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Tag Archives: Edgar G. Ulmer

So Young, So Bad (May 20, 1950)

So Young, So Bad
So Young, So Bad (1950)
Directed by Bernard Vorhaus
United Artists

So Young, So Bad was released close on the heels of Caged, one of the greatest women-in-prison films ever made. It bears some striking similarities to Caged. So much so, that it made me wonder if the memo to Jack Warner from producer Jerry Wald about Virginia Kellogg’s 1948 story Women Without Men (the original concept that led to the film Caged) ever found its way out of the Warner Bros. offices and So Young, So Bad was conceived as a quickie cash-in. It’s not just the basic plot, either. Several details from Caged are repeated in So Young, So Bad, like pregnancy behind bars and a contraband pet whose death leads to a full-blown riot.

So Young, So Bad was directed by the soon-to-be-blacklisted Bernard Vorhaus with uncredited assistance from Edgar G. Ulmer, “the poet of Poverty Row,” who directed one of my favorite films of all time, Detour (1945).

Francis and Henreid

The most obvious difference between Caged and So Young, So Bad is that the former takes place in a women’s prison while the latter takes place in a reform school, the Elmview Corrective School for Girls. The other big difference is that Caged focuses on the female inmates’ experiences, while the main protagonist of So Young, So Bad is Dr. John H. Jason (Paul Henreid), a progressive man who fights against the inhuman punishments meted out at Elmview. Dr. Jason is strongly reminiscent of the reform-minded Dr. Kik in The Snake Pit (1948), which was about the primitive conditions in most mental institutions at the time of the film’s release.

I enjoyed So Young, So Bad, but it really pales in comparison with Caged, and not just because of its lower budget, more amateurish acting, and choppier pace. By focusing on Paul Henreid’s character, So Young, So Bad fails to do what Caged did so effectively; it fails to put the viewer in the shoes of the women behind bars who suffer barbaric treatment at the hands of their jailers. So Young, So Bad certainly shows us the cruel and unusual punishments handed down by the head matron, Mrs. Beuhler (Grace Coppin), but by focusing on Dr. Jason and his relationship with the sympathetic assistant superintendent Ruth Levering (Catherine McLeod), we are always kept at a distance from the young women in the reform school.

Rita Moreno

So Young, So Bad is probably most notable for featuring two talented and strikingly beautiful young actresses who would go on to much greater fame and success — Anne Francis and Rita Moreno. This was Moreno’s first role (she’s listed in the credits as Rosita Moreno), and Francis had only had uncredited film roles and parts on TV before So Young, So Bad. (I first noticed her on television in 1949 on the Suspense episode “Dr. Violet” with Hume Cronyn.) I thought that Moreno and Francis were the best parts of So Young, So Bad. It’s worth seeing for their performances alone. They were both very young and still finding their way as film actors, but they both have a magnetic quality that can’t be denied. The old cliché “you can’t take your eyes off them” certainly applies here.

There are also a few amazing moments in So Young, So Bad that stand out because most of the film is shot in such a straightforward fashion. It’s tempting to credit noir master Edgar G. Ulmer with these bits, or perhaps the cinematographer, Don Malkames, but who knows? Maybe Vorhaus had a few flashes of brilliance, like the decision to frame the shot of a girl who has committed suicide by hanging herself as a shadow below the shadow of a multi-framed window pane so it looks exactly like she is hanging from a spider’s web.

So Young, So Bad would make an interesting double-bill with Caged, but if you only have time to watch one, go with Caged.

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Ruthless (April 16, 1948)

He wasn’t a man … he was a way of life.

The last line of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless could have been the capper to an epic tale of striving and loss, but after almost one hour and 45 minutes of not-quite-there dramaturgy and characters that seem more like symbols and types than actual people, that last line rings utterly false.

Ulmer is a good director — he’s been called “the poet of Poverty Row” — but nothing he’s made since Detour (1945) has really struck a chord with me.

Detour is not only one of my favorite film noirs, but one of my favorite films, period, and would easily make the list of my top 10 favorite films of all time.

I liked both The Strange Woman (1946) and Carnegie Hall (1947), but neither ascended to the pulpy, brilliant heights of Detour. It’s been more than 15 years since I saw Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), but I remember loving it. The wonderful lead performances by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff didn’t hurt, but Ulmer’s direction and surreal set pieces took it to a level that most Universal horror films can’t match. His dreamy horror film Bluebeard (1944), which starred John Carradine, is good too.

My point is that Ulmer is a director capable of great stuff, but Ruthless doesn’t show him in top form. Based on Dayton Stoddart’s 1945 novel Prelude to Night, the film is a series of flashbacks that tell of the merciless rise to power of Horace Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott).

The film begins with a glamorous party at Horace Vendig’s palatial seaside manor. He has thrown the party to coincide with his announcement that he is handing over all his wealth and possessions to world peace organizations. Among the guests are Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward) and his date, Mallory Flagg (Diana Lynn). Vic is Horace’s oldest friend, and his reappearance stirs up old wounds and painful memories.

Horace was an unwanted child. His parents (played by Raymond Burr and Joyce Arling) split up, and both of them were more interested in their own love affairs than in their son. But after Horace saves a girl named Martha Burnside (played as a child by Ann Carter), her parents accepted him as their own child, which allowed him to attend Harvard and make his mark in society. Incidentally, young Horace is played by Robert J. Anderson, who also played James Stewart as a young man in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

In the series of flashbacks that follow Horace’s childhood, Zachary Scott and Louis Hayward play the younger versions of themselves and Diana Lynn, who plays Mallory, also plays the grown-up Martha Burnside. I’m not sure what the point of this dual role was. The two characters aren’t related, and if Mallory’s resemblance to Martha is meant to remind Horace of everything he has lost then not enough comes of it.

Horace’s ruthless business machinations and his seduction of women are inextricable. When he’s used a woman for all the social advancement she’s worth, he throws her aside for his next conquest.

The film’s theme of sex & business is made most literal in the sequence in which Horace takes over the entire financial empire of Buck Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet) by seducing his wife Christa (Lucille Bremer). With her comes everything. She tells Buck that she couldn’t transfer her affection to Horace without also transferring her loyalty, but the idea that she holds the key to all of Buck’s assets is still pretty far-fetched. She eventually wises up, as all of Horace’s women do, and she screams at him, “From the first moment you weren’t kissing me, you were kissing forty-eight percent!”

On the IMDb page for Ruthless, there are many user reviews that proclaim the film a classic, and nearly the equal of Citizen Kane (1941). I don’t know what movie these people saw, and can only ascribe their enthusiasm for Ruthless to the deep desire that lies in the heart of every cinéaste to champion an unfairly neglected film.

Besides the style of the film, which is passable but nowhere near the technical brilliance of a film like Kane, the lead performance of Zachary Scott is too one-note to ever make the viewer truly hate or love Horace Vendig. (It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the scenes of Horace’s childhood, in which another actor plays him, are the most moving and compelling of the film.)

Scott crafts a character who is by no means likeable, but there’s also nothing particularly interesting or profound about his plutomania, and I could never dredge up the depth of feelings that his friend Vic experiences, making the “tragic” events of the film’s climax more laughable than sad.

Carnegie Hall (Feb. 28, 1947)

The poster for Edgar G. Ulmer’s Carnegie Hall boasts the following: “Never before … never again … so magnificent an array of artists on one screen!”

That’s true. It’s a film jam-packed with the crème de la crème of classical musicians, opera singers, and conductors from the first half of the 20th century.

What the poster doesn’t tell you is that the dramatic portions of the film are pretty dire. But if you can suffer through violinist Jascha Heifetz and conductor Fritz Reiner reading their lines in monotones as they discuss stage fright with an Irish usher named John Donovan (Frank McHugh), who says he only feels that strange feeling in the pit of his stomach when he’s eaten too much, you’ll be rewarded by hearing Heifetz play the First Movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Reiner.

Carnegie Hall was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the poet of Poverty Row, who directed such minor masterpieces as Detour (1945), Bluebeard (1944), and The Black Cat (1934). Ulmer’s love of classical music was apparent in Detour — the main character is a nightclub pianist who, in one memorable scene, plays boogie-woogie variations on a Brahms waltz. Carnegie Hall is a love letter to great music and musicians, as well as to the eponymous edifice itself.

The plot in a nutshell (and there’s barely enough of it to fill two nutshells) involves an Irish girl named Nora Ryan (Marsha Hunt) who sees her first performance in Carnegie Hall as an adorable little rag-headed immigrant in 1891, and works her way up from cleaning woman to program director. She marries a febrile pianist named Tony Salerno (Hans Jaray, listed in the credits as “Hans Yaray”), who falls to his death while drunk when their son, Tony Jr. (William Prince), is still a baby.

Tony Salerno Jr. grows to maturity while being forced to diligently practice piano by his mother. They experience a rift after Tony Jr. falls in love with a nightclub singer named Ruth Haines (Martha O’Driscoll) and runs away to perform with crooner and band leader Vaughan Monroe. (Monroe is best known today for his version of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” Ironically, Monroe wanted to be an opera singer, but the economic realities of the Depression coupled with a string of early hits led him to perform popular music exclusively.)

Eventually, Tony Jr. gets a record set released on RCA/Victor called “American Rhythms,” and performs his own composition, “57th Street Rhapsody,” onstage at Carnegie Hall as pianist and conductor of the New York Philharmonic, with soloist Harry James on the trumpet. It’s a performance that blends “high” and “low” music, and brings tears to his mother’s eyes. The end.

The drama is hackneyed and poorly written (and it doesn’t help that Jaray is utterly charmless as Tony Sr.), but the bulk of the film’s 2 hour and 15 minute running time is occupied by great performances — the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, performed by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Bruno Walter; soprano Lily Pons singing the “Bell Song” (“L’Air des clochettes”) from Delibes’s opera Lakmé; cellist Gregor Piatigorsky performing Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan,” from The Carnival of Animals (Le carnaval des animaux); mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens performing the end of the introduction and the start of the principal melody of Delilah’s song that seduces Samson in the second act of Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson and Delilah, followed by a performance of the Seguidilla from Act I of Bizet’s Carmen. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The DVD of Carnegie Hall that’s currently available from Kino Video looks great. The print is crisp, the blacks are deep, and the contrast is good. (And the “piano” scene from Detour is included as an extra.) As a dramatic film, Carnegie Hall doesn’t really succeed, but as a showcase for great musicians and singers, it’s a winner.

The Strange Woman (Oct. 25, 1946)

Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman, directed with uncredited assistance from Douglas Sirk, is based on the 1945 novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams.

Born in 1889, Williams was a prolific novelist who is probably best known today for the same reason he was famous in 1946; he wrote the novel Leave Her to Heaven in 1944, which was made into a hit film in 1945 starring Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent, a calculating sociopath with twisted ideas about love.

The Strange Woman was a natural choice to be made into a film following the success of Leave Her to Heaven. Both stories are psychosexual portraits of women with Electra complexes who use their allure to ensnare men and who don’t allow conventional morality to keep them from their goals; even taboos like murder mean nothing to them.

Unlike Leave Her to Heaven, The Strange Woman is a period piece. The film begins in Bangor, Maine, in 1824. Young Jenny Hager (Jo Ann Marlowe) is being raised by a single father (Dennis Hoey) whose only love in life seems to be drink. After Mr. Hager receives stern words from prosperous shop keeper and importer Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart) when he once again begs a jug of liquor off of him, the scene switches to a river bank, where young Jenny is tormenting Mr. Poster’s son Ephraim (Christopher Severn), a sickly boy who can’t swim. She pushes him into the river and holds his head under with her bare foot, but when Judge Henry Saladine (Alan Napier) arrives in a carriage, she says, “Poor, poor Ephraim,” and jumps in. She drags him to shore and blames his predicament on the boys she was with.

The judge is disgusted with Mr. Hager for stumbling through life drunk and failing to care for his daughter, but once Jenny and her father are alone, it’s clear that she loves him unconditionally. “Before long we’ll have everything,” she says. “Just as soon as I grow up we’ll have everything we want, because I’m going to be beautiful.” Mr. Hager tosses his empty jug into the river, and when the ripples clear, child actress Marlowe’s reflection has become that of the beautiful Hedy Lamarr.

Jenny may be all grown up, but clearly only a few years have passed. All the adults are played by the same actors, and things are much the same in Bangor. Her father is still a hopeless drunk and Mr. Poster is still the wealthiest, most powerful man in town. Bangor appears to be a little rowdier, however, with more commerce coming through the docks, and more drunken sailors stumbling around. Jenny and her friend Lena (June Storey) hang around the waterfront, attracting the attention of sailors. Lena tells Jenny that, with her looks, she could get the youngest and best-looking men around, but Jenny replies that she’s only interested in snagging the richest.

When her father confronts her, she flaunts her sexuality, bragging that she can make any man want her, and he beats her viciously. The whipping he gives her, while they stand face to face, is a little ambiguous, and more than a little sexual.

She runs away to Mr. Poster’s house, and shows him the stripes on her back, throwing her hair forward and dropping the back of her dress, as if she’s posing for a racy portrait, and his face registers both shock and lust.

It’s not long before Jenny marries Mr. Poster. It’s clear that he is a replacement for her father. Her physical longing, at least for the moment, is focused on her old friend — and new son-in-law — Ephraim, who has been sent away to school. She writes Ephraim a letter telling him how lucky he is to have a “nice young mother” and that she will “demand obedience and love.” She writes that if he refuses her, “I will punish you by not kissing you good night” and ends her letter with the line “…come home and see what a fine parent I can be. I do think families should be close, don’t you? Your loving mother, Jenny.”

Ephraim (now played by Louis Hayward) returns home, and he and Jenny slowly but surely fall for each other.

As the film poster above rather obviously shows, Jenny has two faces. For instance, when she and Ephraim sit on the banks of the river together, her recollection of pushing him into the river when he was a boy is flawed. She tells him that those rotten boys did it to him, and she tried to save him. Is she lying? Does she know she is lying? Does he know? Does he go along with it because he loves her, or does he truly believe her?

Jenny’s dual nature mirrors the nature of Bangor itself. On the one hand it is a prosperous New England town with an active churchgoing population of well-to-do people (like Mr. Poster and his young wife), but on the other hand it is a seedy little port city full of drunken sailors and “grog shops and low houses” (a.k.a. pubs and brothels). Jenny uses her husband’s money from his shipping and lumber businesses to improve the town, shaming him publicly into contributing large sums to the church. In private, however, she is carrying on with Ephraim, and even encourages him to arrange an “accident” for his father so they can be married.

Ephraim won’t be the last man in Jenny’s trail of conquest, either. As soon as she lays her eyes on John Evered (George Sanders), the tall, strapping foreman of Mr. Poster’s lumber business, it’s clear that the weak-willed Ephraim doesn’t stand a chance.

The Strange Woman is a well-made film with fine performances all around (with perhaps the exception of Gene Lockhart, who as Mr. Poster exhibits some of the most over-the-top reaction shots I’ve seen since watching Grayson Hall on Dark Shadows). Its narrative is sprawling, and clearly adapted from a novel, but the filmmakers keep everything moving along nicely.

Director Ulmer was a talented craftsman who toiled away in Poverty Row for most of his career, producing a few masterpieces, a few awful pictures, and plenty of films in between. The Strange Woman represents the rare film on his résumé with a decent budget and a reasonable shooting schedule. He was lent out by P.R.C. (Producer’s Releasing Corporation) at Lamarr’s insistence (apparently they were friends back in their native Austria-Hungary). He was paid $250 a week for the job. P.R.C. studio boss Leon Fromkess, on the other hand, received roughly $2,500 from United Artists. While he may have gotten the short end of the stick financially, the deal gave Ulmer a chance to work with a professional cinematographer (Lucien Andriot), a major star or two, a well-written script based on a hot property, and major studio distribution.

Detour (Nov. 30, 1945)

Detour
Detour (1945)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
P.R.C.

There should be a picture of Tom Neal from the first few minutes of Detour next to the word “dejected” in the dictionary.

Unshaven, tie loosened, hat and suit rumpled, he walks along a California highway with his hands in his pockets, looking as though he just watched the world burn down to a cinder and he doesn’t know why he’s still standing.

Like a lot of film noirs, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is told through flashback and voiceover narration. Sitting at a counter, a cup of coffee in front of him, Al Roberts (Neal) recalls his nothing-special but decent job playing piano in a Manhattan nightclub called the Break o’ Dawn, back when he had a clean jaw, a sharp tuxedo, and brilliantined hair.

“All in all I was a pretty lucky guy,” he says, recalling his romance with Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), the singer in the club. Al has dreams of Carnegie Hall that he downplays with cynicism, while Sue dreams of making it in Hollywood. When she leaves New York to fulfill her dream, Al is still stuck in the club, performing virtuoso pieces for the occasional sawbuck tip from a drunk.

When Al decides he’s going to travel to Los Angeles to marry Sue, he has so little money that the only way he can do it is by thumbing rides. Hitchhiking in Detour isn’t the transcendent experience Jack Kerouac described in On the Road, it’s a grim necessity. “Ever done any hitchhiking? It’s not much fun, believe me,” Al says. “Oh, yeah, I know all about how it’s an education and how you get to meet a lot of people and all that, but me? From now on I’ll take my education in college, or in P.S. Sixty-Two, or I’ll send a dollar ninety-eight in stamps for ten easy lessons. Thumbing rides may save you bus fare, but it’s dangerous. You never know what’s in store for you when you hear the squeal of brakes. If only I’d known what I was getting into that day in Arizona.”

What’s in store for Al is one of the most brilliant film noirs ever made. The plot of Detour is not that different from any number of 30-minute radio plays produced for Suspense or The Whistler, and any devotee of the pulp novels of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson will feel right at home while watching this film. So what is it that makes Detour so unique?

First, it’s phenomenal that such a finely crafted film was produced in just six days, and mostly in two locations; a hotel room and a car in front of a rear projection screen. Furthermore, it’s stunning how easy it is to suspend one’s disbelief during all of the driving scenes. Usually rear projection is a technique that draws attention to itself, and looks incredibly fake, but in Detour it’s just part of the background. It helps that the performances in the film are hypnotic. When Al is picked up by a man named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), Haskell pops pills from his glove compartment and tells Al the story of how he got the deep scratches on his hand. “You know, there oughtta be a law against dames with claws,” he says. “I tossed her out of the car on her ear. Was I wrong? Give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice, don’t you? After all, what kind of dames thumb rides? Sunday school teachers? The little witch. She must have thought she was riding with some fall guy.” As Haskell speaks, Al responds with noncommital little “Yep”s in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s hitchhiked, or who’s had to sit next to a talkative creep on a Greyhound bus.

When Haskell drops dead under mysterious circumstances, Al is convinced he’ll be blamed for the murder if he reports it to the police, so he hides the corpse, switches clothes with Haskell, and takes his identification and money. His luck goes from bad to worse when he picks up a slovenly hitchhiker the next day named Vera (Ann Savage), who looks as if she’s “just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.” Despite her plain looks, Al is immediately attracted to her. Unfortunately for him, Vera turns out to be the woman Haskell threw out of his car. She doesn’t recognize the car at first, and takes a nap after exchanging a few sullen words with Al. But after a minute or two, she bolts awake and says, “Where did you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? You’re not fooling anyone. This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell. That’s not you, mister.”

The heartless Vera blackmails Al, forcing him to give her all of Haskell’s money and promise to get his hands on more, or she’ll turn him in to the cops. The two of them hole up in a lousy hotel room with a bedroom and a living room with a Murphy bed. Vera plays Al like a fiddle while getting drunk off cheap liquor and flinging abuse at him. Even so, the sexual tension between them is unbearable, which is even more remarkable considering that Savage is no great beauty, and plays the scene in which she attempts to seduce Al while wearing a bathrobe and a headscarf.

Like everything else in Detour, Neal and Savage’s performances are not Oscar-caliber, but they have an eerie power that can’t be fully explained. Neal, who was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Illinois, was a former boxer with a Harvard law degree who played mostly tough guys in the movies. A troubled man, he was blackballed in Hollywood in 1951 after beating Franchot Tone to a pulp and giving him a concussion in a quarrel over the affections of Barbara Payton. And in 1965, Neal was tried in the shooting death of his wife Gale, and did time in prison for manslaughter.

Neal’s performance in this film is haunting, and invites a subjective judgment from the viewer. Are the things Al tells us about the deaths in the film accurate? Were they, as he claims, purely accidental? Or is he like every other murderer who pleads for clemency because it “wasn’t really my fault”? How real are the things we’re shown? Is Al really the unappreciated piano virtuoso he seems to be, or is this just another part of an elaborate fantasy world in which life refuses to hand him any breaks? This sense of nightmarish uncertainty and the pervading sense of doom make Detour one of the all-time great noirs. Edgar G. Ulmer was probably the best director who made films for the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., but Detour is head and shoulders above anything else I’ve ever seen of his.

Strange Illusion (March 31, 1945)

StrangeIllusionEdgar G. Ulmer was born in 1904 in Olmütz, Moravia, Austria-Hungary (now part of the Czech Republic). Like a number of talented German and Austrian directors, he moved to the United States in the ’20s and began working in Hollywood. Unlike better-known directors like Billy Wilder or Fritz Lang, however, Ulmer toiled in obscurity for most of his career, cranking out no-budget films. At least part of this was due to the fact that he was blackballed after he had an affair with Shirley Castle, who was the wife of B-picture producer Max Alexander, a nephew of powerful Universal president Carl Laemmle. Castle divorced Alexander and married Ulmer (becoming Shirley Ulmer), but the damage to Ulmer’s career was done. He spent most of the rest of his career churning out product for P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) Studios, one of the financially strapped Hollywood studios collectively referred to as “Poverty Row.”

Today, Ulmer is best known for two films, The Black Cat (1934) and Detour (1945). I’ve seen the former, but not the latter. The Black Cat stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and is one of the more memorable and strange Universal horror pictures. It was a big box-office success, too. I haven’t seen Detour yet, but it has a reputation as one of the best low-budget noirs.

Strange Illusion, which Ulmer made for P.R.C. early in 1945, is a mixed bag. Ulmer’s ideas are clearly larger than the short shooting schedule, low budget, and B-grade actors can support. James “Jimmy” Lydon (on loan from Paramount) plays a young man named Paul Cartwright, whose late father was once the governor of California. The film opens with a stunning, Freudian dream sequence in which Paul walks with his young, attractive mother through clouds of smoke. A menacing, dark man whose face cannot be seen walks with them. He seems to have designs on Paul’s mother. Then the mysterious automobile accident in which Paul’s father died is replayed. It’s a fantastic sequence, and grabs the viewer right away. Much of what follows is prosaic, but not bad. There are a lot of great shots of Paul and other characters that incorporate an enormous portrait of the late Mr. Cartwright, towering over his survivors as though he is passing judgment on them from the afterlife. Warren William is very good as Paul’s mother’s fiancé, and he brings the right balance of charm and menace to his role. Lydon, on the other hand, really irritated me, and some of the youthful “jive” talk he has with his girlfriend is pretty stilted and painful. There’s also a little too much plot for the film’s brief running time. If by the end of this picture you haven’t figured out that this is Ulmer’s teen-oriented take on “Hamlet,” then, brother, you never took a comp lit class. Overall, Strange Illusion isn’t bad, but it’s recommended only if you really enjoy B movies from the ’40s.

Horror fans are encouraged to check out The Black Cat, as well as Bluebeard, a dreamy and beautiful horror movie Ulmer made for P.R.C. in 1944. It stars John Carradine as a homicidal puppeteer in 19th century Paris.