August 1, 2006

Dudley Murphy (1867-1968) doesn’t bear a household name like vaunted film directors 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.

Murphy was an innovative, socially adventurous Hollywood insider, a reckless aviator and playboy to outgun Howard Hughes, but with artistic aspirations forged in European modernism. He is often recalled as merely the technical facilitator behind his two enduring works, the experimental montage Ballet Mécanique and the film that rendered Paul Robeson a diasporic icon, The Emperor Jones. Delson challenges this notion and makes a convincing case for the filmmaker as auteur. The author displays a scholarly grasp of the facts, but also the fluid, resonant prose to animate them. She illuminates what certain cultural, corporate and technological developments meant to both Murphy and his tumultuous times. Cineastes looking for rigorous analysis of Murphy’s work might find the early passages tough going, filled as they are with the minutiae of the subject’s life. But this personal intimacy proves useful, locating plausible and compelling connections between Murphy’s life and art. Like his near-contemporary Luis Buñuel, Murphy was the son of upper-crust intellectuals. He, too, broke through with an avant-garde classic and made a globetrotting career of blending experimental techniques into more mainstream fare. Along the way, Delson treats us to encounters with Murphy’s dizzying roster of collaborators and pals: DeMille, Selznick, Hemingway, Man Ray, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Charlie Chaplin, Fats Waller, Sergei Eisenstein. Yet Murphy never gets lost in the fray.

A balanced portrait of a man and a panorama of his times, told with exceptional grace.