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Defining the B Film

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First, some clarifications and basic parameters are in order. During the 1930s, the B label was equivalent to the term low-budget; both implied films made on limited resources and aimed at filling double bills. (However, B and Poverty Row are not synonymous, as discussed in the next section.) Otherwise, B’s have been defined primarily on the basis of their difference from A’s rather than by what B films share in common. A’s were made on budgets averaging $350,000 or more, with stars who appealed to a wide cross section of patrons. 4 Such films were intended to play the top half of a double bill, with a running time of seven reels or longer, and were produced on shooting schedules that allowed time for rehearsals and retakes. Among the A’s would be a few prestige films, or “specials,” with an extra investment of time, money, and star power, in anticipation of awards and major box-office success at first-run theaters.

B’s, by contrast, had their own basic prerequisites. First, they were to fill the bottom half of a double bill. Second, B’s had leads with moderate, questionable, or unknown box-office appeal, such as second-string cowboy stars. Third, budgets and shooting schedules were more limited, and B’s were usually made in three weeks or as little as one week. 5 Fourth, the running time ordinarily ranged from fifty-five to seventy minutes. Averaging six reels, some B’s could be as short as five reels or less; a few Poverty Row films, including some of John Wayne’s “Lone Star” Westerns of 1934-1935, ran only about forty-five minutes. Yet, no single aspect of the B is a definitive guide to A or B status, and there are no clear lines of demarcation. For instance, to define a B by running time is deceptive because of the different pacing among the studios; a Warners A might run no longer than a more leisurely Paramount B.

A’s and B’s were rented to exhibitors on different bases. With much of the studio’s anticipated profit margin and leadership depending on A’s and prestige films, access was on a percentage basis. Consequently, their eventual profit was difficult to gauge in advance, and hopes for a blockbuster might not materialize. Nor could theater owners afford the simultaneous rental of more than one “big” picture, necessitating that it be paired with a smaller, less expensive movie. B’s usually earned only a single prearranged flat fee, or at best a smaller percentage. Their relative success or failure and the potential for a small windfall from an unexpectedly popular B were up to the ingenuity of the exhibitor’s publicity expertise and the practicality of the campaigns outlined in pressbooks. However, in contrast to the unpredictability of the A, the expected grosses to the studio from a B could be more reliably determined in advance because of the flat fee. The budgets could be kept low enough to invariably show a profit, and even when B’s had proved successful, they remained a stable commodity, with higher   budgets always going into A’s. Consequently, B’s almost never lost money for producers, large or small, whether a major with its own exhibition outlets or a small company catering to independent exhibitors. If the season’s A product proved weak or failed to achieve the expected success, a studio could rely on the profits of its B’s to stay in the black. For instance, during the late 1930s, the reliable gloss and entertainment value of Paramount’s B’s helped the company remain viable at a time when its A’s were of highly variable quality, often inferior to their B’s.

The budget, script, and performers often indicated in advance which pictures were intended to be B’s, but the product of B units was not necessarily an accurate guide to the status a film achieved when placed in distribution and exhibition. A few B’s turned out better than A movies and achieved unexpected critical and popular success; such films were boosted to A status and won a place at the top of the bill. Typical among these was a mixture of the sports and newspaper genres, THE PAYOFF (Warner Bros., 1935); the medical drama A MAN TO REMEMBER (RKO, 1938), which marked Garson Kanin’s directorial debut; and Columbia’s remake of THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931) entitled PENITENTIARY; and the studio’s nearly all-female melodrama GIRLS’ SCHOOL (both 1938). Fortuitous circumstances could also boost a picture: when a Flash Gordon serial was cut   into a feature version entitled MARS ATTACKS THE WORLD (Universal, 1938), it was fortunate to open shortly after the infamous Orson Welles radio broadcast of another fictional Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds. Even low-budget films could prove steady money-makers, including jungle pictures like the feature and serial TARZAN THE FEARLESS (1933), starring Buster Crabbe, or even a pure exploitation movie like the Jed Buell midget Western THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN (1938), which became such a hit that it was picked up for distribution by Columbia. Other factors impinged on the status of A and B films. Sometimes players, such as Fred MacMurray and Mickey Rooney in the mid 1930s, rose so fast in audience favor that their recent, often B pictures were carried up with them, such as two Rooney vehicles for Monogram, THE HEALER /L ITTLE PAL (1935) and THE HOOSIER SCHOOLBOY (1937). Nor were all of the films which today seem to be B’s actually regarded as such in their own time. Many B series became their own stars, as with one of Fox’s biggest attractions, the Charlie Chan series.

Similarly, many big-budget films intended for the top half of a double bill turned out so badly they could barely pass muster at the bottom. Adverse reaction, whether poor reviews or an initial weak performance at previews or the box office, could quickly cause an A to fall in regard and ultimately receive distribution as if it were a B. HOTEL IMPERIAL (Paramount, 1939) provides an example; it was the result of three years of on-again, off-again production, attempting to turn out a “special,” first with Marlene Dietrich, then Margaret Sullavan, under the guidance of Ernst Lubitsch, Henry Hathaway, and Lewis Milestone. To avoid further costly entanglements, HOTEL IMPERIAL was eventually assigned to Robert Florey, because of his reputation for turning out quality films on time and within the budget. While still an A, shot on a two-month schedule, it was completed in more modest, eight-reel form, with the Italian lead Isa Miranda imported in an attempt to create a new star, playing opposite Ray Milland. The picture was a commercial and critical failure domestically and usually exhibited as a B. Nonetheless, HOTEL IMPERIAL became a top Paramount offering overseas, where Miranda’s name had star caliber, and the film’s self-consciously artistic, expressionistic style was admired.

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