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The B Film: Hollywood's Other Half - B Filmmakers, Ethnic Films, Conclusion

black filmmaking pictures movies

Beyond the industrial structures and the typical glossy Hollywood cinema described elsewhere in this volume, there is another entire category of American fictional feature films created and shown under different conditions. These are the B movies, also called “quickies,” “cheapies,” “low-budget,” or simply “budget films,” even “C” or “Z” films. Such terms imply pictures that were regarded as secondary even in their own time, and the “B” label has often been used to imply minor pictures or simply poor filmmaking, anything tacky or produced on a low budget. 1 However, B films occupied an equally important role in Hollywood; to concentrate upon the A would emphasize the art of a few films and elide the basis of production, the underlying commercial and artistic means by which the industry survived—as well as the vast quantity and range of films offered to spectators during the studio era.

The content, production, exhibition, and profit from A films were not typical of the material that made motion pictures a continuously viable business enterprise. With each studio releasing, on average, one feature every week of the year, big-budget films were the exception, a distinct minority of the motion pictures produced. B’s filled out production schedules and encompassed approximately half the product of the vertically integrated majors. In addition, beyond the Big Eight, about three hundred films annually were made by smaller concerns, collectively known as “indies” or “B studios,” geographically centered in Hollywood along “Poverty Row.” Hence, roughly 75 percent of the pictures made during the 1930s, well over four thousand films, fall under the  rubric. 2 The sheer number of B films indicates their importance in fully understanding the 1930s; never before or since has low-budget filmmaking been so integral to the Hollywood industry.

With their prolific numbers, the enormous base of B filmmaking, not the occasional A’s, fueled the engines of production, distribution, and exhibition, allowing all three to function steadily and smoothly. By facilitating the industrial basis of filmmaking, B’s permitted each studio and its myriad personnel to remain active year-round. Turning out some fifty pictures annually allowed the studios to balance a large overhead by using sets, stages, ranches, and contract talent on a nearly continual basis. 3 B’s fulfilled a similar function for audiences and exhibitors, providing a sufficiently steady quantity of new material to alter theater programs twice a week or more, constantly tempting patrons by continuously changing offerings. The following pages analyze the basic characteristics of the B, provide an organizational structure for the analysis of its production and distribution, indicate the career patterns of B filmmakers, and discuss the stylistic traits of their movies. Finally, the focus shifts to one unique offshoot of B filmmaking, movies for ethnic audiences, especially African-Americans.

B Filmmakers

Just as B’s were the product of the divisions noted above, from B units at the majors to the smaller companies along Poverty Row, filmmaking talent tended to be compartmentalized along similar lines, with their status reflecting the same taxonomy. While B’s occasionally served as a training ground for directors, writers, cinematographers, designers, and performers, opportunities for promotions were the exception, rather than the rule. 28 Quickie filmmakers, especially, found little opportunity for upward mobility, and the prospect of talent emerging from the B’s was far less likely than the reverse, a decline into Poverty Row. Once talent was identified with the A or B category, the person tended to be pigeonholed, even at the majors. Although an individual might be involved with an occasional A, he would still most often be considered for B’s, just as a performer might typically play support in A’s and leads in B’s. Under contract, talent had to take the studio’s assignments, regardless of personal preference, often with only a day or even less to prepare. Most B directors could not revise the script, had little say in choosing a cast or crew, and were seldom involved in the editing.

Many individuals were shunted into careers dominated by B’s because of their consistent effectiveness in filming efficiently and smoothly. They became type-cast, in a sense, not for lack of talent, but precisely because of their demonstrated skill. Turning out pictures rapidly on low budgets required rare abilities: knowing exactly what shots were necessary, editing in the camera without Page 330  wasting footage on full coverage or more than a few takes, quickly arranging the lighting and camera angles to conceal the cheapness of the sets, eliciting or giving an effective performance with few rehearsals, and covering such disadvantages with fast pacing and shadowy lighting. These abilities were highly prized and might well lead to a continuation in the B realm, but seldom advanced one to the A’s.

B films became the domain of numerous individuals with long, prolific careers. One individual who provides a perfect example of the career path and assignments of a major studio B director in the 1930s, and what could be accomplished under such conditions, is Robert Florey. 29 As the form’s premier practitioner and exponent, the artistry he and others merged into the confines of B filmmaking is one of the justifications for investigating the form. (His work will be discussed at length in the next section of this chapter.) With thirty-five features to his credit during the decade, his movies demonstrate the problematic nature of the term B director; half of Florey’s 1930s films were actually either programmers or A’s, including four box-office champions. After serving as assistant director on big-budget productions, Florey directed three quality Poverty Row features in 1926-1927, but found they did not lead to directing for the majors. Next, he made a quartet of shorts that firmly brought the avant-garde to American filmmaking for the first time, including the renowned LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413—A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA. In quick succession, he was signed to direct the new talking pictures at Paramount’s Astoria studio, including the Marx Brothers’s hit film debut, THE COCOANUTS (co-director, Joseph Santley, 1929). He then traveled to his native France to direct some of the first European talkies and returned to America and co-authored (without any on-screen credit) the script of FRANKEN-STEIN (1931) at Universal. At the same studio, his adaptation and direction of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) turned Poe’s tale into a remake of the 1920 German classic THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, revised into the form of a Hollywood horror movie.

To continue both writing and directing, Florey joined his friend Sam Bischoff in 1932 at KBS, the old Tiffany studio. However, after a few months he won a far more lucrative directorial contract with Warner Bros., where, over the next two and a half years, he directed thirteen films. These ranged from A’s, to programmers, to an occasional B. However, shunted from one type of film to another, often given a negligible assignment after directing a hit, he left Warners in frustration in mid-1935. Moving to Paramount for the next four years, Florey found that the pattern of variable projects persisted, but he found far more creative freedom, especially in camerawork and decor. Yet Florey was typecast because of the continual need for B’s and his reputation for skillfully fusing artistic inclinations with a medium budget and shooting schedule as short as two weeks. His unconventional technique and determination to adapt both German expressionism and the avant-garde to Hollywood filmmaking became prized in the B and programmer realm, especially in thrillers, but was less desired in glossy A’s. After seventeen Paramount B’s, programmers, and A’s, he wearied of the pace and left in 1939. Briefly joining Columbia, he returned to Warners in 1941, and thereafter nearly all of his pictures were A’s. Florey renewed his contact with B-type production when he became the initial significant director to switch to the new medium of filmed television in 1951, winning the first Directors’ Guild television award.

A contrasting yet complimentary example is provided by Nick Grinde, whose career has been far more neglected. Grinde began as a vaudeville promoter before going to Hollywood; he and Florey first met in the 1920s as assistants to Josef von Sternberg, whom both sought to emulate. Neither man had industry connections to help him along, but Florey, unlike Grinde, was able to overcome this disadvantage with his reputation for fast yet artistic work. Although both worked quickly and cleverly, invariably producing a slick product on time, whatever the budget, Grinde did not bring Florey’s intellectual and European bent to filmmaking. As a result, despite occasional box-office hits, such as the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle SHOPWORN (1932), Grinde was never able to graduate to A’s, a goal Florey achieved in the 1940s. Grinde did not settle into a long-term contract, moving among MGM, Columbia, Universal, Hal Roach, Mascot, Warners, Republic, and Paramount, to complete some thirty pictures during the 1930s. Grinde was not employed entirely on features, for he also directed short films, documentaries, and animation; his work is so varied that his complete credits are uncertain because of the inadequate documentation of his career. Yet the care Grinde brought to his films has won them a place above most B product and allowed his name to endure. Grinde also had something of an experimental sensibility; during the late 1940s, he wrote an article urging the combination of animation with live action in feature filmmaking. Both Grinde and Florey were noted writers on the industry; Grinde wrote for such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post and penned the definitive filmmaker’s article on the studio B, “Pictures for Peanuts,” quoted below. Like Florey, Grinde eventually went into television, but much earlier, when Grinde’s feature career sputtered in the 1940s.

Many other individuals could also be discussed. For instance, along Poverty Row, a typical director was Harry Fraser, one of the few B directors whose autobiography has been published ( I Went That-a-Way, 1990). Fraser directed a wide range of movies, from Westerns to ethnic films, along with shorts and exploitation films. The trend of such a career in quickies is demonstrated by the fact that he worked when B’s were at their most prolific, especially in the mid-1930s, but found jobs hard to come by when commercial conditions were more adverse. Further examples would tend to become repetitive; the basic challenges B filmmakers faced remained the same, and the odyssey of Florey, slowly upward, and Grinde, remaining stagnant, vividly indicate the problems and potential of a range of B filmmakers.

Ethnic Films

Another aspect of B filmmaking revealing enormous differences from classical A’s are ethnic pictures. Movies of special appeal to the small but definite market of ethnic minorities were an important offshoot of the fourth category, the quickie films of Poverty Row. The B label must not be regarded as a diminishment of these movies; instead, it simply recognizes the industrial conditions under which they were made and shown, and further indicates the rich possibilities inherent in the B form. Like other Poverty Row quickies, the intended audience is a defining factor, with the states’-rights distribution system used to target viewers. Ethnic films were aimed at the specific race, religion, or nationality they portrayed, just as many mainstream quickies were directed at juvenile and rural theatergoers. Many ethnic films were distinguished by language, being made for audiences whose primary tongue was not English; in a sense, they were the aesthetic successors to the multi-linguals made by the major studios at the beginning of the sound era for overseas audiences.

Ethnic movies shared the constraints of Poverty Row, with companies usually short-lived and underfinanced. Filmmakers had minimal access to facilities and equipment, frequently utilizing outmoded East Coast studios or private homes. There was little opportunity for care, rehearsals, or retakes on schedules lasting two weeks at most, with the completed films averaging six reels in length. Ethnic filmmakers were constantly confronted by a fundamental choice that went to the heart of their purpose and appeal. They could hire a Hollywood B director, who usually had little understanding of the subject matter, or make the movie with their own talent, despite an often poor grasp of film language and technique. When Hollywood talent was used, the personnel were usually already experienced in the unique challenges of quickies; a number of black, Yiddish, and Cantonese movies had such directors as Harry Fraser, B. B. Ray, William Nolte, and Edgar G. Ulmer.

Since ethnic filmmaking did not share in the rising demand for double-bill material, the form took significantly longer to recover from the budgetary problems posed by the coming of sound, and not until the mid-to-late 1930s did the production of these movies flourish. Exhibition possibilities were always limited to segregated theaters, minority areas, or special occasions and off-hours. Unlike mainstream quickies, with their use of repetitious, formulaic genre stories, such as Westerns, ethnic films typically emphasized the group’s traditional stories. Frequently the performers were not experienced movie players but non-professionals or stage actors identified with ethnic theater; the novelty of their film appearance served as a principal box-office draw. For instance, some of the early Yiddish films featured the best-known choirs and cantors of the day, before moving toward adaptations of venerable Yiddish plays. While this tended to limit their audience, it also captured its attention, often through notices in local and ethnic community newspapers. Ethnic films supported and perpetuated their respective heritage of customs and cultural identities, offering audiences one of the few opportunities to feel a wholly satisfying cinematic experience in unique rapport with their own people.

There were, for instance, not only imported films for Hispanic audiences but also films originating in Hollywood, with Hispanics and Anglos collaborating for theaters catering to Spanish-speaking patrons. For example, in 1935 three Spanish-language films were produced in the United States, UNHOMBRE PELIGROSO /A DANGEROUS MAN , NO MATARAS /THOUS HALT NOT KILL , and CONTRA LA CORRIENTE /AGAINST THE CURRENT , the latter produced, written and directed by 1920s Hollywood star Ramon Novarro. Also during 1935, three American films were made in Yiddish, BAR MITZVAH , SONG OF SONGS , and YIDDISH KING LEAR ; the decade’s total was twenty-six features and twenty shorts. Yiddish production was also augmented by a substantial number of imports from Poland. Whether domestic or imported, the Yiddish cinema portrayed the preservation of Jewish traditions despite adversity and the surrounding gentile majority. The setting was most often Eastern Europe, where the rise of fascism was a contemporary threat. 39 Similarly, but almost forgotten today, were several films produced in Ukrainian, and another, ARSHIN MAL A LAN /THE PEDDLER LOVER (1937), in Armenian. There was at least one film in Cantonese, SUM HUN (1936), produced in Hollywood by a mix of Chinese and Anglo talent, for principal release in San Francisco’s Chinatown district.

Another type of ethnic film, the most persistent, prolific, and best remembered, was set largely in the United States and differentiated by race. Black films, like other ethnic forms, can be defined through the principal audience. 40 This methodology isolates movies with a predominantly black cast and includes not only black-directed films but others with a mix of races behind the camera as cinematographers, directors, writers, or producers, with actual financing almost invariably white. Using this taxonomy, some three hundred features and an equivalent or greater number of shorts described as black films were made in the years 1910-1955, roughly the era of classical Hollywood. They were made during three principal cycles: one during the silent period (1916-1928), a second, which began in the late 1930s and paused for World War II, and a third cycle that emerged with renewed vigor at war’s end but quickly waned as the 1950s dawned. This pattern was reflected in the peak years for corporate formation and film production: 1918-1922, 1938-1940, and 1946-1947.

Black films grew largely out of an effort to find an independent cinematic voice, one that could rival Hollywood and respond to the prevailing stereotypes. Black filmmaking actually began back in 1910, with shorts made by William Foster in Chicago. Targeting the black middle class and avoiding stereotypes, Foster’s success encouraged a number of other companies. However, exhibition remained sufficiently limited to constrain profits and investments, and the coming of sound harshly exposed the budgetary drawbacks. 41 Sound ended the first cycle of black filmmaking: while seven black features were released in 1928, in 1929 and 1930 there were only three each year, with two in 1931. Black feature filmmaking resumed slowly in the 1930s, and many of these productions, such as those by Harlem-based Paragon Pictures, remained silent or only part talking. The two independent 1933 features by Eloise and Robert Gist, HELLBOUND TRAIN and VERDICT : NOT GUILTY /NOT GUILTY IN THE EYES OF GOD , were shot silent on 16-mm film and had an amazingly fluid camera style. Replete with stunning metaphors and moral parallels, they received wide exhibition in black churches, enhanced by a live commentary.

Shooting on black features usually lasted a week, and budgets averaged   $10,000-$15,000 (some were made for as little as $3,500), but could be as high as $28,000, as with the Henry Armstrong boxing picture KEEP PUNCHING (1939). Profit for black films generally averaged $15,000, occasionally rising to $60,000, usually on the basis of rentals, which varied from $1,000 in a Harlem theater down to flat fees of $7 elsewhere. 42 The star system in black films reflected the form’s emergence from Poverty Row as individuals like Ralph Cooper, Herb Jeffries, and Lorenzo Tucker dominated through their background in stage and recording. Since the teens, established Hollywood stars tended to make few appearances in black films. Although such performers as Louise Beavers, Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson, and Clarence Muse did play in black films, each appeared in only one or two movies, in contrast to the dozens of major-studio pictures in which they were credited. Salaries in Hollywood, even for the traditional black supporting roles, were far greater than could be achieved by starring positions in even the most lavish black movies. The importance of stars like Muse was strictly in proportion to black productions; for instance, Muse’s 1940 feature BROKEN STRINGS was shot in four days. The star, Nina Mae McKinney, only became active in black films after her own Hollywood career had taken a downturn. Only one star, Mantan Moreland, actually emerged from black films to become a Hollywood contract player. By contrast, Josephine Baker was confined to appearing in French films, while the preeminent black actor Paul Robeson was in virtual exile after THE EMPEROR JONES (UA, 1933), pursuing his career in England with a number of films that presage Hollywood’s use of Sidney Poitier in the 1950s. Other than THE EMPEROR JONES , only one other black feature was distributed by a major Hollywood company, Warners’ 1936 adaptation of the stage hit THE GREEN PASTURES , a spiritual fantasy.

The most prolific and tireless voice in black filmmaking during the preceeding decade had been Oscar Micheaux. However, by the 1930s, his reputation was diminishing, since he was no longer a pioneer. Many of his early talkies were composed largely as silents, relying on long explanatory intertitles, such as A DAUGHTER OF THE CONGO (1930) and TEN MINUTES TO LIVE (1932). Micheaux’s pictures were usually made in around ten days for between $10,000 and $20,000 dollars, with local actors, and shot in the New York area, often relying on the homes of friends for sets. Micheaux believed that profits were inevitably limited and hence saw no reason to increase his investment or quality. 43 His productions had increasing trouble finding exhibition as the black press decried the content of his films as well as his often primitive technique. Micheaux’s sporadic output of one or two productions annually became clearly weak alongside those of other, similar companies; his fifteen movies in the decade were only a portion of black filmmaking during a period that saw approximately seventy-five black features.

The resurgence in black filmmaking in fact coincided with Micheaux’s decline. While Micheaux Pictures Corporation of New York had been the pivotal concern of the 1920s, the better representative of the 1930s and beyond was Million Dollar Productions. Million Dollar, more than any other company, moved black filmmaking away from a marginalized form toward the mainstream, advancing considerably its reputation and ability to attract audiences. Although the Million Dollar name belied the firm’s assets and budgets, for the first time blacks had substantial control over production in an integrated filmmaking corporation. 44 Million Dollar was the most financially successful such enterprise to date, and the company sponsored a dozen prestigious productions between 1937 and 1940; at least six of these remained in release during the 1940s through one of its successors, Ted Toddy.

Million Dollar had its origins in 1936, when performer Ralph Cooper was brought to Hollywood by Fox but was immediately dropped when he did not fit the desired stereotype. Instead, Cooper united with another black, George Randol, to produce and star in DARK MANHATTAN (1937), which successfully adapted the Hollywood gangster formula to the ethnic screen. Cooper then broke with Randol and joined Harry and Leo Popkin to form Million Dollar Pictures. Over the next three years he co-produced and starred in such movies as BARGAIN WITH BULLETS /GANGSTERS ON THE LOOSE (1937), GANG WAR /CRIME STREET (1939), THE DUKE IS TOPS /BRONZE VENUS (1938), and AMI GUILTY ?/RACKET DOCTOR (1940). In addition, Cooper wrote GANG SMASHERS /GUN MOLL (1938), REFORM SCHOOL /PRISON BAIT (1938), LIFE GOES ON /HIS HARLEM WIFE (1938), and MR . SMITH GOES WEST (1940). Cooper, a bandleader, emcee, and musical entertainer, became the first black matinee idol of the movies; his skillful persona won him the appropriate sobriquet “the bronze Bogart.” 45 Although his film career was brief, he had an enormous impact, and the black film cycle of the late 1930s was a direct result of the popularity of DARK MANHATTAN . Whereas twenty-three black features were made in the seven years 1930-1936, the next four years, 1937-1940, saw over fifty black movies.

The Cooper films in particular, and Million Dollar Productions generally, diverged from earlier black films. Narratives and performances were far more plausible than Micheaux’s improbable and excessive melodramatics, yet still dealt with black issues. There was no trace of the homegrown aesthetic associated with Micheaux; Million Dollar films were equivalent in terms of style and quality with the better Hollywood B studios, on a par with the contemporary product of Monogram and Republic. For the first time a series of black films, not just a few isolated examples, sustained a polished, solid production style within the norms of classical production. Well-known stars were offered who could appeal to mixed audiences, such as Cooper, Louise Beavers, and Mantan Moreland. Although produced for only about twice as much as a typical Micheaux film, Million Dollar took advantage of a wide array of Hollywood talent, expertise, and equipment to increase production standards. For instance, DARK MANHATTAN was shot at the Grand National studios, a lot with superior facilities to those offered by Fort Lee and the private homes used in the Micheaux efforts. The consistent problems Micheaux and others had in achieving audible recordings, adequate lighting, smooth editing, and acceptable performances had always impeded their appeal to audiences. Indeed, despite the fact that Micheaux so often fell short, his rare exceptions, such as LEM HAWKINSCONFESSION /BRAND OF CAIN /MURDER IN HARLEM (1935) and BIRTH-RIGHT (1939), indicate that his unrealized hope actually was to achieve such standards.

Cooper’s former partner, George Randol, was only slightly less successful, merging with the brothers Bert and Jack Goldberg to form International Road Shows in Hollywood. They produced a number of films that moved in the same direction as the Million Dollar efforts, without such smooth results. The Randol-Goldberg product included BROKEN STRINGS (1940), DOUBLE D EAL (1939), MIDNIGHT SHADOWS (1939), MYSTERY IN SWING (1939), PARADISE IN HARLEM (1940), and SUNDAY SINNERS (1940). The Goldbergs had previously been associated with black-cast stage productions, and films like HARLEM IS HEAVEN /HARLEM RHAPSODY (1932) and THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER SPEAKS /THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER (1934), and they remained active through the 1940s. Another mixed-race company, Hollywood Productions, headed by white director Richard Kahn, turned out THE BRONZE BUCKAROO (1938), HARLEM RIDES THE RANGE (1939), TWO GUN MAN FROM HARLEM (1939), and SON OF INGAGI (1940). Together, Micheaux, Paragon, Hollywood Productions, Million Dollar, and International Road Shows were responsible for more than forty features, well over half the black output during the 1930s. Most of the other companies of the period were responsible for only one or two films, tending to be small and focusing on a specific personality or picture; for example, Eddie Green’s Sepia Art produced his own two featurettes.

The parallel cases of Cooper and Randol, and their separate development with the Popkins and Goldbergs, along with the example of Richard Kahn, indicate the direction of black production. Many of the companies, and certainly the most prolific ones, were neither all black nor all white, but integrated. Most often blacks collaborated in producing capacities, as writers and as leading performers, governing their personas, while whites, more experienced in B filmmaking, co-produced and directed. The cooperative black-white efforts succeeded, both as commercial ventures and in changing black images; Micheaux’s one-man operation was hardly the only method.

These companies followed the lead of their mainstream counterparts by utilizing genre formulas, especially crime, musical, and comedy films. The crime film, encompassing gangster, underworld, mystery, thriller, and detective films, was one of the most prevalent escapist genres in black movies for the same reason it was popular in Hollywood generally: the formula allowed a suspenseful product, despite financial limitations. For instance, MYSTERY IN SWING (1939) is a typical B whodunit, little different from its white counterparts, and DARK MANHATTAN initiated a series of black gangster films by demonstrating the potential popularity of adapting an existing genre to the black milieu. Pictures like STRAIGHT TO HEAVEN (1939) went beyond the rise of a gangster or the solving of a murder to cover the impact of crime on the black community. Several musicals were successful, despite the need for more elaborate staging, including HARLEM IS HEAVEN , THE DUKE IS TOPS , and BROKEN STRINGS , starring Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, and Clarence Muse, respectively. Many other black films offered musical numbers in nightclub sequences only tangentially related to the main plot line, while individual musical acts were often the focus of shorts.

Other genres were also invoked. Horror films were represented by SON OF INGAGI , LOUISIANA /DRUMS O ’ VOODOO /VOODOO DRUMS /VOODOO DEVIL DRUMS (1933), and THE DEVIL’S DAUGHTER /POCOMANIA (1939), with the last shot in Haiti, a sharp visual contrast with black cinema’s usual emphasis on cramped interiors or nightclubs. THE SPIRIT OF YOUTH (1937), KEEP PUNCHING /WHILE THOUSANDS CHEER /GRIDIRON GRAFT /CROOKED MONEY (1940), and THE NOTORIOUS ELINOR LEE (1940) concentrated on the world of sports, featuring the noted athletes Joe Louis, Henry Armstrong, and Kenny Washington. Echoing Republic’s success with Gene Autry, singing star Herb Jeffries was cast in a series of popular black musical Westerns: HARLEM ON THE P RAIRIE /BAD MEN OF HARLEM (1937), THE BRONZE BUCKAROO /THE BOLEY BUCKAROO (1938), H AR -lem Rides the Range (1939), and TWO-GUN MAN FROM HARLEM (1939). Although many of these pictures continued the Hollywood pattern of featuring stereotypical buffoons in comedic supporting roles, since all the characters were black, comics were no longer exclusively connected to race. Indeed, black comedians became a source of pride; for instance, in MR . WASHINGTON GOES TO TOWN (1940), Jack Benny is referred to as the fellow who appears on Eddie “Rochester” Anderson’s radio show.

Despite invoking the crime, musical, Western, sports, horror, and comedy genres, the social-conciousness type was the single form most frequently utilized, directly commenting on political issues facing the black community. For example, three films etch very different portraits of contemporary black leadership. THE BLACK KING /HARLEM BIG SHOT (1932) is a highly critical parable of Marcus Garvey and the back-to-Africa movement, with a sharp, satiric tone portraying him as a fraud and an exploiter of race. In THE EMPEROR JONES , an A picture produced for United Artists, an equally problematic portrait emerges of a self-absorbed leader. By contrast, in 1940 a film entitled GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER presents a role-model type of biography in a near documentary style. THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER SPEAKS was a documentary to foster pride in the black contributions to American military history.

A common theme is how social problems created tensions within the family. In ONE DARK NIGHT /NIGHT CLUB GIRL (1939), Mantan Moreland leaves his family in frustration in order to find the wealth to support them properly and finally returns as the prosperous owner of a nightclub. Two 1938 films for Louise Beavers, LIFE GOES ON and REFORM SCHOOL , portray a widowed mother devoted to keeping her grown sons on the road to middle-class success and away from the temptations of crime. However, only Micheaux tends to portray blacks encountering white prejudice, as in THE EXILE (1931), LEM HAWKINSCONFESSION , and BIRTHRIGHT . An equally frequent and unique theme in Micheaux’s work is the internal divisions within the black community, found in A DAUGHTER OF THE CONGO and GOD’S STEPCHILDREN (1938), among others.

Through the use of generic conventions and an increasing adherence to the conventions of the classical Hollywood style, black movies expanded their potential audience with subject matter and presentation that addressed topics of wide interest. Black films had been clearly a separate form as the 1930s began, and the black press noted that the films fell below the standard that Hollywood norms led audiences to demand. By the end of the decade, the increasing distribution and emergence from the Hollywood states’-rights underground was reflected in scattered reviews in the trade press, which often explicitly mention that some black movies were considered acceptable for racially mixed audiences and white theaters. This prepared the way for the post-World War II cycle, when black independent production would resume with bigger budgets than ever before, concentrating on comparatively lavish musicals, such as BEWARE ! (1946) and SEPIA CINDERELLA (1948). These were close enough to the Hollywood vein and gained sufficient commercial success, so that Hollywood realized that black concerns had become a potentially profitable form of screen entertainment, growing beyond a parallel shadow economy that could be ignored. This reaction was amplified by the desegregation of theaters and the increasing concern with integration, rather than the separation of the races, that black-audience films often embodied.

While the commercial results are clear, it is arguable whether this increasing use of genre formula and classical style was advantageous from an aesthetic or political standpoint. However, while reflecting Hollywood conventions, black films remained true to their social inspiration. Indeed, all 1930s black movies, even when ostensibly nonpolitical, have very strong overtones that were appreciated by their audiences. Even the films that did not deal with racial issues or specific contemporary events still have political content; the very fact of production and exhibition made a clear statement for filmmakers and audiences in the 1930s. The idealized blacks-only realm of the segregated cast reflected the general social reality of the time, yet casting blacks in a cinematic world of their own was also a powerful statement of equality. Within the context of entertainment, black films sought to overthrow, and serve as a haven from, Hollywood’s demeaning stereotypes, creating a new mythology that contradicted the cinema’s standard images. 47 Black pictures presented thoughtful, well-educated, moral, and highly motivated heroes who reflected credit on their race; even the villains behave with dignity and decorum. In etching a celluloid territory free of prejudice or white domination, the films may have also helped to show Hollywood new possibilities for black roles. For example, the Herb Jeffries cycle not only offered musical entertainment, but recognized the role of black cowboys in the settlement of the West. The black-cast film, by its very nature, offered a clear message of equality and esteem for black life, articulating a racial   consciousness and establishing an aesthetic tradition that remains in force to this day. Separate but not financially equal, the films were a justifiable source of pride for black audiences and a reminder to Hollywood of possibilities overlooked.


With the end of the 1930s, the B film was rapidly changing. By 1939, small concerns making pictures for $20,000-$30,000 were having an increasingly difficult time selling their product, and though such films continued to be made, they were no longer so prolific. 48 The deliberate structuring of the major’s annual product around the A and B polarities was steadily eroding. In the 1940s the content of B’s altered under the influence of World War II; war and spy films had been all but nonexistent in the 1930s B. The box-office bonanza from 1942 to 1945 caused movie budgets to go up, and the majors were increasingly unwilling to burden their secondary or offbeat product with the B label. Studios claimed that their lower-budget pictures were made more carefully, on individual merit, and with less predetermination as to their eventual double-bill positioning. With the end of the vertical integration of the industry through the banning of block booking, and the consent decrees, theaters no longer had to accept a studio’s lower-end product in order to get its A’s. As the weekly national habit of “going to the movies” faded in the late 1940s, the economics of moviemaking changed from a priority on quantity and consumption to an accent on quality and individuation of product. Falling attendance eroded the faith in the B as an antidote; pictures intended simply to fill a program slot were no longer profitable without the guarantee of weekly patronage. Television adopted many B genres, such as crime and Westerns, taking advantage of the expected shorter running times and fast shooting schedules. These factors, together with declining enforcement of the Production Code and the increasingly youthful makeup of the audience, led to an explosion in new genres. Low-budget films appealed to a baby-boom market by turning toward horror/science fiction and exploitation, with formulas and exhibition strategies differing from Hollywood’s previous approach. 49 Filmmaking changed enormously, and there is little comparison in either style or content between the 1930s B and the low-budget pictures of the 1950s and beyond; applying the B label to such widely different forms as exploitation, 1950s horror and sci-fi, and 1980s slasher films is a misnomer. Properly speaking, the historical context of the B belongs to the studio era of double bills, when such movies operated in relation to, and as a variation on, the principles of classical filmmaking.

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