Despite the lack of real challenge towards the power of the majors, low-end independents in the 1950s and 1960s were considerably more successful than their Poverty Row predecessors in the previous decades. Their shift to exploitation strategies and, especially, their conscious targeting of the teenage audience took them away from subsequent-run theatres (even if the drive-ins were perceived as the new subsequent-run exhibition sites) and put them at the centre of developments in American cinema, at a time when no firm direction for its future was apparent.79 While the majors were in a deadlock trying in vain to rediscover the mass audience of the war and pre-war years, for the low-end independents one particular segment of the audience was large enough to keep them in business.
Away from the shadow of the majors, these low-end independents did not have to adhere to tested formulas and subject matters that originated during the studio years. From its very nature, the concept of the exploitation picture depends on the dramatisation of topical issues (rock 'n' roll; juvenile delinquency; motorcycle culture; surfing culture; and so on), the novelty of which often attracted new cinematic approaches. Of course once one exploitation picture was successful, then it provided a sacred formula for an often large number of imitations. But unlike the films of the majors, which operated clearly within genre frameworks that have existed for decades, the films by the low-end independents operated in cycles that were never longer than a period of a few years (beach party films) and sometimes shorter than a year (calypso music films). This means that potentially all formulas were renewed every time a new trend arose, apart from some written-in-stone elements such as the low-budget, the wild exploitation and the target audience.
This process allowed a number of filmmakers to experiment not only with issues revolving around the dramatisation of a novel subject, but also with formal elements of filmmaking in a way that studio or toprank independents would never be allowed. From the use of narrative as a thinly disguised vehicle for rock 'n' roll performances in Rock Around the Clock, to the integration of exploitation gimmicks in the unravelling of stories in William Castle's films, to the introduction of art-cinema techniques (jerky camera movement, rapid pans; extreme long shots) and rock soundtrack as non-diegetic accompaniment in The Wild Angels, low-end independents certainly helped expand film language in American cinema. They also taught the majors a lesson about where the audience for motion pictures is. In the late 1960s, the majors finally moved forcefully to the low-budget arena to find solutions to problems that started twenty years earlier with the disintegration of the studio system and continued ever since. American independent cinema was about to enter a new phase in its history.
Case Study: The birth of the exploitation teenpic
Sam Katzman and Rock Around the Clock (Fred F. Sears 1956, 77 min.), produced by Clover Productions, distributed by Columbia Pictures.
On 12 April 1954, Bill Haley and the Comets recorded 'Rock Around the Clock' for Decca Records. The song in its initial release did not prove a success. Almost a year later and after its use in the film Blackboard Jungle, the song was re-recorded for Private Records and re-released with spectacular results. On 5 July 1955 it went to number one in the US Billboard music charts where it stayed for eight weeks, selling over 1 million records. Although this was not the first 'rock 'n' roll' song, '(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock' (to give it its full title) became the first such song to break into the mainstream, which in this case meant becoming popular with the white teenage demographic that had been emerging as a distinct social entity.
The popularisation of the song was certainly assisted by the fact that Haley and his band were white musicians as well as by the success of Blackboard Jungle. Reports from theatres around the US claimed that teenagers were getting 'agitated' and dancing in the auditoria during the run of the song over the film's credits, while one theatre in Boston played the first reel of the film without sound to avoid extreme teenage agitation. Despite attempts to limit its appeal, the song spent nineteen weeks in the US top ten, twenty-five weeks in the top forty and thirty-eight weeks altogether in the charts during its second release. According to Guinness World Records it is the second best-selling record of all time (after Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas') with sales of over 25 million units.
As the music and song were still in the process of being accepted by the white listeners (MGM had bought the rights of the song for Blackboard Jungle for a mere $5,000), Sam Katzman signed the band for a film about this type of music which he would produce, while one of Columbia's most prolific in-house directors, Fred F. Sears, would direct. Prior to this film, Katzman and Sears had made together Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955), one of the first exploitation films on juvenile delinquency (the title of which was taken from a newspaper headline) and one of the first films by Katzman under Clover Productions, a company he set up in 1955. The film's marketing campaign made explicit reference to rock 'n' roll music as an attraction for the teenage audience and the advertising kit distributed to the theatres called exhibitors to make use of rock 'n' roll tie-ins, including advertising the film on the radio during programmes that played such music.
In true exploitation fashion, Rock Around the Clock was shot in two working weeks with a budget of less than $300,000. Having received training in filmmaking in the Larry 'Buster' Crabbe serials and produced films for Poverty Row companies for many years before he joined the B units of Columbia, Katzman co-ordinated smoothly a production, the central points of which were the music performances by the rock 'n' roll stars. By the end of January 1956, when the song had already been a smash in the US (but was still in the process of taking over the rest of the western word), the film was ready and Katzman and Columbia started working on the advertising before its release on 21 March 1956.
With immense free publicity from the appearance of Bill Haley and the Comets, the featured songs and especially the film's title, Columbia and Katzman proceeded in flaunting these assets as much as possible. This is clearly evident in the poster for the film which featured the names of the performers in large letters as well as a number of images of dancing couples, which unmistakeably targeted the teenage audience.
Not surprisingly, the film opens with 'Rock Around the Clock' playing over the titles. From the very beginning it is clear who the protagonists of the film are. As the opening credits roll, it is the performers who are introduced first and then the actors. The narrative revolves around the efforts of a band manager, Steve Hollis (Johnny Johnston), to make rock 'n' roll music (in the shape of Bill Haley and the Comets who maintain their real names in the story) known in New York and then in the rest of the country. Obstacles in the form of a large talent agency that refuses to support the band and bookings in the wrong places throw his plans back. Help, however, arrives in the shape of rock DJ Alan Freed. He introduces the band at one of his music nights in a nightclub and once they play 'Rock Around the Clock' the band and the song become an immediate hit. Last-minute obstacles placed in their path by the same talent agency are overcome and the film finishes with the triumph of the music as well as the formation of a couple, as Steve and Lisa (a dancer with the band) get married.
Perhaps the strongest formal element in the film that breaks from traditions of mainstream cinema is the constant interruption of the narrative by performances of hit songs such as 'See You Later Alligator', 'Rock, Rock, Rock, Everybody', 'R-o-c-k' (all by Bill Haley and the Comets) and 'Only You' by the Platters. Excluding the opening credits, the seventy-seven-minute film contains fourteen performances that take up approximately half of its duration, leaving about forty minutes for the unfolding of the narrative. Although such narrative interruption is not uncommon in American cinema, as there is a strong tradition of Hollywood musicals where a story is constantly interrupted by musical numbers, Rock Around the Clock foregrounds the performances to such an extent that the already schematic narrative becomes not only subordinate to them, it becomes almost redundant. It could be argued then that each narrative segment functions as a transitory passage from one performance to another. In fact in the last fifteen minutes of the film's run, the performances are no longer interrupted by the narrative (from Freddie Bell and his Bellboys, to the Platters, to Bill Haley and the Comets) before the happy resolution.
Another break from mainstream filmmaking takes place on the level of visual style. The extremely strong emphasis on music performances and the teenage dancing they incite attracted a large number of unusual shots where the camera is placed at a very low - almost floor - level to capture the moves that could teach teenage viewers how to dance, breaking from traditional compositions of dancing couples in long shots.
A final element of the film that breaks away from the tradition of mainstream filmmaking is its self-reflexivity (constant references to being the product of exploitation filmmaking), which takes on two forms. The first and main one is its explicit effort to be what its tagline professes, 'the whole story of rock and roll'. Thus, although the performers and the bands are part of the diegesis, they nevertheless retain their professional names, standing at the same time both in and outside the narrative world. This means that although the film dramatises the break of rock 'n' roll music from rural America to the main metropolitan hubs (significantly not from black to white America), it also tries to be an authentic record of the era, a sort of documentary for future generations.
The other form of self-reflexivity occurs on the level of the narrative and involves the articulation of the rules of exploitation. In a scene between Corinne Talbot, the unfriendly talent agent, and Lisa Johns, the rock 'n' roll dancer (and Steve's romantic interest), Corinne lays down exactly how exploitation works:
You are an investment Lisa. You'll become an idol for teenagers. You'll develop a big public; hundreds of fan clubs; college boys would be voting you the girl they would most want to be caught in a compromising situation with. My agency will be spending a fortune on your publicity and exploitation. The bigger you or the boys [the band] become, the more money we all make. But you are the only girl of the outfit. The only one that means s-e-x. Like a movie star. I want my investment protected.
With the tricks of the trade articulated in such a clear fashion, it not surprising that Katzman's film made the production of imitations easy.
Rock Around the Clock was a great hit for Katzman and Columbia Pictures. Its worldwide gross was in the region of $4 million (with rentals of $3 million or a 10 to 1 ratio of profit to cost). The imitations (with the possible exception of Rock Pretty Baby) followed religiously Katzman's formula and the cycle lasted well into the 1960s with slight updates of the type of music and dance performed (cha-cha, calypso, twist), always according to the latest fad. Katzman continued to produce exploitation pictures into the 1970s, while in the mid-1960s he left Columbia and took his new production outfit Four-Leaf Productions to AIP. At the time of his death in 1973 he had produced about 300 films in almost 40 years.
1. Quoted in Shiel, 2003.
4. For definitions of the three examples of exploitation in American cinema, see Doherty, 1988, p. 3.
11. One should also include here 20th Century-Fox's film Love Me Tender (Webb, 1956), which starred Elvis Presley, the biggest youth star of the 1950s.
14. Broidy is quoted in 'Salesman', in New York Times, 10 February 1946.
16. Broidy is quoted in 'Monogram Marching On: Company Shows Swift Increase In Stature', in Daily Variety, 29 October 1943; the slogan for AIP is quoted in Staehling, 1975, p. 224.
31. 'Rep Studio Open to Indie TV Prod'n; Rogers' TV-1st Run, 30G; Autry, 20G', in Daily Variety, 20 June 1951, pp. 1 and 7.
32. 'Republic Okays Old Films for Tele; Editing, Rescoring to Fit TV Needs', in Weekly Variety, 13 June 1951, pp. 3 and 18.
33. Arkoff, quoted in Strawn, 1975b, p. 256.
35. 'Lippert Gets First Financing Morris Plan Ever Made Films', in Variety, 21 September 1949.
36. 'Monogram, Lippert Co May Merge; Negotiations Now in Progress', in Variety, 26 July 1950.
37. Quoted in McGee and Robertson, 1982, p. 45.
43. 'Nicholson Forms New Distrib Unit', in The Hollywood Reporter, 26 March 1956.
46. The Hollywood Reporter description is quoted in McGee and Robertson, 1982, p. 60.
48. The figures for AlP's budgets are taken from Scheuer, Philip K. 'Shocker Pioneers Tell How to Make Monsters', in Los Angeles Times, 21 September 1958.
50. Los Angeles Times, 21 September 1958.
52. McGee and Robertson, 1982, p. 118.
53. McGee and Robertson, 1982, p. 118.
54. McGee and Robertson, 1982, p. 119.
57. The 'formula for success' is taken from James H. Nicholson, 'AIP Formula -Not Foolproof, But It Pays Off', in Daily Variety, 27 October 1970. 'The Peter Pan Syndrome' is taken from Doherty, 1988, p. 157.
58. Arkoff has been quoted as stating explicitly that film is no art and that 'Once we open a vein, like a miner, we continue mining until the vein runs out of ore.' John Getze, 'Horror or Horrid Films, AIP Quickies Score at Box Office', in Los Angels Times, 20 February 1974.
61. All the figures relating to Hercules are taken from Powers, 1979, pp. 39 and 45.
65. The figures for the cost of the film and of the device are taken from Doherty, 1988, p. 169.
68. The figures are taken from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063522/business.
75. In this respect Corman's work is very reminiscent of Edgar G. Ulmer's films, which also managed to transcend their Poverty Row status.
78. Flynn and McCarthy, 1975b, p. 305.
CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN INDEPENDENT CINEMA (LATE 1960s-PRESENT)
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