A History of the American B-movie: The 40s and 50s

News Karla Healion
23 Mar 2010 - 05:21

Our look back at the history of the American B-movie takes in the 40s and 50s, which saw the emergence of Mr Roger Corman...

"From Out of Space... A Warning and An Ultimatum!" Tagline for The Day The Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951)

The term B-movie is perhaps most synonymous with the 40s and 50s era of Hollywood. At this stage the label was sometimes used as derogatory slang for cheapo movies with stale dialogue, unknown actors and old sets. But most movie lovers remember something magical about these classics. Whether it's watching Cat People when you were a kid, or Ed Wood's hilarious cult oddities as a teenager, they stay with you forever.

RKO were renowned for their horrors around this time, thanks to screen writer and producer Val Lewton. His production team made the aforementioned Cat People (1942), as well as I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and Stranger On The Third Floor (1940), now considered an early film noir classic.

American International Pictures (AIP) is the other best known B-movie production company, devoted even more solely to the genre than RKO. AIP had a long standing relationship with noted director Roger Corman and with writer Charles B Griffith, and produced famous titles such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957).

By the 50s things were changing, mainly due to the advent of TV. A big court case between the Supreme Court and the 'Big Five' in the late 40s also banned the 'block booking' of As and Bs. So, the two-feature billing practice started to abate.

This meant that the term itself stared to be more broadly used to describe a style, rather than budget or billing position. Although they were still, no doubt, cheaper films, the B-movie was now the adopted moniker for those shown at drive-ins, or for films that were a bit left of centre or experimental.

Rarely in cinema history has there been such a condensed proliferation of a certain style of film. Science fiction, monsters, horror, aliens and robots were ubiquitous. Notable films from this era include The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing (1951), Attack Of The Fifty Foot Woman (1958) and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956).

It is often said that these themes represent or reflect a fear perpetuated by the onset of the Cold War in the mid 40s. That the decidedly paranoid and anti-communist paradigm shift in the US meant that such monsters and aliens embodied a totalitarian Red threat or invasion. Or, equally, a liberal backlash to the repression of McCarthyism.

These theories are sometimes, perhaps, a little simplified. The prevalence of these kinds of films was also due to a surge in technological obsession matched by improved special effects, while thematically and symbolically the ideas of authority, anarchy, invasion, socialism, nationalism, capitalism (and new scientific or technological consumerism and its repercussions) were probably an allusion to things happening within the borders of the United States, as well as things outside.

Western politics and philosophy were also on the cusp of undergoing some of the most colossal changes of the century, with the 60s just around the corner.

It's certainly worth mentioning at this stage that Roger 'King of the Bs' Corman started making films in the 50s. He made zeitgeist creations like It Conquered The World (1956), Attack Of The Crab Monsters (1957) and Teenage Caveman (1958), in notoriously little time for shockingly little money. He could easily make a film in a week or two, for a few grand.

He went on to make The Trip (1967) with Peter Fonda and many lauded Edgar Allan Poe adaptations including The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1960) and The Pit And The Pendulum (1961) with Vincent Price.

Passionate about supporting and inspiring new talent, the 'Corman Film School' helped discover seminal names such as Francis Ford Copploa, James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard.

Join us tomorrow for part three, where we continue our look at the American B-movie by venturing into the 60s and 70s...

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