Videodrone MOD Movies: The real B-movies
'Women in Bondage,' 'Where Are Your Children,' and the best of Monogram and other poverty row productions
The manufacture on demand line has been a boon to film buffs with rather specialized tastes, bringing out secondary films by big stars, significant films by second-tier actors and actresses, vintage musicals, cult series, and other films that don't have the credentials to compete in the mainstream DVD and Blu-ray market.
One area that is especially snubbed by studio releases is the B-movie. The term itself is often misused by folks who use it to refer to any low-budget film. The real B-movie was a very particular kind of production. Its heyday was the mid-thirties, when Hollywood first started experimenting with the double feature as the foundation of a night at the movies, to the early 1950s, when TV started competing for audiences the B-movie (in particular the B-western) evolved into TV programs.
Simply put, the B-movie was designed to play as the second feature in support of the star attraction. It generally ran between 55 and 70 minutes and featured up-and-comers, has-beens, or any number of players who simply found a familiar niche in stock genres, and were made cheaply and sold at a flat rate. To make money, they had to keep costs below the going rate. To keep making money, they had to make something audiences liked, or at least didn't mind sitting through.
A lot of these movies found some level of fame and cult awareness -- Charlie Chan mysteries, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry westerns -- and in some cases could actually be a star attraction in their own right. Those films tended to find their way to home video. Most of the rest were forgettable and many of them pretty awful, but there are always exceptions and plenty of interesting items. It became its own cinematic ecosystem, with directors, producers, and stars who found a career in these films, but it could be a training ground for young directors and writers and a proving ground for new performers (like John Wayne, who spent almost a decade learning how to be a movie star by cranking out westerns for Republic). And while these films lacked resources and time, they also often get made with little front office oversight, which could lead to interesting subjects and approaches.
Case in point: the 1943 "Women in Bondage" (Warner Archive). It is not a prison picture, as the title might suggest, but one of Hollywood's most harrowing anti-Nazi pictures. Gail Patrick is a proud and moral paragon of German womanhood who returns to the homeland after years abroad and finds her country under the spell of Hitler. While her husband (Alan Baxter), an SS officer, marches troops around the otherwise romantic little German village, she's expected to take her place as a militant party woman, training young women to become proper paragons of Aryan maidenhood. Which includes, apparently, putting out for soldiers. It's truly weird, a nightmarish mix of woman's picture and scare film that paints Nazi Germany as a militant cult that practices Eugenics ("Only the physically perfect woman can be considered to marry the cream of German manhood," proclaims one leader at a fitness exam) and outlaws baptisms (because babies should be dedicated to Hitler, not God). There's no mention of concentration camps or the Final Solution here, and the religion under fire is Christianity, but it's very much designed to outrage good American audiences.
While this comes from the Warner Archive line, it is actually a Monogram picture, a company that made a good living on cheap productions for a long time. Director Steve Sekely, a Hungarian émigré who fled Nazi Europe, surely brought his own animosity to the Third Reich to sell this picture. He managed to get use of a standing mittel European village set, the kind you might see in a harmless romantic operetta, and turn it into a twisted nightmare by decorating it with swastika banners and putting it under the police state occupation of jack-booted soldiers. It makes the film look a little more lavish than its budget would otherwise allow.
The rest of the films in this recent run of releases are also Monogram productions. Heading back stateside is "Where Are Your Children?" (Warner Archive), with Gale Storm as a good girl who slides into juvenile delinquency and Jackie Cooper as the all-American son of a privileged rich mother. While he goes to serve his country over the objections of mother, young Miss Storm falls in with a bad crowd and ends up pregnant and abandoned in the big city. It too is a war film in its own right. The 1943 production is social diatribe of kids running wild without supervision during the war, and ends with a stern lecture by a judge and bizarre happy ending thanks to the support of a benevolent community stepping in to take responsibility. For cult fans, note that the juvenile delinquent who steals a car and kills an old man on his joy ride is Neyle Morrow, soon to become a favorite of director Sam Fuller.
William Beaudine, one of those directors who found his place in the B-movie industry, directs the more familiar crime dramas "Black Market Babies" (Warner Archive), a 1945 social drama / underworld melodrama set around a private adoption racket run by the mob, and "Don't Gamble with Strangers" (Warner Archive), a 1946 cheapy that pretty much holds captures the plot in the title. Beaudine had made some interesting movies in the past, but he's just going through the motions here, meeting a schedule more than directing a film. But there is a kind of offhanded sleaziness that makes them a little more interesting than the dramatics would otherwise deserve.
All of these films look just fine, which is something a small miracle considering their provenance. There is some wear and minor damage to the prints and no restoration went into these masters, but the Warner digital transfer gives the image a respectable clarity. I don't want to say it's lovingly made, but there is a respect for the films you don't get in the usual public domain home video release.
Click on "More" below for the B-movies of Phil Karlson, Volume 2 of "Bomba the Jungle Boy," and more B-movie artifacts and oddities
"Killroy Was Here" (Warner Archive), a 1947 post-war college comedy starring former child stars Jackie Cooper and Jackie Coogan, is from Phil Karlson, one of the great bare-knuckle filmmakers who learned his trade in the B-movie industry and graduated to make some of the toughest and brawniest film noirs of the fifties. This rather static comedy isn't anything like that, but it's an example of the B-movie culture giving an ambitious director the opportunity to practice his craft in forgiving forum. (R. Emmett Sweeney reviews the film at TCM's Movie Morlocks)
The MOD format has been a boon to Phil Karlson completists, which to be honest is a small crowd. Along with the very welcome home video debut of "99 River Street" (Warner Archive), not a B-movie at all but a budget-minded crime drama with great style, tough attitude, and great ambition on a tight production (reviewed on Videodrone here), the various MOD services have given us a number of his early films that otherwise would likely never see the light of home video, such as "Behind the Mask" (MGM Limited Edition Collection), a 1946 big screen version of The Shadow (not particularly good, I confess) and the B-movie musical "Swing Parade of 1946" (Warner Archive).
Add three more to the growing list. "Wife Wanted" (Warner Archive), a 1946 Monogram Picture featuring the final appearance of one-time star Kay Francis, is a tawdry little melodrama of love for sale in a lonely hearts racket run by the mob. In other words, classic Monogram exploitation.
Moving to Columbia Pictures, which ran its own B-movie unit with slightly bigger budgets and an interest in developing talent for better things, he made "Adventures in Silverado" (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), a 1948 frontier western with Edgar Buchanan and Forrest Tucker
"The Brigand" (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), a low-budget 1952 swashbuckler in a fictional European kingdom, isn't a B-movie by any means – it runs 90 minutes in full color – but it still shows Karlson making films in the shallow end of the budget pool on the cusp of carving out his own identity as a crime movie specialist. Anthony Quinn co-stars in this one.
More B movies:
Today, the biggest budgets go the franchise films, from James Bond to Batman, but back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the franchises were usually relegated to the Bs, or at least settled there after a more robust debut. "Bomba the Jungle Boy: Volume 2" (Warner Archive) collects the final six films in the "Tarzan" knock-off starring Johnny Sheffield (who played Boy to Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan) as the jungle hero created by Roy Rockwood. "African Treasure" (1952) and "Bomba and the Jungle Girl" (1952) were Monogram productions, but the company changed its name to Allied Artists for the final four: "Safari Drums" (1953), "The Golden Idol" (1954), "Killer Leopard" (1954), and "Lord of the Jungle" (1955). All six are written and directed by serial king Ford Beebe.
"Death Goes North" (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) is a Canadian Mounted Police adventure from 1939, shot in the California hills and featuring Rin Tin Tin Jr. as the loyal companion of a murdered man who helps the Mounties find the killer.
The B-movies gave way to the drive-in movie, where double features were standard even as they lost favor in theaters, and the 1955 "Teenage Crime Wave" (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) is the kind of juvenile delinquent drama that filled a lot of those screens between the horror films, science fiction thrillers, and rock 'n' roll pictures. Fred F. Sears (who made his share of all said genres) directs.
"Mitchell" (Warner Archive) is no B-movie, but this vigilante thriller is true seventies exploitation knock-off, with Joe Don Baker playing off of his "Walking Tall" notoriety as a maverick police detective who takes justice into his own hands. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and co-starring Martin Balsam, John Saxon, Linda Evans, and Merlin Olsen, this clumsy film ended up a cult item thanks in large part to the love lavished upon it by the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" hecklers.
MOD stands for "Manufacture on Demand" and represents a recent development in the DVD market, where slipping sales have slowed the release of classic, special interest and catalogue releases. These are DVD-R releases, no-frills discs from studio masters, ordered online and "burned" individually with every order.