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Dudley Murphy, Hollywood Wild Card

2006
Author:

Susan B. Delson

Dudley Murphy, Hollywood Wild Card

The first biography of this pioneering Hollywood maverick and bon vivant.

Dudley Murphy (1897-1968) was one of early Hollywood's most intriguing figures. Active from the 1920s through the 1940s, Murphy was one of the industry's first independents and a guiding intelligence behind some of the key films in early twentieth-century cinema. In the first full-length biography of Murphy, Susan Delson gives full rein to an American original whose life was as audacious as his films.

Such a cogent, intelligent book about such a splendidly messy life. Dudley Murphy seems more like a wacky fictional character than a real person, and I'm grateful to Susan Delson for introducing me to him.

Kurt Andersen, novelist and journalist

Dudley Murphy (1897–1968) was one of early Hollywood’s most intriguing figures. Active from the 1920s through the 1940s, Murphy was one of the industry’s first independents and a guiding intelligence behind some of the key films in early twentieth-century cinema.

In the first full-length biography of Murphy, author Susan Delson gives full rein to an American original whose life was as audacious as his films. As expertly chronicled here, Murphy caromed between film and the other arts, between Hollywood and other cultural capitals—Greenwich Village, Harlem, London, and Paris—hobnobbing with some of the era’s leading cultural figures, including Ezra Pound, Man Ray, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Chaplin, and leaving many a scandal in his wake.

With artist Fernand Léger, Murphy made Ballet mécanique, one of the seminal works of avant-garde film. He directed Bessie Smith in her only film appearance, St. Louis Blues, and Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones. He had a hand in shaping Tod Browning’s Dracula, gave Bing Crosby one of his first film appearances, and collaborated with William Faulkner in attempting to bring one of the author’s most challenging novels to the screen. Murphy also turned out forgettable Hollywood fodder like Confessions of a Co-Ed and Stocks and Blondes, and ended his career making melodramas in Mexico.

Delson pays close attention to Murphy’s cinematic style, which favored visual play over narrative and character, and she offers provocative new insights into his two most important works, Ballet mécanique and The Emperor Jones. A lively portrait, Dudley Murphy, Hollywood Wild Card provides a fascinating perspective on the evolution of the classical Hollywood aesthetic, the development of the film industry, and the century’s broader cultural currents.

Dudley Murphy, Hollywood Wild Card

Susan Delson is based in New York and writes frequently about film, art, and history.

Dudley Murphy, Hollywood Wild Card

Such a cogent, intelligent book about such a splendidly messy life. Dudley Murphy seems more like a wacky fictional character than a real person, and I'm grateful to Susan Delson for introducing me to him.

Kurt Andersen, novelist and journalist

This finely written and researched work will profitably add to the literature of such directors.

Roy Liebman, Los Angeles P.L.

Delson details the life of this overlooked Hollywood director, who is best known as director of the film version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1933), which starred Paul Robeson, and as codirector (with Fernand Leger) of the Ballet mecanique (1924), an avant-garde short with contributions by Man Ray and Ezra Pound and music by George Antheil. The chapters on the squabble over the credits of Ballet mecanique and on The Emperor Jones are particularly valuable. Featuring a powerful African American protagonist, Emperor Jones reveals Hollywood and U.S. racist attitudes. Delson describes the racist language of the script and discusses how the cutting of certain sequences by the so-called Hays Office—and the studio’s willingness to compromise continuity to receive Production code approval—reveal the mean-spiritedness of the era toward African Americans. She also discusses Murphy’s frequent experimenting with visual and music elements over the straight dramatic elements, which became the standard with the advent of sound. The book includes extensive chapter notes. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-/Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers.

Choice

Dudley Murphy doesn't bear a household name like John Ford or King Vidor, but, as chronicled by Delson, his ambitious career out-barnstormed them all—even if it often only sputtered in the public eye. The author displays a scholarly grasp of the facts, but also the fluid, resonant prose to animate them. A balanced portrait of a man and a panorama of his times, told with exceptional grace.

Kirkus Reviews

This finely written and researched work will profitably add to the literature of such directors.

Library Journal

What a pleasant surprise to find a book about someone who has always intrigued me, a shadowy figure in film history whose name is attached to a handful of wildly different but significant movies, from Ballet mécanique to Bessie Smith’s St. Louis Blues to The Emperor Jones. Susan Delson has done an impeccable job of research to tell his story and tie the loose ends of his improbable career together. A brief but interesting, intelligent, and well-written book about a longtime mystery man who—in spite of a greater concern for carousing than career-building—made his mark on the world of cinema.

Leonard Maltin

The biography of a Golden-Age filmmaker.

Malibu Times

Susan Delson has written an engaging, lively, admirably researched volume. Dudley Murphy: Hollywood Wild Card is a fine biography, as well as a fine work of film studies.

Film International

Delson successfully makes the case that Murphy was a unique film artist with a coherent and consistent style. Filled with sex, murder, art, and plenty of names to drop, Dudley Murphy’s life is the perfect fodder for a biography. But Dudley Murphy: Hollywood Wild Card does more than tell his story, it diagnoses the problem that makes Murphy’s career seem so inexplicable.

Modernism/Modernity

Dudley Murphy, Hollywood Wild Card

contents

introduction At the Edge of the Frame

1. Rooted in Art
2. Greek Goddesses for the Moviegoing Public
3. Vexed and Disputed: The Multiple Histories of Ballet mécanique
4. Into the Mainstream
5. The Beginning of the Audible Period
6. Not Murder but Mayhem: Hollywood Again
7. Between Pictures
8. Stepping out of the System: The Making of The Emperor Jones
9. An Equivocal Independence
10. Changing Direction

acknowledgments
notes
filmography of dudley murphy
selected bibliography

index