Sunday, December 6, 2015

Tom Weaver talks Poverty Row Horrors with Plan9Crunch

Interview by Doug Gibson

At Plan9Crunch, we are pleased, and indeed honored, to present an interview with Tom Weaver, who over the course of a couple generations has written scores of books and articles detailing in-depth research into many areas of cult films. Of his books, Weaver has done groundbreaking research on many topics, including films of John Carradine, the Universal horror films of 1931 to the late 40s, and poverty-row horrors of the 1940s.

It's that final subject, Poverty Row Horrors, that Weaver has been kind enough to answer several questions we had regarding his wonderful book, "Poverty Row Horrors" (McFarland), that he wrote with research assistance from Michael and John Brunas. It's a fascinating look at that magical era (1940 to a bit past World War II) in which Monogram, PRC and Republic made low-budget films of the Universal-type horror films. Ironically, around the time the war ended, the Universal horrors were starting to resemble the Monogram and PRC horrors.

-- RELATED: Our review of "Poverty Row Horrors," by Tom Weaver

Bu we digress, here is the interview with Mr. Weaver:

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: Monogram, PRC, Republic, how did they see these B movies in terms of stars, artistic quality, plots and perhaps most importantly, economics?

 Weaver: I started interviewing Hollywood old-timers and writing about old movies in the early to mid-1980s, by which time most of the people who made the Poverty Row horror movies were long gone, so I never got to ask them questions like that. I don’t know that anyone else ever did either. I assume – and assuming is all I’m doing – that they saw that there was a market for these movies, based on the success that Universal was having with their “franchise monsters,” and tried to cut into the pie. “Artistic quality,” “plots,” all those considerations … I’d also bet that only a few of them, like Edgar G. Ulmer and Frank Wisbar, gave those things much thought. The “average” Monogram writer or director probably didn’t much care if his next assignment was a comedy or a horror movie or a Western, as long as the checks cleared. I hope that doesn’t sound cynical but I’ve talked to lots of TV writers and they were in it for the bread, and almost none of them had the episodes they had written in their home video collections – if they even HAD home video collections! In the 1940s, Sam Katzman himself called his horror movies “moron pictures” and said he couldn’t understand why people wanted to see them!

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: Of the horror genre stars who played in these films (I'll omit Karloff) who was the most successful artistically, and economically for the producers?

Weaver: Well, Bela Lugosi was the most successful from a standpoint of getting people to watch the movies – he made movies for Monogram on and off for about ten years, so obviously they were popular. And then they were popular on TV and now they’re popular on home video, and if really good-quality prints of his Monograms turned up in 2015, I’m sure a lot of fans would buy them even though they’ve probably bought all of Lugosi’s Monogram movies ten times by now, in various formats. Were any of them successful “artistically”? Well, you’d have to define “artistically” for me before I could answer that. “Artistically,” Carradine and Lugosi and Zucco would probably rather be working in any other movie then being made in Hollywood, then in something like RETURN OF THE APE MAN. These WERE good actors who’d been on the stage and been in fine movies, and they probably considered it a little embarrassing to work for the smallest Hollywood studios in movies that probably even kids laughed at. I’m sure they were happy for the work, happy to be making a living … and they’d have probably been happy if their next movie wasn’t going to have a Flying Serpent or a guy in a gorilla suit starring in it.

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: You mention in the book that Monogram budgeted these films to have a profit of less than $2,000. What were the budgets and cast salaries for these films generally. Name star? Non-name stars? Supporting people, such as Frank Moran, Minerva Urecal, etc.

Weaver: No one would love to know the answers to those questions more than I would. But if there’s paperwork for these movies anywhere, I don’t know where. I was able to find out that John Carradine made $3,000 a week on VOODOO MAN, which probably TOOK a week. That’s not bad – heck, if somebody offered me a $3000-a-week job now, 2015, I’d crawl over broken glass to get it, so imagine what that was like in 1944. But I’m sure the no-name supporting players got Screen Actors Guild scale, whatever that was at the time. In the 1930s the Weiss family had to be the cheapest producers in Hollywood, and recently someone dug up a lot of their records. They paid some of their minor actors just a few dollars a day, in the depths of the Depression.

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: What non-name actors do you think distinguished themselves in these low-budget films? And among directors and crew, who were some of the better professionals?

Weaver: I’m no huge fan of either BLUEBEARD or STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP but I think it’s obvious that their directors, Edgar Ulmer and Frank Wisbar respectively, tried to give ‘em a lot more TLC than the average Poverty Row horror director. Also Joseph H. Lewis, who directed Lugosi’s INVISIBLE GHOST. Performance-wise I’ve got some favorites that nobody talks about: Henry Victor as a Lugosi-like villain in KING OF THE ZOMBIES, Ralph Morgan as the victim of acromegaly in THE MONSTER MAKER, maybe a couple more. And I also enjoy leading ladies who are a bit brighter and/or spunkier than the norm, which would be Joan Barclay in BLACK DRAGONS, Louise Currie in THE APE MAN, Jean Parker in BLUEBEARD. Although maybe that’s as much thanks to the writers as to the actresses. Another reason that not-much is known about these movies behind-the-scenes, beyond the fact that the moviemakers were pretty much all dead before anybody started asking ‘em questions, is … they were made so quickly that, decades later, the people involved barely remembered them. Every Poverty Row actor or actress I talked to … they were good for one or two anecdotes, MAYBE, and that was IT. And that’s understandable. When I’m 80, and somebody asks me about a job that took me three days when I was 30 and hadn’t thought about since, they ain’t gettin’ NUTHIN’ out of me, I promise you!

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: Why did the genre falter after World War II? Perhaps as importantly, why were they successful during World War 2?

Weaver: Universal made horror popular again with SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, which made a LOT of money for a horror flick, and then THE CAT AND THE CANARY and THE GHOST BREAKERS with Bob Hope were hits that inspired more horror-comedies, and then the Val Lewton movies did unexpectedly well. They were good escapism for blue-collar types and kids and, if a studio didn’t put too much money into ‘em, they were assured a profit. It’s weird, it seems like all the studios were always following Universal’s lead when it came to the horrors: DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN were hits so the other studios started making them. In the mid-1930s they were getting LESS popular and civic groups were complaining about horror pictures here and abroad and Universal stopped making them, so everybody else stopped too; and in the mid-1940s Universal merged with International Pictures and decreed no more horrors, no more Westerns, no more B-pictures, and again all the other studios ALSO dropped the horrors.

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: Republic's films seem to have higher production values but lack traditional horror elements? Why was that?

Weaver: There were great, efficient crews working at Republic and they could make their cheapies look darn good, and did. I don’t think too many people at Monogram or PRC were sitting up nights trying to figure out how to make their movies look better. In fact, PRC movies HAD to look cheap – I’m told that to save money, they used the cheapest kind of film, film that newsreel cameramen used, so the movies probably looked old and dupey when they were brand new. As for the horror elements in Republic movies, it seems to me that their writers just weren’t cut out for monsters. They TRIED to come up with “something a little different” sometimes – a vampire in Africa who walks in sunlight and gets into fights; a Catman, a vampire-like joker they called a zombie, etc. They’d establish these offbeat horror characters and then didn’t know what to DO with them, so they have ‘em get into fights and chases, as if they were still writing a serial or a Western. Weird!

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: You're harsh at times in your assessments but fair. Do you think these films are overrated due to honor bestowed to stars and genre. What's the best Poverty Row offering in your opinion, from artistic and entertainment values?

Weaver: My favorite is probably THE DEVIL BAT because I like the murder-a-reel plot, I like the monster even though it’s the next thing to a kite I guess, and Bela actually seems like he’s having a good time playing the villain. I know that’s not the answer you’re “supposed” to give, I know BLUEBEARD and STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP have the best reps – and there ARE good things about them. But they’re so somber, no fun. And so cheap-looking. Both are PRCs and both look like they’re from 1919 because of the film stock, because they’re so dark, because they’re so drab. They make a Republic movie like LADY AND THE MONSTER look like an MGM super-production!

And this last question is from my co-blogger at Plan9Crunch, Steve D. Stones.

PLAN 9 CRUNCHMr. Weaver, you often are very critical of the films and directors you write about. Even though some of your criticism is warranted, do you still find some entertainment value in many of the bottom of the barrel films you write about? Since art and entertainment is very subjective, would you ever admit that there is something hip and unique about finding "bad movies" entertaining and worth one's time to view them?

Weaver: I find things to like in just about all of these movies, or (obviously!) I wouldn’t want to write about them. Who sits down and says to himself, “I hate B-Westerns” or “I never like musical comedies” and then their next thought is, “I should watch a ton of them and spend a year writing a book about them!” But when I actually sit down and have to critique these things, sometimes scene by scene, it CAN come out sounding pretty negative. Yes I kinda like THE APE MAN because Bela’s first scene is kinda funny and the scene of him running around town with the ape is darn funny and the ending, in its penny-ante way, is halfway exciting. Fine, there’s four minutes that I really like. But you’ve also got to write about the movie’s OTHER 60 minutes which I don’t think ANYbody much likes! So, yes, sometimes I’m sure my enthusiasm gets washed away by the tidal wave of complaints.

I love finding good things in a “bad” movie, or finding an unheard-of movie with a lot to recommend it, and sharing my opinions with other fans so that maybe they’ll give the movie another look. When people who buy my books contact me, there are two things they can say that I especially like hearing. Number one, that I wrote about a movie in such a way that it got them to rewatch it. That’s kinda what it’s all about, if you ask me. I love it when I’m reading a book and the discussion turns to a movie that I’ve seen, but not in a long time, and the writer writes about its best scenes and best performances and enthuses about it in such a way that after a while I have the attitude of “Forget about reading this book, I’m gonna go watch those movies.”

The other thing I love hearing is that people read my books in the bathroom. Maybe every writer won’t admit this, probably doesn’t LIKE admitting this, but – that IS the highest compliment you can get!

We'e grateful for Tom Weaver for taking the time to share his cult films expertise with our readers.

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