And, no, twelve years later, I still don't know the identity of the person Dan references at the end of his article...
ULMER AT THE AERO
by Dan Akira Nishimura
Special to the Sentinel
[puffy intro--about DETOUR, Eddie M. and what the lack of DETOUR might have meant--no e-zine!--is excised]
Of course, there is much more to Ulmer and his oeuvre than Detour. Under the auspices of the American Cinematheque, a special evening seemed to be in store with a new 35mm print of Ruthless (1948), sometimes referred to as “Ulmer’s Citizen Kane.” In addition, the Aero Theatre had scheduled the Los Angeles theatrical premiere of Michael Palm's "Edgar G. Ulmer—The Man Off-screen" and a between films panel discussion with Arianne Ulmer Cipes (Ulmer’s daughter) and Professor Bernd Herzogenrath.
I was taken aback by the look of the film. No matter the actual condition of the print, Detour always appears to have had grease smeared on it after being stored in a trash container. Not so with Ruthless. The black-and-white was rich and true. I honestly thought I’d walked into a 1940's Hitchcock or Orson Welles classic. Like Citizen Kane, the story concerns one man's quest for power. There’s also some superficial similarity with The Magnificent Ambersons in sets and costume.
Zachary Scott, typecast by Warners as a suave heel, here gets a chance to expand his range a bit. Robert J. Anderson portrays main character Horace "Woody" Vendig as a pre-adolescent. The first question is: how do you get "Woody" out of "Horace?" The second is: how does Anderson, who resembles a very young Montgomery Clift, turn into Zachary Scott?
The film is packed with Noir City regulars: Raymond Burr has a small role as Vendig's father while Sydney Greenstreet reveals a vulnerable side in a wonderful performance. Joyce Arling is the venomous mother. Louis Hayward and Diana Lynn (in a dual role) are also excellent.
Vendig, after a lifetime of calculated ambition, has invited just about everyone he's ever known to his mansion. The reason he’s brought them there is to announce that he's dedicating the rest of his life to world peace. Has Bill Gates been watching this?
A Dutiful Daughter
After the screening, Arianné Ulmer Sipes, elegant and articulate, spoke about her father and his career at length. The initial audience questions were about Ruthless. Though Ulmer didn't write the script, she revealed that there are many things in the film that eerily mirrored his life. Like Vendig, Edgar Georg Ulmer was orphaned during the First World War and sent to Uppsala, Sweden. In the film, his early dislocation causes a split in Vendig's personality. Nothing so extreme happened to Ulmer but we do see how he'd be intrigued by the origins of the drive to succeed.
Ulmer was unhappy with the way the picture was cut. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in Who The Devil Made It, he said that he "wanted to do a morality play--a Jesuitic morality film...But they fought me every step." This was the time when Senator Joseph McCarthy was coming to ascendance, and when HUAC was riding high. Alvah Bessie, one of the Hollywood Ten, worked on the screenplay. Cipes noted that "the distributors were afraid the film was too anti-capitalist."
She then talked about the beginnings of Ulmer's career. He’d been educated in Vienna at the Burgtheater and the Academy of Arts and Sciences. At sixteen, he was employed by the Decla film company (later part of UFA), designing sets for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In 1919, he began an apprenticeship with Max Reinhardt's Josephstaedter, as an actor and set designer. He was also an assistant to F. W. Murnau on The Last Laugh, Sunrise and Tabu. In Berlin, he co-directed and produced People on Sunday (1929).
Following a break with Reinhardt, Edgar returned to America—he first came in 1923 for Reinhardt’s play The Miracle—and was signed to Universal for ten years, initially as an art director. "He could work in the European fashion and could handle a camera," said Arianne. He would soon graduate to directing assignments"He was no longer a kid" by the time he directed The Black Cat in 1934, starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. "It was his big break but also his big loss."
Edgar fell hard for a young woman on the set, assistant script supervisor Shirley Castle. "They went out to a movie and never came home," said Arianne, to laughter. Unfortunately, she was already married, to Max Alexander, whose family owned Universal. The scandal surrounding the affair, her divorce from Alexander and marriage to Ulmer cost him his Hollywood career. But, he did gain an artistic collaborator. Shirley’s contribution to his subsequent films cannot be underestimated. (Her text, The Role of Script Supervision in Film and Television, is still available. She would later work on Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969) and survive making commercials after Edgar’s demise.)
Germany’s Bernd Herzogenrath spoke next. Editor of the anthology Edgar G. Ulmer: Essays on the King of the B's and author of the recently published The Films of Edgar G. Ulmer, he embarked on a pilgrimage in 2005 to Ulmer's home village in what today is the Czech Republic. Bernd's eastward odyssey culminated in the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at Ulmerfest 2006, "the first European academic conference devoted to Ulmer's work." (Of course, Ulmer was never completely forgotten in Europe. Erik Ulman writes that "Truffaut cited The Naked Dawn as an inspiration for Jules et Jim" and that "Jean-Luc Godard dedicated Detective to Ulmer..." Critic Luc Moullet called his films "the great solitude of man without God.") About her subsequent visit to Olomouc, Arianné enthused that it was "not a little village...so gorgeous... Gothic buildings, the University, incredible! Freud lived there (also Mahler).”
Arianné heads the Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corporation, a sister organization to the Film Noir Foundation. In attempting to make the documentary, she discovered that "You can't find film clips without good prints" and "the prints were in terrible condition." So, the first order of business was to locate useable prints, original negatives, whatever was needed. She recalled having once hated the thieves who would steal 16mm prints of her father's films from television stations. Ironically, some of those prints are the only ones that survive of certain titles.
Movie City Indie reported that "Thanks in large measure to the tireless efforts of his daughter...many of Ulmer's films, even some of his most obscure, have been restored and released on DVD. The latest addition...is a lavish 4-disc collection of Ulmer's Yiddish films, which he directed in New York and New Jersey between 1937 and 1940. They have been preserved, digitally restored and re-mastered from 35mm nitrate prints with new English subtitles." Noah Isenberg's Forward to the collection describes the films as "startlingly modern, urbane.”
Ruthless has been preserved with the use of three different negatives. A 35mm print of Natalka Poltovka, a Ukrainian film that he directed during the "ethnic" period in New York was discovered in Russia. "It's now at Kodak's archive...They have made preservation prints from this source."
During the Q&A, I inquired about the state of Detour and held my breath. "MOMA has a negative, Harvard had a print, we're looking to Europe." She mentioned that Wade Williams, who did the notorious 1992 remake starring Tom Neal, Jr., has a 35mm negative. There's also a subtitled 35mm print in the Cinémathèque Français archive that was shown at Noir City.
In an email, Arianne wrote that "Detour is presently being preserved at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) archive." There's a full listing at AMPAS's Herrick Library, including photographs and family memoirs. "There (are) thirty plus prints at the Academy Pickwick Archive. These include preserved prints from 35mm nitrate sources: Strange Woman, Strange Illusion, Bluebeard, Pirates of Capri, Daughter of Dr. Jekyll. AMPAS holds 35mm prints of Hannibal and The Naked Dawn. Of the majors who own the copyright we now have preserved Ruthless (Paramount), Black Cat (Universa)l, The Man From Planet X (MGM-UA), and The Cavern (Fox). Her Sister's Secret has also been preserved at UCLA."
Their talk was inspiring, the perfect lead-in to the documentary. By chance, Arianne and her party were a row in front of me. After she took her seat, a bearded, troll-like gentleman in shabby clothing approached. He looked to have emerged from beneath the Santa Monica pier. As he started to apologize for the state of his appearance, she kindly asked him to proceed. He then said, in the most courtly tones imaginable, "Allow me, dear lady, to convey my abiding admiration of your late father." I watched him disappear into the theater as the lights dimmed and the second feature began.