The Dirt-Cheap Lost Classics of Poverty Row Filmmakers, Restored at MOMA


“Poverty Row” was the nickname given to the small Hollywood studios, many with facilities crouched along Gower Street or in its vicinity, that eked out ultra-low-budget movies from the days of the early talkies until television gutted the market. Some of this discount output was later hailed as brilliant, but at the time, few saw anything arty about it. A director on Poverty Row, wrote Dave Kehr in 1990, labored on films “in the absolute certainty that no film critic would see them, no sophisticated public would encounter them, and no financial reward whatever would accrue to their auteurs.”

That is precisely why, Kehr added, “there are few tributes to the indomitability of the human spirit more moving than that of the artistically ambitious Poverty Row picture.” And from October 19 to October 28, at the Museum of Modern Art, film curator Kehr has put together a program of just such pictures, selected from recent restorations by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Westerns and serials were the staple fare of Gower Street, thus inspiring the caustic nickname “Gower Gulch,” but it was in the oddities and one-offs that originality flowered. In its cheapskate way, Poverty Row held the possibility of true auteurism. Within those merciless budgetary and time constraints, a director could often do what he liked, whether it was ripping a dozen pages out of a script or trashing film grammar for the sake of a desired effect. The MOMA series concentrates on pre-Code dramas, noir, and horror, rescuing them from soupy YouTube uploads and dismal public-domain discs. A few, like the highlights False Faces and High Tide, have seldom been seen at all. The pope of Poverty Row, Edgar G. Ulmer, is represented by three works: his American debut, a lust-does-not-pay tract about venereal disease called Damaged Lives; the woozily Freudian Strange Illusion; and the flashback-laced masterpiece Ruthless, a longer and higher-budget outing starring Zachary Scott as Horace Woodruff Vendig, a philanthropist who carves out a warped and manipulative path to riches. With Hungarian émigré Steve Sekely, Paul Henreid starred in and (he claimed) co-directed Hollow Triumph, lensed by John Alton and the richest, most emotionally satisfying film in the series. Bela Lugosi, long a famous Gower Gulch denizen, is represented here by Victor Halperin’s haunting White Zombie. Other horror-movie stalwarts include Erich von Stroheim in The Crime of Dr. Crespi, Lionel Atwill in The Vampire Bat, and Warner Oland in The Drums of Jeopardy.

All were made by Poverty Row studios, many as the so-called B features, held to under seventy minutes, that filled out what used to spell a night at the movies: cartoon, newsreel, short, B feature, and the feature. There was steady work, especially in the early years, but that didn’t mean the money was good. The real Poverty Row — a description of business methods and not an address — was often so far down that even Republic Pictures, home of Roy Rogers and the Three Mesquiteers, looked like up.

In the 1940s at an outfit like Edgar Ulmer’s usual base, Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), a film budget averaged $20,000 and a crew of less than a half-dozen, many doubling or tripling up on jobs. A Poverty Row script might be pretty good, especially if it was a knockoff of a bigger movie, a news story, or a book to which the producers had no intention of buying the rights. Then again, the dialogue might be almost literally unspeakable. Sometimes the actors were stars on the wane who needed the dough, or found it hard to get work because of illness or alcoholism; sometimes they were newbies on the way to bigger things; other times they were just attractive, hungry, and talent-free. When the shooting schedule (a few days) was over, and the movie was cut with all the care you’d give to dicing onions, usually the distributor paid the production company a flat fee, and that was that, no matter how many tickets sold.

Cash flow was therefore a somewhat predictable trickle. According to historian Tino Balio, in the 1930s, profit margin on a Poverty Row picture ran at 10 percent or less. In the 1940s at the legendary Monogram — home of gems such as Women in Bondage, Decoy, and When Strangers Marry — the producers pocketed a couple of thousand dollars per picture, or about what a person could get robbing a few gas stations. And Monogram, after 1935 a subsidiary of Republic, was the big leagues compared with many of the shoestring outfits known for going bust and reassembling in a new formation like so many Lincoln Logs. Yet Jean-Luc Godard would one day dedicate Breathless to Monogram. 

If the plots in the MOMA series have a unifying link, it’s “rat finks.” Nearly all have a primary male character who’s rotten to the core — the chief exception being Damaged Goods, where the graphic depiction of untreated syphilis is all the villain anybody needs. The opening night selection is False Faces, the 1932 tale of Dr. Silas Brenton who, bounced from his Bronx hospital for demanding bribes from stricken families, moves to Chicago and starts practicing plastic surgery on patients who are in the dark about his lack of training. Lowell Sherman directed and plays Dr. Brenton, who also has a way with the ladies — when his “unusual talent with [his] instruments” isn’t mutilating or even killing them, that is. It’s an acidly cynical pre-Code of uncertain genre — part horror/crime, part comedy — imbued with that Depression sense that nobody is playing it straight, and made the same year as Sherman’s dazzling work as the doomed alcoholic director in George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood?. Sherman continued to direct films, including She Done Him Wrong and Morning Glory, until pneumonia killed him just two years after False Faces, at age 46.

False Faces came close to meeting the same fate as one of Brenton’s patients. Film historian and preservationist David Stenn’s efforts to track down enough elements for a complete restoration came just in time for UCLA to be able to preserve it. While writing and producing Boardwalk Empire, Stenn came across some headlines of the period and realized with fascinated horror that Brenton was based on a real case. He’ll tell the story of the real-life Brenton, and the work involved in saving the film, when he introduces False Faces on October 19 at 7 p.m.

Fittingly for October, a number of horror films are playing in restored 35mm prints. One is White Zombie, that most fervidly Gothic of Thirties horror outings, with Lugosi’s Murder Legendre even more sexually predatory than his Dracula. As in Dracula, the lovers (Madge Bellamy and John Harron, both insipid) prove a nuisance, and the villain carries the film. When Halperin moves in for a Lugosi close-up, those extraordinary eyebrows seem somehow to be pulling the camera. The action plays out in darkness and mist (the filmmakers rented the standing sets at Universal), but the sound design is creepiest of all. The moans of the zombies turning the wheel of a sugar mill remain heart-wrenching. While the racial attitudes are firmly of 1932 (the title is not metaphoric), the real horror is that of Haitians finding slavery in death.

The Vampire Bat is a 1933 horror outing directed by Frank Strayer, about a village where residents keep turning up dead and, alarmingly, drained of all blood. It was atmospherically shot (meaning plenty of fog) on another Universal set, with Melvyn Douglas a particular treat as the investigator. Douglas’s sophisticated skepticism during what would ordinarily be a dull scene — a meeting of terrified village elders — suggests that the count he played in Ninotchka will return to Paris as soon as he’s cleared up all this vampire silliness. The visual highlight is a torch-carrying mob chasing the gentle, bat-loving homeless boy (Dwight Frye) through a cavern, actually California’s Bronson Caves. Lionel Atwill is the doctor whose avuncular manner is spooky from the start. The catch is Maude Eburn, playing lovely Fay Wray’s hypochondriac aunt, a performance of such hamminess I rooted for each new vampire suspect to bite her, hard.

Equally irksome was Clara Blandick (Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz) as another elderly aunt in The Drums of Jeopardy, one who is improbably fighting evil Russians. They are led by Boris Karlov (Warner Oland, pre–Charlie Chan), whose daughter died after being seduced and abandoned by a Russian prince. Comes the revolution, and Karlov turns into a Bolshevik Supervillain systematically bumping off the princely family, who all richly deserve it, so the suspense is a little unusual in this one: “Don’t let them get away!” And that goes double for Clara. 

The series’ most socko opening belongs to High Tide, which begins with a car wrecked in the surf on the Pacific Coast highway. Leaning back in the front seat is none other than Lee Tracy, whose character apologizes to his companion that his back is broken and that paralysis is gonna make it hard to lend a hand. On the sand next to the car is the detective played by Don Castle, who’s comparatively mobile, or would be, if his leg weren’t pinned under the car. And the tide is coming in. Which leaves plenty of time for a flashback…

The rest of the film is nearly as good as that setup, in part because director John Reinhardt has a strong sense of the film’s newspaper/crime world setting. Castle is rather like John Payne, in that his woodenness comes across as a logical reaction to the way events are kicking him around. Tracy is playing the editor of an L.A. newspaper, an older and even more sociopathic version of his character in Blessed Event. Faced with a woman whose husband has been executed and is overcome with grief, he puts out his arms to comfort her — angling her so his photographer can get a better shot. High Tide had long been condemned to second-hand VHS, as Eddie Muller told a Noir City audience in 2013; the one surviving element turned out to be a negative at the British Film Institute, which became the source of UCLA’s restoration.

Edgar G. Ulmer’s Strange Illusion from 1945 offers up another 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.

The undertow of seamy desires is even stronger in Ruthless, an unusually high-budget Ulmer that boasted a feature-length running time, a cast of recognizable names, and the great Bert Glennon as cinematographer. Often described as a poor man’s Citizen Kane, it does echo much in that masterpiece — deep focus, visible ceilings, even direct visual quotations, like the shot of Sydney Greenstreet’s shattered mogul starting down the long hallway away from the bedroom of his wife (Lucille Bremer). While nothing can surpass the Welles, Ruthless has its own complexities, rooted in an exceptional script primarily by Alvah Bessie (already in hot water with the House Un-American Activities Committee, he found his name left off the credits). Its flashback structure is more irregular than Kane’s, and the film spends more time with its antihero as a boy, played by a marvelous Bob Anderson (young George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life). Within the confines of 1948 censorship, the relationship between Greenstreet’s and Bremer’s characters has a whiff of s&m, until wife Bremer transfers her affection to Zachary Scott’s even more unscrupulous Vendig, and lives to regret it. Most illicit of all is the possibility — denied by the dialogue, but strongly suggested in Ulmer’s close-ups and framing — that the lovely young woman Vendig pursues from the moment he meets her, who is played by Diana Lynn, might be Vendig’s own illegitimate daughter by his abandoned first love, who is also played by Lynn.

The best of the bunch is Hollow Triumph from Eagle-Lion Films, the production company established by J. Arthur Rank to class up Poverty Row with some higher (but still cost-conscious) budgets. Here’s a noir assembled with the utmost care, from the literate, relentlessly downbeat script by Daniel Fuchs (from a novel by Murray Forbes), to Joan Bennett as the wary love interest, to the director, Steve Sekely, who as István Székely had been highly regarded in his native Hungary. Most crucially, the film boasts cinematographer John Alton, and in a good print like the one showing at MOMA, his lighting turns even a minor character taking a walk down a prison corridor into thrilling cinema. Paul Henreid plays the gangster Muller, who while on the lam encounters his precise double in the person of psychoanalyst Dr. Bartok (also Henreid). And from there the movie slowly becomes about the sins that no one notices and the unknowing mistakes that can wreck lives.

Muller is a twisted and selfish individual, and Henreid, in what I consider his best performance, doesn’t sentimentalize him. (So good is Henreid, in fact, that I never question, as the film is playing, why the gangster has an American brother and an Austrian accent.) But Muller does slowly begin to discover his humanity, as the movie hurtles toward an ending of stunning bleakness. Henreid was justifiably proud of Hollow Triumph. He wrote in his autobiography that, when he took over directing toward the end of the filming, “I had the time of my life.” Thereafter he’d pursue directing as well as acting. Henreid never mentions, and indeed most audiences might never notice, that the movie was made on Poverty Row.

‘Strange Illusions: Poverty Row Classics Preserved by UCLA’ runs October 19–28 at the Museum of Modern Art