Before Corman: Creative Expression on a Budget

The Museum of Modern Art’s YouTube channel is an endless source of enjoyment for me. They’ve recently added a film section, which promises to offer a cross-section of history, appreciation, and critique. The first entry is Why B-Movies Never Won Oscars, which seems to be the first in a series on B-movies. Spoiler: because it was creative expression on a budget, meant to be good but not great.

It’s well-documented that my personal hero and role model is Roger Corman. With minimal resources he could turn out an enjoyable movie. Many of the folks who worked with him went on to be famous and notable in their own right — James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, Ron Howard, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, the list goes on. He had to innovate, because he didn’t have the time, the money, or the well-known people that the big studios did.

The B-pictures were sometimes made by the big studios, but a lot of them were cranked out by smaller studios like Republic Pictures. In the days when there were cartoons, newsreels, and double features, they made the lower-billed movies. This was where unknown actors could get a shot, where directors could hone their craft, and where screenwriters could get a script sold. It was a minor league where people who worked in film could practice for a shot at the majors, or just make a living that didn’t involve waiting tables or selling insurance. It was the same niche the Corman would fill later.

This brings thing back around to my love/hate relationship with gatekeepers. The B-movies, and what folks call “the Roger Corman film school”, functioned as apprenticeships on some level. People who knew what they were doing taught folks just starting out, giving them not just an opportunity but an education. There was someone around to keep people from making dangerous, career-ending mistakes.

At the same time, they weren’t beholden to all of the same rules as the big studios. They could try some things without taking the big risks. Corman knew that all he had to do was turn a profit. He didn’t have the pressure of cranking out a blockbuster that would have to please everyone from studio executives to film critics to the audience. He had greater freedom to make the kinds of films he wanted to make.

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