Your father married Shirley Alexander, your mother, and she was, as you note, the script supervisor on pretty much all of the films thereafter. She also worked on several movies and television programs not associated with your father.
She did other films afterwards, like Return to Macon County. She was a working script girl.
I'm going to put words in your mouth and you could take them right out again if you'd like. It appears that your father sacrificed, in a sense, a career with the studios for the love of your mother.
I don't think he thought that. Nobody sat down and said, "We can do this and this is our option and this is the way we go." They fell in love. They had an affair while she was married [to film producer Max Alexander, nephew of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle]. They just went straight to Hollywood Blvd. to a seedy little hotel and she was locked up for twelve days while he taught her the basics of European civilization and culture. Even though she had a good American education, she didn't have sufficient knowledge of what would be a central Jewish-European education. Laemmle was a very, very conservative Jew. He used to put out morality phrases in front of the studio that would change every week. He ran his family like a total patriarch. Everything was done with his blessing and his involvement. My mother always talked about the fact that she always had to go to the Sunday dinner or the Friday Sabbath dinner and even her refrigerator would be chosen by this guy. It was that absurd.
When the affair happened, I don't think they thought any of it through. They were just wild. He was already in a battle with the studio over the fact that he was using classical music [in The Black Cat] and Leammle Jr. stood by him on it. This kind of stuff was not appreciated, but when this happened, I think they lowered the boom. He got a picture in Canada, which was a quota quickie for Columbia. He went up there to make that and that's the beginning of his detachment from the studios.
There was not much contact with the Laemmles after they married? Did your mother ever spend time with them again?
They never, ever spoke to her again. My mother tried in later years, thirty years later. We were at some social event and they refused to even shake hands. It was a scandal. There's no question about it. I don't think that it turned his life into a tragedy at all. I think it gave him what he would have sought anyway, in the end. He needed a catalyst of some kind to go off and be an independent character and this is the one that brought it on. It's romantic to say that they chose. I don't think they chose anything.
It is from here that Ulmer's relationship with the ethnic films begins. How did this period of work come about? Obviously, traveling from Los Angeles to New York...
After he finished working in Canada, he went to New York to marry my mother in a Jewish ceremony because they had not been legitimately married according to my grandmother. When he arrived, he looked up the people that he had known in his earlier New York days. When he came the first time, he came with Rudolph Schildkraut, who starred in [Max Reinhardt's production of] The Miracle. Schildkraut introduced him, for the first time, to the great Yiddish plays and he had never seen anything like that.
At that time, you had the Yiddish theater. It was doing more experimental art direction than you had even on Broadway. You had moving tables and things that went up and down electronically, and all the stuff that was being experimented at that time in Bayreuth was being brought in from Europe into their theater. While he was down there, he enjoyed a lot of their theater and one of the great plays that was going on at that time was one of the great classics by Peretz Hirschbein [Green Fields]. Hirschbein was part of this group and is actually the one that eventually would bring Dad into doing the Yiddish films. But prior to the Yiddish pictures, Dad had signed a contract in New York to make industrials. They were a small firm that did those kinds of small documentaries and industrial efforts, anything that came up, which is how eventually he would end up doing the tuberculosis stuff.
Goodbye, Mr. Germ?
Yes. Basically, his livelihood for the first six or seven months in New York came from that company. Meanwhile, out of his connection with the company, he had a connection working with a lab. The lab came to him and said that there was a crazy guy that showed up in their office and his name was [Vasile] Avramenko. And he was a lunatic Ukrainian. He was a very well-known dancer. Avramenko came to Dad and said, "I want you to direct a Ukrainian picture. I have dancers from all over the world. I have great operatic singers," one of whom had performed at the Met. "Everything is put together because this is our classic operetta. Natalka Poltavka is our Show Boat. You just have to come in and help me direct this." At that point, Dad says, "Where am I going to build this?" "Well, we have connections in New Jersey and maybe you can design the sets out there." So he went out there and built the sets for Natalka, which later on would be utilized in Green Fields. One thing leads into another.
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