’s screen career ended in 1957. Meantime, he’d managed to hold on to his job in the Los Angeles County Marshall’s Office and rose through the ranks and was appointed County Marshall in 1975. However, he was fired four years later following conviction on corruption charges. 

Otherwise, the legacy of Ed Wood lives on with events such as the University of Southern California’s annual ‘Ed Wood Film Festival’ at which students are charged with writing, filming, and editing an Ed Wood-esque short film based on a predetermined theme. His movies were spoofed on the much-loved Mystery Theater 3000 and several remade as pornographic features. Additionally, many of his bizarre transvestite-themed sex novels have been republished.

Wood also established a theme with Jail Bait that he would return to several times: that lenient, weak-willed parenting can lead to disaster. This was hinted in Glen or Glenda, then given full-throat in Jail Bait and The Violent Years (1956), a juvenile delinquency yarn in which a rich and spoiled girl with indulgent parents forms a vicious girl gang with a penchant for robbing gas stations. Parents, please be warned! This could happen to you! 




Gary Deane

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