Roger Corman – King of the B’s – By Dennis Grisbeck

If
you haven’t been living on a deserted island for the last 50 years or
so, chances are you’ve heard of Roger Corman. The first words that
often come to mind upon hearing his name are "King of the B’s"
(sometimes even "King of the Z’s"). There is no doubt that Roger Corman
helmed more than a few low-budget films, usually crunching them out one
after another in unbelievably tight filming schedules. When Corman was
at his peak of production he would shoot a film in 7 to 10 days. His
record was the 1960 comedy-horror film "The Little Shop of Horrors"
which was filmed in 2 days and 1 night. (To this day, Roger himself
laughs of this feat when asked about it in interviews.)
Regardless of your opinion of his movies, Roger Corman has unarguably
influenced Hollywood and modern cinema more than any other single
person in the history of film making.

Roger Corman, born on April 5, 1926, was raised in Detroit, Michigan.
At an early age, Roger already showed signs of excelling in his
academic pursuits, scoring highly in all subjects. (Roger admits that
he scored low in accounting, a task which he must grudgingly perform
for his New Horizons firm.) After highschool, Roger attended the
prestigious Stanford University and earned a degree in engineering in
1949. He went on to pursue a post-graduate degree in Modern English
Literature at Oxford University, but never completed it.

Lucky for us, Roger heeded the call of Hollywood, and in 1949 began his
illustrious career at the so-called "bottom of the ladder": a messenger
boy for 20th Century-Fox studios. Roger’s hard work and talents were
obvious to all, and he was quickly promoted to Story Analyst. Not
satisfied with reading other people’s scripts, he decided to write his
own instead. His efforts lead to the completion and sale of his first
script in 1953, "Highway Dragnet", for which he received the handsome sum of $18,000.

Taking the profits from "Highway Dragnet", Roger loaned an
additional $18,000 and produced his first film just a year later in
1954, "The Monster From the Ocean Floor." A new chapter in Hollywood
history had just begun.

At this point in time, it would appear that Roger was taking a
deep breathe before plunging headfirst into storm of movies he directed
and produced during the second half of the 1950’s. Corman took his
place on the director’s chair for the first time in 1955, helming a
film entitled "Swamp Women"
(starring 2 lovely B-Queens: Beverly Garland and Marie Windsor). He
also produced and directed a couple odd westerns in 1955: "Five Guns West" and "Apache Woman".

The year 1956 was a "modest" year for Roger; that is, "only" five films produced and directed (including "The Beast With A Million Eyes", and one of my favorites, "It Conquered The World",
filmed in one week and starring the cucumber-like Venusian bent on
ruling the world). In an interesting side note, Corman would typically
come up with a title and a tagline before a script was written.
In fact, this is exactly what Corman and his crew did with "The Beast
With A Million Eyes": They pre-sold the movie to distributors before
the film was even made. Needless to say, the theater owners were a bit
disappointed when the advertisements for the film were more exciting
than the film itself!

Roger
was now operating at full speed. In 1957 Roger produced and directed as
many movies in that year alone than he had made in the past 3 years: An
incredible 9 films! With shooting schedules rarely over a week in
length, Roger jumped from project to project with amazing energy and
devotion. The films from this productive year include, "The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent", "Attack of the Crab Monsters", "The Undead", "Teenage Doll", and "Sorority Girl", to name just a few.

It is easy to assume that Corman’s movies were slip-shod affairs that
he simply threw together with no regard for the final product. The
lurid titles alone are enough to make a person roll their eyes and
chuckle. However Corman is quick to point out, "Other writers,
producers, and directors of low-budget films would often put down the
film they were making, saying it was just something to make money with.
I never felt that . If I took the assignment, I’d give it my best
shot." Roger, limited by shoe-string budgets and inhumanly tight
schedules would typically produce an intelligent piece of work, often
with novel, thought provoking themes (if you could temporarily ignore
some of the ridiculous monsters).

As the 1950’s came to a close, Roger began to back away from the
frantic pace he had achieved in the last years of that decade. (1958
also saw him producing 9 films and directing 5 of these: "She Gods of Shark Reef", "Teenage Cave Man", "Machine-Gun Kelly", "War of the Satellites", and "I Mobster".)
As 1960 came into being, good ol’ American International Pictures (the
words that we all love to see: "An American International Pictures
Production"…) approached Roger with an offer to direct a series of
black-and-white movies based on Edgar Allan Poe’s horror novels. Tiring
of B-movie "cheapies", Corman came with a counter-offer: instead of
making a series of cheap black-and-whites, he would use the money to
make just 1 film in color and Cinemascope. AIP studios mulled it over
and eventually decided to take a gamble and gave Corman the green
light. Three weeks later, Corman complete "House of Usher",
starring the legendary Vincent Price. The movie was a huge success and
brought both handsome box office returns and something else that AIP
rarely received: critical praise.

After "House of Usher", Corman went on to direct (and produce) other films based on Poe’s writings: "Pit and the Pendulum" (1960), "The Premature Burial" (1962), "Tales of Terror" (1962), "The Raven" (a 1963 film featuring a young Jack Nicholson and the renowned Boris Karloff), "The Haunted Palace" (1963), "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964), and "The Tomb of Ligeia"
(1965). In a humorous anecdote (and a perfect example of the essence of
Corman’s thinking), Corman recalls that he wanted to get as much use as
possible out of the sets from "The Raven" before they were torn down.
Seeing as they had a few more days before they were to be demolished,
Corman whipped out the script for a film called "The Terror" and convinced Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson to star in it. (Roger himself calls the film "confusing"!)

During the early 1960’s, in addition to the wildly popular series of
Poe films, Roger also burned the midnight oil producing and directing
B-movie fodder including, "The Wasp Woman" (1960) and "The Little Shop of Horrors" (completed in 1960 in record time, even for Roger Corman: 2 days and 1 night), and "Creature From the Haunted Sea"
(1961). In addition to these campy classics, Corman even found time to
explore possibilities in Russia, buying, editing, dubbing, and
re-releasing Soviet sci-fi movies in the United States. In fact, the
great director Francis Ford Coppola’s first job out of film school was
working for Corman cutting out anti-American propaganda from these
Russian films. In fact, 60% of all Corman’s films are produced
overseas, primarily in Ireland, Eastern Europe, and the Phillipines.

Eventually Roger grew frustrated with the distribution companies who
handled his films. Against his wishes, the distributors would often
edit Corman’s works making them more palatable for the general public,
but destroying Corman’s vision of how the films should be. In an effort
to gain full control over his work, Corman started his on production
firm called Film Group in the early 1960’s, however the company went
bankrupt just a couple of years later.

In
1971 came a turning point in Roger Corman’s life: he hopped down from
the director’s chair and focused full time on film production. His
reasons for stopping are simple: he was exhausted and understandably
burned out from the immense effort he had given during the last 16
years of his career. Regardless of his lost enthusiasm for directing,
Roger was still full of creativity and needed an enterprise into which
he could funnel his energies. As a result, Corman launched New World
Cinema in 1971, a production company which, unsurprisingly, has churned
out an impressive number of films since its inception.

With Corman at the helm, New World Cinema stumbled upon, and exploited,
novel (read: peculiar) film genres. These new types of exploitation
films included student nurses, ("The Student Nurses" (1970), "Private Duty Nurses" (1972), and "Night Call Nurses" (1972)), motorcycles ("Angels Die Hard" (1970), "Angels Hard as They Come" (1971)), women in prison ("The Big Doll House" (1971), "Women in Cages" (1971) and "The Hot Box" (1972)), and blaxploitation ("Savage" (1973) and "TNT Jackson" (1975)).

As the 1980’s rolled around Corman branched into the Direct-to-Video
and Direct-to-TV market by creating another company called The Concorde
Company (now part of a home video company called New Horizons). In 1982
he sold his interests in New World and has been quietly, and
energetically, producing films via Concorde and New Horizons ever
since.

Roger Corman is enjoying the quiet life and in a recent
interview notes that he does not want to return to directing, unless it
is specifically for a project that he feels passionately for. (Corman
did return to direct one more film in 1990 called "Frankenstein
Unbound". An interviewer asked him why he did it. His response: money.)
At 79 years of age he’s still going strong and has no intention of
handing over the reigns of his company. (He already has a film ready
for release called "Bloodfist 2050" and is planning a remake of Deathrace 2000 entitled "Deathrace 3000" due for release in 2006)

Corman’s monumental career now spans 6 decades, including directing 56 films and producing 360 films
(!), not to mention the discovery of such talented directors and actors
such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Jack
Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, Robert De Niro, and
Charles Bronson. He has proven that people can make low-budget
independent films outside of the Hollywood "Big Studio" system. Not
only make independent films, but be extremely successful at it. (He’s
also penned a book entitled "How I Made a Hundred Movies In Hollywood
and Never Lost A Dime"… which will certainly make for an entertaining
read!)

Regardless of whether you love or hate his films (or simply roll
your eyes and laugh when you watch them), Roger Corman has left an
indelible mark on Hollywood and film in general. His efforts have
entertained generations of viewers, and through the discovery and
encouragement of other talented directors and actors, he has ensured
that his impact on cinema will continue for years to come.