JOSEPH LERNER SPEAKS
By Richard Koszarski
Reading time 8 Minutes
In March of 1984, while researching the history of feature film production in New York, I was finally able to track down the elusive writer-producer-director Joseph Lerner. He was living in Coconut Creek, Florida, and was happy to hear from anyone who remembered the three films that his independent company, Laurel Films, had made in New York in 1949 and 1950: C-Man, Guilty Bystander and Mr. Universe. As far as film history was concerned, Lerner was a non-person. His name went unmentioned in the standard encyclopedias of the day, including Halliwell, Katz, Wakeman, Sadoul and Roud. Andrew Sarris didn’t even see him as a subject for further research. As of today, IMDB still claims that he died in 1976. The correct date is November 12, 2005.
We exchanged a few letters and he sent me enough biographical material to further whet my interest, including the CV reproduced on this site. I located the three films and featured them as part of “New York Noir, 1945-1960,” a two-part retrospective I organized at the American Museum of the Moving Image in March and April, 1985. The notion that there was such a thing as “New York noir” is familiar now, but in 1985 it was a fresh idea and unusual enough to attract a bit of local press attention.
Two years later, on July 16, 1987, I was able to record this interview with Joe and his wife, film editor Geraldine Lerner, when they made a quick visit to New York. I was still working at the Museum, which was based in the old Paramount Astoria studio. Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky had opened it in 1920, but from 1941-1972 it was owned by the US government and operated as a Signal Corps training film facility. Joe and Geri had both worked there during World War II, and they joked that the converted editing suite we were sitting in looked familiar. The Museum soon moved to its own building across the street while the studio, now known as Kaufman Astoria Studios, continued to host local film and television productions, including Orange Is the New Black, Sesame Street and The Irishman.
I published a transcript of the interview in Film History (7.4, 1995), which incorporated a number of additions, changes and corrections, most of them supplied by Joe. We clarified a few things and filled in a number of details that hadn’t come to mind in 1987. Joe’s memory was very good, although he and Gerri sometimes disagreed on details and occasionally a name or date just wouldn’t register. For example, that afternoon Joe could not remember the last name of the man who hired him to direct his first feature, a race movie called The Fight Never Ends. Turns out that it was William Alexander, a pioneering race movie producer whose last work was the Richard Burton-Lee Marvin-O.J. Simpson epic, The Klansman. He would also generally refer to friends and partners like Max (Rosenbaum) and Rex (Carlton) on a first-name only basis. It was easy to fill in something like that in a published transcript, but annotating a raw audio tape is another matter. Nevertheless, the recording you are about to listen to more than makes up for any historical ellipses through the way it captures the enthusiasm and sheer joy that Joe and Gerri took in making this handful of low-rent features. Despite all the problems with banks, labs, distributers, partners and corrupt public officials, Joe claims that this was the most fun they ever had making movies, and I believe him.
Beyond that, listeners should be aware that while flipping the tape cassette we appear to have lost a line or two about Ralph Bellamy, star of the locally-produced Man Against Crime TV series, and the actor first considered for the Zachary Scott role in Guilty Bystander. And we never filled in the names of those later quickies that Joe told me “not to look for.” Years later I discovered that he had begun directing both Girl on the Run and Josette of New Orleans under his real name, but by the time the films were released they were attributed to one of his aliases, Joseph Lee. And there are probably others — subjects for further research.
Recently, the Lerners have begun to attract a growing amount of critical attention, much of it, as might be expected, coming from the margins. Jake Hinkson’s 2015 piece for the Film Noir Foundation (“The New Yorkers”) is one good example, and this byNWR restoration of my favorite Lerner film, Guilty Bystander, is another. As may be obvious by now, for me the Lerners are not just pioneers of New York’s independent cinema, but case studies in everything that could go wrong — or right — as the old Hollywood studio system melted down and something new grew up to replace it.
Along with Morris Engel, the Danziger brothers, Hazard Reeves, Mayor Bill O’Dwyer and a hundred others, the Lerners play a central role in my upcoming book “Keep ‘em in the East!” Kubrick, Kazan and the Post-War New York Film Renaissance. What happened in New York in the decade after World War II also started at the margins, as the energy that had once gone into race movies, documentaries, sponsored films and independent features suddenly gained access to new sources of funding and distribution. On the Waterfront and Killer’s Kiss weren’t the first steps in this journey, but the payoff: two great independent productions whose very existence owed a lot to films like Guilty Bystander. Joe Lerner wouldn’t have been surprised to hear this. As is clear in this interview, he knew it all along.
Richard Koszarski is the author of ten books, including The Man You Loved to Hate: Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood and Hollywood on the Hudson: Film and Television in New York from Griffith to Sarnoff. He is Professor Emeritus of English and Cinema Studies at Rutgers University and Museum Curator for the Barrymore Film Center in Fort Lee, New Jersey.