What's interesting is that there are the four Yiddish films, the Ukrainian film and, in essence, a "Harlem Renaissance" film with Moon Over Harlem, and this is over the period of 1937-1940.
In that period also are all of the documentaries that he did where he's working with the Navajo Indians, he's working with the Black community down in the South with [Paul] Robeson, he's working with the Mexicans. There are seven or eight of them, of which I only have four or five preserved. MOMA has them, but they don't like to show them because some of them are one-of-a-kind prints and we don't have the money to preserve these kinds of things yet. They're very much like Green Fields. They're very agricultural, beautiful landscapes.
He had a very lyrical style.
Yes. Very different than his later stuff, like Detour. It's a very different milieu, but he loved [Jean] Renoir and so there's an influence there.
How long were your parents in New York?
Well, my mother got pregnant on Natalka and I'm born on Green Fields. They were there from 1936 to 1940 - five years.
So your early formative years were spent around New York. Do you remember being on the sets for any of these films, such as American Matchmaker [where Arianne has a walk-through]?
I remember it. I remember how the boards of the floor were splintery and had sawdust on them. I hated it and, to my mother, I kept complaining to her. And she said, "In this instance, here, it's okay. You can stand on the dirty, dusty, painful floor." Anyhow, I didn't like the whole thing. You can see it in the scene where I'm chewing on a can of Coke which she gave to me to keep me quiet.
What made them decide, then, to leave New York and head back for Los Angeles?
Well, there are many letters on that. First of all, he had a real hope that Paramount would remake The Blue Angel, supposedly with Veronica Lake. I've got the letters of the correspondence back and forth from the people and the contacts that were giving him this crazy idea. He showed up out here and was terrible disappointed.
There were two other things going on at the same time that were bringing him back to Los Angeles. He had a very dear friend, [Seymour] Nebenzal. Nebenzal was out here making a picture at PRC so he is probably the connection to physically getting him to Leon Fromkess, who was initially an accountant and later became the head of the studio. PRC was making a transfer at that time. They had initially been a little studio, at least half the size of Goldwyn. It was not a small place, exactly; it had four or five stages. They wanted to switch from doing two-reeler and three-reeler Westerns into making full-length films. They needed people who had experience, and Dad had experience. He'd had all the training at Universal doing two-reelers before he did The Black Cat.
During the Poverty Row films, he obviously worked with your mother on every film. Was the rest of the crew essentially the same, too?
Most of the people were the same in that period. [Eugen] Schüfftan is present in one form or another, credit-wise, as often as he could, although Schüfftan was not in the West Coast cameraman's union at the time. He did get, finally, into the cameraman's union when he won the Academy Award [for The Hustler]. They were finally embarrassed enough to take a foreigner in.
During this time, Ulmer was making films that were allotted only 15,000 feet for a feature. He shot using, essentially, a 2:1 ratio on a very short schedule. These achievements should be inspiring to any filmmaker working today, in that he was able to take very little and turn it into so much. I think a very good case of this is Strange Illusion, where he's using Hamlet, in essence, as the foundation for the story and then creating something very different out of it. Nothing is beyond his capabilities. He's obviously very clever in making a pirate movie [Pirates of Capri] during this time.
Louis Hayward in Pirates of Capri
That one I remember very well, because we went to Italy to make it. I was twelve years old and I appear in it. It's one of his best. The thing that's distinguished about the film is that he took a long time to make it because it's made on actual locations in Italy in 1949. You can understand that wasn't very easy to do in those days. I think we were one of the first production companies that hit Italy at that time. It was an exciting, wonderful experience.
The film that he completed after returning from Italy, The Man From Planet X, is available now through the now-defunct MGM. This is something that they picked up after-the-fact? It wasn't made for MGM.
No, it was not. They've only recently picked it up through a library. The Library of Congress have just created a preservation print of that film that we're going to premier at the retrospective in New York. It's supposed to be a really superb print.
How much of that is happening outside of the boundaries of your organization, the Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corporation?
Most of it! I just start the ball rolling. I haven't got the money to do eighty-thousand or hundred-thousand-dollar preservation projects.
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