28: Horrible Imaginings Panel for 'Bluebeard'
September 15, 2015 3:45 p.m.
Horrible Imaginings's lively panel for Edgar G. Ulmer's 'Bluebeard' (1944). On the panel are Ulmer's daughter Arianne Ulmer Cipes and his biographer Noah Isenberg. Panel was moderated by Miguel Rodriguez.
Beth Accomando: Welcome back to the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. I’m Beth Accomando. If the name Edgar G. Ulmer doesn’t ring a bell then let me give you a hint. He is a film maker. IMDB lists nearly 100 films for him between 1920 and 1964. So, if you’re still drawing a blank on Ulmer’s name then you need to do two things. Seek out his films, many are available on YouTube and read the new biography on him, Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins by Noah Isenberg. Isenberg is Director of Screen Studies at the New School. He says he became interested in Ulmer because Ulmer was such a famous and indeed infamous storyteller. Ulmer began his filmmaking career doing set and production work in the 1920s for acclaimed directors like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Ernst Lubitsch.
Ulmer made his directing debut on the 1930 film, People on a Sunday. Despite his association with Austrian and German émigré directors who would find fame in Hollywood, celebrate, it would prove elusive for Ulmer and he ended up at such unglamorous places as Hollywood’s another world known as Poverty Row. Yet he still managed to deliver a strikingly diverse array of work ranging from the darkly atmospheric Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi starrer The Black Cat to the all black cast of Moon Over Harlem, to the class noir Detour. Ulmer was amazingly prolific. He consistently made visually dynamic films on painfully small budgets from the 1930s to 1950s. He may not have had money, but he had style that burned as well as a burning passion to make money and that’s what we celebrated Sunday night at the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival in San Diego.
Here is an audio from the panel that Horrible Imaginings Festival Director, Miguel Rodriguez, moderated before the screening of Ulmer’s 1944 film Bluebeard. The film starred John Carradine as the infamous serial killer, the panelist for Ulmer’s daughter, Arianne Ulmer Cipes, and his biographer Noah Isenberg. Before hearing the lively panel discussion let’s start with the trailer for Bluebeard.
[Movie Plays] [00:02:06 - 00:03:12]
Miguel Rodriguez: So hi, what is your name?
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: My name is Arianne Ulmer. Can you hear me? And I am the daughter of Edgar G. Ulmer. But I myself have a varied career within the motion picture medium. First of all, I was brought up on the set from my second day of life since my mother was ransomed out of her hospital, which was a maternity hospital by the money that had been collected from the crew on the Green Fields. And the second day they let me out with my mother and she went directly to be the script supervisor, so…
Miguel Rodriguez: That’s a great line.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Yes, on the set and I was literally nursed on the set and everybody took care of me on the crew, whenever she was busy they handed me around.
Miguel Rodriguez: It explains a lot, but…
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: I now have the Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corp. which is a nonprofit and our activity is dedicated to the preservation of Ulmer’s works. The print that you’re going to see tonight literally was preserved through our auspices. We were very lucky to find the negative of it at the CMC which is the big place in France. They still had a negative of Believe it or Not. And it was preserved by them and then I bought it and brought it to the academy, who now hold all of my collection. And I work directly with, of course, the academy, but I also work with UCLA, USC, anybody who have my… with the best of my collection is sitting at the academy.
Unfortunately, we have been able to find many, many materials throughout the country and throughout the world, because usually what happens is that a print lands up in Russia and nobody is going to ship it back in the distribution. And so it shows up like 40 years later maybe in somebody’s collection somewhere on the other side of the earth. And a good part of my work is research, because, thanks to the archives throughout the world and collectors, the people that I used to hate, who had 16 millimeter prints stuck underneath their bed, who had stolen them usually from a television entity in the old days turned out of course to be a exceptionally useful for me at this juncture. Because I was able to find stuff that I never could have found otherwise, especially on a lot of the films that never had any real international distribution at all. I mean, something like Girls in Chains never became a classic.
Miguel Rodriguez: Believe it or not, Girls in Chains is a woman in prison film from way, way back. That didn’t start in the 80s and 70s.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: No, we had a sexy film already at PRC. So I think I’ve given enough of my giving…
Miguel Rodriguez: Oh, we’re [indiscernible] [00:07:00] more from you, but I’m going to move it all over to your right. Why are you here, Noah?
Noah Isenberg: Because I spent my teenage years about 10 miles away from here. So I was just returning home, that’s why I’m here.
Miguel Rodriguez: Wow, this is honest.
Noah Isenberg: To be with you all tonight. I also happen to have collaborated very closely with Arianne on the biography that’s now been given away with these brilliant answers to the interview questions concerning Edgar G. Ulmer. And about a year – a little over a year ago in January of 2004, D.G. Wills in La Jolla, California, we all spent an evening together there and that’s when we met Miguel and that’s when we learned about his work as a programmer and…
Miguel Rodriguez: I don’t know, that’s kind of fuzzy.
Noah Isenberg: It was and it’s a horror film event and that’s essentially why I’m here. So – and to enjoy with you this exclusive 35-millimeter print of Bluebeard and talk a bit about it beforehand with you and…
Miguel Rodriguez: I think we want to hear about Ulmer’s output as a whole and well, I got ULC, I’ve got it all right here. The first thing I actually want to talk about is something a little more philosophical and that’s drive. When I read your biography and when you and I speak about Edgar G. Ulmer. The first thing I think about is this festival is a celebration of independent film and I see that coming straight from Edgar G. Ulmer, because this is a man with – who was given very little resources and still managed to make films and was relentless at making films. He was highly prolific. So what drives some people to create and create and spend their lives telling stories even through adversity?
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Well, I think that adversity is the mother. Most of these kinds of independent films as the person exposes, the issue is that they will never comprehend fully and examine their interiors that usually have been damaged to a good extent. And of course he is a child of the 1st World War and his father died when he was like 10 years old. And to give you an idea of the kind of trauma that he faced, he was sent at that age to Innsbruck to bring his father’s coffin back, because his mother was busy in Vienna taking care of the other children that she had; his sisters and his brother.
If you can visualize a 10-year old boy bringing back his father in a coffin, this was his experience from the early years. He stood on the breadlines that were part of the tragedy of the fact that the Austrians lost the war and there was no food or a marshal plan like we have today. And he was literally sent away to Sweden by an – I think it was at that point some kind of what – who was it?
Noah Isenberg: He was into the joint auspices of the Huber [phonetic] [00:10:26] Commission and a Jewish aid organization that sent him and his siblings to Sweden in the late years of the 1st World War when his mother Henry Hedrick [phonetic] [00:10:34] no longer cared for the children.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: No, she could no longer feed them. They were – the rationing was so desperate. I mean they were given like one loaf of black bread and they would cut that in half. And the bad story that I heard in my childhood from all of the sisters and the brother, aside from Edgar, was that she would take half for herself and have the four children slice up the other half. I mean they were desperate and starving. So I think that he was very damaged; he was traumatized. And he was examining this part of himself and the cruelty that was around. He was a director that I think who was attracted to [indiscernible] [00:11:29] which Noah can tell you about.
Noah Isenberg: Well, I mean the connection that I actually like to speak of more directly is between the first film that you referenced in your trivia question namely The Black Cat of 1934, and the film that we’re about to watch, because from the time that he has first – his venture into – his first foray into horror at the Universal horror cycle in ‘34 with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff in The Black Cat…
[Movie Plays] [00:11:55 - 00:12:11]
Noah Isenberg: Soon after that he was already slated to direct Bluebeard and it was announced in the trade press and then he fell out of favor with Carl Laemmle. But the point that I think that it’s worth to bring up in terms of facing adversity and dealing with this and working through certain traumas whether it’s the 1st World War in the case of The Black Cat or other traumas, going back in this case to Foust actually, to this – kind of this over ambitious artist figure in the character played by John Carradine and Morrell as he is called in the film.
Vis-à-vis this Mephistophelian figure played by Lamarte as he is called in the film Bluebeard ,we’re about to watch played by Ludwig Stossel who is – you may know him from – he is a Leuchtag in that brief exchange in Casablanca, the such much or he is sweetness, dear, how much such much. It was, I guess ,a few lines in Casablanca, but he plays this Mephistophelian figure. And then you have this margarita character in Jean – played by Jean Parker who’d also been in another film at PIC just before with PRC just before with – at Europe directed by [indiscernible] [00:13:20] Tomorrow We Live. All of these – specifically these two films, I think, are really wrestling with certain demons.
In the first case, the demon of the 1st World War, and the second case I think there is just this larger Germanic lineage of the Faust story from Goethe and even before. And I think that he – even though he came to this country rather early as a youngster, he was just 20 years old. I think he brought with him those demons, so to speak here, this Horror Film Festival if you were to say, and I think he was in fact wrestling with many of these demons his whole life, the trauma that Arianne’s described so vividly, the breadlines and just this extraordinary scarcity, austerity during the war years in Vienna.
And then even after you mentioned that you were being born and needing to – I don’t know how you put it, basically scrape together enough money for the productions they were then working on which is the first of Yiddish pictures, Green Fields from 1937. His whole life was [indiscernible] [00:14:28] talk about independent cinema and sort of the predicament, the existential predicament, the exigencies of being an independent filmmaker, you’re always – whether you’re putting it on credit cards today or whether you’re searching or mortgaging – it’s called Mortgage Hill, the home on King’s Road…
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Oh, we watched it every time that he was ready to do something.
Miguel Rodriguez: No kick starter.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: No, not yet.
Miguel Rodriguez: No.
Noah Isenberg: Alas.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Fortunately I can even remember the guy at the Bank of America who was his friend, who he would go back and forth with getting the mortgage, because as soon as he would get something finished and he was working on something, I mean, he didn’t get that much money even when he was at PRC. And he only had a contract really at the end.
Noah Isenberg: With Bluebeard, but Bluebeard – he signs a one-year contract with Bluebeard, and this comes right on the – hot on the hills of Jive Junction which is one of the quickies that he made for PRC. He wasn’t especially proud about this and he was trying to wrestle with another demon which was commercialism. He didn’t just want to make movies for the sake of commercialism. He wanted them to have something artistic, some sort of aesthetic premium that he could feel actually proud of him. And in that regard he is very much aligned with the Carradine character in this film, in this – the Mephistophelian pack, yeah, there we go…
Miguel Rodriguez: That’s it.
Noah Isenberg: Act with the devil that Carradine makes in selling his art. He is a sort of frustrated painter in this film and Ulmer was not proud of certain films that he had to make, because he had to put food on the table. This was a film that was actually kind of a prestige film for PRC. It was a film that, when it appeared, the Hollywood reporter really hailed it as a major picture even though it was made for this little shoestring budget at PRC, sometimes its initial spot to represent pretty rotten crap. And this however, was one that carried unlike Detour. I was really surprised that nobody hailed that movie, but unlike Detour perhaps is among his best known films, this is a budget that’s almost twice ahead. It’s $170,000 for Bluebeard which is a big budget.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Yeah, but it was only made just before, it was $10,000.
Noah Isenberg: Exactly, yeah, Jive Junction is not….
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: $10,000.
Noah Isenberg: Yeah.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: That – and these things were shopped in very few days, those $10,000 things.
Noah Isenberg: And he only had 19 days.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Yes, this was a big film.
Noah Isenberg: He had got six-day pictures, he had done these two-day pictures, and he had 19 days and $170,000.
Miguel Rodriguez: Out of curiosity, do you know the number for The Black Cat?
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Oh, yeah…
Noah Isenberg: That’s 100 and change [phonetic] [00:17:05], it’s about a third of what they spent on Frankenstein, and I think a quarter of Dracula, if I get that right, I mean it was…
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: But it was the most successful picture that year.
Noah Isenberg: In 1934 it was the highest grossing picture at Universal.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: So exceptional things happened, but that didn’t help him any, because he was already fooling around with my mother and then he got black balled, so – you don’t fool around with married ladies.
Miguel Rodriguez: Yeah. Can we count? How do you feel about us talking about the black ball storing?
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: I feel fine about it, nobody is alive anymore.
Miguel Rodriguez: All right. So overcame, he worked on a major studio film, The Black Hat for Universal Pictures, Uncle Carl Laemmle’s Studio. What happened? Why didn’t he make another film there?
Noah Isenberg: You start…
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: No, you start.
Noah Isenberg: I start, okay. At the time Ulmer had already worked in the art department at Universal. For a number of years he directed some two-reel westerns with Willie Wyler…
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Yeah. I have to interfere only to say that people didn’t realize he was an art director from the time he was 18, we have established until he was already 28 or 29, the man had a full career. He would have never shifted except for the fact that Murnau was killed in an accident. He had worked on Sunrise, maybe some of you know. How many of you know what Sunrise is? Okay, so…
Miguel Rodriguez: And all the rest of you need to see it.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Yes, it’s one of the great classics and one of the last silent films that was made. It’s an unbelievably wonderful film and he worshipped her now. And he would never… I don’t think he even thought of directing. If he had lived he would have continued being part of his troop, because he had made quite a few films with him. But it wasn’t to be. And I think that it is why we would first see him even conceding that he would be working with people in Universal and learning his craft as his director. I mean he started on these little two-reel westerns.
Noah Isenberg: Yeah. So when he was about to direct, he was 29 years old. This was his chance to direct at a major studio. This was what seemed to be an auspicious start for a very, very promising career as a young émigré director in Hollywood. He happened to fall in love with Shirley, then Alexander was born in a castle to Kassler, but an old castle [phonetic] [00:19:47] who was Uncle Carl Laemmle’s beloved nephew, Max Alexander and Uncle Carl Laemmle who is Ogden Nash Jr. once [indiscernible] [00:20:00] had a big family and everybody would gather around his table on Sunday for these big lavish Sunday lunches. Ulmer was there, Shirley was there next to Max Alexander. Max Alexander was very, very close with Carl Jr., and once the word got out that Edgar had run off with Shirley the plans to make Bluebeard which was going to be [indiscernible] [00:20:31] to be a Universal Picture…
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: There was already art work done on it…
Noah Isenberg: Yeah, immediately…
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: The posters existed.
Noah Isenberg: Immediately scrapped, so that’s how he became black balled. It was for love, not for politics though in the 40s he definitely was working with plenty of fellow travelers, if not card carrying…
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Yeah, he didn’t believe in any government. He was really – he didn’t trust any established government. He felt that they all were – and then if they get power I don’t care whether they’re socialist, communist or capitalist. He felt that there – the thing that became important was their own power, no longer really caring about people. And so he had very little trust in any established anything. So he was smart enough not to join the communist party although he was a very socialist minded man.
Noah Isenberg: Yeah, if I could just…
Miguel Rodriguez: Yes, please.
Noah Isenberg: Not too tedious and not too academic, there is a lovely citation from the Hollywood reporter when this film was released…
Miguel Rodriguez: Oh, for Bluebeard?
Noah Isenberg: Yeah, for Bluebeard…
Miguel Rodriguez: Absolutely, yeah.
Noah Isenberg: I think he withstands of this trajectory from 1934 to 1944, so a full decade from The Black Cat to Bluebeard in this waiting – long waiting period and while I was at a Securitas Route to get to Bluebeard. But the reviews is really important I think for understanding the achievement of somebody who is working with such modest means as he managed to, as well as – at least the Brothers Grimm would have it’s – spins gold out of straw. So here we have it, just – it has been the [indiscernible] [00:22:15] and it advertised purpose of PRC for some time to lift itself above the status of an organization devoted to the making of lower budget films. And strike out for a better trade by pulling into the market films with a flexible budget which means of course the cost is not the consideration as compared with quality.
PRC has done this with Bluebeard. It is the kind of picture any company or any producer would like to release. It is a class product from start to finish with every opportunity to entertain regardless of expense utilized the fullest. In comparison with other movies with the same premise, it is head and shoulders a superior. Producer Leon Fromkess and his Associate Martin Mooney have taken pains to see that no detail in whatever department was overlooked in the making this film, a somber ripping melodrama that moves towards its conclusion relentlessly. Edgar Ulmer’s direction is studied in exact. There was a gentleman and an understanding permeating the entire film that can be attributed to him. Not until Truffaut writes his loving review of The Naked Dawn, you get this sort of press and that’s a full decade later.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: I have to add just one little thing that I think is very important. That is at the cinematography in this film is unique, it’s really wonderful and it was done by Eugen Schufftan. Do any of you know? Would you raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of Schufftan? He was an incredibly gifted cinematographer and had actually worked on the very first film that dad co-directed…
Noah Isenberg: Menschen am Sonntag.
Miguel Rodriguez: Menschen am Sonntag.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Yeah, people on Sunday.
Noah Isenberg: He was the old man on the set. He was 34, the rest of them were in their 20s.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: And he was a very funny guy if you’re even interested in that. But he – later on he never could get into the union here. So he was working always out of New York or Paris. And he got to do this film because dad really covered it to a certain extent at the first beginning area, because he had us another director.
Noah Isenberg: Yeah. He – I think he has credit on this one if I’m not mistaken, his production designer or they will get [overlapping conversation] [00:24:43]…
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: But he is the real cinema…
Noah Isenberg: And in fact he is the cinematographer.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: He is the cinematographer and dad always used him if he could, because he really – my mother and Schufftan and Erdody where the magic of Ulmer at PRC. These were three people which he really depended on.
Miguel Rodriguez: Can you talk about Erdody and who that is?
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Well Erdody was a Hungarian who had come to this country and he worked at PRC with dad, and he had a tremendous background. He was not just a guy who – a schlepper who was hired as a music guy, like at the studios. This was a man that his father had been the last living student of List, okay, and he had conducted huge orchestras and things like that. So he had a really fantastic background. And of course, dad and he became extremely close and unfortunately before dad – when he moved away from PRC, just in that period Erdody died. So he – he was older than dad, he came from an older generation.
Miguel Rodriguez: He composed on the music on Bluebeard, was that…
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Yes.
Noah Isenberg: He – yeah, I believe, was responsible for Bluebeard…
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Sure.
Noah Isenberg: He was certainly responsible for Detour, he was responsible for – and as Arianne said, when Ulmer was asked late in life in this two-part interview with Peter Bogdanovich which are the films he considered to be among his best, he said you could tell this by the cinematographer that I worked with, namely Eugen Schufftan and he was extremely, extremely endowed to Erdody as well in terms of music. And in fact, that the connection to List, he gave a baton that his – so this is Leo Erdody gave to Ulmer a baton that Erdody’s father had received directly from List and when he would conduct – excuse me, when he would direct, he would hold the baton as if you were conducting. And when it came to working with Heidi Lamarr on The Strange Woman, whom he would also use the baton to smack her ankles when she wasn’t delivering the lines…
Miguel Rodriguez: Do you remember the time he – I’m sorry, you just mentioned The Strange Woman and Heidi Lamarr. I remember you did this great impersonation of Ulmer…
Noah Isenberg: Oh, yeah…
Miguel Rodriguez: When he lost his mind at Heidi Lamarr’s...
Noah Isenberg: Yeah, that’s later. That’s when he worked with her over in Europe on The Love of Three Queens, one of the few pictures that he stormed off of. He was very, very devoted to whatever he worked on and it was very rare that he gave up. In this instance he gave up after working with one of the three installments of this film known as The Love of Three Queens and she would not – how does the scene go, she would not stay within the frame as he wanted the shot to be composed.
And worse than that, she was working with a young actor and she kept on grabbing his head, and she would pull his head towards her bosom and he could not get the shot. And there is just this outrageously funny scene that is reported in the young actor’s memoirs, and I’m blanking out his name at this very moment, but where he imitates the accent, where he is like Ms. Lamarr, if you will not take this boy’s head out of your bosom I will have to make the shot in the [laughter] [00:28:15]. And he had this very booming voice you can hear in the interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and his very strong tonic accent.
Dickie Moore, who just passed away last week, who starred in Jive Junction, the picture just before this, he worked with Ulmer on Jive Junction and he said he was a wonderful man, his accent was really, really hard to understand for a young actor. And this is – this was true certainly of him, it was a true for a lot of these refugees working in Hollywood. And yes, if you – in the biography there is a long passage that recaptures that scene with Heidi Lamarr where he eventually, I think he bites into his arm because he is so frustrated.
Miguel Rodriguez: I think we’re going to have to start wrapping things up.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Yes, I’m afraid so.
Miguel Rodriguez: But to really get us in the Bluebeard, let’s talk about what you might know about Ulmer’s relationship with John Carradine and what it was like working with him? Are there any stories?
Noah Isenberg: Well, you know plenty of stories.
Miguel Rodriguez: Yeah.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Well, I don’t know whether it’s important for you to know it.
Miguel Rodriguez: Well, it’s important.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Yes, I think its fun. Are you bored by now? Okay. I was a little girl when that picture was made. I think I was – at that point I was like eight or nine. And Carradine was running away from his first wife who was trying to get him and to get him to pay child support. Now he was as poor as his dad was. So part of the deal to get him to do this picture was that Carradine lived with us and so did his son, David, who was also Jack Jr. I mean he changed his name so that there wouldn’t be two John’s running for the parts, because it was confusing, but…
Noah Isenberg: He is known as the man who came to dinner, right?
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: He was known as the man who came to dinner, because my mother…
Miguel Rodriguez: You can’t be [overlapping conversation] [00:30:34]…
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: The man who came to dinner, because my mother thought he’d never go away. I mean he ate the dinner, and then he stayed for the whole production, because he didn’t have the money also to stay at the Garden of Allah which was where he had been staying with Sonia who is the lady in this film that plays the jealous girl of the puppeteer. So you will be seeing her also. I was the flower girl in Shakespearian costume when Carradine married her.
Noah Isenberg: Soon after this picture.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Soon after this picture. And so we had a lot of fun together and…
Noah Isenberg: She saved you at the Garden of Allah, right?
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Yes, I would have been dead. I would never have been here if Carradine had jumped in the water in the pool, because my mother was so distracted that she didn’t notice that I had lost my swimming wings and that I was going to the bottom of the pool.
Miguel Rodriguez: I got to interject, all right, [laughter] [00:31:39]. If in that time a person who knew who John Carradine was within the pool and saw John Carradine diving in after them, I think they’d rather drown, oh God, it’s Dracula.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: So I think that that’s enough of the stories, I want to show you this film which is what was one of dad’s favorite films.
Miguel Rodriguez: Absolutely. This is one of my favorite films. John Carradine is outstanding. The music, that’s why I asked about it Erdody and this…
Noah Isenberg: Yeah, and it’s Erdody.
Miguel Rodriguez: Yeah, so it’s really good, particularly with the puppets used with Jesus Classic, Faust.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Faust.
Noah Isenberg: Right, yeah.
Miguel Rodriguez: So really, pay attention to that…
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: That’s who, you know. Thank you very much.
Noah Isenberg: It’s good.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes: Yeah. This is really terrific.
Beth Accomando: Thanks for listening to the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. Check back every Thursday for film reviews and Fridays for interviews. This was another special edition podcast from the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival that took place over the weekend at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. Make sure you subscribe to the Cinema Junkie Podcast on iTunes so you don’t miss an episode. I have some scary good ones coming up in October. Thanks again for spending time and sharing my celluloid addiction. Till our next film fix, I’m your Resident Cinema Junkie, Beth Accomando.