B Movies



THE Bs OF POVERTY ROW

Smaller company Bs were dominated by three companies with a significant output during the 1930s and 1940s: Monogram, Republic, and Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). Although a number of low-end studios existed at the end of the silent era, the transition to sound, coupled with the Great Depression, caused most of them to fall by the wayside. In 1929 W. Ray Johnston and Trem Carr transformed their Rayart Pictures into Monogram, with a production studio and a nationwide distribution system. Monogram successfully capitalized on the double feature trend by making cheap and efficient B movies, and by 1933 the company had produced a well-received version of Oliver Twist , which was followed by respectable versions of other classics such as Jane Eyre (1934). Monogram's appearance of success was belied by the fact that it had built up significant debt. In 1935 Consolidated Film Laboratory, one of Monogram's creditors, took over the company. Johnston and Carr formed a new Monogram in 1937, building a new distribution network from the ground up. In addition to westerns featuring Buck Jones (1889–1942), Ken Maynard (1895–1973), and others, Monogram cranked out dozens of Charlie Chan mysteries (having picked up the series from Fox), as well as East Side Kids and Bowery Boys films. Movies based on comic strips and a series of horror films with Bela Lugosi (1882–1956), along with melodramas ( Black Market Babies , 1945), jungle films ( Call of the Jungle , 1944), and the occasional musical were also part of the Monogram mix. Monogram had the capacity to make amiable films, but much of its output was lethargic, even with trim, one-hour running times.

Herbert J. Yates (1880–1966), owner of Consolidated Film Laboratory, formed Republic Pictures in 1935 when he took over several small producers, including the original Monogram. Despite its concentration on low-budget films, Republic was noted for its relatively slick production values for a B studio. There were probably more westerns made than any other B genre, and Republic produced the majority of them. Most of their films feature fine cinematography and action-filled story lines. The company boasted a much-admired special effects unit and the best stable of stunt performers in the business, led by Yakima Canutt (1896–1986). The major points of differentiation in the B western were the name of the cowboy star, whether or not he sang, and the color of his horse. Given those limitations, Republic's films were formulaic. Despite their interchangeability, the movies were exciting for juvenile audiences and diverting for some adults as well. Republic stars Gene Autry (1907–1998) and Roy Rogers (1911–1998) were among the leading western stars of the day, and Autry ranked among Hollywood's top ten moneymakers for several years.

Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) was founded by a former film exchange manager, Ben Judell, in 1939. PRC's first release was the timely Beasts of Berlin (1939), one of the first dramatic films to deal with Hitler's Germany. PRC profited even more when it later reissued the film to capitalize on the stardom of its male second lead, Alan Ladd (1913–1964). The company produced westerns, mysteries, horror films, and even some musicals and costume films. Sam Newfield (1899–1964) directed so many films for PRC—more than fifty over the course of seven years—that he used several pseudonyms in addition to his own name. Films made by Monogram, Republic, and PRC were made in only a week or two, usually for less than $100,000—sometimes considerably less.

Finally, there were those ragtag companies that existed on the fringes of the motion picture industry making Poverty Row quickies. If films from Monogram and PRC often looked threadbare, Poverty Row quickies were the bottom of the barrel. Generally made for under $25,000 and in less than a week, movies made by companies like Empire, Peerless, Puritan, and Victory were poorly shot and often verged on incoherence.

Whether they were programmers, studio Bs, small company Bs, or Poverty Row quickies, the Bs provided a training ground for many. Leigh Brackett (1915–1978) and Carl Foreman (1914–1984) were among the screenwriters who wrote for formula pictures before going on to craft screenplays for The Big Sleep (1946), High Noon (1952), and other classics. Directors such as Edward Dmytryk, Robert Wise, Anthony Mann, and Fred Zinnemann cut their teeth on Bs before graduating to Hollywood's A-list. Young performers who honed their craft in B movies and emerged as major stars include Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth, John Wayne, Anthony Quinn, Ava Gardner, Jane Wyman, and Susan Hayward, to name just a few. B movies also provided a haven for actors who no longer commanded the public's fancy. Once-popular performers such as Neil Hamilton, Clara Kimball Young, Harry Langdon, Kay Francis, and Erich von Stroheim found themselves toiling in B movies long after their popularity had faded.

While most in the movie business may have aspired to work on A films, many specialized in Bs. Some directors, such as Robert Florey, Joseph H. Lewis, Joseph Kane, Phil Karlson, Arthur Lubin, Edgar G. Ulmer, and William Witney could be counted on to turn out minimally competent—and at times quite extraordinary—work on a budget. Others like William ("One Shot") Beaudine, Reginald Le Borg, Sam Newfield, Phil Rosen, and Jean Yarbrough were undeniably prolific but more workmanlike—if not downright uninspired. Producers like Sam Katzman made a career in Bs, starting by opening a short-lived outfit called Victory Pictures, and later churning out movies for Monogram and Columbia. A number of stars established and maintained their fame in the Bs, including cowboy stars like Tim McCoy, Bob Steele, Charles Starrett, Johnny Mack Brown, Allan "Rocky" Lane, Bill Elliott, and Lash LaRue, not to mention their sidekicks such as George "Gabby" Hayes, Al "Fuzzy" St. John, and Smiley Burnette.



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