To B, or Not to B

Nick Pinkerton on Poverty Row Classics at the Museum of Modern Art

Steve Sekely, Hollow Triumph, 1948, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 83 minutes.

POVERTY ROW WASN’T A PLACE ON ANY MAP. The studios were scattered around Los Angeles and its environs: Republic was based in Studio City with a ranch for cowboy pictures in Encino. Monogram did its oaters in Placerite Canyon, with a lot on Sunset Boulevard owned today by the Church of Scientology. Producers Releasing Corporation moved from Gower Street to Santa Monica Boulevard, where they would eventually acquire the pompous sobriquet Eagle-Lion Films after being purchased by British producer J. Arthur Rank. What unified the “B-Hive” wasn’t geography but the sort of work that they did—B pictures for the bottom half of double bills, usually running between fifty and seventy-five minutes, rarely afforded the same attention and respect as their A counterparts.

While Poverty Row films tended to shoot on the quick and on the cheap, they weren’t always identifiable as cinema apart from studio product. When making White Zombie (1932), for example, brothers Edward and Victor Hugo Halperin rented their sets from Universal Studios and hired contract player Bela Lugosi to play Murder Legendre, a white voodoo master in Haiti. White Zombie, which plays as part of a twelve-film program at the Museum of Modern Art of “Poverty Row Classics” restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive at greater time and expense than they were originally afforded, is one of the better remembered Bs because it contains a peak-period Lugosi performance and is the first feature-length zombie movie. More than a decade before Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, the Halperins drew the connection between zombie thralldom and black slavery, most strikingly in a scene at Legendre’s sugar factory, where one of the shuffling drones falls headlong into a cane-chopping hopper.

Poverty Row independence could foster innovation in style and subject matter, though not infrequently it settled for imitation. Watching George B. Seitz’s The Drums of Jeopardy (1931), a potboiler starring Warner Oland, a droopy lidded Swede who repeatedly appeared as Charlie Chan and generally functioned as Hollywood’s all-purpose Oriental, I found myself having vivid flashbacks to a recent viewing of the Oland-starring Daughter of the Dragon of the same year: Oland plays a Bolshevik named Dr. Boris Karlov (!) in the former and Dr. Fu Manchu in the latter, but the concluding races-to-the-rescue are nigh-interchangeable. I can’t make a claim for the film as a lost masterpiece, nor is Frank R. Strayer’s The Vampire Bat (1933) likely to change anyone’s life, though it does contain Dwight Frye, the Renfield of Universal’s Dracula (1931), as a village spastic who goes around stuffing “nice, soft” bats into his pocket, and that is no small thing.

The Drums of Jeopardy and The Vampire Bat do boast plenty in the way of threadbare atmospherics, and both passed through the hands of resourceful producer and sometimes director Phil Goldstone, closely associated with Majestic Pictures, one of the six smaller outfits brought together by processing lab owner Herbert J. Yates to form the mighty Republic, which distributed the independent production The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935). Budapest-born John H. Auer shot the Edgar Allan Poe–inspired thriller at the Bronx Biograph Studios, onetime home to D. W. Griffith, featuring freaky Frye in a rare straight role and starring Griffith’s onetime assistant Erich von Stroheim. By 1935 von Stroheim was already unemployable as a director, but America still loved to hate him, and he is in fine fettle here, stifling smiles while attending the funeral of a colleague who only he knows is actually being buried alive. (He also gnaws up a drippingly vitriolic monologue scene, which, cut as it is from so many angles, seems to confirm that von Stroheim wasn’t much for learning lines.)

Duplicitous doctors make up something of a leitmotif in MoMA’s series, whose Murderer’s Row of malpractice includes Crespi, Oland in The Drums of Jeopardy, Lionel Atwill’s mad scientist in The Vampire Bat, and Lowell Sherman’s False Faces (1932). Sherman, who played the rich heel who seduces and abandons Lillian Gish in Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), here topped all previous displays of caddishness, directing and starring as an owlish, dissipated surgeon who leaves New York in disgrace to set up a fly-by-night plastic surgery operation in Chicago, leaving a trail of broken hearts and bilked patients in his wake. Brisk, nasty, and dramatically unrelenting, the film was Sherman’s last as an actor, though he went on to further success as a director with a flair for showbiz subjects (Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong and Broadway Thru a Keyhole [both 1933]) before his premature death in 1934.

Victor Halperin, White Zombie, 1932, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 69 minutes.

The 1930s were the heyday of Poverty Row and a period of studio consolidation: False Faces distributor Sono Art World-Wide Pictures, whose logo depicts a smiling young woman with two globes in place of bosoms, formed Monogram by merger with Rayart Productions in 1933. But the party didn’t last long. The Poverty Row outfits felt the postwar attendance slump more keenly than the better-insulated studios, and television all but did away with them. Eagle-Lion called it a day in 1950. Monogram rebranded as Allied Artists Productions in 1953, the name originally minted for their high-end unit, and focused on more polished productions. The final days of the B-Hive were among their best, however, and given the natural affinity between their product and cheap pulp fiction, the Poverty Row studios were a custom fit for the often-seedy postwar thrillers that would retrospectively be labeled as film noir.

John Reinhardt’s High Tide (1947), for Monogram, took a cue from a contemporary craze for in extremis openings and flashback structures, opening with leads Lee Tracy and Don Castle, a low-rent Gable, pinned in a car wreck on the seashore, recounting the circumstances that got them there as the threatening waves lap ever nearer. It was the last film role for years for Tracy, playing one of the fast-talking newspaperman parts that made him famous in the ’30s, though here with an additional note of bilious acridity, the former breezy cynicism now hardened into hate. While Tracy’s talent is a known quantity, it’s a genuine surprise to find Paul Henreid—the good, dull Victor Laszlo of Casablanca (1942)—so effectively playing dirty in Hollow Triumph (1948), taking on the double role of a crook on the lam and the look-alike psychoanalyst who he conspires to take the place of. The absurd premise is put across with a feeling for nightmare logic, and while the director, Steve Sekely, is a definite subject for further research, it is tempting to give most of the credit for the film’s shadow-caressed look to fellow Hungarian John Alton, the prodigiously gifted cinematographer who around this same time was making a series of visually dynamic films with director Anthony Mann, also for Bryan Foy Productions and Eagle-Lion.

For some filmmakers, like Mann or Joseph H. Lewis, Poverty Row was a step on the way to better things, bigger budgets, and longer shoots. For others, it was the last stop before the glue factory. And for still others, be it ever so humble, it was simply home. The supreme stylist Edgar G. Ulmer had come from Berlin ready to take over Hollywood, but while shooting The Black Cat (1934) at Universal, he shacked up with the wife of studio head Carl Laemmle’s favorite nephew, and—at least to hear Ulmer, an infamous fabulist, tell it—he would be blackballed forevermore.

No Poverty Row tribute would be complete without an Ulmer film, and MoMA’s program includes three. The first, Damaged Lives (1933), is his premiere North American effort, a venereal-disease scare film made for the Canadian Social Health Council that boasts a charming speakeasy seduction sequence, some gruesome skin conditions, and stern warnings against sharing a friend’s pipe. After The Black Cat crossed his path, Ulmer launched a make-do-and-mend career, working at the industry’s margins and taking what work he could, excelling with Yiddish-language films and “race” pictures. Among the steadiest years of his career were the four he spent at PRC, turning out eleven films under head of production Leon Fromkess, including his most famous, Detour, a bleak 1945 back-road noir. Strange Illusion, released the same year, is no less resourceful, a modern-day spare parts Hamlet bookended by weird dream-sequence processionals, between which adolescent Jimmy Lydon follows a hunch from his unconscious to search out a link between his widowed mother’s suave new suitor to the death of his father. For Ruthless (1948), under the new Eagle-Lion imprimatur, Ulmer got his biggest budget since winding up in Uncle Carl’s crosshairs, and he put it toward a portrait of corrupt wealth—of the kind, it is perhaps not too much of a supposition to say, that he viewed as having stymied his own ambition. Zachary Scott stars as a poor Boston boy–cum–captain of industry, Horace Vendig, whose brutal claw to the top is recollected on the eve of his abdication of power, with a huge and mournful Sydney Greenstreet as one of the many he’s trampled over. (Vendig seems to lose a little of his soul with every figure he adds to his bank account, a thought that may have been some cold comfort to Ulmer.)

Ulmer has long been the subject of a deserved minicult, and noir sells itself, but there is more to recommend in Poverty Row than the unusual exceptional outburst of expressive flourish. At the very least, the average run of Bs offer glimpses of an undressy approach that has almost no modern-day equivalent in commercial filmmaking, acting as a repository for what John Dorr called “the Griffith tradition”: “A recessive approach to direction best suited for keeping track of uncomplicated narratives over which a performer’s personality could easily dominate.” The pleasures such films offer, occasional flubbed lines and shaky sets and all, are those of simplicity itself—and if poverty is never a blessing in life, there can be no question it has often acted as the handmaiden of art.

“Strange Illusions: Poverty Row Classics Preserved by UCLA” runs October 19 through 28 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.