Murray Kinnell
Damaged Lives
Medium: film
Year: 1933
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Writer: Eugene Brieux, Donald Davis, Edgar G. Ulmer
Actor: Diane Sinclair, Lyman Williams, Harry Myers, Marceline Day, Jason Robards Sr, Charlotte Merriam, Murray Kinnell, George Irving, Cecilia Parker, Almeda Fowler
Country: Canada, USA
Format: 61 minutes
Website category: Other
Review date: 15 January 2013
It's another 1930s syphilis film. I didn't like it. It's a real movie instead of being exploitation like Dwain Esper's Sex Madness, but it's still annoying.
The credits say that it was produced and released by Weldon Pictures, but it's actually a Columbia picture and its producer (Nat Cohn) was the brother of Columbia's head (Harry Cohn). Not wanting their name associated with syphilis, they'd set up a dummy company. Other steps up from Esper include having a proper director and a cast of actors who can act and appeared in other movies. It's based on a French play by Eugene Brieux, which was also adapted into movies in 1914 and 1937.
In other words, this isn't a Poverty Row quickie. It looks good, but that's not the same as having a story that's not boring.
Its problem is that syphilis on its own doesn't make for interesting storylines. Our hero (Lyman Williams) catches a venereal disease. Saints preserve us! What in the world should he do! Look, his wife (Diane Sinclair) and their baby have caught it from him! This is a decent launching-pad for a storyline, but unfortunately both this and Sex Madness seem to think it's an endpoint. All the juicy stuff (i.e. sex) is crammed into the beginning of the film, after which we're in for a predictable parade of angst and medical education.
The good news is that Damaged Lives at least has some mildly interesting psychological analysis of Williams and Sinclair. It doesn't cheat like a mad bastard (aka. Esper). I like Sinclair's character and the actress is getting some decent material to play.
Unfortunately Williams was making me want to throw things at the screen. Remember I said this film had proper actors in it? The two leads are the exception to that. Neither appeared in anything worth a damn and in Williams's case, that's a good thing. He's charmless and unlikeable. Given dialogue that on the page is making his character look empty-headed, he makes it look like mental illness and reality-denial. "A thing like that couldn't happen to me. Impossible! It just couldn't be. You're lying." A proper actor would have undercut the lines, showing a man who doesn't really believe what he's saying, deep down, and instead is effectively crying for help. Williams though just plays them unimaginatively straight and makes himself look like a moron.
The film's known for showing nudity, when women strip naked and go skinny-dipping. However that's one of the things that's been cut from the 53-minute version available for free legal download at the Internet Archive, which is also of such poor quality that it's a bit of an effort to maintain your concentration on what the characters are saying and doing. Presumably I was watching one of the versions of the movie that got cut by state film censor boards (e.g. Maryland, Ohio). Even before the Hays Code, this was still controversial subject matter.
I'm a fan of the director, mind you. Edgar G. Ulmer made The Black Cat (1934), one of my favourite Karloff/Lugosi flicks, and I must also watch Detour (1935).
There's also a two-dollar priest with a head like a turtle. I liked him.
In fairness, this film did big business in 1933. Syphilis in pre-penicillin days wasn't quite as bad as AIDS, but it was comparable. Doctors basically didn't know how to treat it and the attempted cures were capable of being worse than the disease (e.g. mercury, arsenic). I also don't think the film's worthless. The actresses in particular are getting some meaty scenes, although it did wind me up a bit that in the world of this film, every woman who catches syphilis becomes a suicide risk. Do any men consider suicide? No, unfortunately. Towards the end, there's also a "stop the plot" medical parade of ghastly syphilitic symptoms, courtesy of a doctor who looks like Ralph Fiennes.