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Edgar G. Ulmer

King of the B’s

It’s 1945. A down-on-his-luck piano player quits his job at the “Break o’ Dawn Club” in New York and heads for Los Angeles to see his girl, using his thumb for transportation. Somewhere en route he gets into the wrong car. By the end of the film he’s an outcast, wanted by the police for a bizarre double murder, cut off from the woman he loves and condemned to wander like the Flying Dutchman along the back roads of America, where every juke-box in every hash-house is playing “their song.”

That’s the plot of Detour, which some people consider the best B-movie of all time. It was made in six days for a little company called PRC (Producers’ Releasing Corporation) just before the end of the war, and it is the testament of an émigré director named Edgar G. Ulmer, one of the legends of film history.

Historians have traditionally seen Ulmer as a man who took the wrong turn, and Ulmer, who identified closely with the hero of Detour, would probably agree with them. The metaphor seems sadly appropriate to a career that began with Murnau and Reinhardt and ended—almost—with The Doris Day Show, after passing through a series of films with Golden Turkey titles like Girls in Chains and The Man from Planet X, and films with stranger titles still, like Moon Over Harlem, Amerikaner Schadchen and Zaporozhets zu Dunayem.

Yet there is an element of myopia in this view. His critics have largely focused on the films he made in Hollywood, often in idiotic genres, and excluded his European work and particularly the films of his “ethnic period” in the Thirties, when Ulmer was working like an independent filmmaker on the European model.

Ulmer was born in Ulmitz, Czechoslovakia, sometime around the turn of the century, to Sigfried Ulmer, a Jewish wine merchant active in socialist politics, and a headstrong, passionate Viennese coquette named Henrietta Edels. Shortly afterward the family moved to Vienna, where Ulmer suffered the tortures of a Jesuit education. Rendered homeless by the First World War, he was taken in by the family of an old schoolmate, Joseph Schildkraut, through whom he became acquainted with the theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt.

Though he wanted to be an actor or a musician, Ulmer started off under Reinhardt designing and building sets, then did production design on films at UFA, where he worked with Fritz Lang and became one of F. W. Murnau’s closet collaborators. In the Twenties he emigrated to America and went to work for Carl Laemmle at Universal, building sets and models and assisting William Wyler on a number of silent two-reel westerns. Wyler tells an anecdote in Axel Madsen’s biography that is as startlingly apropos, for the man who would someday make Detour, as the one about Hitchcock and the village constable. Apparently Ulmer was the victim of an elaborate on-set prank: An argument was staged, the lights went out, a gun was fired. “When the lights came on again,” Wyler recalled, “one of the fellows was lying in his blood and Edgar stood over him, dumbfounded, with a gun in his hand. As he stood there watching his ‘victim’ in horror, a studio sheriff, who was in on it, put a hand on his shoulder, telling him he was under arrest for murder.”

Ulmer was frequently loaned to other studios during his stint at Universal; this permitted him to collaborate again with Murnau on all his American films, and also to return occasionally to Germany to work at UFA. During one of these trips he made the pseudo-documentary People on Sunday (1929) with Robert Siodmak co-directing, Billy Wilder scripting, and an uncredited Fred Zinnemann pushing the camera in a baby carriage.

In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in 1967 and a work biography he dictated from memory in 1971, Ulmer recalled working in one capacity or another on films by Murnau, Lang, Lubitsch, Stiller, Pabst, Leni, Wegener, Curtiz, Griffith, Vidor, von Stroheim, Walsh, de Mille, Mamoulian, Maurice Tourneur, Clarence Brown, Chaplin, Borzage, and Eisenstein (on Que Viva Mexico). Even allowing for faulty recollection,

it is a remarkable list. Reinhardt, Murnau, and Lang alone are more influences than most young filmmakers could comfortably digest, and it is no wonder that Ulmer’s first solo effort, an all-star musical called Mr. Broadway (1933) produced by a New York film lab, came out in his own words “a nightmare, a mixture of all kinds of styles.”

With his first two features, made independently and far from Hollywood, Ulmer had found his genres, melodrama and the musical, spiced by a penchant for eccentric projects. His next was Damaged Lives (1933), a limpid melodrama about syphilis produced by Harry Cohn’s luckless brother Nat and filmed in eight days at Hollywood General Studios, in which a young, upper-class couple afflicted by a pre-marital lapse on the husband’s part are treated by the head of a sinister clinic to an illustrated lecture frankly reminiscent of the “Hotel des Folies Dramatiques” sequence in Blood of a Poet: Behind a series of numbered doors are displayed crippled, innocent victims of the disease, frozen into grotesque postures or locked into infernal patterns of mechanical repetition. As in Cocteau, or a bad documentary, these shots are sutured in with no attempt at spatial credibility, so that it is impossible to tell which of them, if any, is staged and which, if any, is real.

The same format—Anglo-Saxons honeymooning in the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari—is used in The Black Cat (1934). Made at Universal under the benign sponsorship of Carl “Junior” Laemmle, this Lugosi-Karloff horror classic was Ulmer’s first—and last—picture for a major studio, but far from being a youthful work, it is a grand summing up of the decade of cinema that preceded it. Ulmer got the idea for The Black Cat from a grisly anecdote told to him by Gustav Meyrinck, the author of the novel on which Paul Wegener’s The Golem was based, and the warlock and master builder played by Karloff is named after Hans Polzeig, the great German architect who designed the revolutionary sets for The Golem, the first picture Ulmer worked on, as a “silhouette cutter.” Even in the brief prologue, memories of a certain tradition come thick and fast: the short-lived character of the cab driver (an emaciated double of Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh) drives Lugosi and his young English friends to their unexpected rendezvous at Polzeig’s castle in a cab with side-flaps instead of doors, recalling the phantom coach in Nosferatu.

At the same time the myths of Expressionism are made new by being married to the private mythology of Poe, with Karloff playing the doomed artist figure—a fusion of American and European strains of Romantic extremism that produced the only cinematic treatment of Poe before Fellini’s Toby Dammit that is not a travesty of its source. Ulmer was faithful to the letter of Poe, to his symbols, which he manipulates with such sensitivity that Marie Bonaparte’s analysis of the Tales could serve as a commentary on the film as well: Lugosi’s cat phobia, the subterranean crypt, the upright posture of the embalmed women, even the uncanny whiteness of the castle walls à la Roderick Usher’s painting of a vault the walls of which emit “an inappropriate and ghastly splendor,” and the especially morbid connotations of which are unraveled at the end of Bonaparte’s reading of The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym.

While making The Black Cat Ulmer met his wife-to-be apprenticing on the picture as a script supervisor, there to preserve spatial and temporal continuity during shooting. Ironically, Shirley Ulmer (whose new book, The Role of the Script Supervisor, will be lavishly illustrated with stills from Ulmer’s films) was to perfect her craft under the tutelage of a director with a passion for heterogeneity, who would frequently change the lighting or the background of a shot over her protests and in flagrant violation of all the laws of screen continuity on the pretext that it was “right for the feeling” or that “no one notices these things anyway.” It was a collaboration that lasted 40 years, during which Shirley worked on many scripts, although she received writing credit only on films made between 1934 and 1940.

The marriage occurred during a seminal period for Ulmer, almost at the moment when his career as far as Hollywood was concerned came to an end, and the legend began. Shirley had been briefly married to Laemmle’s nephew Max Alexander, and Ulmer’s good fortune in winning her away so outraged “Uncle Carl” that he forgot his soft spot for Germans: Ulmer is one of the rare examples in Hollywood history of someone who was blackballed not for politics, but for love. The newlyweds made one more picture before leaving Hollywood, a Western titled Thunder Over Texas (1934) produced, oddly enough, by Max Alexander, directed by Ulmer under the pseudonym John Warner, and starring Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, the amiable behemoth who played the villainous Mac in Murnau’s City Girl.

Few filmmakers have had less to work with than “John Warner” on the B-Western beat, but the mood of the picture is light. Shirley drew heavily on Little Miss Marker for the scenes between Williams and the little girl he adopts, which are infused with an odd sexuality. A trio of Yiddish comedians implausibly cast as Big Boy’s sidekicks do imaginary radio broadcasts featuring their impressions of stars of the periods; and stray expressionist conceits dart out like moonbeams from sequences of incredible platitude and technical impoverishment: a dialogue scene displaced onto shadows on a wall, a fistfight intercut with vertiginous shots of trees à la Sundays and Cybele, a cascade of faceless riding shots that builds rhythmically until the horses seem to be plunging straight down the side of a cliff.

With the studios closed to them, the Ulmers moved to New York during the Depression. Shirley modelled hats, and Ulmer sporadically worked as a cameraman for Pathe Newsreel. In 1936 producer William Steiner hired them to make a thriller under Canada’s “quota quicky” system, starring Ruth Roland, the Queen of the Serials (which was recently restored by D. John Turner of Canada’s National Film, TV and Sound Archives from a negative on deposit with the AFI). Like Thunder Over Texas, the title Ulmer gave the film, From Nine to Nine, is a joke about his high-culture roots. A psychological thriller for which he had done some preliminary model work, it would have been Murnau’s last German film if William Fox had not called him to America prematurely to start work on Sunrise.

Ulmer had a free hand to experiment with the sets on From Nine to Nine, which were built with ceilings for the sake of realism, and he was able to use the conventions of the fake-English detective story to paint a subtly corrosive portrait of Canadian society. But the main interest of the film is historical. For the first time Ulmer adapted the formal principles of The Black Cat to the draconian conditions under which he would be working for the next few years: long takes played mostly in long-shot and intercut with carefully lit close-ups, pans substituting for the sinuous camera movements he always favored, and a musical structure based on repetition and variation which wrests stylistic advantages from a restricted number of set-ups. From Nine to Nine was shot in eight days during a terrible Montreal winter, and the Ulmers were paid so little that an attack of appendicitis which felled Shirley on the eighth day wiped out their earnings, sending them back to New York as poor as when they left it.

Salvation came in the form of a “crazy Ukrainian” Ulmer met while shooting a newsreel at Coney Island. Vasile Avramenko, whose ballet troupe and dancing schools had popularized Ukrainian folk-dancing in the U.S. and Canada, now wanted to make the first Ukrainian musical film, and Ulmer, for a $50 advance, was hire to direct. Financed by a crude early form of pre-sales, Natalka Poltavka (1937), shot for $18,000 in a Ukrainian village constructed overnight in the backwoods of New Jersey, was a huge success, making possible a more ambitious Ulmer-Avramenko collaboration, Zaporozhets zu Dunayem (Cossacks in Exile, 1938).

Even more important, Avramenko had shown Ulmer, who was an inventive businessman, the way to a new career. Using Avramenko’s pre-sale technique, he produced four films in the next three years for the booming Yiddish-language market, all of which have now been restored by the American Jewish Historical Society, and one all-Black feature, Moon Over Harlem (1939). He also made a series of short fiction films for the National Tuberculosis Association (now the American Lung Association), including three miniature versions of Damaged Lives with cast of Blacks, Mexicans, and Navajo Indians. Ulmer told Bogdanovich that during this period that documentarian Pare Lorentz dubbed him “the director of the minorities”; an ad in one of the trades simply read: “Edgar G. Ulmer, Director: 723 Seventh Avenue.”

Natalka Poltavka, the film that started it all, is lost, but Cossacks in Exile, recently rediscovered by the tireless D. John Turner, is an interesting experiment. Although it was made in the middle of Ulmer’s Yiddish cycle, it is very different from Yankel dem Schmidt (The Singing Blacksmith), which was shot during the same summer of 1938 and on the same Jersey locations. Whereas Blacksmith is like a low-budget Hollywood musical, Cossacks, which is based on a Mozart operetta from the turn of the century, was an opportunity for Ulmer the frustrated musician to do filmed opera in natural settings. When the hero sings an aria in the middle of an open field, reverse shots of earth and sky and trees form a visual accompaniment. The first act, climaxing in the burning of a Cossack village by the soldiers of Catherine the Great, is punctuated with shots of galloping horsemen straight out of Thunder Over Texas, which are replaced in the second act by boats silhouetted against glittering expanses of water (reminiscent of the funeral sequence in Potemkin), symbolizing the melancholy sweetness of the Zaporogian Cossack’s exile “over the Danube” in Turkey.

In his ethnic films, Ulmer put his art at the service of oppressed minorities, so that each film is first of all a collective statement, and a highly political one. Moon Over Harlem, unlike most Black B films, includes Whites in its world-view: White gangsters (seen in Langian back-of-the-head shots) telephone orders to their lackeys in Harlem, who are always discovered sitting fecklessly around the same table in the local saloon. The film ends with the hero proclaiming that “Harlem is a great town, but it needs a leader.” At the end of Blacksmith, when the wayward hero has been saved by the love of a good woman, he remarks improbably that “Workers create the wealth of the world.” (This habit of shoehorning a Marxist moral into the last shot continued as late as Ruthless [1948], with its famous last line: “He wasn’t a man, he was a way of life.”)

More subtly, the first of the Yiddish films, Griene Felder (Green Fields, 1937), which was co-billed during its New York release with a documentary called China Strikes Back, adds to Peretz Hershbein’s charming playa discussion of “the union of Labor and Torah,” which was not lost on the reviewer for the World-Telegram, who observed that the marriage of the scholar Levi-Iyzchok and the peasant girl Tzineh is “symbolic of the new Jew that is being born amid the stern realities of Europe.” But in Green Fields the filmmaker has also portrayed his own relation to the collectivity in the character of the unworldly scholar who is adopted by an uncultured community of rural Jews and becomes the prize fought over by two peasant families competing for the honor of housing and feeding him. (Ulmer told Bogdanovich that while he was making Green Fields a fight broke out among New York’s three Yiddish-language newspapers over which paper was going to sponsor him.) The utopian dream of Green Fields is finally an expression of Ulmer’s own feelings of liberation: far from the haunted soundstages of Bavaria and Hollywood, he created a lyrical fusion of landscape and theatrical artifice where the long takes necessitated by an $8,000 budget evoke an invisible presence brooding over the natural world.

If Green Fields is Ulmer’s song of innocence, then Fishke der Krumer (The Light Ahead, 1938) is his song of experience, and the village of Glubsk is the dark side of the happy peasant community in the earlier film. Beset by perpetual night, pieced together out of sparse, sharp-angled Expressionist sets, Glubsk is a sinkhole of superstition, cruelty, and poor sanitation. The evening idyll around the dinner table from Green Fields is repeated, but this time the camera lingers ominously on the collective pot of slimy noodles into which everyone is indiscriminately dipping his spoon. When a group of young girls in white shifts go for a swim in the river, we know that the water is full of vermin, and even before the inevitable outbreak of cholera, their innocent act is reproved as a sacrilege by the wife of the shamus whose black-garbed figure looming up in the landscape behind them is like a harbinger of the plague. In fact, religion is in league with the plague: Reb Mendele, the humane bookseller who advocates cleaning up the river and building a hospital, is upbraided for opposing the will of God, and the corrupt city fathers use religion as a club to enforce the backward, grim, unsanitary status quo.

This systematic inversion of motifs from the earlier film in part reflects Ulmer’s growing involvement with New York’s Jewish community, which was torn by class conflicts and dissension over the deepening crisis in America and Europe. But Glubsk (“Foolstown”) also represents a spiritual condition, a particular state of the human imagination. In Green Fields the union of Tzineh and Levi-Iyzchok symbolized the marriage of the imagination and the forms of nature; here the imagination, too closely tied to nature, has lost all capacity for vision and sunk to the level of animal existence, engendering the mechanical round of work and ritual that is the horizon of life in any traditional culture. On the allegorical level, the lame Fishke (David Opatoshu) represents that crippled imagination. His marriage—performed in a graveyard as a Saturnalian rite to ward off the plague—is a parody of the marriage at the end of Green Fields, and his bride Hodele—Nature—is literally bereft of vision, although Reb Mendele holds out the promise that her blindness can be cured by the simple act of leaving Glubsk.

After The Light Ahead, the religion of nature and the revolutionary hopes it had nurtured gave way to studies of the ills of modern urban life in 1939’s Moon Over Harlem and Amerikaner Schadchen (American Matchmaker), which anticipate the films Ulmer would make in the Forties when an accountant named Leon Fromkess invited him back to Hollywood to produce and direct for PRC.

The growing tragic element in Ulmer’s vision is also visible in the little films he did for the NTA despite the rationalistic premise of the series, which was to educate ethnics, working people, and children about the causes and cures of tuberculosis. Both Let My People Live (1938), a lovely all-Black film shot in Alabama, with a musical accompaniment by the Tuskegee Institute Choir, and Cloud in the Sky (1939), made in San Antonio with a cast of Mexican-Americans, portray religion and science, the

old and the new, as allies. While characters are tempted to rely on folk medicines or the consolations of prayer, it is always a priest or minister who recommends that they have a skin-test. But Another to Conquer (1940), the last of the series, filmed with non-professionals on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, is a tragedy like The Light Ahead, in which Slow Talker, the revered grandfather who tells everyone to avoid the white man’s medicine and stick to the old warrior ways, learns that he is the carrier of the “invisible worm” that has decimated his family. Goodbye, Mr. Germ (1939) supplies a sardonic coda with a germ named Tee Bee bragging to the camera about traveling in a spoon of oatmeal that Aunt Mathilda thoughtlessly fed to “little Edgar” after tasting it herself. That unfortunate child is not the only Ulmer hero in this complex little film: the cartoon sequences inside the human body, designed by Ulmer and animated by H.L. Roberts, Jr., strikingly anticipate the weird organic forms that imprison the characters in The Cavern. Tee Bee and his “tribe,” as they are called, are really the most ancient “traditional culture” that Ulmer filmed during his ethnic period, and not the only one threatened with extinction at the hands of science and reason.

Two points are suggested in summing up the achievement of that remarkable period: perhaps the most beautiful moment in any of Ulmer’s ethnic films is the funeral sequence in Moon Over Harlem, for which Ulmer seems to have filmed an actual wake. Singing and occasionally pausing to converse in low tones, the mourners sit in a semi-circle, with some chairs left vacant to permit individuals to circulate and quietly talk with their neighbors, before rejoining the collective dirge—all filmed in a ragged, slow back-and-forth pan that counterpoints the Brownian movement of the bodies in the circle with its own searching gaze. This very modern sequence re-creates in an urban setting the rhythms of the dinner scene in Green Fields, where Ulmer stationed the camera in the hearth, with the women moving back and forth between it and the table where the men are seated in the background of the shot. Ulmer’s ethnic films are full of ceremonies, often enacted by believers, but what shapes these “ethnographic” sequences is the arbitrary positioning and movement of the camera, which adds its own scansion to the text of the ritual.

For these films are not the work of an ethnographer. When Ulmer filmed a culture he appropriated its mythologies and turned them to his own purposes, just as he appropriated the symbolic universe of Poe in The Black Cat. In Another to Conquer, for example, the white doctor explains that he can tell if a lung is sick by listening to it, and his young Indian patient observes that “Warriors put their ear to the ground to hear the footsteps of their enemy.” The warrior code is systematically used to enlist the tribe in a war with an enemy who can only be conquered by taking to one’s bed-a prospect that understandably horrified Slow Talker. When Ulmer’s imagination later espoused the codes of the B-movie in Club Havana (1945) and Detour (1946), the approach was the same, and the results were just as subversive.

In American Matchmaker, Ulmer said good-bye to his ethnic period. It was the most mysterious of his Yiddish films, a comedy in which we see what became of Fishke·and Hodele’s descendants in the city. Nat Silver, a wealthy and cultivated New York bachelor, after failing eight times to get married, grows resigned to his condition and sets himself up as a super schadchen, or marriage broker, the trade pursued in the Old World by his uncle and which Nat proposes to update using the methods of modern business embodied in the “Schadchen Trust.” Even when he meets a young woman who is perfect for him Nat rigidly insists on finding her a younger, more suitable mate and pays for the wedding out of his own pocket, but she takes the initiative at the last moment and obliges Nat to lead her to the altar himself. Cinematically, Matchmaker is disappointingly simple, but the script, the only Ulmer original in the Yiddish cycle, is rich in comic stock-types treated as archetypes and used to explore the Jewish-American psyche on the eve of the War. Despite their glamorous appearances, Natand the heroine are inhabited by cartoon identities which spawn a multitude of secondary characters: on her side, a series of childish, overly assimilated women, and on his, an eruption of old vaudevillians wearing beards and derby hats, seemingly triggered by a pre-Woody Allen nightmare of himself as a bearded, impotent matchmaker in the Old Country. Only by exorcising these grotesque images can these two eminently eligible people form a couple.

But Matchmaker is also a very personal work, made around the time the director turned 40. Why should Nat Silver, self-made man, man of the world, and respected member of New York’s Jewish elite, be unable to marry? The trouble really starts when Nat, dreaming of his impending marriage to Number Eight, is rousted out of bed by an angry young man with a gun who reveals that only his own poverty prevents the young woman—whose name happens to be Shirley—from marrying him instead. Recognizing his own unhappy youth, Nat renounces the chance for a new life not only because he is afraid of what he might become—everything he once hated—but also because, like Octave in The Rules of the Game, he feels that he is already too old for anything new.

His marriage to a woman who represents everything new, after the comic detour of the Schadchen Trust, signals Ulmer’s acceptance of his own new identity: during and after the war years, he became a working Hollywood director, an ardent patriot, and supporter of the free enterprise system—going so far as to make musical shorts for the armed forces and filmed commercials for Coca Cola. That acceptance could only have come about through the singular detour of the ethnic films, which permitted him to explore his own condition of exile and his mixed feelings about being the inheritor of an alien tradition—“the executor of the Murnau estate,” as Andrew Sarris called him—confronted with a younger world already staked out by pioneers named Griffith, Vidor and Walsh, to whom the ethnic films in their glorious primitivism pay open homage. Since any director is a matchmaker of sorts (and all these films, whether comic or tragic, end in marriages), Amerikaner Schadchen also signifies Ulmer’s readiness to become finally what he had set out to be seven years earlier: an American filmmaker, one who had found his own version of the American Sublime, but only after an exuberant and often downright wacky pilgrimage through all the cultures and conditions which had somehow gotten left out of the American Dream.