Monday, December 31, 2001

2001: My Year of B Movies

This was the year I discovered the pleasures of B movies, mostly due to Turner Classic Movies showing a number of Warner Brothers B's, many featuring people like Ann Sheridan, Eleanor Parker, Humphrey Bogart, and Jane Wyman before they became stars. I am in the middle of reading a wonderful book by Don Miller called B MOVIES. It's basically a chronological history of B films from the early 30's to the end of WWII, which Miller considers the heyday of those movies. Miller defines B films as ones that were made cheaply, mostly intended to be second features. They usually run from about an hour to 75 minutes, and certainly never longer than 90. Many were produced by small studios like Monogram or by independent producers, but all the big studios had B movie units.

They were made by second-string casts and second-string crew. The lead actors were either on their way up (Bogart, Wyman, Rita Hayworth) or on the way down (Bela Lugosi). Some actors, like Chester Morris, Boris Karloff, and John Carradine, bounced back and forth, often starring in B movies while taking supporting parts in A movies. The vast majority of films that Miller examines are ones that casual fans will probably never be able to see, as many are lost or just neglected. If it weren't for TCM, I'm sure I would have seen almost none of the films he discusses. Many series movies, like Maisie, Bulldog Drummond, Nancy Drew, Boston Blackie, and Charlie Chan, were B movies. Most of the Universal horror movies of the 40's were B, unlike the higher-budgeted ones in the 30's. Miller considers all of the Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes movies after the first two to be B pictures; HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES were made by Fox as A films, but the rest were made by Universal on tighter budgets and with shorter running times, and they saved money by being set in the present.

I'm sure that, to many young movie fans today, any movie in black and white that didn't win an Oscar seems like a B movie. The AIP beach and monster movies of the 60's are the B movies of my past, although many played as first features. EASY RIDER may be the biggest B movie ever made, in terms of gross and influence. Today, most of the movies that go directly to cable or tape could be considered B movies--I just saw one called CHERRY FALLS, a dumb slasher movie with Jay Mohr that unaccountably got a rave review in Variety last year.

Among my favorite B's, most of which I saw for the first time this year, are:

WHITE ZOMBIE (Lugosi right after DRACULA; very static direction and acting, but also very atmospheric)
MOONLIGHT MURDER (1936--a dumb little mystery with a nifty gimmick where singers are killed by lethal gas emitted from a microphone)
SPY SHIP (1942--a remake of FOG OVER FRISCO)
WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (a "social problem" movie from the early 30's about how delinquent runaways get the way they do)
TOMORROW AT SEVEN (1933--Chester Morris mystery)
EYES IN THE NIGHT (Edward Arnold as a blind detective, with Donna Reed in a supporting part)
DOWN IN SAN DIEGO (1941--an early Dan Dailey movie, though he has a supporting part, with the leads being juveniles Ray McDonald and Bonita Granville chasing, what else, Nazis)
THE MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR (1942, with Eleanor Parker and John Loder, about Nazis and ghosts in a small English village)
STRANGE ILLUSION (Edgar G. Ulmer's ultra-low budget version of "Hamlet")

Also many of the Val Lewtons, especially CAT PEOPLE and SEVENTH VICTIM; some of the Charlie Chans and Boris Karloff's MR. WONG movies, lower in budget than the Chans, but atmospheric, and benefitting from Karloff's performance

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