I haven't posted on here in a while, primarily due to universities, movie nights and relationships doing what they do. How are you all? I was looking through my old laptop and found a piece I wrote for college about 4 years, around the time I started getting properly into b-movies and the like, and started my movie night. I figured that if anyone would appreciate the ramblings of my 21 year old self, it would be you lot.
It is a piece on how needed these films are, how they created Hollywood, and will live on regardless. If you have a spare 15 minutes, have a read
B-Movies vs. Hollywood
The art of film making, since its mastering at the turn of the 20th century, has generated awe and admiration in audiences. The grassroots of film, long before Hollywood, was on the east coast of America, with magicians turning to film to captivate crowds at their travelling shows. In 1905, Harry and John Davis opened their first movie theatre, dubbing it a nickelodeon, which was derived from the cost of admission - a nickel - and the Greek word for theatre - odeon. The idea caught on, and by 1907 there were over 8000 nickelodeons in America, with a daily attendance of 2 million people. This carried on until 1913, when with films getting longer and more expensive, and with the American middle classes now in attendance, real movie theatres were built, and replaced the converted halls of old. However the original notion of cheap, feverishly commercial and wildly independent cinema would stick with the underground of film from then on. These film makers pioneered the marketing for the masses, the sensationalism and thrills that the average person wanted, a skill which would soon arise again in the B-movie. Today, the term refers to any and all movies with low budgets, big aspirations and made outwith the regulations of a major studio (with the exception of “serious” art-house films). However, the original term of B-movie, was coined during "The Golden Age" of the 1930s and 40s, when Hollywood boomed and became what we recognise today, it did so not merely on the merit of the big pictures. At the time, major movie theatres were relatively rare in comparison to the thousands of small, independently run theatres throughout America. The major studios realised that these smaller venues preferred to run shorter movies, as it was cheaper for them. Thus, between class A films, crews would work with up and coming stars or old theatre actors to make very cheap, very quickly made B-movies. Often westerns, these would be guaranteed to make profit, due to the very small budgets. At the same time, independent studios (known as Poverty Row Studios) were making even cheaper movies, called quickies due to their running time of an hour or less. These micro-budget (at one point 1/27th of the cost of a major picture) movies flooded the small, grind house cinemas of the inner cities and small towns. It is estimated that during the 1930s, almost 75% of the films that Hollywood made were classed as B-movies. In regards to these beginnings, it becomes clear that although B-movies are often condemned as pointless, they in fact made the film industry what it is today. Such foregone conclusions have also turned blind bias against such films in years since, but in reality, they often serve as a far greater reflection of society, and of cultural advancement, than Hollywood itself.
A good example of such is in regards to race, and in particular, the rise of the African American in American society. It was within independent film, ran through B-movie Poverty Row studios that the first African American actors and film-makers existed, long before Hollywood recognised them. It was in 1915 that the Lincoln Motion Picture Company was formed, the first studio to make films which portrayed the reality of the black community, whilst maintaining a positive message. These films, which became known as "Race Movies", were very popular amongst the black community, who'd became disenfranchised with Hollywood’s limited depiction of black people as figures of entertainment and comedy, and lesser in all aspects. It was in this same year that Hollywood released it's very first epic, and its most profitable film for the next 20 years, G.W. Griffiths "Birth of a Nation". In this film, Griffith depicted stereotypical southern blacks, who’s only desire was to keep the white man down. This is until the heroes of the piece appear, the crusading members of the Klu Klux Klan. The comparison between Hollywood and the independents at this point is staggering, but at the time, "Birth of a Nation" was federally endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson himself, and was a mainstream success. Around this time, one of the leading figures in black cinema came to the fore. Oscar Micheaux (1893-1953) was a director, producer and writer of the earliest African American cinema. His films often dealt with the issues of slavery and racism, issues which Hollywood would not face until the 1960s. This got him in trouble with censors, especially "Within Our Gates" (1920) which depicted rape and lynching by white people. A similar problem was not had by "Birth of a Nation", which depicted blacks raping whites, only a few years earlier. Black cinema continued on in the underground, where Hollywood would still only cast them as dancers, blackfaces, or in menial, subservient character roles. It was not until 1947 that the Motion Pictures Code forbade derogatory comments about a characters race, which only drove the racism to be more subtle, such as in the 5 Academy Award nominated John Wayne western "Shane"(1953), which featured an all-white old west. During World War Two, and into the early 1960s, Cold War paranoia and the threat of communism took light away from the Civil Rights Movements attempts to make Hollywood racially equal. The issue was all but ignored until the spate of racially motivated movies in the late 1950s and early 60s, aimed this time not at just the black audiences (who had been watching similar films for almost 40 years), but at white audiences too. One such groundbreaker was Robert Rossen's "Island in the Sun" (1957), which was one of the first to deal with inter-racial relationships. Five years later, in 1963, African American actor Sidney Poitier won Best Actor for "Lilies of the Field", certainly a milestone in Hollywood's relationship with the black community. Evidently cinema was changing, and it was in the next decade that black cinema exploded into a vibrant and successful medium of its own. Arguably, this began with Melvin Van Peebles 1971 classic "Sweet Sweetback's Badassssss Song", the first of the blaxploitation genre which followed. These movies about black people, by black people, for black people, were extremely successful in the 1970s, and themselves birthed the return of the grind house cinema. These cheaply run theatres, similar to the nickelodeons of the early 20th century, constantly showed low-budget and quickly made movies, and generated quite a profit for the burgeoning sub-industry. The whole exploitation genre really took off here from its early roots in 1950s horror, releasing everything from violent unrated shock flicks to hardcore pornography, but the blaxploitation genre was one which gained most mainstream interest. Hollywood, as ever, was quick to catch on, and in 1971 released Gordon Park's "Shaft", the first major studio motion picture to be directed by an African American. It was exactly 50 years after Micheaux directed "The Exile" (1931), the first independently made, African American directed talkie. In the 37 years since "Shaft" was released, the role of the black community in the Hollywood community, ergo mainstream cinema, has came far closer to being equalised. Through the work of directors such as Spike Lee and John Singleton, prominent actors such as Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry, and a multitude of other black players, the community itself has became more prominent within Hollywood. And this is in no small way due to the B-movie.
Another, somewhat more controversial notion, is that of B-movies help towards strong female characters in mainstream cinema. Taking a cross section of mainstream films from "The Golden Age" through till the 1970s, with few exceptions, the role of women is fairly clear. They are subservient, in action and thought, and their patriarchal overlords are the keepers and protectors. This, however, was not the case in B-movies. During the 1950s, Ida Lupino, an actress and director, often dealt with serious subjects of rape and abortion, at a time where the words themselves were forbidden by the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA). She also starred in hard edged prison dramas, such as "Women’s Prison" (1955). These RKO (a Poverty Row studio) productions were quite a parallel to the depiction of women in mainstream cinema. This notion of hard women continued into the 1960s and 70s.The blaxploitation genre took up the idea with gusto, with such strong leading ladies as Tamara Dobson in "Cleopatra Jones" (1973) and Pam Grier in "Foxy Brown" (1974). These hard hitting, fast shooting and very attractive women were popular in B-movies, be they enacting revenge or saving the day. Similar characters were not seen in mainstream cinema until 1979 with the character of Ripley in "Alien", or Sarah Connor in the "Terminator" franchise. However, such strong women characters were born out of film in a time when exploitation was the key word. Many of the B-movies pictures released through grind houses at the time were just vehicles for female nudity and degradation. The "Cutie nudies" of the 1950s gave way to hardcore pornography, some of which disguised itself as otherwise, and made it to the mainstream release ("Deep Throat" (1972) is an example of this). Women were probably the worst exploited at this time, due to the lines between B-movie and porno often blurring, and the lack of any real rights for the workers. From such degradation, there is a large grey area, and in it, a number of movies which have empowered, leading female roles, but also a great degree of exploitative style. A Swedish movie "Thriller: A Cruel Picture" (1974) is the story of a girl sexually assaulted as a child, sold into prostitution, who then loses an eye to an angry client. A depraved beginning, she then goes on to murder all of those who have done her wrong, in violent act of revenge. A similar story is found in "I Spit on your Grave" (1978), in which a woman who's brutally gang-raped returns to kill all of those involved. Argument still rages on as to whether or not these films represent strong females taking control of a horrible situation and turning the tables, or just very depraved attempts to make money through shocks. Today, there are strong leading woman in Hollywood and the underground, with characters of every kind existing. All too often however, do both camps find themselves slipping back into stereotypes, be that the screaming no-brainer, or the massively exploited.
B-movies are thereby not without fault, and have been condemned rightly, and wrongly, for decades. My final defence of the B-movie, is the notion that they did not have to conform like Hollywood eventually did. Decisions were not pressured by the NAACP or Women’s Lobby. Every decision that B-movies made, and the independent film which ran through the same veins, was made in reflection of what society wanted, on all manner of levels. It thereby gave great opportunities for women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals and other discriminated groups to make movies about what they wanted to see, in a time when their mere existence was condemned. And whilst it was always a business, and a very fast-paced and unapologetic one, a community has been born from it, and one far more inclusive than the Hollywood equivalent. The B-movie world is one in which stars can be born from, exist in and retire to. Some of Hollywood’s biggest stars began in the world of B-movies, with Jack Nicholson appearing in “The Little Shop of Horrors” (1960), or more recently Johnny Depp’s career start in “Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984). People can also exist there, such as Pam Grier or Bruce Campbell, who have made careers spanning 30 years in B-Movies alone. It is also a place for actors to retire. Classically trained and excellent actors such as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, John Carradine and Vincent Price all finished their careers making B-movies, having been ignored by Hollywood for younger stock. Such choices make B-movies more versatile than Hollywood could ever be. When Hollywood’s budgets got bigger, B-movies got more creative with their spending. When home videos destroyed the grind houses, B-movies were the first to move to the direct-to-video market. When cable attacked cinemas further, B-movies were the first to make made-for-TV movies. Even today, when film budgets are phenomenal, and people can watch movies on the internet and everywhere else, there is a renaissance of B-movies, horror in particular, in the straight-to-DVD market, and online itself. B-movies have thereby always been a living entity of cinema, for better or worse. Like a cockroach, undernourished and often despised, it has shown its versatility, and regardless of what happens to Hollywood, B-movies shall live on.