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Before I talk about why I love B-movies, I should explain exactly what they are and why they were called Bs. Back in the 192os and 30s, theaters were having difficulty attracting audiences. Much of this was due to the depression. People had a hard time plunking down their nickel when times were bad, so to draw in crowds, the theaters began offering incentives–making films a lot better value for the money. So, they introduced the double-feature. But, it wasn’t cost-effective to offer two expensive top films–and so the Bs were a way to bring a much cheaper to produce second feature film to the public. Many were made by tiny so-called “poverty row” studios like Monogram, PRC and Grand National–which made nothing but Bs. These production companies actually often rented space from the big studios and filmed at night when the sets and costumes would otherwise be unused. However, this does not mean the major studios didn’t make their share of Bs. MGM, Warner and Twentieth Century-Fox, in fact, made many Bs–though theirs often had slightly higher quality stars and writers. As for the in-between studios, like Republic,RKO, Universal and Columbia, they made mostly Bs but managed a few top-budget pictures as well.
Unfortunately, over the years, a ‘B’ has taken on a new meaning. It was often thought of as a cheap and schlocky film–which simply was not often the case. Sure, the budgets were low and the stars often second or third tier in Bs, but a better way of looking at them is not BAD films but sort of like the minor leagues of movies. Sometimes, actors who would never have had a chance to star in a film now went from supporting actors and actresses in A-pictures (the higher budget first features) to leads in Bs. Sometimes, actors down on their luck made a living in the Bs (Bela Lugosi is a great example). And, occasionally, these folks would eventually move up to be leading ladies and leading men after a stint in the Bs. In addition, a few Bs became classics despite the low budgets and second-string production team. Above is a poster from one of the most famous Bs like this…”Cat People” (1942). After its release, folks started coming to the theaters more to see this B than the picture that preceded it! As a result, this RKO surprise hit was moved from second-billing to first–a rare case of a B becoming an A picture.
So why do I say that I love B-movies? Well, the biggest reason is that I truly admire a tight, well made film. It is wonderful proof that you don’t need megabucks to make a good picture, as a good story and decent acting are all you really need to make a good film. An excellent B is a work of art–a shining example of how you can cram a good story into a time slot of only about 60 minutes (give or take a few minutes). The other reason I love Bs is that they are often just mindless fun. So, while I enjoy a beautifully produced ‘big’ film like “Gone With the Wind” or “Goodbye Mr. Chips” (both 1939), I can also enjoy some escapist fun like “Charlie Chan at the Olympics” (1937), “Torchy Blane in Chinatown” (1939), “My Pal Trigger” (1946) or “Son of Dracula” (1943).
So what are some of your favorite Bs? I’d love to hear from you.