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Discovering a 'Maker of Men'

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One of the joys in checking out the availability of movies on YouTube and streaming sources is the stumbling on to something new to the viewer's experience. For this writer it was in discovering that AGGIE APPLEBY, MAKER OF MEN, a play by Joseph Otto Kesselring of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE fame, was made into a 1933 movie several years prior to the author's first draft of ARSENIC emerging from the typewriter. As Kesselring's other works that made it to the stage were nowhere nearly as successful as ARSENIC, this production of AGGIE APPLEBY, MAKER OF MEN, written by other hands, offers some insight into Kesselring's exploration of Great Depression social conditions in comedic terms.
Not that AGGIE APPLEBY, MAKER OF MEN, is a lost film or even one overlooked in its day. It was in fact routinely reviewed by newspaper critics and has gained something of a reputation as an example of the freer examination of contemporary mores before the Production Code stifled more adult-natured…

Review: Monsters of a Universal kind

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THE MOVIE MONSTERS OF UNIVERSAL STUDIOS, by James L. Neibaur. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, 213 pages. $38 (hardcover), $36 (e-book).

While the field of book-length studies of the iconic monster films produced by Universal Pictures between the 1930s and '50s is a crowded one, James L. Neibaur proves there's always room for one more with a fresh viewpoint and solid observations about what makes those flicks great and what doesn't. THE MONSTER MOVIES OF UNIVERSAL STUDIOS is written with the assurance of a devotee, but one who can view them dispassionately and be unafraid of calling them out on their defects -- not there are that many, in this reviewer's humble opinion.

"The monster movies ... have extended beyond the context of the era of their release and have lived on over time and generations," Neibaur rightly contends in explaining the book's thesis when it comes to the Universal classics. "The iconic characters and enduring stories co…

A stable base: Edgar G. Ulmer at PRC (Part 4)

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Much has been written about DETOUR, Edgar G. Ulmer's next production for Producers Releasing Corp., since its initial release. By then World War II was over and U.S. movies were again being exported to Europe. DETOUR was among the new releases the French moviegoing public and its critics saw, earning it an early reputation as a seminal film noir because of its closeness in spirit to French cinema's "poetic realism" that emerged in the '30s, considered by some examples of noir thinking in the years prior to the war. Indeed, the closing thoughts of DETOUR's central character, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), forever served as a direct example of the noir experience: "This I know -- at any time, fate can put the finger on you for no reason at all."

Because of all of the critiques and literature about DETOUR, there will be no attempt here to dissect its meanings beyond the contention that it is Ulmer's masterpiece for the studio, a triumph of the minimalism f…

A stable base: Edgar G. Ulmer at PRC (Part 3)

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Edgar G. Ulmer's next directorial effort and more overtly auteur production for Producers Releasing Corp., BLUEBEARD (released Nov. 11, 1944) remains a distinctive piece of cinema both for the contributions of the director and the studio. It was a clear indication of PRC's move toward quality while still releasing such projects as Sam Newfield's THE MONSTER MAKER and NABONGA that year, the kind of bread-and-butter pictures that paid the bills and allowed production chief Leon Fromkess to indulge the company's efforts to upgrade its image (however, THE MONSTER MAKER deserves its share of praise as a genuinely unsettling horror flick and an indication of Newfield's often-smothered directorial talent). 

Although Ulmer had proven himself to be a quality filmmaker in tight circumstances with his mixed bag of output ranging from broad comedy to South Seas adventure, he was also getting a shot at projects that were more to his liking, with BLUEBEARD marking the beginning o…

A stable base: Edgar G. Ulmer at PRC (Part 1)

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At first blush, the pairing of filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer with Hollywood B-movie studio Producers Releasing Corp. made for an odd combination when they came together in the early 1940s.

There was Ulmer (1904-1972), Czech-born and trained at the famde German studio UFA prior to coming to America in the early 1930s. He was an artistically-minded triple threat as a writer, producer and director also proficient in set design and construction who valued his independence as much as his desire to demonstrate his particular talent; he later claimed turning down an offer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer boss Louis B. Mayer was something of a professional highlight for him. As Ulmer put it, "I did not want to get ground up in the Hollywood hash machine."*

PRC, as the company was more commonly known, was on the bottom rung of indy moviemakers specializing in second features for the nation's theaters, behind rivals Monogram and Republic, reviled for the ragtag look of its movies and the prod…

A stable base: Edgar G. Ulmer at PRC (Part 2)

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As Edgar G. Ulmer settled in with steady work at Producers Releasing Corp. in 1943, the studio was purchased by railroad man Robert R. Young, who also owned the American version of Pathe Laboratories. Seemingly little changed at PRC with the switch in ownership, the third since the company's founding as it continued to fill the need of small-town and neighborhood theaters across the country.

But in doing so, PRC also looked to shake the reputation it had earned for issuing quickies devoid of any production niceties. Its product fit the bottom half of the double feature bill efficiently if not attractively, and ever attentive to the comments from exhibitors and theater owners, began to look at improvement by cutting back on the number of pictures in production and using the savings to offer audiences something better than what became expected from PRC. "With a heavy backlog of 80 pictures backed up in the exchanges, PRC would be able ... to concentrate on better quality produc…