Life and Death in L.A.: It Came from Poverty Row: Hollywood's B-Movie Factories Mined Noir Gold

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

It Came from Poverty Row: Hollywood's B-Movie Factories Mined Noir Gold

Ann Savage, Tom Neal, "Detour" (1945).
Hitchhiking on the road to hell.
So many westerns were filmed at the small, independently owned studios near the intersection of Sunset Blvd. and Gower St. in Hollywood that people began calling it Gower Gulch. From the 1930s to the ’50s it was the epicenter of low-rent film production and the gaggle of studios there was disparagingly known as Poverty Row. Monogram, Republic, Eagle-Lion and Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), among many others, cranked out westerns, gangster films, horror movies, comedies, teen musicals and films noir, usually on beer-money budgets with modest sets and B- or C-list actors. 
Back in the days when movie houses showed double features, cheaply made B-pictures were paired with big budget films produced by the major studios. Strong demand for B-pictures gave rise to an industry dedicated to knocking out 55- to 75-minute dramas, comedies and musicals that the larger studios were unwilling to bother with. 
Always pinching pennies, Poverty Row directors were known to use sets left behind by more prosperous productions that had been shooting at neighboring soundstages. To save money, directors shot scenes outdoors, often in natural light with Hollywood neighborhoods as backdrops. Interior shots with vast black pools of shadow could mask a lack of sets, props, costumes and even adequate lighting equipment.
Films were often spare, with unfiltered images that seemed to convey noir’s tales of murder and treachery with an air of authenticity not found in polished productions by the majors. 
Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) in Hollywood.
One of the studios where B-pictures were made.
Known for quick and dirty operations, Poverty Row studios took on films that Paramount or Warner Bros. would shy away from. Stories too tawdry for polite company may have been rejected at Fox, but they were the stuff that made Poverty Row’s engine fire on all cylinders. Titles such as “The Red Menace” (1949), “Bury Me Dead” (1947) and “For You I Die” (1948) rolled off the Poverty Row assembly line. Many had a sensational, ripped from the headlines feel that reflected the brash energy of American tabloid journalism of the 1940s and ’50s. 
Of course, not each an every film shot on Poverty Row sparkled like a diamond. With rushed schedules and budgets stretched to the breaking point there's bound to be some clunkers. Production values were less than top-notch, performances could be uneven and scripts had plot holes you could drive a Buick Roadmaster through. Shooting schedules were usually short and hectic, often less than a week for feature films. While a goodly amount of the output was dreck, a number of masterpieces were the product of those thread-bare productions. Ingenuity and craftsmanship could make up for tight finances and screenplays sorely in need of a rewrite. 
Many skilled technicians who’d been in Hollywood since the days of the silents found a steady income there. The low-rent studios didn’t pay much, but kept droves of film industry veterans off the breadlines during the Depression. It was a blue collar island in a neighborhood bulging at the seams with high falutin artistes.
Poverty Row was a corner of the industry that didn't take itself overly seriously. No one expected that Monogram, PRC and Eagle Lion’s pictures would ever be regarded as art, and the likelihood of critics ever seeing them was slim to none. Above all else it was a tough racket. Films were at times cut with the delicacy of a flying meat cleaver and distributors were often paid a flat fee for each film regardless of how many tickets were sold. 
This was a market of mass production and the goal was to deliver the product with great speed. 
The chaotic atmosphere and urgency to get a film in the can paradoxically offered directors and other artists greater latitude to try things that would never be approved by larger studios. The relatively low cost of each project allowed directors and actors to be largely left alone to do their work without interference, which resulted in some spectacular and enduring films that otherwise might never have been made. 

Five Noirs Made for Peanuts 
that Still Knock Our Socks Off
Here are a handful of top-notch crime dramas (and one that's not so top-notch) produced during Poverty Row’s heyday. I’ll list more of them in the coming weeks. Please feel free to enter your picks for the best Poverty Row crime and noir features in the Comments section below.:
Tom Neal, "Detour." Trapped in a paranoid nightmare.
Detour” (1945) Producers Releasing Corporation
We begin with the grand daddy of noirs done on dirt cheap budgets by independently minded directors. In this case it’s the King of B-pictures, Edgar G. Ulmer. It’s a classic example of how a bottom-rung budget can set a gritty, claustrophobic mood that looks just right for noir. We can almost feel desperation radiating off the screen. It’s the production’s thread-bare look that enhances the protagonist’s sense of hopelessness and isolation. 
The very down-at-the-heels look is in itself a character in this movie, and it’s that shop-worn texture that sets the mood and somehow makes the plot all the more credible. It’s the story of pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) who just can’t seem to catch a break. His head is filled with visions of Carnegie Hall, but instead he pounds the keys at a gin joint, scooping up tips from the punters and gritting his teeth. His gal sings at the saloon to his accompaniment, but fed up with their dead end existence, she cuts bait and heads for the West Coast in search something better. 
Al stays behind in New York until he finally gets the gumption to follow his love. He’s broke, so he gets out on the highway and sticks out his thumb. He feels a rush of enthusiasm he hasn’t experienced in years, like he’s on his way to the promised land. But his journey turns into something resembling the third circle of hell. 
He catches a ride with a big-wheel gambler, but that goes sour — real sour —and he decides to change his identity, as you do in noir. When he begins thinking his luck might be changing for the better he crosses paths with hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage), a spitfire whom he soon wishes he never met.
This is arguably Ulmer’s noir masterpiece (he felt that “Ruthless” [1948] was his best), a story so unyielding in its pessimism that big studios would likely pass on it. Just as well. They’d probably try to dress it up for maximum consumer appeal, and that would ruin everything. The film was remade in 1992 with Tom Neal’s son, Tom Neal Jr. — it’s best to stick with the original.
Edward Norris, Jean Gillie, Herbert Rudley, "Decoy" (1946).
"Decoy" (1946) Monogram Studios
When it comes to cruel, irredeemable femmes fatale, Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) wins top honors as the rottenest apple in the orchard. Told in flashback, “Decoy” features double crossers, a death row execution and a doctor who raises the dead. Then, things start to get weird.
Throughout the film, Margot remains a cold-blooded double crosser. For her sheer cruelty and outsized zest for sadism, she stands out among noir’s most treacherous females.
She pulls off a murder that is as hideous as any committed by man, woman or child onscreen at the time. In her crazed pursuit of a $400,000 stash of loot, she disposes of an accomplice as he’s fixing a flat tire by slamming her car into forward gear and running over the unsuspecting sap several times for good measure. She hops out and rifles through the dead man’s pockets before driving off.
Aside from Margot’s depraved antics, the centerpiece of the film’s first half is a whacky stunt that involves hijacking a morgue meat wagon that’s carrying the body of an executed man. Margot and her band of ghouls bring the corpse to a laboratory where a doctor administers a drug that brings the dead man back to life. (Yup, you heard right.)
In the film’s closing moments she lies on her death bed while Police Sgt. Portugal (Sheldon Leonard), who has been on her trail, stands over her. She asks him to come closer, as if she means to tell him something — something confidential — and he crouches down, bringing his face closer to her’s. Is she about to unburden herself and express regret for all the wrong she has done, we wonder? Nah! With her dying breath she cackles hysterically in the copper’s face. She can now leave this mortal coil, warmed by the fact that she’s had the last laugh at another in a long line of suckers. With her rotten-to-the core exit, Margot is the very model of a film noir femme fatale.

Elyse Knox, Don Castle, "I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes" (1948).
I Wouldn’t be in Your Shoes” (1948) Monogram Studios
Ann Quinn (Elyse Knox) wishes that a saint would deliver a pot of gold to her and her vaudeville hoofer husband Tom Quinn (Don Castle). Tom says it wouldn’t mind if that pot of gold was delivered by “the opposite of a saint.” We get a creepy feeling that in uttering those works he’s unintentionally summoning up a demon. When Ann switches off the lights a chorus of cats begins to howl outside their bedroom window. The hoofer chucks his shoes at the vocalizing felines, setting off a disastrous chain of events that no one could have predicted. 
Based on a Cornell Woolrich story, “I Wouldn’t be in Your Shoes,” like a number of Woolrich’s yarns, is the story of a man wrongly convicted of murder. As Tom sits on death row, Ann frantically searches for evidence that will prove him innocent. Frequently, Woolrich’s persecuted men are rescued by strong willed, inquisitive females who go to great lengths to dig out facts that will save the poor dope whose neck is on the chopping block. 
We get the story in flashback, with Tom’s echoey voice narrating as he sits in a prison cell. Ann is a ballroom dance instructor whose most dedicated pupil is a big tipper she calls Santa Clause. It turns out that Santa is really Police Insp. Clint Judd (Regis Toomey), a crusty veteran of the force known for cracking difficult cases. He finds a footprint outside of a murder scene that links Tom to the crime. The murder victim is Tom and Ann’s shut-in, cash laden neighbor, and coincidentally, not only does a thick wad of moolah find its way into Tom’s hands, the pair of shoes he hurled at the noisy cats unexpectedly materialized on their doorstep the next morning. It’s a cinch that there’s a frame-up in the works, but Tom has a date with the hangman’s noose and time is running out for him. 
Hokey touches (the echoey narrator), static camerawork and uneven performances don’t take much away from the outlandish plot that, while stretching credibility to the breaking point, is pure Woolrich, and that alone makes it worth a look. Strangely enough, if the film was a high budget production, I doubt that we’d be willing to forgive the parts that don’t make a lot of sense. How, for example, does Insp. Judd find the time to do the seemingly enormous amount of personal sleuthing and still hold down a job? No matter. In a low-rent, funky production such as this we sit back and go along for the ride.
Dolores Fuller, Herbert Rawlinson, "Jail Bait" (1954).
Jail Bait” (1954) Howco. 
When it comes to cheapie film productions with odd plot lines I could hardly neglect to mention Edward D. Wood Jr., director of cult classics such as “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1957), “Glen or Glenda” (1953) and “Bride of the Monster” Wood’s wild, frequently disjointed work tends to land in the science fiction and horror genres and is widely renown simply for being so, so bad. He was awarded two of film critic Michael Medved’s Golden Turkey Awards, one for Worst Director of all times and the other, a Worst Film award for his “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”
Regardless of their premise, Wood’s films, be they science fiction fantasies with cheesy flying saucers or a pseudo documentary about transvestites and sex change surgery, don’t lean heavily on verisimilitude and plausibility. Perhaps because of that, the Wood oeuvre has for decades attracted packs of hipsters who view the stuff largely for its ironic comedic value.
“Jail Bait,” the director’s sole attempt at film noir, may be the lesser known Wood film on the midnight screenings circuit mostly because it avoids outrageous and inflammatory topics and the plot stays basically within noir’s conventions. The title doesn’t refer to under-aged girls, by the way. It’s what one character calls the gun her delinquent brother carries with him on the streets. Although it’s probably not an accident that the film is tagged with a suggestive title — in this business you gotta have a gimmick.
The film is a straight-ahead crime drama telling the story of Don Gregor (Clancy Malone), a partner in crime with gangster Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell). Don, fresh out of prison, is brow beaten onto committing a robbery with Vic, and it goes badly. That's when Don's father, plastic surgeon Dr. Boris Gregor (Herbert Rawlinson) is forced to perform a plastic surgery job on Vic, who wants to hide his identity. Don is being held hostage until the surgery is complete, so Dr. Gregor goes to work on the desperate criminal with great urgency. 
Vic is a wanted man, so they can’t risk using an operating room. Naturally, the procedure is done on the sofa in Vic’s living room. A nurse isn’t available to assist, so the doctor’s daughter, Marilyn (Dolores Fuller, Wood’s real life girlfriend) pitches in. The entire operation is conducted with a basin of hot water, some ether, a scalpel or two, probably, and some clean sheets used to make bandages. Voila! Vic gets a new face, but in an odd twist his new profile is something less than what he expected.
Produced on a measly budget, “Jail Bait” suffers from uneven acting, vacuous dialogue (Dr. Gregor thoughtfully remarks, “Plastic surgery, at times, seems to be very, very complicated.”) and scattershot direction. But somehow Wood’s strange ending and some laughably stiff line readings add up to a rather likable mess. It’s enough to make me wish that Wood had tried his hand at noir at least one more time.  
Leslie Brooks, "Blonde Ice" (1948).
Blonde Ice” (1948) Film Classics
San Francisco society columnist Claire Cummings (Leslie Brooks) gets hitched to a rich dude, then shows off her mastery in the art of two-timing. Claire never met a man she couldn't play for a sucker, because she’s … you know, cold like ice.
“Blonde Ice” director Jack Burnhard also directed “Decoy,” and between both films he gave rise to two of the most dastardly femmes fatale in all of noir. Unlike gun moll Margot Shelby in “Decoy,” Claire is a wage slave working among ink stained wretches. But both are driven by an insatiable desire for riches and will Hoover up every dollar, diamond and mink they can extract from unsuspecting marks. The difference between them is that Margot is an underworld denizen and Claire is a social climber. Margot uses blunt force to get cash, while Claire would prefer to marry it. She does, however, pack a pearl handled revolver in her purse and isn’t afraid to use it.
Nicknamed Blonde Ice, we meet Claire as she’s about to walk the plank with a middle-aged moneybags while giving her whimpering ex-beau, sportswriter Les Burns (Robert Paige), the heave-ho. Even after taking the vows she still tantalizes crestfallen Les, stringing him along as her husband of 15 minutes grows huffy watching from the sidelines. She calms hubby, but he won’t stay pacified for long. For Claire, it’s a minor bump in the road. She always keeps an eye open for new prospects with bulging bank accounts should the need for a substitute arise. 
It’s no wonder that she took up her vocation in the news biz, chronicling the comings and goings of the conspicuously wealthy. According to her peers, she ain’t no newspaperwoman. That’s immaterial to Claire — the job’s main perk is a bird’s eye view of eligible dupes who are ripe for the picking. 
In large part, what’s most enjoyable about both films, for me, at least, is the cold bloodedness of the crimes to which both lethal ladies resort. Claire is blasé when she pulls the trigger, and is quick to put on a charming face when the situation calls for it. After shooing away a blackmailer who wants to take her for 50 grand, she switches from a snarl to a smile, deftly toggling into her charming socialite persona to greet arriving guests. In the end, Claire lives up to her nickname, but when the people around her get wise to her dark motives and darker deeds, the world becomes too chilly a place for her. 

Next time, I’ll talk more about Poverty Row, directors who learned their trade there and the films that they made.

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