An Unprecedented Perspective on Edgar G. Ulmer, by Michael H. Price
I had mentioned Edgar G. Ulmer, the Grey Eminence of Old Hollywood’s Poverty Row sector, in last week’s column, attempting to draw a thematic similarity between Ulmer’s most vivid example of low-budget film noir, 1945’s Detour, and a newly opening picture called Stuck, from the dramatist-turned-filmmaker Stuart Gordon. The cause-and-effect response here was an urge to take a fresh look at Detour. Right about that time, the mail brought a copy of Gary D. Rhodes’ new book, Edgar G. Ulmer: Detour on Poverty Row (Lexington Books; $85).
Gary Rhodes is a colleague of long standing, a filmmaker, educator and journalist whose work has intersected with mine on several fronts. Such Rhodes volumes as White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film and Horror at the Drive-In relate strategically to the Forgotten Horrors books that George E. Turner and I originated during the 1970s, and Gary and I have long acknowledged a shared interest in Ulmer (1904-1972) as a talent essential to any understanding of maverick moviemaking.
With Edgar G. Ulmer: Detour on Poverty Row, Rhodes takes that interest to an unprecedented extent. Editor Rhodes and a well-chosen crew of contributing writers consider Ulmer in light of not only his breakthrough film, 1934’s The Black Cat at big-time Universal Pictures, or such finery-on-a-budget exercises as Bluebeard (1944) and Detour (1945), but also Ulmer’s tangled path through such arenas as sex-hygiene exploitation films (1933’s Damaged Lives), Yiddish-language pieces (1937’s Green Fields), well-financed symphonic soap opera (1947’s Carnegie Hall), and ostensible schlock for the drive-in theatres (1957’s Daughter of Dr. Jekyll).
There emerge several distinct portraits of Ulmer. A perceptive chapter from Christopher Justice wonders aloud whether the writer-director might be considered “the godfather of sexploitation,” in view of the “new aesthetic terrain and … core prototypes” that can be observed in such films as Damaged Lives and Girls in Chains (1943) and The Naked Venus (1958).
Tony Williams regards Ulmer as an advancer, rather than a follower, of the “psychobiography” approach that Orson Wells had defined with Citizen Kane in 1941 – on the evidence of an often-maligned, oftener-ignored Ulmer picture called Ruthless (1948). (Ruthless stars Zachary Scott as an industrialist who might make Welles’ Charles Foster Kane look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by comparison.)
And Williams’ chapter, and Tony Tracy’s examination of Carnegie Hall, explore Ulmer’s ability as an outside-the-system talent to make the occasional big-budget independent feature that resembles the products of the major corporate studios.
It helps to remember that Ulmer had broken through as a major-studio artist, fallen almost immediately from grace. Call it bad timing, multiplied: Ulmer’s The Black Cat, an ambitious and morbidly comical star vehicle for Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, had the unconditional blessing of Universal Pictures until an adulterous affair came to light between Ulmer and the wife of a junior executive who also happened to be a nephew of the studio chief.
The in-house penalties would have been sufficient, but Universal’s Laemmle family preferred to brand Ulmer as persona non grata within the big-studio industry-at-large. Then, too, 1934 also was the year in which Hollywood’s institutionalized-censorship machinery kicked into overdrive – targeting the lucrative genre of horror in particular. Universal was only too happy to offer The Black Cat, with its undercurrents of necrophilia and demon-worshipping mania, as a sacrificial object. It is astonishing that the film emerged from the censors’ butcher-shop with any coherence at all; perhaps even more so that The Black Cat has attained acknowledgment over the long term as a classic of its kind.
The Austro-Hungarian Ulmer remained drawn toward horror films over the balance of a small-studio career, though just as readily identified with crime melodramas, ethnic-interest pictures, psychological ordeals and – essentially, any productive assignment that might pay the rent and keep his name on the screen.
Many enthusiasts might find it absurd to regard Ulmer’s work at Producers Releasing Corp., or PRC Pictures, with any recognition of artistry, but the innate shabbiness of PRC seems to have challenged Ulmer to seek some higher level. Bluebeard, which reconnected Ulmer with a story that he might once have developed at Universal if not for his career-crippling indiscretion, emerged at PRC as a delicate study of a deteriorating mind, affording John Carradine a role that the actor long counted among his few favorites. Detour, also from PRC, succeeds as a tale of blind-alley entrapment more because of its technical limitations than in spite of them.
One of the more insightful strokes of Gary Rhodes’ book is its examination of Daughter of Dr. Jekyll – a title that seems more readily to invite general derision. Essayist Robert Singer finds deeper currents here, however, to the extent of some vivid parallels between Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (a film whose bankrollers expected nothing more than grist for the grindhouses and drive-ins) and a more generally respected Ulmer title, from PRC in 1945, called Strange Illusion. Writes Singer: “Strange Illusion reveals a preoccupation to which Ulmer will return some 10 years later [with Daughter of Dr. Jekyll], the haunted adult-child, who bears the responsibility of the family name and its historical implications.” Smart leverage, there, for a smart discussion.
Edgar Ulmer remains a challenging figure, almost too versatile and sometimes too undiscriminating a talent for the good of his reputation. In recent years, the Turner Classic Movies cable network has taken pains to showcase Ulmer in a more enlightening perspective, devoting festival-like blocks of programming to a range of titles from various of the Yiddish entries, to the big-time false start of The Black Cat, to the unlikely occasional finery of the PRC assignments and the much later, noticeably less polished, drive-in attractions. Rhodes’ book brings the perspective into sharper detail yet, establishing Ulmer as a compleat filmmaker and perhaps the most influential forebear of the new century’s independent-cinema movement.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price is responsible for the Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books, from Baltimore’s Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s arts-scene commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com, and in the Times Leader of Wilkes–Barre, Pa.