In this short series of features, Tom Jolliffe will look at the humble B Movie and everything below. From the golden period of B cinema, to the rise in popularity of the B picture, to the underground mavericks making films on a shoe string from the 50’s right up to the present.
To begin with, lets look at the B movie. The terminology over the years has kind of evolved into a variety of interpretations. Everything from people using it as a derogatory term, to the actual qualifications of the B movie. Some pass it off as low budget. To an extent that was largely true in the distant history of Hollywood. The term initially spawned to represent the ‘other’ film of a double bill. Usually the low budget, low rent film (or the one with the B level star). More classically it also points to your premise or genre. Anything that might be deemed low brow, or silly, that may set logic away from a basis of some reality. Think Ray Harryhausen films in the 50’s and 60’s. Films set on alien worlds or in space. Horror and sci-fi in particular was almost instantly badged as B material. The Western genre was an odd one, often flitting in and out of the B categorisation. But in the 50’s and 60’s, at their peak, they were big productions, with some huge stars, and they attracted large audiences.
Back during the Hollywood production code era, of manufactured and carefully studio controlled policing and marketing of movie stars (and directors etc.), it would have been nigh-on impossible to cross between A (never particularly referred to as this, but for the sake of this point…) and B movies. For someone like Boris Karloff, or later, Vincent Price, they found themselves perennially attached to B movies, certainly as leading men. It could also represent something of a death knell for actors or directors. Very few could cross between the two. Alfred Hitchcock, by that point highly influential in cinema was afforded the ability to shock and surprise, and as such he could make films like Psycho or The Birds in his own imitable style, which in other circumstances may have been made more conventionally, and far cheaper, outside the studio system. In an alternate universe somewhere, Ed Wood made The Birds.
Still, like anything, movies live or die by audience. There was an appetite for the B movie. In their own right, to perhaps a less discerning audience, the likes of Karloff, or the Chaneys, Price and Christopher Lee, all had their fans. The 50’s and 60’s would become particularly busy. The Hollywood system relaxed its grip, which allowed for a rogue group of exploitation film-makers to jump in and make movies. In the silent era of course, at the beginning of film, everyone was a maverick, a rogue, a trailblazer in an industry discovering and experimenting in its medium. In the late 50’s, Ed Wood with all the passion and madness of a Howard Hughes, set about making films on a shoe string. Roger Corman started in a similar ilk but found a level of success someone like Wood couldn’t, and eventually had his own production company. The Corman branding is still making films to this day. It’s where Martin Scorsese got his start. More on Corman and his ilk in the next part.
Then something happened in the late 70’s. B movies were still churned out with regularity but from the late 60’s until around 77, Hollywood was very serious, very dark. Even many of the underground filmmakers, following a blazed trail set by Europe, were now focusing on re-envisioning dramatic concepts. A director like John Cassavetes would make a film outside the system that fought against the ground rules, and become an inspiration to almost every kitchen sink indie drama made in the modern era (even if those film-makers don’t realise it). The Blaxploitation era was in vogue in the early 70’s, capturing audiences and catering to wider demographics. There was some dark subject matter, but still done with a swagger and style, and injection of humour that the gritty era of mainstream Hollywood was moving away from. Where B movies would capture an outsider audience historically, that would change thanks to a galaxy far, far away.
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