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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 travelling 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 and 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)

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Archival Spaces 272

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger (1939/2020)

Uploaded 25 June 2020

Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof, 1930s

I recently finished reading Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s “lost” novel. Der Reisende, published for the first time in German in 2018, and recently republished in English in a new translation as The Passenger, eighty years after its first quickly forgotten appearance; it has been hailed by critics as a masterpiece. A promising young German-Jewish author of 27 years with two novels under his belt, Boschwitz died in 1942, when the troop transport ship he was on was sunk by a German U-Boat, having previously survived a torpedo attack in 1940 en route to Australia. Like the luckless fictional Jewish hero of his novel, who desperately tries to flee Nazi Germany in the days after the November 1938 Pogrom, an event the Nazis-called Reichskristallnacht, Boschwitz could apparently not escape his fate.

The novel opens in the Berlin home of Otto Silbermann on the night of 9 November, when Nazi brown shirts, the Sturmabteilung (S.A.), try to break into his flat and arrest the middle class business man, just as thousands of other German Jews were arrested and beaten all over Germany. Leaving his Christian wife behind, Silbermann escapes out the back door, and after meeting his “Aryan” business partner who has bought the business for a tiny fraction of its actual value, – a process the Nazis termed “Aryanization” – gets on a train without a destination in mind. He tries unsuccessfully to cross the border illegally into Belgium with 40,000 Reichsmarks in his possession, – another crime, given the prohibition for Jewish citizens against taking any money out of Germany, – and spends the rest of the novel travelling by train from one place to another, eventually ending back in Berlin.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz and his mother, 1938

Silbermann is not only a completely assimilated German citizen of Jewish ancestry, he does not look “Jewish” and can therefore pass among both anti-Semites, Nazis, and ordinary, non-political Germans.   It is this ability to move freely among the “Wolfmen,” as Curt Siodmak called the Nazis that had kept Silbermann from emigrating sooner, as his son had and now leads him to reproach himself obsessively for not seeing the writing on the wall, for not rescuing his capital sooner, for abandoning his wife, for not trying to attempt another border crossing. But he had served patriotically in World War I on the Western Front, and like many middle class German Jews, he took pains not to call attention to his Jewishness. As time goes on, Silbermann becomes not only more and more frustrated, but also thin-skinned, even aggressive. When he meets an old Jewish business associate back in Berlin, he accuses the friend of putting him in danger, because Löwenstein looks Jewish. When he meets a sympathetic woman on a train, who makes clear to him she is not an anti-Semite, he verbally abuses her. “You look so irritated. I can understand that, but you should know I have nothing to do with all that. I’m not an anti-Semite. And if you were?, he said sharply. What would it change?” He even retorts aggressively to a German police official who is trying to find an excuse not to arrest him.  

German citizens of Jewish ancestry, arrested by S.A> and Police on 10 November 1938

I’ve read dozens of novels, written by exiled German Jewish writers in my decades of research on German refugee filmmakers from Nazi Germany after 1933, but seldom have I read a writer who described the pain, suffering, disappointment, humiliation, and betrayal, as well as Boschwitz, himself a German citizen of Jewish ethnicity who was thoroughly assimilated, and even baptized. In fact, Boschwitz wrote the novel in one month immediately after the November Pogrom. It was published in Sweden and England under the title The Man Who Took Trains.

HMT Dunera, 1940

Boschwitz did escape and went to England, where his mother was already residing, but was arrested and deported as an enemy alien to Australia by Winston Churchill’s government.  On 10 July 1940 2,542 detainees, almost all of them Jewish, anti-Nazi Germans, Austrians, and Italians, were loaded onto the HMT Dunera, where they were beaten, abused, and robbed by British military guards before arriving in Australia 57 days later. The ship was torpedoed twice, but one bomb was a dud, while the second narrowly missed the hull. Among the ship’s passengers were many famous refugee scientists, artists, and intellectuals. Boschwitz spent two years in an Australian internment camp, was then allowed to make the perilous journey back to England, if he enlisted. In his luggage was a revised version of the novel he hoped to republish, having previously sent revisions of the first 109 pages. He died on 29 October 1942, when the M.V. Abosso was sunk by a German torpedo 620 miles north of the Azores.

M.V. Abosso

In the postwar German Federal Republic, no one was interested in publishing Boschwitz’s novel,  although none other than Heinrich Böll (Group Portrait with Lady) tried in vain to convince a publisher. Not until Peter Graf, the editor of Der Reisende, found the German manuscript in 2015 in the “Exile Archive” of the German National Library in Marbach was The Passenger discovered.  

German Jewish citizens paraded through streets, November 1938
German Anti-Nazis being forcibly deported, London 1940

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Archival Spaces 271  

Ozaphan, 16mm on Cellophane

Uploaded 11 June 2021

Ozaphan was a non-flammable safety film format marketed for home use in France and Germany from the late 1920s to the 1950s, which had the peculiarity that it neither used a conventional photographic emulsion, nor was its base di-acetate.  Rather, Ozaphan employed a system of image reproduction akin to blue line printing on a cellophane base. Despite the fact that it could not be utilized as a production medium, but only as a projection format, it was relatively popular as a distribution medium for amateurs wishing to screen commercial fiction, documentary, and animated films in their own homes. Ozaphan was produced through a cooperation between the French Le Cellophane, Agfa, and the German manufacturer Kalle & Co. AG. Despite attempts to form a French-German-American partnership in 1937-38  to distribute Ozaphan films in the United States, negotiations broke down, due to resistance from Ansco, the American subsidiary of Agfa, which saw as a competitor to its 16mm film. A new monograph by Ralf Forster and Jeanpaul Goergen, Heimkino auf Ozaphan. Mediengeschichte eines vergessenen Filmmaterials (CineGraph Babelsberg, 2021) details the history of this weird film format.

Cellophane was invented and patented between 1908-10 by the Swiss chemist, Jacques Edwin Brandenberger, as a clear, waterproof tablecloth for restaurant use, but was quickly marketed as packaging material for everything from food and candies to drugs and books. By 1912, Whitman Candy Company was packaging their sampler in cellophane. In 1924, Brandenberger sold the rights to cellophane production in America to E. I. du Pont de Nemours. While cellophane was contemplated as a base for photographic film, the fact that it lost its dimensionality when soaked in developer, made it unsuitable. Invented in 1917, Kalle & Co. introduced a diazotype photographic process in 1924, under the brand name Ozalid, which was able to accurately reproduce blue-line drawings on paper. Ozalid’s dry developing process used gas, rather than water, making a marriage of the two technologies feasible.

Le Cellophane S.A. trade show, n.d.
Ozolid blue line architectural drawing

With the expansion of the amateur film market in the 1920s, numerous raw film manufacturers attempted to find a safe alternative to highly flammable nitrate film. Pathé introduced a 9.5mm format in 1922 for their “Baby-Pathé” camera and projector, and Eastman Kodak brought their 16mm system to market in 1924, both based on a di-acetate based film. Shortly thereafter, Kalle, which had been absorbed by I.G. Farben, formed a partnership with Le Cellophane S.A. to create a non-flammable amateur film format, Ozaphan, which was also significantly cheaper to produce than di-acetate. In April 1928, Agfa introduced its 16mm Ozaphan film, having marketed a 22mm format (Edison) a year earlier, and two years later an X-ray film and film for sound tracks.

One advantage of Ozaphan was it was approximately half as thick as di-acetate, decreasing shipping costs, and also cheaper to produce because it did not use silver salts. Instead, cellophane was impregnated with a photosensitive ferric compound and dried. Utilizing a 16mm photochemical positive print, reduced from a 35mm negative as a matrix, Ozaphan prints were contact-printed under light, then developed under pressure in ammonia gas, a process that took 6-7 hours. Despite increased cost for matrices and developing, the cost of a finished Ozaphan film was 15 Pfennings, rather than 90 Pfennings per meter for di-acetate. This process obviously precluded the production of images in a camera, and was thus only used to make copies. Drawbacks to the process were that cellophane continued to have dimensional and shrinkage issues, and the quality of the yellow tinted black and white image was inferior to photographic film, lacking most grey tones.

Movector CS 16mm projector, modified filmgate for Ozaphan film, 1935

Nevertheless, Ozaphan became a popular amateur projection film format in Europe. By 1934, Agfa was distributing more than seventy-five titles (all of them silent) in the Ozaphan format. Virtually all of them were severely abridged versions of previously released commercial films, including German “Kultur” films from the Ufa, and other companies, and even American films, like “Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood.” Agfa, and after 1937, Kalle, continued to distribute films a large catalog during the Third Reich, including Nazi propaganda films. And while the company went dormant in 1945, it was revived in 1949 in the German Federal Republic and continued to operate until 1958, even spawning an Ozaphan-Film Club movement with more than 10,000 members. As a result, at least two generations of amateur film lovers were influenced by the process. Several hundred Ozaphan prints survive in German film archives, but copying them was impossible until digital technologies were introduced.

Ozaphan Film Club Membership Card, 1950s

Film history is filled with such anomalies, technological dead-ends, and brief shooting stars! As a non-photographic process, Ozaphan was one of themoost uinteresting. For those who don’t read German, Ralf Forster and Jeanpaul Goergen published their preliminary research, “Ozaphan: Home Cinema on Cellophane,” in Film History, No. 4, 2007, 372-383.

French Ozaphan film formats: 17.5 mm, 22mm, 24mm, 35mm sound

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27 thoughts on “Blog

    1. Wow… Not a very profound word. However, I am totally entralled by your ability to capture the moment of truth through enlightenment of diametrical pose. What a wonderful worldly resource of knowledge you embody. Please sign me to your blog.

      Graciously:

      Timothy Patrick Prince Princetimothy58@gmail.com

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  1. Chris, Sorry to tell you there is no “page 3” on this site and no link. We should talk. Joan’s father and mother lived across the street from Villa Aurora, to the right of the photo. Her mother was also called up by one of the HUAC subcommittees.

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  2. Thanks for sending me the link to your blog. Reading your blog was eye-opening for me!
    I was impressed you had saved the Winterim program from 1971. There was a lot of unrest at the University of Delaware(as at many other college campuses). In retrospect, I see Winterim 1971 as an attempt by the university to engage the students on a not so formal academic basis.

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  3. Much of the information in the Jan-Christopher Hiram regarding my rediscovery 6 year involvement with the 1969 Harlem Cultural festival is incorrect and incomplete. It is a shame I was not contacted for this piece. The Mia information continues!

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      1. my phone speaking there sorry – your telling of the technical end of the Harlem Fest is fabulous -however there are so many inaccuracies being repeated and repeated regarding my end and my company Historic Films’ involvement that i am weary of trying to “correct” them all – I only wish your diligent research on the tech end could also have been extended to me . i will though forward you some info being prepared now that will illustrate that story in an accurate manner

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