for Second Billing
By Stu Kobak
As America descended into the throes of economic depression in the early
1930s, Hollywood saw the need to step up entertainment output, to give
theater goers more bang for their buck, and they began filling theater
screens with double features. The double feature in essence was the birth
of the pure "B" movie, bred to accompany studio "A"
movies had no pretensions to grandeur. They existed to simply support a
concept. They were churned out with production line mentality. Sometimes
they served as jumping off points for untried actors, but mostly, actors
toiling in B world never rose above that status. A notable exceptions were
John Wayne, who graduated from Republic quickies to the top of the box
office. But the films weren't exactly designed as acting showcases.
Directors who could get the shot in one-take were valued less for artistic
sensibilities than economic realities. Some graduated to the world
of A list movies, but others remained the unsung heroes of the double
bill, delivering entertainment on the cheap, making the most of the least.
The B movie phenomenon spawned a host of genre
films including mysteries, westerns and comedies. Once ensconced as a
movie going standard, the Bs churned out picture after picture with
similar elements, and in a number of cases a series of films was made with
one central character; maybe a Charlie Chan or Boston Blackie, with
a new film appearing almost every year.
The demand for B pictures fostered the growth of
a group of second tier studios that churned out black and white quickies
with minute budgets and built-in profits. Sometimes former stars
made B movies on the way down. Surely, they had hopes of resurrecting a
career in decline, but it usually was nothing more that a signal of the
end. Stars of B movies often were recruited for supporting roles in big
Many of the extant films are little more than reminders
of a simpler time. Their limited production values and culled together
scripts were made with invisible ink. Yet, some indelible images
survive. Sometimes, art rises above its origins. In the forties,
many B film makers found inventive ways to make movies on the cheap
Aspects of B movies excited an element of pure pleasure
in audiences. Bs were seldom demanding. Like the tough guys and
gunfighters depicted, they shot from the hip. When they expanded into
series of films, you knew what to expect from the characters. The pleasure
principle hasn't disappeared altogether and many action flicks move ahead
with just that mentality, except script doesn't matter much anymore, it's
all pyrotechnics, explosions, flashy photography and surround sound to the
nth degree. And the budget for a single flick are enough to have delivered
the entire output of one of the B studios of yesteryear.
Today, many of those B films have enduring artistic
value thanks to those filmmakers who brought something special to their
works. Some of those lean black and white films rose above the limitations
imposed by budget. Many films considered classic noirs were born on B
mentality. Creative forces found ways to deliver something special to the
In the early to mid-fifties, double features
slowly became a thing of the past. They lingered in second string theaters
for a little while and survived in places like forty-second street in
Manhattan for years, but mostly they filled Television's need for cheap
Many of the B movies still live in their poster
incarnations, often far more flamboyant than the films themselves. B Movie
posters strain to rise above the origins of their meager film budgets.
Lurid qualities are emphasized to attract audiences. The poster art
emphasizes the mystery and excitement. Forgettable titles are often turned
into memorable movie posters.
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