Famous Monsters of Birdland
The previous century was marked by the transformation of horror of the mind and soul to horror of the body and spirit, from childish night fears of ghosts and ghouls to real-life destruction and terror and an abstraction of horror into a genre of culture meant to turn our deepest dreads into in light entertainment. So it was that the Famous Monsters of Filmland — Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Gill Man, the Mummy, and their various allies and enablers — were born. But a curious combination of studio politics and economic uncertainty robbed us of seeing one of the greatest terrors of the silver screen ever come to life. This, then, presented by its immortal creator, gaffer and would-be scriptwriter Gavin “Mushy” Blare, is the story of the Warbler Garbler.
I first developed the idea for the Warbler Garbler when I was employed as a second unit gaffer on Universal’s Affadavit of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, back in 1958. I had just turned twenty, and despite a ravenous addiction to horse tranquilizers and a bad case of lumbar hyperlordosis, my career was going great. I noticed when we were filming that there was the Gill Man, who represented water; the Frankenstein Man, who represented earth; the Mummy Man, who was fire probably — but there was no famous monster who was all about the air! None of them could even fly, except for Draculas, and I didn’t like Draculas. So this is when I came up with the Warbler Garbler.
The Warbler Garbler was supposed to be a giant terrifying bird, originally from a branch over a pool of brackish water in a swamp in Transylvania, who lured people to their doom. He would be played by Bela Lugosi. This turned out to be a bit of a problem, as Lugosi had died several years prior, only I hadn’t heard about it because my newspaper subscription had run out in 1955 due to a dispute with the Sewer Department. I was forced to recast quickly, and this was a big issue, because my wife Marjorique had designed the costume — which was basically a set of huge, leather-like wings and an oversized papier-mâche bird head — specifically for Lugosi’s cranial dimensions and arm span. The only person we could find to match those specifications was my dry cleaner, Jing Leng Quek, and he had only appeared in six films at the time.
The next roadblock we encountered was a lot of reluctance from the studios. There was a minor recession at the time, and my original budget request was fairly robust, because I really wanted to become a millionaire. I remember talking to Howard Yinzelman, a line producer at Paramount, and he keeps asking, over and over, “I don’t get it! Can you explain it to me one more time?” I mean, it’s not that complicated, Howard. It’s a giant mutated bird, and it makes a sound like a Tickell’s leaf warbler, only slightly garbled, plus Tickell’s leaf warblers aren’t native to the Carpathians, so naturally ornithologists and bird-watchers get really curious as to what’s going on and they head into the swamps to investigate, and it lures them into a huge spider web because one of its mutations is that it can make huge spider webs, and then it eats them. It’s right in the name! How much clearer could it be? Now, Frank Gunzling at MGM, he got it right away, but he wouldn’t get behind it either, because he thought it was unrealistic that anyone would care enough about ornithologists to investigate if they all started disappearing, which is a fair point. But finally, we got some funding from Calvino Spitelli, a producer from Queens who had been putting on live stage shows about heroin trafficking in outdoor experimental theater. He agreed to half my asking price and full use of the female lead’s trailer to store ‘stuff’ in.
Filming turned out to be a real nightmare. In order to get a sense of realism, I wanted to film in Transylvania, but there were all kinds of problems with that; Romania was still a Soviet-bloc country at the time, and also it was expensive to get over there and I still wanted to keep most of the money for myself. My assistant director, Mel, who I discovered in a diner serving me a cup of coffee, suggested we try Pennsylvania, but I declined that on the mistaken belief that it, too, was a Soviet-bloc country. We ended up filming it in a series of laundromats on the west end of Ventura County. One of the biggest problems was that I had written at least three scenes where people are eaten alive by angry warblers, even though that didn’t have anything to do with the main story, because I thought it would be a cool idea. It turns out, though, that actual warblers don’t like to hang around inside laundromats or attack people. So we had to smear the cast’s skin and clothing with suet and seeds, which got them interested, but also made them really hard to extract. And of course these were mostly Townsend’s warblers, and the process of putting little tags on them that said “ACTUALLY AN EASTERN BONELLI’S WARBLER” was very time-consuming and expensive.
Eventually, the whole project fell apart. We put way too much in the warbler budget given that the movie wasn’t really about warblers; our leading man, Chet Cockswell, was arrested on a morals charge for propositioning a mailbox that had an FBI agent inside; and I was sued by a Latvian dentist who claimed I had stolen the idea from a short story he had failed to have published 27 years before. The judge dismissed the case as frivolous given that, according to him, the ideas were “similar, but equally ridiculous”, but it ate up a lot of time and legal fees. To this day, whenever I pass a Frankenstein poster in a movie shop, or a werewolf at a gas station, or a hunchback giveaway at a local church raffle, I can’t help but wonder what might have been.