"I take you, Dollar Bill, to be my wedded husband." / "He was very kind, giving you a nice young mother."
Director Edgar G. Ulmer's career (see today's Precedents column), can be looked upon as having five different phases moving from his early days in 1920s Europe, through his phase at Universal from the mid-20s to mid-30s, to New York and a variety of low budget work for various ethnic and industrial concerns in the late 1930s, back to Hollywood and PRC in the first half of the 1940s, and finally a mixture of work mainly for independent producers over his last two decades. Moon over Harlem (1939) is a musical melodrama with an all-black cast and is a good example of his New York period while The Strange Woman (1946) starring Hedy Lamarr was made during the time of Ulmer's PRC contract, although the film was actually released by United Artists. Neither film can be rated as among Ulmer's best, but the combination illustrates well Ulmer's strengths in extracting something worthwhile out of virtually nothing as well as the theme of lives based on unwise or unhealthy decisions.
All Day Entertainment, in association with the Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corporation, has begun a series of DVD releases under the title "The Edgar G. Ulmer Collection." The first volume is a double bill of the above two titles.
Facts of the Case
Moon over Harlem—Dollar Bill (Richards) marries widow Minnie who has a daughter Sue at college. Although his new wife believes him to be an honest businessman and faithful husband, Dollar actually heads a local gang involved in the rackets in Harlem as well as being a philanderer. Daughter Sue is engaged to Bob, a local political organizer intent on cleaning up Harlem. At one point Bob and Dollar clash and Bob is only saved when Sue promises her stepfather Dollar that she will never see Bob again. Sue's unhappy relationship with her stepfather reaches a climax when he makes a pass at her and her mother blames her for it. Meanwhile, pressure is being applied to Dollar by outside interests to increase his gang's take from the Harlem rackets. Family estrangement, Harlem nightlife, and murder all converge in the film's resolution.
The Strange Woman—Jenny Hager is the daughter of a man whose wife abandoned him. Her only real friend as a young girl is Ephraim, son of a prominent storekeeper with lumber interests named Isaiah Poster in Bangor, Maine in 1824. After she has grown into a very attractive young woman, she is beaten by her drunken father for taking up with a visiting sailor. Her father dies and the town elders decide that the best thing for Jenny would be to marry Isaiah Poster. She agrees to go along with this, but it is soon evident that her real interest is in Poster's son Ephraim, who by this time is away at college in England. She persuades Ephraim to return home and once there declares her love for him and eventually urges him to kill his father. In the meantime, there are problems in the lumber business and Poster's lumber foreman John Evered enters Jenny's life. A complex relationship develops between Jenny, Ephraim, John Evered and his intended, Meg Saladine, which leads to deceit, jealousy, and death.
By far the more rewarding of these two films is Moon over Harlem and that is ironic because it represents probably the smallest budget and shooting time of any film Ulmer ever directed. In contrast, The Strange Woman probably was the most expensive picture Ulmer ever had; certainly on paper it had the best all-around cast he ever had to work with (Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward, Gene Lockhart).
Moon over Harlem features an all-black cast, the majority of whom had little-to-no acting experience. Ulmer was engaged to direct as a result of his knowing Donald Heywood who had written "The Green Pastures" and "Porgy." The film was pretty well ready to go when Ulmer came on board and a contract was in place for it to play on the black circuit in the South. After being given a couple of weeks to rehearse with the cast, actual shooting was completed in only four days—two in a studio which was apparently an old cigar warehouse, and two on location such as in a nightclub in Harlem where filming had to be done after two o'clock in the morning. The film was shot in 16mm and all done with short ends, i.e. left over bits of film as short as a hundred feet, so that the camera had to be reloaded every couple of minutes. These sorts of conditions called upon all of Ulmer's ingenuity.
The result is an entertaining film that displays obvious respect for its actors. There is none of the forced black stereotyping that can be so painful now when viewed in the major studio productions of the day. Certainly the story is simple and some of the acting is amateurish, but there is an earnestness and freshness about it all which more than compensates. Typically for him, Ulmer jumps right into the story with Dollar Bill and Minnie's wedding, skipping over any establishing background. That Minnie's decision to marry Bill is an unwise and unhealthy one (in this case it proves to be the ultimate in unhealthiness) soon becomes evident and the motif seen so often in Ulmer's best work is established. The lack of elaborate sets and night-time location filming also allowed Ulmer's love of unusual camera angles and shadows to shine through. Ulmer was a lover of all music and that too was evident here in the enjoyable jazz music used throughout. Featured are jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet and a band called Christopher Columbus and His Swing Crew. How can you resist a group with a name like that!
The Strange Woman is something else. Ulmer was still under contract to PRC when Hedy Lamarr decided that she would like him to direct her in her first film after the end of her MGM contract. The film would be released by United Artists and Ulmer was loaned out by PRC to do the job. Ulmer, as a consequence, continued to receive only his normal salary of $250 per week while PRC pocketed $1500 or $2500 (depending upon whether you believe Ulmer or his widow). He was rather bitter over this and it led him to not renew his PRC contract which was expiring soon thereafter. The resulting film though just wasn't Edgar Ulmer; it's overblown and overacted, mainly in the case of Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr probably appreciated all the close-ups she got, but one tires of her sideways glances which constantly telegraph her thoughts and actions. Hayward and Sanders are both good, however. Oh, one can see some interesting framings and camera angles and the script with its emphasis on Lamarr's character and its increasingly out-of-control nature probably appealed to Ulmer, but it's almost as if he had so much to work with that he didn't need to be inventive, so just settled for a standard approach. There's a very obvious use of back projection near the end that one likes to think would have been much more interestingly handled had a lack of resources forced Ulmer to think up some more devious way of getting the effect across.
All Day Entertainment's DVD presents these two features on a single side of the disc. Judged by the standard of DVDs of other B&W films of the time, the transfers presented here have definite problems. The history of Moon over Harlem with its 16mm, short-ends film stock origins prepares us for its look. The original elements are long gone and all known copies of the film are damaged and scratched, so the resulting DVD looks and sounds very rough even though it's from a combination of the best material that could be found. The image exhibits frequent vertical scratching, blemishes reflecting original negative damage, brightness changes, and dark scenes that are very problematic. The sound suffers from intensity changes, background hiss, and occasional mis-synchronization. But it is workable and I recommend this title. It's certainly better than I've ever seen it look before and likely the best it ever will be, given its limited market and the nature of the existing source material.
The Strange Woman is better looking than Moon over Harlem. The DVD has been mastered from a restored 35mm print provided by the Cinematheque in Paris. There is some scratching and speckling of the image, but for much of the time, especially in well-lit sequences, it looks fairly good with clean whites notably. Night-time scenes are more problematic with shadow detail often poor. The sound is acceptable although there is a short section of missing audio (perhaps 20 seconds or so) at the end of chapter 17 due to stretching of the film. This is noted on the DVD's inside insert. I would rate this to be at best a barely average presentation of a mediocre film, and were it on its own, probably would not recommend the DVD.
In addition to the two features, All Day has added a selection of stills and artwork from The Strange Woman as well as a interview with Edgar Ulmer's widow, Shirley Castle Ulmer. Although short (only 6 or 7 minutes), the interview provides some interesting background to both of the films. Finally, there is four-page insert inside the DVD case which provides a nice career profile of Ulmer as well as listings of the generous scene selections for both films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have to reiterate that anyone expecting a crisp DVD presentation of these two titles will be disappointed. This DVD is about preserving the best versions still extant of two little-known films. Those "best" versions are very far from current-day film standards, especially in the case of Moon over Harlem.
The Strange Woman is the lesser of the two films on this DVD. There are problems with some of the acting and despite occasional flashes, the direction is simply workmanlike. Were it on its own DVD, given the image and sound quality presented, I would likely not be recommending it.
All Day Entertainment is doing a great service to classic film enthusiasts in its presentation of the films of Edgar G. Ulmer on DVD. Volume 1 of this collection is a double bill of two little-known titles, one of which (Moon over Harlem) is a minor gem. There are obvious problems with the transfers of both these titles, but All Day has apparently gotten the best out of the source material possible. In addition, they've added some interesting supplementary material which makes the whole package a rather attractive one. This first volume is a great opportunity to sample Ulmer's work under two entirely different sets of conditions and whets our appetite for future volumes.
Case dismissed. All Day Entertainment receives the court's commendation for its fine efforts.
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