In Black & White: B Movies

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

‘B’ MOVIES. By Don Miller. Curtis Books. 350 pages. $1.50.
KINGS OF THE Bs. Edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn. Dutton. 561 pages. $6.95.

“If some bright new critic should awaken the world to the merits of Joseph Lewis in the near future,” Andrew Sarris once wrote, “we will have to scramble back to his 1940 record: Two-Fisted Rangers, Blazing Six-Shooters, Texas Stagecoach, The Man from Tumbleweeds, Boys of the City, Return of Wild Bill, and That Gang of Mine. Admittedly, in this direction lies madness.”

Sarris was referring to Lewis’ days as a director of B movies on Hollywood’s “Poverty Row,” and, as he later noted, Lewis has been “discovered,” and so those seemingly forgotten B movies from 1940 are marked by auteurists and cultists for future research. And perhaps it is a form of madness that auteurists or anyone else should want to seriously examine the low-budget films turned out as program fillers on Hollywood’s production lines. For there is little indication so far that this aspect of Hollywood’s history deserves fuller appreciation, and the films themselves have been mostly unavailable since the last great splurge of B movies on television.

But the Poverty Row films of Lewis, Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Andre DeToth, Anthony Mann and others loom as tantalizing examples of talent and inspiration triumphing over limited means. These directors gained recognition of one sort or another and went on from the Bs to bigger budgets and better things. But has their later success given their B movies a visibility not granted so far to worthy B directors who never graduated to heftier budgets? At present, we have little way of knowing. Felix Feist, for example, is a director about whom next to nothing has been written, but my own chance encounter with The Devil Thumbs a Ride (RKO, 1947) had sufficient appeal to make him a subject for further research of my own. Similarly, Black Angel (Universal, 1946) and a Sherlock Holmes entry like The Scarlet Claw are enough to indicate that Roy William Neill is a director worthy of attention.

Beyond questions of auteurist scholarship, however, there are the peculiar aesthetics of the B movie. Inevitably, part of the appeal of a “good” B has to do with its having given us “something” where obvious low-budget conditions led us to expect little or nothing. In this perspective, criticism can become dependent on a deliberate scaling-down of values and expectations (which, as it happens, is pretty much the approach taken by Don Miller in “B” Movies). But the unadorned professionalism and the necessary or inevitable lack of pretension in the B movie can make for a direct, simple, hard-edged kind of film art. The conventional plots give filmmakers and performers a space to fill with whatever vitality and ingenuity they can muster. The result is sometimes a relatively unpremeditated modern folk art, in which movies are less images of reality than small, bright, intense additions to it. Or so I tell myself from time to time. (The B movie is also a fertile ground for the surrealists’ deliberate, imaginative misreadings—but that’s another story.)

Don Miller doesn’t mess with this sort of thing, but he does provide information about a great many B movies from the Thirties and Forties. His book and his Focus on Film piece (No.5, Winter 1970), together, might have been to the Bs what Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema is to the “mainstream” of Hollywood filmmaking. They are not, simply because Miller’s critical standards are so modest, but the book gives us an interesting (if spottily written) survey of B moviemaking between 1933 and 1945, and the article provides a useful list of over 100 worthy B films from a lengthier period, 1935–1959. Since the book was commissioned as an expansion of the Focus on Film article, it is doubly disappointing that the latter’s unique aspects were not incorporated into the longer work. But Miller does call attention to dozens of interesting-sounding films, and both his appreciation of professional skills and his “inside information” on remakes, pseudonyms, box-office opportunism, etc., throw some useful light on a relatively unexplored area of American moviemaking. And after all, it just may be that Miller’s B critic plainness is the only antidote to the madness contemplated by Sarris.

* * *

I didn’t come across Kings of the Bs until most of the above had been written, but I am happy to report that it serves as a varied and appealing companion to Miller’s work, and often a more sophisticated and daring one to boot. The book is an anthology, and it is as concerned with genuine B movies as with what co-editor Charles Flynn calls “schlock/kitsch/hack” movies. There are interviews, director pieces, and film analyses; considerable space is given to producers; the subjects include Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, Samuel Z. Arkoff, William Castle, Albert Zugsmith and (somewhat incongruously) Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night and Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley. There’s an abundance. of fine selections: the editors’ informative study of B movie economics; Myron Meisel’s thoughtful piece on Joseph H.’ Lewis; Richard Thompson’s highly personal analysis of Thunder Road; Peter Bogdanovich’s interview with Edgar G. Ulmer; Richard Straehling’s survey of “teen films” (from Rolling Stone); Douglas Gomery’s discussion of They Live by Night (B or no B); a new piece by Andrew Sarris and two old ones by Manny Farber; and co-editor Todd McCarthy’s filmographies for 325 directors (where else can you find listings of The Films of Joseph Kane, William Witney, Christy Cabanne, Lew Landers, Harry Horner, Frank Tuttle, Reginald LeBorg, Eddie Cline, Lloyd Bacon, Richard Thorpe, William Beaudine, and Felix Feist, and Roy William Neill, etc., etc.”).

Such ingredients make it a very worthwhile book—and yet the real Kings of the Bs still remains unwritten. Any book about B movies will almost inevitably have a cultist aura about it. But whereas Don Miller’s lack of pretentiousness is especially appealing in that light, the Flynn–McCarthy anthology pushes the cultist element into less comfortable territory. Flynn rightly insists that B movies must be reckoned with as part of our evolving sense of American film history. But the “schlock/kitsch/hack” syndrome which hovers over much of Kings of the Bs is essentially negative: there is an implicit feeling that the Bs are of interest precisely because they are negations of “serious” or “prestige” films. But if the Bs are to assume their rightful place in “film history,” then a more positive sense of B movie chemistry and aesthetics must be developed. What I’d like to see is not only more “honest criticism,” but also an account of the qualities which make B movies a uniquely attractive branch of American movies. Such an account might deal with the appeal of the Bs’ directness and simplicity, with their blend of artifice and raw artifact, with the aesthetics of blatancy and omission, with the psychology of the lurid, the petty and the naive. This, too, sounds like madness, but Kings of the Bs provides several sane leads on the issues—especially in Thompson’s meditation on Thunder Road and in Sarris’ insights on “Beatitudes of B Pictures”: ” … a disproportionate number ‘of fondly remembered B pictures rail into the general category of the film noir. Somehow even mediocrity can become majestic when it is coupled with death, which is to say that if only good movies can teach us how to live, then even bad movies can teach us how to die.”

© 1976 Peter Hogue

A pdf of the original issue can be found here