The title of the series that the UCLA Film & Television Archive is currently presenting in Los Angeles, Down and Dirty in Gower Gulch, refers to the old Hollywood neighborhood where independent studios such as Grand National, Monogram, Producers Releasing Corporation, and Republic made so-called B movies from the late 1920s through the mid-1950s. New restorations of a good handful of these pictures are screening each Saturday through December 8 at Raleigh Studios, which, as Kenneth Turan points out in the Los Angeles Times, isn’t all that far from where they were made.
Shot on a budget that usually amounted to a mere fraction of the cost of a typical major studio film at the time—and usually within ten days to two weeks—these movies from “Poverty Row” would screen as the lower half of a double bill or in small independent theaters throughout the country. As Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA archive, tells Dan Schindel at Hyperallergic, because these filmmakers were working outside the system, “they could have content—especially in terms of sex and violence—that you would not see in the main studio films. So they had more freedom.”
Horak’s personal favorite in the program of six films, selected from the dozen that played at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year, is Phil Goldstone’s The Sin of Nora Moran (1933), screening this Saturday. “It’s such an outlier in every respect,” Horak tells Schindel. “It’s about a woman who gets kidnapped who then joins her kidnappers. So, forty years before Patty Hearst and what we now understand as Stockholm syndrome, you see that happening in this film.” Back in 2012, Horak wrote about another Down and Dirty selection, Albert S. Rogell’s Mamba (1930), which stars Jean Hersholt as “a thoroughly disgusting plantation owner who violently mistreats his African workers.” Horak found the film not only “fascinating” but also “in some ways so over-the-top perverse that we can enjoy it as camp.”
Lowell Sherman’s False Faces (1932) screens on November 10, and in a piece for Artforum, Nick Pinkerton wrote last year that “Sherman, who played the rich heel who seduces and abandons Lillian Gish in Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), here topped all previous displays of caddishness, directing and starring as an owlish, dissipated surgeon who leaves New York in disgrace to set up a fly-by-night plastic surgery operation in Chicago, leaving a trail of broken hearts and bilked patients in his wake. Brisk, nasty, and dramatically unrelenting, the film was Sherman’s last as an actor, though he went on to further success as a director with a flair for showbiz subjects (Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong and Broadway Thru a Keyhole [both 1933]) before his premature death in 1934.”
The archive will show two works by the “King of the Bs,” Edgar G. Ulmer, Damaged Lives (1933) on November 17 and Strange Illusion (1945) on December 8. Writing for the Village Voice last year, Farran Smith Nehme noted that the latter offers a “pre-Code stalwart, Warren William, as Brett Curtis, the smoothy courting Virginia Cartwright (Sally Eilers), the mother of teenage Paul (Jimmy Lydon). Paul’s father died recently in a violent car wreck, and he’s wracked by misty, surreal nightmares about the danger facing his mother and beautiful sister. There’s a strong, often deviant sexuality at work in nearly every Ulmer worth watching, and here it’s all over the place, from the son’s feverish jealousy over his mother, to the suitor’s nasty habit of grabbing teenage girls in the swimming pool.”
Earlier this month, the archive interviewed its head of preservation, Scott MacQueen, asking him not only about the half-dozen films in this series but also about the films his team is working on now. One of them is Hearts of Humanity (1932), “an interesting melting pot saga of Jewish and Irish Americans in the Lower East Side,” while another “we’d very much like to preserve” is Nation Aflame (1937), “which is about the Ku Klux Klan. We were able to obtain a print recently. It doesn’t address the Klan’s persecution of African Americans, it simply portrays them as a hate group going after the general ‘other.’”
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