Feb 15, 2010

Edgar Ulmer's Orphan Films

In 1934, at the age of merely thirty, Austrian director Edgar Ulmer saw the release of his second feature film, The Black Cat. Starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, the film was a tremendous commercial success for Universal and won much critical acclaim for Ulmer. At this point, with his career seemingly on the rise, it would have seemed unlikely that the word "orphan" would have ever accompanied any of Ulmer's films.

And yet, for Ulmer, his life and career took something of a detour. During this time, Ulmer stole away the wife of producer Max Alexander, which may not have been that big a problem except Alexander was the nephew of Universal studio head Carl Laemmle. Effectively an outcast in Hollywood, Ulmer would start directing ethnic films, setting himself on a course that would result in one of the most diverse crop of films ever to come from a single director. He helmed a number of Yiddish-language films, some educational films, and during the 1940s released a wildly diverse and impressive series of films for PRC, including his most famous film, Detour (1945).

Not surprisingly, a career with so many different types of films made for so many different types of audiences and studios resulted in a great many orphaned films. During the late 30s and early 40s Ulmer directed a series of at least eight educational films for the National Tuberculosis Association. Long forgotten sponsored films, Devin Orgeron found a tremendous amount of information on these Ulmer TB orphans, presenting his work at the fifth Orphan Film Symposium (and publishing it in the forthcoming book Learning with the Lights Off).

Still, there are a great many other orphaned works in the Ulmer oeuvre, owing to the fact that few of his films were made for big Hollywood studios. Luckily, the director's daughter, Arianne Ulmer Cipes, has done a tremendous amount of work towards saving Ulmer's orphaned films. As she put it in a September 1997 interview in Video Watchdog:

So the materials are coming in, but now comes the point where I have to find a way to invest in the preservation of "orphaned films." The ones that are owned by majors -- The Black Cat (1934), The Man From Planet X (1951), and so on -- are being maintained and utilized on video and laserdisc, and they [presumably] be preserved. But all the other films -- including Detour (1945), Her Sister's Secret (1946) and Bluebeard (1944) -- are orphaned films. To get the material up to first grade quality becomes a very important mission.
To this end, Arianne Ulmer Cipes started the Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corp., an organization that has done much to presere Ulmer's more famous films. Still, as Orgeron's research shows, there is a great amount of work yet to be done in regards to preserving the tremendously diverse output of the director. While many of his films fail to transcend their meager budgets and oft-times mediocre stories, just as many manage to rise admirably above their modest origins, owing to the creativity and resourcefulness of their director.

If the totality of Ulmer's career is to be assessed, it can only be done so by measuring all his films, both the famous pictures, and the forgotten ones.


-Ben Strassfeld