Edgar G. Ulmer breaks free of Poverty Row

And now for the rarest picture in the entire 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival.

 

HER SISTER’S SECRET is a recently revived feature by that most revered of independent filmmakers, Edgar G. Ulmer. Running afoul of the Universal brass around the time of his hit Karloff-Lugosi horror classic The Black Cat, Ulmer found himself unable to land a studio job. After assisting and designing for some of the greatest film artists of all time, Ulmer became something of a cinema gypsy, taking jobs wherever they could be found. He made regional-ethnic films for Yiddish and Ukrainian audiences, and eventually shot a tiny all-black production called Moon over Harlem. Even when Ulmer joined the tiny poverty row outfit Producer’s Releasing Corporation (PRC), his budgets and salary remained miniscule.

 

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But those in the know in the 1930s and ’40s recognized that Ulmer consistently turned out little artistic gems despite working with dime-store resources. The pictures were cheaply made but always with great care to casting and music. Ulmer’s directorial touches raised the bar for quality at PRC. Ulmer evoked a poetic Parisian atmosphere for next to nothing in his excellent Bluebeard, while most every film  fan knows his classic Detour as a downbeat existential masterpiece.

 

One of the last PRC releases before the company changed its name to Eagle-Lion, HER SISTER’S SECRET was filmed on a higher  budget, if one that would be considered merely adequate at the big studios. Even detractors describe the production as high-grade, and the trades were complimentary. Others couldn’t believe that PRC could make a movie as good as this, and one critic even wondered if the impressive Mardi Gras scenes that open the film, weren’t stock footage of some kind.

 

Ulmer persisted in his quest for quality no matter what the scale of the show. He brought in the great cinematographer Franz Planer (credited as Frank F. Planer), who gives the lighting a sculpted look, and helped engineer Ulmer’s expressive camera moves. The leading ladies Nancy Coleman (Kings Row) and Margaret Lindsay (Jezebel) are perfectly cast. Coleman had often been associated with desperate or emotionally stressed characters, and we keep wondering when and if her self control will break down.

 

The film is a remake of a 1938 French original called Conflit, and is squarely in the genre of the ‘women’s weepie’. Variety said that it had ‘strong femme appeal.’  In New Orleans local beauty Toni DuBois (Nancy Coleman) and soldier Dick Connolly (Phillip Reed) meet and fall in love during Mardi Gras. The morning after Dick proposes but Toni has doubts. They decide to return to Pepe’s Cafe in six weeks to prove that they’re serious about each other. Toni comes back ready to tell her lover that she’s pregnant with his child, but Dick doesn’t show. Toni then runs to New York to tell her married sister Renee DuBois Gordon her sad story, and a risky plan emerges. Renee hasn’t been able to have a child. They’ll go away together to New Mexico, swapping their identities. When they come back Renee will present the baby as her own. Toni is crushed but agrees for practical considerations. Back in New Orleans, her father tells her that “there is nothing you should ever regret in life except not having lived it”. Toni tries to stay away as promised, but after a couple of years she becomes obsessed with getting her child back again.

 

HER SISTER’S SECRET is an uncommonly sensitive look at a problem that the Production Code didn’t think acceptable as a film subject. Told completely from Toni’s point of view, the picture’s psychology is sound. There are no unexpected laughs at the film’s expense. Although the stigma of single motherhood has lessened, the behavior and attitudes we see have not really dated. Nancy Coleman goes through an entire range of guilty emotions without resorting to the usual weeping and wailing. Nor is the story an excuse for actress-on-actress thespic fireworks, like the cat fights seen in similar  movies with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. True to the dawning postwar tilt toward realism, Toni DuBois remains a serious woman facing real problems with a pragmatic attitude.

 

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Not since the early 1930s have we seen an Ulmer movie with so many impressive sets and such elegant camera work. Peter Bogdanovich explained that Edgar G’s earlier PRC movies were so strapped for time and money that the director made sure that every set had one blank wall. He’d save a few minutes at the end of the shooting schedule for a ‘wild card’ shoot. Actors would stand before the blank wall and recite dialogue from multiple scenes to provide cutaway reverse shots to be used throughout the movie. “Turn left, read this” — “turn right, and read this.” The shot wouldn’t even be slated — Ulmer would simply wave the actors through as if on an assembly line. On HER SISTER’S SECRET no such desperation was necessary; the film is beautifully directed in every way. For two or three pictures (The Strange Woman, Ruthless) the director would enjoy the luxury of this slightly bigger scale, before once again returning to cost-conscious films for independent producers.

 

HER SISTER’S SECRET was recently restored by the UCLA Archive, and looks dazzlingly perfect after existing for over 65 years in miserable 3rd generation TV prints.  Appearing before the screening were UCLA Archive director Jan-Christopher Horak, and Arianné Ulmer Cipes, the daughter of director Ulmer. Ms. Cipes has been seeing to the recovery and restoration of her father’s far-flung movies for over twenty years now. She explained that Ulmer was PRC’s star director yet earned a pittance. Directly after HER SISTER’S SECRET he was loaned out to an independent producer and discovered that PRC was pocketing a disproportionate slice of his pay. That ended his relationship with the studio. Arianné said that Margaret Lindsay was a close friend of the family. Although the film’s actors were all Americans, most of the creatives behind the camera were European émigrés. Her parents were constantly receiving new arrivals from overseas. Arianné was at this time a young child, and played a small role in her father’s next film, THE STRANGE WOMAN. In this picture an uncredited little girl has a scene delivering a crucial message at the outdoor cafe. Could it be  Arianné?  She didn’t say.