Not an ArthousE is an Ode to B Movies. Be our guests!

And let yourself be surprised by unforgettable B stories


A history of B-movies


"The term 'B-movie' was coined in the early 1930s to distinguish the low-budget productions (usually lasting between 50 and 80 minutes) made by the eight major studios from their more expensive 'A-movies'. It extended to the total product of the so-called Poverty Row companies, such as Republic and Monogram, which only made cheap pictures. In downtown cinemas 'A-movies' were exhibited on their own; B-movies were released in double bills or as support to 'A movies'. Their natural home was the backstreet cinema and the small-town movie house, providing the value-for-money fare demanded by Depression audiences with time on their hands but little money with which to kill it. They were rarely shown to the press.


As a cultural phenomenon the B-movie lasted for less than 40 years. Its life was extended for a while by the post-war popularity of the drive-in cinema, but it finally succumbed to television and the inexorable disappearance of locally owned independent movie houses.

Fairly rapidly 'B-picture' became a pejorative term. 'B-movie dialogue' meant a string of clichés. 'B-movie plots' were predictable dramas retreading familiar stories. There is some justice to this. Most B-movies are bad and forgotten. But at their worst they have an unpretentious, sometimes camp, charm. At their best they are as different from smooth A-movies as the great pulp writers like David Goodis and Horace McCoy were from the respectable best-selling novelists of the day.


Provided they delivered the generic goods, telling fast-moving stories in the form of westerns, horror flicks, thrillers, adventure yarns, slapstick comedies, swashbucklers and romantic melodramas, the B-movie-makers could inject social criticism, satire, surreal comment, and look with a less varnished eye on American society. Val Lewton's low-budget unit which made subtle horror movies at RKO in the 1940s is now as highly regarded as Arthur Freed's big-budget unit that produced musicals at MGM.


The B-movie stars were more often on their way down than on their way up. Richard Arlen, Chester Morris and William Boyd are among the many who descended in the 1930s. John Wayne, rescued from a decade of B-Westerns by Stagecoach , and Jack Nicholson, a leading figure in Roger Corman's exploitation company, are rare cases of B-movie leads graduating to superstardom.

For the most part the B-movie had its own dramatis personae, ranging from the unpampered faces of singing cowboys and their gingham-clad consorts to the sexual challenge of Evelyn Ankers, the Forties horror queen, and Marie Windsor, the B-movie femme fatale picked by Kubrick for his B-movie The Killing .


Charles McGraw is now celebrated as the tough lead of a dozen classic B-thrillers rather than for his supporting performances in costume epics. Numerous directors who emerged into the mainstream multi-million dollar movie world looked back affectionately to the freedom they enjoyed (though not the small cheques they received) working on Poverty Row. One of the greatest cinematographers, Robert Alton, who won an Oscar for An American in Paris , preferred to work on low-budget movies shot on tight schedules because of the challenge they presented."

Philip French