Sunday, May 4, 2008

For a few dollars

Remember those old Sally Struthers charity commercials? For "Feed the Children", or some similar charity, she would show up on the TV wailing away about the poor starving wastrels in some third world hellhole, and how cheap it would be to save these children, "For less than the price of a cup of coffee a day...." Perhaps it would have been cheaper just to send the children the coffee, and cut out the middleman.

But for the price of a cup of coffee, you too can direct feature films. At least, you can if your name is Edgar G. Ulmer. Ulmer was one of the masters of Poverty Row, making movies classics like Detour for "studios" like Producers Releasing Corporation on budgets of about $9.57 plus whatever coins he could find under the cushions of his couch. (Well, that's exaggerating it a bit, but Ulmer probably would have been thrilled to get even the budgets that Val Lewton had.) One of those ultra-low budget movies, Girls in Chains, is airing at 6:00 AM MMay 5 on TCM.

The title is a bit of a misnomer, in that there aren't any real chains, only metaphorical ones. Little-known Arline Judge plays teacher Helen Martin, who loses her job teaching school because she's the sister-in-law of notorious gangster Johnny Moon (Allen Byron/Addison Randall, one of those actors who went by multiple names). Moon doesn't control the schools, but does control the rest of the municipal government, so this influence is able to get Helen a job at the girls' reformatory, which he runs. Helen naturally finds out that the place is brutally run, and vows to do whatever she can about it, even if this means danger to her.

If you've heard the plot before, it's probably because the more prestigious studios made movies with similar plots back in the 1930s, when prison dramas were quite popular. Warner Brothers, in fact, made two versions of a very similar plot, The Mayor of Hell in 1933, starring James Cagney as a gangster-turned reform school administrator who wants to fix the school he's in charge of; and the 1938 remake Crime School, with Humphrey Bogart taking on the Cagney role. Girls in Chains is, needless to say, not as good as the two Warners' movies. It didn't have anywhere near the budget, or studio facilities, so the look is much more unpolished. But it's a very interesting movie in its own right. First, putting teenage girls in this situation wasn't common at the time. There were lots of male actors to play juvenile delinquents; indeed, there was the entire Dead End Boys troupe making a whole series of movies. But also, it's interesting to see how a director like Ulmer tries to take the lemons he's given, and make lemonade out of them. Even with some of his worse movies, it's still obvious that there was a gifted director at work, who was unfortunately being hamstrung by a severe lack of resources.

Some of Ulmer's movies are available on DVD, generally from the ultra-cheap sellers of movies that have fallen into the public domain. However, Girls in Chains is not one of those movies. Cagney's The Mayor of Hell has been released to DVD; IMDb lists Crime School as only having been released to VHS.

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