Still from the film Let My People Live showing a black doctor examining and black man..

Edgar Ulmer, The NTA, and the Power of Sermonic Medicine

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Dr. Devin Orgeron, an Associate Professor at North Carolina State University, teaching courses in Film Theory, Film History Since 1940, The New American Director, International Film and Realism, Documentary, and The French New Wave. Today, Dr. Orgeron shares some insights on a group of recently digitized films in the Library’s collection highlighted in our Medical Movies on the Web project.

An informal portrait.
Director Edward G. Ulmer, 1945
Courtesy Producers Releasing

From the late 1930s through the early 1940s, low-budget filmmaker and perennial Hollywood underdog Edgar G. Ulmer (1904-1972) directed what appear to be eight educational health shorts for the National Tuberculosis Association (NTA). The National Library of Medicine holds and has added to its digital collections Let My People Live (1938); Cloud in the Sky (1939); They Do Come Back, and Another to Conquer (1941). Also in the NLM collection, but not digitized, is Ulmer’s Goodbye Mr. Germ (1940). The remaining three titles are Diagnostic Procedures (1940) and a mysterious pair of undated, unconfirmed Fox Movietone films, Mantoux Text and Life is Good. These films admirably served the educational mission of the media-savvy NTA, but should not be viewed as mere promotional products. They are also the work of a director with a unique understanding of the role germs—literal and metaphorical—play in the American social fabric. This understanding is evidenced in the films Ulmer made outside of the NTA-sponsored films.

For example, Ulmer’s Detour (not held at NLM, but available for viewing in the Internet Archive along with several other Ulmer titles) was made several years after the TB campaign. The cruel but pathetic femme fatale, Vera (Ann Savage), is dying of tuberculosis. While holed up in her cheap rented rooms, Vera starts coughing. Her hostage, Al (Tom Neal), says to her “You’ve got a mean cough…you oughta do something about it.” Vera snaps back, with visible though wounded hostility, “I’ll be all right,” to which Al replies, not skipping a beat, “…s’what Camille said…” and then, under his breath, an insult aimed at his captor: “Nobody you’d know.”  Looking unusually concerned, even fragile, Vera asks, “Wasn’t that the dame that died of consumption?”

Disease, in fact, had provided a conceptual focus for Ulmer since his literal investigation of it in his Hollywood debut, the syphilis exploitation melodrama Damaged Lives (1933). Like Ulmer’s career-long interest in fate and predetermination, germs and a generalized notion of contagion seem to form the very foundation of this director’s narrative logic. Again, an exemplary moment from Detour stands out. Early in the film, after his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) has left him to make a go of it in California, Al is glimpsed pounding out his living on the piano at the Break O’ Dawn Club. After a jazzified Brahms number performed at a customer’s request, said customer flags a waiter, hands him a bill, and the waiter makes his way to deliver it to Al. Al narrates his thoughts on the exchange, saying “When this drunk handed me a ten-spot after a request I couldn’t get very excited. What was it, I asked myself? A piece of paper crawling with germs.”

Germs, then, and a unique notion of fate’s communicability and the hand human beings have in the chain of actual or conceptual contagion, unite Ulmer’s fiction films to his films for the NTA, suggesting that scholars might profitably consider this (and perhaps any) filmmaker’s nontheatrical film efforts as a central part of the director’s career. Lisa Cartwright, for example, in an otherwise engaging discussion of the represented tubercular body in Let My People Live, Another to Conquer, Diagnostic Procedures, and They Do Come Back, manages not to acknowledge in any way that all four films were directed by Ulmer and were part of a series of films the NTA sponsored in an effort to reach specific communities where the disease still lingered. Educational films, as Cartwright’s work demonstrates, are often considered to be unauthored texts, overdetermined by their sponsor or purpose. This essay hopes to demonstrate the value of contextualizing Ulmer’s NTA campaign both in relation to the history of social engineering in American cultural history and within the filmmaker’s larger body of work….

To read the full essay and to see the films go to NLM’s Medical Movies on the Web, a curated portal including original research on selected films from NLM’s collection.

Dr. Orgeron teaches a range of director-focused courses covering filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Howard Hawks, and the Coen Brothers. Dr. Orgeron researches and writes about cinema and mechanical mobility; cinematic masculinity; contemporary American cinema; film authorship; realism; advertising and commercial images; educational films; and postmodernity. He also collects, shows, and writes about home movies from the 1940s through 1960s. Dr. Orgeron is the author of Road Movies: From Muybridge and Melies to Lynch and Kiarostami (2007). His articles have appeared in Cinema Journal, The Velvet Light Trap, The Moving Image, The Journal of Film and Video, CineAction,College Literature, Post Script, and Film Quarterly.

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