I’ve started a new column for Film Comment, beginning in the current issue, in which I’ll be writing about directors (mostly American at first) who seem to me of substantial interest but haven’t made it into the canon. I’m calling it “Further Research,” in homage to the “Subjects for Further Research” category in “The American Cinema,” but not having Andrew Sarris’s gift for concision, I can’t promise anything as succinct and evocative as his elegant formulations.
The first victim is John H. Auer, a Hungarian by birth who entered movies by way of Mexico, where he made his debut with “Una vida por otra” (1932), the third sound feature made in Mexico and by some reports a remarkable film (there was a copy in the Mexican film archives, which, one hopes, survived the disastrous vault fire of 1982). His next stop was New York City, where he directed the stylish, experimental horror film “The Crime of Dr. Crespi” for his own production company. (One measure of his ambition: a subjectively filmed live burial sequence that was clearly inspired by “Vampyr.”) When Republic acquired “Dr. Crespi” for distribution, the studio acquired Auer along with it, and he stayed with Republic for much of the rest of his career, apart from a brief and apparently personally disappointing detour to RKO in the early 40s.
Auer seems to have enjoyed a fair amount of personal freedom at Republic (at the small cost of casting Vera Ralston, the Czech ice skating champion who was the “protegee” and eventual wife of studio head Herbert J. Yates), where he made such distinctive films as “The Flame” (1947), “I, Jane Doe” (1948) and his masterpiece, “City That Never Sleeps” (1953). But his work has fallen into nearly complete obscurity today, thanks to the current owners of the Republic films, Viacom/Paramount, who have allowed this very rich library to languish. Apart from a handful of public domain titles (“Dr. Crespi” among them), the only Republic Auer currently in distribution is “Hell’s Half Acre,” which can be found on Netflix Streaming. There are still quite a few Auer films I haven’t been able to run down (including his 1950 return to Latin America, “The Avengers”); if any of you folks have leads, please drop me a line at email@example.com.
Right now, I’m working on Alfred Santell (“Internes Can’t Take Money”), whose superb final film, “That Brennan Girl,” is also among the dry-docked Republic titles. Much of Santell’s silent work seems to be definitively lost, but there are also several important titles that appear to be locked up at Fox (“The Arizona Kid,” “The Sea Wolf,” “Daddy Long Legs,” “Tess of the Storm Country”) as well as a number of Paramount titles that have disappeared into the Universal vaults. Once again, I’m struck how little of our surviving film heritage is accessible, even as I continue to read in major publications that “everything is on the Internet.”