B Movies


Programmers were made by the majors, and as their name indicates, they could fit in either the A or the B slot on a program, depending on the needs of the individual theater. For instance, MGM programmers such as the Hardy Family series, with Mickey Rooney (b. 1920), and the Dr. Kildare series maintained the gloss that characterized MGM's "A" product. During the 1930s, budgets for major studio programmers could range from $100,000 to $500,000, at a time when A films could run from a conservative $200,000 up to $1 million, depending on the studio. It was not uncommon for programmers to develop from A features. MGM's Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), starring Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, featured opulent production values and was a considerable hit for the studio, and the film's sequel, Tarzan and His Mate (1934), was, if anything, even more elaborate. But after the first two outings, the series moved down to programmer status. For instance, Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939) had a ninety-minute running time, allowing it to serve as either the top or bottom half of a double bill. MGM made its last entry in the series, Tarzan's New York Adventure , in 1942, at which point producer Sol Lesser (1890–1980) brought Cheetah the chimp and Weissmuller to RKO Studios. At RKO the series trundled along as a major studio B. Most of the Tarzan movies at RKO clocked in at less than eighty minutes and became increasingly predictable. After Weissmuller left the series in 1948, the series continued on, with Lex Barker and Gordon Scott essaying the role until 1955, the year Howard Hughes (1905–1976) sold the studio to General Tire and Rubber. A similar pattern is evident in the history of the Charlie Chan films, which began at Twentieth Century Fox, and later shifted to Monogram.

Programmers and major studio Bs reaped the technical benefits of being made at MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox, and RKO (often referred to as the Big Five). They were accorded some time and care in their production, with shooting schedules as long as three weeks, and budgets of up to several hundred thousand dollars. They were also able to make use of elaborate standing sets and to call on reliable actors. For instance, Glenda Farrell (1904–1971) and Barton McLane (1902–1969) were familiar faces in character roles in Warner's A films for many years. The two were paired and elevated to the lead roles for seven of the nine movies in the Torchy Blane series of Bs at Warners, starting with Smart Blonde in 1936.

Needless to say, the majors produced some of the very best B movies. Because the financial stakes were minimal, B producers were often given more latitude and had to endure less scrutiny than their counterparts making A movies across the lot. In 1942 RKO hired story editor Val Lewton (1904–1951), formerly with Selznick, to produce a series of low-budget horror films. The resulting movies are widely considered among the best B movies ever made. Stuck with lurid pre-sold titles like Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1942), and The Leopard Man (1943), and with budgets of less than $150,000, Lewton and his staff set about crafting small, literate gems, filled with an atmosphere of dread. Beneath the penny-dreadful titles lurked stories of sexual anxiety, family dysfunction, and urban paranoia. Cat People , about a young woman who fears she will turn into a beast when she is sexually aroused, became a surprise hit for RKO. Both Cat People and The Seventh Victim (1943) contain a strong lesbian subtext that slipped by studio executives, as well as the Hays Office, which enforced the production code, Hollywood's system of content regulation. The Seventh Victim finds a young woman (Kim Hunter) searching Greenwich Village for her missing sister, who has become entwined with a satanic cult. The film presents a bleak view of urban life, and offers suicide as a reasonable alternative to an unhappy existence. It remains a remarkably sophisticated work among the light entertainment and jingoistic films produced during World War II. Most of Lewton's films were re-released—a rather unusual occurrence for B movies.

If B movie production was important to the Big Five, it was critical for the little majors, Universal and Columbia. Both studios produced A films, but it was B westerns and B series films that were their bread and butter. Universal produced dozens of B westerns, and the horror films that gave the studio its identity in the early 1930s were relegated in the 1940s to B budgets and second-rate stars: The Mad Ghoul (1943) with George Zucco (1886–1960); Son of Dracula (1943) with Lon Chaney Jr. (1906–1973); and House of Horrors (1945) with Martin Kosleck (1904–1994). Universal also had its share of series pictures. The Sherlock Holmes films, starring Basil Rathbone (1892–1967) and Nigel Bruce (1895–1953) as Holmes and Watson, are standouts. B movies made up nearly 70 percent of Columbia's output in the late 1930s; the studio favored series pictures such as The Lone Wolf, The Crime Doctor, Blondie, Boston Blackie, and Jungle Jim, which starred a post-Tarzan Weissmuller. Collectively, those series accounted for more than eighty features. As with the Bs made at the Big Five studios, Bs at Universal and Columbia were occasionally capable of exceeding their limitations. Columbia's The Face Behind the Mask (1941), directed by Robert Florey (1900–1979), starred Peter Lorre (1904–1964) as Janos, a Hungarian immigrant who is horribly disfigured in a hotel fire. He slips into a life of crime, leading a gang in a series of daring robberies. When a blind girl falls in love with him, he vows to leave his criminal life, but his vindictive partners kill the girl in an explosion meant for him. Janos lures the thugs to the desert, where they all die from exposure. Florey's film presents the tragic flip side of the American dream, and Lorre gives a strong performance as a gentle man who is embittered by a stroke of misfortune.

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