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Don Miller

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.

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