The Shittiest Films Ever MadeNo. 13: Jail BaitOf all the shitty directors of shitty films, Edward D. Wood Jr. is the most beloved by far. The incomprehensible schlock he produced in the 1950s, starting in 1953 with Glen or Glenda and climaxing in 1959 with the release of Plan 9 From Outer Space, virtually defines the genre of so-bad-they’re-good cult classics. But I wonder how many who profess to be fans of Ed Wood have actually sat through one of his films from beginning to end.
Wood made Jail Bait in 1954, after Glen or Glenda and two years before Bride of the Monster. It has no transvestites, no giant octopus, no hubcap flying saucers and no Tor Johnson or Bela Lugosi. It has a few typically Wood-ian eccentricities, but for the most part it’s a flat, brutally boring police procedural. Imagine an overlong episode of the original Dragnet series, produced for no money, featuring a cast of stiffs. By the time it’s over, you’re begging for a Styrofoam tombstone, a limp, tentative striptease — anything.
It’s an Ed Wood movie without any of the stuff that makes us remember Ed Wood movies, which is probably why it’s the least-remembered of all the films he directed. Still, take away the shitty special effects and the goofy attempts at horror and sci-fi, and Plan 9 or Bride of the Monster are no different than this. All of Wood’s movies feature interminable scenes of actors drably reciting awful, repetitive dialogue, and they’re all packed with clumsy moralizing. It’s just that most of those others have enough shots of Tor Johnson getting stuck in doorways or the director prancing around in an angora sweater to make sitting through the dull bits worth it.
Jail Bait is all dull bits. Despite its title, the movie’s not about some under-18 piece of ass running around making trouble for the hapless men in her life. Wood would come close to his own demented version of Lolita a few years later with The Violent Years, but not here. The jail bait alluded to in the title is an unregistered gun carried by poor dope Don Gregor. Don is the son of a well known plastic surgeon, and for whatever reason he’s fallen in lately with infamous gangster Vic Brady. Don and Brady rob a theater of its payroll, and Don murders a night-watchman in the process. Don goes to his father for help and promises to turn himself in, but Brady gets to him first and shuts him up — I mean for good. Brady then contacts Dr. Gregor, tells him his son is still alive and convinces him to perform a little plastic surgery in exchange for Don.
So Dr. Gregor and his daughter meet with Brady. While snooping around Brady’s apartment, Gregor discovers his son’s corpse stashed in the pantry. Gregor goes ahead with the plastic surgery, giving Brady the new face he requested in order to elude the police. Later, when Brady returns to Gregor to remove his bandages, the police arrive to arrest him, and it’s revealed that Gregor has given Brady the face of his dead son. Vic Brady is arrested for the murder of the night-watchman and dragged away to face justice.
What did Dr. Gregor do with the corpse of his real son? How long did it take the cops to fingerprint the man the arrested and realize that he wasn’t the man Dr. Gregor said he was? Ah, but these questions are left to linger. So is the question of how Dr. Gregor was able to radically alter Brady’s facial features, leaving him a dead-ringer for Don, using only an ether-soaked cloth, a knife, and a pan of water. And did I mention this operation was performed on Brady’s motherfucking couch? ‘Cause it was. When Adventures of Superman used this plot for an episode, it was a stretch.
But as I said, there are a few elements familiar to fans of Wood’s other work. The cast is taken from what would eventually become his stock company of players. Ed’s then-girlfriend Dolores Fuller gets the female lead, just as she did in Glen or Glenda. Also returning is Timothy Farrell as Vic Brady (he was the psychiatrist in Glenda), and Lyle Talbot as a police inspector, pretty much reprising his role from Glenda. There’s also a young, noticeably less-buff Steve Reeves, debuting here as a cop a few years before he became a sort-of star playing a bearded, well-oiled Hercules.
There’s also a totally gratuitous scene of a minstrel show in the nightclub Don and Brady are about to rob, complete with a blackface-sporting actor playing a stereotypical wide-eyed coon. I wasn’t prepared for it, and it was one of the most stunningly offensive things I’ve ever seen in a film. It had nothing to do with the story. It’s as if Ed screened the film for an test audience and got back “needs more racist vaudeville” on one of those little feedback cards. I’d expect something like this from D.W. Griffith, but from Ed Wood? Frankly, I’m disappointed.
Dr. Gregor is portrayed by an actor named Herbert Rawlinson, an English actor whose film career began in 1911. Like many silent stars, he struggled after the advent of sound. Jail Bait was his final movie — he died the day after filming his scenes. His role was to have gone to Bela Lugosi, but Lugosi had to drop out due to an illness. It’s a shame, too; maybe Rawlinson could have died with a bit more dignity, and Lugosi — reliable camp gold at that point in his career — could have lifted Jail Bait up to the ridiculously sublime of Wood’s other work. As it is, it’s the dreariest, dumbest, least fun, worst film the world’s worst director ever made.