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The Thumb-Route: Dispatches From Poverty Row

Tom Neal in Detour

“I drifted into PRC and couldn’t get out. 

— Edgar G. Ulmer

In the early 1930s, a wave of prominent directors fleeing Germany had found success at the major or second-tier studios; only rarely were they forced to make films at the low-budget studios found on the so-called Poverty Row. The next generation was too late—if Fritz Lang thought RKO was squalid, it was because he had little idea of the depredations suffered by, for instance, an István Székely (later Steve Sekely, emigrated to the US in 1938-39), a Franz Wysbar (later Frank Wisbar, emigrated in November 1938),  or, briefly, a Hans Detlef Sierck (later Douglas Sirk, left Germany in 1938). Sekely, for example, whose career in the United States kicked off with such withering titles as Behind Prison Walls (1943) and Revenge of the Zombies (1943), was luckier than most—as mentioned above, his Women in Bondage was a colossal success for Monogram, the most distinguished of the Poverty Row studios. Sirk too was fortunate to have his Poverty Row-produced Hitler’s Madman (1943) bought and distributed by MGM, therefore lifting him out of this particularly reviled filmmaking strata. Wisbar, director of perhaps the last “expressionist” film made in Germany before the war, Fahmann Maria (Ferryman Maria, 1936), fled to the United States with his Jewish wife and directed four films at PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) and one other at another Poverty Row outfit, Screen Guild, before finding refuge in television (on a show called Fireside Theater, the first television series to be shot on celluloid and recorded before its broadcast!). Many others got stuck in places like PRC or Monogram because the studio system itself was transforming and they found themselves left behind at the more mainstream outfits. Such was the case for Kay Francis, one of the biggest box-office draws of the mid-1930s who, after the war, found herself deemed “poison” by studio executives. From 1945-46, she produced and starred in three low-budget films for Monogram before quitting the industry forever. In other cases, it may have been due to a single calamitous error of judgement—as was the case for Edgar G. Ulmer, who had an ill-advised but nonetheless lasting affair with the cousin of Carl Laemmle, Jr, the head of Universal Studios, and was consequently blacklisted.

While Lang was bitter about his transition from epics like Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927) in Germany to low- and mid-budget productions like House by the River (1950) or Rancho Notorious (1952) in the United States, directors at studios like PRC had greater troubles to contend with. Not only were the subjects they were given outrageously cheap and ill-conceived, the budgets microscopic, the schedules punishing (meaning that quite often accidental line flubs had to remain in the final product for lack of additional film), the actors singularly ungifted and uncharismatic (Wisbar’s Strangler in the Swamp [1946] even features a torpid Blake Edward in a rare starring role), but even the camera, lighting, and sound equipment itself owned by the studio was hopelessly outdated. Often this equipment was cannibalistically acquired from other fly-by-night studios that themselves had collapsed under the strain of ultra-slim profit margins and insufficient internal resources. Until the mid-1940s, places like PRC could hardly be called single production houses; movies were produced by incorporated shell companies across a variety of PRC-owned locations and lots and then distributed by the studio for profits of often only a few thousand dollars or less. Indeed, it is a miracle PRC lasted ten years at all. 

In October 1942, the Motion Picture Daily reported that PRC had moved its main headquarters from 1440 Gower Street (i.e. their lot on Poverty Row) to “Talisman Studios” on the coast. On December 31st of that year, an elaborate dock set was destroyed in a fire, causing around $50,000 ($775,000 adjusted) worth of damage; PRC rushed to assure the ‘independent production companies’ renting the space from the studio there that it would be no impediment to their work. In the following fall, Leon Fromkess, PRC vice president and general manager in charge of production (and later iconoclastic, independent producer of two Samuel Fuller movies), formally announced the company’s intentions to consolidate this loose conglomeration of lots into a single studio headquarters, acquiring the old Grand National Pictures lot for $305,000 (just shy of $5,000,000 adjusted). In so doing, he also bought up the entirety of the old equipment for an additional $60,000 ($930,000 today)—the rather shoddy kit used to produce much of PRC’s output thereafter. If you were a PRC director, like Ulmer or Wisbar in the 1940s, you had to contend with this equipment daily as well as navigate the baffling, decentralized network of mini production companies at work under the PRC umbrella.

In weighing the actual economics of working at a studio like PRC or Monogram, Ulmer is probably the best test case we have simply because he is the best known of their directors and therefore the best documented. That he was among the inauspicious PRC’s top talent warps the study somewhat; one could surmise that the less distinguished among his filmmaking colleagues held production salaries that were even more impoverished than his own. Ulmer directed eleven films for PRC between 1942 and 1945, worked for a few days on at least two others, Prisoner of Japan (1942) and Minstrel Man (1944), and, as I have mentioned, was loaned out by the company for an additional film in 1946 before leaving to find work elsewhere as an independent. Assuming a base salary of $750 for each picture Ulmer directed to completion, and putting aside the issue of uncredited script revisions, additional directing, or his potential involvement in any property acquisition for the studio, that means that Ulmer would have earned in the region of $8250 (around $116,000 adjusted) for his work in this three-year period. 

His Detour (1945), far and away the most acclaimed and enduring of all 179 feature films produced at PRC between 1939 and 1947, and certainly the only one to make it into the National Library of Congress’s Film Registry, was produced (including reshoots) over a period of around fourteen days and on a relatively lavish budget of $117,000 (around $1,640,000 adjusted). Exaggerations, fostered and encouraged by Ulmer himself, persist about the film’s production, that it cost $30,000 ($420,000 adjusted) and/or that it was shot in six days. Though much of the mythos of this iconic production rides on these well-intentioned distortions, the actual verifiable statistics of Detour’s production on their own are truly impressive. As Noah Isenberg notes in his excellent biography of Ulmer, one scene in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), the “death-house” sequence that was actually cut from the final release of the picture itself, “reportedly cost more than all of Detour.” 

Like many PRC directors, Ulmer lived precariously. His fee for Detour, a prize property at PRC even before filming had commenced, was in the region of $700 (less than $10,000 adjusted). The company was born out of the ashes of the short-lived Producers Distributing Corporation (PDC) in 1937, which collapsed in part due to an attack on the studio by the powerful German American Bund, who were angered by an anti-Nazi production mounted with relative flair by the fledging studio. Ulmer’s tenure at the newly formed PRC began with intermittent work between commissioned wartime army assignments and graduated to single-year, multi-film contracts; Detour was the first movie in the second such work contract between the director and PRC. During the period of the first one-year contract (1944-45), he directed three movies; in the second, beginning with Detour in the latter half of 1945, he made four, including the “loan-out” production of The Strange Woman (1946) for Hunt Stromberg, the ex-MGM executive turned independent producer of the Thin Man series. Both periods under contract were fertile: pretty much all of these productions overflowed with ambition and regularly exceeded the typical budget of a PRC movie (though hawkish on-set discipline vis-à-vis reshoots was strictly enforced and productions ran over schedule exceedingly rarely, if ever). For instance, Ulmer’s Bluebeard (1944) and The Wife of Monte Cristo (1946), made in this period, were super-productions by the standards of the Producers Releasing Corporation; Bluebeard’s nineteen day production tallied $170,000 (over $2,000,000 adjusted), while Monte Cristo, shot in the last weeks of the summer of 1945, cost more than $300,000, easily PRC’s largest ever budget (roughly $4,200,000 in 2019). The Ulmer that shot the Yiddish-language Greine Felder (Green Fields, 1937) on a budget of $8,000 ($140,000 today) almost ten years before would, at PRC, seem to be working in comparative luxury.

Incidentally, if the number of movies Ulmer made at PRC sounds dizzying, it should be noted that he was far from the most prolific filmmaker on the studio’s payroll; his colleague Sam Newfield (aka Sam Neufeld), whose brother Sigmund was a major producer at PRC, directed no less than eighteen movies for the studio in 1942, sixteen in 1943, thirteen in 1944, twelve in 1945, and thirteen in 1946. He also directed using two aliases, Sherman Scott and Peter Stewart, to avoid awkward questions about the extreme pace of his output. (The story goes that the studio’s New York office once called Sig Neufeld up and informed him that his brother Sam and “Sherman Scott” were merely acceptable directors but that “Peter Stewart was the real ‘find’ for the studio and that [Neufeld] should use him more often in the future.” Naturally, thereafter Scott’s output declined and Stewart’s steadily increased.) It is claimed that his lowest budgeted film, Harlem on the Prairie (1937) cost an adjusted $98,000 or $5,600 at the time. Today if these Newfield-Scott-Stewart movies—titles such as Nabonga Gorilla, Border Badmen, Stagecoach Outlaws, or Danger! Women at Work—are familiar at all it as the unrefined filler that clogs the public domain arteries of YouTube, Amazon Prime, and DailyMotion, appearing in dupey 16mm television or VHS transfers without exception. (Recently, I counted at least 62 listings of Poverty Row films streaming in the UK on Amazon Prime alone.) All of which is to say that I’m quite confident that there has never been and will never be another Sam Newfield. 

In the 1970s, there were definite parallels with the kinds of films produced cheaply on Gower Street by people like Ulmer; in the best ‘exploitation’ pictures, for instance, but also in many well-known classics of the era that were made for companies themselves established to produce only a handful of pictures before burning out and going under. In Germany at the same time, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was practically a one-man Poverty Row industry, producing forty-one low-budget features as well as three mini-series and countless plays between 1969 and 1982. As a public figure, Fassbinder was outrageous enough to stay in the spotlight and generate funds on his own, a concept that is far from the sausage-factory approach that was PRC’s ostensible model. Yet his masterpiece Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974) adjusted for today’s dollars would have cost almost nothing—$149,000. Even the more opulent Despair (1978), starring Dirk Bogarde, would only tally slightly over $5,000,000. Indeed, of Fassbinder’s first ten feature films, only half would cost more than $100,000 adjusted; his final ten, made at the height of his powers between 1977-82, ranged from around an adjusted $209,000 (the 1977 TV movie Frauen in New York) to close to $8,000,000 today (1981’s Third Reich-set Lili Marleen). Meanwhile, his magnum opus, the fifteen-and-a-half-hour miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz, produced for Italian and German television in 1980, would cost close to $11,000,000 today, or around $785,000 per episode. (As huge as those numbers may seem for Fassbinder, it is also worth noting that Berlin Alexanderplatz alone was shot and edited in just the first six months of that year and premiered in the summer.) No matter his budget, Fassbinder, like the best of the Poverty Row directors, burrowed forward unrelentingly, the production limitations clearly no real limit for his restless ambition.

Studying a historical phenomenon like Poverty Row cannot help but stir errant thoughts of an analogous ‘independent’ spirit alive today. Who is making movies in the PRC or Monogram mould in 2019? Movies today are globally stratified in the extreme, yet hegemonic power hubs exist in all sectors of film production, from arthouse to studio to the Humbert Bals Fund. The Poverty Row philosophy can only exist outside of that. The Korean director Hong Sang-soo once told me that, circa 2015, his movies cost $50,000 to produce, with an additional $50,000 on top of that for post-production costs and the salaries of his production house’s regular employees. Hong eschews the international funding hubs that increasingly dominate the international festival scene and which transparently influence its make-up. He makes enough of a profit on each pugnacious, miniscule digital movie to turn out another soon afterward, tunneling forward in whatever direction takes his fancy. Since 2010, he has released fourteen feature films.

In another way, the modest ambitions of direct-to-video action movies shot in places like Bulgaria or at best cheaply in the United States, like those of, say, a Jesse V. Johnson, could be said to be cut from the Poverty Row cloth—a dubious honor. These are movies upon which the spotlight of taste and critical admiration is dimmed to but a faintly sizzling ember; where work is produced quickly and inexpensively for working class audiences in the market for simple genre thrills; where directors can toil away productively and yet never be esteemed by a broad critical base. Like PRC product, these films are not intended to last. Therefore, at their best, they are freed from that artistic burden, often for better as well as for worse. “There are few tributes to the indomitability of the human spirit more moving,” wrote Dave Kehr in 1990, “than that of the artistically ambitious Poverty Row picture.” Or, as a character grimly but cogently notes in Ulmer’s Detour, “Money’s just a piece of paper crawling with germs.”

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