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The Style of the B Film

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For many years, B’s were critically neglected in the belief that they were unworthy: necessarily formulaic, hastily and cheaply made. Yet this notion is at best reductive and an oversimplification. Not only were B pictures significant from an industrial perspective, but they were equally important from an artistic and cultural point of view. B’s had many advantages over A’s, stemming from the fact that they could target smaller audiences, such as youth or ethnic minorities, instead of the usual wide appeal of family entertainment A’s. B’s experienced many such contradictory pressures that both liberated and constrained the form, in both production and story. The following analysis of the narrative and visual Page 332  characteristics of the B approaches the form both generally and in relation to the four-tiered structure outlined above, noting how the differences in production and exhibition result in divergent types of B filmmaking.

Recognizing the B style requires understanding it on its own terms, not in terms of A’s. This involves acknowledging the disadvantages and the possibilities, judging the B as the separate commodity it was intended to be, not as a stunted or small-scale A. In his article “Pictures for Peanuts,” Nick Grinde summarized it this way:

“B” standing for Bread and Butter, or Buttons, or Bottom Budget. And standing for nearly anything else anyone wants to throw at it…. A “B” picture isn’t a big picture that just didn’t grow up; it’s exactly what it started out to be. It’s the twenty-two-dollar suit of the clothing business, it’s the hamburger of the butchers’ shops, it’s a seat in the bleachers. And there’s a big market for all of them…. When you are all through, you have a suit or a picture which goes right out into the market with its big brothers and gives pretty good service at that. The trick is to judge them in their class and not by “A” standards. (Penguin Film Reviewl, [February 1946], p. 41)

In practical terms, the B had little time for the leisure of care and retakes, preparations or planning; consultations between director, art director, cinematographer, and performer were minimal, and opportunities for rewriting scripts were rare. Grinde summarized the director’s work this way: “He doesn’t have time to do any one thing quite as well as he would like to, because he can’t stop and do just that one thing. He is, for the moment, a juggler, and must keep his eye on all the Indian clubs.” Many of the screenplays of quickies were penned in a week or less, and then shot in a similar time span, emphasizing quantity, not quality. B’s often used plain or sparse decor; the best and most lavish sets, effects, or stock footage were usually left over from an earlier picture. Most B’s made no effort to conceal their haste, shooting in uniformly high-key lighting throughout; only occasionally would the more creative B filmmakers partly conceal these drawbacks through the artistry of low-key lighting. For instance, Grinde noted that in contrast with an A film, the chase in a B concludes in a “scene shot in an alley with three cops and some dandy shadows. And if it’s done properly, it can be plenty thrilling, even if it is mounted in cut-rate atmosphere.”

B’s could be of any generic form, with probably as much diversity as was found among the A’s. Nearly every genre was capably utilized in the B, whether animal, aviation, children’s, college, comedy, detective, crime, domestic, gangster, horror, jungle, love story, medical, melodrama, musical, mystery, newspaper, Northwest, political, rural, satire, social problem, sports, war, Western, woman’s, or youth films. Outside of the considerable number of Westerns, male-oriented action films did not dominate B output. B’s were expected to offer not only action but also comedy, with a homey, folksy tone, and an important love interest, all considered useful in advancing its position on a double bill. 31 Many B’s moved toward this goal by merging conventions of several forms, such as the gangsterwoman’s film THE GIRL WHO CAME BACK (Chesterfield, 1935). Evidence of this inclination is that in contrast to the B filmmaking of later decades, horror was a comparatively scarce genre among B’s in the 1930s. The Universal efforts were A’s   or at least programmers; not until after the successful reissue of DRACULA (1931) and FRANKENSTEIN (1931) in 1937 did the genre really begin to enter the B realm, with the Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, Mummy, and Invisible Man characters combining into a B series in the 1940s.

However, there was also pressure leading toward formulaic narratives, particularly those accenting mystery and the old West. Low-budget efforts were most often successful as entertainment when emphasizing fights and chases; consequently, the B became associated with the term action pictures. B’s reflected the strains of pulp fiction—for instance, supplying fast-moving detective mysteries for audiences unsatisfied with the more fully rounded, slower-moving, character-driven A’s, such as MGM’s Thin Man series. Like the pulps, the B’s had plots that were often simple, standardized, and repetitive, almost obsessively so, giving the audience the same situations over and over, deliberately remaining unoriginal. The least prestigious type of B, the quickie, is most remarkable in this respect. Their producers sought to exclude nearly all complexity or variation, since the familiarity of the most undemanding and rigid formulas was both expected and desired. In the words of a New York Times article, “Generally the stories told are of a routine character, written in bold fashion and played with directness. No time is wasted on fine writing or delicate direction. Villains are villains and Page 334  heroes are heroes, and there is no mistaking it after the first 500 feet.” Quickies reveal their target spectator as unsophisticated, juvenile or rural, not conditioned to the gloss of studio product, with an almost endless ability to absorb extreme repetition, especially in Westerns. Nor was repetition confined to formula; pictures were overtly remade and plots recyled. Not only were A’s recycled into new A’s, but some B’s were scaled down remakes of earlier A pictures; for instance, Paramount’s WOMEN WITHOUT NAMES (Robert Florey, 1940) recycled the women’s prison film LADIES OF THE BIG HOUSE (Marion Gering, 1931). Many other B’s were looser remakes, either combining portions of two or more plots into one picture or making alterations in background or character.

The principal audience for quickies was the same youthful matinee crowd that responded to serials. And indeed, the narrative traits of B films echoed not only the pulps but also movie serials, emphasizing thrills, pace, and low budgets over mood, coherence, and characterization. B’s and serials have similar actionoriented heroes, displaying fisticuffs, athleticism, and cheery youthfulness. B’s move rapidly, often at the expense of probability, loading the narrative with action-filled incidents and twists of plot and character. They typically pack an enormous amount of raw story material into their five-to-seven-reel length, often exceeding the quantity of events found in an A film of nine reels or more, despite the typical additional thirty minutes of running time. The difference is a matter of making the narrative compact in the B through compression more than ellipses. By contrast, the A pauses for the contemplative subtleties of nuance, atmosphere, and motivation, to make the tale more credible. Hence, a key difference is in pace and density, giving a furious quality to the B that A’s, even when action-oriented, seldom strive for.

Exemplifying this characteristic were upward of two hundred Westerns made annually, most of them B’s. The B Western was often perceived as such a separate commodity, with personnel unique to it on both sides of the camera, that the trades discussed Westerns separately from any other type. The genre was both the most profitable low-budget form and the cheapest to make. Most of these movies dealt with the same well-known stories over and over: the struggles of cattlemen against rustlers, nesters, or other greedy, would-be tycoons, with the cowboy usually saving a besieged ranch headed by a kindly widower whose demure daughter quickly falls in love with the hero. Variation was usually limited to a crooked foreman; a case of mistaken identity, such as the hero proving to be an undercover Texas Ranger; or the hero avenging the murder of his parents.

Yet notable exceptions to the tendencies of low-budget narratives are found, even among B Westerns. These include the films of Buck Jones, the premier figure in the genre during the 1930s, who used his popularity to vary the Western formula in ways that presage the changes of the late 1940s. Whereas Tim McCoy, Charles Starrett, and the other Western stars at Columbia had to be satisfied with brief shooting schedules, Jones strove for greater autonomy, introducing new themes into his films. He usually spent three weeks or more shooting his own films, a schedule equivalent for the studio’s A’s, and finally set up his own production unit, Coronet Pictures. HOLLYWOOD ROUND-UP (1937) is rare in the genre for its reflexivity, telling of Jones’s own rise from stuntman to take the place of another Western star, with a cast whose careers were now in decline, including Helen Twelvetrees, Grant Withers, and Jones himself. The anticlerical UNKNOWN VALLEY (1933), similar to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel A Study in Scarlet, tells of a religious cult in the West modeled on the early days of the Mormon church. CALIFORNIA FRONTIER (1938) explicitly details, through the photography and a social-consciousness manner, the cruelty shown the Mexicans as California joined the Union. Other Jones films also embody a revisionist view of the Old West. In WHITE EAGLE (1932) he plays an Indian who is in love with a white woman and encounters persistent racism; Jones treated the theme again in a serial remake.

In fact, despite the genre’s narrow range of narratives, the B Western formula contained a wide opening for a key social theme of the 1930s, the loss of farms to foreclosure during economic hard times. Conventions were employed to comment explicity on the situation in a direct way that remained embedded in generic expectations and could not have been overlooked by contemporary audiences. Foreclosures were portrayed in a straight good-versus-evil format, with greedy bankers against the cowboys, as in the 1932 and 1933 Columbia pictures TWO-FISTED LAW and THE FIGHTING CODE ; both proposed methods of dealing with this Depression dilemma that attacked the economic status quo. A vehicle for Tim McCoy, BULLDOG COURAGE (Puritan, 1935), shifted the idea to the repossession of a mine, but bluntly sanctioned the hero taking the law into his own hands. In the socially conscious WOMING OUTLAW (Republic, 1939), the Three Mesquiteers bring an end to political corruption and a crooked relief administrator. This is done on behalf of victimized dust-bowl farmers, who, the picture notes, were encouraged to invest in large harvests during World War I and then lost their land and money when demand quickly fell.

Some, particularly sociological critics, have tended to regard B’s as the arena of affirmation, conservatism, and optimism, but the many exceptions invalidate this generalization. 33 For instance, many roles in B woman’s films, such as the lawyer in DISBARRED (Paramount, 1938) and the secretary in $20 A WEEK (Ajax, 1935), a melodrama of women in the workplace, portray considerably more freedom of choice than those in their A counterparts. Topical themes had a potential box-office value in B’s as well as A’s. Columbia was typical; prior to the 1936 release of Warners’ famous BLACK LEGION , the studio distributed the programmer LEGION OF TERROR , a similar exposé of the Ku Klux Klan, and SMASHING THE SPY RING warned of German espionage nearly a year before Warners’ CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939). Indeed, while A’s concentrate on the lives of the wealthy, lower-budget films provide a contrast. With their less ornate costumes and sets, and secondary stars, B’s center more on day-to-day living, and their themes arguably constitute a better cultural and political reflection of the time. Monogram’s MAKE A MILLION (1935), directed by Lewis D. Collins from a script by Emmett Anthony and Charles Logue, offers a curious commentary on the distribution of economic resources in the Depression. MAKE A MILLION tells of a wealthy student (Pauline Brooks) who has her professor (Charles Starrett) fired for his radical theories on how to revitalize the nation’s trade through increased spending. However, the professor puts his ideas into practice by public subscription, creating a World Improvement League, and winning the heart of the remorseful heiress. MAKE A MILLION demonstrates that a small studio like Monogram was able to presage the populist direction of Frank Capra, offering a far more intense and complex discussion of current events than most big pictures attempted by the majors.

The 1930s B could be an unrealized progressive force, as exemplified in the Charlie Chan series. While the films are justifiably criticized for not casting a Chinese lead, the role had been twice entrusted to Japanese actors, Kamiyama Sojin and George Kuwa, in several films made before Earl Derr Biggers’s literary character achieved motion-picture popularity. Not until Warner Oland was given the role in CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES O N in 1931 did the part win acceptance in popular movie culture. The Swedish Oland had played both white and Oriental characters in the past and became increasingly absorbed in Chinese lore as the Chan role assumed a steadily larger share of his time. Indeed, just before playing Chan, Oland had been cast in a brief series of A pictures based on the menace of Sax Rohmer’s paradigm of the “yellow peril,” Fu Manchu. The transition from Rohmer’s villain to Biggers’s hero was no minor event: it indicated a fundamental reversal in Hollywood’s treatment of Oriental characters, and the Mr. Moto and the Mr. Wong series later in the decade gave ample evidence of the extent of the change. Indeed, the film version of Mr. Moto so valorized John P. Marquand’s decidedly ambivalent literary character, a Japanese secret agent, that the series had to be dropped with the dawning of World War II.

The Chan series, lasting eighteen years and forty-four films, offered its hero as a wise and paternal humanistic figure. Despite popular misconceptions, Chan never spoke “Pidgin English”; his language was invariably elegant, that of a cultured immigrant. His “number-one,” “-two” and “-three” sons (always Page 337  enacted by Orientals, most notably Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung) were depicted as assimilating into American culture and were used as foils to note the resulting generational and ethnic changes, through gentle comedy echoing the pattern of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. The Chan films, in a manner unique for the time, offered a warm portrayal of a family emerging from a very different culture. Chan was etched as a loving father and patient parent of a dozen children, and his concern for them, together with his intelligent detection and Oriental wisdom, embodied in the form of proverbs, offered a unique character and a major positive development in Hollywood’s treatment of minorities.

The Chan series actually began as A’s, straight adaptations of the Biggers novels. Not until five of the six books had been filmed did the studio decide to send Chan around the world in search of new story material, and the movies then acquired certain series accoutrements. The Chans became so successful as programmers that although made by the B unit, they were sold to exhibitors on a percentage basis rather than for the flat fee charged for typical B’s. Indeed, the films with Oland have the indulgence and pacing typical of A’s. Not until after the star’s death in 1938, when the detective’s role was taken over by Sidney Toler (and eventually Roland Winters), did the series acquire the B look, with much faster pacing and typically B mystery plots—which made for more exciting, if less unusual, films.

As demonstrated by the Buck Jones Westerns, the Chan series, and many other B films, the lower-budget realm often went beyond juvenile concerns to present serious themes, maturely handled. B’s are certainly formulaic, but outside of the quickies, no more so than A’s of the time. Indeed, many B’s contain surprising deviations from archetypal plots, concentrating on unconventional themes and offbeat or bizarre elements that almost certainly would have been shunned in the big-budget arena. Studio moguls and the Hays Office were primarily concerned with the A’s, since they had major stars and big budgets at stake. With distribution virtually guaranteed on a flat-fee basis, the studios defined a B as successful, not by the standard A criteria of content, critical response, and box-office grosses, but simply by whether the film was finished on time and within the budget.

Within the limits of the B form, resourceful filmmakers, especially directors and cinematographers, were sometimes allowed to be more creative than in A’s. Even preset scripts and crews could not dictate such important elements as camerawork, lighting, performance, tone, and use of decor. Robert Florey recalled that “as long as I remained on schedule, I could shoot all the angles and set-ups I wanted, and move the camera whenever and wherever I wanted to, in the limited time I had.” The exigencies of production frequently required inventive, on-the-spot solutions to problems of editing, performance, design, and camerawork, resulting in stylistic devices that competed and contrasted with the tenets of A Hollywood films. Nick Grinde noted, “The B director has to know more tricks than Harry Houdini did, and he has to pull them out of his hat right now—not after lunch. He has to know a lot about making pictures and be able to toss that knowledge at a situation and hope that some of it will stick.” 36 While the financial limitations of quickies could vitiate much of the freedom, the B’s, especially at the majors, could become an artistic endeavor, while avoiding the budgetary excesses that doomed the A endeavors of a Josef von Sternberg or Orson Welles. Despite the regimentation of censorship and studio domination, the prolific quantity of the B as a secondary form of filmmaking allowed a broad array of diverse approaches to moviemaking and spectatorial positions. (These tendencies are illustrated by several examples of different types of B’s discussed below.) In earlier and later decades, this position was reflected in types of filmmaking that moved steadily further from the mainstream.

The differences are most striking in the quickies, such as those of Richard Talmadge and Bob Steele noted below. Such films offer an aesthetic problem in the paradigms of classical Hollywood cinema. They present an audacious nonconformity to accepted standards, unquestionably incompatible in many ways. While the quickies may not have been deliberately subversive of the modes of production and presentation offered by the majors, minuscule budgets often allowed, and required, filmmakers to develop a different style. The chutzpah that emboldened them to attempt filmmaking under adverse conditions resulted in circumstances of production that required them to vary and at times violate classical technique and generic formulas. Quickies often evade concepts of believability taken for granted in A films, with a cavalier attitude toward standards of seamless realism, constructing stories around obvious stock footage or effects that were unconvincing even in their own time. In “Pictures for Peanuts,” Nick Grinde offered an anecdote:

One director, who shall be nameless, but whom we’ll call Nick, was given a $16.50 bit man [speaking parts cost more] who had so much to pantomime that he and everyone else ran out of ideas for suitable gestures. Nods, points, shrugs, smiles and scowls were all tossed to the camera, but there was still more plot and still the order to keep him frugally inaudible. So, like always, something had to be done. He was finally played as a character with laryngitis, and wrote his answers on slips of paper, which were then photographed and cut into the film. The part came out as a nice thrifty novelty. ( Penguin Film Review , p. 50)

B’s also offer different standards in their musical tracks, providing a clear contrast with the classical conventions of self-effacing construction, by using library music that was frequently jarring, intrusive, and inappropriately matched to a scene or unrelated to the rest of the score. While such a style fails to fully sunder the dominant modes of filmmaking, the technique is on a level that only lives up to the standards of its own class.

An example of nearly experimental characteristics in a major-studio B programmer is THE FLORENTINE DAGGER , a pre- noir thriller from Warner Bros. in 1935. The complex story goes beyond suspense to operate on multiple levels, with mystery verging on horror through the theme of the influence of the dead upon the living. Cesare (Donald Woods), a descendant of the Borgias, becomes so absorbed in the legends of his ancestors that he believes he has inherited their criminal tendencies through a dual personality. Preventing him from committing suicide, a psychiatrist (C. Aubrey Smith) suggests a prescription for his obsession—writing a play on the Borgias. Cesare discovers he is not alone in psychological turmoil, for each of the principal characters is controlled by ungovernable passions, behaving in a consistently strange and unnatural way. Cesare’s prospective father-in-law, Victor, is slain in a maelstrom of revenge and viciousness. Page 339  Victor had tried to kill his wife twenty years earlier by setting her dress afire, but she survived to conceal her scarred visage behind a lifelike mask. She worked as a servant to secretly protect her daughter by a previous marriage (Margaret Lindsay), upon whom Victor, as stepfather, is forcing his attentions. When the police realize why the mother murdered Victor, she and her daughter along with Cesare are allowed to escape. The morbid themes of incest, patricide, and suicide, not to mention the antipatriarchal tone and the lack of retribution for murder, are startling for a film made in the era of the Production Code and probably could only have appeared in a B.

The style is every bit as unusual as the content, with the psychological motifs enhanced by virtuoso expressionist treatment. The film is full of dark and shadowy lighting; bizarre, oblique camerawork and overhead shots; and frequent use of composition in depth, often emphasizing the distortion and imbalance created by the positioning of foreground and background objects. The direction of THE FLORENTINE DAGGER provides a forceful example of the adaptation and integration of expressionist and avant-garde styles into the American feature through the B. Yet the film was shot on a $135,000 budget in twenty days, and director Florey had barely a week to prepare. Tom Reed’s script was still in revision during shooting, changing the original ending, which had called for the mother’s suicide. In an outcome rare for a B, Florey was able to supervise the editing; Warners’ indulgence of the style indicates their hope that THE FLORENTINE DAGGER could perhaps achieve A status through the richness of its presentation, and it won serious critical attention, along with some criticism of its unusual themes.

While the content of a picture like THE FLORENTINE DAGGER was exceptional, a similar but more subdued style could still dominate a mainstream B mystery. Whereas expressionism explicated an unorthodox psychological thriller in THE FLORENTINE DAGGER , in A STUDY IN SCARLET (1933) the style is used to develop the eerie atmosphere of a classical English whodunit, with its distinctive bevy of suspects and highly intelligent detective. The sense of locale is enhanced by the use of a nearly all-British cast, something uncommon for a Hollywood-made Sherlock Holmes picture. With the film shot in the continental style, suspense is as much a factor of camerawork, lighting, and atmosphere as plot. Strange gatherings arranged by secret codes take place in out-of-the-way abandoned buildings; dark and oppressive dead-end streets are places of isolation and terror; fog and shadows hide murderers and their victims. A pervasive feeling of fear is created in the fogbound studio streets of the Limehouse section of London, heightening suspense through a number of cinematic devices unusual for 1933. For instance, the killer is kept unseen, while menace is suggested by having the crimes viewed through the murderer’s eyes by use of a subjective camera. The silhouette of a giant shadow appears on a wall as the victim looks into the camera and screams, “It can’t be you,” followed by a close-up of a hand checking off the name of one more member of the Scarlet Ring who has been killed. The climax of this technique comes in a single take with the still-unknown murderer visiting the crooked lawyer (Alan Dinehart): the camera completely adopts the viewpoint of the killer as Dinehart opens the door and the unknown individual is offered a cigarette, puffs of smoke ascending in front of the lens.

These techniques again demonstrate the artistic potential of even the more traditional B. A STUDY IN SCARLET was an ambitious effort during the last days of the Tiffany studio. For only a small sum, producer Samuel Bischoff purchased the motion-picture rights to the title, but not the story, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel. He had also arranged to co-star the exotic Anna May Wong with Reginald Owen as Holmes. Owen and Robert Florey were given $1,000 and a week to compose a new Sherlock Holmes scenario to fit the title and utilize as many standing sets as possible. Edwin L. Marin finally directed (after Florey was enticed away by Warners), and like Florey, he shortly became a B director at the majors.

The schedules and budgets that allowed for the kind of stylistic and thematic innovation found in a major-studio B like THE FLORENTINE DAGGER , or even one from a secondary studio, like A STUDY IN SCARLET , seemed lavish by comparison with those found in quickies. However, while scarcer, such characteristics were still in evidence. Among the most unique examples are the Richard Talmadge “stunt films,” especially the mid-1930s Reliable series, released through Ajax, with Bernard B. Ray, Harry S. Webb, and William Berke alternating or sharing producer and director duties, with such writers as Ralph Cusuman, Carl Krusada, and Jack Natteford. The minimal production values facilitate the unmediated exhibition of the athleticism of the star, who was once Douglas Fairbanks’s double and had a long career with second-unit action sequences. The aim in the Talmadge vehicles is to self-consciously draw attention to Talmadge’s physical skill, often through unmotivated scenes, such as a series of Chinatown brawls in FIGHTING PILOT . Instead of the traditional means of involving the spectator in a story, the lack of artifice is emphasized, especially the thrill of Talmadge obviously performing his own acrobatics. Extended takes and long shots concentrate on exhibiting Talmadge’s ability, avoiding the usual stunt effects of quick cutting and limited visibility. Simultaneously, Talmadge sophisticates the narratives by deliberately varying the genres and satirizing the action forms he used, but still offers the traditional highlights. For instance, FIGHTING PILOT spoofs the aviation film; THE LIVE WIRE , the adventure genre (including Talmadge’s 1934 serial, PIRATE TREASURE ); THE SPEED DEMON /HUNTING TROUBLE , the police film; THE SPEED REPORTER /DEADLINE , newspaper film; and NEVER TOO LATE /HIT AND RUN and NOW OR NEVER /TEARING INTO TROUBLE , the thriller. In a similar way, an Ajax vehicle for David Sharpe, ADVENTUROUS KNIGHTS , was a satirical reworking of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA .

Not all these deviations from the Hollywood norms were so fortuitous; the extent of the possible departures are revealed by BIG CALIBRE (1935), a William Steiner B Western shot in a single week. Typical of Robert North Bradbury’s direction of his son, Bob Steele, BIG CALIBRE is minimalist to a startling degree, with astonishing lapses in continuity editing and no attempt whatever at seamlessness in technique or narrative. The film is preposterous, both visually and in plot line; in his own screenplay, Perry Murdock plays the misshapen chemist Otto Zenz, who uses acid smoke-bomb capsules to commit crimes and flees after murdering the father of the hero (Steele). In a nearby town, the bucktoothed Gadski menaces a rancher with foreclosure; Gadski, naturally, is Zenz, with the patently obvious disguise of a wig and false teeth. His smoke bombs help the hero escape jail, an idea conveyed not through a visual effect but simply through a cut between smoke and a broken lock. Zenz steals a motor stage in a chase, but accidentally poisons himself while trying to use his smoke bombs on the hero. Nearly every incident in BIG CALIBRE is equally bizarre, so patently unbelievable as to verge on surrealism.

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