Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker At The Margins
An Interview With Author Noah Isenberg And Arianne Ulmer Cipes
Last week author Noah Isenberg and Arianne Ulmer Cipes came to D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla to talk about iconoclastic director Edgar G. Ulmer. Guest blogger Miguel Rodriguez took the opportunity to interview them about an underappreciated filmmaker.
The film noir "Detour" and the Universal horror film "The Black Cat" both enjoy recognition, but what is known about the man behind the camera? Noah Isenberg’s new book, "Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker At The Margins," about Ulmer was originally intended to be a dry, scholarly analysis of his eclectic legacy of films. That is until his research led him to Ulmer’s spirited daughter Arianne Ulmer Cipes. With her as a resource, Isenberg found himself captivated as much by Ulmer’s life story as he was by Ulmer’s considerable library of films. Isenberg’s work, spanning a decade of painstaking, globe-trotting investigation, evolved to include tales both tall and verifiable of Ulmer’s remarkable life. The result is a rare coupling of intellectual treatise and entertaining biography that beckons to both the film scholar and the public.
“By drawing on the personal writings,” Isenberg noted in a conversation I had with him and Arianne Ulmer at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla, “it enabled me to tell a richer story...one that will resonate with a general audience, film fans, people who like to read biographies. It was a crazy one to write and I’m hoping it will be a crazy one to read.”
Compared to his contemporaries like Billy Wilder and Douglas Sirk, Ulmer’s name remains relatively obscured from general knowledge. What is known about him is colored by his tendency to exaggerate the facts — a tendency that gained him the reputation for outright fabrication.
“We didn’t set out to take 12 years to write the book, but it was a blessing,” explained his daughter Arianne, “because it gave 12 years for us to do the research and for things to surface, and for us to clarify the facts behind physically where he was and what he was doing because he was a little bit like the boy who cried wolf.” His penchant for embellishment made people reluctant to believe anything he said, and made the process of writing his biography a bit of a challenge.
After a time, however, Isenberg saw the mythos behind Ulmer as critical to understanding who the man was. “I have to incorporate some of these really colorful stories that have been told over the years by him, by his daughter, by his wife, by others because without them, I just don’t think we’d have Ulmer.”
“Being a storyteller,” added Ulmer Cipes, “he made his stories a little more dramatic and a little more interesting—but we all do that.”
“I think a lot of filmmakers, these émigré filmmakers especially, they all came up this public persona and embellished their past,” Isenberg noted. “He worked with Murnau, that’s verifiable; he worked with Max Reinhardt, that’s verifiable; he did People on Sunday in the summer of ‘29 with Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak—an illustrious crew.”
But, while fellow émigrés from Eastern Europe found a place in Hollywood, Ulmer would make one major studio film — Universal’s "The Black Cat" — before being relegated to a career of poverty row B-movies, pictures aimed at minority ethnicities, and quickie instructional films on everything from tuberculosis to venereal disease.
Despite all that, Ulmer’s background in classical music and his identification with the high culture of pre-War Vienna influenced his films in ways that were unexpected of B-movie fare.
“Ulmer is a really good case for seeing how very serious, ambitious, high-brow aspirations that he had in his work can and do come into this really stimulating conversation with trash,” noted Isenberg, “I think he actually enjoyed putting together these completely oppositional elements and seeing how they come into conflict and into play with one another.”
“Even [the anti-venereal disease picture] 'Damaged Lives,' which would otherwise be a routinized instruction film, he has several sequences in there that are really incredibly stylized…in his hands he says ‘I’ve got this training, I have a certain eye, a certain vision, by God I’m gonna include those moments,’ and they’re certainly there,” Isenberg stated.
When asked whether Ulmer’s position “in the margins” of filmmaking lent his art a voice it would be missing in the major studios, Isenberg cites film critic Manny Farber’s notion of the “termite artist,” or the artist who, free from studio excess, was able to shed pretensions and explore the cores of topics under the guise of cheap, B-level art.
“He had all that freedom and felt big man on a small lot, and was able to choose what he wanted to do. He wrote, he directed, he produced, he did set design, he did all sorts of stuff, and I think it was a really great period in his life. He has high aspirations and wants to draw on elitist high culture, but he mixes it then with the gutter. I think there is something to that that makes him rather special,” Isenberg told me.
Arianne Ulmer Cipes agrees. “Someone said that he was able to be haute couture and low culture at the same time, and I think they were right.”
Isenberg’s book examines a lot of these aspects in the effort to understand the man Edgar Ulmer, what he was trying to say, and how high concept can be found in low art. The danger of working in a generally disregarded medium is the uncertainty of the survival of that work. His daughter has worked hard to make sure that doesn’t happen with Ulmer’s output.
“One of the last things he said to my mother and me when he was in the hospital—he said, ‘I don’t know where the negatives are; I don’t know where the prints are; I don’t know whether anything is going to survive.’ So that was the basis of my eventually opening Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corporation," Ulmer Cipes explained.
She now has several complete films in the original 35mm nitrate, as well as scores more on 16mm film.
Edgar G. Ulmer was certainly a prolific filmmaker with a unique voice, and Isenberg's biography, "Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker At The Margins," is just one more piece in the effort to preserve his name and his work. “He was extremely worried that he was going to be forgotten forever,” Isenberg noted, “Ulmer certainly is one of the greats, and I’m hoping that now people will think of him in the same light that they think of someone like Billy Wilder.”
Viewing to pair with the book:
"Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, A Documentary Portrait of the King of the B’s" from KINO International
"People On Sunday"
"The Black Cat"
"Moon Over Harlem"
"The Strange Woman"
"The Man from Planet X"