Getting down and dirty with pre-Code Hollywood at Cinematheque

Damaged Lives was the first feature from Austrian émigré and future Poverty Row auteur Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour).

Film noir, horror, and “sheer Poverty Row audacity” are on the menu in Cinematheque’s Down and Dirty in Gower Gulch: Poverty Row Films Preserved by UCLA.

Most of the features date from Hollywood’s less-censorious pre-Code era. All were produced on Hollywood’s so-called Poverty Row in small, fly-by-night studios that churned out inexpensive pictures for the B-movie markets. These bargain-basement stakes made for a certain artistic freedom: controversial or risqué subjects the big studios wouldn’t touch could be explored; and directors enjoyed a degree of licence.

The program of lurid, low-budget treasures runs from April 11-29 and includes six films. And, in a throwback to how movies used to be presented in that era, each feature will be preceded by a newsreel and short subject. All titles were restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. According to Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the archive: “These ‘orphan films’ are worthy of restoration and presentation. They visualize many of the repressed or forbidden themes that preoccupy the nether regions of the American psyche. Get ready for a wild ride!”

Find out more below.

The Vampire Bat (USA, 1933, 65 min.)—A stylish, spooky vampire thriller shot on sets left over from Universal’s Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, The Vampire Bat features a cast of 1930s Hollywood (and 1930s horror) talent, including Lionel Atwill as a mad doctor, Melvyn Douglas as a police inspector, Fay Wray (King Kong) as the scream-queen love interest, and Dwight Frye as the creepy town fool. “It’s foolish fun, mercifully brief, and probably the best-remembered film from the prolific Frank Strayer, auteur of umpteen Blondie movies for Columbia. UCLA’s restoration recreates the sensational Gustav Brock color sequence, unacknowledged and unseen since first run” (UCLA).

A scene from 1933’s The Vampire Bat.

The Sin of Nora Moran (USA, 1933)—From the same studio as The Vampire Bat, this “lurid melodrama has a feverish and surprisingly complex narrative structure that allegedly influenced Citizen Kane,” according to Fallen woman Nora (Zita Johann) is a circus performer who becomes the lover of an ambitious politician, then winds up on death row for a murder she didn’t commit. Alberto Vargas, later famous for his “Vargas Girls” pin-ups for Esquire and Playboy, did the original (and risqué) theatrical poster. “Has the cracked logic of a dream, with subjectivity and chronology shifting underfoot … One of the most formally daring films to come out of Hollywood in the early sound era” (Imogen Sara Smith, Film Comment).

1933’s The Sin of Nora Moran allegedly influenced Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

False Faces (USA, 1932)—A plastic surgeon wreaks havoc in this mix of sophisticated comedy and grotesque horror. The movie was inspired by a real-life charlatan whose clients included legendary performer Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand’s character in Funny Girl). Professional screen cad Lowell Sherman directs and stars as quack surgeon and chronic seducer Silas Benton. “False Faces has it all: drunken showgirls spilling out of their dresses; doctors too stoned to operate safely; shady detectives on the lookout for easy marks; jaded reporters, slutty secretaries, and patients crippled for life. A natural ham, Sherman powers through every scene, dripping with oily charm … For sheer jaw-dropping incredulity, False Faces can’t be beat” (Daniel Eagan, Film Journal International).

A scene from False Faces featuring professional screen cad Lowell Sherman.

Damaged Lives (USA/Canada, 1933)—This was the first American movie by Austrian émigré and future Poverty Row auteur Edgar G. Ulmer, the director of 1945’s B-noir masterpiece Detour). Ostensibly a sex-education film — and underwritten by the Canadian Social Hygiene Council, which touted it as the first Canadian picture produced in Hollywood — it tells the melodramatic tale of a young shipping tycoon who contracts VD during a debauched night on the town, and then unwittingly passes it on to his innocent new bride. UCLA has restored the original pre-Code release version of Damaged Lives, which was banned or censored in many U.S. jurisdictions, and circulated in various versions and under different titles.

Mamba (USA, 1930)—Mamba was Hollywood’s first all-colour feature-length talkie that wasn’t a musical. Made in two-strip Technicolor, the movie stars Jean Hersholt as a sadistic plantation owner who mistreats his African workers, sexually abuses native women, and is shunned by other European settlers. He “buys” the beautiful daughter of a destitute German aristocrat in a stab at respectability, but soon has a rival for his bride’s affections. Representative of Old Hollywood’s racist depictions of “the Dark Continent,” this fast-paced film was thought lost, except for fragments, until an intact print was located in Australia a decade ago.

Strange Illusion (USA, 1945)—Detour director Edgar G. Ulmer’s Freudian film noir is set partly in an L.A. asylum. In it, a wealthy college student (James Lydon) is haunted by disturbing dreams about his prominent father’s recent death and the slimy suitor now wooing his widowed mother. “Ulmer made several films for PRC, a film studio at the bottom of the Poverty Row heap, it was so cheap. Nevertheless, Ulmer always got stellar performances from his cast, while utilizing the camera to aesthetic effect… [He creates] a sense of delirium throughout the story” (UCLA).

For more info, including tickets and showtimes, visit

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