"TITTER YE NOT"
After a venerable career of endless, stellar successes the greatest director who ever lived is in his prime and preparing for his most ambitious project ever when he unexpectedly dies and is called home to heaven.
St. Peter meets him at the gate. “So sorry about your untimely death,” he tells the director. “But God himself has called you home." You see, God wants you to direct a movie for Him.
The great man is humbled, “God wants ME to direct a film?” “Yes,” St. Peter tells him. “And we’ve arranged to have the best of everything made available to you. For example, the script is by William Shakespeare.” The director is stunned, “An original screenplay by William Shakespeare?” “Yes,” St. Peter assures him, “And it’s his greatest work ever.”
“Wow!” says the Director, awe struck. “Your Production Designer will be Michaelangelo. We’ve got Leonardo Da Vinci doing the sets, your musical score will be an original work by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and your cast includes a young Laurence Olivier and the greatest actors of all time in supporting roles.”
The Director can’t believe it. “This is incredible,” he says. “This will be the greatest movie ever?” St. Peter kind of shuffles his feet. “Well,” he says, “we do have one tiny little problem.” “Problem?” says the director. “What kind of a problem?” St. Peter puts his arm around the director’s shoulder,
“Ya see,” he whispers, “God’s got this girlfriend…”
A B movie is a low-budget commercial motion picture that is not
an arthouse film. In its original usage, during the Golden Age
intended for distribution as the less-publicised, bottom half of a
double feature. Although the U.S. production of movies
intended as second features largely ceased by the end of the
1950s, the term B movie continued to be used in the broader
sense it maintains today. In its post – Golden Age usage, there
is ambiguity on both sides of the definition:
on the one hand, the
primary interest of many inexpensive exploitation films is
prurient ; on the other hand, many B movies display a high
degree of craft and aesthetic ingenuity.
In either usage, most B movies represent a particular genre
—the Western was a Golden Age B movie staple, while low-
budget science-fiction and horror films became more popular in
the 1950s. Early B movies were often part of series in which
the star repeatedly played the same character. Almost always
shorter than the top-billed films they were paired with, many
had running times of 70 minutes or less. The term connoted a
general perception that B movies were inferior to the more
handsomely budgeted head-liners; individual B films were often
lgnored by critics.
Latter-day B movies still sometimes inspire multiple sequels,
but series are less common. As the average running time of top-
of-the-line films increased, so did that of B movies. In its
current usage, the term has somewhat contradictory
it may signal an opinion that a certain movie is (a)
a genre film with minimal artistic ambitions or (b) a lively,
energetic film uninhibited by the constraints imposed on more
expensive projects and unburdened by the conventions of
putatively "serious" independent film. The term is also now used loosely to refer to some
higher-budgeted, mainstream films with exploitation-style content, usually in genres traditionally associated with the B movie.
From their beginnings to the present day, B movies have provided opportunities both for those coming up in the profession and others whose careers are waning. Celebrated filmmakers such as Anthony Mann and Jonathan Demme learned their craft in B movies. They are where actors such as John Wayne and Jack Nicholson first became established, and they have provided work for former A movie actors, such as Vincent Price and Karen Black. Some actors, such as Béla Lugosi, Eddie Constantine and Pam Grier, worked in B movies for most of their careers. The term B actor is sometimes used to refer to a performer who finds work primarily or exclusively in B movies.
In 1927–28, at the end of the silent era, the production cost of an average feature from a major Hollywood studio ranged from $190,000 at Fox to $275,000 at MGM. That average reflected both "specials" that might cost as much as $1 million and films made quickly for around $50,000. These cheaper films (not yet called B movies) allowed the studios to derive maximum value from facilities and contracted staff in between a studio's more important productions, while also breaking in new personnel. Studios in the minor leagues of the industry, such as Columbia Pictures and Film Booking Offices of America
( FBO ), focused on exactly those sort of cheap productions. Their movies, with relatively short running times, targeted theaters that had to economise on rental and operating costs, particularly small-town and urban neighbourhood venues, or "nabes". Even smaller production houses, known as Poverty Row studios , made films whose costs might run as low as $3,000, seeking a profit through whatever bookings they could pick up in the gaps left by the larger concerns.
With the widespread arrival of sound film in American theatres in 1929, many independent exhibitors began dropping the then-dominant presentation model, which involved live acts and a broad variety of shorts
before a single featured film. A new programming scheme developed that would soon become standard practice:
a newsreel , a short and/or a serial, and a cartoon, followed by a double feature. The second feature, which actually screened before the main event, cost the exhibitor less per minute than the equivalent running time in shorts. The majors' "clearance" rules favouring their affiliated theatres prevented the independents' timely access to top-quality films; the second feature allowed them to promote quantity instead. The additional movie also gave the program "balance"—the practice of pairing different sorts of features suggested to potential customers that they could count on something of interest no matter what specifically was on the bill. The low-budget picture of the 1920s the second feature Age.
Poverty Row studios , from modest outfits like Mascot Pictures, Tiffany Pictures, and Sono Art-World Wide Pictures down to shoestring operations, made exclusively movies, serials, and other shorts, and also distributed totally independent productions and imported films. In no position to directly block book, they mostly sold regional distribution exclusivity to "states rights" firms, which in turn peddled blocks of movies to exhibitors, typically six or more pictures featuring the same star (a relative status on Poverty Row).
Two "major-minors"—Universal Studios and rising Columbia Pictures—had production lines roughly similar to, though somewhat better endowed than, the top Poverty Row studios. In contrast to the Big Five majors, Universal and Columbia had few or no theatres, though they did have top-rank film distribution exchanges.
In the standard Golden Age model, the industry's top product, the A films, premiered at a small number of select first-run houses in major cities. Double features were not the rule at these prestigious venues. As described historian
Edward Jay Epstein, "During these first runs, films got their reviews, garnered publicity, and generated the word of mouth that served as the principal form of advertising." Then it was off to the subsequent-run market where the double feature prevailed. At the larger local venues controlled by the majors, movies might turn over on a weekly basis. At the thousands of smaller, independent theatres, programs often changed two or three times
a week. To meet the constant demand for new B product, the low end of Poverty Row turned out a stream of micro-budget movies rarely much more than sixty minutes were known as "quickies" for their tight production schedules—as short as four days. As Brian Taves describes, "Many of the poorest theatres, such as the 'grind houses' in the larger cities, screened a continuous program emphasising action with no specific schedule, sometimes offering six quickies for a nickel in an all-night show that changed daily." Many small theatres never saw a big-studio A film, getting their movies from the states rights concerns that handled almost exclusively Poverty Row product. Millions of Americans went to their local theatres as a matter of course:
for an A picture, along with the trailers, or screen previews, that presaged its arrival, "the new film's title on the marquee and the listings for it in the local newspaper constituted all the advertising most movies got", writes Epstein. Aside from at the theatre itself, B films might not be advertised at all.
The introduction of sound had driven costs higher:
by 1930, the average U.S. feature film cost $375,000 to produce. A broad range of motion pictures occupied the B category. The leading studios made not only clear-cut A and B films, but also movies classifiable as "programmers" (also known as "in-betweeners" or "intermediates"). As Taves describes, "Depending on the prestige of the theatre and the other material on the double bill, a programmer could show up at the top or bottom of the marquee." On Poverty Row, many Bs were made on budgets that would have barely covered petty cash on a major's A film, with costs at the bottom of the industry running as low as $5,000. By the mid-1930s, the double feature was the dominant U.S. exhibition model, and the majors responded. In 1935, B movie production at Warner Bros. was raised from 12 to 50 percent of studio output. The unit was headed by Bryan Foy, known as the "Keeper of the Bs." At Fox, which also shifted half of its production line into B territory, Sol M. Wurtzel was similarly in charge of more than twenty movies a year during the late 1930s.
A number of the top Poverty Row firms consolidated:
Sono Art joined another company to create Monogram Pictures early in the decade. In 1935, Monogram, Mascot, and several smaller studios merged to establish Republic Pictures . The former heads of Monogram soon sold off their Republic shares and set up a new Monogram production house. Into the 1950s, most Republic and Monogram product was roughly on par with the low end of the majors' output. Less sturdy Poverty Row concerns—with a penchant for grand sobriquets like Conquest, Empire, Imperial, and Peerless—continued to churn out dirt-cheap quickies. Joel Finler has analyzed the average length of feature releases in 1938, indicating the studios' relative emphasis on B production. United Artists produced little, focusing on the distribution of prestigious films from independent outfits;
Grand National, active 1936–40, occupied an analogous niche on Poverty Row, releasing mostly independent productions.
The Western was by far the predominant B genre in both the 1930s and, to a lesser degree, the 1940s. Film historian Jon Tuska has argued that "the 'B' product of the Thirties—the Universal films with Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, and Buck Jones, the Columbia features with Buck Jones and Tim McCoy, the RKO George O'Brien series, the Republic Westerns with John Wayne and the Three Mesquiteers ... achieved a uniquely American perfection of the well-made story." At the far end of the industry, Poverty Row's Ajax put out oaters starring Harry Carey, then in his fifties. The Weiss outfit had the Range Rider series, the American Rough Rider series, and the Morton of the Mounted "northwest action thrillers." One low-budget oater
of the era, made totally outside the studio system, profited from an outrageous concept:
a Western with an all-midget cast, The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) was such a success in its independent bookings that Columbia picked it up for distribution.
Series of various genres, featuring recurrent, title-worthy characters or name actors in familiar roles, were particularly popular during the first decade of sound film. Fox's many B series, for instance, included Charlie Chan mysteries, Ritz Brothers
comedies, and musicals with child star Jane Withers . These series films are not to be confused with the short, cliffhanger-structured serials that sometimes appeared on the same program. As with serials, however, many series were intended to attract young people—a theater that twin-billed part-time might run a "balanced" or entirely youth-oriented double feature as a matinee and then a single film for a more mature audience at night. In the words of one industry report, afternoon moviegoers, "composed largely of housewives and children, want quantity for their money while the evening crowds want 'something good and not too much of it." Series films are often unquestioningly consigned to the B movie category, but even here there is ambiguity:
at MGM, for example, popular series like the Andy Hardy chronicles had leading stars and budgets that would have been A-level at some of the lesser majors. For many series, even a lesser major's standard B budget was
far out of reach:
Poverty Row's Consolidated Pictures featured Tarzan, the Police Dog in a series with the proud name of Melodramatic Dog Features.
By 1940, the average production cost of an American feature was $400,000, a negligible increase over ten years. A number of small Hollywood companies had folded around the turn of the decade, including the ambitious Grand National, but a new firm, Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), emerged as third in the Poverty Row hierarchy behind Republic and Monogram. The double feature, never universal, was still the prevailing exhibition model:
in 1941, 50 percent of theatres
were double-billing exclusively, and others employed the policy part-time. In the early 1940s, legal pressure forced the studios to replace seasonal block booking with packages generally limited to five pictures. Restrictions were also placed on the majors' ability to enforce blind bidding. These were crucial factors in the progressive shift by most of the Big Five over to A-film production, making the smaller studios even more important as B movie suppliers. Genre pictures made at very low cost remained the backbone of Poverty Row, with even Republic's and Monogram's budgets rarely climbing over $200,000. Many smaller Poverty Row firms folded as the eight majors, with their proprietary distribution exchanges, now commanded about 95 percent of U.S. and Canadian box office receipts. In 1946, independent producer David O. Selznick brought his bloated-budget spectacle Duel in the Sun to market with heavy nationwide promotion and wide release. The distribution strategy was a major success, despite what was widely perceived as the movie's poor quality. The Duel release anticipated practices that fueled the B movie industry in the late 1950s; when the top Hollywood studios made them standard two decades after that, the B movie would be hard hit.
Considerations beside cost made the line between A and B movies
ambiguous. Films shot on B-level budgets were occasionally marketed as A
pictures or emerged as sleeper hits:
One of 1943's biggest films was Hitler's
Children , an RKO thriller made for a fraction over $200,000. It earned more
than $3 million in rentals, industry language for a distributor's share of gross
box office receipts. Particularly in the realm of film noir, A pictures sometimes
echoed visual styles generally associated with cheaper films. Programmers,
with their flexible exhibition role, were ambiguous by definition. As late as
1948, the double feature remained a popular exhibition mode—it was
standard policy at 25 percent of theatres and used part-time at an additional
36 percent. The leading Poverty Row firms began to broaden their
In 1947, Monogram established a subsidiary, Allied Artists, to develop
and distribute relatively expensive films, mostly from independent producers.
Around the same time, Republic launched a similar effort under the
"Premiere" rubric. In 1947 as well, PRC was subsumed by Eagle-Lion, a
British company seeking entry to the American market. Warners' former
Keeper of the Bs, Brian Foy, was installed as production chief.
In the 1940s, RKO stood out among the industry's Big Five for its focus on B
pictures. From a latter-day perspective, the most famous of the major studios'
Golden Age B units is Val Lewton's horror unit at RKO. Lewton produced
such moody, mysterious films as Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie
(1943), and The Body Snatcher(1945), directed by Jacques Tourneur, Robert
Wise, and others who would become renowned only later in their careers or
entirely in retrospect. The movie now widely described as the first classic film
noir—Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), a 64-minute B—was produced at
RKO, which would release many additional melodramatic thrillers in a
similarly stylish vein. The other major studios also turned out a considerable
number of movies now identified as noir during the 1940s. Though many of
the best-known film noirs were A-level productions, most 1940s pictures in the mode were either of the ambiguous programmer type or destined straight for the bottom of the bill. In the decades since, these cheap entertainments, generally dismissed at the time, have become some of the most treasured products of Hollywood's Golden Age.
In one sample year, 1947, RKO produced along with several noir programmers and A pictures, two straight B
Desperate and The Devil Thumbs a Ride. Ten B noirs that year came from Poverty Row's big three—Republic, Monogram, and PRC/Eagle-Lion—and one came from tiny Screen Guild. Three majors beside RKO contributed a total of
five more. Along with these eighteen unambiguous B noirs, an additional dozen or so noir programmers came out of Hollywood. Still, most of the majors' low-budget production remained the sort now largely ignored. RKO's representative output included the Mexican Spitfire and Lum and Abner comedy series, thrillers featuring the Saint and the Falcon, Westerns starring Tim Holt, and Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller. Jean Hersholt played Dr. Christian in six films between 1939 and 1941. The Courageous Dr. Christian (1940) was a standard entry:
"In the course of an hour or so of screen time, the saintly physician managed to cure an epidemic of spinal meningitis, demonstrate benevolence towards the disenfranchised, set an example for wayward youth, and calm the passions of an amorous old maid."
Down in Poverty Row, low budgets led to less palliative fare. Republic aspired
to major-league respectability while making many cheap and modestly
budgeted Westerns, but there was not much from the bigger studios that
compared with Monogram "exploitation pictures" like juvenile delinquency
exposé Where Are Your Children? (1943) and the prison film Women in
Bondage (1943). In 1947, PRC's The Devil on Wheels brought together
teenagers, hot rods, and death. The little studio had its own house
with his own crew and relatively free rein, director Edgar G. Ulmer
was known as "the Capra of PRC". Ulmer made films of every generic
His Girls in Chains was released in May 1943, six months before
Women in Bondage; by the end of the year, Ulmer had also made the teen-
themed musical Jive Junction as well as Isle of Forgotten Sins, a South Seas
adventure set around a brothel.
In 1948, a Supreme Court ruling in a federal antitrust suit against the majors
outlawed block booking and led to the Big Five divesting their theatre chains.
With audiences draining away to television and studios scaling back
production schedules, the classic double feature vanished from many
American theaters during the 1950s. The major studios promoted the benefits
of recycling, offering former headlining movies as second features in the
place of traditional B films. With television airing many classic Westerns as
well as producing its own original Western series, the cinematic market for B
movies in particular was drying up. After barely inching forward in the 1930s,
the average U.S. feature production cost had essentially doubled over the
1940s, reaching $1 million by the turn of the decade—a 93 percent rise after
adjusting for inflation.
The first prominent victim of the changing market was Eagle-Lion, which
released its last films in 1951. By 1953, the old Monogram brand had
disappeared, the company having adopted the identity of its higher-end
subsidiary, Allied Artists. The following year, Allied released Hollywood's last B series Westerns. Non-series B Westerns continued to appear for a few more years, but Republic Pictures, long associated with cheap sagebrush sagas, was out of the film making business by decade's end. In other genres, Universal kept its Ma and Pa Kettle series going through 1957, while Allied Artists stuck with the Bowery Boys until 1958. RKO, weakened by years of mismanagement, exited the movie industry in 1957. Hollywood's A product was getting longer—the top ten box-office releases of 1940 had averaged 112.5 minutes; the average length of 1955's top ten was 123.4. In their modest way, the Bs were following suit. The age of the hour-long feature film was past; 70 minutes was now roughly the minimum. While the Golden Age–style second feature was dying, B movie was still used to refer to any low-budget genre film featuring relatively unheralded performers (sometimes referred to as B actors). The term retained its earlier suggestion that such movies relied on formulaic plots, "stock" character types, and simplistic action or unsophisticated comedy. At the same time, the realm of the B movie was becoming increasingly fertile territory for experimentation, both serious and outlandish.
Ida Lupino , well known as an actress, established herself as Hollywood's sole female director of the era. In short, low-budget pictures made for her production company, The Filmmakers, Lupino explored virtually taboo subjects such as rape in 1950's Outrage and 1953's self-explanatory The Bigamist. Her most famous directorial effort, The Hitch-Hiker, a 1953 RKO release, is the only example of film noir's classic period directed by a woman. That year, RKO put
out another historically notable film made at low cost:
Split Second, which concludes in a nuclear test range, is perhaps the first "atomic noir". The most famous such movie, the independently produced Kiss Me Deadly (1955), typifies the persistently murky middle ground between the A and B picture, as Richard Maltby describes:
a "programmer capable of occupying either half of a neighbourhood theatre's double-bill, it was budgeted at approximately $400,000.
Its distributor, United Artists, released around twenty five programmers with
production budgets between $100,000 and $400,000 in1955." The film's length, 106 minutes, is A level, but its star, Ralph Meeker , had previously appeared in only one major film. Its source is pure pulp, one of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels, but Robert Aldrich's direction is self consciously aestheticized. The result is a brutal genre picture that also evokes contemporary anxieties
about what was often spoken of simply as the Bomb. The fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, along with less expressible qualms about radioactive fallout from America's own atomic tests, energised many of the era's genre films. Science fiction, horror, and various hybrids of the two were now of central economic importance to the low-budget end of the business.
It's easy. Most down-market films of the type—like many of those produced by William Alland at Universal (e.g., Creature from the Black Lagoon 1954) and Sam Katzman at Columbia (e.g., It Came from Beneath the Sea 1955 )—provided little more than thrills, though their special effects could be impressive. But these were genres whose fantastic nature could also be used as cover for mordant cultural observations often difficult to make in main stream movies. Director Don Siegel's
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), released by Allied Artists, treats conformist pressures and the evil of banality in haunting, allegorical fashion. The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), directed by Bert I. Gordon , is both a monster movie that happens to depict the horrific effects of radiation exposure and "a ferocious cold-war fable that spins Korea, the army's obsessive secrecy, and America's post-war growth into one fantastic whole."
The Amazing Colossal Man was released by a new company whose name was much bigger than its budgets. American
International Pictures (AIP), founded in 1956 by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff in a reorganisation of their American Releasing Corporation (ARC), soon became the leading U.S. studio devoted entirely to B-cost productions. American International helped keep the original-release double bill alive through paired packages of its films:
these movies were low-budget, but instead of a flat rate, they were rented out on a percentage basis, like A films. The success of I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) thus brought AIP a large return—made for about $100,000, it grossed more than $2 million. As the film's title suggests, the studio relied on both fantastic genre subjects and new, teen oriented angles. When Hot Rod Gang
(1958) turned a profit, hot rod horror was given a try:
Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959). David Cook credits AIP with leading the way "in demographic exploitation, target marketing, and saturation booking, all of which would become standard procedure for the majors in planning and releasing their mass-market 'event' films" by the late 1970s. In terms of content, the majors were already there, with "J.D." movies such as Warner Bros.' Untamed Youth (1957) and MGM's High School Confidential (1958), both starring Mamie Van Doren .
In 1954, a young filmmaker named Roger Corman received his first screen credits as writer and associate producer of Allied Artists' Highway Dragnet. Corman soon independently produced his first movie, Monster from the Ocean Floor, on a $12,000 budget and a six-day shooting schedule. Among the six films he worked on in 1955, Corman produced and directed the first official ARC release, Apache Woman, and the Day the World Ended, half of Ark off and Nicholson's first twin-bill package. Corman would go on to direct over fifty feature films through 1990. As of 2007, he remained active as a producer, with more than 350 movies to his credit. Often referred to as the "King of the Bs", Corman has said that "to my way of thinking, I never made a 'B' movie in my life", as the traditional B movie was dying out when he began making pictures. He prefers to describe his me tier as "low-budget exploitation films". In later years Corman, both with AIP and as head of his own companies, would help launch the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Robert Towne, and Robert De Niro, among many others.
B MOVIE SONG NOWHERE GIRL
In the late 1950s, William Castle became known as the great innovator of the B
movie publicity gimmick. Audiences of Macabre (1958), an $86,000 production distributed by Allied Artists, were invited to take out insurance policies to cover potential death from fright. The 1959 creature feature The Tingler featured Castle's most famous gimmick, Percepto:
at the film's climax, buzzers attached to selected theater seats would unexpectedly rattle a few audience members, prompting either appropriate screams or even more appropriate laughter. With such films, Castle "combined the saturation advertising campaign perfected by Columbia and Universal in their Sam Katzman and William Alland packages with centralized and standardized publicity stunts and gimmicks that had previously been the purview of the local exhibitor."
The post-war drive-in theatre boom was vital to the expanding independent B movie industry. In January 1945, there were 96 drive ins in the United States; a decade later, there were more than 3,700.
Unpretentious pictures with simple, familiar plots and reliable shock effects were ideally suited for auto-based film viewing, with all its attendant distractions. The phenomenon of the drive-in movie became one of the defining symbols of American popular culture in the 1950s. At the same time, many local television stations began showing B genre films in late-night slots, popularising the notion of the midnight movie.
Increasingly, American-made genre films were joined by foreign
movies acquired at low cost and, where necessary, dubbed for the
U.S. market. In 1956, distributor Joseph E. Levine financed the
shooting of new footage with American actor Raymond Burr that was
edited into the Japanese sci-fi horror film Godzilla . The British
Hammer Film Productions made the successful The Curse of
Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), major influences on future
horror film style. In 1959, Levine's Embassy Pictures bought the
worldwide rights to Hercules, a cheaply made Italian movie starring
American-born bodybuilder Steve Reeves. On top of a $125,000
purchase price, Levine then spent $1.5 million on advertising and
publicity, a virtually unprecedented amount. The New York Times was
non plussed, claiming that the movie would have drawn "little more
than yawns in the film market ... had it not been [launched] through
out the country with a deafening barrage of publicity." Levine counted
on first-weekend box office for his profits, booking the film "into as
many cinemas as he could for a week's run, then withdrawing it before poor word-of-mouth withdrew it for him." Hercules opened at a remarkable 600 theatres, and the strategy was a smashing success:
the film earned $4.7 million in domestic rentals. Just as valuable to the bottom line, it was even more successful overseas. Within a few decades,
Hollywood would be dominated by both movies and an exploitation philosophy very like Levine's.