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Her Sister's Secret  /  Exile Express

Exile Express (1939)
March 14, 2015 - 3:00 pm
Arianné Ulmer Cipes.

Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by The Film Foundation and The Franco-American Cultural Fund, a unique partnership between The Directors Guild of America (DGA), The Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA), Société des Auteurs, Compositeurs et Editeurs de Musique (SACEM), The Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW)

Her Sister's Secret  (1946)

Her Sister’s Secret
is a melodrama of two sisters, one of whom has a child out of wedlock, the other unable to have children but willing to adopt, leading to a conflict that Bertolt Brecht would later rework in The Caucasian Chalk Circle.  The film demonstrates an uncommon flair for the complicated nature of emotions, for the frivolity of love, the difficulties of motherhood and the barely concealed jealousy of the sister, while pitting itself against the unwritten Hollywood laws of a puritanical America, where a single mother has to be “punished.”   Indeed, unlike standard Hollywood melodramas, here there are neither villains nor any moral condemnation, qualities that are common to German exile productions.

And this was indeed an exile production.  Arnold Pressburger, himself a refugee in Hollywood, bought Austrian writer Gina Kaus’ novel, Die Schwestern Kleh (1932), and produced a French version in Paris as Conflit (1938).  Pressburger then tried to remake the property in Hollywood, after producing Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! (1943).  But he couldn’t get it past the Breen Office, which opined: “that it is basically a story of illicit sex and illegitimacy, without sufficient compensating moral values,” meaning the heroine doesn’t die for her sins.  He therefore gave the property to a former film distributor from Berlin, and coincidentally, his brother-in-law, Henry Brasch, as a first Hollywood project.  Financed at PRC, the producer brought in Edgar G. Ulmer who hired Franz Planer as cameraman, another Austro-Bohemian-Jewish émigré, like Pressburger, Kaus and Ulmer.  Planer knew how to move a camera, German style, as the opening Mardi Gras scenes demonstrate, and Ulmer squeezes every penny of production value out of those scenes.  The music was supplied by another German émigré, Hans Sommer, so all the principals behind the camera were from pre-Nazi Berlin.  Meanwhile, fellow Berlin compatriots, Felix Bressart, Fritz Feld and Rudolf Anders are seen in crucial minor roles.

The film was restored from a surviving 35mm camera negative with the track re-recorded, an extreme rarity, since most PRC films only survive in 16mm.  —Jan-Christopher Horak

Director:  Edgar G. Ulmer.  Production: PRC Pictures, Inc., Henry Brash Productions.  Distribution: Producer’s Releasing Corp.  Producers: Henry Brash, Raoul Pegal.  Screenwriter: Anne Greene.  Based on the novel Dark Angel by Gina Kaus.  Cinematographer: Franz Planer.  Art Direction: Edward C. Jewell.  Editor: Jack Ogilvie.  Music: Hans Sommer.  Cast: Nancy Coleman, Margaret Lindsay, Phillip Reed, Felix Bressart, Regis Toomey.  35mm, b/w, 86 min.

Restored from the 35mm nitrate camera negative and the 35mm nitrate fine grain master.  Laboratory services by The Cinemalab, Audio Mechanics, DJ Audio, Inc., Simon Daniel Sound.  Special thanks to: Alexander Kogan Jr.

Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by The Packard Humanities Institute

Exile Express  (1939)

Anna Sten plays a hapless Russian lab assistant studying for her U.S. citizenship papers, when her boss—who has invented a poison gas—is murdered, leading to her forced deportation to Ellis Island on a train dubbed the “Exile Express.”  A friendly newspaperman (Alan Marshall) helps her escape and elude both the police and various spies attempting to acquire the scientific formula.  Made and released shortly before World War II erupted in Europe, when the refugee crisis and infiltration by foreign spies were politically hot topics in the U.S., one can imagine the producers thinking they could lighten things up by making a comedy-drama about the subject.  And so Jerome Cowan, Walter Catlett, Stanley Fields and Leonid Kinskey provide comic relief, with Kinskey shamelessly scene-stealing, owing to the weak direction by B-roller, Otis Garrett, on loan from Universal.

Exile Express (1939) was one of the last of only a handful of films distributed by Grand National Film, a company founded in 1936 as a United Artists style operation.  Housed in the old Educational Studios complex in Hollywood, Grand National went under in 1939, the studio going to PRC.  The actual producer, Eugene Frenke, was Sten’s husband, who had directed her in a previous comeback attempt in the U.K., Two Who Dared (1936), in which the British cast failed to convince anyone they were passionate Russians.  But it was her disastrous introduction to Hollywood by Samuel Goldwyn that turned her into a sad legend.  Hailed as the new Garbo in a hugely expensive media campaign, Sten flopped in three Goldwyn pictures, mostly because she was miscast in mediocre movies, not because of her acting.  After all, she was a product of the Moscow Art Theatre and had played brilliantly for Fedor Ozep, her first husband, in the Soviet Yellow Ticket (1928) and opposite Fritz Kortner in Ozep’s German production, The Murderer Dimitri Karamazoff (1931).  Anna Sten is therefore worth watching in this film, because she was herself was a genuine exile who had acted in five different countries in less than 10 years; for her it was not just a role in a movie.  —Jan-Christopher Horak

Director: Otis Garrett.  Production: United Players Productions, Inc.  Distribution: Grand National Pictures, Inc.  Producer: Eugene Frenke.  Screenwriters: Ethel La Blanche, Edwin Justus Mayer.  Cinematographer: John Mescall.  Art Direction: Ralph Berger.  Editor: Robert Bischoff.  Music: George Parrish.  Cast: Anna Sten, Alan Marshal, Jerome Cowan, Walter Catlett, Jed Prouty.  35mm, b/w, 71 min.

Restored from the 35mm nitrate camera negative and the 35mm nitrate fine grain master.  Laboratory services by The Stanford Theatre Film Laboratory, Audio Mechanics, DJ Audio, Simon Daniel Sound.