The Strange Woman / Moon Over Harlem DVD

Double Ulmer

The recently deceased Hedy Lamarr gave one of her best performances in the 1946 melodrama The Strange Woman as a woman who would not seem strange today, but certainly stood out in the 1840 boomtown that was Bangor, Maine. Beautiful, brazen, sexy and headstrong, she’s crafty enough to give Machiavelli lessons. 

After growing up on the wrong side of the tracks with a drunken father, she finds it surprisingly easy to marry her way into the house of the richest man in town. There, she sets about brewing a psychosexual stew, seducing and manipulating everyone around her, especially her adult stepson (Louis Hayward), and her husband’s foreman (George Sanders).

When Lamarr was cast in the role, she insisted the studio hire her old friend Edgar G. Ulmer, whom she’d known years ago in Europe, to direct. At the time, Ulmer was under contract to Poverty Row studio PRC, which was more than happy to loan him out to United Artists, collecting five times his salary in the bargain.

Moon Over Harlem (1939) comes from a much lower point in Ulmer’s career, when he was mostly taking on projects in ethnic film studios. Shot on 16mm for $8,000, this all-black drama tells the story of how a widow’s marriage to no-good gambler, racketeer and “chicken chaser” Dollar Bill (‘Bud’ Harris) leads to the destruction of her family.

Its flavor is a bit less authentic than that of most ‘race’ pictures, mainly due to a thorough rewrite of the script by Ulmer’s wife Shirley. Once known only among film buffs, over the years Ulmer’s varied body of work has found a broader audience, and his films have been more widely shown and studied. Film historian David Kalat’s DVD label All Day Entertainment has undertaken a mission to rescue Ulmer’s reels from moldering in film vaults.

Kalat’s liner notes are up front about the condition of the materials (Strange Woman has audio problems at the beginning and the end, etc.), but though they may not be up there with the latest releases, they certainly look and sound better than I’d ever expect at the turn of the century, and he’s to be congratulated for his efforts. Though lacking in flashy menus or even subtitles, both features are accompanied by image archives and interview material with Shirley Ulmer, whose recollections of her late husband’s life are of great value.

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