B Movies


It took some time for the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression to have an effect on the motion picture business in the United States, but when the economic tailspin hit, it hit hard. Between 1930 and 1933 attendance dropped by almost one-third, forcing exhibitors to scramble to hang onto as many ticket buyers as possible. Price cuts and gimmicks like "dish night" created a sense of value and brought some moviegoers back to the box office. Theaters in parsimonious New England began offering moviegoers two movies for the price of one—double features. The practice proved popular and spread across the country. While most first-run theaters, largely controlled by the major studios, continued to show just a single feature, the majority of US theaters were subsequent-run houses. Audiences at second run theaters in big cities, at neighborhood theaters, and in small towns came to expect a full program of entertainment—cartoons, shorts, newsreels, and two full features. This expectation left exhibitors in a difficult position. Running two top-flight films was not only time consuming, as the features tended to run 90 minutes or more, it was costly. "A movies" were rented to exhibitors on a percentage basis with the favorable terms going to the distributor, which would take 60, 70, or 80 percent of the box office, leaving the exhibitor with the short-end money. Theaters turned to low-budget films from so-called Poverty Row companies that rented their films for a modest flat fee.

Initially, many bookers looked to low-end outfits like Chesterfield, Invincible, Mascot, and Tiffany to fill out the lower half, or "B position," on a double bill. Low-budget films and the companies that made them had a minor niche in Hollywood, usually servicing small-town theaters and marginal venues in larger cities, which could not afford to compete for films made by the majors. Exhibitors in some rural areas found that their audiences preferred the straightforward plots and black-and-white morality of low-budget films over the slick sophistication of movies made by Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). But continued demand for double features eventually led all the majors to produce

Edgar G. Ulmer's The Man from Planet X (1951) was shot in six days.
B movies. Most created specialized units for the task, such as the one headed by Brian Foy (1896–1977) at Warner Bros. in the 1930s or the Pine-Thomas unit at Paramount in the 1940s. B units also permitted the majors to keep their workforce active, and even though the profits from the flat rental of Bs were small, they were consistent and reliable. The film historian and archivist Brian Taves has developed a taxonomy of B movies that includes: major-studio programmers, major studio Bs, smaller company Bs, and Poverty Row quickies. Given such a wide range of B product, it is impossible to characterize B movies without considering who was making them.

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