Edgar Ulmer and Curtis Harrington Share a Birthday!

Back when I began doing biographical posts on this blog over a decade ago, on days when there were multiple subjects who shared a birthday, I’d fold them into a single post a la this one. After a year or two, I realized that I need to keep posts on individuals separate for the purposes of linking, since people would be following the link in order to learn about only one of the people. (I retained the one in the link above because it was so popular, but I also subsequently gave each of the three stars their own posts, as well).

This is all prologue to announce that today we make an exception and revert to the old style on this one occasion because these two men have so much in common thematically it just seems silly to create two separate posts if I’m going to do both today anyway. The two men are movie directors who are prized for their Gothic horror films: Edgar Ulmer (1904-1972), and Curtis Harrington (1927-2007), both born on September 17. We hasten to clarify that cinematic horror was not ALL that each man did, but they are both especially known for it. If both men’s live hadn’t overlapped by 50 years this post might have reincarnation angle to it — which would have been in keeping with a discussion of the kinds of films they both made,

Edgar Ulmer was a figure from the great age of silent German Expressionism we wrote about here, who brought his skills to Hollywood in about a dozen different departments. There can be no simple adjectival description of his ethnicity and nationality: he was a Jew from Moravia, which was in Austria-Hungary at the time of his birth, but is now part of the Czech Republic. He studied architecture and philosophy in Vienna, then became an actor and set designer in the theatre. He designed sets for Max Reinhardt then broke into the cinema in the early ’20s, though his claims to have worked on such pictures as The Golem (1920) and Metropolis (1927) have been disputed. (I see zero point in disputing claims like this on the basis of a lack of evidentiary proof. It could well be that he assisted or advised in some small capacity that went unrecorded, but some people have a mania for being precise about matters like this. For people who persist in being confused about the fact that I prefer not to be called a historian, this is the exact dividing line, and I’m up front about it. Ulmer may or may not have worked on these pictures. He said he did. I see no reason to go berserk about proving it one way or the other, because I don’t care what the answer is).

It does however seem well established that Ulmer came to the U.S. with F.W. Murnau in 1926 to be the art director on his masterpiece Sunrise. It’s a gorgeous movie and a mighty impressive credit; there’s no dispute about that. In 1934 Ulmer directed (and also designed, and co-wrote) the Universal horror classic The Black Cat with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It was Universal’s biggest hit of the year and a lasting critical favorite.

Unfortunately, Ulmer’s very promising future career was immediately ruined when he stole the wife of Carl Laemmle’s nephew. He spent about a decade in exile from major studios, directing poverty row pictures, taking whatever work he could get. Eventually he climbed his way out of it and was able to direct many wonderful movies in the 1940s’, ’50s, and ’60s. His later horror and sci fi films include Bluebeard (1944), The Man from Planet X (1951), The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Amazing Transparent Man (1960), and Beyond the Time Barrier (1960). He also excelled in other genres. His mostly widely watched movie today (after perhaps The Black Cat) is the film noir classic Detour (1945) with Tom Neal and Ann Savage (and boy did Ulmer know from detours!). Also especially noteworthy for show biz lovers is the comedy Babes in Bagdad (1952) co-starring Paulette Godard and Gypsy Rose Lee, and Carnegie Hall (1947), which is a kind of who’s who of classical musicians, conductors and opera singers. His last film was The Cavern (1964), an international production concerning a group of people trapped in a cave, with a cast that included John Saxon, Brian Aherne, Larry Hagman, and Peter Marshall.

Though Curtis Harrington was over 20 years younger than Ulmer, and a native of Los Angeles, there is plenty of material for an organic segue, for Ulmer’s kind of movie was Harrington’s kind of movie. One of Harrington’s teenage film experiments was a version of The Fall of the House of Usher. As a young man he wrote a book about Josef Von Sternberg, and he knew Universal horror director James Whale, later becoming a proponent of the restoration of The Old Dark House (1932) and serving as an adviser on Gods and Monsters (1998) and playing a cameo role in the film. Like Whale, Harrington was gay and it informs his work.

Harrington graduated from UCLA with a film studies major, was mentored by Maya Deren and worked with Kenneth Anger on Puce Moment (1949) in addition to making his own experimental films early in his career. His earliest Hollywood credits were assistant producing such films as The Harder They Fall (1956), The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), Peyton Place (1957), The Long Hot Summer (1958), Mardi Gras (1958), the Fabian vehicle Hound Dog Man (1959), Return to Peyton Place (1961) and The Stripper (1961). His first film as director was AIP’s Night Tide (1961), based on Poe’s poem Annabelle Lee, and Dennis Hopper’s first starring vehicle. Also for Roger Corman he directed Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1964) and Queen of Blood (1967).

Harrington’s first movie for a major studio was Games (1967) about a group of rich people whose parlor games…go too far. It starred Simone Signoret, James Caan, and Katharine Ross. Caan had earlier been in Lady in a Cage (1964), which makes a nice transition to the succession of films he made next: How Awful About Allan (1970), What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971), Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1972), and The Killing Kind (1973), most of them in the psycho-biddy subgenre we wrote about here. Then The Cat Creature (1973), The Killer Bees (1974), The Dead Don’t Die (1975), Ruby (1977, also a horror film), and the deliciously titled Devil Dog: The Hound from Hell (1978). Some of these were theatrical releases, some were TV movies, specifically ABC Movies of the Week.

As demand for his special brand of horror waned, Harrington turned to directing campy and soapy television on shows like Wonder Woman, Charlies Angels, Dynasty, and The Colbys. There had been plenty of melodrama in his earlier films. Things like that were an easy transition, I would imagine — with fewer special effects to solve! His last feature length film was the “erotic melodrama” Mata Hari (1985). His last credit was a 1987 episode of the Twilight Zone reboot series.