Q & As with Susan Delson

About Dudley Murphy
About
Susan Delson


 

1. Could you give us some additional background on Murphy's career?
2.
How does Murphy differ from other forgotten Hollywood directors from his era?
3.
Even though Murphy made only a handful of memorable works, why should he be considered a pioneering filmmaker?
4.
Tell us about Murphy's fascination with technological innovation in film and some of the pioneering techniques he used.
5. How is Murphy's work contemporary to current
art and cinema? How is current cinema influenced by him?
6. What parallels can be drawn between Murphy's time in Hollywood and the current film industry?
7.
How did Murphy's numerous romantic affairs and marriages influence his work?
8.
Why is Dudley Murphy's personal life intriguing now?
9. What happened to Murphy? How did he end up?
Other Questions and Answers.

1. Could you give us some additional background on Murphy's career? Murphy started making films in 1920—short silent films inspired by classical music. After Ballet mécanique, the first thing he did in Hollywood was a clunker of a comedy called Alex the Great. He wrote dialogue for Tod Browning's horror classic, Dracula. He made melodramas in Mexico. We have him to thank for blues great Bessie Smith's only screen appearance, in his short film St. Louis Blues. Years later, in the 1940s, he made a series of three-minute music films, called soundies, that were shown in machines that were like movie jukeboxes. Murphy's soundies aren't just filmed performances, they're like MTV videos 50 years ahead of the curve. And he didn't shy away from challenging material—one unproduced project, for instance, was a screenplay with William Faulkner, based on Absalom, Absalom!, one of Faulkner's most racially charged novels. [back to top]

 

2. How does Murphy differ from other forgotten Hollywood directors from his era? Well, in what he brought to the table, for one thing. Murphy's father was a fairly well-known artist in the very early 20 th century. There was a whole circle of Boston painters who, throughout Murphy's childhood, were in and out of the house all the time. As a result, his ideas about film were influenced by art, far more than most directors of his time.

 Murphy wanted to make hit movies, but he wanted them to stand as works of art—which was a fairly radical way of thinking about film back then. But he didn't see it as a contradiction. As far as he was concerned, nothing was too sophisticated for mainstream movie audiences. He took the experimental techniques from Ballet mécanique and used them to terrific effect in Black and Tan , the film he made with Duke Ellington in 1929. It was one of the most popular shorts of the early sound era.

 Another thing about those cutaways. Murphy sometimes used them to tilt a mainstream film toward his own vision, which was more socially inclusive than Hollywood 's. In The Sports Parade, for instance, during the big wrestling match at the finale he cuts away—not once, but twice—to a well-dressed African-American couple who are rooting for the hero like everyone else. And that's the point. To a contemporary eye, it's natural. But very few directors were portraying African Americans that realistically in 1932. [back to top]

 

3. Even though Murphy made only a handful of memorable works, why should he be considered a pioneering filmmaker? Murphy's career spanned the transition from one technology—silent film—to another. Hollywood took one fork in that road, and Murphy tried another. We take it for granted that film had to evolve the way it did. But Murphy's vision of a more freely visual, less narratively driven cinema is an intriguing reminder that things could have turned out differently.
Of course, Murphy wasn't alone in this. But among the filmmakers who tried to work in a non-formulaic style, he's been pretty much overlooked. [back to top]

 

4. Tell us about Murphy's fascination with technological innovation in film and some of the pioneering techniques he used. Well, in what he brought to the table, for one thing. Murphy's father was a fairly well-known artist in the very early 20th century. There was a whole circle of Boston painters who, throughout Murphy's childhood, were in and out of the house all the time. As a result, his ideas about film were influenced by art, far more than most directors of his time.

 Murphy wanted to make hit movies, but he wanted them to stand as works of art—which was a fairly radical way of thinking about film back then. But he didn't see it as a contradiction. As far as he was concerned, nothing was too sophisticated for mainstream movie audiences. He took the experimental techniques from Ballet mécanique and used them to terrific effect in Black and Tan , the film he made with Duke Ellington in 1929. It was one of the most popular shorts of the early sound era. [back to top]

 

5. How is Murphy's work contemporary to current art and cinema? How is current cinema influenced by him? I wouldn't necessarily say that current cinema was ‘influenced' by him—he flew too far under the radar to have a lot of impact. But he was a forerunner—an early adapter, if you will—of some key trends: experimental and independent filmmaking, for instance, a music-driven style, and a more emphatically visual approach to cinematic storytelling. [back to top]

 

6. What parallels can be drawn between Murphy's time in Hollywood and the current film industry? We're going through a period of tremendous technological change. It's similar to Murphy's time, when sound changed everything about filmmaking: not just how movies were made, but what they were about and who was in them. [back to top]

 

7. How did Murphy's numerous romantic affairs and marriages influence his work? Murphy had four wives. As a young man, he was torn between his first two wives, and some of his early career decisions were based on who he wanted to be with at the moment. He made films with both of them—that's his second wife, Katharine Hawley Murphy, on the garden swing in Ballet mécanique. Throughout his married life, he was involved with a string of socialites and actresses, including Miriam Hopkins, the incandescent star of Ernst Lubitsch's great comedy, Trouble in Paradise. In Hollywood, Murphy's various involvements may have put him on the wrong side of one studio executive or another, but that's mostly conjecture on my part. [back to top]

 

8. Why is Dudley Murphy's personal life intriguing now? (Laughs) We think everyone's personal life is intriguing these days. But Murphy happened to have quite a life. He was a sexual adventurer, and apparently irresistible. In his memoir, he describes various escapades, especially during his Paris years, with an odd mix of tell-all candor and gentlemanly discretion. I got the distinct feeling there was more to be said. And he said plenty as it was. [back to top]

 

9. What happened to Murphy? How did he end up? Even when they weren't interested in hiring him, the Hollywood community liked Murphy. Eventually, he turned that to his benefit. After his film career ended in the mid-1940s, he set up a beachfront hideaway motel in Malibu that became an instant hit with the film crowd. Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor and Eddie Fisher—celebrities used it as their private watering hole, which in a sense it was.
It was called Holiday House. The accommodations were designed by the California modernist architect Richard Neutra, with Murphy doing much of the construction himself. The individual units were turned into luxury condominiums in the 1970s, but the Holiday House restaurant is still around. Since the mid-1980s it's been known as Geoffrey's. It's still a wonderful spot. The view from the terrace is incredible.

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