Updated: Jan 30, 2020
Far from the lavish musicals of MGM and way down the tracks from the ornate entrance of Paramount Pictures stood the working-class studios of Poverty Row where movies were produced in a week, instead of months or even years. While the major studios such as Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and RKO where spending well over a million dollars on their films, the average Poverty Row production cost a mere $80,000, sometimes only $25,000. What they lacked in budget, they made up for in creativity and talent.
These so-called “B-movie studios” cranked out hundreds of Westerns, Comedies, Action/Adventure films, and dark detective dramas. Many of these studios were short-lived, but other low-budget production companies quickly took their place and Poverty Row flourished in the shadows of the big studios for almost 30 years, until they were eventually forced out of business by television.
Even though these studios were considered the lower-tier of movie production, there were still some major players. Among them were Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), Monogram, Republic Pictures, and Grand National Pictures. They were home to stars such as Bela Lugosi, Buster Crabbe, Frances Langford, and The Bowery Boys. Superstars and future legends such as Joan Crawford, James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry also worked in the Poverty Row system.
During a 1987 interview on Good Morning America, Roy Rogers explained why he and Gene Autry seldom crossed paths at Republic Pictures and how a Poverty Row production worked.
“They only had one production crew at Republic, so while Gene was making a picture, I was out on the road doing shows and when I made a picture, Gene was out doing shows. We had to make a living. We weren’t making much money at Republic.”
-Roy Rogers, 1987
Sands of Iwo Jima (1950) rose from Poverty Row to earn four Oscar nominations…Best Actor (John Wayne), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording, and Best Writing. One year before Nicholas Ray directed James Dean in the now classic Rebel Without a Cause (1955), he directed Joan Crawford in the quirky and now cult favorite Western Johnny Guitar (1954). French director François Truffaut reportedly loved the film, calling it the “Beauty and the Beast of Westerns.” Japanese director Shinji Aoyama called it one of the greatest films of all time.
“Contemporary American audiences didn't know what to make of it, so they either ignored it or laughed at it. European audiences, on the other hand, free of conventional biases, saw Johnny Guitar for what it was…an intense, unconventional, stylized picture, full of ambiguities and subtexts that rendered it extremely modern.”
-Martin Scorsese, director and film preservationist
Poverty Row pictures were gaining newfound respect in the 1940s and 50s and the man leading the charge was an Austrian-American filmmaker with a style like no other filmmaker of his time, in fact, Edgar G. Ulmer was a directed ahead of his time. He has been called “The Prince of Poverty Row” but Ulmer saw himself more as the “Frank Capra of Poverty Row.”
Early in his directing career, Ulmer was making top-of-the-line A movies for Universal such as The Black Cat (1934). The film is a beautifully stylized, creepily terrifying horror film starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and was a major hit for the studio. However, two years later, Ulmer was forced into making low-budget features on Poverty Row. That’s what happens when you have an affair with the wife of the nephew of the studio boss and later marry the now ex-wife of the nephew of the studio boss.
Ulmer’s banishment from the major studios did not stop him from making great films, most notably Detour (1945). The gritty crime noir starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage, and produced with a budget anywhere between $20,000 and $100,000, depending on which expert you talk to, made $1,000,000 at the box office and is still an audience favorite today.
“This movie from Hollywood's Poverty Row made in six days, filled with technical errors and ham-handed narrative, starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer, should have faded from sight soon after it was released in 1945. And yet it lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it.”
-Roger Ebert, film critic
On April 27, 1951, two films that would give re-birth to the Horror/Science Fiction film genre opened to the general public. Those films were The Thing from Another World, considered one of the greatest films ever made, and Edger G. Ulmer’s The Man from Planet X, not the greatest film ever made, but audiences loved it.
In order to save money, Mid Century Film Productions borrowed sets from the 1948 production of Joan of Arc that were still lying around at Hal Roach Studios. It was shot in six days with a budget of less than $50,000, and lots of fog to turn Joan of Arc’s 15th Century France into Ulmer’s 20th Century Scottish Moors. The film made $1.2 million at the box office.
"William Schallert, who played the evil scientist who wants to exploit the alien told me the sets were so small, the cars had to back in and out of frame in order to make an entrance and exit and if you watch the film it’s true.
The inexpressive alien and his spherical space ship still have an eerie aura and Ulmer’s art direction, Dutch angles, and cleave use of miniatures gives the film a gothic fairy tale feel. It’s unlike other 1950s science fiction movies. It almost looks like it was made in the 30s.”
-Joe Donte, film director
Many things have been blamed for the decline of the Poverty Row studios. The advent of television, the Supreme Court’s ruling against studios owning theaters, and the general collapse of the studio system all put an end to that part of cinema history. However, many of the films made by the small studios that dotted the landscape of Hollywood from the late 1920s to the mid-1950s have only grown in popularity, and the explosion of on-line streaming services demanding more exclusive or unique programming could spark the return of flashier and wealthier 21st Century Poverty Row filmmakers.
“Happy trails to you, until we meet again Happy trails to you, keep smilin' till then”
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