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The Organization of B Product

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Low-budget filmmaking had long been a significant part of Hollywood production, but demand vastly increased with the rise of double bills. While theaters promised two films for the price of one, audiences actually received approximately one and a half times the entertainment for their money. The double bill usually paired an A and an inexpensive B, or two medium-budget “in-between” pictures, or even two B’s. By 1935, with double billing standard practice throughout the nation, all the majors had opened B units, emphasizing a prolific schedule to fill the exhibitor demand cheaply, deliberately designing low-cost films for the second half of double bills.

However, beyond the prerequisites noted in the preceding section, conceptions of the B movie varied widely. Even among the majors, the budgets for B pictures often diverged by $100,000 or more. There is no budget or production schedule typical of all B’s because of the wide variations among the different Page 317  companies—a fact complicated by the changing ways of computing overhead under various management regimes. For instance, in the early 1930s, most Warner movies were shot in about three weeks for much less than $200,000, yet this hardly reduced them all to the B category. Furthermore, the same schedule and budget that resulted in a high-quality B at Paramount or MGM might approximate the investment for an A at Columbia or Universal.

While the B label had one meaning to the eight principal studios, definitions varied even more between the majors and smaller studios. Factoring in quickies and other disparate types of B within the overall field of low-budget films reveals that it has several separate levels. To clarify these distinctions, a practical, multilevel taxonomy for the B film is offered below, where the B film is broken down into four categories, listed in order of prestige: (1) major-studio “programmers,” (2) major-studio B’s, (3) smaller-company B’s, and (4) the quickies of Poverty Row.

(1) The first category, programmers, includes movies produced by the majors and occasionally such lesser companies as Tiffany that share characteristics of both A’s and B’s. Properly, programmers have a status of their own, but since they are seldom discussed separately and are usually lumped together with B’s rather than A’s, an analysis of them is appropriate here.

At the major studios and occasionally in the smaller companies, the stratification tended to be more complex than a simple division between A and B. Not only were there prestige films, A’s, and B’s, but many lower-level A’s occupying an equivocal position, intended as major product but sharing aspects of B’s. Whether previously called “shaky A’s,” “gilt-edged B’s,” “in-betweeners,” or “intermediates,” such films straddling the A-B boundary have been best labeled “programmers” by Don Miller in his valuable history B Movies. 8 The use of the programmer category eliminates a problem in the discussion of B movies, differentiating between a film made in less than twelve days and one shot in five weeks, or one with a cast of unknowns and one offering cast names that were quite recognizable, if not top-draw marquee value.

Indeed, programmers were actually more common during the first half of the 1930s, before B units became an important factor of production. Programmers had reasonably elaborate sets, with running times between sixty-five and eighty minutes, and could occupy the services of major stars or at least one or two well-paid performers. Depending upon the studio, budgets might range from about $100,000 to $200,000, or even as high as $500,000, but programmers did not attain the aura of prestige associated with the high gloss of the A movie. A programmer might contain minor stars, have a relatively short running time, or be photographed in just a few weeks. For instance, Warner Oland was unlikely to be a headliner in the 1930s outside the Charlie Chan films, but he was the star of the series. Although formula mysteries, running less than eight reels, and shot in under a month on modest budgets, the Chan movies were designed as programmers, but attracted major audiences and box-office grosses on a par with A’s.

The term programmer indicates its principal characteristic: its flexibility in playing any part of the program, operating in between A and B and appearing in either category. Depending on the prestige of the theater and the other material on the double bill, a programmer could show up at the top or bottom of the marquee, especially if the show consisted of two programmers or if it were playing a theater’s split-week show. Programmers might or might not benefit from a coordinated national advertising and publicity campaign, instead usually receiving wide but scattered attention, but with neither the important press notices of an A nor the indifference and critical disdain typically given a B. Considering the relative expense of programmers, market conditions could make them problematic. They could easily fade into quick obscurity or show a loss unless more often exhibited as A’s rather than B’s. Yet programmers might also turn out as box-office champions and even become major hits under the right conditions.

Because of programmers’ medium budget and ambiguous positioning in exhibition, potential new stars were more likely to be cast in them than in B’s. Similarly, while B’s were traditionally generic, programmers were more apt to deal with prestigious or unusual topics, indicating the studio’s willingness to make a modest investment on a theme with uncertain popularity. Programmers often relied on one of the best aspects of B films, the willingness to try novel style and content, without the attendant drawbacks of meager budgets and brief shooting schedules. For instance, after the success and awards given to T HE I NFORMER (John Ford, 1935), many critics pointed to it as an example of what could be done with a programmer budget; some even labeled it a B.

(2) In the second category are the B films from the larger studios, aimed at filling the exhibition needs of their theater chains and lowering overhead by keeping facilities and contract talent constantly busy. B’s of the majors were usually made on schedules of two to five weeks, averaging three weeks at studios from Warners to Paramount. Such B’s took advantage of the existing lavish facilities and standing sets, often utilizing their roster of top technical talent and character actors. B’s at the majors were never hasty or slapdash; the studios’ prestige rested on the quality of their B’s as well as their A’s, with the frequent hope that a B might turn out well enough to be released as an A. Depending on the studio, the budget might go as low as $30,000, for a Western, or as high as $300,000; anything higher was almost certainly a programmer or an A.

The Fox B unit was typical of such operations among the majors. After the merger with Twentieth Century, the unit was headed by Sol M. Wurtzel, who had a $6 million annual budget for twenty-four B’s per year, averaging between $150,000 and $200,000 per film. 10 Two to three months would be spent on preparation, and three weeks in shooting, with comparatively important directors like Allan Dwan, Mal St. Clair, George Marshall, Alfred L. Werker, or rising talents like H. Bruce (“Lucky”) Humberstone and Norman Foster. Fox B’s were inclined to be series films, whether mystery, domestic, or comedy, including Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, Sherlock Holmes, Michael Shayne, the Cisco Kid, George O’Brien Westerns, the Gambini sports films, the Roving Reporters, the Camera Daredevils, the Big Town Girls, the hotel for women, the Jones Family, the Jane Withers children’s films, Jeeves, or the Ritz Brothers.

The house style was as noticeable in the studio B units as in A’s, with substantial product differentiation found among the B’s of the various majors. For instance, B units did not preclude Paramount and Fox from bringing high standards and even sophistication to their B’s. Specializing in many types of crime films, Paramount enhanced fast pacing and original plots with an artistic treatment, indulging in the elaborate, atmospheric, and European-flavored art direction and cinematography of its A’s. On the other hand, Warner Bros., whose A’s already reflected the crime formulas and tough realism typical of B’s, had a poorer reputation with its purely B product. MGM’s B’s were widely regarded as little different from its A’s, graced with the same sets and stars. A similar statement could be made for Universal, except that in this case the comparison had the reverse effect and was less flattering. While both Universal and Columbia produced A’s and B’s, much of their A product resembled the programmers or B’s of the majors, in productions made quickly and cheaply with stars of questionable magnitude. Columbia had responded to the rising demand for a double-bill product by lowering their quantity of A’s and doubling production, all of the growth occurring in the B division on shooting schedules of two weeks or less.

The B’s in categories one and two came from the majors, as well as Universal and Columbia, and these pictures were aimed at a wide array of exhibitors. By contrast, in the lower tiers, categories three and especially four, audiences became steadily more specialized, in proportion to the decreasing corporate size. Smaller than Universal or Columbia, the so-called B studios ranged from Republic on down to the indies. Such firms were generally distinguishable by the absence of exhibition arms, with low-budget product accounting for nearly all their output. Many companies were so small and short-lived that they were quickly absorbed by equally transitory rivals, their product often distributed second- or thirdhand from those who produced it.

The companies in categories three and four are covered by the label Poverty Row, a term almost as problematic as the label B. While appropriately referring to a distinct geographical portion of Hollywood (Gower Gulch), the territory encompasses many studios, and the location of a plant on Poverty Row did not necessarily imply a B studio. Durable, important enterprises like Columbia and Republic had offices there, although the more typical inhabitants included such deceptively named firms as Peerless and Reliable—some of the most underfinanced, transient, and truly poverty-stricken producers in filmmaking. Poverty Row turned out films made for $100,000 to $10,000, and often even less—a broad range of variables that covered even more product differentiation than was found among the major studio B’s.

The coming of sound had posed a tremendous challenge for all producers, but especially for Poverty Row. While their silents had been made for $3,000-$4,000, versus $50,000-$60,000 for a modest film from the majors, talkies doubled these budgets. Yet, as with the majors, profits proved sufficient for many low-budget producers to continue or return to business, and small companies like Syndicate, Big Four, and Superior served an important function during this transition period. They not only continued to supply silents to many smaller theaters   without the resources to convert to sound, but also took up much of the challenge of adapting sound to outdoor pictures, with their prolific output maintaining the popularity of the B Western during these years.

Later, the demand for B’s to fill double bills and Saturday matinees created a voracious exhibitor need for quantity that was initially more than the majors could handle, leaving an opening for the product of various smaller companies. As a result, these concerns proliferated during the 1934-1936 seasons, until every lot in Hollywood was busy. However, the slack was soon taken up by the majors and Columbia, until there was a glut of B pictures, resulting in a merging of minor studios. 13 The B’s of the majors came to dominate the market, and smaller companies again had problems finding financing, causing many marginal ones to vanish by 1937. With the secondary concerns dominated by Republic and Monogram, once more the majors preserved their basic hegemony over Holly-wood.

(3) The third category is the B product of secondary studios who still commanded respect within the industry, from Republic, Monogram, Grand National, Mascot, and Tiffany on down to Ambassador-Conn, Chesterfield, Invincible, Liberty, Majestic, Sono Art, Educational, and World Wide. While they did not have the quality or resources of the majors, they were far from the quickies made in a week for a few thousand dollars, a type reserved for the next category.

Although such B companies generally lacked exhibition outlets, some, like Republic and Monogram, could afford exchanges equivalent to the majors in large cities. 14 These studios were comparatively stable organizations, with access to capital and their own facilities, turning out films of satisfactory technical quality. Budgets rarely rose above $100,000 and were often substantially less, but such obstacles were overcome, often achieving a quality nearly equal to the B’s of the majors in similar genres. For instance, Republic’s first Ellery Queen whodunit, THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY (1935), offers probably the most effective location photography of any B thriller during the 1930s, and Chesterfield’s D EATH F ROM A D ISTANCE (1936) cleverly uses the Griffith Park Planetarium to evoke a unique mystery atmosphere. Although largely confined to B product, occasionally Tiffany, Mascot, Monogram, Republic, and Grand National rivaled the majors with their own A efforts, including A STUDY IN SCARLET (World Wide, 1933), LAUGHING AT LIFE (Mascot, 1933), DANIEL BOONE (Grand National, 1936), GREAT GUY (Grand National, 1937), and HARMONY LANE (Monogram, 1935), easily as credible a Stephen Foster biography as 20th Century-Fox’s SWANEE RIVER (1939). While the talents on both sides of the camera were rarely of star caliber, they were still known and reputable, not far below those of the majors, with many advancing to the larger studios. The players who starred in B studio films were skilled and often also worked at the majors; examples include Lionel Atwill, Mischa Auer, Sidney Blackmer, Johnny Mack Brown, Harry Davenport, Charlie Grapewin, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Douglass Montgomery, Ralph Morgan, Karen Morley, J. Carrol Naish, and Jean Parker.

The four best-remembered studios in this category, Mascot, Monogram, Republic, and Grand National, were all interrelated in chronological development. The Monogram label emerged in 1931, having evolved from its founding by W. Ray Johnston in 1924 as Rayart Productions, which transformed into Syndicate Film Exchange and Continental Talking Pictures between 1928 and 1930. The studio quickly earned an important place as a leader among the small companies, and affiliated with Pathé in England, each corporation releasing some of the product of the other in its own country. Trem Carr became chief of production in the early 1930s, turning out twenty or more pictures annually, many of them made for as little as $25,000, equivalent to such contemporaries as Chesterfield, Ambassador-Conn, Liberty, and Mascot. 15 Priding itself on versatility, by 1934 Monogram enhanced its schedule by offering cheaply made versions of such prestigious literary titles as JANE EYRE , THE MOONSTONE , OLIVER TWIST , and A GIRL OF THE LIMBERLOST.

Republic (also called “Repulsive”) Pictures grew out of Monogram and Mascot, the result of an enormous step toward amalgamating the independent front that occurred in March 1935—a sign of the coming consolidation. Herbert J. Yates, already involved in the business for more than two decades, called in the debts owed to his Consolidated Film Industries laboratories, thereby merging Liberty, Majestic, Chesterfield, Mascot, and Monogram. Yates had planned carefully; Monogram, for instance, would bring its national distribution organization of exchanges to thirty-nine cities. Mascot had been founded in 1926 by Nat Levine and had its own studio, specializing in serials before branching out to features in 1933. Knowing that he needed a merger with Mascot to succeed, Yates offered to help Levine boost his sagging feature schedule, while taking advantage of his leadership in serials. The offer to join forces seemed to promise both quantity and quality; to make full use of its studio and to control distribution, Mascot needed to increase production, but Levine lacked access to the necessary capital. 16 Both Levine and Monogram’s Trem Carr had experience heading production, and at Republic they took on this responsibility together. Republic thus began not only in a strong financial position but also with some of the best and most experienced independent talent in the business.

Republic quickly realized the potential of higher-grade B Westerns produced on modest budgets. For instance, Gene Autry’s first starring vehicle, TUMBLIN’ TUMBLEWEEDS (1935), was made for less than $18,000, and eventually grossed over $1 million; it was helmed by a novice, Joseph Kane, who became Republic’s house director. Named for one of Autry’s most popular songs, TUMBLIN’ TUMBLE WEEDS led the new form of the singing Western to such wide success that Republic soon introduced an equally popular rival, Roy Rogers. The desire for singing cowboys was so great that even John Wayne was dubbed crooning in WESTWARD H O! (1935), which premiered at the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard—indicating that Republic’s Westerns had found an audience beyond the usual small-town and rural theaters. Stars like Wayne and Autry received around $1,000 per picture, and in a few years such Republic series as the Three Mesquiteers were budgeted at around $50,000, with shooting schedules sometimes as short as a single week.

Within limits, Republic imitated the majors, particularly with action-oriented themes, including a color Zorro swashbuckler THE BOLD CABALLERO /THE BOLD CAVALIER (1935), and an adventure film set in India, STORM OVER BENGAL (1938), following the success of LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (Paramount, 1935) and THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (Warner Bros., 1936). Unlike most of its immediate competitors, and because of its emergence from Consolidated labs, Republic successfully mated low-budget material with a degree of polished Hollywood seamlessness never equaled by the other smaller studios. These technical standards allowed the majors to feel comfortable with Republic’s   existence in a way they never did with other such companies. 18 Republic provided little direct competition until the 1940s, when the studio advanced beyond Westerns, rural comedies, serials, and other escapist fare, in an ultimately failed attempt to expand to major status.

Among those joining Yates in 1935, only Nat Levine had any lasting impact on Republic, through his organization of the studio’s prolific serials division. 19 After little over a year at Republic, Johnston and Carr withdrew and revived Monogram. The company acquired the services of many proficient personnel associated with various independents, developing an ambitious program of forty pictures annually, all of a high standard for a small studio. While avoiding serials, Monogram became expert in series product, for instance imitating Fox’s Charlie Chan series in the form of six Mr. Wong mysteries, based on the Collier’s magazine stories by Hugh Wiley. Although in its second incarnation the company never surpassed its previous level or achieved the glamour and prestige to rise above Republic, Monogram remained its closest competitor for fifteen years before transforming into Allied Artists in 1953.

Just as Johnston and Carr had left Republic to reenter independent production, so did Levine. He worked briefly for MGM and then went to the newly created Grand National in the spring of 1936, together with Edward Alperson, Spyros Skouras, George Hirliman, and Al Herman; B. F. Zeidman, Zion Myers, Douglas MacLean, and Max and Arthur Alexander soon joined the roster of producers. Grand National acquired the studio facilities of E. W. Hammons’s Educational Pictures, and the exchanges of the now-defunct First Division served as their distribution nucleus. Grand National began with a tremendous coup, securing James Cagney for two pictures in 1937, GREAT GUY and SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT. At the time, Cagney was quarreling with Warner Bros. over his contract, but after the two pictures for Grand National, he returned advantageously to his old studio. Grand National, meanwhile, had spent too extravagantly on the Cagney pictures (more than $900,000 on SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT, directed by Victor Schertzinger) to secure the necessary profit margin, despite their popularity. The company aspired to imitate the majors and produce relatively prestigious pictures, along with the necessary action pictures typical of the B’s, such as Tex Ritter Westerns budgeted at $20,000 apiece. Grand National even released some features in a Cinecolor process that was renamed Hirlicolor for the studio boss. The studio never succeeded along the lines of Monogram or Republic; by 1940, swamped in debt, Grand National was liquidated, with Astor Pictures buying the negatives and reissuing many of the films. Astor, often associated with the product of William Steiner, was an independent clearing-house for assorted old and new films that had received minimal release.

(4) Astor was typical of the concerns that form the fourth category of B films. These are companies who truly deserve and justify the name Poverty Row. With their transitory nature, lack of finance, and limited access to necessary facilities and equipment, they were the domain of the indies making quickies or cheapies that often do not even rank as B’s but are instead labeled C or Z pictures. These movies usually received one or two reviews at most in the trades, and often none at all, forming what today might be called an underground economy on the fringes of 1930s Hollywood.

Low-budget fare of one type or another was the sole output of minor indies. These companies concentrated on features, most often Westerns, along with occasional serials and such offbeat products as nature and expedition films and pictures for ethnic audiences. These companies obtained financing, commissioned lab work, and rented studio space as needed, usually by the day, at the RKO Pathé lot in Culver City, the Tec-Art, Prudential, the Talisman Studio on Sunset Boulevard, the General Service Studios on Romain, International Film Corporation’s Television Studios, or the Larry Darmour Studios. Shooting schedules ranged from four to eighteen days, but most often were about a week. Sixty to eighty setups had to be averaged daily, often shooting from four in the morning until seven at night or later, and occasionally around the clock. There was no time for a day or two of added shooting; a quickie ran over budget with the brief illness of a leading player or a single afternoon’s rain on location. Sudden storms or periods of drought in Southern California caused major difficulties, since favored locations could lose their scenic value or become temporarily impracticable. Yet the makers of such films were ingenious; when a drought hit, an Edward Finney screen version of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking classic The Pioneers was shot in a large garage at Newhall Ranch, opening the back doors to give an illusion of exteriors and adding some stock footage.

Scriptwriters kept indoor shots to a minimum so that interiors could often be completed on a single day at a rented studio. For instance, one film was shot during a twenty-two-hour stint, completing 196 scenes, on a set rented for $2,500; the remainder of the film was shot using exteriors and only cost an additional $500. The producer quickly profited by selling the completed film to a “states’-rights” organization (see below) for $6,000. 22 with locations used whenever possible, Westerns were especially advantageous. To avoid the expense of accommodating a crew, most of the locations were within a fifty-mile radius of Hollywood, allowing cast and crew to return home each night. Consequently, a surprising number of Westerns were intentionally set in the present, with automobiles, telephones, and other indicators of modern life on the range. These settings gave many low-budget films a pictorial advantage over B’s from the majors; for instance, Ambassador-Conn’s VALLEY OF WANTED MEN and MEN OF ACTION (both 1935) offered stunning outdoor locations. By constrast, Universal’s mystery YELLOWSTONE (1936), set in the national park, wastes its scenic opportunities through unconvincing rear projection and cramped studio shots unimaginatively directed by Arthur Lubin.

Quickies were often sold in advance at a specified rate to exchanges in order to raise initial financing. Budgets ranged from a low of $5,000 to as much as $20,000 per picture. A typical budget on an $8,000 picture allocated $250 for the script, often including a song, with $400 for the director. Often engaged for six-picture deals, at $1,000 per picture, were such B Western stars as Rex Bell, Johnny Mack Brown, Buffalo Bill, Jr., Harry Carey, Lane Chandler, Hoot Gibson, Raymond Hatton, Jack Hoxie, Tom Keene, Rex Lease, Ken Maynard, Kermit Maynard, Tim McCoy, Tom Mix, Jack Perrin, Reb Russell, Buddy Roosevelt, Fred Scott, Bob Steele, Tom Tyler, Wally Wales, John Wayne, and Guinn (“Big Boy”) Williams. Personnel often had multiple jobs, doubling as actors, writers, directors, and supervisors. Some names were pseudonyms; for instance, Bernard B. Ray announced to the press that he had promoted an assistant, Franklin Shamray, to be Reliable’s third director. In fact, Shamray was merely one more name under which Ray worked. Leading ladies had a fee of $75, and the supporting cast   included many aspiring performers willing to take roles for little or nothing in the hope of being discovered. Some casting took place on the streets in front of Poverty Row, using whoever was nearby and available, and real cowpunchers were relied upon for extras because they could supply their own horses. The establishment of new Screen Actors Guild rules in 1937 raised the budgets of such pictures by about $1,100; this increase in expenses was too great to be recovered by many small companies, since a good profit margin for many Poverty Row producers was often a mere 10 percent, a few thousand dollars per picture.

For some of the poorest studios in this category, five-reel films sufficed for the usual six-reel length. Expository material was often obviously missing, resulting in a fragmented, jumbled plot or even one that was simply incoherent, as in some of Weiss’s Stage and Screen Westerns with Rex Lease, such as PALS OF THE RANGE (1935). With the budgets and schedules so limited, pictures were wrapped whether or not shooting had been finished on the script, regardless of the plot incongruities that might result. Just as often, footage was visibly padded, embellishing what had been shot through the use of stock footage that sometimes came to dominate a film. A typical case is provided by SKYBOUND (Puritan, 1935) episodically and nearly incomprehensibly composed largely of a jumble of disconnected aerial, nightclub, and chase footage, with little original material shot specifically for the movie.

Many of the B films in this category were directed toward specific theaters, audience groups, and classes of spectators. Such genres as B Westerns were, like serials, aimed at a quick payoff in minor houses attracting the Saturday matinee and juvenile audiences, especially in the small-town market. Although the theaters owned by the majors accounted for the best locations and the large majority of the profits, thousands of lesser houses proliferated across the country. These smaller, often independent exhibitors changed the double-bill programs two or three times a week, sometimes daily. At best, they showed subsequent, not first, runs, often utilizing quickies that would be shunned by critics and larger exhibitors. Many of the poorest theaters, such as the “grind houses” in the larger cities, screened a continuous program emphasizing action with no specific schedule, sometimes offering six quickies for a nickel in an all-night show that changed daily.

Many of these small or rural theaters were served by an entirely different distribution system, one in which profits were so marginal that the majors bypassed it altogether. Nonetheless, there was sufficient money to be made in the “states rights” market to attract the producers of films ranging from low-budget Westerns to ethnic films. In the states rights system, movies were sold on a state-by-state or regional basis, with flat fees paid for the limited exclusive rights to distribute for exhibition in a particular area, allowing small but predictable profits. The distributors to such second- and third-rate houses absorbed the cost of release prints and publicity materials, paying a use fee to the producer that might range as high as $50,000. Such a system virtually guaranteed production, but had no incentive for quality, since the pictures were bought without regard to the care or expense that went into making them. Often packages of six or eight films with a single star were sold as a group, with the first or second result of such a sequence more frequently reviewed, regardless of quality, than the final pictures, usually issued later and without fanfare to fulfill the anticipated program. Many states rights producers had their own independent distributors; for instance, Syndicate was a states rights concern specializing in low-budget Westerns. First Division Exchanges was the largest states rights distributor, virtually the United Artists of the small companies, handling product from Resolute, Weiss, and, depending on the region, Chesterfield, Invincible, Liberty, Monogram, Beacon, Olympic, and many others, as well as some British films and a few documentaries and other unusual films that were not picked up by others.

To give a sample of the companies and their output in the fourth category, several are chosen from the pivotal year of 1935, the height of quickie filmmaking, with such prolific firms as Ajax, Beacon, Beaumont/Mitchell Leichter, Conquest, Du World, Empire, Hoffberg, Imperial, Kent, Peerless, Principal, Puritan, Reliable, Resolute, William Steiner, Spectrum, Victory, and Weiss. (All titles mentioned in the next several paragraphs are from 1935 unless otherwise noted.) Typical of Poverty Row production companies was one that distributed through Astor. Ajax Pictures had four specialties: the Four Leaf Clover series was their prestige item, such as the drama of a secretary climbing her way into society, $20 A WEEK. Their second group featured aging but still credible Harry Carey in above average B Westerns like THE LAST OF THE CLINTONS, RUSTLER’S PARADISE, WAGON TRAIL, and WILD MUSTANG. Ajax’s third series, Our Young Friends, starred the quartet of grown Our Gang veterans David Sharpe, Gertrude Messinger, Mickey Daniels, and Mary Kornman. These satirical features, such as ADVENTUROUS KNIGHTS, ROARING ROADS, and SOCIAL ERROR, with stories and direction by Sharpe, together with C. Edward Roberts and William Berke, were amateurish and seldom won much notice. Ajax’s fourth series used a similar approach; like Sharpe, Richard Talmadge’s films again utilized a stuntman better remembered for his second-unit work and doubling than acting. However, unlike Sharpe’s negligible results, Talmadge achieved a distinction to be discussed later in this chapter. His movies were sometimes released in conjunction with the Reliable banner, and the Ajax label was also on some of the B Westerns and other genre films, principally starring Bob Steele and Tom Tyler, produced by the prolific William Steiner.

Perhaps the lowest-budget firm was Weiss, an enterprise that continues to this day, maintaining in television release many of their low-grade 1930s films. The brothers Max, Louis, and Adolph Weiss entered production in the early 1920s with money earned from a New York lamp-and-fixture store, phonograph sales, and ownership of a theater that developed into a small chain. 26 Operating under such pretentious banners as Superior Talking Films, Stage and Screen Productions, Artcraft Productions, Exploitation Pictures, Consolidated Pictures, and International Pictures Corporation, the Weiss brothers produced a variety of supercheapies in which plot coherence was always the last priority. Most were so bad that they were never reviewed or copyrighted, apparently deliberately avoiding press attention; the only record of their existence is found in an occasional release chart, a few advertisements, and surviving prints. Though most Poverty Row producers averaged a six-reel length, or about sixty minutes, Weiss continually tried to pare that down to five reels, lasting just over fifty minutes.

In 1935, Weiss offered such series as producer Robert Emmett’s Morton of the Mounted “northwest action thrillers” with Dynamite, the Wonder Horse and Captain, the King of Dogs receiving top billing over human star John Preston as Sergeant Bruce Morton, in COURAGE OF THE NORTH, FURY OF THE MOUNTED, ROARING RIVER, ROGUES OF THE ROCKIES, THE SILENT CODE , and TIMBER TERRORS. Weiss also produced a number of other more conventional Westerns, known as the American Rough Rider series (PALS OF THE RANGE, GOING TO TOWN, THE ROPINFOOL, TWO-FISTED GALLAGHER ) and the Range Rider series (CYCLONE OF THE SADDLE , THE GHOST RIDER, SURE-SHOT SAM ), the latter made in conjunction with Larry Darmour’s Empire Film Distributors. Most of these starred Rex Lease, with George M. Merrick as producer and Elmer Clifton directing, both collaborating on the scripts. Weiss also sponsored Consolidated Pictures and producer Bert Sternbach’s crime series of Melodramatic Dog Features, starring Tarzan, the Police Dog (CAPTURED, MILLION-DOLLAR HAUL, MISSING MESSENGER, ON PATROL, ON THE SPOT ), and a four-reel special of the venerable temperance play The Drunkard.

Not all the Poverty Row concerns were similar. Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises arose from author Edgar Rice Burrough’s dislike of the filmic treatment of his Tarzan character and the belief that he could earn a better share of their profits. He joined in sponsoring his own original story for the screen and chose Olympic champion Herman Brix for the role, according to his conception of the character as an educated man. However, the venture was doomed from the beginning; the majors had blocked the upstart firm from borrowing the most recent cinema Tarzans, Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, and planned to keep Burroughs’s films from playing in the major theater chains. Without access to studios, partner Ashton Dearholt, a silent-screen actor and RKO representative in Guatemala, suggested using that country as a location for their work. Twenty-nine   cast and crew members spent four months around the Mayan ruins at Tikal, Guatemala, plagued by illness, bad weather, and other adverse jungle conditions aggravated by the low budget, until work was completed in March 1934. An introduction to the film tries to make a virtue out of these difficulties, noting, “The production of the film was carried out under conditions of extreme difficulty and hardship involving personal danger to the actors and technicians, to whom the producers owe a debt of gratitude. The sound recording was occasionally interfered with by the extremely variable atmospheric conditions and your kind indulgence is craved in this direction.”

Meanwhile, needing cash and about to marry the former Mrs. Dearholt, Burroughs reoptioned MGM’s film rights to his character. The Burroughs-Tarzan film was given the title THE NEW ADVENTURES OF TARZAN and eventually made available in three forms, a twelve-chapter serial, a feature, and the feature followed by a serial; it was the last Tarzan serial to be made. Bookings were limited to independent theaters in the United States on the states’-rights network, although it had more success overseas. In June 1938, a new feature was edited from the last ten chapters of the serial, together with some previously unused footage and titled TARZAN AND THE GREEN GODDESS. In 1940, billing was altered to reflect the change of Brix’s name to Bruce Bennett, and the feature version THE NEW ADVENTURES OF TARZAN remained in almost continuous release until its sale to television in 1961. Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises produced only four other, unrelated films, including T UNDRA (1936), but the saga of its Tarzan footage reflects the various release patterns typical of Poverty Row B films.

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