By Betsy Sherman
Even an imperfect work-for-hire like Damaged Lives can show the touch of an artist.
Damaged Lives – Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Screening Feb. 2 and 12 p.m. and Feb. 7 at 4 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston as part of the series Down and Dirty in Gower Gulch: Poverty Row Films Preserved By UCLA.
““The one thing Dad feared is that his films would disappear.” So said Arianné Ulmer Cipes in 2004, upon the 100th anniversary of the birth of her father, prototypical filmmaker-on-the-margins, and to my mind one of the most resourceful and imaginative directors of the 20th century, Edgar G. Ulmer (1904-1972).
Judging by this year on Boston movie screens, Ulmer’s movies are in no danger of disappearing. The new digital restoration of his noir nightmare Detour played at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in January, and now two Ulmer features are part of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s series Down and Dirty in Gower Gulch: Poverty Row Films Preserved By UCLA, running throughout February. It’s fitting that the UCLA Film and Television Archive included Ulmer’s work in their efforts, as he worked miracles with low budgets in that patch of Los Angeles real estate overshadowed by Hollywood’s major studios.
The series is a feast of little-known titles, most from the early sound, pre-Code era. Films showing will be: The Vampire Bat (1933), Feb. 1 & 7; Damaged Lives (1933), Feb. 2 & 7; The Sin of Nora Moran (1933), Feb. 6 & 15; False Faces (1932), Feb. 6 & 27; Mamba (1930), Feb. 17 & 20; and Strange Illusion (1945), Feb. 20 & 21.
Of the two Ulmer movies, the more prestigious is his astounding1945 American-set version of Hamlet, called Strange Illusion. For that film, Ulmer teamed with a fellow middle-European émigré, cinematographer Eugen Schufftan, to create, with a bare bones budget, a moody gem with German Expressionist touches. The Hamlet surrogate’s father, a judge, has died under mysterious circumstances, and the young man develops a very Oedipal antipathy towards his mother’s new suitor (played by longtime Hollywood smoothie Warren William).
By all means try to see Strange Illusion, but I’m turning my attention here to an even more unusual Ulmer offering. Damaged Lives, Ulmer’s first completed feature in the United States, can be categorized as an “ephemeral” film, in that it was commissioned to address a social problem, with an “it could happen to you” message. It chronicles how a young upper-middle class Manhattan couple could come to be infected with syphilis—a plight associated with the unclean poor, criminals and foreigners.
Damaged Lives was scripted by Ulmer and Don Davis, loosely based on the 1901 French play Les avariés (Damaged goods). The project was made under the auspices of the Canadian Social Hygiene Council by Columbia Pictures of Canada, a distribution arm of the Hollywood studio that Frank Capra put on the map. The bigwigs decided to put some distance between themselves and this potentially scandalous title by creating a company called Weldon Pictures and filming the movie off the lot, at General Educational Studios. As was the custom with such educational movies, there was an accompanying filmed lecture by the movie’s clinical supervisor Dr. Gordon Bates (two were shot, one for male audience members, one for female).
Fun fact: this cinematic treatment of a daring subject wasn’t “banned in Boston”—amazingly, the contrary! After it played theaters in Canada and Great Britain, Damaged Lives opened at Boston’s Majestic Theater on September 15, 1933. It was well received. But this is thought to be its only run in the U.S.—until a censored, 61-minute version opened in New York in 1937 (it had the involvement of the American Social Hygiene Association). That’s the truncated version that traveled the road-show exploitation circuit, to great success.
No preview screener of the newly restored Damaged Lives was made available, so the source for my review is the 69-minute version released on DVD by Grapevine Video (this version is the product of a UCLA Archives restoration done in the early 1990s).
Damaged Lives is considered early sexploitation, but there’s nothing close to explicit in it, less than in many other pre-Codes. The villain of the story isn’t human, or even really a virus; it is the combination of ignorance and silence surrounding the subject of venereal disease. It features a no-name cast; the only “name” is Jason Robards, Sr. (the Jason Robards was his son). The stars are Lyman Williams as Don Bradley, who’s just become executive vice-president in his father’s steamship company; Diane Sinclair as Joan, Don’s fiancée and then wife; and Charlotte Merriam as Elise, the platinum-blonde kept-woman of a profligate shipping tycoon. After a night of drinking, Elise and Don have an ill-fated one-night stand before Don gets married.
Frankly, the first half of the movie—the build-up to the couple’s downfall—is a fairly pedestrian tale of infidelity, until the “infection” makes it appearance. With the demands of a tight schedule, the movie’s young leads come off as green, often giving creaky line readings (there’s a bit of camp appeal, but don’t expect Reefer Madness). Yet Ulmer, being a consummate art director, makes sure their surroundings, and characters’ movements within the film frame, are visually interesting. Settings include the ultra-respectable corporate office, the well-appointed homes of the couple and their friends, a nightclub where illicit booze flows freely (the film was made during the tail end of Prohibition), and Elise’s swell-egant Art Deco digs.
The plot thickens when the now-married Don receives a panicked phone call from Elise, and then rushes to her place. She’s distraught, but the movie has to play coy, giving her dialogue like, “I swear, I didn’t know … oh yes, I’ve got it … and for all I know I’ve passed it on to you, and your little wife!” After a stunned pause, Don replies, in language the film’s intended audience would probably share, “A thing like that couldn’t happen to me. It’s impossible.”
He persists in his denial, telling no one. Still, when he sees a newspaper ad promising “Quick Relief and Guaranteed Cure for Any Blood Disorder” (a common euphemism at the time), he goes to a doctor later revealed to be a quack. The man pronounces Don in fine health, and collects a $100 fee (which Don has in his pocket, Depression be damned). Then Joan, in a sweet scene that finds them cuddling in bed, tells Don they’re going to have a baby. A further examination of her by the family doctor reveals all.
From here on out, Damaged Lives becomes riveting, and improbably poetic. First, fold in a dollop of the bizarre. Family doctor Bill drives Don to the clinic of Dr. Leonard, a reassuringly authoritative older man who tells Don that, with the proper course of treatment over two years, he and Joan will be cured, and their baby will be born healthy (mind you, penicillin would not come into common use until nearly ten years later). Then, because they’re all patricians (“I’ve known your father for years”), Dr. Leonard gives Don a sort of private show. They walk down a row of examination rooms. Behind each door is a “syphilitic” patient (finally, the word is spoken) with various visible symptoms. It’s pretty clear we’re seeing documentary footage, not actors. Some are pronounced “innocent,” having gotten the disease from using a borrowed pipe, or from a kiss, another not so much, having been with a streetwalker. The last door of this freak show opens, and out comes Joan, led by two nurses. The effect is chilling.
Now it’s Diane Sinclair’s movie, and she rises to the challenge of enacting a tragedy. The slender actress has exhibited a fragility throughout the film; after Joan’s diagnosis, she carries herself as if she fears she’s polluted and will pollute others just by existing. Ulmer gives her some lovely close-ups, making the most of her dark eyes. Moreover, he choreographs a dramatic sequence of actions taken by the desperate Joan that’s reminiscent of the finest of silent cinema (she runs her fingertips over the marital bed, in a sort of disbelief that such calamity could come from these silk sheets).
Ulmer biographer Noah Isenberg wrote: “The experience of social estrangement—whether inflicted by disease, by the experience of war, or by banishment from one’s home—recurs over time in Ulmer’s work and is one of his dominant motifs.” Even an imperfect work-for-hire like Damaged Lives can show the touch of an artist.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.