Saturday, December 19, 2009

Paying the Bills: Damaged Lives (1932) and Diagnostic Procedures in Tuberculosis (1940), Edgar G Ulmer.

Damaged Lives came about, according to director Edgar G Ulmer, because of jealousy amongst the Cohn brothers:

Jack Cohn got in a fight with his brother, Harry.  Jack was in charge of sales in New York and was very angry and very jealous that he couldn't produce like Harry...And Jack Cohn, who I knew very well, brought up the subject one night.  He had to make pictures himself.  He went back to New York and called me.  We met the Canadian Health Minister who needed a picture for Canada... I wrote a script, and the Canadian Health Minister was delighted.  He didn't know a thing about pictures.  I came back to the Coast and shot it.
                            - Kings of the B's, Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn

Made in eight days for the Cohns at Columbia, Damaged Lives is a morality tale about the dangers of syphilis and made big money once released.   Though an "educational picture," it clings to a traditional everyman narrative, and looks quite rich.  In the shot above, cinematographer Allen G Siegler frames a gorgeous apartment using an art deco statue.  And, whoa!  What a fireplace!  As the story goes, a naive young man has one wild night with an older platinum blond (early 30s shorthand for bad news), catches syphilis and later passes it to his wife Joan.  The first half of the film is kind of a gas, with an all night bender and trip to some kind of classy bordello; the second half dwells on the after-effects of it all and even includes a few gag-inducing shots of presumably real patients with open sores and deformations. (Interesting how it looks even more horrific in black and white).  Oddly, the Canadian description for this film, as it appears in the Library and Archives catalogue, states that the actress Diane Sinclair, who plays Joan "may have been black."  Source?

Ulmer, in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich (which is quoted from above), stated that though he became stuck in Producers Releasing Corporation and "couldn't get out," working for a Poverty Row studio did have certain benefits.  "I could use my crew, and I was running the studio from a technical end.  I wouldn't sign any contract with PRC, but this was my home and I could operate and bring any idea to the top echelon."  Though they are not for PRC, Ulmer's work on pictures such as Damaged Lives and Diagnostic Procedures in Tuberculosis are interesting examples of a craftsman working within given boundaries.  Diagnostic Procedures in Tuberculosis is another short film, this time the audience is the medical community; it documents how to perform particular tests for tuberculosis.  It's my bias, but lovely touches in a B or an education film made strictly for money warm my heart; we may all work, yet we are all not whores.  Ulmer's work also demonstrates that not all men working in B's were hacks.  Who else would shoot a scientific film in which a back-lit physician opening a lab kit looks like a magician about to perform a disappearing trick in an elegant nightclub?    

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