Greetings all and sundry!
When receiving an invitation from our gracious hostess, Paula, to indulge in a favored pasttime and add to many and varied perspectives of Cinematic History, I would be remiss if I didn’t break out a fresh set of coveralls, miner’s cap, and excavation tools to dig deep and rummage about neglected corners of massive archives, tales, anecdotes and personal experience regarding a visionary and trailblazer of cinema from the late 20th Century to the present. Though, not in an arena most would expect. So, allow me a few moments to align, refine and define…
Roger Corman: Rebel, Pioneer. The Guy With The Arrows In His Back!
One may ask where a transplanted Michigander, graduate of Beverly Hills High and Stanford University, with a degree in Industrial Engineering in hand, got his start and first taste of 1947 Hollywood and “The Film Business”? Why, in the Mail Room at Twentieth Century Fox, of course!
Sorting mail. Delivering same to its many leveled hive. When not taking packages and sometimes equipment to back lot and far off location sets. Hanging around. Letting himself be known. Slowly working his way up to script reader on The Gunfighter, with Gregory Peck, before going to Oxford University to study English Literature under the G.I. Bill, and returning as a screenwriter, producer, and finally, director in 1955.
Kind of a ballsy move for a neophyte 29-year-old. Working for a few notable, though fly-by-night, production companies through several early films — Westerns (Five Guns West, Apache Woman, and The Oklahoma Woman); Science Fiction (It Conquered The World, Not Of This Earth, and Attack of the Crab Monsters) and teen fare (Rock All Night, Teenage Doll, and Sorority Girl) — before formally starting his own production company with Carnival Rock in 1957. Then adding that weight and reputation when signing on to one of the great bastions of imaginative, just-starting-out craftsmen and lower-budgeted offerings: American International Pictures (AIP).
Enjoying a step up in stories, many written by Mr. Corman, slightly higher-tier talent in casts and more streamlined crews, while also becoming more aware that lower-budgeted films were finding a niche with younger audiences. Becoming a bit bored with the massive epics beginning to slowly drain the once never ending coffers of the mogul heavy Hollywood “System”. Giving Mr. Corman more slack in his reins, slightly larger budgets. And more time to scout and acquire sets in the telling of his tales. Establishing a slowly perimetered beachhead amongst the younger audiences of drive-in movies, college campuses and arthouses with a half dozen films from “Shock!” (Machine Gun Kelly) to “Schlock!” (Teenage Cave Man, She Gods of Shark Reed, The Wasp Woman and A Bucket Of Blood) through 1958 to 1960. With none of the films running over time or budget, while also allowing AIP to import the first glimpses of British “Angry Young Man” and French New Wave Cinema.
Supplying the wherewithal to make good on a late night bet on getting a film made from concept to final reel in less than five days. The Little Shop of Horrors clocked in at two days and three nights, after borrowing and redressing unused sets of Chaplin Studios, and shooting a key scene between security rotations at the Santa Fe Train and Switching Yards.
Delivering a brief, though funny, scene with a just starting out Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient. While bestowing minor cult status to long-time Corman collaborator, Jonathan Haze. The oft-repeated catch phrase of the ever-growing, carnivorous plant from Outer Space. Audrey Jr. — “Feed me!… I’m hungry!”. Plenty of campy grist for a stage play and larger budgeted musical comedy in 1986.
Not too shabby for a director and producer always seeking new venues and arenas to explore. Exploiting “Schlock Horror” once again with Creature From the Haunted Sea, where the discovered and later hunted down Creature fights back and WINS! Then latching onto the talents of Vincent Price and the splashily costumed, detailed and shadowy tales of terror from Edgar Allan Poe, updated by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, where The Pit And The Pendulum, Tales Of Terror, Tower Of London, The Masque Of Red Death and The Tomb Of Ligeia excel in suspense. And The Raven, with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre hit the high notes for humorous fun!
While also taking time to touch on contemporary social issues, like racism in 1962 Middle America, with The Intruder. Starring William Shatner as a slick racist and con artist stoking anger and fear in Charleston, Missouri. Or returning to creepy, kind of slimy, human faults and foibles Science Fiction with Ray Milland in X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, and beating Robert Aldrich and his superb “Guy Flick,” The Dirty Dozen, by three years, with The Secret Invasion, from 1964!
Stewart Granger leads a group of criminals —Raf Vallone as The Organizer; Mickey Rooney as the IRA Demolitions man; Edd Byrnes, quite good, as a Forger; Henry Silva as an Assassin with a penchant for knives; and William Campbell as an Art Thief — to rescue an Italian General after the Allied landings in Anzio and Salerno. Excellent “Bang For The Buck!” location cinematography, with Dubrovnik filling in for the craggy terrain, mountains and scenery of southwest Italy.
Taking advantage of the wrapping of an earlier film, The Young Racers, and its Second Unit Director, Francis Ford Coppola, a ready and willing cast including William Campbell and Luana Anders, the availability of a castle and grounds in Dublin, Ireland. And a creepy, family inheritance “Whodunnit?”script from Mr. Coppola to create the minor cult classic, Dementia 13.
Finding an original idea and setting a trend before it became a Big Box Office trend with the modestly-budgeted The Wild Angels. And its cast of Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, Gayle Hunnicutt and a large chunk of the Venice, California chapter of The Hell’s Angels as extras. That reaped whirlwind profits of $3.5 million for AIP and Mr. Corman, opposite a $360,000 expenditure and budget.
Then turn on a dime, with a budget of $1,000,000, open access to 20th Century Fox, MGM and Desilu Studios backlots, and enough clout to pull in then top talent, like Jason Robards, Ralph Meeker, George Segal, Joseph Campanella and a Rogue’s Gallery of past and future Corman Players (Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Dick Miller, and Jonathan Haze), aided by narrator Paul Frees, to create one of the still best and most detailed months and weeks of Chicago bootlegging and gang warfare which led up to The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Before tapping into the latest controversy of the mid to late 1960s. Dr. Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, The Merry Pranksters and LSD, with The Trip. Where Peter Fonda brings curious, naive life to a director of television commercials suffering a break-up with Susan Strasberg and a midlife crisis around fifteen years early. Seeking release in an acid trip. With wingman and guru, Bruce Dern, aided by Max (Dennis Hopper). With a fairly decent, hip script by Jack Nicholson, and director Corman adding credence to to the project by himself dropping acid at Big Sur to get an idea of the drug’s mystique, capabilities and what kinds of effects could be imagined.
Beginning to close out his hand as a director with Von Richtofen And Brown. With John Phillip Law and Don Stroud as the protagonists. In a well-detailed and -executed tale of the WWI grudge match, shot in Ireland, that was oddly, not well-received. Thus streamlining Mr, Corman’s New World Pictures. Allowing him to shepherd, bankroll and guide earlier alum Peter Bogdanovich, and his future bride Polly Platt, to strike fear into countless young hearts with Targets, a spin on the Charles Whitman/Texas Tower sniping story. Moving it outside suburbia. To California highways. A lair in the screen of a drive in theater. And using the remaining two days of a contract with Boris Karloff, for the actor to reprise himself in earlier films and be the tale’s hero!
Creating time for Mr. Corman to take a young, promising writer named John Sayles under his wing. And crank out the screenplay for a equally young Joe Dante, creating a minor sensation with a medium-budgeted film titled Piranha. Also interning a tall, gangly nobody named James Cameron as a Property Master, Set Director and Model Builder, who would make an early mark in the Deep Space take on The Magnificent Seven with the Sayles-scripted Battle Beyond The Stars.
Keeping busy and cranking out several “Women in Chains” flicks (The Big Bird Cage, Caged Heat, The Arena) in the Philippines, which would put Pam Grier on the map. Then giving Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine their shots as competing race drivers in Death Race 2000. Along with Robert DeNiro in a small role as one of “Ma Barker’s Boys” in the Depression-era chronicle, Bloody Mama. Then lateraling a later project, Boxcar Bertha, to the capable hands of fresh-from-Woodstock New Yorker Martin Scorsese. Along with another “Double Play” with Ron Howard in front of the cameras. After raising half the funds for the personally-written script for a “Car Crash Comedy” later titled Eat My Dust, Mr. Howard approached Mr. Corman for matching funds. Mr. Corman agreed, aware that Mr. Howard was a film student at USC, and with the added proviso that Howard direct another similar project, Grand Theft Auto, in 1977.
Creating a vast, though not very well known or appreciated, chunk of cinematic history covering four solid decades as a director. Doing it all. Behind the cameras. Editing with a Moviola machine. Taking copies of final products to drive-in theaters. Collecting the take. Advancing that to other films still in the works. And starting all over again. Creating a reputation for bringing in films on time and under budget. Arranging late night and weekend “Sneak Previews” of AIP and New World’s wares. Watching the audiences and taking notes as to where and if tweaking or adjustments needed to be made with radio and television ad campaigns.
And teaching others in either the cast or crew tricks of the trade, long-standing, or just discovered. When and where to shoot on the street if a set was not available. “Guerilla Filmmaking” in its rawest, purest and least-expensive form. Then letting his protégés, male and female — Gale Ann Hurd got her start answering phones before writing, then directing — swing for the fences after a thorough “Walk Through Talk Though,” and occasional visits, should time or money be wasted.
A perfect system?… No. Though one that been proven through the passage of time!
Note: Many of the films mentioned are available on YouTube.
Agree? Disagree? Personal Selections? The Floor Is Open for Discussion!