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Edgar G. Ulmer

Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins

Noah Isenberg
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 362
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  • Book Info
    Edgar G. Ulmer
    Book Description:

    Edgar G. Ulmer is perhaps best known today for Detour, considered by many to be the epitome of a certain noir style that transcends its B-list origins. But in his lifetime he never achieved the celebrity of his fellow Austrian and German émigré directors-Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fred Zinnemann, and Robert Siodmak. Despite early work with Max Reinhardt and F. W. Murnau, his auspicious debut with Siodmak on their celebrated Weimar classic People on Sunday, and the success of films like Detour and Ruthless, Ulmer spent most of his career as an itinerant filmmaker earning modest paychecks for films that have either been overlooked or forgotten. In this fascinating and well-researched account of a career spent on the margins of Hollywood, Noah Isenberg provides the little-known details of Ulmer's personal life and a thorough analysis of his wide-ranging, eclectic films-features aimed at minority audiences, horror and sci-fi flicks, genre pictures made in the U.S. and abroad. Isenberg shows that Ulmer's unconventional path was in many ways more typical than that of his more famous colleagues. As he follows the twists and turns of Ulmer's fortunes, Isenberg also conveys a new understanding of low-budget filmmaking in the studio era and beyond.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95717-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 Traces of a Viennese Youth
    (pp. 1-23)

    Dealing with a subject as elusive as an undocumented childhood is a daunting task, one that requires considerable resourcefulness, tact, and imagination and that ultimately relies on a fair amount of detective work and scholarly conjecture. Yet when it comes to a figure like Edgar G. Ulmer, whose life and career often seem enshrouded in unverifiable claims, some of them quite extravagant—for instance, that he was related to the eminent turn-of-the-century Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler; that he once served as a case study for Freud’s childhood analyses; that he invented the “unchained” camera, the dolly shot, and pioneered German...

  6. 2 Toward a Cinema at the Margins
    (pp. 24-53)

    Although Ulmer’s first stay in New York City, in 1924, didn’t last long—he appears to have made his way west as quickly as he could—it nonetheless left several strong impressions on the newcomer. Sometime during the second half of The Miracle’s ten-month run, he found his own living quarters, got his work papers in order, and searched for employment outside of Reinhardt’s stage production.¹ While still adjusting to life in New York, he came into contact with another landsman, the Austrian-born vaudeville promoter Martin Beck, whom he assisted in designing the Martin Beck Theatre, which opened its doors...

  7. 3 Hollywood Horror
    (pp. 54-82)

    The year 1934 brought a number of surprises for Edgar Ulmer. On January 17, just a little over a month before the shooting of The Black Cat would commence, and just days after the formal studio announcement of the production was made public, Universal City was abuzz with festivities surrounding the celebration of Uncle Carl Laemmle’s sixty-seventh birthday. All members of Laemmle’s extended clan, including many of the studio’s leading casts and crews (Universal’s new starlet Margaret Sullavan, the character actors Andy Devine and Ken Maynard, among others), cheered on the studio patriarch as he blew out candles on an...

  8. 4 Songs of Exile
    (pp. 83-120)

    Just weeks after the shooting of From Nine to Nine wrapped in Montreal, in early spring 1936, American producer and distributor Joseph Steiner invited Edgar and Shirley, who was then still convalescing from her unplanned appendix operation, to return to New York City.¹ The project he had in mind for the itinerant director was something so outré, so completely obscure that, were it not for the surviving print of the film, it would stand to reason that Ulmer cooked it up in one of his more embroidered memories: a Ukrainian-language operetta called Natalka Poltavka (The Girl from Poltava, 1937). The...

  9. 5 Capra of PRC
    (pp. 121-168)

    Around the same point at which Ulmer’s cycle of ethnic pictures and educational shorts began to slow down, in the middle of summer 1941, he paid a visit to Hollywood to test the waters and follow up on any leads he could find. Writing on stationery from the Hollywood Plaza Hotel, located at the storied intersection of Hollywood and Vine—home to the Pantages Theater (where The Black Cat had its portentous premiere in May 1934), the Laemmle Building, and the offices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—Ulmer conveyed to his wife, Shirley, his great enthusiasm...

  10. 6 Back in Black
    (pp. 169-203)

    Ever since a handful of French cineastes first wrote about American crime pictures of the 1940s using that elusive, seductive, mildly enigmatic term film noir, critics and historians have been wracking their brains to come up with an adequate working definition. For many, these films, with their hopelessly dark, cynical outlook on the world, their hard-boiled detectives in fedoras alongside fast-talking, dangerous dames, shot in low-key lighting and drenched in menacing shadows, cohere much more around a mood, a tone, or a sensibility than a bona fide genre.¹ “It has always been easier,” observes James Naremore in his magisterial study...

  11. 7 Independence Days
    (pp. 204-268)

    The final arc of Ulmer’s career, especially after his years at PRC, is that of a director whose professional path was anything but straight. On a practical level this meant going wherever work took him, whether in the United States or abroad, and adjusting to the ebb and flow of an erratic and rapidly changing industry. Despite some initial discussion in the immediate wake of The Strange Woman that Ulmer might work once more with Hedy Lamarr and John Loder on the Hunt Stromberg production of Dishonored Lady (1947), he left Los Angeles for New York to prepare Carnegie Hall,...

  12. Postscript
    (pp. 269-274)

    When Ulmer passed away in September 1972, the prevailing fear among family members was that his work would be forgotten forever—something he himself had articulated near the end of his life—that it would slowly, inexorably drift into oblivion. Although his departure did not go entirely unnoticed, with obituaries published in Variety, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times, the legacy of his life and career was surely in jeopardy. Because of the irreversible decline in his health, he was never able to finish the multisession interview with Bogdanovich that he began in February 1970, after the...

  13. Filmography
    (pp. 275-300)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 301-336)
  15. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 337-344)
  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 345-350)
  17. Index
    (pp. 351-365)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 366-368)