Saturday, January 25, 2014

Noah Isenberg's "Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins"

Noah Isenberg is Professor and Chair of Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College-The New School for Liberal Arts, in New York City, where he also directs the Screen Studies program. His books include Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins (California, 2014); Detour (BFI Film Classics, 2008); and, as editor, Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films from the Era (Columbia, 2009).

Isenberg applied the “Page 99 Test” to Edgar G. Ulmer and reported the following:
It’s perhaps not totally clear whether Ford Madox Ford’s dictum applies here, unless, as is so often the case in the world of Hollywood, there’s a little back-story that’s given. By the time the reader reaches this precise page in my critical biography of the Austrian-born √©migr√© filmmaker, Ulmer has been forced to leave behind what initially looked like a very promising studio career in America’s dream factories, during the early years of the 1930s, to pick up any work that he could find in and around New York City. When he first arrived in the United States, helping to stage a New York production of Max Reinhardt’s play The Miracle in 1924, he made his way to Hollywood as fast as he could. There he worked in the Art Department at Universal, assisting on a number of two-reel westerns, doing set design on German master director F.W. Murnau’s magnificent U.S. debut Sunrise (1927), and eventually directing the acclaimed, if controversial horror film The Black Cat (1934) before things began to sour.

During the period that’s chronicled in the chapter in which the fateful page 99 appears, Ulmer directed a string of off-market pictures aimed at minority audiences: two Ukrainian-language operettas; the all-black musical drama Moon Over Harlem (1939); and four feature-length Yiddish films. The first of these Yiddish features was called Grine felder (Green Fields, 1937), and was shot largely on location in Flemington, New Jersey in less than a week, with a near non-existent budget, in late summer of that year. Ulmer drew his actors, including the two leads, Helen Beverley (Tsine) and Michael Goldstein (Levi Yitskhok), from the then thriving Yiddish Theater in New York City. Despite the seemingly extreme limitations—something Ulmer would face time and again over the amazing course of his thirty-five year career as a director, from the late silent era through the 1960s—he managed to produce one of the most gripping Yiddish movies made in America.

“The film’s well-composed final shot has Tsine and Levi Yitskhok walking hand in hand, a plow lingering in the foreground of the frame, almost as if, as Helen Beverley has commented retrospectively, it were the final scene of a western with the heroes riding off into the sunset.”
Learn more about the book and author at Noah Isenberg's website.

--Marshal Zeringue