Posted by Susan Doll on October 28, 2013
When I was in film school, the students in my group became avid John Carradine fans. Carradine was an aging icon of horror films by that time and was feeble because of a stroke. Yet he was still working, cast in bit parts and cameos by directors who wanted to pay homage to his long career by including him in their movies. In classes, we were exposed to his memorable work as a supporting player and character actor in the films of John Ford and others. He skillfully made the most of his sonorous voice, gaunt frame, and sharp features to enhance his characters—from the melancholy Southern aristocrat in Stagecoach to the charlatan professor in Fallen Angel. This Wednesday, October 30, at 4:45PM (EST), TCM airs Bluebeard, one of the few films in which Carradine played the leading man. Carradine was quite proud of the film and often cited it as his personal favorite.
Based on the life of a 15th-century serial killer, the story of Bluebeard was turned into a novel by Charles Perrault in 1697. Since then, the basic narrative has been retold, reworked, and rebooted in dozens of stories and films. A cautionary tale for young women, the basic premise tells of a handsome lover who courts women into marriage only to kill them. I wonder if the relevancy of the story is in the way it exposes the pitfalls of marriage, especially for women. Bluebeard-like tales represent everything from the fear of the wedding night to the loss of identity when a woman’s goals and dreams are sacrificed to marriage and motherhood (a kind of death).
In this 1944 version, Bluebeard is a Parisian actor and puppeteer named Gaston Morel, whose murderous habit began long ago when he painted and fell in love with a beautiful prostitute named Jeannette. The ungrateful Jeannette mocked him, so he killed her. Now, when he is attracted to a young woman, he feels compelled to paint and then murder her. Both acts are exercises in controlling women. Director Edgar G. Ulmer originally wanted Boris Karloff in the role, but Carradine is perfect as the sophisticated, refined artist whose melancholy air attracts the romantic attention of women. His distinctive voice is definitely an asset in the seduction of young women, and his gaunt, good looks complete the image of the bohemian artist. A variety of women flutter around Morel, and he treats each of them differently, depending on their importance to him.
Interestingly, the actress who plays Morel’s lovesick housekeeper, Renee, was Carradine’s real-life love interest during production, Sonia Sorel. He asked Ulmer to cast Sorel in the film, so the director gave her the role of the obsessed housemaid whom Morel treats so cruelly. At one point, Gaston snarls to her, “I didn’t ask you to fall in love with me.” They argue after she needles him about his other women, so Morel strangles her and dumps her body in the Seine. The frustration and tension in the argument over Gaston’s women seemed very authentic to me—even before I knew Sorel was Carradine’s girlfriend—and I wonder if Ulmer cast her in that role on purpose. Carradine was still married to Ardanelle McCool while he was openly courting Sorel, and during production, Ardanelle attempted to serve him with divorce papers. If served, he would have to pay alimony, so he was avoiding the inevitable. He and young son David moved out of his bungalow at the Garden of Allah and showed up on the Ulmers’ doorstep asking to spend a few days. The few days turned into two months, partly because Ulmer and Carradine enjoyed discussing music, art, literature, and the classics each evening after work. In the meantime, David Carradine, who liked to call himself Captain Midnight, led little Arianne Ulmer into dangerous but fun misadventures.
The relationship of Morel and Renee was one of the issues raised by Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration, which monitored the censorship of Hollywood movies via the Code. Any dialogue suggesting that the two were or had been lovers had to be eliminated just as any veiled references to Morel’s models as prostitutes had to be rewritten. Likewise, it could not be suggested that a character named Mimi had “loose morals.” Breen also wanted Morel’s suicide turned into an accidental fall.
Aside from Carradine in the title role, the other reason to watch the film is that it represents a collaboration between director Edgar Ulmer and cinematographer Eugen Schufftan. The two had met earlier in their careers in the heady days of German cinema when Expressionism dominated. Ulmer left Germany in the late 1920s to work his way through the Hollywood studio system, finally becoming a director in 1933. The following year, he directed what is arguably his best film, the genuinely macabre Black Cat, starring Karloff and Lugosi. A renowned cameraman in Germany, Schufftan had invented the Schufftan Process, which gave miniature sets more depth and realism. By carefully placing mirrors behind and around miniature sets and then photographing the mirrored images, the scale was magnified so that the sets looked more realistic. Schufftan was also an expert at taking a moody, painterly approach to light and shadow. An example of the Schufftan process and his atmospheric photography is a shot used near the beginning and end of Bluebeard. Characters stand on a bridge over the Seine, while Notre Dame looms above the city in a misty background—a highly romantic rendering of Paris during the Second Empire.
Schufftan did not leave Germany until after Hitler rose to power. He fled to Paris, which was not a good call. He realized he needed to escape Nazi-occupied Europe all together and was lucky enough to arrange passage for America. He caught the last ship to leave Lisbon for New York City in the spring of 1941.
Schufftan joined Ulmer at the Poverty Row studio known as PRC (Producers Releasing Corps). Bluebeard was their first film together, and it revels in an Expressionist style. As you watch the film, pay close attention to the use of shadows and light, particularly in the tunnels below Paris where Gaston makes his escapes. The beautifully lit and composed shots ooze with an atmosphere that is rich with eerie melancholy. In the flashback sequence, in which Morel relates the story of Jeannette, all of the characteristics of Expressionism are used to convey the depravity of the situation—dutch angles (in which the camera is tilted), forced perspectives, deep shadows, and a more melodramatic acting style because of the heightened situation. At the end of the film, Morel races across the rooftops of nighttime Paris, an homage to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
One reason why this film should not be forgotten is because it showcases the talents of Carradine, a veteran Hollywood actor who rarely played the lead role; another is that is an example of the direct impact of German Expressionism on Hollywood filmmaking through the styles and talents of two people who had worked in Germany. The influence of German immigrants on American genres, including horror, film noir, melodrama, and crime tales, cannot be overestimated.
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