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Edgar Ulmer, The NTA, and the Power of Sermonic Medicine[1]

Devin Orgeron, PhD (North Carolina State University)

A head shot of director Edgar Ulmer in the 1940sEdgar Ulmer, Copyright Producers Releasing, 1945

From the late 1930s through the early 1940s, low-budget filmmaker and perennial Hollywood underdog Edgar G. Ulmer (1904-1972) directed what appear to be eight educational health shorts for the National Tuberculosis Association (NTA).[2] The National Library of Medicine holds and has added to its digital collections Let My People Live (1938); Cloud in the Sky (1939); They Do Come Back, and Another to Conquer (1941). Also in our collection, but not digitized, is Ulmer’s Goodbye Mr. Germ (1940). The remaining three titles are Diagnostic Procedures (1940) and a mysterious pair of undated, unconfirmed Fox Movietone films, Mantoux Text and Life is Good[3]. These films admirably served the educational mission of the media-savvy NTA, but should not be viewed as mere promotional products. They are also the work of a director with a unique understanding of the role germs—literal and metaphorical—play in the American social fabric. This understanding is evidenced in the films Ulmer made outside of the NTA-sponsored films.

For example, Ulmer’s Detour (not held at NLM, but available for viewing in the Internet Archive along with several other Ulmer titles) was made several years after the TB campaign. The cruel but pathetic femme fatale, Vera (Ann Savage), is dying of tuberculosis. While holed up in her cheap rented rooms, Vera starts coughing. Her hostage, Al (Tom Neal), says to her “You’ve got a mean cough…you oughta do something about it.” Vera snaps back, with visible though wounded hostility, “I’ll be all right,” to which Al replies, not skipping a beat, “...s’what Camille said…” and then, under his breath, an insult aimed at his captor: “Nobody you’d know.” Looking unusually concerned, even fragile, Vera asks, “Wasn’t that the dame that died of consumption?” (insert clip 1)

Disease, in fact, had provided a conceptual focus for Ulmer since his literal investigation of it in his Hollywood debut, the syphilis exploitation melodrama Damaged Lives (1933). Like Ulmer’s career-long interest in fate and predetermination, germs and a generalized notion of contagion seem to form the very foundation of this director’s narrative logic. Again, an exemplary moment from Detour stands out. Early in the film, after his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) has left him to make a go of it in California, Al is glimpsed pounding out his living on the piano at the Break O’ Dawn Club. After a jazzified Brahms number performed at a customer’s request, said customer flags a waiter, hands him a bill, and the waiter makes his way to deliver it to Al. Al narrates his thoughts on the exchange, saying “When this drunk handed me a ten-spot after a request I couldn’t get very excited. What was it, I asked myself? A piece of paper crawling with germs.”

Germs, then, and a unique notion of fate’s communicability and the hand human beings have in the chain of actual or conceptual contagion, unite Ulmer’s fiction films to his films for the NTA, suggesting that scholars might profitably consider this (and perhaps any) filmmaker’s nontheatrical film efforts as a central part of the director’s career. Lisa Cartwright, for example, in an otherwise engaging discussion of the represented tubercular body in Let My People Live, Another to Conquer, Diagnostic Procedures, and They Do Come Back, manages not to acknowledge in any way that all four films were directed by Ulmer and were part of a series of films the NTA sponsored in an effort to reach specific communities where the disease still lingered [4]. Educational films, as Cartwright’s work demonstrates, are often considered to be unauthored texts, overdetermined by their sponsor or purpose. This essay hopes to demonstrate the value of contextualizing Ulmer’s NTA campaign both in relation to the history of social engineering in American cultural history and within the filmmaker’s larger body of work.

Ulmer’s TB films were made in the midst of what might justifiably be called the filmmaker’s East-Coast Ethnic Melodrama period, his post-The Black Cat and pre-PRC years. Noah Isenberg refers to this span of years as Ulmer’s “Ethnic Intermezzo,” though Isenberg is careful not to overly romanticize what was also one of a string of difficult episodes in Ulmer’s long career[5]. Ulmer had experienced a brief period of success working in the Hollywood system. The Black Cat, like Damaged Lives, was a studio film. Where Damaged Lives was a lurid venereal disease exploitation film that Columbia opted to remove its name from (the credits list the invented “Weldon Pictures” as the studio), The Black Cat, made for Universal, was a somewhat controversial but also highly successful studio product that showcased Ulmer’s German studio style. The picture’s popularity seemed to guarantee the enthusiastic young filmmaker’s initiation into the exclusive club of Hollywood émigrés. As Isenberg indicates, however, Ulmer’s A-studio tenure would be very brief indeed. Along with a successful horror picture, Ulmer made an adulterous romantic connection with the boss’s nephew’s wife, script supervisor Shirley Castle (born Kassler); and said boss, Carl Laemmle, had pull well beyond Universal. Ulmer would eventually marry Shirley, but Laemmle’s response to the infraction made Ulmer virtually unemployable in Hollywood. Ulmer would leave the town and its promise (the artifice of this promise is explored bitterly in Detour) for New York[6].

Ulmer’s subsequent East Coast theatrical film career coincided with and would prepare him for his educational shorts for the National Tuberculosis Association. While in New York and New Jersey, he directed two Ukrainian-language films (The Girl from Poltavia [1937] and Cossacks in Exile [1939]); four Yiddish films (Green Fields [1937], The Singing Blacksmith [1938], The Light Ahead [1939], and American Matchmaker [1940]); and a black musical drama (Moon Over Harlem [1939]) featuring legendary jazz musician Sidney Bechet. This work established Ulmer’s professional reputation as a filmmaker especially capable of reaching niche or ethnic audiences, and this ability meshed with the NTA’s newly focused, late-Depression-era campaign. Ulmer’s unique perspective on minority communities and the role they might play in their own fate suited him to the campaign. As we will see, however, Ulmer’s perspective and the NTA’s were not always in lockstep.

A ¾ portrait of scientist Robert KochRobert Koch, who identified the tubercle bacillus. n.d.

Founded in 1904 by a group of physicians and concerned laymen, the NTA (originally the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis) was the first national voluntary health agency to focus its efforts on a specific health threat. The organization recognized from the outset that their crusade against tuberculosis was part medical and part social, though these two arms of the anti-TB campaign were not always of equal strength[7]. Scientist Robert Koch discovered the microbe that causes TB in the 1880s, making it possible to positively diagnose the disease, and challenging the older medical notion of a “consumptive constitution.” Medical researchers were frustrated in their search for a cure, however, until the first drug treatments, streptomycin and isoniazid, were developed in the 1940s and 1950s.

A poster shows a candle burning at both ends, with busy people dancing and working.NTA public information poster, 1931

In the meantime, screening for TB, education about prevention, and sanatorium treatment for victims (consisting mainly of rest, fresh air, and adequate food) were the primary strategies for controlling the disease. The NTA began a large-scale and largely unprecedented social education mission that stressed prevention and successfully kept the disease itself foremost in the public consciousness[8]. By the late 1930s and into the 1940s, as medical science caught up with the organization’s grassroots zeal and as TB mortality rates were steadily declining, the NTA’s emphasis shifted away from spreading the anti-TB gospel towards research[9]. The organization determined, however, that popularly held misconceptions about the disease lingered within and about certain populations, justifying its continued production of educational media. Ulmer’s contributions to the campaign, then, were produced at a transitional moment for the NTA, though they hark back to the organization’s earlier educational campaigns.

A poster shows a black doctor with his hand on the shoulder of a black male patient.NTA public information poster, n.d,

The series of films Ulmer directed for the NTA was defined by the organization’s desire to respond to the spread of misinformation and fear regarding racial susceptibility to the disease. This sense of panic was bolstered by statistics indicating that, while the fight against TB had been quite successful, the disease still had a formidable grip on non-white American communities. While the NTA managed to promote a fear of germs and contamination, a consequence of its efforts was a mounting fear of the people carrying those germs, and these fears expanded exponentially when the presumed carriers were people of color[10]. Three of Ulmer’s films would be produced for exhibition within these communities. Let My People Live, aimed at African Americans, was shot at and used drama students from Tuskegee Institute, and the Health Department prominently featured the film at the 1939 World’s Fair. Cloud in the Sky, targeting Mexican Americans, was produced both in Spanish and English. Boasting the assistance of the Navajo Service and the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs, Another to Conquer was created for a Native American audience and features the most stunning location shooting of the series.

No doubt because of Ulmer’s theatrical work in this area, Ulmer scholars refer to these ethnically-focused TB films more frequently than the others[11]. The NTA, however, also hoped to inoculate against misinformation within the white community: in white schoolyards, within the white medical establishment, and in predominantly white factories. All produced in 1940, three films focused on white characters: Goodbye Mr. Germ, Diagnostic Procedures, and They Do Come Back. These films make their appeals differently and are intriguing for the alternate light they shed on the NTA’s ostensibly progressive approach to the question of race.

In the three ethnically-focused films, TB’s death-grip on the community is imagined to be a consequence of an outmoded, dangerously traditional way of thinking. The disease first strikes key figures within the community’s older generation. The young are then left to make a decision: follow along the traditional, typically faith-based path of their (often deceased) elders or, as Another to Conquer has it, “heed the wisdom of the white doctors’ ways.” Religion plays a key role in all three films. It is partly to blame, rooted as it is in tradition and faith rather than science. However, religious belief ultimately becomes a mechanism by which to smuggle science and medicine into the community. Let My People Live, in this respect, goes a bit further than the others in its realization of this concept. Rex Ingram plays an African American doctor who speaks about tuberculosis from the pulpit of a black church in the film’s opening scene and later analyzes X-rays and sputum tests. The halls of religion, these images suggest, are the place to begin spreading the gospel of medicine, and African American physicians themselves are envisioned as the conversionary conduit. The other two films, for all of their interest in and respect for “other” cultures, imagine the intervention of benevolent white doctors.

Shot largely at and prominently featuring the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Let My People Live was produced at a critical moment for the NTA, when the organization was reaching out directly to black institutes of higher education where the disease was on the rise. Citing a 1937 NTA report, Heather Munro Prescott writes that “prevention programs in black colleges grew out of the NTA’s Committee on Tuberculosis Among Negroes, whose major goal was to overturn ‘the attitude all too prevalent that tuberculosis in the Negro is invariably fatal’; rather, TB in blacks, like that in whites, could be ‘effectively combated by health education.’ ‘Knowledge is power,’ wrote one Committee report, ‘and until we have given the Negro race a knowledge of tuberculosis, its cause, prevention, and a knowledge of the fact that it can be cured, our other control measures will be ineffective.’”[12] It is precisely how the organization sought to spread this knowledge in Let My People Live that is of interest here.

Let My People Live concerns George and Mary, young siblings from a family affected by the disease. As George listens to Dr. Gordon’s address in the school chapel, he is summoned to take a call from his sister, who reports that their mother has fallen ill and that he must return home at once. Their mother dies shortly thereafter. Mary, afraid that she’s stricken as well (she manifests several of her mother’s symptoms), seeks the advice of her minister, who has just presided over her mother’s funeral and who demands that she see a real doctor. From the opening images of Dr. Gordon speaking before an enraptured congregation through the end of the film, Let My People Live is intent upon using organized religion to promote science. It is equally committed to questioning the efficacy of what is viewed to be a dangerously immobile community tendency toward traditional faith.

An African-American woman’s face is shown in close-up, her mouth open to speak.

The real conflict between science and its alternatives occurs on the street. On her way to see Dr. Gordon and just outside of his office, Mary runs into her friend Minnie, who looks her up and down and says “Um-hum. I knowed it. You got the same thing your mama had, ain’t you?” Minnie advises that she take some of her grandma’s considerably less expensive tea, intimating that, after all, no doctor is going to cure her, a widely held myth the NTA hoped to eradicate along with the disease. The erroneous “hoodooism” of the older generation is foregrounded in this pivotal exchange, and its belief in the heredity and inevitable fatality of the disease systematically taken apart. A previous generation’s presumed subscription to folk traditions is cautiously dismantled as Mary thinks twice and makes the right decision, entering Dr. Gordon’s office as her minister had suggested.

Mary learns that she has the disease and cheerfully and logically accepts her treatment, recommending that her brother George, who is visiting her bedside at the sanatorium, see Dr. Gordon as well. George does as he is told, and after Dr. Gordon examines the tuberculin test he has administered, he informs George that he has hosted the germ but, being in good health, fought it successfully. Viewers would surely note the environmental differences: Mary lived in her family’s impoverished country home and George has been away at school where, in the logic of the film, his body and, one suspects, his mind as well, stood a better chance against the germ. Dr. Gordon recommends a path of continued fitness that involves diet, rest, and exercise. Science is key in Let My People Live, but the film suggests that the NTA’s mission in the African American community begins and ends with belief. The film opens on the doctor speaking from the pulpit and ends with Mary at the sanatorium, listening to the radio and trying to pick out George’s voice in the transmission of the Tuskegee Institute choir’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” The film, then, literalizes the NTA’s missionary stance even as the organizational emphasis was beginning to swing towards research.

Like their campaign for African Americans, the NTA’s campaign for Mexican Americans targeted not only the spread of TB, but the equally rampant spread of misinformation regarding the disease. Writing about unfair medical and border policies during these years, Emily Abel contends that “because Mexicans lived and worked in dangerous surroundings, it is likely that they bore a very high burden of tuberculosis. Contemporary statistics, however, tell us less about the prevalence of disease than about the attitudes of health officials.” Turning to these statistics and the rhetoric encasing them, Abel shows how TB control efforts, especially in U.S. border towns, came to support a large-scale policy of racial intolerance masquerading as a health crusade, e.g., claims of racial susceptibility to the disease and wildly inflated “diagnoses” within the community, often resulting in deportation.[13]

A dark-haired woman lies in a hospital bed.

Cloud in the Sky, in the face of these actions, is even more frank in its rhetorical conjoining of science and religion. A rapidly moving montage of Mexican factory workers, field laborers, and enlisted men is accompanied by narration informing viewers that America’s Spanish-speaking citizens “bear more than their share of the crushing burden of tuberculosis.” This montage of labor and contribution fades into images of a lively Mexican dance where we are introduced to a critical pair of white characters who will play a determining role in the fate of the community. Seated in the middle of the celebration, a doctor and another man (called “a wise Padre” in the promotional materials) watch the festivities, chat briefly about “these people,” and part ways.

As in Let My People Live, the older generation in Cloud in the Sky is depicted as being skeptical of modern medicine, and this skepticism has a heavy price. At the film’s center is the Lopez family, now motherless because of tuberculosis. They fear the worst when the daughter, Consuelo, begins to show symptoms of the disease. Consuelo’s only response is to pray more frequently and more earnestly. The Padre, whom she runs into after one of these sessions, offers Consuelo the comforts of religion, but urges her to see a medical doctor at once and to avoid patent or home remedies. He tells her, in a manner that quite plainly links medical progress to religious faith, that God has given us science and that we are obligated to use it.

Convinced, Consuelo goes to the white physician, bringing her father with her. Mr. Lopez, who once feared doctors, learns so much during this visit that he becomes, as the NTA’s publicity has it, a “missionary” of tuberculosis prevention. He has his other children tested and, even as his neighbors chide him about his “conversion” (one friend tells him that he believes he’s sold his soul to the Devil), he urges his comrades not to spit on the ground and exalts the treatment that will eventually save his daughter. The film ends with the Padre and the doctor, seated once again at an evening dance, celebrating Consuelo’s marriage to a young serenading caballero, Pedro. All are satisfied that their unified efforts have insured the health of the community.

Targeted at Native Americans, Another to Conquer is similarly themed. Nema and Don, the promotional materials for the film explain, are made orphans by tuberculosis. Their parents taken by the disease, they are left on the reservation following the wisdom of their science-fearing grandfather Slow Talker, the community’s respected leader. Robert, their neighbor and friend, has gone away to school—forsaking tradition, according to his detractors—and has learned the scientific ways of the white man. He has also learned that he has TB and, through rest and treatment, is cured.

That the film focuses on the spread of knowledge to stop the spread of disease among the Navajo is no coincidence. Christian W. McMillen, writing about the extraordinary spread of the disease among Native Americans and the determining role that myths of racial susceptibility played in this decimation, writes that “better knowledge of TB did not lead to better care [for Native Americans]. Halfway through the twentieth century, when TB in the general U.S. population was at a historic low, and racial explanations were in steep decline, TB among Indians was alarmingly high. The Navajo, for example, were infected with tuberculosis at a rate of 302.4 per 100,000 while the rate among the general population was 33.4 per 100,000—a figure all the more astonishing because in a 1909 survey of TB among Indians, Aleš Hrdlička found the Navajos to be the ‘natives most free from tuberculosis.’”[14]

Film frame reading A dozen years swept on. Zonchee, the mother, died too. But grandfather Slow-Talker held the little family together, the lovely Nema and Don his ardent admirers.

As with the other films under discussion here, the issue is not played cheaply in Another to Conquer. The doctors are aware of and interested in Native customs and use them as points of comparison. This, in fact, is the crux of Ulmer’s ethnically-focused TB films. Science must, like the germ itself, take root within the supposed belief structures of the given minority group and use those structures to disseminate outward. In Another to Conquer, which obliquely references the many struggles of the Native American, it is Don’s death and the threat of Nema’s that finally makes Slow-Talker bend, only to learn that he has been the carrier all along. The final shot captures him regarding the heavens and, in voiceover, committing to be a warrior for the cause of tuberculosis prevention.

The most curious of Ulmer’s films for the NTA, however, deals with white characters. Seldom discussed in the literature on Ulmer, They Do Come Back is fascinating in its relative fit within the series of ethnically-focused films. Aimed at spreading the word to young, working or college-age white Americans, the film is of a piece with Let My People Live, Cloud in the Sky, and Another to Conquer[15]. Taking place in “EVERY TOWN USA” (the film is shot in Philadelphia), They Do Come Back borrows much from Ulmer’s Damaged Lives. Romance, here in the form of a kiss, leads to disaster. As the title suggests, however, there is redemption. Our characters do come back.

In its focus on working-class young people, not children or would be physicians, They Do Come Back is thematically most like Ulmer’s ethnically-focused films for the NTA. A brief preamble solidifies the similarities. Before we meet our protagonists, we are introduced to the town as a whole and are told that, like every town in the country, tuberculosis has a foothold here among its hard-working inhabitants. As our narrator, voiced by radio announcer Alois Havrilla, describes the ravages of the disease and its effect on the community at large, a shadowy pair of figures mourn the passing of a loved one. The image cuts to a young girl standing alone, enveloped in chiaroscuro lighting, as our narrator announces that the disease is a “maker of orphans.” This concise introduction suggests that, while the disease may not be hereditary or necessarily fatal, ignorance about it is. And this ignorance is a deadly germ indeed.

Young man holding a piece of gauze over his mouth as he coughs up blood.

Roy and Julie, the film’s protagonists, are romantically-attached factory workers. They are also careless. That aforementioned kiss is a conduit for tuberculosis. Roy manifests symptoms first, and quite violently. After showing off his strength at a public pool, Roy, seemingly out of nowhere, coughs up blood. He seeks medical treatment immediately. Piecing together the young man’s social connections, medical professionals seek out Julie, who will also need treatment and care. In a manner that would seem to separate it from the minority-focused films, our young couple in They Do Come Back seems to accept, without question, the science that will be their salvation. Their absorption into the sanatorium seems as natural as their eventual and titular absorption back into society, a process that involves a change of jobs for Roy, the cheerful abandonment of a careerist future for Julie, and, of course, marriage. No adherent to an outmoded, science-fearing way of life stands in the way of their treatment. Alois Havrilla’s enthusiastic narration lends to Julie and Roy’s narrative a brisk sense of urgency and importance. Like the other films focused on white characters, traditional faith is absent, replaced by a secularized faith in medicine and science. The missionary message, however, remains. In an elaborate concluding montage of NTA media including radio announcements, films, leaflets, and flyers, we learn that spreading the word can arrest the spread of the disease. The NTA gospel, in other words, is spread through secular, technological channels.

An Archival Lesson and the Mystery of Orphan Films

This, at least, is what I thought They Do Come Back was about. When I visited the National Archives to view Ulmer’s NTA films, the staff pulled They Do Come Back from the vaults and I viewed the print just described. It begins with an unambiguous directorial credit, “Edgar G. Ulmer,” and ends with a plea to “BUY CHRISTMAS SEALS.” The film matched almost word for word the script Ulmer’s daughter had provided for me, and it corresponded perfectly to the NTA’s own publicity materials. It also seemed to be a fine candidate for screening at the Orphan Film Symposium. The 35mm materials were, I was told, in outstanding condition. The archive staff kindly arranged for a new 35mm print to be made from the negative. The print that was struck, however, quite literally tells a different story from the access copy I had studied.[16]

While composed largely of the same parts, the handsome new print, also titled They Do Come Back though produced by United Films, is a different film: a different narrator (uncredited and much calmer) presides, a different story is told, different “heroes” emerge. Even Ulmer’s beloved Brahms Fourth Symphony (the same piece Al embellishes in Detour), which opened the program, has been replaced. While a satisfactory explanation remains elusive, it is likely that the NTA re-cut and re-narrated the film at a later date, either for a particular market or possibly for ideological reasons.

This mix-up helps to establish a critical point about the unknowable fate (Ulmer would’ve loved this!) of orphaned, nontheatrical material. It also raises interesting questions about what we might call “sponsored authorship.” The earlier version of They Do Come Back, where Ulmer’s directorial credit is still intact, is, like Ulmer’s other TB films, thoughtfully sensational. Havrilla’s dramatic narration lends to this effect. It is also consistent with the films focused on non-white communities in its attention, albeit technologically focused, to the NTA’s missionary project. Julie, Roy, and all Americans, the film suggests, need to be told about the dangers of tuberculosis; it is not knowledge inherent to any race, and the germ of ignorance must still be fought.

An animated TB germ wearing a hat speaks into a radio broadcasting microphone.Tee-Bee, broadcasting live from Lungland in Ulmer’s Goodbye Mr. Germ (1940). (NARA)

In all of the films featuring white characters, technology and not religion is the imagined missionary vehicle. In Goodbye Mr. Germ, the children are indoctrinated by their obviously hallucinating father’s scientific vision, a vision involving Germ Radios (see image). In Diagnostic Procedures, young physicians are treated to a dry but technologically sophisticated demonstration of cutting-edge science’s role in the battle against tuberculosis. Radios, along with other media, figure prominently in the earlier version of They Do Come Back as well. That the film is narrated by Havrilla is certainly key, but the radio also functions sermonically, replacing the pulpit and the preacher from the other films. Julie and Roy enter the sanatorium without question, in part because of the omnipresence of their technologically mediated and secularized faith in the medical establishment; images of them “receiving the word” via radio while in the sanatorium pepper the latter portion of the film.

Media obviously played an important role in the fight against and even the treatment of the disease. Motion pictures, audio broadcasts, and narrated slideshows were part of the training of nurses and physicians. As early as the 1920s, widely circulating nursing publications reviewed films that were deemed useful teaching tools[17]. A 1940 issue of Chest: Official Publication of the American College of Chest Physicians also extolled the virtues of film, suggesting that “an excellent practice carried out by some schools during the first or second year is the showing of some of the National Tuberculosis Association educational pictures such as Behind the Shadows, Let My People Live, On the Firing Line, and Cloud in the Sky. Pictures such as these may, and no doubt do, stimulate in some students, at least, an interest which they will maintain throughout their work.”[18] This practice carried over to the treatment of patients themselves, for whom radio broadcasts, of the sort Julie and Roy listen to, and screenings were an important means of keeping the word alive and transforming the patient into a public servant. In an article titled "Teaching Patients with Tuberculosis," Alta Kressler, as late as 1959, discussed the importance of the film.[19]

Men in an Army hospital sit at school desks watching a film about tuberculosis. Patients at Valley Forge Academy Army Hospital view two TB films from the 1950s, Rodney and The Inside Story.

But even this revised missionary science is lacking in the NTA’s re-edit of They Do Come Back, as is any sense that the characters at the film’s center are in real danger. The narration is calm, almost sleepy, and Julie and Roy, who are fleshed out characters in the earlier version, are merely “examples” in the re-edit, replaced by a more heroic army of physicians and reformers whose lives are dedicated to fighting the disease. The NTA, in fact, is the hero in this later version. Julie decides that, once she recovers, she will volunteer for the organization. More curious is the erasure of the deaths that open the earlier version or any sense that this community of white, working class, urbanites is quite as desperately in need of the education so vividly on display in Ulmer’s ethnically-focused TB films or even in his original version of They Do Come Back.

Spreading the word in an effort to stop the spread of disease was, obviously, the NTA’s primary task and the films examined here played a decisive role in this multi-faceted, multi-media defense strategy. The NTA, proud of its successes in the 1930s and 1940s and eager to promote its campaigns in previously neglected populations, focused on the production of educational films designed to reach those communities. The organization’s renewed campaign, undertaken at the height of its push for advanced research, focused on the indoctrination of ethnic minorities who, in the logic of the campaign, remained medically skeptical and scientifically unknowing. Ulmer’s films, which he claimed were prepared and written in his free time and with very little oversight, fit the bill perfectly.[20] Culturally sensitive and not dismissive of tradition and faith, the films use these systems of belief to spread the newly invigorated gospel of medical science.

With Goodbye Mr. Germ and Diagnostic Procedures, the new campaign also preached effectively to children and future health-care professionals. There is, in fact, ample evidence that several of Ulmer’s films were shown routinely in K-12 as well as advanced medical classrooms.[21] The religious conveyance is absent in these films focused on white characters, replaced by a secular and unquestioning faith in science that may have prolonged the notion of racial susceptibility, though here the perceived vulnerability is based on antiquated beliefs, rather than inferior biology. Children and students must be taught about the disease, these films collectively argue, but science doesn’t work in conjunction with or come to replace another system of belief.

Religion or a dangerous sense of tradition is also lacking in Ulmer’s They Do Come Back, though similarities to the ethnically-focused films abound. Chief among these is a sense of panic that the disease is on the rise and that the spread of information (religious or secular) is the only way to stop it. The NTA’s revised version strips the film of this sense of panic, removing any impression that adult white Americans might need to be educated, opting instead for a distinct and puzzlingly blameless vision of the disease.

That Ulmer’s version implies the culpability of white Americans and suggests, however subtly, that ignorance might destroy this community as well, may have sat uneasily with the NTA, with viewers, or both. The notion that the disease was in decline among white Americans was key to the rhetoric aimed at non-white communities. They Do Come Back, in its original form, lumps its white protagonists with the other groups in need of salvation, and effectively equalized the NTA’s unwittingly divisive rhetoric. Like the ethnic minorities targeted in the NTA campaign, Ulmer’s white characters have a hand in their own fate, but need to be convinced to use it.

Ulmer’s position on fate and predetermination is the stuff of controversy, though the long-maintained notion that his fictional characters are merely victims of fate’s malevolence continues to erode. The two versions of They Do Come Back—all of his TB films, in fact—do not stand in the way of this erosion. Al Roberts, Ulmer’s best-known character, narrates his own dilemma at the end of Detour. Disheveled and quite a bit worse for the wear, he says “whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” Looking back at Ulmer’s theatrical films through the peculiar lens of his work for the NTA, his career-long investigation of characters who blame fate for their misfortunes instead of actively re-routing the course of their lives to avoid the foot is most apparent.[22] Ulmer’s educational films, in this respect, fit into a much larger cycle of films with similar pedagogical designs—films that attempt to instruct viewers, regardless of race, to take an active role in their own future.

Devin Orgeron (PhD) an Associate Professor at North Carolina State University, teaching courses in Film Theory, Film History Since 1940, The New American Director, International Film and Realism, Documentary, and The French New Wave. He also teaches a range of director-focused courses covering filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Howard Hawks, and the Coen Brothers. Dr. Orgeron researches and writes about cinema and mechanical mobility; cinematic masculinity; contemporary American cinema; film authorship; realism; advertising and commercial images; educational films; and postmodernity. He also collects, shows, and writes about home movies from the 1940s through 1960s. Dr. Orgeron is the author of Road Movies: From Muybridge and Melies to Lynch and Kiarostami (2007). His articles have appeared in Cinema Journal, The Velvet Light Trap, The Moving Image, The Journal of Film and Video, CineAction,College Literature, Post Script, and Film Quarterly.

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Notes

[1] A version of this research appeared in Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). My gratitude to Oxford for allowing me to repurpose and rearticulate this work for a broader audience here.

[2] The dates attached to these films vary from source to source, though something close to a chronology might be ascertained based largely on Ulmer’s own press clippings, his contracts and itemized budgets for the films, and the Tuberculosis Association’s rather detailed promotional catalogue entries. Bogdanovich’s Ulmer filmography, based on his conversations with the filmmaker, contains some inconsistencies that have been handed down. These inconsistencies—including a story recounting the success of Let My People Live at the 1939 World’s Fair, followed by a 1942 production date for the film—are compounded by varying dates, for example, in the National Archives catalog. I am grateful to Arianné Ulmer Cipes for providing a paper trail that has shed some light on this period of her father’s career. More valuable still have been references to some of the films in educational and medical trade publications from the period Ulmer was making these films.

[3] Let My People Live was completed in 1938 and appears to have been selectively screened that year, but was shown most actively at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Additionally, Cloud in the Sky was completed and copyrighted in 1939, but appears to have been released in 1940. The later dates recorded in the National Archives catalogue are probably dates of accession, not of copyright or release. Finally, Ulmer’s typed, personal account of these years list Life is Good and Mantoux Text along with the other TB films he directed, though I have yet to encounter references to either film elsewhere and the films have yet to be located. It is quite likely that the latter of these was actually called Mantoux Test. My thanks to Arianné Ulmer Cipes for providing these notes.

[4] See Screening the Body (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 149-52.

[5] Isenberg, “Perennial Detour,” 10-15. Isenberg has also published a book that sheds historical light on Detour (1945). Detour: BFI Classics (London: British Film Institute, 2008).

[6] For more on the intricacies of this relationship and Ulmer’s subsequent exile, see Isenberg, “Perennial Detour,” 10-11.

[7] For more on the social / medical distinction (and the NTA’s work in both categories), see James Harvey Young’s review of Richard Shryock’s history of the NTA in The American Historical Review 63 (Jan. 1958), 445-46. Also see the more specialized Richard Harrison Shryock, National Tuberculosis Association, 1904-1954: A Study of the Voluntary Health Movement in the United States (Manchester, NH: Ayer Publishing, 1977). Also see James E. Perkins “The National Tuberculosis Association: Fiftieth Anniversary,” Public Health Reports (1896-1970) 69, (May 1954), 513-18.

[8] For more on the evolving focus of the organization see Young, 446 and Shryock, National Tuberculosis Association, 286-97. For an outstanding discussion of the NTA’s media savvy and the organization’s enviable ability to “[make] their disease newsworthy,” see Nancy Tomes, “Epidemic Entertainments: Disease and Popular Culture in Early-Twentieth Century America,” American Literary History 14 (Winter 2002), 630-31. For one of only a few discussions of the organization’s use of film, see especially 642-47. See also (along with Miriam Posner in this volume) Martin S. Pernick, “Thomas Edison’s Tuberculosis Films: Mass Media and Health Propaganda,” Hastings Center Report 8 (June 1978), 21-27.

[9] For more on this shift in focus and on the near-religious zeal of anti-tuberculosis reformers see Nancy Tomes, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women and the Microbe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 243-44. For more on shifts in mortality rates see Barbara Bates, Bargaining for Life: A Social History of Tuberculosis, 1876–1938 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).

[10] Claudia Marie Calhoon discusses the manner by which the knowledge of germs sparked increased racial fear and misunderstanding in, “Tuberculosis, Race, and the Delivery of Health Care in Harlem, 1922-1939,” Radical History Review 80 (Spring 2001), 101-119.

[11] Isenberg, in fact, lumps the three racially specific TB films (the only nontheatrical materials he mentions) with the other films comprising the Ulmer’s “Ethnic Intermezzo.” Isenberg, “Perennial Detour,” 15.

[12] Heather Munro Prescott, “The White Plague Goes to College: Tuberculosis Prevention Programs in Colleges and Universities, 1920–1960,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74 (Winter 2000), 757. Prescott cites National Tuberculosis Association, Report of the Committee on Tuberculosis Among Negroes: A Five-Year Study and What It Has Accomplished (New York: National Tuberculosis Association, 1937), 48. For more on the struggle against TB in the African American community, see Claudia Marie Calhoon, “Tuberculosis, Race, and the Delivery of Health Care in Harlem, 1922-1939.”

[13] Emily Abel, “From Exclusion to Expulsion: Mexicans and Tuberculosis Control in Los Angeles, 1914-1940,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77 (Winter 2003), 831. 833-48

[14] Christian McMillen, “The Red Man and the White Plague: Rethinking Race, Tuberculosis, and American Indians, ca. 1890-1950,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 82 (Fall 2008), 616.

[15] And, in this respect, is rather unlike Goodbye Mr. Germ and Diagnostic Procedures, which, from this perspective, seem like highly specialized one-offs productions.

[16] The print, supplied by Colorlab for screening at the fifth Orphan Film Symposium (2006) at the University of South Carolina was made from a preservation negative, which itself was created using the original nitrate materials. NARA received this film, along with eight other titles totaling thirty-four reels, on May 23, 1945 (based on an offer letter of January 4, 1945 from Martha E. Pouech for The Committee on Archives of the National Tuberculosis Association).

[17] Review: “Health Films by Health Films Committee of the National Health Council,” The American Journal of Nursing 23 (Aug., 1923), 995-96.

[18] Ed. W. Hayes, M.D., F.A.C.P., “Schedule for Teaching Chronic Diseases of the Lungs in Medical Schools,” Chest: Official Publication of the American College of Chest Physicians 6.7 (1940), 203.

[19] See, for example, Alta Kressler, “Teaching Patients with Tuberculosis,” The American Journal of Nursing 59 (Aug., 1959), 1116-18.

[20] Ulmer’s typed notes on this period of his career indicate the faith the NTA had in his ability to deliver and his relative autonomy in making these films: “The films for the National Tuberculosis Association & U.S. Health Department were documentaries of varying lengths promoting the fight against TB on a national basis. These films were prepared, written, etc., in my spare time as a service and when available I was hired to produce and direct them – between my feature assignments and during layoff periods while I was under contract to Springer. Time: Balance of free time 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940.” Ulmer’s notes indicate that he had a hand in the preparation and writing of some films he did not direct, although this has yet to be confirmed. My thanks to Arianné Ulmer Cipes for providing this material.

[21] See, for example, Charles Hoban, Jr., Focus on Learning: Motion Pictures in the School (Washington D.C.: American Council on Education, 1942), 53-59 for repeated references to the classroom use of Let My People Live. References to this film’s use in largely white classrooms abound in the educational literature of the period, often for the teaching of racial tolerance. Hoban’s findings indicate that, sometimes, the film had precisely the opposite effect, creating in white children a sense of social superiority to the racially susceptible characters in the film. Several of Ulmer’s TB films receive high ratings in Selected Educational Motion Pictures: A Descriptive Encyclopedia (Washington, D.C., 1942), though again, the films seem to serve purposes beyond the original intention. Racial tolerance becomes a central, perhaps unexpected pedagogical repurposing. The American Council on Education’s second series, Motion Pictures in Education, devote much of their attention in 1940 to the classroom use of Let My People Live (second in popularity only to The Plow That Broke the Plains [1936]).

[22] For more on the reconsideration of Ulmer’s understanding of fate, see Tag Gallagher, “All Lost in Wonder.”