That “B” pictures are low budget is a given – originally, every studio produced “B” pictures to be the unheralded component of a double feature, how a night at the movies was planned in the pre television days of the 1930s and 40s. Again, while these pictures were shot at a fraction of their “A” counterparts, there was more. “B” movies were meant to fly fast, with familiar plots and characters (these pictures could be part of a series, like Charlie Chan, or Blondie or Andy Hardy, again the theatrical beginnings of what would become television series episodes) or even small musicals or comedies.
Length was another issue here – most great “B” movies got their business done in 70-80 minutes. We all pretty much knew what was going to happen anyway, so why not get it out of the way?
Here’s a good definition of the original “B” movies – “a genre film with minimal artistic ambitions or a lively, energetic film uninhibited by the constraints imposed upon more expensive projects and unburdened by the conventions of the putatively serious independent film.”
When I was growing up, most “B” movies had been taken over by “B” studios like Samuel Arkoff’s American International and Roger Corman’s Filmgroup and they were exploitive, giving in the audience’s baser instincts with sex, drugs, violence and scare bits. These movies would play at drive ins until the video revolution put their antics directly into homes.
Then came Steven Spielberg. It’s all his fault. Really.
Jaws, 1975, really, truly changed the world of movies – a change which then set up the Star Wars phenomenon – that of “B” movies for a new age of filmgoer and, to that audience’s detriment, they made so much money that it stuck, and we’re living with the detritus yet today almost 40 years later.
Spielberg and George Lucas stopped almost cold a studio system that had given audiences William Friedkin’s The French Connection, Francis Coppola’s The Conversation and Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, all “A” pictures built around important themes and sentiments.
My friend Gray Frederickson used to say this, and he’s great friends with both artists: “Francis Coppola was raised on literary classics and opera and Steven Spielberg was raised on the Road Runner.”
Coppola couldn’t make a regular genre movie if he tried – and he did… think of his rapturous Dracula and his intellectual take on John Grisham in The Rainmaker or his biopic Tucker.
Spielberg makes what he knows, which are “B” pictures. I don’t think he could wrap his head around a true “A” picture if he tried and I include Schindler’s List, which doesn’t hold up well at all since 1993. Lincoln and Amistad and, especially Munich just weren’t very good, with muddled stories and poorly developed characters.
Saving Private Ryan is the same, a mixed up mess.
Spielberg is on much surer footing with Minority Report or The War of the Worlds or even E.T. because, in truth, the audience expects less from him than they would a director like Altman or Clint Eastwood or Martin Scorsese or modern masters like Paul Thomas Anderson or the Coen Brothers.
Remember when Spielberg tried to channel none other than Stanley Kubrick in AI? Just awful.
Since all superhero movies, like Iron Man or Captain America are “B” pictures themselves, Spielberg is a victim of his own monster and now that the bar has been lowered even further, Spielberg is starting to look like the kind of out of touch director he replaced in the 70s. He hasn’t had a decent movie in years, maybe since Jurassic Park, another “B” movie that could be his best picture. War Horse and Tin Tin and especially BFG, which was the largest studio disappointment of the year, are all duds.
I really wonder how much longer studios will fund Spielberg’s pictures? The last Indiana Jones movie was terrible and fell way short of box office expectations.
And then there are Spielberg acolytes...
George Lucas – The Star Wars movies are “B” pictures. Period.
Robert Zemeckis has attempted to leave the “B” movie success of Back to the Future, with strong “A” list pictures, to mixed success. For every Flight or Allied there’s a Forrest Gump or What Lies Beneath or Castaway or The Walk. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a brilliant “A” movie spoofing “B” movies, but “B” movies Beowulf and The Polar Express are unbearable.
You would have to call Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films “A” pictures because of the literary provenance and King Kong is “B” picture heaven, but Jackson’s mating with poor old Steven Spielberg brought the comic book “B” movie sensitivities of Tin Tin to a grinding, screeching halt.
Again, don’t misunderstand my thesis – “B” movies can be fantastic, much like “pulp” novels, but let’s not mistake them for what they are.
From Captain America to Batman vs Superman to Suicide Squad – all were “B” movies. Hell and High Water, quite possibly the best movie of the year is a “B” movie for sure, as was Nocturnal Animals. Fences and Arrival and eventual Oscar winner Moonlight are all “A” pictures, but I’ll call La La Land a “B.” Hacksaw Ridge is an “A” picture, just unspeakably bad. I’ll say that most Disney/Pixar pictures “A” films, although Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was released by RKO, a “B” picture studio if ever there was one.
All right, Let’s review what’s out there in the world of home video…
My goodness has Warner Archive stepped up to the plate – they’ve transferred some real gems onto stunning Blu-ray discs – with musicals such as Twiggy in Ken Russell’s The Boyfriend and Francis Ford Coppola directing Fred Astaire in Finian’s Rainbow, which, for my money is one of the best musicals of the 60s, up there with My Fair Lady and the like. WA has also a terrific 70s action classic, and a personal favorite, The Yakuza, with a sterling Robert Mitchum.
Also in these past few months they’ve released The Demon Seed a creepy ass thriller from the mid 70s with Julie Christie, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and Valley of the Gwangi and SOB an all star romp through Hollywood starring William Holden, Julie Andrews and Robert Preston.
There are new releases every Tuesday at warnerarchive.com
Be still my heart – Criterion is now plumbing the Warner Brothers library to create their one of a kind products, with too many extras to count and restorations that make already beautiful black and white pictures into works of art. And they’ve done that exactly with Mildred Pierce, a film my dear friend Bill Thrash called “the second greatest Warner Brothers movie ever.”
Also new from the Criterion Collection is the classic Howard Hawks’ remake of The Front Page, His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell and a screwball comedy of another sort, Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Check frequently at criterion.com to keep up with these essential home video releases.
I rarely comment on new home video releases, even if they’ve had a minor theatrical release, but King Cobra is a pretty boss picture – the true story of a gay pornographic star and murder that surrounds him. It’s out there, so to speak, and riveting and available on shoutfactory.com, as are other new releases like, a Blu-ray of the original Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther, Dennis Hopper directing Sean Penn and Robert Duvall in Colors, George C. Scott and Drew Barrymore in Stephen King’s Firestarter and both Robocop 2 and 3. TV buffs can find the final season of Newhart, with its precious finale and the third season of Death Valley Days. Note to Shout!... keep releasing Death Valley Days until you get to the seasons with Dale Robertson.
So it’s someone’s birthday or anniversary or you know a real movie buff – I suggest, as I have suggested for a very long time, that you go to screenarchives.com and browse the Twilight Time section of Blu-rays. These is movie lovers’ heaven, with rare, very rare titles and restored Blu-rays that make these movies look better than they possibly ever have. Titles this month include: Woody Allen’s first “serious” movie – Interiors, with Diane Keaton and a luminous Maureen Stapleton, Chilly Scenes of Winter, a lost classic with John Heard, Edge of Eternity a Don Siegel film shot in and around the Grand Canyon with Cornel Wilde, Jack Elam and Edgar Buchanan and the all time noir classic, Kiss of Death with Victor Mature and a crazed Richard Widmark pushing that wheelchair woman down those stairs.
Of those classic releases from Kino Lorber Home Video (kinolorber.com) this month is a real classic that isn’t on any regular TV schedule – Compulsion, Richard Fleischer’s telling of the Leopold and Loeb story (covered also in Hitchock’s Rope) features what many feel is one of Orson Welles’ greatest performances in a picture he didn’t direct. He plays Clarence Darrow here and gives a courtroom speech for the ages. This is a must own picture.
Also new from Kino Lorber is Joe Don Baker and Phil Karlson’s follow up to Walking Tall, Framed, Christopher Lee in The Man Who Could Cheat Death and Joan Collins’ steamy pictures from her day The Stud and The Bitch.
Now here’s a dandy at olivefilms.com. I saw The Klansman in the theaters when I was a kid and it hit every button – a hot topic (racism), two great stars (Richard Burton and Lee Marvin), a TV star naked (Miss Lola Falana!) and lots of violence and blood. I always counted it a favorite and Olive has restored its luster.
There’s a lot of backstory here – I think Sam Fuller was supposed to direct it and ended up with only a writing credit – and it has Fuller written all over it, but it’s a potboiler and for sure worth owning.
Also from Olive is the Cannon version of King Soloman’s Mines, with Richard Chamberlain (?) Pierce Brosnan’s Evelyn and the Bob Hope/Phyllis Diller classic Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!
I’m just thinking of the liquor budget on the set of The Klansman.
See you at the flix!
- Bud Elder