Beyond Poverty Row Ethnic Films

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Another important part of the low-end independent market was the ethnic film market, which was established in the mid-1910s but which also reached a peak in the 1930s and 1940s. The term 'ethnic' here does not only refer to films aimed at American audiences of specific ethnicities; rather it is used as an umbrella term under which one could group several defining audience characteristics such as race, religion and nationality.69 Thus, under the label 'ethnic', one could bring together films that were made for Jewish audiences (Yiddish pictures), Cantonese-speaking audiences, Hispanic audiences, African-American audiences and so on. The unifying element for all these productions was that they were defined against the mainstream films that were made by the studios in English and for the benefit of a white, English-speaking audience.

Ethnic films share a number of similarities with films produced by Poverty Row companies. First, a large number of these films were also produced by very small, thinly capitalised companies which often folded after one or two productions. Second, producers of ethnic films used the states rights market for distribution, in particular territories where a significant ethnic audience existed. Third, such films were aimed at very specific audiences which, as we saw, were distinguished on the basis of language, race, religion and nationality (in various combinations) with little potential for interest from the mainstream, English-speaking audience of the studio-produced films. Finally, like the majority of Poverty Row films, ethnic films were characterised by a cheap look which in tandem with a number of other elements often signified an alternative aesthetic.

On the other hand, ethnic film production also presented major differences from production at Poverty Row. Arguably, the most important one was that this kind of independent film production did not transpire because of the demand for films that the double bill scheme instigated. As ethnic films played in specialised theatres, they benefited from the existence of a small but steady audience which actively sought these types of films and as a result was not discouraged by the absence of a second feature from the theatre programme. This particular factor was responsible for another significant difference between ethnic and other low-end independent productions. Because ethnic films were made for specific audiences, they tended to prize narratives and subjects familiar to the individual ethnic groups the films targeted and therefore often avoided the use of established film genres such as the western, extremely popular with Poverty Row. Finally, a large proportion of all ethnic films were produced away from Hollywood and California, the hubs of American cinema, and on the east coast, in places like New York and New Jersey.

Although ethnic pictures, especially race films aimed at non-white audiences, were available before the introduction of sound, it was the new technology that provided the impetus for the production of films that could 'speak' to specific ethnic groups. Almost immediately after the first 'talkies', a number of production companies formed specifically to serve the various ethnic audiences, which represented a substantial part of the American population but which were ignored by studio productions. Such companies included Judea Pictures, which was established in 1929 and produced eleven films in Yiddish in the following five years, while smaller outfits like Eron Pictures and Gloria Films contributed the remaining fourteen of the total of twenty-six features that were produced in Yiddish in the 1930s.70 Furthermore, a number of small distributors (such as the Sphinx Film Corporation) started importing films in Yiddish from abroad thus creating a small but vibrant Yiddish film market at the time of the Depression.

Other ethnic groups were serviced in a comparable manner. Star Film Company, a distributor of Polish films, released approximately twenty films in the US between 1935 and 1939. Frank Norton (another small distributor) imported Greek films for the ethnic Greek market throughout the 1930s. As Douglas Gomery noted, by the end of the 1930s, the ethnic market had been thoroughly established to the extent that in New York City alone there were twenty-five exhibition sites that played films in nine languages: French, German, Polish, Italian, Russian, Yiddish, Greek, Hungarian and Chinese.71

The films for the ethnic markets were made at extremely low-budgets, often as little as $3,000. Edgar G. Ulmer, a filmmaker who worked for both a Poverty Row company and for an ethnic film production company, admitted that working for the former was 'big time'. If he was allowed only 15,000 feet of film for his pictures at PRC, Ulmer was given 'short ends', leftovers of unexposed film from reels used in other films to shoot his ethnic films. In other words, he never had a full reel to shoot a scene for his film Moon Over Harlem (1939), which was aimed at the black market. As he put it in an interview: 'It was one of the most pitiful things I ever did.'72 With most of these films financed by members of specific ethnic communities (Ulmer's Natalka Potavka [1937], a film for Ukrainian audiences, was financed by a window-washers union),73 it is not surprising that the profits for the investors in the ethnic markets were minimal.

A large number of ethnic films tended to privilege stories about the customs and traditions of the ethnic group they addressed, which suggests that they spoke to their audience as non-Americans with distinct cultural identities. As Thomas Cripps suggests, ethnic films focused on portraying 'a sense of a common past, a setting forth of issues, a lightly sweetened nostalgia and an anatomy of a group's interior life . . . to cultivate a warm cultural chauvinism.'74 In this respect, they were completely the opposite of mainstream American films that were promoting ethnic assimilation through particularly constructed narratives that effaced specific characteristics of ethnicity. Instead, as Taves suggested (speaking about Yiddish films), 'they supported and perpetuated their respective heritage of customs and cultural identities, offering audiences one of the few opportunities to feel a wholly satisfying cinematic experience in unique rapport with their own people.'75 Other types of ethnic films, however, especially the ones made for black audiences, like the cycle of black singing cowboy westerns in the late 1930s, were more assimilatory, inviting 'black Americans to see black men as fully vested American citizens and as righteous heroes.'76

The most important type of ethnic film was the race movie, especially films produced for black audiences. As early as 1915 black-owned production companies such as the Peter P. Jones Film Company and Ebony Pictures were producing all-black features in Chicago, a city that had experienced an exponential growth of its black population within ten years. The following year, Noble Johnson and his brother George established the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which produced a small number of films aimed at black audiences. Before the end of the decade Oscar Micheaux, the most famous black independent filmmaker, had established his own production company through which he would produce forty-one films in thirty years (1919-49). New companies continued to appear in the 1920s such as Norman Black-Cast Films, which made films for segregated theatres in the American South (from Texas to Alabama) and especially Colored Players in Philadelphia. The latter was established by white investors though it made only black-cast pictures, four in total. Its most memorable production was The Scar of Shame (Peregini, 1927), a film that adopted 'a black point of view in its portrayal of class conflict in African American community'.77

With few exceptions (among which the various guises under which Oscar Micheaux produced his films) most of these companies did not survive the introduction of sound. Thus in the 1930s there were only a handful of companies that supplied product to the 400 theatres that served approximately 12 million African Americans.78 With the exception of Micheaux, however, these companies could not lease studio space and use the new sound systems that the studio-produced films had access to.79 As a result, certain companies continued making silent films for theatres that could not afford the costs of wiring, a long time after the introduction of sound.80 Despite the problems, the market for race talkies developed gradually in the 1930s, from twenty-three black feature films made between 1930 and 1936 to over fifty made between 1937 and 1940. Partly responsible for such an outburst in the productivity of black films were Million Dollar Productions, a company created in 1936, and International Road Shows, a company that produced a number of films in the 1939-40 period.

Unlike the films that were aimed at people of specific ethnicities and therefore utilised particularly constructed narratives that were appealing to such audiences, films by Million Dollar Productions such as Dark Manhattan (H. L. Fraser, 1937) were gangster films that generally followed Hollywood film conventions. However, these pictures were differentiated from mainstream films by the emphasis they placed on black musical performance in the narratives, on the problems and anxieties entailed in the black migration from the north to the south, and on the positive representations of the black female characters.81 As a result they claimed a particular place in independent film production that is similar to the Poverty Row films (using studio genres and narratives but breaking away from the rules of classical filmmaking). On the other hand, Oscar Micheaux, the leading black independent filmmaker, was producing films that tackled the subject of racial oppression. For this reason, his work was placed in greater opposition to mainstream cinema than the films of Million Dollar Productions.

Thus, one could argue that there were two distinct articulations of black independent cinema in the1930s. The first, characterised by the films of Oscar Micheaux, was explicitly about tackling racial issues - often in a sensational manner - and educating black audiences about the nature of their oppression. This strand of black filmmaking was characterised by a particular 'home-grown' aesthetic which, as Jane Gaines argued, followed but 'was not bound by' the classical style, while also flirting with the avant-garde.82 The second, characterised by the films of Million Dollar Productions and other independent outfits, emphasised a particular type of entertainment that was modelled on the studio films, even though certain elements were appropriated for the purposes of creating a film production for minority audiences. As Taves suggests, 'there was no trace of the homegrown aesthetic associated with Micheaux; Million Dollar films were . . . on a par with the contemporary product of Monogram and Republic.'83

Black independent production continued in the 1940s and also benefited from the surge in attendances during the World War II years. The participation of African Americans in the war effort had made them a particularly viable audience and companies like Sack Amusements Enterprises, one of the most important states rights market distributors, entered black film production in the early 1940s. Although the market continued to be buoyant during the decade, the increasing integration of African Americans, which was marked by the improved visibility of black characters in Hollywood productions in the late 1940s and 1950s, made the rationale for the existence of such a 'segregated' market obsolete. As a type of independent cinema, ethnic films are restricted to the years of the studios' domination.


1. Broidy is quoted in Strawn, 1975a, p. 275.

4. Some sources from the period put the number of these theatres as high as 11,000. See 'Mute Major', in Time, 20 March 1942.

6. Contrary to popular belief the nickname Poverty Row was not given to companies like Monogram and Republic because they were inadequately capitalised or because they were making very cheap films. According to Merritt the term signifies a small geographical area in central Hollywood where 'various fly-by-night producers' established their companies to make ultra-low-budget films (Merritt, 2000, p. 63).

9. For instance, MGM's B films were certainly not made on low budget, while in terms of quality and production values they were on a par with other studios' A product (especially RKO and Warner's A films). Also there are many examples of films which were produced on limited resources for the lower half of the double bill but which became successful and popular enough to be boosted to A status (for example, The Payoff [Florey, 1935; Warner], A Man to Remember [Canin, 1938; RKO] and Penitentiary [Brahm, 1938; Columbia]). See Taves, 1995, p. 315.

10. The figures for 1932 appear in Balio, 1995, pp. 29-30. The figures for 1935 are cited in Flynn and McCarthy, 1975a, p. 15.

12. Republic was the only such company with profits comparable to the profits of the Little Three.

13. Yeaman, Elizabeth, 'Monogram Aiming at 52 Pictures Per Year', in Hollywood Citizen-News, 23 October 1934.

14. 'Monogram to Do 32 Movies', in Hollywood Citizen-News, 3 May 1932; 'Single Movie Billing Plans Bring Attack', in Hollywood Citizen-News, 31 July 1933; and 'Studio Chief Returns from Indie Meeting', in Hollywood Citizen-News, 14 April 1934.

16. The figures for Monogram's yearly budgets are taken from 'Monogram Film Plans Disclosed', in Los Angeles Times, 13 May 1933.

17. See 'Independents Head East', in The Morning Telegraph, 19 April 1933.

18. For more information on the details of the merger, see Tuska, 1982, p. 183.

19. The figures are taken from Taves, 1995, p. 322.

21. Cleary, Chip, 'Republic, the Industry's Baby', in Hollywood Reporter, 4 October 1940.

22. Hanna, David, 'The Little Acorn has Grown', in New York Times, 2 February 1941.

31. For the rules of filmmaking on Poverty Row, see New York Times, 2 February 1941; for more on the number of camera set-ups per day, see Bogdanovich, 1975, p. 387.

34. Of course there were exceptions to this rule, like Warner's The Florentine Dagger (1935) which, according to Taves, 'provides a forceful example of the adaptation and integration of expressionist and avant-garde styles into the American feature through the B' (1995, p. 339).

35. Broidy quoted in Strawn, 1975a, p. 275.

43. 'Rep Plows Back Profits for Record Production Sked . . .', in Daily Variety, 29 October 1941; 'Republic Stepping High', in Daily Variety, 29 October 1943; '$17 Million Budget for 68 Rep Pix', in Daily Variety, 27 April 1944.

44. See Flynn and McCarthy, 1975a, p. 16.

46. The figures for MGM and Columbia are taken from Gomery, 1986, pp. 52 and 162.

47. The figures for Monogram are taken from The International Motion Picture Almanac, 1949, p. 949. The figures for Republic are taken from Hurst, 1979, p. 7 (with the exception of the data for 1938 and 1939 which are taken from The International Motion Picture Almanac, 1949, p. 953).

52. Bogdanovich, 1975, p. 387.

54. Daily Variety, 29 October 1941.

56. Daily Variety, 29 October 1943.

58. 'Republic Pictures Celebrates Its Tenth Anniversary', in The Independent, 23 June 1945.

59. 'Monogram Marching On: Company Shows Swift Increase in Stature', in Daily Variety, 29 October 1943.

61. Brady, Thomas F. (1946), 'Out Hollywood Way', in New York Times, 8 September 1946.

62. 'New Studio Chief Tells Expansion Plan', in Hollywood Citizen-News, 20 November 1945.

63. 'Broidy Asks Lower Pay Scale on "B" Films to Insure Profit', in Hollywood Reporter, 5 June 1947.

65. 'Republic Will Release 58 at Cost of $25,000,000', in Motion Picture Herald, 22 June 1946.

66. Flynn and McCarthy, 1975a, p. 42.

67. See 'Monogram Going Into Telepix: 1st Studio to Make Decision', in Daily Variety, 10 October 1950; 'Getting $1,000,000 for 7-Yr License; Mono Plans Own TV-Distribution In Future', in Daily Variety, 20 June 1951.

68. Flynn and McCarthy, 1975a, p. 22.

69. This definition is used by Brian Taves in his discussion of B films between 1930 and 1939 (1995, p. 342).

70. The number of Yiddish films in the 1930s is cited in Taves, 1995, p. 343.

72. All the quotes from Ulmer here are from Bogdanovich, 1975, pp. 374-5.

80. Taves cites the example of Harlem-based Paragon Films as one of the companies that continued making silent films in the sound era (1995, p. 344).

82. Quoted in Regester, 1996, p. 163.

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