273: John Auer’s Poverty Row

Archival Spaces 273

John H. Auer’s Beginnings as a Poverty Row Auteur

Uploaded 9 July 2021

Erich von Stroheim in The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935)

This week I recorded a DVD commentary for The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1934), directed by the Hungarian American director, John H. Auer, which will be released in a four-disc box set by Flicker Alley later this year. According to an appreciation published by David Kerr in Film Comment in 2011, the director, John H. Auer, “was a filmmaker of high ambitions who discovered a certain freedom on poverty row,” like Edgar G. Ulmer at PRC and Joseph L. Lewis at Monogram. As house director for urban thrillers romantic comedies, torrid melodramas, and breezy musicals at Republic, – anything but westerns! – Auer held a position similar to Michael Curtiz at Warner Brothers. Kerr notes further, more than a competent craftsman, Auer’s films are about constant motion within a fixed structure, his characters consistently inconsistent, defined by dual natures and hidden emotions. In doing the research for the commentary, I was able to nail down some biographical details that have been fuzzy in previously published biographic sources.

John H. Auer

Born in Budapest on 3 August 1906 in what was then still the Austro-Hungarian Empire, John Hummer Auer suppressed his middle, becoming John H. According to some sources, John H. Auer was educated in Vienna and acted as a child in Hungarian films, beginning in 1918, but no credits have been confirmed. He supposedly entered the business world after his career as a child actor ended. His older brother, Stephen Auer preceded him to the United States, entering the country through New York in March 1921, remaining there until applying for American citizenship in 1927. Johan Auer arrived in New York from Trieste in November 1928 with his mother, Hinie Auer, on a temporary visa, giving his profession as clerk. It is unclear how long he stayed in New York with his brother, before traveling to Hollywood to find work as a director, but Auer initially failed to get a job.

Auer apparently entered the film industry in late 1930 as a producer for a Spanish language film, El comediante (1931), under the John H. Auer Productions banner. Starring and directed by Ernesto Vilches, the film was shot in Los Angeles and picked up for distribution by Paramount. Based on de Mélésville’s 19th century play, “Sullivan,” about the actor David Garrick, the film has Vilches performing in a variety of roles, including, “Peña Mena, Salambo, Juan Molinari and other figures known to the public,” according to Los Angeles Spanish language newspaper La Opinion.

While El comediante and the majority of Spanish language films were still being produced in Hollywood, due to inadequate production conditions for sound films in Mexico, by 1932 the situation was beginning to change, thanks to the success of Santa (1932). Auer’s directorial debut came with Un vida por otra (1932), a film he also co-wrote, although he did not speak Spanish. Produced by the companies Compañia Nacional Productora de Peliculas and Inter-Americas Cinema in the United States, the film starred Nancy Torres and Julio Villareal. The great Mexican director, Fernando de Fuentes co-wrote the script and probably assisted Auer with the direction of the actors, directing his own first feature the following year.  A melodrama of “a pure Mexican woman,” the film tells the story of Lucia, who needs money for her sick mother and takes the blame for a murder she didn’t commit; her mother dies before the actual murderess pays her, so she is ultimately acquitted. As La Opinion wrote in its review: “With an argument full of vigor and interest, it presents the rare combination of good photography with excellent acting. The direction is by John Auer, one of the foreigners most intimately knowledgeable about Mexican psychology.” The film received an award from the Ministry of Education of Mexico.

Auer followed up that film with Su última canción (1933), starring the Mexican “Caruso” Alfonso Ortiz Tirado and Maria Luisa Zea with music by José Broseño. The film revolved around a down on his luck opera singer who is prevented from committing suicide by a young woman who helps him revive his career but doesn’t love him, leading to tragedy. The film was praised in La Opinion as a truly “national” picture with outstanding acting and superior cinematography by Alex Phillips (Santa), the Canadian cinematographer who had a long career in Mexico. All three films by Auer were screened in the Spanish language cinemas of downtown Los Angeles and reprised several times.

The Crime of Dr. Crespi with Jeanne Kelly

Still unable to get an offer from Hollywood, Auer next directed The Crime of Dr. Crespi in September 1934, which he apparently also produced through his own company, J.H.A. Pictures, but was co-financed by Liberty Pictures and M.H. Hoffman in New York. Filmed at the Biograph Studios in the Bronx, New York, the film was very loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Premature Burial.” First published in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper in 1844, Crespi was co-written by John H. Auer and adapted by Louis Goldberg under the pseudonym Lewis Graham and Edwin Olmstead. Historical sources list Liberty Pictures as the film’s producer, but The Crime of Dr. Crespi was released by Republic Pictures, after Herbert J. Yates, the owner of Consolidated Industries, merged several poverty row studios that were heavily in debt to him. The Crime of Dr. Crespi was copyrighted twice on 29 November 1935, with a note by Republic stating that the first copyright in Liberty’s name was an error. The film remained on the shelf for at least 18 months and was not screened publicly until January 1936. Like much of Auer’s later work, the film’s studio bound scenes give evidence of high key lighting, expressionist shadows, off-kilter camera angles, a lot of camera movement, and even direct references to Weimar Cinema’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932).

Major Bowes and Frank Sinatra (1935)

After completing the film Auer remained in New York at the Biograph Studios – probably living again with his brother and mother in New York – directing two short films, adapted from the “Major Bowes Amateur Hour’ radio program on the N.B.C. Network. Major Bowes Amateur Theatre of the Air was actually produced by Auer and may have been a pilot, because the second film, Major Bowes Amateur Parade No. 1 (1936), officially opened the six-film RKO series, introducing local singers and other variety artists to a wider public. A young Frank Sinatra made his first public appearance. recording with the Hoboken Four in the first film. 

John H. Auer transitioned to Republic Pictures after the merger with Liberty. His first film for Republic was A Man Betrayed (1936), shot at the Mack Sennett Studios – renamed Republic Studios in Los Angeles, and released in December 1936. Auer became a resident of Los Angeles the same year, according to his marriage certificate. Except for a three year period at RKO in the 1940s, Auer remained with Republic almost to the end of his career, directing and producing 30 features. Auer died on 15 March 1975 in North Hollywood.

Dwight Frye and Erich von Stroheim in The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935)

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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