Monday, March 30, 2009

“He had to take a rat…and make Thanksgiving dinner out of it…” – Gregory W. Mank, B-movie aficionado

Kino.com is currently running a small overstock sale, and while the pickings are kind of slim (though those of you planning on participating in Flickhead’s Claude Chabrol blogathon in June might want to take a gander at this), I managed to add copies of Fritz Lang’s Spione (1928) and Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927; the recently restored Kino version) to the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives. There was a third title that piqued my interest as well: a documentary entitled Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen (2004) which focuses on the life and career of the legendary cult director via film clips and interviews with the likes of show business folk from director Wim Wenders to one-time big-screen Henry Aldrich, Jimmy Lydon (who stars in Ulmer’s Strange Illusion [1945]). The DVD containing Off-Screen also has a companion feature, the 1943 PRC quickie Isle of Forgotten Sins (aka Monsoon), directed by Ulmer hizzownself.

My interest in purchasing this disc stems from the fact that while Ulmer is revered by many film buffs and critics; I’ve honestly never bought into his cult. Granted, Ulmer made some not-too-shabby films; The Black Cat (1934; a very underrated horror film that was the first teaming of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi), Bluebeard (1944), Ruthless (1948; the poor man’s Citizen Kane) and even guilty pleasure The Naked Dawn (1955)—but his filmmaking career was pockmarked by the fact that his reputation hinged on his talent for surpassing threadbare budgets and non-existent production values to craft personal films that also managed to turn a profit (director John Landis, interviewed alongside colleague Joe Dante, best sums up Edgar G. as a director who “made chicken salad out of chicken shit”). Detour (1945), a mongrel of a film noir supposedly cranked out in six days (though the documentary reveals this to be more legend than truth), has cemented the director’s street cred—but while I don’t dislike the film I think it’s been vastly overrated by its defenders.

Punctuating the commentary in this film is the voice of Ulmer himself, from a series of interviews he granted to Peter Bogdanovich in 1970. (Yes, the director/film historian to whom I’ve often referred as “the Dick Cavett of film directors” [“I once discussed a topic with John Ford, which stemmed from a conversation with Orson but was attributed to Howard Hawks…”] is in this one, so caveat emptor.) Ulmer comes off as a true enigma: he laments having made some of the movies he directed only for the bread (“I really am looking for absolution for all the things I had to do for money's sake”), but in later years champed at the bit to work for one of the big studios for some badly needed funds to pay his debts and medical bills. As the story goes, Ulmer had just finished The Black Cat for Universal when he was allegedly “blackballed” by the big studios, under the orders of Universal’s Carl Laemmle, who learned that Ulmer was making time with Shirley Castle, the wife of Laemmle’s nephew (and B-picture producer) Max Alexander. (Ulmer eventually married Castle—but at apparently a tremendous cost to his career.) Ulmer did a bit of freelancing after that, helming a series of ethnic films (Green Fields, Moon Over Harlem) before ending up at PRC (which stood for Producers Releasing Corporation…but among industry wags was an acronym for “Pretty Rotten Crap”) in the 1940s. One could certainly make a strong case that were it not for the presence of Ulmer at this Poverty Row studio no one would even remember it today.

Off-Screen’s strengths are its penetrating insights from the individuals who participated in the documentary; in addition to those already mentioned we hear from the true King of the B’s, TDOY god Roger Corman, as well as actors who starred in Ulmer’s movies: the late Ann Savage (the memorable Vera in Detour), TDOY fave William Schallert (The Man From Planet X) and John Saxon and Peter “Hollywood Squares” Marshall, who both appeared in Ulmer’s final feature, Sette contro la morte (1964; aka The Cavern). Ulmer’s daughter Arianne shares her personal reminisces, and film historians like Greg Mank, Tom Weaver, Alexander Horvath and Ulmer biographer Noel Isenberg also provide cogent observations; it is Isenberg who notes that many of Ulmer’s claims (he told Bogdanovich he worked on Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari [1920] invented the “dolly shot” for F.W. Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann [1924] and acted both in Mann and Lang’s Metropolis [1927]) have simply been unsubstantiated, to which Bogdanovich replies in true Liberty Valance, “print-the-legend” fashion: “I don’t know what the truth is…all I know is, you know, the work is there…it’s…I…I interviewed the people, they said what they said…if it doesn’t jibe…that’s not my department.” (Thanks for all your efforts to muddy the historical record, Pete…you dick.) Isenberg’s annotations are supplemented by an interesting argument between actors Saxon and Marshall—with Marshall cutting Ulmer a lot of slack and Saxon bluntly pointing out that Edgar G. padded his resume. (I like Saxon’s comments in this documentary, which are truly well-spoken and well-reasoned—particularly his remark: “There were a lot of King of the B’s, you know—there’s a lot of bees in that beehive.”)

As I previously noted, Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen is accompanied by a badly beaten-up print of Isle of Forgotten Sins, a PRC potboiler that fails to measure up despite the presence of some of my favorite character actors: John Carradine, Gale Sondergaard, Sidney Toler and Veda Ann Borg, to name a few. Gale’s a “hostess” who runs the titular nightclub, and she fronts Carradine the scratch so that he and his deep-sea-diving buddy (Frank Fenton) can dig up a hefty cache of gold belonging to villains Toler and Rick Vallin. The highlight of Sins is the truly breathtaking underwater footage, which involves a marionette (you can see the strings) attempting to pick up a trunk filled with gold (dollars to donuts they filmed it with an aquarium). So if you’re expecting this to be one of Ulmer’s famed “triumphing-over-low-budgets-to-make-great-art,” lay in a supply of bottled water and MRE’s…you’ve got a long wait.

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