Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen And Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King Of The B Movie by Chris Nashawaty (book review).
One test that Chris Nashawaty’s book ‘Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen And Candy Stripe Nurrses: Roger Corman: King Of The B Movie’ passes straight away is the flick test because this book is brimming with posters and stills from Roger Corman’s films. Some take over the pages completely. You could buy this book for that alone .As Corman himself says, to see a B movie all you needed was a good title and a poster. The film itself, made on a very tight budget, using people he found at acting school or wanting to make a little cash or experience to ensure a profit. The fact that so many of these people went through Corman’s hands and went onto bigger things in Hollywood speaks for itself that the experience worked and they never forgot when 200 of them lobbied and got him as honorary Oscar in 2009. Although I’m not sure if there wouldn’t be any Hollywood like we have today without Roger Corman, I suspect we would have fewer people who really love the medium.
A major problem happened when I started reading this book. Nashawaty wrote a decent introduction to Corman’s life but then after a couple pages switched to quotes from the man and people he worked with which practically duplicated what he said. It even re-occurred in the photo captions. I can appreciate that the writer wants to prove he has written some of the text but this really felt counter-productive. Mind you, from then on, it was all quotes from a lot of luminaries and a lot of info that you might not have known. Looking at the acknowledgements at the back of the book and it’s a who’s who from Hollywood. John Landis in the opening introduction was one of the few who didn’t go through the Corman school but has made a couple cameos in his films should tell its own story.
Corman’s first script selected for production with his notes as to what to change to make it work was for 20th Century Fox which was released as ‘The Gunfighter’ (1950). It was also significant in that as the story editor not him who got praise for the notes that sent him on the road to his own productions.
Did you know Dick Miller was originally going to be a writer but Corman wanted an actor so he became an actor. Long before the Vin Diesel film series, Corman’s first production credit was for a film called ‘The Fast And The Furious’ (1955) which they were based on. Corman also produced a film called ‘Grand Theft Auto’ (1977) long before computer games were what they are today. Corman’s influence is everywhere.
The comments made about the French reviewing Corman’s films seriously didn’t surprise me. In fact, the same thing applied in Britain as well as I remember going to the cinema in the early 1970s to watch his Edgar Allan Poe films. To us, American films were American films, regardless which studio made them. Mind you, we never had all of Corman’s films over here so maybe we missed the worse ones but we knew him by product and there was a lot of it about.
There’s a lot of information you can pull from this book. I mean, did you know that Jack Nicolson started off as a scriptwriter and although Corman let him act, thought writing was his strength. The reason Peter Fonda wore glasses so much was because one of the producers thought his face looked stronger that way. If it hadn’t been for a ill-thought remark by one of the other producers, unsure about Dennis Hopper’s directing ability because of his drinking habit, and they went elsewhere otherwise Corman could have produced ‘Easy Rider’.
One of Corman’s gifts was keeping an eye on his own culture and spotting subjects that would make good films before anyone else did. From the remarks from many of the people here, it’s also obvious that Corman did his research first-hand from everything from drugs to meeting Hell’s Angels. Even so, there were many films he either directed or produced that made more money than he anticipated. In fact, he produces films at a frightening rate and although he claims never to have lost money making films, a couple are noted here and those are his more personal films. What is Corman’s biggest asset is to know what selles and find a market for it. No wonder Hollywood frequently trails him is largely because they rely on paying for research rather than do the work themselves and look at the world about them. Mind you, as many of these people are accountants, that shouldn’t be surprising.
One thing you ought to do while reading this book is keep a notepad nearby as I suspect you’ll need something to write on as to which films you want to look up or at least check availability and don’t be surprised to see me put the odd review in of them in the coming months. Some on my list are in treble film lists, so you’ll get a little more than you bargained for.
Corman did and does every trick under the sun. He would take Russian SF films purely for their effects shots and then put in other scenes featuring American cast. Hands up if you thought that was only done with the first ‘Godzilla’ film. Corman never wastes anything, including reintroducing material from his films into other films when budget demanded it.
From the 1970s on for twenty years, Corman gave up directing and as head of New World Pictures, stayed as a producer until his company was bought out, with a proviso not to start again for two years, and then off he went again with Concorde Films. Production gave far more control that just directing films and rise through the ranks depended on how much you wanted to learn or take on and he gave many potential directors their breakout films and how they got on the map. I hadn’t really looked into Jonathan Demme’s past but he was also the first director to film a women-in-cages/prison movies with ‘The Hot Box’ (1972). I thought for a while I wouldn’t be picking out non-Corman directed films to watch but so many of these directors went on to win Oscars, it started a list off to have a look at how they started. There were also a few films that didn’t do well on their first release so Corman renames them and tries again which might explain difficulties if you haven’t been able to find them but they are listed here.
Corman also brought European films from the likes of Fellini, Truffaut and Bergman to the drive-in cinema market to find them an audience when the big studios wouldn’t. A lovely contradiction against his own cheap output but it also indicates Corman’s love of the film process and the entrepreneur film-maker. At the end of the book, there are comments from the heads of these smaller companies, all saying he led the way and often talk with him.
The number of actors who got their break through Corman brought a few surprises, too. I knew Sylvester Stallone was in ‘Deathwish 2000’ (1975), although it wasn’t his first film for him there, as that’s ‘Capone’ (1975). However, finding the likes of Robert de Niro, Tommy Lee Jones and even Bill Paxton, as a set dresser initially, starting there definitely was. Should we talk directors like Peter Bogdanovitch, Martin Scorsese. Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, John Sayles and David Cronenberg? These are movie heavyweights now.
In many respects, Corman saw the writing was on the wall with ‘Jaws’ (1975) and ‘Star Wars’ (1976) with the big studios literally making B movies on A movie budgets. Of course, with ‘Battle Beyond The Stars’ (1980), Corman also saw the potential in the likes of Gale Anne Hurd and Jim Cameron – I wonder what happened to them? In fact, this is where Cameron first met Bill Paxton and later gave him a small role in ‘The Terminator’. Considering the number of times Corman fired Cameron and re-hired him because he was the only one doing what he was doing, I’d love to know what he fired him over…repeatedly. Oh, in case you didn’t know, a certain special effects wizard called Rob Bottin got his break with Corman on ‘Humanoids From The Deep’ (1980).
I think you can tell from my enthusiasm, I really enjoyed reading and reviewing this book. Even doing my polish of this draft, I was forever adding bits and pieces. That doesn’t mean it’s totally perfect. The one thing this book could really do with is an index and the artist credits for the posters. I recognised a couple by Boris Vallejo but that’s about it. I wonder how many of them went further in the industry.
Looking at the remarks at the end, I think the best way to sum at Roger Corman is that he gave everyone a break and if they kept going, then he gave them a bigger break so they quickly rose up through the ranks. He didn’t expect any of his directors to stay on after a couple films because their fees would grow but did expect them to go on to do bigger and greater things. He wasn’t wrong there. As they comment, film school can only teach so much, Corman gave them the advance lessons that served them in good stead. I think my enthusiasm for this book speaks for itself and don’t forget to look inside the front dustcover.
(pub: Abrams Books. 255 page illustrated large hardback. Price: £19.99 (UK), $35.00 (US), $40.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-4197-0669-1)
check out website: www.abramsbooks.com