The B Film: Hollywood's Other Half
8Defining the B Film
The B Film: Hollywood's Other Half
The Organization of B Product
The Style of the B Film
Beyond the industrial structures and the typical glossy Hollywood cinema described elsewhere in this volume, there is another entire category of American fictional feature films created and shown under different conditions. These are the B movies, also called "quickies," "cheapies," "low-budget," or simply "budget films," even "C" or "Z" films. Such terms imply pictures that were regarded as secondary even in their own time, and the "B" label has often been used to imply minor pictures or simply poor filmmaking, anything tacky or produced on a low budget.1 However, B films occupied an equally important role in Hollywood; to concentrate upon the A would emphasize the art of a few films and elide the basis of production, the underlying commercial and artistic means by which the industry survived—as well as the vast quantity and range of films offered to spectators during the studio era.
The content, production, exhibition, and profit from A films were not typical of the material that made motion pictures a continuously viable business enterprise. With each studio releasing, on average, one feature every week of the year, big-budget films were the exception, a distinct minority of the motion pictures produced. B's filled out production schedules and encompassed approximately half the product of the vertically integrated majors. In addition, beyond the Big Eight, about three hundred films annually were made by smaller concerns, collectively known as "indies" or "B studios," geographically centered in Hollywood along "Poverty Row." Hence, roughly 75 percent of the pictures made during the 1930s, well over four thousand films, fall under the Â rubric.2 The sheer number of B films indicates their importance in fully understanding the 1930s; never before or since has low-budget filmmaking been so integral to the Hollywood industry.
With their prolific numbers, the enormous base of B filmmaking, not the occasional A's, fueled the engines of production, distribution, and exhibition, allowing all three to function steadily and smoothly. By facilitating the industrial basis of filmmaking, B's permitted each studio and its myriad personnel to remain active year-round. Turning out some fifty pictures annually allowed the studios to balance a large overhead by using sets, stages, ranches, and contract talent on a nearly continual basis.3 B's fulfilled a similar function for audiences and exhibitors, providing a sufficiently steady quantity of new material to alter theater programs twice a week or more, constantly tempting patrons by continuously changing offerings. The following pages analyze the basic characteristics of the B, provide an organizational structure for the analysis of its production and distribution, indicate the career patterns of B filmmakers, and discuss the stylistic traits of their movies. Finally, the focus shifts to one unique offshoot of B filmmaking, movies for ethnic audiences, especially African-Americans.
First, some clarifications and basic parameters are in order. During the 1930s, the B label was equivalent to the term low-budget; both implied films made on limited resources and aimed at filling double bills. (However, B and Poverty Row are not synonymous, as discussed in the next section.) Otherwise, B's have been defined primarily on the basis of their difference from A's rather than by what B films share in common. A's were made on budgets averaging $350,000 or more, with stars who appealed to a wide cross section of patrons.4 Such films were intended to play the top half of a double bill, with a running time of seven reels or longer, and were produced on shooting schedules that allowed time for rehearsals and retakes. Among the A's would be a few prestige films, or "specials," with an extra investment of time, money, and star power, in anticipation of awards and major box-office success at first-run theaters.
B's, by contrast, had their own basic prerequisites. First, they were to fill the bottom half of a double bill. Second, B's had leads with moderate, questionable, or unknown box-office appeal, such as second-string cowboy stars. Third, budgets and shooting schedules were more limited, and B's were usually made in three weeks or as little as one week.5 Fourth, the running time ordinarily ranged from fifty-five to seventy minutes. Averaging six reels, some B's could be as short as five reels or less; a few Poverty Row films, including some of John Wayne's "Lone Star" Westerns of 1934-1935, ran only about forty-five minutes. Yet, no single aspect of the B is a definitive guide to A or B status, and there are no clear lines of demarcation. For instance, to define a B by running time is deceptive because of the different pacing among the studios; a Warners A might run no longer than a more leisurely Paramount B.
A's and B's were rented to exhibitors on different bases. With much of the studio's anticipated profit margin and leadership depending on A's and prestige films, access was on a percentage basis. Consequently, their eventual profit was difficult to gauge in advance, and hopes for a blockbuster might not materialize. Nor could theater owners afford the simultaneous rental of more than one "big" picture, necessitating that it be paired with a smaller, less expensive movie. B's usually earned only a single prearranged flat fee, or at best a smaller percentage. Their relative success or failure and the potential for a small windfall from an unexpectedly popular B were up to the ingenuity of the exhibitor's publicity expertise and the practicality of the campaigns outlined in pressbooks. However, in contrast to the unpredictability of the A, the expected grosses to the studio from a B could be more reliably determined in advance because of the flat fee. The budgets could be kept low enough to invariably show a profit, and even when B's had proved successful, they remained a stable commodity, with higher budgets always going into A's. Consequently, B's almost never lost money for producers, large or small, whether a major with its own exhibition outlets or a small company catering to independent exhibitors. If the season's A product proved weak or failed to achieve the expected success, a studio could rely on the profits of its B's to stay in the black. For instance, during the late 1930s, the reliable gloss and entertainment value of Paramount's B's helped the company remain viable at a time when its A's were of highly variable quality, often inferior to their B's.6
The budget, script, and performers often indicated in advance which pictures were intended to be B's, but the product of B units was not necessarily an accurate guide to the status a film achieved when placed in distribution and exhibition. A few B's turned out better than A movies and achieved unexpected critical and popular success; such films were boosted to A status and won a place at the top of the bill. Typical among these was a mixture of the sports and newspaper genres, The Payoff (Warner Bros., 1935); the medical drama A Man to Remember (RKO, 1938), which marked Garson Kanin's directorial debut; and Columbia's remake of The Criminal Code (1931) entitled Penitentiary; and the studio's nearly all-female melodrama Girls' School (both 1938). Fortuitous circumstances could also boost a picture: when a Flash Gordon serial was cut into a feature version entitled Mars Attacks the World (Universal, 1938), it was fortunate to open shortly after the infamous Orson Welles radio broadcast of another fictional Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds. Even low-budget films could prove steady money-makers, including jungle pictures like the feature and serial Tarzan the Fearless (1933), starring Buster Crabbe, or even a pure exploitation movie like the Jed Buell midget Western The Terror of Tiny Town (1938), which became such a hit that it was picked up for distribution by Columbia. Other factors impinged on the status of A and B films. Sometimes players, such as Fred MacMurray and Mickey Rooney in the mid 1930s, rose so fast in audience favor that their recent, often B pictures were carried up with them, such as two Rooney vehicles for Monogram, The Healer/Little Pal (1935) and The Hoosier Schoolboy (1937). Nor were all of the films which today seem to be B's actually regarded as such in their own time. Many B series became their own stars, as with one of Fox's biggest attractions, the Charlie Chan series.
Similarly, many big-budget films intended for the top half of a double bill turned out so badly they could barely pass muster at the bottom. Adverse reaction, whether poor reviews or an initial weak performance at previews or the box office, could quickly cause an A to fall in regard and ultimately receive distribution as if it were a B. Hotel Imperial (Paramount, 1939) provides an example; it was the result of three years of on-again, off-again production, attempting to turn out a "special," first with Marlene Dietrich, then Margaret Sullavan, under the guidance of Ernst Lubitsch, Henry Hathaway, and Lewis Milestone. To avoid further costly entanglements, Hotel Imperial was eventually assigned to Robert Florey, because of his reputation for turning out quality films on time and within the budget. While still an A, shot on a two-month schedule, it was completed in more modest, eight-reel form, with the Italian lead Isa Miranda imported in an attempt to create a new star, playing opposite Ray Milland. The picture was a commercial and critical failure domestically and usually exhibited as a B. Nonetheless, Hotel Imperial became a top Paramount offering overseas, where Miranda's name had star caliber, and the film's self-consciously artistic, expressionistic style was admired.
Low-budget filmmaking had long been a significant part of Hollywood production, but demand vastly increased with the rise of double bills. While theaters promised two films for the price of one, audiences actually received approximately one and a half times the entertainment for their money. The double bill usually paired an A and an inexpensive B, or two medium-budget "in-between" pictures, or even two B's. By 1935, with double billing standard practice throughout the nation, all the majors had opened B units, emphasizing a prolific schedule to fill the exhibitor demand cheaply, deliberately designing low-cost films for the second half of double bills.
However, beyond the prerequisites noted in the preceding section, conceptions of the B movie varied widely. Even among the majors, the budgets for B pictures often diverged by $100,000 or more. There is no budget or production schedule typical of all B's because of the wide variations among the different companies—a fact complicated by the changing ways of computing overhead under various management regimes. For instance, in the early 1930s, most Warner movies were shot in about three weeks for much less than $200,000, yet this hardly reduced them all to the B category. Furthermore, the same schedule and budget that resulted in a high-quality B at Paramount or MGM might approximate the investment for an A at Columbia or Universal.7
While the B label had one meaning to the eight principal studios, definitions varied even more between the majors and smaller studios. Factoring in quickies and other disparate types of B within the overall field of low-budget films reveals that it has several separate levels. To clarify these distinctions, a practical, multilevel taxonomy for the B film is offered below, where the B film is broken down into four categories, listed in order of prestige: (1) major-studio "programmers," (2) major-studio B's, (3) smaller-company B's, and (4) the quickies of Poverty Row.
(1) The first category, programmers, includes movies produced by the majors and occasionally such lesser companies as Tiffany that share characteristics of both A's and B's. Properly, programmers have a status of their own, but since they are seldom discussed separately and are usually lumped together with B's rather than A's, an analysis of them is appropriate here.
At the major studios and occasionally in the smaller companies, the stratification tended to be more complex than a simple division between A and B. Not only were there prestige films, A's, and B's, but many lower-level A's occupying an equivocal position, intended as major product but sharing aspects of B's. Whether previously called "shaky A's," "gilt-edged B's," "in-betweeners," or "intermediates," such films straddling the A-B boundary have been best labeled "programmers" by Don Miller in his valuable history B Movies.8 The use of the programmer category eliminates a problem in the discussion of B movies, differentiating between a film made in less than twelve days and one shot in five weeks, or one with a cast of unknowns and one offering cast names that were quite recognizable, if not top-draw marquee value.
Indeed, programmers were actually more common during the first half of the 1930s, before B units became an important factor of production. Programmers had reasonably elaborate sets, with running times between sixty-five and eighty minutes, and could occupy the services of major stars or at least one or two well-paid performers. Depending upon the studio, budgets might range from about $100,000 to $200,000, or even as high as $500,000, but programmers did not attain the aura of prestige associated with the high gloss of the A movie. A programmer might contain minor stars, have a relatively short running time, or be photographed in just a few weeks. For instance, Warner Oland was unlikely to be a headliner in the 1930s outside the Charlie Chan films, but he was the star of the series. Although formula mysteries, running less than eight reels, and shot in under a month on modest budgets, the Chan movies were designed as programmers, but attracted major audiences and box-office grosses on a par with A's.
The term programmer indicates its principal characteristic: its flexibility in playing any part of the program, operating in between A and B and appearing in either category. Depending on the prestige of the theater and the other material on the double bill, a programmer could show up at the top or bottom of the marquee, especially if the show consisted of two programmers or if it were playing a theater's split-week show. Programmers might or might not benefit from a coordinated national advertising and publicity campaign, instead usually receiving wide but scattered attention, but with neither the important press notices of an A nor the indifference and critical disdain typically given a B. Considering the relative expense of programmers, market conditions could make them problematic. They could easily fade into quick obscurity or show a loss unless more often exhibited as A's rather than B's. Yet programmers might also turn out as box-office champions and even become major hits under the right conditions.
Because of programmers' medium budget and ambiguous positioning in exhibition, potential new stars were more likely to be cast in them than in B's. Similarly, while B's were traditionally generic, programmers were more apt to deal with prestigious or unusual topics, indicating the studio's willingness to make a modest investment on a theme with uncertain popularity. Programmers often relied on one of the best aspects of B films, the willingness to try novel style and content, without the attendant drawbacks of meager budgets and brief shooting schedules. For instance, after the success and awards given to The Informer (John Ford, 1935), many critics pointed to it as an example of what could be done with a programmer budget; some even labeled it a B.9
(2) In the second category are the B films from the larger studios, aimed at filling the exhibition needs of their theater chains and lowering overhead by keeping facilities and contract talent constantly busy. B's of the majors were usually made on schedules of two to five weeks, averaging three weeks at studios from Warners to Paramount. Such B's took advantage of the existing lavish facilities and standing sets, often utilizing their roster of top technical talent and character actors. B's at the majors were never hasty or slapdash; the studios' prestige rested on the quality of their B's as well as their A's, with the frequent hope that a B might turn out well enough to be released as an A. Depending on the studio, the budget might go as low as $30,000, for a Western, or as high as $300,000; anything higher was almost certainly a programmer or an A.
The Fox B unit was typical of such operations among the majors. After the merger with Twentieth Century, the unit was headed by Sol M. Wurtzel, who had a $6 million annual budget for twenty-four B's per year, averaging between $150,000 and $200,000 per film.10 Two to three months would be spent on preparation, and three weeks in shooting, with comparatively important directors like Allan Dwan, Mal St. Clair, George Marshall, Alfred L. Werker, or rising talents like H. Bruce ("Lucky") Humberstone and Norman Foster. Fox B's were inclined to be series films, whether mystery, domestic, or comedy, including Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, Sherlock Holmes, Michael Shayne, the Cisco Kid, George O'Brien Westerns, the Gambini sports films, the Roving Reporters, the Camera Daredevils, the Big Town Girls, the hotel for women, the Jones Family, the Jane Withers children's films, Jeeves, or the Ritz Brothers.
The house style was as noticeable in the studio B units as in A's, with substantial product differentiation found among the B's of the various majors. For instance, B units did not preclude Paramount and Fox from bringing high standards and even sophistication to their B's. Specializing in many types of crime films, Paramount enhanced fast pacing and original plots with an artistic treatment, indulging in the elaborate, atmospheric, and European-flavored art direction and cinematography of its A's. On the other hand, Warner Bros., whose A's already reflected the crime formulas and tough realism typical of B's, had a poorer reputation with its purely B product. MGM's B's were widely regarded as little different from its A's, graced with the same sets and stars. A similar statement could be made for Universal, except that in this case the comparison had the reverse effect and was less flattering. While both Universal and Columbia produced A's and B's, much of their A product resembled the programmers or B's of the majors, in productions made quickly and cheaply with stars of questionable magnitude. Columbia had responded to the rising demand for a double-bill product by lowering their quantity of A's and doubling production, all of the growth occurring in the B division on shooting schedules of two weeks or less.11
The B's in categories one and two came from the majors, as well as Universal and Columbia, and these pictures were aimed at a wide array of exhibitors. By contrast, in the lower tiers, categories three and especially four, audiences became steadily more specialized, in proportion to the decreasing corporate size. Smaller than Universal or Columbia, the so-called B studios ranged from Republic on down to the indies. Such firms were generally distinguishable by the absence of exhibition arms, with low-budget product accounting for nearly all their output. Many companies were so small and short-lived that they were quickly absorbed by equally transitory rivals, their product often distributed second- or thirdhand from those who produced it.
The companies in categories three and four are covered by the label Poverty Row, a term almost as problematic as the label B. While appropriately referring to a distinct geographical portion of Hollywood (Gower Gulch), the territory encompasses many studios, and the location of a plant on Poverty Row did not necessarily imply a B studio. Durable, important enterprises like Columbia and Republic had offices there, although the more typical inhabitants included such deceptively named firms as Peerless and Reliable—some of the most underfinanced, transient, and truly poverty-stricken producers in filmmaking. Poverty Row turned out films made for $100,000 to $10,000, and often even less—a broad range of variables that covered even more product differentiation than was found among the major studio B's.
The coming of sound had posed a tremendous challenge for all producers, but especially for Poverty Row. While their silents had been made for $3,000-$4,000, versus $50,000-$60,000 for a modest film from the majors, talkies doubled these budgets. Yet, as with the majors, profits proved sufficient for many low-budget producers to continue or return to business, and small companies like Syndicate, Big Four, and Superior served an important function during this transition period. They not only continued to supply silents to many smaller theaters without the resources to convert to sound, but also took up much of the challenge of adapting sound to outdoor pictures, with their prolific output maintaining the popularity of the B Western during these years.12
Later, the demand for B's to fill double bills and Saturday matinees created a voracious exhibitor need for quantity that was initially more than the majors could handle, leaving an opening for the product of various smaller companies. As a result, these concerns proliferated during the 1934-1936 seasons, until every lot in Hollywood was busy. However, the slack was soon taken up by the majors and Columbia, until there was a glut of B pictures, resulting in a merging of minor studios.13 The B's of the majors came to dominate the market, and smaller companies again had problems finding financing, causing many marginal ones to vanish by 1937. With the secondary concerns dominated by Republic and Monogram, once more the majors preserved their basic hegemony over Holly-wood.
(3) The third category is the B product of secondary studios who still commanded respect within the industry, from Republic, Monogram, Grand National, Mascot, and Tiffany on down to Ambassador-Conn, Chesterfield, Invincible, Liberty, Majestic, Sono Art, Educational, and World Wide. While they did not have the quality or resources of the majors, they were far from the quickies made in a week for a few thousand dollars, a type reserved for the next category.
Although such B companies generally lacked exhibition outlets, some, like Republic and Monogram, could afford exchanges equivalent to the majors in large cities.14 These studios were comparatively stable organizations, with access to capital and their own facilities, turning out films of satisfactory technical quality. Budgets rarely rose above $100,000 and were often substantially less, but such obstacles were overcome, often achieving a quality nearly equal to the B's of the majors in similar genres. For instance, Republic's first Ellery Queen whodunit, The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935), offers probably the most effective location photography of any B thriller during the 1930s, and Chesterfield's Death From a Distance (1936) cleverly uses the Griffith Park Planetarium to evoke a unique mystery atmosphere. Although largely confined to B product, occasionally Tiffany, Mascot, Monogram, Republic, and Grand National rivaled the majors with their own A efforts, including A Study in Scarlet (World Wide, 1933), Laughing at Life (Mascot, 1933), Daniel Boone (Grand National, 1936), Great Guy (Grand National, 1937), and Harmony Lane (Monogram, 1935), easily as credible a Stephen Foster biography as 20th Century-Fox's Swanee River (1939). While the talents on both sides of the camera were rarely of star caliber, they were still known and reputable, not far below those of the majors, with many advancing to the larger studios. The players who starred in B studio films were skilled and often also worked at the majors; examples include Lionel Atwill, Mischa Auer, Sidney Blackmer, Johnny Mack Brown, Harry Davenport, Charlie Grapewin, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Douglass Montgomery, Ralph Morgan, Karen Morley, J. Carrol Naish, and Jean Parker.
The four best-remembered studios in this category, Mascot, Monogram, Republic, and Grand National, were all interrelated in chronological development. The Monogram label emerged in 1931, having evolved from its founding by W. Ray Johnston in 1924 as Rayart Productions, which transformed into Syndicate Film Exchange and Continental Talking Pictures between 1928 and 1930. The studio quickly earned an important place as a leader among the small companies, and affiliated with Pathé in England, each corporation releasing some of the product of the other in its own country. Trem Carr became chief of production in the early 1930s, turning out twenty or more pictures annually, many of them made for as little as $25,000, equivalent to such contemporaries as Chesterfield, Ambassador-Conn, Liberty, and Mascot.15 Priding itself on versatility, by 1934 Monogram enhanced its schedule by offering cheaply made versions of such prestigious literary titles as Jane Eyre, The Moonstone, Oliver Twist, and A Girl of the Limberlost.
Republic (also called "Repulsive") Pictures grew out of Monogram and Mascot, the result of an enormous step toward amalgamating the independent front that occurred in March 1935—a sign of the coming consolidation. Herbert J. Yates, already involved in the business for more than two decades, called in the debts owed to his Consolidated Film Industries laboratories, thereby merging Liberty, Majestic, Chesterfield, Mascot, and Monogram. Yates had planned carefully; Monogram, for instance, would bring its national distribution organization of exchanges to thirty-nine cities. Mascot had been founded in 1926 by Nat Levine and had its own studio, specializing in serials before branching out to features in 1933. Knowing that he needed a merger with Mascot to succeed, Yates offered to help Levine boost his sagging feature schedule, while taking advantage of his leadership in serials. The offer to join forces seemed to promise both quantity and quality; to make full use of its studio and to control distribution, Mascot needed to increase production, but Levine lacked access to the necessary capital.16 Both Levine and Monogram's Trem Carr had experience heading production, and at Republic they took on this responsibility together. Republic thus began not only in a strong financial position but also with some of the best and most experienced independent talent in the business.
Republic quickly realized the potential of higher-grade B Westerns produced on modest budgets. For instance, Gene Autry's first starring vehicle, Tumblin' Tumbleweeds (1935), was made for less than $18,000, and eventually grossed over $1 million; it was helmed by a novice, Joseph Kane, who became Republic's house director. Named for one of Autry's most popular songs, Tumblin' Tumble weeds led the new form of the singing Western to such wide success that Republic soon introduced an equally popular rival, Roy Rogers. The desire for singing cowboys was so great that even John Wayne was dubbed crooning in Westward Ho! (1935), which premiered at the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard—indicating that Republic's Westerns had found an audience beyond the usual small-town and rural theaters. Stars like Wayne and Autry received around $1,000 per picture, and in a few years such Republic series as the Three Mesquiteers were budgeted at around $50,000, with shooting schedules sometimes as short as a single week.17
Within limits, Republic imitated the majors, particularly with action-oriented themes, including a color Zorro swashbuckler The Bold Caballero/The Bold Cavalier (1935), and an adventure film set in India, Storm Over Bengal (1938), following the success of Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Paramount, 1935) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (Warner Bros., 1936). Unlike most of its immediate competitors, and because of its emergence from Consolidated labs, Republic successfully mated low-budget material with a degree of polished Hollywood seamlessness never equaled by the other smaller studios. These technical standards allowed the majors to feel comfortable with Republic's existence in a way they never did with other such companies.18 Republic provided little direct competition until the 1940s, when the studio advanced beyond Westerns, rural comedies, serials, and other escapist fare, in an ultimately failed attempt to expand to major status.
Among those joining Yates in 1935, only Nat Levine had any lasting impact on Republic, through his organization of the studio's prolific serials division.19 After little over a year at Republic, Johnston and Carr withdrew and revived Monogram. The company acquired the services of many proficient personnel associated with various independents, developing an ambitious program of forty pictures annually, all of a high standard for a small studio. While avoiding serials, Monogram became expert in series product, for instance imitating Fox's Charlie Chan series in the form of six Mr. Wong mysteries, based on the Collier's magazine stories by Hugh Wiley. Although in its second incarnation the company never surpassed its previous level or achieved the glamour and prestige to rise above Republic, Monogram remained its closest competitor for fifteen years before transforming into Allied Artists in 1953.
Just as Johnston and Carr had left Republic to reenter independent production, so did Levine. He worked briefly for MGM and then went to the newly created Grand National in the spring of 1936, together with Edward Alperson, Spyros Skouras, George Hirliman, and Al Herman; B. F. Zeidman, Zion Myers, Douglas MacLean, and Max and Arthur Alexander soon joined the roster of producers. Grand National acquired the studio facilities of E. W. Hammons's Educational Pictures, and the exchanges of the now-defunct First Division served as their distribution nucleus. Grand National began with a tremendous coup, securing James Cagney for two pictures in 1937, Great Guy and Something to Sing About. At the time, Cagney was quarreling with Warner Bros. over his contract, but after the two pictures for Grand National, he returned advantageously to his old studio. Grand National, meanwhile, had spent too extravagantly on the Cagney pictures (more than $900,000 on Something to Sing About, directed by Victor Schertzinger) to secure the necessary profit margin, despite their popularity. The company aspired to imitate the majors and produce relatively prestigious pictures, along with the necessary action pictures typical of the B's, such as Tex Ritter Westerns budgeted at $20,000 apiece. Grand National even released some features in a Cinecolor process that was renamed Hirlicolor for the studio boss. The studio never succeeded along the lines of Monogram or Republic; by 1940, swamped in debt, Grand National was liquidated, with Astor Pictures buying the negatives and reissuing many of the films. Astor, often associated with the product of William Steiner, was an independent clearing-house for assorted old and new films that had received minimal release.20
(4) Astor was typical of the concerns that form the fourth category of B films. These are companies who truly deserve and justify the name Poverty Row. With their transitory nature, lack of finance, and limited access to necessary facilities and equipment, they were the domain of the indies making quickies or cheapies that often do not even rank as B's but are instead labeled C or Z pictures. These movies usually received one or two reviews at most in the trades, and often none at all, forming what today might be called an underground economy on the fringes of 1930s Hollywood.
Low-budget fare of one type or another was the sole output of minor indies. These companies concentrated on features, most often Westerns, along with occasional serials and such offbeat products as nature and expedition films and pictures for ethnic audiences. These companies obtained financing, commissioned lab work, and rented studio space as needed, usually by the day, at the RKO Pathé lot in Culver City, the Tec-Art, Prudential, the Talisman Studio on Sunset Boulevard, the General Service Studios on Romain, International Film Corporation's Television Studios, or the Larry Darmour Studios. Shooting schedules ranged from four to eighteen days, but most often were about a week. Sixty to eighty setups had to be averaged daily, often shooting from four in the morning until seven at night or later, and occasionally around the clock. There was no time for a day or two of added shooting; a quickie ran over budget with the brief illness of a leading player or a single afternoon's rain on location. Sudden storms or periods of drought in Southern California caused major difficulties, since favored locations could lose their scenic value or become temporarily impracticable. Yet the makers of such films were ingenious; when a drought hit, an Edward Finney screen version of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking classic The Pioneers was shot in a large garage at Newhall Ranch, opening the back doors to give an illusion of exteriors and adding some stock footage.21
Scriptwriters kept indoor shots to a minimum so that interiors could often be completed on a single day at a rented studio. For instance, one film was shot during a twenty-two-hour stint, completing 196 scenes, on a set rented for $2,500; the remainder of the film was shot using exteriors and only cost an additional $500. The producer quickly profited by selling the completed film to a "states'-rights" organization (see below) for $6,000.22 with locations used whenever possible, Westerns were especially advantageous. To avoid the expense of accommodating a crew, most of the locations were within a fifty-mile radius of Hollywood, allowing cast and crew to return home each night. Consequently, a surprising number of Westerns were intentionally set in the present, with automobiles, telephones, and other indicators of modern life on the range. These settings gave many low-budget films a pictorial advantage over B's from the majors; for instance, Ambassador-Conn's Valley of Wanted Men and Men of Action (both 1935) offered stunning outdoor locations. By constrast, Universal's mystery Yellowstone (1936), set in the national park, wastes its scenic opportunities through unconvincing rear projection and cramped studio shots unimaginatively directed by Arthur Lubin.
Quickies were often sold in advance at a specified rate to exchanges in order to raise initial financing. Budgets ranged from a low of $5,000 to as much as $20,000 per picture. A typical budget on an $8,000 picture allocated $250 for the script, often including a song, with $400 for the director. Often engaged for six-picture deals, at $1,000 per picture, were such B Western stars as Rex Bell, Johnny Mack Brown, Buffalo Bill, Jr., Harry Carey, Lane Chandler, Hoot Gibson, Raymond Hatton, Jack Hoxie, Tom Keene, Rex Lease, Ken Maynard, Kermit Maynard, Tim McCoy, Tom Mix, Jack Perrin, Reb Russell, Buddy Roosevelt, Fred Scott, Bob Steele, Tom Tyler, Wally Wales, John Wayne, and Guinn ("Big Boy") Williams. Personnel often had multiple jobs, doubling as actors, writers, directors, and supervisors. Some names were pseudonyms; for instance, Bernard B. Ray announced to the press that he had promoted an assistant, Franklin Shamray, to be Reliable's third director. In fact, Shamray was merely one more name under which Ray worked. Leading ladies had a fee of $75, and the supporting cast included many aspiring performers willing to take roles for little or nothing in the hope of being discovered. Some casting took place on the streets in front of Poverty Row, using whoever was nearby and available, and real cowpunchers were relied upon for extras because they could supply their own horses. The establishment of new Screen Actors Guild rules in 1937 raised the budgets of such pictures by about $1,100; this increase in expenses was too great to be recovered by many small companies, since a good profit margin for many Poverty Row producers was often a mere 10 percent, a few thousand dollars per picture.23
For some of the poorest studios in this category, five-reel films sufficed for the usual six-reel length. Expository material was often obviously missing, resulting in a fragmented, jumbled plot or even one that was simply incoherent, as in some of Weiss's Stage and Screen Westerns with Rex Lease, such as Pals of the Range (1935). With the budgets and schedules so limited, pictures were wrapped whether or not shooting had been finished on the script, regardless of the plot incongruities that might result. Just as often, footage was visibly padded, embellishing what had been shot through the use of stock footage that sometimes came to dominate a film. A typical case is provided by Skybound (Puritan, 1935) episodically and nearly incomprehensibly composed largely of a jumble of disconnected aerial, nightclub, and chase footage, with little original material shot specifically for the movie.
Many of the B films in this category were directed toward specific theaters, audience groups, and classes of spectators. Such genres as B Westerns were, like serials, aimed at a quick payoff in minor houses attracting the Saturday matinee and juvenile audiences, especially in the small-town market. Although the theaters owned by the majors accounted for the best locations and the large majority of the profits, thousands of lesser houses proliferated across the country. These smaller, often independent exhibitors changed the double-bill programs two or three times a week, sometimes daily. At best, they showed subsequent, not first, runs, often utilizing quickies that would be shunned by critics and larger exhibitors. Many of the poorest theaters, such as the "grind houses" in the larger cities, screened a continuous program emphasizing action with no specific schedule, sometimes offering six quickies for a nickel in an all-night show that changed daily.24
Many of these small or rural theaters were served by an entirely different distribution system, one in which profits were so marginal that the majors bypassed it altogether. Nonetheless, there was sufficient money to be made in the "states rights" market to attract the producers of films ranging from low-budget Westerns to ethnic films. In the states rights system, movies were sold on a state-by-state or regional basis, with flat fees paid for the limited exclusive rights to distribute for exhibition in a particular area, allowing small but predictable profits. The distributors to such second- and third-rate houses absorbed the cost of release prints and publicity materials, paying a use fee to the producer that might range as high as $50,000. Such a system virtually guaranteed production, but had no incentive for quality, since the pictures were bought without regard to the care or expense that went into making them. Often packages of six or eight films with a single star were sold as a group, with the first or second result of such a sequence more frequently reviewed, regardless of quality, than the final pictures, usually issued later and without fanfare to fulfill the anticipated program. Many states rights producers had their own independent distributors; for instance, Syndicate was a states rights concern specializing in low-budget Westerns. First Division Exchanges was the largest states rights distributor, virtually the United Artists of the small companies, handling product from Resolute, Weiss, and, depending on the region, Chesterfield, Invincible, Liberty, Monogram, Beacon, Olympic, and many others, as well as some British films and a few documentaries and other unusual films that were not picked up by others.25
To give a sample of the companies and their output in the fourth category, several are chosen from the pivotal year of 1935, the height of quickie filmmaking, with such prolific firms as Ajax, Beacon, Beaumont/Mitchell Leichter, Conquest, Du World, Empire, Hoffberg, Imperial, Kent, Peerless, Principal, Puritan, Reliable, Resolute, William Steiner, Spectrum, Victory, and Weiss. (All titles mentioned in the next several paragraphs are from 1935 unless otherwise noted.) Typical of Poverty Row production companies was one that distributed through Astor. Ajax Pictures had four specialties: the Four Leaf Clover series was their prestige item, such as the drama of a secretary climbing her way into society, $20 a Week. Their second group featured aging but still credible Harry Carey in above average B Westerns like The Last of the Clintons, Rustler's Paradise, Wagon Trail, and Wild Mustang. Ajax's third series, Our Young Friends, starred the quartet of grown Our Gang veterans David Sharpe, Gertrude Messinger, Mickey Daniels, and Mary Kornman. These satirical features, such as Adventurous Knights, Roaring Roads, and Social Error, with stories and direction by Sharpe, together with C. Edward Roberts and William Berke, were amateurish and seldom won much notice. Ajax's fourth series used a similar approach; like Sharpe, Richard Talmadge's films again utilized a stuntman better remembered for his second-unit work and doubling than acting. However, unlike Sharpe's negligible results, Talmadge achieved a distinction to be discussed later in this chapter. His movies were sometimes released in conjunction with the Reliable banner, and the Ajax label was also on some of the B Westerns and other genre films, principally starring Bob Steele and Tom Tyler, produced by the prolific William Steiner.
Perhaps the lowest-budget firm was Weiss, an enterprise that continues to this day, maintaining in television release many of their low-grade 1930s films. The brothers Max, Louis, and Adolph Weiss entered production in the early 1920s with money earned from a New York lamp-and-fixture store, phonograph sales, and ownership of a theater that developed into a small chain.26 Operating under such pretentious banners as Superior Talking Films, Stage and Screen Productions, Artcraft Productions, Exploitation Pictures, Consolidated Pictures, and International Pictures Corporation, the Weiss brothers produced a variety of supercheapies in which plot coherence was always the last priority. Most were so bad that they were never reviewed or copyrighted, apparently deliberately avoiding press attention; the only record of their existence is found in an occasional release chart, a few advertisements, and surviving prints. Though most Poverty Row producers averaged a six-reel length, or about sixty minutes, Weiss continually tried to pare that down to five reels, lasting just over fifty minutes.
In 1935, Weiss offered such series as producer Robert Emmett's Morton of the Mounted "northwest action thrillers" with Dynamite, the Wonder Horse and Captain, the King of Dogs receiving top billing over human star John Preston as Sergeant Bruce Morton, in Courage of the North, Fury of the Mounted, Roaring River, Rogues of the Rockies, The Silent Code, and Timber Terrors. Weiss also produced a number of other more conventional Westerns, known as the American Rough Rider series (Pals of the Range, Going to Town, The Ropin' Fool, Two-Fisted Gallagher) and the Range Rider series (Cyclone of the Saddle, The Ghost Rider, Sure-Shot Sam), the latter made in conjunction with Larry Darmour's Empire Film Distributors. Most of these starred Rex Lease, with George M. Merrick as producer and Elmer Clifton directing, both collaborating on the scripts. Weiss also sponsored Consolidated Pictures and producer Bert Sternbach's crime series of Melodramatic Dog Features, starring Tarzan, the Police Dog (Captured, Million-Dollar Haul, Missing Messenger, On Patrol, On the Spot), and a four-reel special of the venerable temperance play The Drunkard.27
Not all the Poverty Row concerns were similar. Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises arose from author Edgar Rice Burrough's dislike of the filmic treatment of his Tarzan character and the belief that he could earn a better share of their profits. He joined in sponsoring his own original story for the screen and chose Olympic champion Herman Brix for the role, according to his conception of the character as an educated man. However, the venture was doomed from the beginning; the majors had blocked the upstart firm from borrowing the most recent cinema Tarzans, Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, and planned to keep Burroughs's films from playing in the major theater chains. Without access to studios, partner Ashton Dearholt, a silent-screen actor and RKO representative in Guatemala, suggested using that country as a location for their work. Twenty-nine cast and crew members spent four months around the Mayan ruins at Tikal, Guatemala, plagued by illness, bad weather, and other adverse jungle conditions aggravated by the low budget, until work was completed in March 1934. An introduction to the film tries to make a virtue out of these difficulties, noting, "The production of the film was carried out under conditions of extreme difficulty and hardship involving personal danger to the actors and technicians, to whom the producers owe a debt of gratitude. The sound recording was occasionally interfered with by the extremely variable atmospheric conditions and your kind indulgence is craved in this direction."
Meanwhile, needing cash and about to marry the former Mrs. Dearholt, Burroughs reoptioned MGM's film rights to his character. The Burroughs-Tarzan film was given the title The New Adventures of Tarzan and eventually made available in three forms, a twelve-chapter serial, a feature, and the feature followed by a serial; it was the last Tarzan serial to be made. Bookings were limited to independent theaters in the United States on the states'-rights network, although it had more success overseas. In June 1938, a new feature was edited from the last ten chapters of the serial, together with some previously unused footage and titled Tarzan and the Green Goddess. In 1940, billing was altered to reflect the change of Brix's name to Bruce Bennett, and the feature version The New Adventures of Tarzan remained in almost continuous release until its sale to television in 1961. Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises produced only four other, unrelated films, including Tundra (1936), but the saga of its Tarzan footage reflects the various release patterns typical of Poverty Row B films.
Just as B's were the product of the divisions noted above, from B units at the majors to the smaller companies along Poverty Row, filmmaking talent tended to be compartmentalized along similar lines, with their status reflecting the same taxonomy. While B's occasionally served as a training ground for directors, writers, cinematographers, designers, and performers, opportunities for promotions were the exception, rather than the rule.28 Quickie filmmakers, especially, found little opportunity for upward mobility, and the prospect of talent emerging from the B's was far less likely than the reverse, a decline into Poverty Row. Once talent was identified with the A or B category, the person tended to be pigeonholed, even at the majors. Although an individual might be involved with an occasional A, he would still most often be considered for B's, just as a performer might typically play support in A's and leads in B's. Under contract, talent had to take the studio's assignments, regardless of personal preference, often with only a day or even less to prepare. Most B directors could not revise the script, had little say in choosing a cast or crew, and were seldom involved in the editing.
Many individuals were shunted into careers dominated by B's because of their consistent effectiveness in filming efficiently and smoothly. They became type-cast, in a sense, not for lack of talent, but precisely because of their demonstrated skill. Turning out pictures rapidly on low budgets required rare abilities: knowing exactly what shots were necessary, editing in the camera without wasting footage on full coverage or more than a few takes, quickly arranging the lighting and camera angles to conceal the cheapness of the sets, eliciting or giving an effective performance with few rehearsals, and covering such disadvantages with fast pacing and shadowy lighting. These abilities were highly prized and might well lead to a continuation in the B realm, but seldom advanced one to the A's.
B films became the domain of numerous individuals with long, prolific careers. One individual who provides a perfect example of the career path and assignments of a major studio B director in the 1930s, and what could be accomplished under such conditions, is Robert Florey.29 As the form's premier practitioner and exponent, the artistry he and others merged into the confines of B filmmaking is one of the justifications for investigating the form. (His work will be discussed at length in the next section of this chapter.) With thirty-five features to his credit during the decade, his movies demonstrate the problematic nature of the term B director; half of Florey's 1930s films were actually either programmers or A's, including four box-office champions. After serving as assistant director on big-budget productions, Florey directed three quality Poverty Row features in 1926-1927, but found they did not lead to directing for the majors. Next, he made a quartet of shorts that firmly brought the avant-garde to American filmmaking for the first time, including the renowned Life and Death of 9413—A Hollywood Extra. In quick succession, he was signed to direct the new talking pictures at Paramount's Astoria studio, including the Marx Brothers's hit film debut, The Cocoanuts (co-director, Joseph Santley, 1929). He then traveled to his native France to direct some of the first European talkies and returned to America and co-authored (without any on-screen credit) the script of Franken-stein (1931) at Universal. At the same studio, his adaptation and direction of Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) turned Poe's tale into a remake of the 1920 German classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, revised into the form of a Hollywood horror movie.
To continue both writing and directing, Florey joined his friend Sam Bischoff in 1932 at KBS, the old Tiffany studio. However, after a few months he won a far more lucrative directorial contract with Warner Bros., where, over the next two and a half years, he directed thirteen films. These ranged from A's, to programmers, to an occasional B. However, shunted from one type of film to another, often given a negligible assignment after directing a hit, he left Warners in frustration in mid-1935. Moving to Paramount for the next four years, Florey found that the pattern of variable projects persisted, but he found far more creative freedom, especially in camerawork and decor. Yet Florey was typecast because of the continual need for B's and his reputation for skillfully fusing artistic inclinations with a medium budget and shooting schedule as short as two weeks. His unconventional technique and determination to adapt both German expressionism and the avant-garde to Hollywood filmmaking became prized in the B and programmer realm, especially in thrillers, but was less desired in glossy A's. After seventeen Paramount B's, programmers, and A's, he wearied of the pace and left in 1939. Briefly joining Columbia, he returned to Warners in 1941, and thereafter nearly all of his pictures were A's. Florey renewed his contact with B-type production when he became the initial significant director to switch to the new medium of filmed television in 1951, winning the first Directors' Guild television award.
A contrasting yet complimentary example is provided by Nick Grinde, whose career has been far more neglected. Grinde began as a vaudeville promoter before going to Hollywood; he and Florey first met in the 1920s as assistants to Josef von Sternberg, whom both sought to emulate. Neither man had industry connections to help him along, but Florey, unlike Grinde, was able to overcome this disadvantage with his reputation for fast yet artistic work. Although both worked quickly and cleverly, invariably producing a slick product on time, whatever the budget, Grinde did not bring Florey's intellectual and European bent to filmmaking. As a result, despite occasional box-office hits, such as the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Shopworn (1932), Grinde was never able to graduate to A's, a goal Florey achieved in the 1940s. Grinde did not settle into a long-term contract, moving among MGM, Columbia, Universal, Hal Roach, Mascot, Warners, Republic, and Paramount, to complete some thirty pictures during the 1930s. Grinde was not employed entirely on features, for he also directed short films, documentaries, and animation; his work is so varied that his complete credits are uncertain because of the inadequate documentation of his career. Yet the care Grinde brought to his films has won them a place above most B product and allowed his name to endure. Grinde also had something of an experimental sensibility; during the late 1940s, he wrote an article urging the combination of animation with live action in feature filmmaking. Both Grinde and Florey were noted writers on the industry; Grinde wrote for such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post and penned the definitive filmmaker's article on the studio B, "Pictures for Peanuts," quoted below. Like Florey, Grinde eventually went into television, but much earlier, when Grinde's feature career sputtered in the 1940s.
Many other individuals could also be discussed. For instance, along Poverty Row, a typical director was Harry Fraser, one of the few B directors whose autobiography has been published (I Went That-a-Way, 1990). Fraser directed a wide range of movies, from Westerns to ethnic films, along with shorts and exploitation films. The trend of such a career in quickies is demonstrated by the fact that he worked when B's were at their most prolific, especially in the mid-1930s, but found jobs hard to come by when commercial conditions were more adverse. Further examples would tend to become repetitive; the basic challenges B filmmakers faced remained the same, and the odyssey of Florey, slowly upward, and Grinde, remaining stagnant, vividly indicate the problems and potential of a range of B filmmakers.
For many years, B's were critically neglected in the belief that they were unworthy: necessarily formulaic, hastily and cheaply made. Yet this notion is at best reductive and an oversimplification. Not only were B pictures significant from an industrial perspective, but they were equally important from an artistic and cultural point of view. B's had many advantages over A's, stemming from the fact that they could target smaller audiences, such as youth or ethnic minorities, instead of the usual wide appeal of family entertainment A's. B's experienced many such contradictory pressures that both liberated and constrained the form, in both production and story. The following analysis of the narrative and visual characteristics of the B approaches the form both generally and in relation to the four-tiered structure outlined above, noting how the differences in production and exhibition result in divergent types of B filmmaking.
Recognizing the B style requires understanding it on its own terms, not in terms of A's. This involves acknowledging the disadvantages and the possibilities, judging the B as the separate commodity it was intended to be, not as a stunted or small-scale A. In his article "Pictures for Peanuts," Nick Grinde summarized it this way:
"B" standing for Bread and Butter, or Buttons, or Bottom Budget. And standing for nearly anything else anyone wants to throw at it…. A "B" picture isn't a big picture that just didn't grow up; it's exactly what it started out to be. It's the twenty-two-dollar suit of the clothing business, it's the hamburger of the butchers' shops, it's a seat in the bleachers. And there's a big market for all of them…. When you are all through, you have a suit or a picture which goes right out into the market with its big brothers and gives pretty good service at that. The trick is to judge them in their class and not by "A" standards. (Penguin Film Reviewl, [February 1946], p. 41)
In practical terms, the B had little time for the leisure of care and retakes, preparations or planning; consultations between director, art director, cinematographer, and performer were minimal, and opportunities for rewriting scripts were rare. Grinde summarized the director's work this way: "He doesn't have time to do any one thing quite as well as he would like to, because he can't stop and do just that one thing. He is, for the moment, a juggler, and must keep his eye on all the Indian clubs." Many of the screenplays of quickies were penned in a week or less, and then shot in a similar time span, emphasizing quantity, not quality. B's often used plain or sparse decor; the best and most lavish sets, effects, or stock footage were usually left over from an earlier picture. Most B's made no effort to conceal their haste, shooting in uniformly high-key lighting throughout; only occasionally would the more creative B filmmakers partly conceal these drawbacks through the artistry of low-key lighting. For instance, Grinde noted that in contrast with an A film, the chase in a B concludes in a "scene shot in an alley with three cops and some dandy shadows. And if it's done properly, it can be plenty thrilling, even if it is mounted in cut-rate atmosphere."30
B's could be of any generic form, with probably as much diversity as was found among the A's. Nearly every genre was capably utilized in the B, whether animal, aviation, children's, college, comedy, detective, crime, domestic, gangster, horror, jungle, love story, medical, melodrama, musical, mystery, newspaper, Northwest, political, rural, satire, social problem, sports, war, Western, woman's, or youth films. Outside of the considerable number of Westerns, male-oriented action films did not dominate B output. B's were expected to offer not only action but also comedy, with a homey, folksy tone, and an important love interest, all considered useful in advancing its position on a double bill.31 Many B's moved toward this goal by merging conventions of several forms, such as the gangsterwoman's film The Girl Who Came Back (Chesterfield, 1935). Evidence of this inclination is that in contrast to the B filmmaking of later decades, horror was a comparatively scarce genre among B's in the 1930s. The Universal efforts were A's or at least programmers; not until after the successful reissue of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) in 1937 did the genre really begin to enter the B realm, with the Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, Mummy, and Invisible Man characters combining into a B series in the 1940s.
However, there was also pressure leading toward formulaic narratives, particularly those accenting mystery and the old West. Low-budget efforts were most often successful as entertainment when emphasizing fights and chases; consequently, the B became associated with the term action pictures. B's reflected the strains of pulp fiction—for instance, supplying fast-moving detective mysteries for audiences unsatisfied with the more fully rounded, slower-moving, character-driven A's, such as MGM's Thin Man series. Like the pulps, the B's had plots that were often simple, standardized, and repetitive, almost obsessively so, giving the audience the same situations over and over, deliberately remaining unoriginal. The least prestigious type of B, the quickie, is most remarkable in this respect. Their producers sought to exclude nearly all complexity or variation, since the familiarity of the most undemanding and rigid formulas was both expected and desired. In the words of a New York Times article, "Generally the stories told are of a routine character, written in bold fashion and played with directness. No time is wasted on fine writing or delicate direction. Villains are villains and heroes are heroes, and there is no mistaking it after the first 500 feet." Quickies reveal their target spectator as unsophisticated, juvenile or rural, not conditioned to the gloss of studio product, with an almost endless ability to absorb extreme repetition, especially in Westerns. Nor was repetition confined to formula; pictures were overtly remade and plots recyled. Not only were A's recycled into new A's, but some B's were scaled down remakes of earlier A pictures; for instance, Paramount's Women Without Names (Robert Florey, 1940) recycled the women's prison film Ladies of the Big house (Marion Gering, 1931). Many other B's were looser remakes, either combining portions of two or more plots into one picture or making alterations in background or character.32
The principal audience for quickies was the same youthful matinee crowd that responded to serials. And indeed, the narrative traits of B films echoed not only the pulps but also movie serials, emphasizing thrills, pace, and low budgets over mood, coherence, and characterization. B's and serials have similar actionoriented heroes, displaying fisticuffs, athleticism, and cheery youthfulness. B's move rapidly, often at the expense of probability, loading the narrative with action-filled incidents and twists of plot and character. They typically pack an enormous amount of raw story material into their five-to-seven-reel length, often exceeding the quantity of events found in an A film of nine reels or more, despite the typical additional thirty minutes of running time. The difference is a matter of making the narrative compact in the B through compression more than ellipses. By contrast, the A pauses for the contemplative subtleties of nuance, atmosphere, and motivation, to make the tale more credible. Hence, a key difference is in pace and density, giving a furious quality to the B that A's, even when action-oriented, seldom strive for.
Exemplifying this characteristic were upward of two hundred Westerns made annually, most of them B's. The B Western was often perceived as such a separate commodity, with personnel unique to it on both sides of the camera, that the trades discussed Westerns separately from any other type. The genre was both the most profitable low-budget form and the cheapest to make. Most of these movies dealt with the same well-known stories over and over: the struggles of cattlemen against rustlers, nesters, or other greedy, would-be tycoons, with the cowboy usually saving a besieged ranch headed by a kindly widower whose demure daughter quickly falls in love with the hero. Variation was usually limited to a crooked foreman; a case of mistaken identity, such as the hero proving to be an undercover Texas Ranger; or the hero avenging the murder of his parents.
Yet notable exceptions to the tendencies of low-budget narratives are found, even among B Westerns. These include the films of Buck Jones, the premier figure in the genre during the 1930s, who used his popularity to vary the Western formula in ways that presage the changes of the late 1940s. Whereas Tim McCoy, Charles Starrett, and the other Western stars at Columbia had to be satisfied with brief shooting schedules, Jones strove for greater autonomy, introducing new themes into his films. He usually spent three weeks or more shooting his own films, a schedule equivalent for the studio's A's, and finally set up his own production unit, Coronet Pictures. Hollywood Round-Up (1937) is rare in the genre for its reflexivity, telling of Jones's own rise from stuntman to take the place of another Western star, with a cast whose careers were now in decline, including Helen Twelvetrees, Grant Withers, and Jones himself. The anticlerical Unknown Valley (1933), similar to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel A Study in Scarlet, tells of a religious cult in the West modeled on the early days of the Mormon church. California Frontier (1938) explicitly details, through the photography and a social-consciousness manner, the cruelty shown the Mexicans as California joined the Union. Other Jones films also embody a revisionist view of the Old West. In White Eagle (1932) he plays an Indian who is in love with a white woman and encounters persistent racism; Jones treated the theme again in a serial remake.
In fact, despite the genre's narrow range of narratives, the B Western formula contained a wide opening for a key social theme of the 1930s, the loss of farms to foreclosure during economic hard times. Conventions were employed to comment explicity on the situation in a direct way that remained embedded in generic expectations and could not have been overlooked by contemporary audiences. Foreclosures were portrayed in a straight good-versus-evil format, with greedy bankers against the cowboys, as in the 1932 and 1933 Columbia pictures Two-Fisted Law and The Fighting Code; both proposed methods of dealing with this Depression dilemma that attacked the economic status quo. A vehicle for Tim McCoy, Bulldog Courage (Puritan, 1935), shifted the idea to the repossession of a mine, but bluntly sanctioned the hero taking the law into his own hands. In the socially conscious Wyoming Outlaw (Republic, 1939), the Three Mesquiteers bring an end to political corruption and a crooked relief administrator. This is done on behalf of victimized dust-bowl farmers, who, the picture notes, were encouraged to invest in large harvests during World War I and then lost their land and money when demand quickly fell.
Some, particularly sociological critics, have tended to regard B's as the arena of affirmation, conservatism, and optimism, but the many exceptions invalidate this generalization.33 For instance, many roles in B woman's films, such as the lawyer in Disbarred (Paramount, 1938) and the secretary in $20 a Week (Ajax, 1935), a melodrama of women in the workplace, portray considerably more freedom of choice than those in their A counterparts. Topical themes had a potential box-office value in B's as well as A's. Columbia was typical; prior to the 1936 release of Warners' famous Black Legion, the studio distributed the programmer Legion of Terror, a similar exposé of the Ku Klux Klan, and Smashing the Spy Ring warned of German espionage nearly a year before Warners' Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). Indeed, while A's concentrate on the lives of the wealthy, lower-budget films provide a contrast. With their less ornate costumes and sets, and secondary stars, B's center more on day-to-day living, and their themes arguably constitute a better cultural and political reflection of the time. Monogram's Make a Million (1935), directed by Lewis D. Collins from a script by Emmett Anthony and Charles Logue, offers a curious commentary on the distribution of economic resources in the Depression. Make a Million tells of a wealthy student (Pauline Brooks) who has her professor (Charles Starrett) fired for his radical theories on how to revitalize the nation's trade through increased spending. However, the professor puts his ideas into practice by public subscription, creating a World Improvement League, and winning the heart of the remorseful heiress. Make a Million demonstrates that a small studio like Monogram was able to presage the populist direction of Frank Capra, offering a far more intense and complex discussion of current events than most big pictures attempted by the majors.
The 1930s B could be an unrealized progressive force, as exemplified in the Charlie Chan series. While the films are justifiably criticized for not casting a Chinese lead, the role had been twice entrusted to Japanese actors, Kamiyama Sojin and George Kuwa, in several films made before Earl Derr Biggers's literary character achieved motion-picture popularity. Not until Warner Oland was given the role in Charlie Chan Carries On in 1931 did the part win acceptance in popular movie culture. The Swedish Oland had played both white and Oriental characters in the past and became increasingly absorbed in Chinese lore as the Chan role assumed a steadily larger share of his time. Indeed, just before playing Chan, Oland had been cast in a brief series of A pictures based on the menace of Sax Rohmer's paradigm of the "yellow peril," Fu Manchu. The transition from Rohmer's villain to Biggers's hero was no minor event: it indicated a fundamental reversal in Hollywood's treatment of Oriental characters, and the Mr. Moto and the Mr. Wong series later in the decade gave ample evidence of the extent of the change. Indeed, the film version of Mr. Moto so valorized John P. Marquand's decidedly ambivalent literary character, a Japanese secret agent, that the series had to be dropped with the dawning of World War II.
The Chan series, lasting eighteen years and forty-four films, offered its hero as a wise and paternal humanistic figure. Despite popular misconceptions, Chan never spoke "Pidgin English"; his language was invariably elegant, that of a cultured immigrant. His "number-one," "-two" and "-three" sons (always enacted by Orientals, most notably Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung) were depicted as assimilating into American culture and were used as foils to note the resulting generational and ethnic changes, through gentle comedy echoing the pattern of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. The Chan films, in a manner unique for the time, offered a warm portrayal of a family emerging from a very different culture. Chan was etched as a loving father and patient parent of a dozen children, and his concern for them, together with his intelligent detection and Oriental wisdom, embodied in the form of proverbs, offered a unique character and a major positive development in Hollywood's treatment of minorities.
The Chan series actually began as A's, straight adaptations of the Biggers novels. Not until five of the six books had been filmed did the studio decide to send Chan around the world in search of new story material, and the movies then acquired certain series accoutrements. The Chans became so successful as programmers that although made by the B unit, they were sold to exhibitors on a percentage basis rather than for the flat fee charged for typical B's. Indeed, the films with Oland have the indulgence and pacing typical of A's. Not until after the star's death in 1938, when the detective's role was taken over by Sidney Toler (and eventually Roland Winters), did the series acquire the B look, with much faster pacing and typically B mystery plots—which made for more exciting, if less unusual, films.34
As demonstrated by the Buck Jones Westerns, the Chan series, and many other B films, the lower-budget realm often went beyond juvenile concerns to present serious themes, maturely handled. B's are certainly formulaic, but outside of the quickies, no more so than A's of the time. Indeed, many B's contain surprising deviations from archetypal plots, concentrating on unconventional themes and offbeat or bizarre elements that almost certainly would have been shunned in the big-budget arena. Studio moguls and the Hays Office were primarily concerned with the A's, since they had major stars and big budgets at stake. With distribution virtually guaranteed on a flat-fee basis, the studios defined a B as successful, not by the standard A criteria of content, critical response, and box-office grosses, but simply by whether the film was finished on time and within the budget.35
Within the limits of the B form, resourceful filmmakers, especially directors and cinematographers, were sometimes allowed to be more creative than in A's. Even preset scripts and crews could not dictate such important elements as camerawork, lighting, performance, tone, and use of decor. Robert Florey recalled that "as long as I remained on schedule, I could shoot all the angles and set-ups I wanted, and move the camera whenever and wherever I wanted to, in the limited time I had." The exigencies of production frequently required inventive, on-the-spot solutions to problems of editing, performance, design, and camerawork, resulting in stylistic devices that competed and contrasted with the tenets of A Hollywood films. Nick Grinde noted, "The B director has to know more tricks than Harry Houdini did, and he has to pull them out of his hat right now—not after lunch. He has to know a lot about making pictures and be able to toss that knowledge at a situation and hope that some of it will stick."36 While the financial limitations of quickies could vitiate much of the freedom, the B's, especially at the majors, could become an artistic endeavor, while avoiding the budgetary excesses that doomed the A endeavors of a Josef von Sternberg or Orson Welles. Despite the regimentation of censorship and studio domination, the prolific quantity of the B as a secondary form of filmmaking allowed a broad array of diverse approaches to moviemaking and spectatorial positions. (These tendencies are illustrated by several examples of different types of B's discussed below.) In earlier and later decades, this position was reflected in types of filmmaking that moved steadily further from the mainstream.
The differences are most striking in the quickies, such as those of Richard Talmadge and Bob Steele noted below. Such films offer an aesthetic problem in the paradigms of classical Hollywood cinema. They present an audacious nonconformity to accepted standards, unquestionably incompatible in many ways. While the quickies may not have been deliberately subversive of the modes of production and presentation offered by the majors, minuscule budgets often allowed, and required, filmmakers to develop a different style. The chutzpah that emboldened them to attempt filmmaking under adverse conditions resulted in circumstances of production that required them to vary and at times violate classical technique and generic formulas. Quickies often evade concepts of believability taken for granted in A films, with a cavalier attitude toward standards of seamless realism, constructing stories around obvious stock footage or effects that were unconvincing even in their own time. In "Pictures for Peanuts," Nick Grinde offered an anecdote:
One director, who shall be nameless, but whom we'll call Nick, was given a $16.50 bit man [speaking parts cost more] who had so much to pantomime that he and everyone else ran out of ideas for suitable gestures. Nods, points, shrugs, smiles and scowls were all tossed to the camera, but there was still more plot and still the order to keep him frugally inaudible. So, like always, something had to be done. He was finally played as a character with laryngitis, and wrote his answers on slips of paper, which were then photographed and cut into the film. The part came out as a nice thrifty novelty. (Penguin Film Review, p. 50)
B's also offer different standards in their musical tracks, providing a clear contrast with the classical conventions of self-effacing construction, by using library music that was frequently jarring, intrusive, and inappropriately matched to a scene or unrelated to the rest of the score. While such a style fails to fully sunder the dominant modes of filmmaking, the technique is on a level that only lives up to the standards of its own class.
An example of nearly experimental characteristics in a major-studio B programmer is The Florentine Dagger, a pre-noir thriller from Warner Bros. in 1935. The complex story goes beyond suspense to operate on multiple levels, with mystery verging on horror through the theme of the influence of the dead upon the living. Cesare (Donald Woods), a descendant of the Borgias, becomes so absorbed in the legends of his ancestors that he believes he has inherited their criminal tendencies through a dual personality. Preventing him from committing suicide, a psychiatrist (C. Aubrey Smith) suggests a prescription for his obsession—writing a play on the Borgias. Cesare discovers he is not alone in psychological turmoil, for each of the principal characters is controlled by ungovernable passions, behaving in a consistently strange and unnatural way. Cesare's prospective father-in-law, Victor, is slain in a maelstrom of revenge and viciousness. Victor had tried to kill his wife twenty years earlier by setting her dress afire, but she survived to conceal her scarred visage behind a lifelike mask. She worked as a servant to secretly protect her daughter by a previous marriage (Margaret Lindsay), upon whom Victor, as stepfather, is forcing his attentions. When the police realize why the mother murdered Victor, she and her daughter along with Cesare are allowed to escape. The morbid themes of incest, patricide, and suicide, not to mention the antipatriarchal tone and the lack of retribution for murder, are startling for a film made in the era of the Production Code and probably could only have appeared in a B.
The style is every bit as unusual as the content, with the psychological motifs enhanced by virtuoso expressionist treatment. The film is full of dark and shadowy lighting; bizarre, oblique camerawork and overhead shots; and frequent use of composition in depth, often emphasizing the distortion and imbalance created by the positioning of foreground and background objects. The direction of The Florentine Dagger provides a forceful example of the adaptation and integration of expressionist and avant-garde styles into the American feature through the B. Yet the film was shot on a $135,000 budget in twenty days, and director Florey had barely a week to prepare. Tom Reed's script was still in revision during shooting, changing the original ending, which had called for the mother's suicide. In an outcome rare for a B, Florey was able to supervise the editing; Warners' indulgence of the style indicates their hope that The Florentine Dagger could perhaps achieve A status through the richness of its presentation, and it won serious critical attention, along with some criticism of its unusual themes.37
While the content of a picture like The Florentine Dagger was exceptional, a similar but more subdued style could still dominate a mainstream B mystery. Whereas expressionism explicated an unorthodox psychological thriller in The Florentine Dagger, in A Study in Scarlet (1933) the style is used to develop the eerie atmosphere of a classical English whodunit, with its distinctive bevy of suspects and highly intelligent detective. The sense of locale is enhanced by the use of a nearly all-British cast, something uncommon for a Hollywood-made Sherlock Holmes picture. With the film shot in the continental style, suspense is as much a factor of camerawork, lighting, and atmosphere as plot. Strange gatherings arranged by secret codes take place in out-of-the-way abandoned buildings; dark and oppressive dead-end streets are places of isolation and terror; fog and shadows hide murderers and their victims. A pervasive feeling of fear is created in the fogbound studio streets of the Limehouse section of London, heightening suspense through a number of cinematic devices unusual for 1933. For instance, the killer is kept unseen, while menace is suggested by having the crimes viewed through the murderer's eyes by use of a subjective camera. The silhouette of a giant shadow appears on a wall as the victim looks into the camera and screams, "It can't be you," followed by a close-up of a hand checking off the name of one more member of the Scarlet Ring who has been killed. The climax of this technique comes in a single take with the still-unknown murderer visiting the crooked lawyer (Alan Dinehart): the camera completely adopts the viewpoint of the killer as Dinehart opens the door and the unknown individual is offered a cigarette, puffs of smoke ascending in front of the lens.
These techniques again demonstrate the artistic potential of even the more traditional B. A Study in Scarlet was an ambitious effort during the last days of the Tiffany studio. For only a small sum, producer Samuel Bischoff purchased the motion-picture rights to the title, but not the story, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel. He had also arranged to co-star the exotic Anna May Wong with Reginald Owen as Holmes. Owen and Robert Florey were given $1,000 and a week to compose a new Sherlock Holmes scenario to fit the title and utilize as many standing sets as possible. Edwin L. Marin finally directed (after Florey was enticed away by Warners), and like Florey, he shortly became a B director at the majors.
The schedules and budgets that allowed for the kind of stylistic and thematic innovation found in a major-studio B like The Florentine Dagger, or even one from a secondary studio, like A Study in Scarlet, seemed lavish by comparison with those found in quickies. However, while scarcer, such characteristics were still in evidence. Among the most unique examples are the Richard Talmadge "stunt films," especially the mid-1930s Reliable series, released through Ajax, with Bernard B. Ray, Harry S. Webb, and William Berke alternating or sharing producer and director duties, with such writers as Ralph Cusuman, Carl Krusada, and Jack Natteford. The minimal production values facilitate the unmediated exhibition of the athleticism of the star, who was once Douglas Fairbanks's double and had a long career with second-unit action sequences. The aim in the Talmadge vehicles is to self-consciously draw attention to Talmadge's physical skill, often through unmotivated scenes, such as a series of Chinatown brawls in Fighting Pilot. Instead of the traditional means of involving the spectator in a story, the lack of artifice is emphasized, especially the thrill of Talmadge obviously performing his own acrobatics. Extended takes and long shots concentrate on exhibiting Talmadge's ability, avoiding the usual stunt effects of quick cutting and limited visibility. Simultaneously, Talmadge sophisticates the narratives by deliberately varying the genres and satirizing the action forms he used, but still offers the traditional highlights. For instance, Fighting Pilot spoofs the aviation film; The Live Wire, the adventure genre (including Talmadge's 1934 serial, Pirate Treasure); The Speed Demon/Hunting Trouble, the police film; The Speed Reporter/Deadline, newspaper film; and Never Too Late/Hit and Run and Now or Never/Tearing Into Trouble, the thriller. In a similar way, an Ajax vehicle for David Sharpe, Adventurous Knights, was a satirical reworking of The Prisoner of Zenda.
Not all these deviations from the Hollywood norms were so fortuitous; the extent of the possible departures are revealed by Big Calibre (1935), a William Steiner B Western shot in a single week. Typical of Robert North Bradbury's direction of his son, Bob Steele, Big Calibre is minimalist to a startling degree, with astonishing lapses in continuity editing and no attempt whatever at seamlessness in technique or narrative. The film is preposterous, both visually and in plot line; in his own screenplay, Perry Murdock plays the misshapen chemist Otto Zenz, who uses acid smoke-bomb capsules to commit crimes and flees after murdering the father of the hero (Steele). In a nearby town, the bucktoothed Gadski menaces a rancher with foreclosure; Gadski, naturally, is Zenz, with the patently obvious disguise of a wig and false teeth. His smoke bombs help the hero escape jail, an idea conveyed not through a visual effect but simply through a cut between smoke and a broken lock. Zenz steals a motor stage in a chase, but accidentally poisons himself while trying to use his smoke bombs on the hero. Nearly every incident in Big Calibre is equally bizarre, so patently unbelievable as to verge on surrealism.
Another aspect of B filmmaking revealing enormous differences from classical A's are ethnic pictures. Movies of special appeal to the small but definite market of ethnic minorities were an important offshoot of the fourth category, the quickie films of Poverty Row. The B label must not be regarded as a diminishment of these movies; instead, it simply recognizes the industrial conditions under which they were made and shown, and further indicates the rich possibilities inherent in the B form. Like other Poverty Row quickies, the intended audience is a defining factor, with the states'-rights distribution system used to target viewers. Ethnic films were aimed at the specific race, religion, or nationality they portrayed, just as many mainstream quickies were directed at juvenile and rural theatergoers. Many ethnic films were distinguished by language, being made for audiences whose primary tongue was not English; in a sense, they were the aesthetic successors to the multi-linguals made by the major studios at the beginning of the sound era for overseas audiences.
Ethnic movies shared the constraints of Poverty Row, with companies usually short-lived and underfinanced. Filmmakers had minimal access to facilities and equipment, frequently utilizing outmoded East Coast studios or private homes. There was little opportunity for care, rehearsals, or retakes on schedules lasting two weeks at most, with the completed films averaging six reels in length. Ethnic filmmakers were constantly confronted by a fundamental choice that went to the heart of their purpose and appeal. They could hire a Hollywood B director, who usually had little understanding of the subject matter, or make the movie with their own talent, despite an often poor grasp of film language and technique. When Hollywood talent was used, the personnel were usually already experienced in the unique challenges of quickies; a number of black, Yiddish, and Cantonese movies had such directors as Harry Fraser, B. B. Ray, William Nolte, and Edgar G. Ulmer.
Since ethnic filmmaking did not share in the rising demand for double-bill material, the form took significantly longer to recover from the budgetary problems posed by the coming of sound, and not until the mid-to-late 1930s did the production of these movies flourish. Exhibition possibilities were always limited to segregated theaters, minority areas, or special occasions and off-hours. Unlike mainstream quickies, with their use of repetitious, formulaic genre stories, such as Westerns, ethnic films typically emphasized the group's traditional stories. Frequently the performers were not experienced movie players but non-professionals or stage actors identified with ethnic theater; the novelty of their film appearance served as a principal box-office draw. For instance, some of the early Yiddish films featured the best-known choirs and cantors of the day, before moving toward adaptations of venerable Yiddish plays. While this tended to limit their audience, it also captured its attention, often through notices in local and ethnic community newspapers. Ethnic films supported and perpetuated their respective heritage of customs and cultural identities, offering audiences one of the few opportunities to feel a wholly satisfying cinematic experience in unique rapport with their own people.38
There were, for instance, not only imported films for Hispanic audiences but also films originating in Hollywood, with Hispanics and Anglos collaborating for theaters catering to Spanish-speaking patrons. For example, in 1935 three Spanish-language films were produced in the United States, Un Hombre Peligroso/A Dangerous Man, No Mataras/Thou Shalt Not Kill, and Contra la Corriente/Against the Current, the latter produced, written and directed by 1920s Hollywood star Ramon Novarro. Also during 1935, three American films were made in Yiddish, Bar Mitzvah, Song of Songs, and Yiddish King Lear; the decade's total was twenty-six features and twenty shorts. Yiddish production was also augmented by a substantial number of imports from Poland. Whether domestic or imported, the Yiddish cinema portrayed the preservation of Jewish traditions despite adversity and the surrounding gentile majority. The setting was most often Eastern Europe, where the rise of fascism was a contemporary threat.39 Similarly, but almost forgotten today, were several films produced in Ukrainian, and another, Arshin Mal Alan/The Peddler Lover (1937), in Armenian. There was at least one film in Cantonese, Sum Hun(1936), produced in Hollywood by a mix of Chinese and Anglo talent, for principal release in San Francisco's Chinatown district.
Another type of ethnic film, the most persistent, prolific, and best remembered, was set largely in the United States and differentiated by race. Black films, like other ethnic forms, can be defined through the principal audience.40 This methodology isolates movies with a predominantly black cast and includes not only black-directed films but others with a mix of races behind the camera as cinematographers, directors, writers, or producers, with actual financing almost invariably white. Using this taxonomy, some three hundred features and an equivalent or greater number of shorts described as black films were made in the years 1910-1955, roughly the era of classical Hollywood. They were made during three principal cycles: one during the silent period (1916-1928), a second, which began in the late 1930s and paused for World War II, and a third cycle that emerged with renewed vigor at war's end but quickly waned as the 1950s dawned. This pattern was reflected in the peak years for corporate formation and film production: 1918-1922, 1938-1940, and 1946-1947.
Black films grew largely out of an effort to find an independent cinematic voice, one that could rival Hollywood and respond to the prevailing stereotypes. Black filmmaking actually began back in 1910, with shorts made by William Foster in Chicago. Targeting the black middle class and avoiding stereotypes, Foster's success encouraged a number of other companies. However, exhibition remained sufficiently limited to constrain profits and investments, and the coming of sound harshly exposed the budgetary drawbacks.41 Sound ended the first cycle of black filmmaking: while seven black features were released in 1928, in 1929 and 1930 there were only three each year, with two in 1931. Black feature filmmaking resumed slowly in the 1930s, and many of these productions, such as those by Harlem-based Paragon Pictures, remained silent or only part talking. The two independent 1933 features by Eloise and Robert Gist, Hellbound Train and Verdict: Not Guilty/Not Guilty in the Eyes of God, were shot silent on 16-mm film and had an amazingly fluid camera style. Replete with stunning metaphors and moral parallels, they received wide exhibition in black churches, enhanced by a live commentary.
Shooting on black features usually lasted a week, and budgets averaged $10,000-$15,000 (some were made for as little as $3,500), but could be as high as $28,000, as with the Henry Armstrong boxing picture Keep Punching (1939). Profit for black films generally averaged $15,000, occasionally rising to $60,000, usually on the basis of rentals, which varied from $1,000 in a Harlem theater down to flat fees of $7 elsewhere.42 The star system in black films reflected the form's emergence from Poverty Row as individuals like Ralph Cooper, Herb Jeffries, and Lorenzo Tucker dominated through their background in stage and recording. Since the teens, established Hollywood stars tended to make few appearances in black films. Although such performers as Louise Beavers, Bill ("Bojangles") Robinson, and Clarence Muse did play in black films, each appeared in only one or two movies, in contrast to the dozens of major-studio pictures in which they were credited. Salaries in Hollywood, even for the traditional black supporting roles, were far greater than could be achieved by starring positions in even the most lavish black movies. The importance of stars like Muse was strictly in proportion to black productions; for instance, Muse's 1940 feature Broken Strings was shot in four days. The star, Nina Mae McKinney, only became active in black films after her own Hollywood career had taken a downturn. Only one star, Mantan Moreland, actually emerged from black films to become a Hollywood contract player. By contrast, Josephine Baker was confined to appearing in French films, while the preeminent black actor Paul Robeson was in virtual exile after The Emperor Jones (UA, 1933), pursuing his career in England with a number of films that presage Hollywood's use of Sidney Poitier in the 1950s. Other than The Emperor Jones, only one other black feature was distributed by a major Hollywood company, Warners' 1936 adaptation of the stage hit The Green Pastures, a spiritual fantasy.
The most prolific and tireless voice in black filmmaking during the preceeding decade had been Oscar Micheaux. However, by the 1930s, his reputation was diminishing, since he was no longer a pioneer. Many of his early talkies were composed largely as silents, relying on long explanatory intertitles, such as A Daughter of the Congo (1930) and Ten Minutes to Live (1932). Micheaux's pictures were usually made in around ten days for between $10,000 and $20,000 dollars, with local actors, and shot in the New York area, often relying on the homes of friends for sets. Micheaux believed that profits were inevitably limited and hence saw no reason to increase his investment or quality.43 His productions had increasing trouble finding exhibition as the black press decried the content of his films as well as his often primitive technique. Micheaux's sporadic output of one or two productions annually became clearly weak alongside those of other, similar companies; his fifteen movies in the decade were only a portion of black filmmaking during a period that saw approximately seventy-five black features.
The resurgence in black filmmaking in fact coincided with Micheaux's decline. While Micheaux Pictures Corporation of New York had been the pivotal concern of the 1920s, the better representative of the 1930s and beyond was Million Dollar Productions. Million Dollar, more than any other company, moved black filmmaking away from a marginalized form toward the mainstream, advancing considerably its reputation and ability to attract audiences. Although the Million Dollar name belied the firm's assets and budgets, for the first time blacks had substantial control over production in an integrated filmmaking corporation.44 Million Dollar was the most financially successful such enterprise to date, and the company sponsored a dozen prestigious productions between 1937 and 1940; at least six of these remained in release during the 1940s through one of its successors, Ted Toddy.
Million Dollar had its origins in 1936, when performer Ralph Cooper was brought to Hollywood by Fox but was immediately dropped when he did not fit the desired stereotype. Instead, Cooper united with another black, George Randol, to produce and star in Dark Manhattan (1937), which successfully adapted the Hollywood gangster formula to the ethnic screen. Cooper then broke with Randol and joined Harry and Leo Popkin to form Million Dollar Pictures. Over the next three years he co-produced and starred in such movies as Bargain With Bullets/Gangsters on the Loose (1937), Gang War/Crime Street (1939), The Duke is Tops/Bronze Venus (1938), and Am I Guilty?/Racket Doctor (1940). In addition, Cooper wrote Gang Smashers/Gun Moll (1938), Reform School/Prison Bait (1938), Life Goes On/His Harlem Wife (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes West (1940). Cooper, a bandleader, emcee, and musical entertainer, became the first black matinee idol of the movies; his skillful persona won him the appropriate sobriquet "the bronze Bogart."45 Although his film career was brief, he had an enormous impact, and the black film cycle of the late 1930s was a direct result of the popularity of Dark Manhattan. Whereas twenty-three black features were made in the seven years 1930-1936, the next four years, 1937-1940, saw over fifty black movies.
The Cooper films in particular, and Million Dollar Productions generally, diverged from earlier black films. Narratives and performances were far more plausible than Micheaux's improbable and excessive melodramatics, yet still dealt with black issues. There was no trace of the homegrown aesthetic associated with Micheaux; Million Dollar films were equivalent in terms of style and quality with the better Hollywood B studios, on a par with the contemporary product of Monogram and Republic. For the first time a series of black films, not just a few isolated examples, sustained a polished, solid production style within the norms of classical production. Well-known stars were offered who could appeal to mixed audiences, such as Cooper, Louise Beavers, and Mantan Moreland. Although produced for only about twice as much as a typical Micheaux film, Million Dollar took advantage of a wide array of Hollywood talent, expertise, and equipment to increase production standards. For instance, Dark Manhattan was shot at the Grand National studios, a lot with superior facilities to those offered by Fort Lee and the private homes used in the Micheaux efforts. The consistent problems Micheaux and others had in achieving audible recordings, adequate lighting, smooth editing, and acceptable performances had always impeded their appeal to audiences. Indeed, despite the fact that Micheaux so often fell short, his rare exceptions, such as Lem Hawkins' Confession/Brand of Cain/Murder in Harlem (1935) and Birth-right (1939), indicate that his unrealized hope actually was to achieve such standards.
Cooper's former partner, George Randol, was only slightly less successful, merging with the brothers Bert and Jack Goldberg to form International Road Shows in Hollywood. They produced a number of films that moved in the same direction as the Million Dollar efforts, without such smooth results. The Randol-Goldberg product included Broken Strings (1940), Double Deal (1939), Midnight Shadows (1939), Mystery in Swing (1939), Paradise in Harlem (1940), and Sunday Sinners (1940). The Goldbergs had previously been associated with black-cast stage productions, and films like Harlem Is Heaven/Harlem Rhapsody (1932) and The Unknown Soldier Speaks/The Unknown Soldier (1934), and they remained active through the 1940s. Another mixed-race company, Hollywood Productions, headed by white director Richard Kahn, turned out The Bronze Buckaroo (1938), Harlem Rides the Range (1939), Two Gun Man From Harlem (1939), and Son of Ingagi (1940). Together, Micheaux, Paragon, Hollywood Productions, Million Dollar, and International Road Shows were responsible for more than forty features, well over half the black output during the 1930s. Most of the other companies of the period were responsible for only one or two films, tending to be small and focusing on a specific personality or picture; for example, Eddie Green's Sepia Art produced his own two featurettes.
The parallel cases of Cooper and Randol, and their separate development with the Popkins and Goldbergs, along with the example of Richard Kahn, indicate the direction of black production. Many of the companies, and certainly the most prolific ones, were neither all black nor all white, but integrated. Most often blacks collaborated in producing capacities, as writers and as leading performers, governing their personas, while whites, more experienced in B filmmaking, co-produced and directed. The cooperative black-white efforts succeeded, both as commercial ventures and in changing black images; Micheaux's one-man operation was hardly the only method.
These companies followed the lead of their mainstream counterparts by utilizing genre formulas, especially crime, musical, and comedy films. The crime film, encompassing gangster, underworld, mystery, thriller, and detective films, was one of the most prevalent escapist genres in black movies for the same reason it was popular in Hollywood generally: the formula allowed a suspenseful product, despite financial limitations. For instance, Mystery in Swing (1939) is a typical B whodunit, little different from its white counterparts, and Dark Manhattan initiated a series of black gangster films by demonstrating the potential popularity of adapting an existing genre to the black milieu. Pictures like Straight to Heaven (1939) went beyond the rise of a gangster or the solving of a murder to cover the impact of crime on the black community. Several musicals were successful, despite the need for more elaborate staging, including Harlem is Heaven, The Duke is Tops, and Broken Strings, starring Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, and Clarence Muse, respectively. Many other black films offered musical numbers in nightclub sequences only tangentially related to the main plot line, while individual musical acts were often the focus of shorts.
Other genres were also invoked. Horror films were represented by Son of Ingagi, Louisiana/Drums o' Voodoo/Voodoo Drums/Voodoo Devil Drums (1933), and The Devil's Daughter/Pocomania (1939), with the last shot in Haiti, a sharp visual contrast with black cinema's usual emphasis on cramped interiors or nightclubs. The Spirit of Youth (1937), Keep Punching/While Thousands Cheer/Gridiron Graft/Crooked Money (1940), and The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940) concentrated on the world of sports, featuring the noted athletes Joe Louis, Henry Armstrong, and Kenny Washington. Echoing Republic's success with Gene Autry, singing star Herb Jeffries was cast in a series of popular black musical Westerns: harlem on the Prairie/Bad Men of Harlem (1937), The Bronze Buckaroo/The Boley Buckaroo (1938), Har-lem Rides the Range (1939), and Two-Gun Man From Harlem (1939). Although many of these pictures continued the Hollywood pattern of featuring stereotypical buffoons in comedic supporting roles, since all the characters were black, comics were no longer exclusively connected to race. Indeed, black comedians became a source of pride; for instance, in Mr. Washington Goes to Town (1940), Jack Benny is referred to as the fellow who appears on Eddie "Rochester" Anderson's radio show.46
Despite invoking the crime, musical, Western, sports, horror, and comedy genres, the social-conciousness type was the single form most frequently utilized, directly commenting on political issues facing the black community. For example, three films etch very different portraits of contemporary black leadership. The Black King/Harlem Big Shot (1932) is a highly critical parable of Marcus Garvey and the back-to-Africa movement, with a sharp, satiric tone portraying him as a fraud and an exploiter of race. In The Emperor Jones, an A picture produced for United Artists, an equally problematic portrait emerges of a self-absorbed leader. By contrast, in 1940 a film entitled George Washington Carver presents a role-model type of biography in a near documentary style. The Unknown Soldier Speaks was a documentary to foster pride in the black contributions to American military history.
A common theme is how social problems created tensions within the family. In One Dark Night/Night Club Girl (1939), Mantan Moreland leaves his family in frustration in order to find the wealth to support them properly and finally returns as the prosperous owner of a nightclub. Two 1938 films for Louise Beavers, Life Goes On and Reform School, portray a widowed mother devoted to keeping her grown sons on the road to middle-class success and away from the temptations of crime. However, only Micheaux tends to portray blacks encountering white prejudice, as in The Exile (1931), Lem Hawkins' Confession, and Birthright. An equally frequent and unique theme in Micheaux's work is the internal divisions within the black community, found in A Daughter of the Congo and God's Stepchildren (1938), among others.
Through the use of generic conventions and an increasing adherence to the conventions of the classical Hollywood style, black movies expanded their potential audience with subject matter and presentation that addressed topics of wide interest. Black films had been clearly a separate form as the 1930s began, and the black press noted that the films fell below the standard that Hollywood norms led audiences to demand. By the end of the decade, the increasing distribution and emergence from the Hollywood states'-rights underground was reflected in scattered reviews in the trade press, which often explicitly mention that some black movies were considered acceptable for racially mixed audiences and white theaters. This prepared the way for the post-World War II cycle, when black independent production would resume with bigger budgets than ever before, concentrating on comparatively lavish musicals, such as Beware! (1946) and Sepia Cinderella (1948). These were close enough to the Hollywood vein and gained sufficient commercial success, so that Hollywood realized that black concerns had become a potentially profitable form of screen entertainment, growing beyond a parallel shadow economy that could be ignored. This reaction was amplified by the desegregation of theaters and the increasing concern with integration, rather than the separation of the races, that black-audience films often embodied.
While the commercial results are clear, it is arguable whether this increasing use of genre formula and classical style was advantageous from an aesthetic or political standpoint. However, while reflecting Hollywood conventions, black films remained true to their social inspiration. Indeed, all 1930s black movies, even when ostensibly nonpolitical, have very strong overtones that were appreciated by their audiences. Even the films that did not deal with racial issues or specific contemporary events still have political content; the very fact of production and exhibition made a clear statement for filmmakers and audiences in the 1930s. The idealized blacks-only realm of the segregated cast reflected the general social reality of the time, yet casting blacks in a cinematic world of their own was also a powerful statement of equality. Within the context of entertainment, black films sought to overthrow, and serve as a haven from, Hollywood's demeaning stereotypes, creating a new mythology that contradicted the cinema's standard images.47 Black pictures presented thoughtful, well-educated, moral, and highly motivated heroes who reflected credit on their race; even the villains behave with dignity and decorum. In etching a celluloid territory free of prejudice or white domination, the films may have also helped to show Hollywood new possibilities for black roles. For example, the Herb Jeffries cycle not only offered musical entertainment, but recognized the role of black cowboys in the settlement of the West. The black-cast film, by its very nature, offered a clear message of equality and esteem for black life, articulating a racial consciousness and establishing an aesthetic tradition that remains in force to this day. Separate but not financially equal, the films were a justifiable source of pride for black audiences and a reminder to Hollywood of possibilities overlooked.
With the end of the 1930s, the B film was rapidly changing. By 1939, small concerns making pictures for $20,000-$30,000 were having an increasingly difficult time selling their product, and though such films continued to be made, they were no longer so prolific.48 The deliberate structuring of the major's annual product around the A and B polarities was steadily eroding. In the 1940s the content of B's altered under the influence of World War II; war and spy films had been all but nonexistent in the 1930s B. The box-office bonanza from 1942 to 1945 caused movie budgets to go up, and the majors were increasingly unwilling to burden their secondary or offbeat product with the B label. Studios claimed that their lower-budget pictures were made more carefully, on individual merit, and with less predetermination as to their eventual double-bill positioning. With the end of the vertical integration of the industry through the banning of block booking, and the consent decrees, theaters no longer had to accept a studio's lower-end product in order to get its A's. As the weekly national habit of "going to the movies" faded in the late 1940s, the economics of moviemaking changed from a priority on quantity and consumption to an accent on quality and individuation of product. Falling attendance eroded the faith in the B as an antidote; pictures intended simply to fill a program slot were no longer profitable without the guarantee of weekly patronage. Television adopted many B genres, such as crime and Westerns, taking advantage of the expected shorter running times and fast shooting schedules. These factors, together with declining enforcement of the Production Code and the increasingly youthful makeup of the audience, led to an explosion in new genres. Low-budget films appealed to a baby-boom market by turning toward horror/science fiction and exploitation, with formulas and exhibition strategies differing from Hollywood's previous approach.49 Filmmaking changed enormously, and there is little comparison in either style or content between the 1930s B and the low-budget pictures of the 1950s and beyond; applying the B label to such widely different forms as exploitation, 1950s horror and sci-fi, and 1980s slasher films is a misnomer. Properly speaking, the historical context of the B belongs to the studio era of double bills, when such movies operated in relation to, and as a variation on, the principles of classical filmmaking.