In-Depth Q&A

About Dudley Murphy
Filmography


 

1. What first interested you about Dudley Murphy?
2. What makes Dudley Murphy's films relevant today?
3. What is Murphy's legacy to film history?
4. How does Murphy differ from other forgotten Hollywood directors from his era?
5. Why should Dudley Murphy be remembered?
6. Why is Murphy's collaboration with artist Fernand Léger on Ballet mécanique significant to his legacy?
7. What are the significant differences between Leger's version of Ballet mécanique and the earliest version?
8. What about Murphy's work with African Americans?
9. Tell me about The Emperor Jones. Why was Murphy so passionate about making it?
10. Is it possible to see Murphy's films these days? Are any of them out on DVD?
(Click here for In-Depth Q&A with Susan Delson.)

1. What first interested you about Dudley Murphy? I knew that Murphy had been involved in making Ballet mécanique, one of the early classics of avant-garde cinema—an eye-popping, non-stop collision of images, from pumping machine parts to whirling pastry whisks to a girl on a garden swing. But when I realized he'd also made The Emperor Jones, that intrigued me. The more I discovered, the more interesting he got. His career seemed to be cut and pasted from about six different careers—early indie filmmaker, Hollywood director, hotelier, and more. [back to top]

 

2. What makes Dudley Murphy's films relevant today? Murphy's best work is acutely conscious of how films are made, how the pieces are put together. He zeroed in on the edges, the seams of a film—the transitions between scenes, the cutaway shots usually dismissed as filler—to heighten the audience's awareness of what they were seeing. There's a visual playfulness that pulls you out of the plot for a moment, reminding you that you're watching a film. These days, filmmakers knowingly exploit that double consciousness, but you don't really find it in classic Hollywood films. Stylistically, it was pretty much out of bounds.

 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. What is Murphy's legacy to film history? You know, we could look at his career and say, Well, wrong place, wrong time. Too bad. But eventually the mainstream caught up with him. His ideas about film—the use of music as an organizing principle, the emphasis on the visual image, his track record as an independent, even his preference for short films—have resurfaced in the mainstream since the demise of the studio system. So it's fascinating to see how it all played out back then, when these ideas went so completely against the Hollywood grain.

 And of course, several of his films are legacies in themselves. Ballet mécanique, certainly. And The Emperor Jones, which was beautifully restored by the Library of Congress in 2002. Also St. Louis Blues with Bessie Smith, and Black and Tan with Duke Ellington. Some of the soundies are small gems, too. And I have a perverse fondness for one of the films he hated—a fluffy little musical called The Night Is Young. [back to top]

 

4. 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 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. Why should Dudley Murphy be remembered? One, he had ideas about film that are worth revisiting, especially with all the technological shifts going on these days. Two, those ideas play out in some interesting and largely overlooked films. And three, he had quite a life. In fact, his life is at least as interesting as his career. Which is why the book is a biography, not a film study.

 Murphy had a kind of radar for breaking cultural scenes—Greenwich Village, Jazz-Age Paris, Harlem at the height of the renaissance, early Hollywood. Man Ray, Ezra Pound, and architect Richard Neutra were just a few of his collaborators. He talked montage theory with Sergei Eisenstein and got drunk with James Joyce. The only surviving North American mural by Mexican master David Alfaro Siqueiros was painted on the walls of his back garden.

Thanks in large part to Hollywood, we tend to assume that the only worthwhile biographical trajectory is the straight upward diagonal. Murphy's life was anything but. He takes right-angle turns, he falls through trap doors; he's like the hero of a picaresque novel crossed with a slapstick comedian. And a touch of Hugh Hefner—even back in the 1930s, the gossip columnists were calling him a playboy. [back to top]

 

6. Why is Murphy's collaboration with artist Fernand Léger on Ballet mécanique significant to his legacy? In a letter to his father, Ezra Pound wrote that with Ballet mécanique, Murphy was “trying to make cinema into art.” And he did. Ballet mécanique is a classic of avant-garde cinema, and one of the first films to be treated as a work of art. Until then, movies were a pretty lowbrow phenomenon.

 Ballet mécanique was as much Murphy's film as Léger's, if not more so. But history hasn't treated it that way. For decades, it's been considered Léger's film. If Murphy was credited at all, it's been in a lesser capacity, like cameraman. But in the earliest known version, Murphy shares top billing with Léger as the film's co-creator. And once you know Murphy's filmmaking, it's clear how much of the film he was responsible for. [back to top]

 

7. What are the significant differences between Leger's version of Ballet mécanique and the earliest version?

In a word, sex.

 First, you should know that Ballet mécanique was the only film that Léger made as a director, and he continued to edit and re-edit various versions of it until shortly before his death in the 1950s. (The film was made in 1924.)

 Murphy had only one print of the film as he originally edited it. It was destroyed in a fire sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s. But in the 1920s, he showed that print in New York and Los Angeles, and probably elsewhere in the U. S. From press coverage of the New York screenings—and from Murphy and Man Ray, another collaborator on the film—we know that Murphy's version included erotic footage of himself with his wife of that time, and of Man Ray with his mistress, Kiki. This was footage that Léger apparently had cut out of his subsequent versions of the film. The thing is, only Léger's versions survive—even the earliest known print, where Murphy and Léger share the credit equally, is apparently a Léger re-edit. So even though we have descriptions of it, we'll never really know what Murphy's original looked like. [back to top]

 

8. What about Murphy's work with African Americans? Murphy was one of the first Hollywood directors to take African-American performers seriously. In the late 1920s, just after sound came in, he made two short films—one starring Bessie Smith, the other starring Duke Ellington—that still rank among the best of the genre. At a time when Hollywood was casting African-American performers as mammies and minstrel-show caricatures, Murphy presented urban blacks in modern settings: poised, attractive, and self-possessed.

 Murphy himself didn't always transcend the prejudices of his day. But he showed respect for the performers whose work inspired him, and a certain willingness to get out of the way. That's not something you always see in Hollywood 's treatment of African Americans, especially not in the 1920s. [back to top]

 

9. Tell me about The Emperor Jones. Why was Murphy so passionate about making it? Murphy had been trying to make a film of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones since the early 1920s. Once sound came in, he was even more eager to bring it to the screen. He thought its potential as a sound film was tremendous.

 Murphy had been a bomber pilot in World War I, and he had a real daredevil streak. He never comes out and says this, but I'm sure he was drawn to the idea of a powerful black character in the lead. He loved pushing that kind of societal boundary. The film was a huge gamble for him—it was an independent production—and he jumped into it with both feet. [back to top]

 

10. Is it possible to see Murphy's films these days? Are any of them out on DVD? Surprisingly, a lot of Murphy's work is available. Three of his earliest films—Soul of the Cypress, Danse Macabre, and Ballet mécanique—are included in the multi-DVD set, Unseen Cinema. St. Louis Blues and Black and Tan are included in at least one compilation DVD. And several other films turn up on cable from time to time, including The Night Is Young, The Sport Parade, and One Third of a Nation.

In 2002, the Library of Congress did a fine restoration of The Emperor Jones, which is out on DVD. In this case, restoration meant more than a fresh print. The film had been heavily censored when it first came out, and lost a lot of footage. The sound track was further edited for African-American audiences, with objectionable words deleted. The Library of Congress version restores almost all the lost footage and track. [back to top]