MoMA series highlights the weird and wonderful from Poverty Row
Poverty Row was a state of mind as much as a location. It was a nickname for movie studios centered around Hollywood's Gower Gulch, often disreputable, fly-by-night companies pedaling low-budget titles far removed from the glamour and prestige of major studios.
“Strange Illusions: Poverty Row Classics Preserved by UCLA,” a fascinating series running Oct. 19-28 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, challenges the idea that good or even great movies couldn't come from Poverty Row. Gathering a dozen titles from 1930 to 1948, the series spotlights some of the best of the bizarre, rule-breaking releases that lurked under the Hollywood sheen.
In the early days of cinema, anyone with a camera could form a production company. Dozens of them flourished and withered before the industry consolidated around major studios like Paramount, MGM and Warner Bros. during the 1920s.
But independent production companies always remained a force. At times, like with early experimental 3D shorts, moviemakers sold their product to major studios to distribute. In the case of travelogues, foreign-language titles and imports, independents often marketed and booked their movies individually, renting out theatres for screenings.
Since they didn't own theatre chains and had little in the way of infrastructure, the only way independents could really compete with major studios was by focusing on cheap versions of genre pictures and "special interest" movies. Westerns, horror, low-budget musicals and social-issue "problem dramas" about sex, drugs and juvenile delinquency predominated.
They came from companies like Syndicate, Peerless, Big Four and Reliable, as well as more substantial studios like Columbia and Republic. Poverty Row provided a base of sorts for fringe filmmakers, performers waiting to be discovered or on their way down, expatriates, experimenters, craftspeople looking for a quick paycheck.
They didn't mind working on or appearing in titles like Damaged Lives (Oct. 21 & 24), about the ravages of sexually transmitted diseases. Directed by Edgar J. Ulmer, one of the most famous of low-budget filmmakers, it's easy to laugh at today. Shocking for its time, it became a staple on the exploitation circuit, rereleased by different studios under new titles, sometimes with additional footage tacked on. The UCLA preservation returns Damaged Lives to its original splendor.
Ulmer is also represented by the moody, Freudian noir Strange Illusion (Oct. 21 & 24), a quickie from Producers Releasing Corporation, and Ruthless (Oct. 21 & 26), a study of greed and corruption from Producing Artists. Written in part by the blacklisted Alvah Bessie, and featuring a cast of actors familiar from bigger productions, it finds Ulmer working comfortably with more resources than usual.
Noir comes into play with other titles in the series. High Tide (Oct. 20), released by Monogram and directed by John Reinhardt, zips through mobsters, gambling syndicates, murderers, private eyes and car crashes. Hollow Triumph (Oct. 20) has gangsters, psychologists, alter egos, gambling clubs, two A-list performers (Casablanca's Paul Henreid, who also produced, and the marvelous Joan Bennett), and strong direction from future cult favorite Steve Sekely (The Day of the Triffids). It was released by Eagle-Lion Films.
Horror cultists have long savored The Vampire Bat and White Zombie (both Oct. 22 & 28). The former intersects with both Universal's Dracula franchise and Warner Bros.' Technicolor horror movies Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum. Released by Majestic Pictures Corporation, The Vampire Bat had a better-than-average cast. Lionel Atwill appeared in both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, where he was joined by King Kong's Fay Wray, screaming her way through this as she would with the giant ape. Melvyn Douglas (some years away from his turn with Greta Garbo in Ninotchka) had just starred in The Old Dark House, also recently restored.
MoMA is screening a 65-minute version of The Vampire Bat, which also exists in lengths of 62, 63 and 67 minutes. The movie remained popular long after Majestic's demise, licensed by various distributors under titles like Forced to Sin and Blood Sucker.
Bela Lugosi is the main draw behind White Zombie, a troubled project released through United Artists for Halperin Productions. Directed by Victor Halperin and produced by his brother Edward, the movie was the subject of a lawsuit from playwright Kenneth Webb, whose Zombies opened on Broadway. One performer claimed that Lugosi rewrote his scenes and directed retakes. Set in Haiti, White Zombie inspired a long line of imitators, its undead still resonating throughout popular culture today.
Warner Oland is perhaps best known today as Charlie Chan in a series of above-average 20th Century Fox mysteries. In Drums of Jeopardy (Oct. 22 & 24), he plays Dr. Boris Karlov (not to be mistaken for Boris Karloff), a Russian mad scientist out for revenge for the rape of his daughter by one of the Petroff princes. Since Karlov doesn't know which one is responsible, he will kill them all. Fortunately, he has the infamous "Drums of Jeopardy" necklace, pieces of which mean death to whoever receives them.
Drums of Jeopardy, a remake of a 1923 silent, pulls from several influences. Its source novel was written by Harold McGrath, one of the earliest novelists to turn to screenwriting, and its mad scientist isn't far removed from Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu (played by Oland in three earlier movies).
Shot at Tiffany Studios, perhaps the most notorious Poverty Row outfit, Drums of Jeopardy switches moods frequently, from Ruritanian costume melodrama to fogbound proto-noir to outright horror, complete with dungeon labs and poison spells. Eye-catching Art Deco sets combine with out-of-nowhere black comedy from cynical supporting characters like a skeptical spinster aunt. Hard to take seriously but also remarkably entertaining, it's the kind of movie where trap doors have their own trap doors.
For sheer jaw-dropping incredulity, False Faces (Oct. 19 & 27) can't be beat. Another movie shot at Tiffany, it was directed by Lowell Sherman, a Broadway and movie actor. He takes the lead here as Dr. Silas Brenton, a thoroughly unscrupulous surgeon hounded out of New York City for seeking side payments from his patients. Landing in Chicago, he and fellow felon Dr. J.B. Parker (a fulsome Burton Churchill) set up a plastic-surgery scam that spreads out to radio appearances and skin-care endorsements. Along the way, he picks up and discards women until he fastens on wealthy heiress Florence Day (Geneva Mitchell). This being Hollywood, Brenton must get his comeuppance, but not until exploiting cheap, tawdry tricks that are still shocking today.
False Faces has it all: drunken showgirls spilling out of their dresses; doctors too stoned to operate safely; shady detectives on the lookout for easy marks; jaded reporters, slutty secretaries, and patients crippled for life. A natural ham, Sherman powers through every scene, dripping with oily charm, carrying on while dropping lines, setting a hard, driving pace.
The movie looks better than its budget, with confident tracking shots, ironic reverse angles and excellent use of crowd scenes. Sherman elicits great performances from his cast, and maintains the movie's breathtaking amorality right through its supposedly uplifting ending.
"It's my destiny to die," says a poor orphan girl in The Sin of Nora Moran (Oct. 19 & 28), perhaps the series standout. Her sin was to be a woman brutalized by men, and as played by Zita Johann, Nora is doomed by a fate beyond her understanding. The movie switches from the circus to suburban mansions, Death Row, chorus lines and courtrooms, each turn in the story another nail in Nora's coffin.
As a movie, it shows the sins of the genre: repurposed footage, numerous flashbacks, second-tier actors, repeated scenes. But it also has more mature dialogue than the major studios would allow, and the kind of ambitious storytelling that went out of favor with the demise of silent movies. Its three separate points-of-view weave a tale of fatalism that wouldn't feel out of place in a Murnau project. The UCLA restoration makes this Majestic Pictures Corporation release gleam like a big-budget production.
Like the other films in the series, The Sin of Nora Moran hasn't looked this good since it was released. It and all of the Poverty Rows shown here prove that even working with limited funds and impossible scripts, these artists knew what they were doing.