(above image taken from Glen Or Glenda.)
The oeuvre of Edward D. Wood Jr has become the stuff of legend. Known as the godfather of bad movies, especially in the wake of Tim Burton’s biopic, the basics of Wood’s life, career, and idiosyncratic personality are reasonably well known. But that film only really focused on three of Wood’s movies - Glen Or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Wood’s career spanned much more than that. And now, thanks to the archival and restoration work done by the American Genre Film Archive and Something Weird Video, we can add another, long-lost feature to the back catalogue.
Making its public debut at Fantastic Fest after nearly fifty years in total obscurity (minus a reel of outtakes), Take It Out In Trade is historically significant not just because it’s a lost Ed Wood film, but because the film itself provides an insight into the Z-grade auteur unmatched by anything except Glen or Glenda. As outlined in a lengthy intro by AGFA’s Joe Ziemba and Something Weird’s Lisa Petrucci, it comes from the “decline” phase of Wood’s career glossed over by the Burton film, and represents the final project on which Wood was able to exert creative control.
Commercially speaking, Take It Out In Trade is a nudie film - a term used to describe films, mostly from the 1960s, that catered to a specific audience without being out-and-out pornographic. These films, made on the cheap, typically contained tons of naked people - Take It Out In Trade is no outlier there - but mostly in the context of dancing, cavorting, or engaging in non-explicit lovemaking. Curiously, coming in 1970 as it did, Wood’s film is actually kind of a throwback, as adult cinema trends at the time were moving more towards explicit pornography. And more importantly, it’s got a great deal more idiosyncratic personality than most nudies. Though made for a specific market, Ed Wood could not help but put his personal stamp on Take It Out In Trade.
Take It Out In Trade follows the world’s worst detective, Mac Macgregor, as he tries to track down missing person Shirley Riley for her worried, middle-class parents. I use the word “tries” loosely, as most of the film consists of Macgregor taking international holidays on the Rileys’ expense dime. Each trip follows the same procedure: Macgregor goes to the airport, flies out, looks at naked people wherever he goes, then comes home, checks in (at both his offices), and does the bare minimum of actual detective work before heading out again. These sequences are built out of stock footage, cutesy nudie footage, out-of-place reaction shots, and best of all, little setups meant to represent the various countries to which Macgregor travels. A man with a wine glass and a beret is, perplexingly, meant to represent both Rome and Greece; the sequence is full of groan-worthy jokes. It’s repetitive as hell, with Wood essentially putting the story on repeat in order to get the movie up to feature length, but that in itself - especially with a narration that treats each cycle as a unique adventure - is kind of adorable.
What’s really fascinating about Take It Out In Trade is the actual story of what happened to Shirley Riley - once the movie ends its obsession with overseas travel and private dick Macgregor starts actually doing his job. Turns out, Shirley ran away from home to become a prostitute, so Mac works his way through the Los Angeles underworld to find her. But this underworld is no seedy den of misery and sex slavery, as presented in many, many other sexploitation films of the time. Rather, it’s a network of people who enjoy their work and each other’s company, where everyone knows everyone else. There’s no exploitation of anyone here, and though that might be a rose-tinted view of the sex industry, it’s emblematic of Wood’s general sense of optimism about the world.
The characters Mac visits are surprisingly diverse, too. At one point, he visits a married trans couple, which is treated as no big deal - not even commented on in the slightest. At another, he visits a heroin addict, whose drug use similarly goes uncommented on - a curious addition, given Wood having witnessed the ravages of drug abuse amongst his friends. Wood himself appears in a fairly significant role as a transvestite, acting with fabulous verve in full drag - one of the rare glimpses we’ve ever received at a side of Wood that was extremely important to him. Wood’s is the best performance in the film, clearly having a blast - but then, pretty much everyone seems to be having a good time in this picture. For a 1970 film, it’s a staggeringly progressive view of sexual outcasts, treating its trans and cross-dressing characters matter-of-factly, and Wood brings his clan of misfits to the screen with a real sense of joy.
Speaking of sexuality: for a movie whose main selling point was sex, the sex content of Take It Out In Trade is minimal. Wood stated a distaste for explicit sex in cinema, and the nudity is treated in an almost innocent way, without even a hint of the sexual violence that characterised other sexploitation crime flicks of the era. Most of the nudity comes in the form of jarringly-edited shots of girls in their underwear sitting around on couches, or climbing up and down a fluffy red staircase, or in various states of dance or repose. Set to an anachronistic jazz score, it’s light, frothy, sexually uneventful, and - in one lengthy montage in particular - dull as pigshit. Cut twenty minutes out of this movie, and you’d have a really watchable, bona fide trash classic.
The climax of Take It Out In Trade goes in a direction few other nudies ever would. Most films about sex workers tended to finish with heavy moralising, with their fallen women either renouncing their sinful ways or suffering violence and death because of them. But Take It Out In Trade sees its prostitute characters band together, hogtying and interrogating Macgregor before realising he was just sent to make sure Shirley was okay. And upon returning to her parents, Shirley refuses to stay with them, announcing that she likes being a prostitute and wants to keep doing it. Again, maybe a rose-tinted view (and let’s face it; reality was never among Ed Wood’s interests), but a sex-positive one that flew in the face of its contemporaries. That the film cuts off with a bad joke (from which the film takes its title, and whose meaning can probably be inferred) is unfortunate, but it still doesn’t play as predatory. Everyone's friends in this movie.
As with all trash cinema, and especially decades-old trash cinema, it’s important to understand the context and history of the medium and of the filmmaker. Take It Out In Trade exhibits many of Ed Wood’s personal and creative trademarks: herky-jerky editing, sexually marginalised people, stock footage, terrible jokes, and a naive sense of optimism about the world. Don’t get me wrong: at 80 minutes, it’s far too long, and drags interminably in places. But there’s enough of Wood’s personality on display to make it a worthwhile curiosity, and its relentless positivity provides a fine antidote to the roughies and hardcore films of the era. Like a less-disgusting John Waters, or a less-violent Russ Meyer, Ed Wood made Take It Out In Trade his own. Even if it’s a trudge to get through at times, it’s an important piece of history of both trash movies and queer cinema. It’s 2017 and we have a new Ed Wood movie. That’s incredible.