One of the main reasons that truly dedicated cinema aficionados have particular respect and admiration for ‘B’ filmmakers is that not only could they achieve a level of visual style on low budgets that put the work of more respectable (and overrated) directors working with infinitely larger budgets to shame, but also do so with greater speed and efficiency. (This explains why many ‘B’ directors like John Brahm, Robert Florey, Ida Lupino, William Witney, Norman Foster, and William “One-Shot” Beaudine thrived in the television medium; the budgets and schedules required for TV were downright luxurious compared with the conditions they’d made theatrical films under.) One director who epitomized this concept of doing more with less was Edgar G. Ulmer. As part of their series of remastered DVD releases of public domain movies previously available only in cheap, multi-generational knock-offs, Film Chest has just issued a high-definition restored version of Ulmer’s 1946 costume melodrama The Strange Woman.
Coincidentally, as with Hollow Triumph, another 40s ‘B’ film recently remastered and released on DVD by Film Chest, The Strange Woman was a project that was initiated by its star, in this case, Hedy Lamarr. (For years, Lamarr was written off as yet another attractive starlet with a limited acting range, but it’s now well known that she had a genius I.Q. and, with composer George Antheil, invented a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum device that was patented in their names in 1942. The device not only prevented the jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes, but laid the groundwork for today’s Internet as well.)
Lamarr was dissatisfied with her time under contract to MGM, where she was wasted in glamorous but unsubstantial roles. It also didn’t help that MGM refused to loan Lamarr to Warner Bros. when she was the first choice for what would’ve been the most notable role of her career, Ilsa Lund in Casablanca. (Lamarr’s loss, however, was film history’s gain when David O. Selznick gladly loaned out Warners’ second choice, Ingrid Bergman, since Bergman was, frankly, a far more talented and nuanced actress. MGM did loan Lamarr to Warners two years later for The Conspirators, however.)
After leaving MGM in 1945, Lamarr tried freelancing, an option becoming increasingly popular at the time among film stars whose studio contracts had run out and wanted to exercise more control over their careers. Lamarr purchased the film rights to Ben Ames Williams’ novel The Strange Woman, a steamy tale in which Jenny Hager, a young temptress from the wrong side of town (said town being Bangor, Maine, circa the early 1800s), sleeps her way to riches and respectability. Lamarr then teamed with fellow MGM alumni Jack Chertock and Hunt Stromberg to produce. She also selected Ulmer, a childhood friend in her native Vienna, to direct.
Ulmer directing Lamarr and Sanders
Being an independent production, The Strange Woman was made on a limited budget, but it must have seemed have seemed lavish compared to the miniscule budgets Ulmer was used to working with when he was under contract to Producers Releasing Company (or PRC, as it was commonly known), the cheapest of Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studios. The Strange Woman is what was known as a “bodice ripper” (i.e., “lusty” costume romantic-melodramas populated by male scoundrels and promiscuous female protagonists), a subgenre that proved to be especially popular with movie audiences in the post-war years in such films as Gainsborough Pictures’ The Wicked Lady (UK, 1945), 20th Century Fox’s Forever Amber (1947), and MGM’s That Forsythe Woman (1949). Although The Strange Woman’s budget was a fraction of the ones these movies were made on, Ulmer’s visual creativity belied its modest resources.
Still, the movie’s sense of visual style was not enough for it to transcend its soap opera story and script. (The screenplay is credited to radio writer Herb Meadow, but supposedly Ulmer and Stromberg also did uncredited work on it.) I’d say that The Strange Woman’s story is like a bad Harlequin romance, except that “bad Harlequin romance” is a redundancy. With exceptional directing, writing, and acting, it’s possible to make a quality film out of this type of material as proven by William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938) with its Academy Award-winning star performance by Bette Davis. But, at any rate, Lamarr was no Davis, not by a long shot, and even admitted in her autobiography that she didn’t have the range to pull the role off: “I just wasn’t a tigress. All the talent at my disposal couldn’t make me one.”
A cliché that was overused in that period was showing the main characters as children and how their psychological makeup was already apparent in their personalities. In the opening scene of The Strange Woman (supposedly directed by an uncredited Douglas Sirk), we are introduced to the main characters as adolescents as they play by a river stream. Even at an early age, young Jenny (played by Jo Ann Marlowe), daughter of town drunk Tim Hager (Dennis Hoey), is obviously a bad seed, as evidenced by her bouncing a rock off the head of one boy in a swimming race with another boy (she was rooting for the other boy) and then taunting Ephraim (Christopher Severn), the son of wealthy merchant Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), who owns the local general store in addition to a lumber camp outside the town. Just to show what a hellcat Jenny is, when Ephraim reveals that he can’t swim, she promptly pushes him into the water. And just to add insult to injury, after another lad pulls Ephraim out of the stream before he drowns, Jenny takes credit for the rescue.
Fast-forward to about a decade later. Jenny (Lamarr) has grown to be an attractive young woman who’s got definite ideas of what she wants and how to get it. While Jenny shows off her new dress to gal pal Lena Tempest (June Storey), a barmaid at the local dive down by the docks, her friend offers her some encouragement.
Lena: “Listen, honey, with your looks, you don’t have to worry. Why, you can get the youngest and best-looking man on the river.”
Jenny: “I don’t want the youngest; I want the richest!”
Lena: “Jenny, that’s a recipe for trouble!”
Jenny: (coquettishly) “Don’t worry about me. I can handle trouble.”
Lena: “I know you can.”
The richest man in the area being the aforementioned Isaiah Poster (conveniently, a widower), Jenny’s already got him in her sights. She gets her chance to reel him in when her father drops dead of a fatal heart attack due to his exertions while taking a whip to her for her wantonness. (Sounds kinky, huh? Well, we’ll get to that later.) Jenny shows up on Isaiah’s doorstep, acting as distraught as her thespian talents will allow. Sure enough, Isaiah offers Jenny protection and a roof over her head in the form of a marriage proposal, which she “gratefully” accepts.
The next step to achieving her goals is provided by Isaiah’s son Ephraim, due back from boarding school. The adult Ephraim is played by Louis Hayward with the usual combination of callowness and moral ambiguity he usually brought to his roles whether he was playing a hero or a heavy. Ephraim turns out to be a spineless weakling, which makes him ideal for the manipulations Jenny has in mind. (Indeed, Ephraim’s such an obvious patsy that he calls to mind the great line that Preston Sturges gave Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve when she’s sizing up Henry Fonda as her mark: “I need him like the ax needs the turkey.”)
Jenny puts the moves on Ephraim and, as they go into a clinch, Isaiah shows up right on cue to witness them in the act and suffers a stroke there on the spot. (Jenny would seem to be the Typhoid Mary of heart disease.) Unexpectedly, and much to Jenny’s disappointment, Isaiah recovers. Time for Plan B. Borrowing a page from the film noir femme fatales’ book, Jenny convinces Ephraim to bump his old man off.
The opportunity presents itself when there’s trouble at the lumber camp and both Posters will be required to make the journey to the camp via canoe in the rapid waters of the river. (Guess who else can’t swim?) As it turns out, before he can commit cold-blooded fratricide, Ephraim has a panic attack as they travel downstream, resulting in the canoe capsizing. It may be an accident, but it achieves the effect desired by Jenny: Isaiah’s demise. Now that Ephraim’s fulfilled his usefulness, Jenny takes chutzpah to a whole new level, denouncing him for killing her husband and barring him from the family home. She needs to get Ephraim out of the picture because she’s already got her next boytoy lined up: John Evered (George Sanders), the fiancé of her childhood friend Meg Saladine (Hillary Brooke).
On the plus side, in addition to Sanders, Hoey, Lockhart, and Hayward, The Strange Woman’s supporting cast also includes such first-rate character actors as Alan Napier, Rhys Williams, and Moroni Olsen. On the debit side of the ledger is the fact that the weak material the cast has to work with doesn’t make much use of their talents. Sanders is particularly wasted in a standard leading man role, rather than playing one of his patented cads who might’ve given Jenny a suitable antagonist to provide her with a well-deserved comeuppance, much like his Addison DeWitt did so satisfyingly with Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington in All About Eve.
There are some fleeting moments when The Strange Woman threatens to become a perverse kitsch classic, such as Jenny’s wicked smile as her father starts whipping her or her seduction of John Evered during a raging thunderstorm where, at the height of their passion, a bolt of lightning causes a tree to burst into flames. But such moments are few and far between, buried under tons of tedious dialogue as the characters talk endlessly about their desires and aspirations. The one interesting aspect of the story is how Jenny uses her newfound wealth to help those townspeople in need, but even this isn’t enough to make up for the screenplay’s defects.
As with Film Chest’s other recent remastered DVD releases, despite some obvious scratching in the first reel, The Strange Woman is consistently good to look at. Whether the film itself is actually worth watching is another matter altogether.