November 24th, 1998

(no subject)

Girls in Chains (1943)
directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

Good lord. I have come to the first (although surely not the last) Edgar G. Ulmer movie that is truly, unequivocally awful. It's got a few moments...but apart from those rare moments, the movie is a positively wretched thing to sit through.

Really, the best thing about the movie is a minor character, Mr. Cleeter (played, I remember, by Emmett Lynn), some city official who, because he sides with the heroine, loses his job and goes on a marathon drunk, albeit a happy one. Man is he funny to watch. He's funny to watch even before he goes on a bender: he's a tiny, meek man with half-inch-thick glasses that magnify his eyeballs like goldfish tanks. He looks sort of like a badly aged R. Crumb, but smaller and more cuckolded. He's pretty silly and he's a real rip once he gets hammered. I mean, physically his performance was overdone and beyond hammy, but still within the borders of the acceptably comic. When he's on screen it feels like you're watching an actual movie. The only thing this movie really has going for it is the laughs when he's on screen. Like when he sits down at a stranger's table, they're a couple eating dinner in a restaurant, and the wife says, 'Look honey, an alcoholic.'

That's pretty funny.

What else can you say, though? Even Ulmer can't elevate this one.

The actors...I heard someone in the audience describe the heroine as 'dowdy' and I suppose that's pretty accurate. She was shabby in an uninteresting-to-watch sort of way. Both she and the male lead are horrible, absolutely horrible. It seems like everyone in the cast is a nonactor or relative of someone in the crew or something. There are actually times during a scene when the characters are supposed to be looking at one another while they speak, and their bodies and their faces are tilted in the right direction but it's pretty obvious that their eyes are looking past each other, reading their lines off of a card or something. I sigh.

Ulmer did this one also in six days (makes me wonder how much free time this guy must have had, since almost all his movies were made in under a week) although I don't know what the budget was, though from the looks of it, even less than Detour, if that can be imagined. With about the same number of sets it looks like, too. So why was Detour completed brilliantly while Girls in Chains could be used to fertilize crops? Who the hell knows. Maybe Ulmer was having a bad week. Not even a week, a bad six days. Six days! With a shoot that short, even a mild case of indigestion could basically torpedo you for the entire production.

The fascistas, the Nazi-looking prison matrons weren't that bad I guess. Although I always thing women in Nazi drag are hot. It's hard to tell; they had so little screen time.

(no subject)

Damaged Lives (1933) 1:01
directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

starring Diane Sinclair, Lyman Williams, George Irving, Cecilia Parker, Jason Robards

Oh well... another Ulmer stink-bomb. Probably can't be held all that accountable, it being his first American film, and taking into account all the shit he went through with the censors on the subject matter alone. It's still pretty awfully hokey though. I suppose, given that it is a VD scare film--the syphilitic equivalent of the no less funny Reefer Madness (which is even campier)--it ain't all that bad... Relatively speaking, in the context of other morality scare-films, it's probably not that bad at all. Compared to most VD films, I mean. Although I can't imagine the context in which this could possibly be considered 'good'. At best: it's not heinous.

It certainly doesn't look chintzy. There was very definitely money involved in making this. Not only that, but I heard this one made $1.4 million dollars (in 1933!), of which, I'm sure, Ulmer saw not one red cent. Also there's a rumor that the lead actress, Diane Sinclair, was in fact a negro, and just passing for this movie. I can't tell. It's tough to figure out in black and white. You look at her and think: well, she could be a negro, I suppose. It's possible. Then again, maybe not.

For the most part, the movie is just boring and unintentionally silly. Well, no one said Ulmer was talented because of the scripts he was handed. Even still, it was pretty tedious. Particularly this one scene at the end when the wife tries to commit suicide by turning on all the gas jets, closing all the windows and doors and going to sleep beside her already sleeping, recently diagnosed syphilis-positive husband. It goes on and on and on and on. Maybe it's supposed to feel powerful, these suicidal melodramatics, but they just feel overdone. He wakes up, turns the jets off and hugs his wife. She cries and admits having been wrong to try to gas them both. It'll be okay, they both agree. In the end, it'll be okay. Fade to black.

At this point, originally, there was an additional 29-minute lecture by the actor who played the doctor (in the European release, it was a lecture by an actual doctor) about venereal disease. It just might have been more interesting than the movie.

Really, much of it is hideously funny in a campy vein, where Girls in Chains was devoid of even that much pleasure (Emmett Lynn's performance excepted). After the syphilitic couple have been diagnosed and shown all the horror-filled examination rooms (15 of them! only four of which are shown on camera) and are sitting in some waiting room, looking shell-shocked, their doctor friend comes out of an office glibly screaming, 'Aw c'mon! Don't look so glum!' Lord Jesus I cracked up when I heard that. Its tone was funny that way. It was like: 'Syphilis (although its name is never spoken--it is continually referred to as 'the blood disease') can turn you into a twitching, drooling, bleeding, mad, scabrous, screaming blind wreck!!! Your life is over!! Er...unless you receive regular medical treatment, in which case everything will most likely be fine.'

All in all I thought it could have been a lot more fun. The plot, to recap should I ever forget: an engaged man fools around, contracts the Big S, marries, passes the dreaded 'blood disease' to his better half and their unborn kid. She finds out and tries to kill them both. But, in the end, it turns out okay.

God, I really don't know what else to say. We're really talking about movies from the edge of the abyss here. How much brainpower can you devote to Damaged Lives? Or Girls in Chains for that matter?

(no subject)

Her Sister's Secret (1946) 1:26
directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

starring Nancy Coleman, Margaret Lindsay, Felix Brassart, Regis Toomey, Philip Reed, Henry Stephenson

Well at least this one was a real movie. It may not be a perfect script Ulmer's working from, but it's a shining pearl of brilliance compared to Girls in Chains.

Plotwise: a serviceman and a beautiful woman hook up at Mardi Gras, fall in love and fall into bed together. They agree to meet again but he gets shipped off to war and she misses a message he sends her; think's he's already forgotten her. Meanwhile, she's conceived, had the child and instead of giving it up for adoption, gives it to her barren (unbeknownst to her away-at-sea brother-in-law) sister. Three years later, the war is finished and Mr. Serviceman is hunting for the woman he fell in love with at Mardi Gras. She, for her part, is near insane with longing and loneliness (her father, whom she'd been living with, has in the interim also passed away, making three males in three years that she's lost) and thinking of taking back her kid, whom she's never even met. She drops in on her sister and her brother-in-law (after virtually trying to kidnap the kid) and after seeing how happy they and the kid are together, and that the kid is even a little afraid of her, she leaves it alone. On her way out of the building she is reunited with her Serviceman-love. The end.

A pretty good little weepie from beginning to end. The Mardi Gras scenes in the beginning, which takes place entirely in the courtyard of some little French bistro, positively sparkle. With much recognition owed to Nancy Coleman who is really good in this. The flirtation between the two (her and Felix Brassart, I presume) is very nice indeed as they sit with their respective, but dull, dates, looking each other over, separated by a table or two, her with a mask, him without.

The sisters' scheme is a little hare-brained, sure. I mean, what husband isn't going to notice, upon returning and finding a baby, that his wife's body seems not to have undergone any changes? Then again, at the end, when the brother-in-law walks Nancy Coleman to the front of the building he does admit to knowing after all... I forgot that part. Seems he's not as dumb as one might think.

Nancy Coleman does a great job of taking her character from excited, breathless sexuality in the beginning scenes to the fragile, shuddering loneliness that makes her, trance-like, try to kidnap her own baby away from his nurse after he's already been the son of her sister for three years.

Lindsay as the sister is good too. If I call her a second-rate Barbara Stanwyck, it's not really meant as an insult, even if it sounds like one. She just reminded me a hell of a lot of Stanwyck.

The movie is well paced, but not wound spring-tight like a thriller or anything. It's well acted too. I don't know what to say. I think the picture has me aglow because it's not like it's a Z-grade picture interesting only because of its odd, Ulmer-ian merits, but it is, as I said before, a real movie, and a good one at that. And it does have its Ulmer touches of visualness. There is some use of mirrors to expand the frame, as in the scene in Detour when Neal enters the room where Ann Savage's corpse lies, out of frame, but reflected in the room's mirror.

And the way Coleman chooses to tell Brassart she's pregnant (tries to tell, she never gets the chance) is by mailing him a baby doll in a box. It's kinda creepy, but it works, I think. I guess you still weren't permitted to say the word 'pregnant' in a studio production so Ulmer's got to make the audience understand somehow, without the 'P' word.

But I thought (even though I understood it to mean she's pregnant) that that image reminded me a little much of a baby in a little baby coffin, and I had a hard time not seeing it as that. Maybe I'm just an emotionally unhealthy person.

As I've said, the ending left a little to be desired. They just kind of bump into each other in the park. They hug, they kiss. The end. I was a little stunned by how uninvolved and uninvolving the ending was. Then again, it's not really a movie about their romance, it's about her loss and her loneliness, which is why the last scene where she realizes her baby is better off where he is, with the only mother he's ever known. Nevertheless, the ending (and the movie perhaps) could've used a bit more of the soldier, Felix Brassart, and what he's been doing, exactly, for the most of the movie.