The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause (2014)
Folk Dance, Film and the Life of Vasile Avramenko
University of Manitoba Press, 219 pages
By Orest T. Martynowych
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Anyone who knows and loves cinema is a huge fan of the brilliant Edgar G. Ulmer. His most memorable titles include the nasty film noir classic Detour, which he made for the mega-poverty-row studio PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), People on Sunday, the astonishing co-directorial effort with Robert Siodmak (a strangely beautiful experimental docudrama from a Billy Wilder script and Fred Zinneman handling the moving camera duties) and the grimly black comic shocker The Black Cat for Universal Pictures (starring Boris Karloff, uttering some of the most ridiculous Black Mass incantations in movie history: "in vino verities", "in wine is truth" and my personal favourite, "reductio ad absurdum est", "it is shown to be impossible").
Before directing films, Ulmer had an amazing career working in the art departments under the tutelage of such greats as Rouben Mamoulian, F.W. Murnau, Clarence Brown, Fritz Lang, Max Reinhardt, Erich von Stroheim, G.W Pabst and even Sergei Eisenstein on the ill-fated Que Viva Mexico. The list, frankly, goes on and on, plus the influence of these great artists clearly provided so much inspiration for Ulmer.
Unfortunately, Ulmer's promising major studio career began and ended with The Black Cat. Ulmer was forced to reshoot many sequences to tone down the film's utter insanity, but mostly to add a sense of audience-identification with the floridly overwrought characters. This was, perhaps, not his most egregious act since he acquiesced without much protest and handled it prodigiously (still maintaining a wildly nutty sense of expressionism to the piece). Ulmer's aptitude for maintaining his voice whilst attending to the demands of marketplace concerns held him in very good stead throughout his strange and wonderful career.
Ulmer's biggest "crime" was falling in love with the wrong person. Universal topper Carl Laemmle Jr. viciously blacklisted the filmmaker for daring to woo, then win the hand of his script girl who'd once been married to the mad mogul's favourite nephew. As preposterous as this sounds, Ulmer was eventually forced to make a living on low budget items for independent production companies. This is how Hollywood worked (and still does, actually). Ulmer, however, was probably the real winner here. His wife Shirley not only proved to be the love of his life, but she became his valued creative partner for well over forty years.
Immediately after this, Ulmer was hired to direct From Nine to Nine, a British "quota quickie" (many of which were made in Commonwealth Dominions) in Montreal. The budget and arduous working conditions on this film (gloriously restored in the 90s by the brilliant Canadian archivist John J.D. Turner), in addition to horrendously huge medical expenditures upon their return to the USA, forced Ulmer and Shirley into abject poverty.
Little did Ulmer realize that his deliverance from total obscurity and poverty would rest with one of the most forgotten movie producers in movie history, a bonkers Ukrainian emigre by the name of Vasile Avramenko.
* * * * *
"The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause" is the terrific new book by Orest T. Martynowych which combines meticulously researched scholarship with a compulsive prose style. It handily delivers superb non-fiction literature detailing the life and career of a visionary madman devoted to maintaining and promoting Ukrainian culture throughout the world, in spite of its repression under both Communism and the intensely rigid policies of Russification in post-revolutionary Soviet-dominated Ukraine.
Vasile Avramenko, a Ukrainian-born dancer, choreographer, teacher and eventually, film producer, led a mostly itinerant and beleaguered life - saying and doing whatever he had to do in order to raise funds for his occasionally brilliant and most often, cockamamie cultural initiatives. He was a thief - pure and simple, but one gets the impression that his desires were less linked to lining his own pockets, save for when he needed to live and continue his mad work. The bottom line is that he was a scattered, often-megalomaniacal, truly-visionary and irredeemably poor businessman.
He had dreams though, and his loftiest fantasia was to create an industrial and cultural model for Ukrainian-language cinema in Hollywood, one which would generate motion picture product for Ukrainians amongst the diaspora as well as opportunities for Ukrainian artists in North America, on-and-of-screen, to ply their trade.
Alas, he pretty much bolloxed this up, but what he did, was open a door for one of America's greatest directors to ply his trade and become, during the 30s, the true king of "ethnic" cinema in America. Ulmer made two Ukrainian-language features for Avramenko, Natalka Poltavka and Cossacks in Exile, both rich in culture, folklore and as dazzlingly directed as one could want, especially given the cut-rate budgets afforded to the work. Avramenko's belief in Ulmer led to his long career generating cinema aimed at the Jewish diaspora as well as African-America audiences.
Ulmer's work in this field eventually led to his long-term contract with PRC which allowed him a great deal of creative control and opportunities to generate a (mostly) solid body of work, including the aforementioned Detour.
Martynowych's book allows for a fascinating glimpse into the world of financing, producing and marketing ethnic cinema in North America as well as a detailed look at how Avramenko's productions fell under the horrendous spectre of Anti-Semitism when noted Ukrainians including, sadly for me, the musical impresario Olexandr Koshets, whose name has long been affixed to my late, great Uncle Volodomyr Klymkiw's important Ukrainian choir, the O. Koshetz Memorial Choir in Winnipeg.
Koshetz hated Avramenko and led the charge with public criticisms of the films based on his nasty, spurious suggestions that they could not have been purely "Ukrainian", replete with inaccuracies and were instead "little Russian" since the director and many of Avramenko's creative team were Jewish. Even Avramenko and Ulmer's staunchest defender was discredited by Koshetz as being s "Ukrainian-Jew" and Avramenko himself, mostly due to his megalomania, would occasionally downplay Ulmer's contributions.
Still, Ulmer directed the hell out of these pictures and in spite of spotty returns at the box office, they garnered wildly enthusiastic reviews in the mainstream press. Elements do exist out there for these important films and I do hope that specialty companies, either the award winning Milestone Films or Kino-Lorber, will undertake proper new 4K transfers and Blu-Ray releases of these two fine works in Ulmer's canon.
In the meantime, though, we have Martynowych's great book. It offers top-of-the-line materials for Slavic Studies and Film Studies scholars in addition to pretty much anyone interested in one hell of a fascinating tale of a genuinely visionary nutcase like Vasile Avramenko.
The Film Corner Rating: ***** 5-Stars
The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause is available from University of Manitoba Press. In Canada, order directly from this link HERE
. In the United States, order directly from this link HERE
. In the UK, order directly from this link HERE
. Any one of these links will suffice for anyone in the world to order by clicking on any of the aforementioned links. Doing so on these links, assists with the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner.