Moon over Harlem


1h 10m 1939

Brief Synopsis

A gangster seduces a wealthy widow to get his hands on her money.

Film Details

Genre
Crime
Musical
Release Date
Jan 1939
Premiere Information
New York opening: 31 Oct 1939
Production Company
Meteor Productions, Inc.
Distribution Company
Meteor Productions, Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 10m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Film Length
8 reels

Synopsis

After ardent wooing, Dollar Bill Richards finally marries widow Minnie, a maid and an excellent cook. The wedding reception is a disaster, however, when Dollar's uncouth friends act disdainfully toward Minnie's family. When a picture of Minnie's first husband is thrown to the ground, their daughter Sue picks it up. Sue is adored by Bob, a handsome young political organizer who loves Harlem and is planning to clean up the city's graft. When Sue and Bob announce their engagement, Dollar accuses Bob of paying for his education by living off women, and the two men fight. Dollar pulls a gun, and to save Bob, Sue promises never to see him again. Sue then finds work at Broadway Slick's Plantation nightclub, where Minnie works. Later, a man known as Wallstreet demands that Dollar, who is chasing a young girl named Connie and giving her money, increase the take at the club, instead of squandering Minnie's life insurance money at the races. Although Minnie is warned of Dollar's true ways, she believes that he is an honest grocer. When Sue needs sixty-nine dollars to pay her college tuition, Minnie persuades her to take the money from her hated stepfather. While Bob speaks to a ladies' group, urging them to help clean up the rackets in Harlem, Dollar is ordered to assert his gang's authority by killing someone. Dollar makes a pass at Sue, but Minnie blames her daughter rather than her husband, and demands that Sue leave home. Sue goes to the home of Jackie and Alice, two of her schoolmates, and decides to leave school for a career on Broadway with the help of Slick. Meanwhile, Faron, a man from Detroit, has moved in on the Harlem rackets. When Dollar sends his men to get money from a Jamaican, they beat up his wife instead. Faron, who knows that Dollar spends more than he makes, demands $15,000 from him and then shoots Minnie. Despite the tragedy, Sue performs that night, and when she arrives home, hymns are being sung because her mother has died. Dollar soon announces his intentions to marry another woman, but when Wallstreet arrives, a shootout ensues and both men are killed. To everyone's relief, the gangs are then broken. Bob and Sue are now free to resume their romance and appreciate the moon over Harlem.

Film Details

Genre
Crime
Musical
Release Date
Jan 1939
Premiere Information
New York opening: 31 Oct 1939
Production Company
Meteor Productions, Inc.
Distribution Company
Meteor Productions, Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 10m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Film Length
8 reels

Articles

Edgar G. Ulmer: Archive on DVD


This triple disc set is a five-feature compilation of Edgar Ulmer films previously released separately, a cross-section of the director's 40s commercial work with a couple of oddball features thrown into the mix. Most are dated but all exhibit the creativity that marks Ulmer as the most interesting director to work on poverty row and around the fringes of Hollywood.

The disc comes from the independent company Allday and its owner David Kalat has included a score of extras that offer teasing glimpses of Ulmer's unique genius. The lamentable condition of most of Ulmer's work makes appreciating him sometimes resemble a search for artifacts, and Kalat's presentations are better than can be seen anywhere else. The most impressive film in the group improves the quality of an earlier disc and comes with one of the disc producer's exemplary audio commentaries.

Starting chronologically, Moon over Harlem is one of Ulmer's adventures in ethnic filmmaking. Blackballed from studio work after filming his The Black Cat at Universal, Ulmer made all kinds of features and documentaries, eventually directing a number of Yiddish and Russian 'old country' musicals in New Jersey -- according to one source, the farm leased for the filming of one Fiddler on the Roof-style show about Russian Jews was right next door to property often used for meetings of the German Bund. This story of vice and virtue in the rackets and nightclubs of New York's Harlem was filmed in 16mm for almost nothing yet features a large cast. In an interview videotaped shortly before she passed away, Ulmer's wife and co-producer Shirley Ulmer recounts that she rewrote the entire script, and the lively, all-black cast creates some vivid characters.

In perhaps the first true representation of how rackets really worked, a gangster thinks he can outwit the white crime organization that runs vice in Harlem. He marries a woman to be near her beautiful daughter, who for her part wants to become a singer. The daughter is attracted to a political reformer and sparks fly. Much of the acting is stilted but the film has a general honesty missing in later Blaxploitation pix. Moon over Harlem comes with two added films, a 1940s public service short called Goodbye Mr. Germ and an unsold 1958 TV pilot filmed in color in Mexico, Swiss Family Robinson.

Bluebeard is one of Ulmer's best known pictures, a well-liked horror item that makes a sympathetic character of its mad killer, a talented painter and puppeteer in 19th century Paris. John Carradine has his best starring film role as Gaston Morrell, a civilized maniac compelled to strangle the models he paints. Jean Parker is the spirited girl he admires; he attempts to get free of his crimes but cannot erase the telltale paintings that chronicle his succession of victims.

Using fog, bits of sets and a cooperative cast, Ulmer creates a convincing period picture out of almost nothing, while moving the horror film closer to a more psychologically valid assessment of murderous evil. It's one of his more artistically successful efforts.

Allday's extras include a featurette about the Barlow and Baker marionettes that star as Morrell's puppet actors. Some striking Kodachrome movies of the marionettes in action are included that show that Bluebeard could have looked terrific as a color movie.

Strange Illusion is an awkward but artistically adventurous contemporary mystery lifted almost entirely from Hamlet. Jimmy Lydon is discouraged from investigating his father's death and is suspicious of the new man in his mother's life; he eventually becomes the victim of a conspiracy and is committed to an asylum. Weird dream sequences work their way through this Ulmer fan favorite. This disc comes with several Ulmer trailers including the elusive Beyond the Time Barrier, an MGM title for which 35mm printing elements are currently missing.

Daughter of Dr. Jekyll is a late-50s Allied Artists film made on the cheap in Los Angeles but set on a foggy moor. Gloria Talbott is afraid to marry John Agar afer being advised that she may have inherited her father's curse of lycanthropy. Several slow-motion dream sequences later, Gloria finds out she's being set up by a relative, the true guilty party.

Known almost exclusively as a joke title in Andrew Sarris' auteurist book The American Film, this tame monster romp does wonders with minimal sets but flubs a key interior when 1957 auto traffic peeks through the blinds during a breakfast scene. Of all the pictures in the collection, this is the sloppiest.

This disc has an interview with Ulmer's Daughter Arrianné explaining her non-profit foundation to preserve her father's films, many of which have fallen into the limbo of unresolved legal rights. She apparently recovered the original elements for Daughter of Dr. Jekyll at the last possible moment, by asking the original producer to reassign her the rights only a few weeks before he died.

The final title in the disc, not in chronological order, is 1946's The Strange Woman, a mini-masterpiece done on a reasonable budget that almost raised Edgar Ulmer out of poverty row. Instead, its success made him impatient with his deal at Producer's Releasing Corporation and he left to do even wilder independent projects in Europe.

The movie is an intelligent drama about a headstrong woman who eventually falls victim to her own negative karma. Hedy Lamarr plays the ambitious Jenny and the story is set in Maine in the early 1800s when land swindles were cornering the lumber market. The daughter of the town drunk, Jenny uses her beauty to maneuver herself into a marriage with the richest man in town and then has trouble getting his handsome son (Louis Hayward) to do the old man in. The irony builds as Jenny establishes a reputation of charity and personal integrity - only she knows what a fraud she is. When jealousy over the handsome George Sanders comes into the picture, her conscience gets the better of her.

This Ulmer film has no need of excuses or explanations; it's just plain superior and is easily Lamarr's best vehicle. The Ill-fated Jenny is as complicated as Scarlett O'Hara (whom Lamarr resembles in the role) and much more believable than Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven.

To top it off, David Kalat provides one of his highly entertaining commentaries, packed with fact, analysis and intelligent conclusions about Ulmer, Lamarr and the entire moviemaking process. It's a great listen.

The quality of Ulmer DVDs is always an issue as few decent prints of the movies survive. Many PRC pictures now lack anything but worn 16mm television negatives, and Ulmer's entire 40s output exists in spotty condition. Happily, The Strange Woman has been improved with new elements from French archives. Allday's encoding and digitizing improved over the years but some of the transfers are not as good looking as they might be. Dr. Jekyll and Strange Illusion suffer from strange pincushion graininess in their frequent dark foggy scenes.

Still, the Edgar G. Ulmer: Archive three-disc collection is a bargain and a great introduction to Ulmer's prodigious output. With extras included it adds up to over six hours of entertainment.

For more information about Edgar G. Ulmer: Archive, visit Image Entertainment. To order Edgar G. Ulmer: Archive, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson
Edgar G. Ulmer: Archive On Dvd

Edgar G. Ulmer: Archive on DVD

This triple disc set is a five-feature compilation of Edgar Ulmer films previously released separately, a cross-section of the director's 40s commercial work with a couple of oddball features thrown into the mix. Most are dated but all exhibit the creativity that marks Ulmer as the most interesting director to work on poverty row and around the fringes of Hollywood. The disc comes from the independent company Allday and its owner David Kalat has included a score of extras that offer teasing glimpses of Ulmer's unique genius. The lamentable condition of most of Ulmer's work makes appreciating him sometimes resemble a search for artifacts, and Kalat's presentations are better than can be seen anywhere else. The most impressive film in the group improves the quality of an earlier disc and comes with one of the disc producer's exemplary audio commentaries. Starting chronologically, Moon over Harlem is one of Ulmer's adventures in ethnic filmmaking. Blackballed from studio work after filming his The Black Cat at Universal, Ulmer made all kinds of features and documentaries, eventually directing a number of Yiddish and Russian 'old country' musicals in New Jersey -- according to one source, the farm leased for the filming of one Fiddler on the Roof-style show about Russian Jews was right next door to property often used for meetings of the German Bund. This story of vice and virtue in the rackets and nightclubs of New York's Harlem was filmed in 16mm for almost nothing yet features a large cast. In an interview videotaped shortly before she passed away, Ulmer's wife and co-producer Shirley Ulmer recounts that she rewrote the entire script, and the lively, all-black cast creates some vivid characters. In perhaps the first true representation of how rackets really worked, a gangster thinks he can outwit the white crime organization that runs vice in Harlem. He marries a woman to be near her beautiful daughter, who for her part wants to become a singer. The daughter is attracted to a political reformer and sparks fly. Much of the acting is stilted but the film has a general honesty missing in later Blaxploitation pix. Moon over Harlem comes with two added films, a 1940s public service short called Goodbye Mr. Germ and an unsold 1958 TV pilot filmed in color in Mexico, Swiss Family Robinson. Bluebeard is one of Ulmer's best known pictures, a well-liked horror item that makes a sympathetic character of its mad killer, a talented painter and puppeteer in 19th century Paris. John Carradine has his best starring film role as Gaston Morrell, a civilized maniac compelled to strangle the models he paints. Jean Parker is the spirited girl he admires; he attempts to get free of his crimes but cannot erase the telltale paintings that chronicle his succession of victims. Using fog, bits of sets and a cooperative cast, Ulmer creates a convincing period picture out of almost nothing, while moving the horror film closer to a more psychologically valid assessment of murderous evil. It's one of his more artistically successful efforts. Allday's extras include a featurette about the Barlow and Baker marionettes that star as Morrell's puppet actors. Some striking Kodachrome movies of the marionettes in action are included that show that Bluebeard could have looked terrific as a color movie. Strange Illusion is an awkward but artistically adventurous contemporary mystery lifted almost entirely from Hamlet. Jimmy Lydon is discouraged from investigating his father's death and is suspicious of the new man in his mother's life; he eventually becomes the victim of a conspiracy and is committed to an asylum. Weird dream sequences work their way through this Ulmer fan favorite. This disc comes with several Ulmer trailers including the elusive Beyond the Time Barrier, an MGM title for which 35mm printing elements are currently missing. Daughter of Dr. Jekyll is a late-50s Allied Artists film made on the cheap in Los Angeles but set on a foggy moor. Gloria Talbott is afraid to marry John Agar afer being advised that she may have inherited her father's curse of lycanthropy. Several slow-motion dream sequences later, Gloria finds out she's being set up by a relative, the true guilty party. Known almost exclusively as a joke title in Andrew Sarris' auteurist book The American Film, this tame monster romp does wonders with minimal sets but flubs a key interior when 1957 auto traffic peeks through the blinds during a breakfast scene. Of all the pictures in the collection, this is the sloppiest. This disc has an interview with Ulmer's Daughter Arrianné explaining her non-profit foundation to preserve her father's films, many of which have fallen into the limbo of unresolved legal rights. She apparently recovered the original elements for Daughter of Dr. Jekyll at the last possible moment, by asking the original producer to reassign her the rights only a few weeks before he died. The final title in the disc, not in chronological order, is 1946's The Strange Woman, a mini-masterpiece done on a reasonable budget that almost raised Edgar Ulmer out of poverty row. Instead, its success made him impatient with his deal at Producer's Releasing Corporation and he left to do even wilder independent projects in Europe. The movie is an intelligent drama about a headstrong woman who eventually falls victim to her own negative karma. Hedy Lamarr plays the ambitious Jenny and the story is set in Maine in the early 1800s when land swindles were cornering the lumber market. The daughter of the town drunk, Jenny uses her beauty to maneuver herself into a marriage with the richest man in town and then has trouble getting his handsome son (Louis Hayward) to do the old man in. The irony builds as Jenny establishes a reputation of charity and personal integrity - only she knows what a fraud she is. When jealousy over the handsome George Sanders comes into the picture, her conscience gets the better of her. This Ulmer film has no need of excuses or explanations; it's just plain superior and is easily Lamarr's best vehicle. The Ill-fated Jenny is as complicated as Scarlett O'Hara (whom Lamarr resembles in the role) and much more believable than Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven. To top it off, David Kalat provides one of his highly entertaining commentaries, packed with fact, analysis and intelligent conclusions about Ulmer, Lamarr and the entire moviemaking process. It's a great listen. The quality of Ulmer DVDs is always an issue as few decent prints of the movies survive. Many PRC pictures now lack anything but worn 16mm television negatives, and Ulmer's entire 40s output exists in spotty condition. Happily, The Strange Woman has been improved with new elements from French archives. Allday's encoding and digitizing improved over the years but some of the transfers are not as good looking as they might be. Dr. Jekyll and Strange Illusion suffer from strange pincushion graininess in their frequent dark foggy scenes. Still, the Edgar G. Ulmer: Archive three-disc collection is a bargain and a great introduction to Ulmer's prodigious output. With extras included it adds up to over six hours of entertainment. For more information about Edgar G. Ulmer: Archive, visit Image Entertainment. To order Edgar G. Ulmer: Archive, go to TCM Shopping. by Glenn Erickson

Moon Over Harlem


Aside from the only U.S. screen appearance of jazz great Sidney Bechet, Moon Over Harlem (1939) is notable for being made by Edgar G. Ulmer, one of the great unsung directors of American cinema. For most of his career he labored on ultra-low-budget Poverty Row B-pictures and is best known today for his primitive film noir classic Detour (1945). That movies and others, such as Ruthless (1948) and The Naked Dawn (1955), brought later critical attention to Ulmer for stamping his work with a clearly identifiable style and vision despite the most dismal production conditions.

This was many years, however, before that acclaim, and even Ulmer's most ardent admirers see little of his directorial signature in this story of the conflict between the Black middle class and Harlem street life in the context of the social oppression of the time. Few of the many all-Black gangster movies of the era ever succeeded critically or commercially and rarely reflected African-American life in an honest way. But Moon Over Harlem rose above the pack. The highly influential Pittsburgh Courier, then one of the few Black-owned newspapers in a major American city, almost never favorably reviewed Black crime dramas. But the Courier said this film represented "the finest acting ever performed by Negroes. So far in front of the others, it is hard to tell what other colored pictures come in second."

That in no small measure could be attributed to Ulmer, who produced and directed from a script written by his wife Shirley (who later wrote for such TV series as Batman and CHiPs). Although largely overlooked in studies of the director's oeuvre, this picture has a number of distinctive touches: a long tracking shot down 125th Street past such notable Harlem landmarks as the Apollo Theater; cuts and dissolves that built the episodic sequences into a compelling whole as few "race movies" had ever done; nuances of cultural differences and the details of daily Harlem life; and a respect for the characters and the actors that earned Ulmer their abiding affection. And all this accomplished despite the necessity Ulmer often faced of having to shoot between sixty and eighty set-ups a day. In fact, Moon Over Harlem was shot in just four days on a budget of $8,000. Ulmer later recalled: "The singers were paid 25 cents a day. It was one of the most pitiful things I ever did. It was done on nothing. But we made quite a good picture."

Famed jazz clarinetist Bechet and his wife, Marieluise, have small parts in the picture. After great success in America and Europe in the 1920s, Bechet took a break from his long music career in the 1930s when the popularity of his style became eclipsed by the emerging (and increasingly white-dominated) Big Band sound. He ran a tailor shop in Harlem for a few years to make ends meet until 1938, when some landmark recordings he made with several other musicians spearheaded a resurgence of New Orleans "Storyville" jazz. Nevertheless, Bechet left the U.S. for good in 1942 to spend the rest of his life in France, where he was a major star and cultural icon and made several films in Paris in the 1950s such as Serie Noire (1955) and Ah, Quelle Equipe! (1957).

Director/Producer: Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay: Shirley Ulmer, Mathew Mathews
Cinematography: J. Burgi Contner, Edward Hyland
Editing: Jack Kemp
Original Music: Donald Heywood Cast: Percy 'Bud' Harris (Dollar Bill), Cora Green (Minnie), Ozinetta Wilcox (Sue), Carl Gough (Bob), Zerita Steptean (Jackie), Petrina Moore (Alice), Sidney Bechet (musician).
BW-70m.

by Rob Nixon

Moon Over Harlem

Aside from the only U.S. screen appearance of jazz great Sidney Bechet, Moon Over Harlem (1939) is notable for being made by Edgar G. Ulmer, one of the great unsung directors of American cinema. For most of his career he labored on ultra-low-budget Poverty Row B-pictures and is best known today for his primitive film noir classic Detour (1945). That movies and others, such as Ruthless (1948) and The Naked Dawn (1955), brought later critical attention to Ulmer for stamping his work with a clearly identifiable style and vision despite the most dismal production conditions. This was many years, however, before that acclaim, and even Ulmer's most ardent admirers see little of his directorial signature in this story of the conflict between the Black middle class and Harlem street life in the context of the social oppression of the time. Few of the many all-Black gangster movies of the era ever succeeded critically or commercially and rarely reflected African-American life in an honest way. But Moon Over Harlem rose above the pack. The highly influential Pittsburgh Courier, then one of the few Black-owned newspapers in a major American city, almost never favorably reviewed Black crime dramas. But the Courier said this film represented "the finest acting ever performed by Negroes. So far in front of the others, it is hard to tell what other colored pictures come in second." That in no small measure could be attributed to Ulmer, who produced and directed from a script written by his wife Shirley (who later wrote for such TV series as Batman and CHiPs). Although largely overlooked in studies of the director's oeuvre, this picture has a number of distinctive touches: a long tracking shot down 125th Street past such notable Harlem landmarks as the Apollo Theater; cuts and dissolves that built the episodic sequences into a compelling whole as few "race movies" had ever done; nuances of cultural differences and the details of daily Harlem life; and a respect for the characters and the actors that earned Ulmer their abiding affection. And all this accomplished despite the necessity Ulmer often faced of having to shoot between sixty and eighty set-ups a day. In fact, Moon Over Harlem was shot in just four days on a budget of $8,000. Ulmer later recalled: "The singers were paid 25 cents a day. It was one of the most pitiful things I ever did. It was done on nothing. But we made quite a good picture." Famed jazz clarinetist Bechet and his wife, Marieluise, have small parts in the picture. After great success in America and Europe in the 1920s, Bechet took a break from his long music career in the 1930s when the popularity of his style became eclipsed by the emerging (and increasingly white-dominated) Big Band sound. He ran a tailor shop in Harlem for a few years to make ends meet until 1938, when some landmark recordings he made with several other musicians spearheaded a resurgence of New Orleans "Storyville" jazz. Nevertheless, Bechet left the U.S. for good in 1942 to spend the rest of his life in France, where he was a major star and cultural icon and made several films in Paris in the 1950s such as Serie Noire (1955) and Ah, Quelle Equipe! (1957). Director/Producer: Edgar G. Ulmer Screenplay: Shirley Ulmer, Mathew Mathews Cinematography: J. Burgi Contner, Edward Hyland Editing: Jack Kemp Original Music: Donald Heywood Cast: Percy 'Bud' Harris (Dollar Bill), Cora Green (Minnie), Ozinetta Wilcox (Sue), Carl Gough (Bob), Zerita Steptean (Jackie), Petrina Moore (Alice), Sidney Bechet (musician). BW-70m. by Rob Nixon

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Screenplay writer Sherle Castle was the wife of producer and director Edgar G. Ulmer, and was also known as Shirley Ulmer. Unidentified contemporary news items in the George Johnson Collection at UCLA indicate that the picture was produced by Benjamin F. Resnick, manager of the Brooklyn Regent Theater, which also exhibited the film. According to modern sources, the running time is 67 minutes. Modern sources also indicate that Frank Wilson authored the story; that the cast included Patrina Waples; and that the film featured a chorus of twenty girls, a forty-voice choir and a mixed sixty-piece symphony orchestra. According to a modern interview with Ulmer, the film was shot in four days-two days in a studio in New Jersey, and two days at actual locations in New York. The file for the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library contains a letter, dated June 1, 1939 and addressed to Mercury Film Laboratories, in which the PCA stated that it could not approve the picture because the film's two murderers are "left unpunished."