The Auer is Nigh

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 dave@davekehr.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.”

71 comments to The Auer is Nigh

  • I don’t know much about Kakutani’s writings; but I do love Dwight Macdonald’s old angry essays on Cozzens, The Outsider, Webster’s 3rd, and other subjects. Current practitioners of the thorough and fearless critique are Dale Peck (well, he used to write for the New Republic anyway), and William Deresiewicz in both The Nation and the New Republic. His critique of Nabokov’s Original of Laura finally stated many things that needed to be said about the “Nabokov Mafia” and other matters related to the author. Links to Mr. Deresiewicz’s reviews can be found here: http://www.billderesiewicz.com/.

    I see what you mean about Adler’s lawyer’s brief approach but it strikes me less as legalistic than as orderly and methodical (though maybe that’s the same thing), building up to some devastating quotes from Kael’s own reviews. The essay begins with a general assessment of the daily reviewing job that is interesting, though in my view what she says doesn’t apply to true film scholars or movie lovers working for dailies. Also, Adler has always written in that style, even before she went to Harvard and became a lawyer late in life.

    And yes, I don’t think that one can make a similarly strong case against the writers listed. Adler isolates Kael’s stylistic excesses which, taken in big gulps via book collections, are staggering. Sarris may have made some antiquated jabs at gay culture back in the 1960s, and Durgant was prone to misquoting movie moments (like Farber), most famously in a Film Comment piece about Hawks and Cukor, but I have been reading all these writers for decades, and, mentally reviewing them, I just don’t see them as subject to a catalog of embarrassing moments or stylistic excesses such as the one Adler easily made against Kael just from skimming the surface of her then latest book.

  • Alex

    D.K. Holmes,

    I love Dwight Macdonald’s writing, even when I think his theses a bit excessive or, at times, dead wrong.
    However, I think one could do an Adler on MacDonlad (To paraphrase Kane’s Berstein, “It’s not so hard to do an Adler, if all you want to do is do an Adler.”)

    As for those other folks, well, Sarris is, with Bordwell, my favorite film writer. Though I don’t know a lot (perhaps most) most of his Voice reviews, as a close reader of The American Cinema and “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet” I’d say that someone should attempt a definitive “film-is-a-collective-production” from critique right down to specific great non-auteur films and film maker. Not sure that any of you noted critics are quite so juicy as Kael.

    Interesting that Adler became a lawyer. Wouldn’t want to face her in court but I’ll bet she never makes the LOB.

  • Interesting that Adler became a lawyer. Wouldn’t want to face her in court but I’ll bet she never makes the LOB.

    Give it 20 years! You never know! Adler’s novels are more interesting than Sontag’s similarly “modernist” and experimental fiction while also being less pretentious.

    “Juiciness” is the problem with Kael. There is juice there, over-sweet and overpowering, but as per Adler it is essentially one flavor.

  • Alex

    D. K. Holm,

    Thanks for not taking a whack at my LOB.

  • “I love Dwight Macdonald’s writing, even when I think his theses a bit excessive or, at times, dead wrong.”

    He went from being a Trot to joining the OBU. I watched “Wind from the East” with him at NYU’s screening room circa 1975 and his response was “O, brother.”

  • Belatedly got around to reading the Auer piece in my copy of FC. It’s terrific – if anyone can furnish any leads as to how I can see more Auer (CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS in particular), please talk to me at jaime dot christley at gmail dot com.

    What struck me, and this has nothing to do with the article, or Dave’s work as a whole (quite the contrary), is the feeling that Jonathan Lethem’s 2009 novel CHRONIC CITY was pre-emptively poking fun of the article and, by the same token, all efforts to discover/rediscover/rescue these off-the-grid directors, i.e. those not immediately recognizable to beginner (or dilettante) cinephiles who are, let’s say, just getting started with Sarris’s rankings, or taking furtive first steps beyond the IMDb’s Top 250 movies. It’s not easy being a cinephile, auteurist, etc. – you’ve got Pauline Kael ridiculing the idea of the auteur, Dan Kois swatting away his “cultural vegetables,” and Lethem coyly drawing caricatures of us as mad-eyed shut-ins, puffing wacky tobacky as we drool over the mythic unattainable. Sheesh! Can’t I enjoy THE MAN FROM TUMBLEWEEDS without worrying about what the neighbors will think?

  • Alex

    x359594,

    What’s the OBU?

  • Barry Putterman

    Jaime, as that wise fowl Super Chicken used it say; “you knew the job was dangerous when you took it.”

    Who cares what THEY say. THEY call the wind Mariah for goodness sake! The only thing that rankles with me is genuine auteurists believing that what was said in “The American Cinema” is etched in stone, when Sarris himself said that it was only a starting point.

  • Perhaps Lethem’s parody of cinephiles was a loving, confessional one. His book on John Carpenter’s They Live is terrific and very much in the vein of crazed cinephilia from the lost continent.

  • Brian Dauth

    Jaime: just channel some auteurist fabulousness and care nothing for the neighbors. Most probably they watch colorized movies at the wrong aspect ratios.

  • Alex, the OBU is the One Big Union, as known as the Industrial Workers of the World.

    Macdonald’s son Nick, a documentary filmmaker, was a member.

  • Thanks, you guys! And DK, it may be that a lot of CC is self-implicating, and I’m glad he’s fond of THEY LIVE. The depiction of cinephilia in the book still feels a little icky.

    I trust New York DK-ers will be going to some of the pre-Code films that show at Film Forum. From an auteurist standpoint, there’s plenty to see, from the three Walshes (SAILOR’S LUCK, THE BOWERY, and ME AND MY GAL), Cukor’s GIRLS ABOUT TOWN, Wellman, Hawks, Dieterle, Lubitsch, Curtiz, Del Ruth, Sternberg, etc., etc.

    Blatant self-promotion, I’ll be talking about the series tomorrow morning at 8:30 on WQXR (105.9 AM). Apparently they liked my pre-Code article for Slant Magazine:

    http://slantmagazine.com/film/feature/essential-pre-code/266

  • If anyone is interested, here’s a link to the segment. I got in a few jabs for auteurism (especially Walsh!):

    http://www.wqxr.org/programs/artsfile/2011/jul/15/

  • Jonathan Lethem

    Long time lurker, piping up just to say: loving, most loving.

    Also: you guys’ll want to know about this:
    http://www.amazon.com/Conversations-Clint-Interviews-Eastwood-1979-1983/dp/144116586X?tag=wp-amazon-associate-20

    The late Paul Nelson was something of a model for that Chronic City character, Jaime. Some of you might even have known him as a counterman at Evergreen Video in his last years.

    Favorite site in the whole webs. Rave on, friends.

  • What a pleasure to hear from Jonathan Lethem, who is someone who knows post- (and probably post-post) modernism from his elbow, as well as being a most enlightened appreciator of John Carpenter. Definitely one of my favorite film books in a long time. The Eastwood book sounds very promising, with a focus on what remain for me his most creative years.

  • Jonathan Lethem

    Shucks. I’m obliged to point out that I was your fan before you were mine, Mr. Kehr. And a happy lurker here for years. Now that I’ve outed myself, hello to some old friends and acquaintances — Mr. McBride, Mr. Jones, a few others. (I realize I may be largely invisible here in this two-week-old thread). Now, carry on as before.

  • D. K. Holm

    Since you happen to be reading right now, here is a link to my review of the They Live and Death Wish volumes in this thus far delightful series.

    http://vanvoice.com/article?articleTitle=east+coast+versus+west+coast–1293915940–598–film_tv

    Since others have posted links to their pieces, I feel no shame in this gross self-promotion! Well, a little shame.

  • Alex

    Dang, sometimes the City is one happy maze!

  • Alex

    Coover has a story in this week’s New Yorker entitled Matiné.

  • Mr. Lethem – well, I have my foot in my mouth. While I couldn’t shake those concerns (and I hope you don’t mind my being frank, bordering on crude), I did enjoy reading CC and was quite taken by your portrait of the City. Many of its spaces were perfectly rendered. Anyway, I tip my hat to any fellow Carpenter-phile, and look forward to the Eastwood book, too.

  • Jonathan Lethem

    No offense taken in any way, Jaime. It just seemed to beckon me up out of my silence — a chance to say hello, as well as confirm the affection in that portrait.