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Why B-Movies never won Oscars | HOW TO SEE B-Movies with Dave Kehr


Independent filmmaking didn’t begin with the
Sundance film festival. There were always independent films being
made outside of the Hollywood studio system. One thing I’ve tried to do here at the Museum
is program film series that go beyond the idea of the masterpiece beyond the single great standalone film and
present that sort of second level of accomplishment which was very widespread in Hollywood. The good, but not great— “Come back out of that dreamworld, Rembrandt.” —the interesting, but not perfect. There’s a lot of material in there that can
be reclaimed, that is immensely enjoyable stylistically sophisticated,
good, solid filmmaking that is not going to win Oscars, is not going
to break the Box Office but is part of what made up the experience
of film going during the classical era. My name is Dave Kehr. I’m a curator in the Department of Film at
the Museum of Modern Art and today we’re going to take a look at B
movies and specifically through the lens of the Republic
Pictures library. Republic was the best established, the best
known of the Poverty Row Studios. They made so many films. They feel like a major in most ways—except
they weren’t. They cost one fifth of what a Hollywood film
would cost, a major studio Hollywood film would cost. The term “B movie” has lost a little bit
of its original meaning over the years and it’s come to mean just a low-budget film. Originally, it meant something very specific. These were movies designed to be shown on
the lower half of double bills mostly in the ’30s and ’40s when the system evolved. Running about an hour, with no stars. And they were meant to be sold to the theaters on the basis of a flat rental fee rather than a percentage of the gross which meant that a lot of the smaller theaters, small town theaters that couldn’t afford the big studio films would take movies from so called “Poverty Row” studios, of which Republic was the littlest giant. Today when people talk about B movies, they’re
mainly talking about cheap horror films from the ’60s and ‘70s… “The killers are eating the flesh of the
people they murder.” …which has nothing to do with this. “Oh no!” These films, the Republic films, the Poverty
Row films were operating on a Hollywood aesthetic but doing it on the cheap. So, not a lot of retakes, not a lot of big
sets, not a lot of elaborate camera movements. Knowing what kind of stories you can tell
on a low budget and what kind of stories you You know, a lot ingenuity required, and we
can appreciate a film like “Storm Over Lisbon.” You know, a lot ingenuity required, and we
can appreciate a film like “Storm Over Lisbon.” It almost looks like a big budget picture,
it almost seems to have major stars in it but none of this is true. “Storm Over Lisbon” is Republic’s attempt
to cash in on “Casablanca.” And while it doesn’t exactly imitate the film
scene for scene, it hits all of the major beats, all of the major plot points, all of
the major character profiles, but does so in a Republic way. And in this case it does it with a great sense
of humor because director George Sherman was very conscious of what was going on there. Instead of Humphrey Bogart, we had Richard
Arlen. Instead of Ingrid Bergman, we had Vera Hruba
Ralston who was a Czech ice-skating champion who had
been imported to Hollywood. And there are moments in “Storm Over Lisbon”
where she is called upon to emote on the same level as Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” how frozen in face her expression is. how frozen in face her expression is. “I was told to put it there, but I don’t
always do what I am told. I know enough about you, Greg, not to want
anything to happen to you.” Oh, she has to do some big dance scenes which
seemed to consist of her ice skating routines except she’s doing them without ice skates. It’s very strange and very funny. But the film, somehow it works. It’s a very tight 80 minutes, beautifully
shot by a cinematographer named John Alton wonderful backlighting effects, quite stylish,
quite funny, and very entertaining still. But a movie that is, if anything, kind of,
very self aware, aware of its limitations. “Is there anything wrong with Dr. Maynard?” “Nothing that a little strangling and a
shot of embalming fluid didn’t cure.” “You don’t mean he’s dead?” “Oh no.” “Oh yes.” Oh, “Valley of the Zombies.” That’s a good example of a B horror movie. This is trying to be a big expressionistic
freak out, but they clearly have no money to really stage any of the scenes. So you have actors describing what happened
offstage. “I found it… in a land of voodoo rights
and devil potions where your profession has no place. The Valley of the Zombies. You seem skeptical, doctor!” Dave: “Oh you should have seen it. And I bet it was, but we’re not going to see
it in this movie And I bet it was, but we’re not going to see
it in this movie because we can’t afford to build that castle
and we can’t afford to populate it with an army of zombies. “You’re going to put me in my grave!” “S.O.S.Tidal Wave” is a good example of
Republic ingenuity. They had acquired the rights to a 1933 film
called “Deluge” that started with an amazing special effects sequence of Manhattan being destroyed by a tidal wave. Tidal Wave” is an attempt to build an
different storyline around that same footage recycling the old stuff in a completely new
context. They actually bring in an early version of
television so characters can watch the old footage which is supposedly representing what’s
going on downtown. “The tidal wave! The tidal wave! It’s coming!” No one seems to notice that the clothes have completely changed somehow in the voyage downtown. But it doesn’t matter. And suddenly “S.O.S. Tidal Wave,” a movie that probably cost $3.50 looks like it cost at least $500. Quite ingenious the way it uses this stuff
and weaves it in and finds a new way of repurposing it. “Men and women of America, this is the end!” In B pictures, the genre was often the star. The people were coming to see “a cowboy
picture.” “Trigger Jr.” is a great example of a kind
of Saturday matinee Republic picture. Basically a children’s film with some pretty
simplistic moral choices set against a background of a traveling circus that has somehow ended
up in the middle of the Southwest. None of it makes a lot of sense but it gives
Roy Rogers a chance to sing few songs. ♫ May the good lord take a liking to you
♫ ♫ May he spread his blessings on your trail
♫ ♫ May he be your guide anywhere you ride
♫ There are a couple of good action sequences,
there’s a little romance there’s a little comedy, almost as if it were a variety program almost like the bills on a vaudeville show. It’s a satisfying experience. On the other hand you have a film like “Hellfire”
which is from 1948 which takes a lot of those archetypes and smooshes them up in an interesting
way. “I don’t know who you are, but nobody
can throw whiskey in my face.” “So you don’t know me, Lou? Well take a good look!” Instead of the figure of the snarling outlaw,
“Hellfire” merges that with the film noir femme fatale. We have a lady outlaw whose nemesis is a reformed
gambler who is trying to raise the money to build a church. So suddenly this moral clarity that you have
in Roy Rogers’ films becomes something rather complex and perverse and not at all easy to
parse. Same is true of a crime film like “The City
That Never Sleeps.” It’s not just cops and robbers, good guys
and bad guys. It’s not easy to draw a line between who we’re
supposed to be rooting for and who we’re not. This is a film directed by a fellow named
John H. Auer who had a very operatic tone in his work. Standalone sequences he would build to these
levels of hysteria almost. And you see some quite remarkable examples of that in this film involving elaborate shootouts Mysterious figures. A mechanical man who is an actor impersonating
a robot who stands in the window of a strip joint and attempting to attract customers becomes the witness to a killing. The B films do not have the high gloss production
values of an A picture, so you’re getting a different angle on American life. You’re getting something much more elemental,
unadorned, immediate. “Greg I, I want to dream like you…of the
beautiful things.” There were certainly A pictures that could
do that but with a B, because you couldn’t build that elaborate New York City set on
the back-lot you went out into Los Angeles and shot on
the street. So you have a physical immediacy, you know,
a reality in these films that often was not apparent in the studio movies. I think for younger filmmakers looking at
this work would be one way of approaching the limitations you’re going to face as a filmmaker right now because these are not movies that have recourse
to multiple cameras, digital effects. There’s no do-overs, you have to really think about
what you’re going to do, and then do it. You didn’t have a lot of film to waste. Now you have virtually limitless digital material
that you can shoot on any given film. In those days, it was costing you a lot to
shoot anything. So you really prepared very seriously. There’s no improvisation in these movies—it’s
all planning. The Republic Library has not been widely available
for a very long time now. It disappeared into television rights in the
’50s and ’60s. There were not good prints available, a lot
of the color stuff was completely unrestored and didn’t look anything like it should. And in the last few years, that library came
under the stewardship of Paramount pictures and they have taken a tremendous initiative
to basically restore that entire library, six hundred some films. It’s been a terrific process of discovery
and I hope I can continue with that. There’s still a lot more to come out of
this collection and I hope to do another series one of these days. So those are a few of my thoughts on B movies
and I would love to hear some of yours. This is a new series for the Museum so we’d
appreciate it if you could let us know what you thought worked about it, what didn’t work
about it or if there are any other topics in terms of films or directors or genres that
you’d like to see covered? You can subscribe for more videos like this
and others from MoMA Film and from the Museum. My name is Dave Kehr, I’m a curator at the
Museum of Modern Art, and I’ll see you next time.

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