The above statement by the once president and chief executive officer of Poverty Row outfit Monogram Pictures represents an appropriate introduction to a different form of independent filmmaking during the studio years: low-end independent production, which, in Broidy's analogy, is represented by the phrase 'stale bread'. The analogy seems apt. If one accepts that the films of top-rank independent producers and the studio prestige productions represent American cinema's 'cake', and the standard studio film production corresponds to its 'bread', then films from studios like Monogram, Republic, Grand National, PRC and a large number of other smaller companies certainly represent American cinema's 'stale bread'. In other words, they represent film production of a particularly low quality and cheap look that could never be confused with the top-rank product examined in the previous chapter. For instance, according to film historian Wheeler Dixon, the key features of Monogram films were 'shoddy sets, dim lighting restricted mostly to simple key spots, non existent camerawork and extremely poor sound recording', elements far removed from prestige-level independent production or studio filmmaking.2 Even the most successful financially and 'artistically' Poverty Row studio in the 1930s and 1940s, Republic Pictures, was widely known by industry practitioners as 'Repulsive Pictures'.3
Despite the lack of quality and the absence of production values, however, low-end independent production represents a less controversial form of independent filmmaking. This is because the ties with the major studios that top-rank independents like Selznick International Pictures enjoyed did not exist for companies like Grand National and Producers Releasing Corporation. These companies operated completely 'independently' to the majors, producing their films in their own studios (or in hired soundstages), releasing them through self-owned distribution networks (or through the states rights system) and exhibiting them in small independent theatres located mainly in the neighbourhoods of big cities, small towns and rural areas. With the majors concentrating on servicing primarily the lucrative first- and second-run theatre market in the large metropolitan cities, a large number of independently owned theatres, which could not afford to buy the majors' films, found themselves in need of product.4 As these theatres traditionally supplied only a fraction of the industry's box office revenues, the studios could afford to leave them to the competition. In other words, these independent companies operated in the shadow of the studios but outside their sphere of influence and as Flynn and McCarthy put it, '[they] stepped in to garner the miniscule profits that the majors shunned.'5
The history of low-end independent filmmaking during the time of the domination of the film industry by the studios can be divided also into two distinct periods. The first one covers the years of the Great Depression, particularly from late 1930 to 1939. During this period, low-end independent production was actively encouraged by the industry as the introduction of the double bill created far greater demand for product than the major studios could handle. Companies like Monogram, Republic and Grand National were formed to exploit those buoyant conditions and, along with the studios' B units, supplied theatres with cheaply made films, mainly for the bottom half of double bills. The second period covers the 1940s and the early years of the 1950s. During these times, the studios gradually phased out their B film production, to the extent that the Poverty Row companies (as the low-end independents were also known) became the sole providers of low-cost films to the US theatres.6 As the market for low-budget productions started declining in the mid-1940s, a small number of companies like Monogram and Republic ventured into A-class and prestige-level production with Republic even scoring a major Academy Award for one of its productions (an Oscar for Best Direction for John Ford's The Quiet Man ).
Besides the films produced and distributed by the Poverty Row studios, low-end independent production was also characterised by a significant number of films made for various ethnic audiences. This type of film production was practised completely outside the borders of the American film industry and was exemplified by films that cost just a few thousand dollars to produce, with money raised directly from private investors or from the members of the ethnic communities the films targeted. The final section of this chapter discusses the phenomenon of the ethnic film.
THE FIRST PERIOD (1930-9)
Although low-end independent production existed in the periphery of the film industry from the days of the Patents Company, it nevertheless represented a far too marginal phenomenon to merit detailed examination. With companies being formed and dissolved almost overnight, sometimes making only one film before slipping into obscurity, and with the vast majority of these second-rate films lost forever, the field of low-end independent production prior to the introduction of sound is akin to a vast cemetery with a huge number of short-lived production companies and films buried inside.
In many respects it was the introduction of sound that proved to be the catalyst in shaping the field of low-end independent production. As all these companies were very small and under-capitalised, very few of them were in a position to afford the substantial costs of the transition to sound. Even those companies who attempted the transition had to utilise 'inferior "bootleg" sound equipment' which meant that their films paled in comparison to the superior sound of the films made by major studios and toprank independents.7 As a result, these films were booked only in small, grind-house circuits and returned a very modest profit to their production companies, if any at all. Still, a small number of such companies managed to survive and become an integral part of the American film industry after the introduction of sound, despite the adverse economic climate created by the Great Depression.
Perhaps the key factor that explains the survival and relative longevity of companies like Monogram and Republic in an era otherwise dominated by the Big Five and the Little Three is the introduction of the double bill scheme in US theatres in late 1930. The scheme, which had been in operation in the subsequent-run market in as early as 1915 and which entailed the presentation of two cheaply made films (normally westerns) for the price of one, was introduced to the more upmarket theatres as a measure against decreasing cinema audiences.8 In its new guise, the post-1930 double bill still entailed the presentation of two films for the price of one, but this time the two films were of a different description. On the one hand, there was the main attraction, the film that received top billing. This was normally a well made, standard studio production or (on some occasions) a prestige-level studio or independent film. Because of its position on the billing this type of film became known as the A film. On the other hand, there was the film that received the bottom billing. This was normally a low-budget picture made by specific studio units specialising in efficient, no frills production or a low-budget film made by independent companies away from the studios. This type of film was known as the B film. In other words, the labels A and B were attached to films because of their position in the billing and not because of their quality, despite the fact that on most occasions B films were of a lesser quality than the A films.9
The success of the scheme was instant. By mid-1932, a year-and-a-half after its introduction, 6,000 houses (approximately 40 per cent of the nation's theatres) had adopted the double bill, while many exhibitors went as far as showing triple bills. By 1935 it was estimated that about 85 per cent of US theatres made regular use of double features.10 This overwhelming success created a staggering demand for films which the studios were in no position to meet, especially at a time when they had to cut down their own production schedules as the Depression had started hitting the industry in late 1931. Equally, the handful of top-rank independents that existed in the early 1930s could contribute only a fraction of the extra product needed. Not surprisingly then, the early 1930s witnessed the birth of an impressive number - for a Depression-ridden industry - of film companies which were formed to exploit these specific conditions. Additionally, a number of small companies that had been formed in the mid- and late 1920s and had been struggling financially ever since found a new raison d'être in late 1930. According to Lary May between 1929 and 1934, the number of (low-end) independents almost doubled (from fifty-one to ninety-two).11 Besides Republic and Monogram, the two best known independents, which were formed in 1931 and 1935 respectively (and which are discussed later), other such companies included Tiffany-Stahl, Mascot,
Syndicate Pictures, Majestic Pictures, Supreme Pictures, Invincible Pictures and many others.
As none of these companies had the capitalisation of the studios they could never pose individually any real threat to the established forces in the film market.12 Together, nevertheless, they were responsible for a substantial percentage of the product that serviced the lower part of the double bills, especially in small towns and rural areas. In order to prevent further penetration of the market by those new independent companies the studios, with the support of top-rank independents, decided to take certain measures. The most important one was their attempt to put an end to the inflated demand for films that the double bill had created by making the scheme illegal. The opportunity to achieve that formally was presented in the form of the Code of Fair Competition for the Motion Picture Industry that the MPPDA was drafting on behalf of the studios as part of President Roosevelt's National Recovery Act (NRA) of 1933. Upon the studios' request the MPPDA used the Code to outlaw the exhibition practice of the double bill and therefore bring the demand for films down to 'normal' levels.
The low-end independents, however, fought hard against the measure that would not only drive them out of business but that could also question the ability of a large number of small exhibitors that depended on the double bill to survive. Although these exhibitors became an important ally to the independents, it was the cinema-going public, which was overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the three-hour, two-movie-for-the-price-of-one-admission programme during the worst years of the Depression that proved to be the catalyst. Thus, in August 1934 the NRA's Code Authority proceeded in legalising the double bill by ruling that the major studiodistributors could not stipulate contractually the terms of exhibition for their films.
The news had far-reaching consequences. Liberated from the pressure of the studios, the vast majority of independent exhibitors embarked on a programme of full implementation of the double bill practice. This resulted in the creation of stable conditions for the market of low-budget films and the Poverty Row studios were ready to exploit these conditions fully. Only two months after the legalisation of the double bill Monogram announced that it was looking into ways of increasing its output from twenty to thirty-six features and from eight to sixteen westerns for the following year (an increase of 85 per cent), while other companies were exploring similar options.13
By 1935, Monogram Pictures had emerged as a clear leader in the sector with an output of thirty-two films in 1932-3 (sixteen features and sixteen westerns), thirty-six films in 1933-4 (twenty-eight features and eight John Wayne westerns) and twenty-eight films in 1934-5 (twenty features and eight John Wayne westerns).14 The company was the latest incarnation in a series of production-distribution outfits established by W. Ray Johnston and Trem Carr, starting with Rayart in 1924 and continuing with Continental Talking Pictures and Syndicate Film Exchange before finally establishing Monogram in 1931.15 In the early months of that year Johnston and several states rights film exchange owners formed a cooperative organisation, not unlike the one created by First National in 1917.
As franchise holders in Monogram, each exchange owner would buy stock in the company and contribute proportionally to the production costs of each Monogram film. In return, they would participate in the small but seemingly certain profits the company would make, especially as its distribution network was expanding outside the US (where the company was represented in thirty-nine key territories) to cover Britain (through a deal with Pathe) and Canada (through a deal with Empire). With production funds increasing from $1 million in 1932-3 to $3 million in 1933-4 (an average of approximately $100,000 per film), Monogram quickly found itself ahead of the competition when most of its rivals were producing at most ten films per year.16 Monogram's main advantage over the other low-end independents was its distribution arm which enabled the company to retain a larger part of its film rentals. In order to sustain the costs of maintaining a distribution apparatus, Monogram had to produce a large number of films per year (over thirty), which resulted in the company's quick establishment in the low-end independent market.
As early as April 1933, Monogram executives had already been planning to exploit the company's position in the market by proceeding to the consolidation of a small number of independent companies 'into one organisation large enough to challenge the biggest of existing producing and distributing organisations.'17 With the question of double bill still not settled, however, Monogram decided to put these plans on hold. When the NRA legalised the scheme Monogram was ready to play the corporate game. By that time, though, other companies had seen the potential for profits from the low-budget market and were moving in from outside the sector, while existing Poverty Row companies, including Monogram, had started feeling the effects of the Depression themselves which made them much more open to the idea of potential mergers with and takeovers by other companies.
Consolidated Film Industries was one of the companies that moved in from outside the sector. Owned by Herbert R. Yates, Consolidated had been (under various names) the largest film developing and printing company in Hollywood since the late 1910s. It had functioned also as a lender to many film production companies, which allowed Consolidated to control their printing contracts. In March 1935, Consolidated foreclosed on loans to small independents like Chesterfield Motion Pictures and Majestic Pictures and then merged the two and renamed them Republic Pictures. Immediately after, Republic proceeded to a merger with Liberty Pictures, Mascot Pictures and Monogram (which was happy to take a back seat despite its leadership in the market).18 The new company, which retained the name Republic Pictures, combined the individual strengths of the companies from which it was created and immediately found itself in pole position for dominating the low-end independent market. Specifically, it combined Monogram's established nation-wide distribution network and its expertise in the production of westerns (a staple of the low-budget market as the majors did not produce westerns for most of the 1930s) and Mascot's reputation for quality and its leadership in the market for chapter plays (serials) where it was competing on an equal level with Universal.
The new company made its mark immediately. In September 1935, it released Tumbling Tumbleweeds (Kane), a 'singing cowboy western' featuring recording artist Gene Autry in one of his first roles. Made on a minis-cule budget of $18,000, the film proved massively successful, grossing in excess of $1 million at the US box office.19 More importantly, Tumbling Tumbleweeds became the first in a large number of such films (starring Autry and, later, Roy Rogers), which proved extremely popular with small-town and rural audiences and contributed substantially to the company's profits throughout the years. Republic also continued Mascot's tradition by releasing quality serials which cost between $50,000 and $100,000 but could potentially return more than $600,000 as each of the serial's twelve chapters was sold for $5 a time in more than 10,000 theatres.20
Figure 2.1 The Singing Cowboy. Gene Autry's popularity helped Republic Pictures establish a dominant position in the low-end independent market.
Republic's auspicious start, however, was shadowed by management problems. Within two years from its establishment, four of its top executives had resigned from the company, including W. Ray Johnston who revived Monogram after attracting new franchise holders in a new cooperative, and M. H. Hoffman who revived Liberty Pictures.21 Despite the resignations and the extra competition it faced from its former executives, Republic continued to dominate the low-end independent production field for the rest of the decade with allocated production funds reaching the $9 million mark in 1940 and a release schedule of sixty films per year, which was comparable to the schedules of companies like Universal and Columbia.22 One could only wonder whether Republic Pictures would have been in a position to eventually give the majors a serious challenge, had the merger been successful.
The re-emergence of Liberty and Monogram clearly demonstrates the existence of a substantial market for this type of production. As an increasing number of theatres were adopting the double bill, independent companies started producing more and more films while new companies entered the low-budget film arena. Along with Republic and Monogram, the other key independent in the second part of the 1930s was Grand National Films (GN). Despite its short life span and its origin in Poverty Row, GN attempted to transcend its status and compete aggressively with the major studios.
The company was established as an independent distributor by Edward L. Alperson, an ex-film exchange manager, in the spring of 1936. Modelled on United Artists but with some production funds available from Pathé and a private investment firm, Grand National was to distribute independently produced films that it would co-finance with the individual films' producers. Within seven months from its inception, GN had already released ten films, most low-budget productions aimed at the bottom half of double bills. However, the company's potential for growth did not remain unnoticed in Hollywood, especially when rumours surfaced that Dupont (one of the richest corporations in the US) was Grand National's secret bankroller.23
The major studios' fears that GN had the potential to become the sixth fully vertically integrated major and therefore challenge openly the status quo seemed to take shape when the company signed James Cagney after one of his frequent walkouts from Warner due to contract disputes. With no studio or top-rank independent willing to poach him for fear of breaking diplomatic relations with Warner Bros, Grand National, which operated outside the studio system, stepped in. The company offered Cagney a one-picture-a-year deal, an agreement vastly different from the one he had at Warner where the star was making three to four pictures per year. Cagney's presence at GN gave the company a different, more upmarket status as no big stars were ever allowed to work for low-end independents (the studios believed that participation in such films would degrade irrevocably the value of their performers). Cagney's first film, Great Guy (1936), was relatively successful but did not do the business GN hoped for. Besides the fact that it was a poor imitation of the pictures Cagney was making at Warner, the film's commercial potential was further damaged by poor distribution, perhaps the product of informal collusion by the studios, which were in a position to make their first-run theatres unavailable for the film.24 Although the next film GN was planning with Cagney was Angels with Dirty Faces, Alperson decided on a different project, a musical-comedy with the title Something to Sing About. The film represented a huge financial gamble for the company as it was budgeted at $900,000 and anchored all the other GN releases for the 1937-8 season. The production was plagued with problems which resulted in further costs that the company had trouble covering. The film which, according to Patrick McGilligan, was an 'attack by Cagney on Hollywood, "show people" and the entire movie star syndrome', lacked again in terms of production values and look.25 Furthermore, like Great Guy, Something to Sing About also encountered problems with distribution. This time, however, GN had invested far too much capital to make a profit or even recoup its investment. The company recorded a hefty loss from which it never managed to recover, especially after Cagney left independent production and returned to Warner before materialising plans for a third film. Ironically, his first film after his return to the major was the massively successful Angels with Dirty Faces, the rights for which Warner had purchased when GN dropped its plans to make it with Cagney. With the star gone, GN scaled down production (in the region of twenty low-budget films per year) but continued to experience economic problems. A year later, the company merged with Educational Films, a producer of short subjects (including animated shorts starring Felix the Cat), but a few months later went bankrupt.
Grand National's failed experiment to compete with the established powers along with Republic's unsuccessful attempt to shun its Poverty Row image clearly demonstrate that low-end independent production was a completely different concept from top-rank independent or studio production. One could argue then that Poverty Row outfits were responsible for a type of cinematic practice, characterised primarily by a cheap-looking aesthetic, which was markedly different from the practice of mainstream, studio-produced cinema. Although such an argument has substantial merit, what complicates matters is that the studios themselves had specific production units that also specialised in quick, efficient and cheap film production mainly destined for the bottom half of double bills. As a result, a large number of these studio films were produced on a similar economic basis and for the same reason as the films made by Poverty Row studios. Consequently, the studio-produced B films might share a similar aesthetic with films from Republic, Monogram and the rest, a position that would suggest that the films from the Poverty Row studios were 'independent' only because they were produced outside the studio system and not because of any formal differences from B studio production.
The labels B and Poverty Row are not synonymous. According to Brian Taves, B films were of such a wide variety that grouping them under one, extremely large, category and assuming that all films included were of a similar budget or of a similar aesthetic would be to oversimplify a particularly complex phenomenon. He explains:
Conceptions of the B movie varied widely. Even among the majors the budget for B pictures often diverged by $100,000 or more. There is no budget or production schedule typical of all B's because of the wide variations among the different companies . . . [t]he same schedule and budget that resulted in a high-quality B at Paramount or MGM might approximate the investment for an A at Columbia and Universal.26
If the B film was practised by different companies in different ways, it could be argued that the Poverty Row studios (which produced only B films) practised this type of filmmaking in a different manner from the studios. Indeed, Taves proposes four different categories of B film presented in descending order of prestige:
(1) major studio 'programmers'
(2) major studio B's
(3) smaller company B's and
(4) the quickies of Poverty Row.27
Although Taves here reserves the term Poverty Row for truly low-budget companies like Astor and Weiss (in his article 'The B Film: Hollywood's Other Half' he uses the term Poverty Row to refer to companies in both categories 3 and 4),28 what becomes obvious from his taxonomy is that before any important qualitative differences come into play, B films are divided between the more prestigious, studio-produced B's (categories 1 and 2) and the considerably less prestigious, often disreputable, non-studio/independently produced ones (categories 3 and 4).
What differentiates the above two broader categories is the level of prestige attached to the films and, less obviously but equally importantly, the audience that is associated with each category. In terms of the first difference, studio programmers and B's mobilised substantial studio resources and capital as they represented the majors' efforts to reduce overhead costs by utilising the large numbers of actors, staff and crew that were on their payrolls on long-term contracts. For instance, Fox's B unit spent $6 million per year for the production of twenty-four films ($150,000-$200,000 per film on average).29 Furthermore, the studios were not in a position to take the production of their B programme lightly as their reputation depended on both the A and the B films they released.30 Additionally, the studio B's and programmers were chosen sometimes for the top half of double bills (depending on the type of theatre they were exhibited in), which made them the main attractions for cinema-goers and therefore films expected to be of unquestionable quality. For all those reasons and despite the smaller budgets and the relative lack of glamour in comparison to the A films, studio-produced B films were still visibly mainstream Hollywood pictures, refined productions that their makers could be proud of.
Poverty Row firms, however, produced only B films (at least in the 1930s) with no pretension to quality. Although there were film productions on which companies like Monogram and Republic spent more money than on other types of films, the budgets rarely exceeded the $100,000
mark even for their most 'prestigious' productions. Filmmakers in Poverty Row studios certainly desired the creation of solid films; their filmmaking practice, however, obeyed some very specific and incontestable rules, where quality and aesthetic ratification were not in the list of priorities. These rules included:
1. Completing the film within inflexible shooting schedules, which often did not exceed a working week (six days) and which could entail up to eighty camera set-ups per working day.
2. Bringing the film in on a miniscule budget that often did not allow for more than one take per shot, regardless of the take's quality. For companies whose profit was usually a few thousand dollars per film, going over budget (or over schedule) might have made the difference between profit and loss.
3. Developing stories from inside the company (as purchasing rights to pre-sold properties would drive production costs up); on rare occasions when rights were cheap and/or were in the public domain Poverty Row studios would proceed in such purchases.
4. Producing a very large number of outdoors pictures (especially westerns) as they required minimal studio work which meant that they could be produced on extremely low-budgets.31
In the final analysis, John Tuska argues, '[t]here were two very distinct ways of approaching a motion picture, one where all questions and problems and all energies answered first and last to the budget, the other where the final product itself, the motion picture, took precedence.'32 Poverty Row studios in the 1930s approached filmmaking only in the first way.
Besides their difference in terms of the prestige they carried, studio B's and Poverty Row films were further differentiated in terms of the audiences for which they were made. This is arguably a fundamental difference for a position that sees films from the Poverty Row outfits as part of an alternative type of cinema to the mainstream studio product. Specifically, studio B's were channelled by their respective distributors to first- and second-run, studio-owned and affiliated theatre circuits, aiming therefore at reaching the widest possible audience that - by definition - the studio A films were produced for. As these theatres were concentrated in large metropolitan areas, studio A's and B's were aimed primarily at adult urban audiences who were considered more sophisticated than the audiences in small towns and rural areas.33 As a result, and despite their differences from A films, studio programmers and B's generally did not stray too far from the rules of classical narrative construction (cause-effect logic, character motivation, and so on) that exemplified studio production since the mid 1910s.34
On the other hand, the B's of Poverty Row were distributed to a large number of independent exhibitors, which, according to Steven Broidy (Johnston's successor at Monogram), were 'receptive' to the type of product Monogram and the other Poverty Row studios offered.35 In these theatres, the low-end independents had the opportunity to target audiences which were different from the urban, middle-class cinema-goers who patronised the first-and second-run theatres. These audiences included smaller demographics, such as lower classes and ethnic immigrants as well as children and juveniles for Saturday matinée shows.36 Furthermore, the independents tapped on a largely unconstituted urban audience in the American Southern states, which visited cinemas primarily on Saturday nights in search of singing cowboy westerns starring country music stars.37
One common element that all those demographics shared was that they were not interested in 'classically structured' narratives that characterised studio films. Instead, they were interested in action, thrills, pace, adventure, spectacle, stunts and any other exciting element that could contribute to an 'emotional rollercoaster' type of film entertainment. As a result, and despite their very limited resources, Poverty Row studios tended to emphasise these elements often to the detriment of classical cinema staples such as 'coherence, mood and characterisation' that exemplified studio-produced A's and the majority of B's.38 This is particularly noticeable in comparisons between serials (particular types of pictures for the very specific audience of matinées) made by Republic/Mascot and its rival Universal. According to Jon Tuska, on the one hand the serials produced by Mascot were characterised by relentless action (as much as possible per episode), while not being very 'long on [narrative] logic'. On the other hand, Tuska argues, Universal's chapter plays 'tended to stress story as much as action', making them more suitable for a more sophisticated audience that could appreciate narrative pleasures as well as thrills.39
Wheeler Dixon reaches a similar conclusion in his discussion of the films by Producers Releasing Corporation when he argues that in Poverty Row 'everything is immediate, vicious, do-or-die. All dialogue is reduced to motivation, rather than speculative analysis by the characters . . . films are work of the moment, operating on the level of the protagonists, of their world.'40 Finally, the case study of this chapter demonstrates that the Charlie Chan series made at Monogram (1944-9) were indeed characterised by a cheap look and an emphasis on immediacy, pace and thrills, while the Charlie Chan series made as B's at 20th Century-Fox (1931-42) were characterised by a comparatively lavish production design and with a primary stress on story construction.
One could argue then that Poverty Row films represented an alternative practice that went against the mainstream classical cinema of the studio system. Although this was particularly evident in the films by the smaller independents (category 4 in Taves's taxonomy), which 'offer[ed] an aesthetic problem in the paradigms of classical Hollywood cinema',41 it also permeated the films of larger Poverty Row outfits. This type of independent cinema performed an extremely significant social function: it promoted a more accessible and, ultimately, more inclusive American cinema which embraced audiences from the lower strata of society (and as we see later from different races and ethnicities) whose limited consumer power had placed them at the bottom of the studios' customer list. In departing from the rules of classical filmmaking, low-end, non-studio production presented a cinema that was less bound by established rules, which justifies the term 'independent', in the same way that production of films outside the studio system lends to that label.
Case Study: Charlie Chan at Monogram
Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat (Phil Rosen, 1944, 65 min.), produced and distributed by Monogram Pictures.
Charlie Chan is a Chinese-American detective who was introduced to the literary world in January 1925 by author Earl Derr Biggers in his novel The House Without A Key, published in instalments in the Saturday Evening Post (1925). Following the success of this novel Biggers wrote five further novels before he died of a heart attack on 5 April 1933.
Only a year after its publication, Pathe adapted The House without a Key to a ten-chapter serial with Japanese George Kuwa in the eponymous role. This was followed by a Universal film of the second Biggers novel, The Chinese Parrot, in 1927, this time with Japanese Kamiyama
Sojin in the role of Chan. Although neither project was particularly successful, the Fox Film Corporation decided to adapt the third novel, Behind that Curtain, as a vehicle for one of its stars, Warner Baxter. The film was released in 1929 with the British E. L. Park in the role of the detective. Besides the fact on all three occasions Chan was played by a non-Chinese actor, what was interesting in all three productions was that Chan was a secondary, even marginal, character, especially in the Fox film, where he appears only in the end of the film.
These three early entries did not connote any particular cinematic future for Biggers' literary creation. However, in 1931 Fox purchased the rights for the next two Chan novels, The Black Camel (1929) and Charlie Chan Carries On (1930). By that time the studio had started responding to the needs of a double bill market and developing long-lasting series was perceived of as one particularly efficient way of producing cheap product. Biggers' novels represented the possibility of a potentially successful series as they were pre-sold properties and had clear generic qualities. For the role of Chan, the Fox producers cast Warner Oland, a white actor who had nevertheless played 'oriental' characters in a large number of 'yellow peril' films before the 1930s (including playing the role of evil Dr Fu Manchu in three films made at Paramount).
As with the previous offers, Charlie Chan Carries On (McFadden, 1931) featured the eponymous character once again in a small role. However, this time Oland's warm portrayal of the detective made him a hit with audiences. For the second Charlie Chan offering, The Black Camel (McFadden, 1931), Fox put Chan at the centre of the narrative and that change became the cornerstone of a formula which would last for ten years.
The Charlie Chan films at Fox were B films but were produced in a relatively lavish style. For instance, The Black Camel was shot on location in Honolulu, while Charlie Chan at the Opera (Humberstone, 1936) featured an original short piece of opera composed specifically for the film. Furthermore, it was not unusual for Fox to cast famous character actors in major or minor roles, like Boris Karloff and Ray Milland who, of course, cost more money than other less-known studio contractees. The budgets for the Fox films were in the region of $200,000 per film (Hanke, 1989, p. 169) and the shooting schedules fluctuated between three weeks and a month.
Fox's attention to the production of the series certainly paid off as certain Chan films grossed more than $1 million each, a sum normally associated with the box office performance of A films (Taves, 1995, p. 317). This means that despite their status as Fox programmers or B's, the films drew A film audiences. For that reason Chan films were exhibited in the first-and second-run theatres where they had the opportunity to record grosses of that level. Furthermore, unlike other Fox films made by its B unit, the Chan films were distributed on a percentage basis which meant that Fox could capitalise on their popularity (Taves, 1995, p. 337). Until 1934, Fox released on average two Chan films per year. From 1935 onwards (as the double bill was legalised and the series had taken off) Fox upped its releases to three films per year until Oland's death in 1938.
Sidney Toler, another white actor, was selected to replace Oland as Chan. One key difference from the films of his predecessor was that Toler's performance tended to bring about more humour from the situations Chan found himself in, while also developing a slightly more sarcastic approach in his conversations with his children and with potential suspects in the cases he investigated. The series was changing direction, privileging scenes with comic potential over a tightly structured plot. This was also reflected at the speed with which Chan films appeared in the market. At that time Fox was producing the series at a much faster pace, averaging four Chan films per year for 1939 and 1940 (though the shooting schedules remained in the region of three weeks). However, despite the effort to retain quality, the series started losing its popularity. Fox reduced the number of films after 1940, offering two in 1941 and one in 1942, before dropping the series after eleven years and twenty-seven films.
On hearing the news that the studio decided to discontinue the series, Toler, who had bought the rights to the character of Charlie Chan, approached Monogram. The low-end independent had just started making cautious steps towards a slightly more upmarket production and agreed to revive the series. James S. Burkett and Philip N. Krasne, unit producers for the company, undertook the production of the series. Director Philip Rosen and screenwriter George Callahan completed the unit which would produce the first five Chan films for Monogram, starting with Charlie Chan in the Secret Service in February 1944.
The differences between the Fox and Monogram Chan films were decidedly noticeable. With budgets dropping from $200,000 to $75,000
per film (Hanke, 1989, p. 169) and production schedules shortened from a month to a week (Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat was produced between 11 and 19 January 1944), Monogram's approach to the production of the series proves that there was a huge difference between a studio B film and a film from even one of the better Poverty Row outfits.
The Monogram look of 'shoddy sets, dim lighting and non-existent camera work' is clearly evident in Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat. In the film, there are at least three instances of perceptible, that is, obtrusive, camerawork and editing that are certainly not motivated by the narrative (the most obvious of these takes place in the scene that introduces the hideaway of the gang of thieves where a dissolve that consists of a fadeout and two different shots that fade in simultaneously confuses the spectator). Furthermore, there are (supposedly) exterior scenes that are covered in thick fog to hide the sparse setting, while a number of scenes take place in a dark warehouse that requires minimal lighting and no props.
Despite all these 'flaws' however, there is one occasion when the film transcends its cheap look and presents a particularly unusual, and admittedly beautiful, composition. In the scene where Chan and his assistants Tommy Chan and Birmingham Brown go to the dark warehouse to look for Deacon, they are faced with his dead body, half-hidden in the darkness. A few moments later the film cuts from a shot of Chan to a shot of the three men's silhouettes against the wall. The shot is not motivated by anything in the narrative and does not resemble any other shots in the film. Equally, it should not be seen as an auteurist statement as Phil Rosen has not employed any similar shots in other Charlie Chan films. A plausible explanation would be that the shot was created to hide the sparseness of the set (we tend to see the characters in medium shots which means that we see only the walls of the set). As more of this type of shot would certainly distract from the story, it stands alone as an artistically motivated shot that was nevertheless inspired by a pragmatic and practical necessity, the lack of setting.
Besides its problems with visual style, the film presents major 'flaws' in the narrative. The main flaw revolves around the book written about the murder of Thomas Manning, in which the author supports that Manning was murdered by his wife and that the detective handling the case withheld evidence because he was having an affair with the stepdaughter of the deceased. This claim constitutes the main turning point for the narrative as it is the imminent publication of the book that motivates Leah Manning to ask for Charlie Chan's help. This creates several problems in terms of the film's narrative logic, such as: why don't the members of the family of the deceased try to solve the case before any book about their private lives comes into play? Why are they prepared to accept a libellous story about them? Why don't they try to prevent the book from being published?
This and other 'holes' in the narrative are filled by a very fast pace and a considerable amount of action (especially in the last twenty minutes of the film) that do not allow the spectator time to question motivation or notice gaps in the story. With seventy-three scenes and sixty-five minutes' duration, the film switches from scene to scene every fifty-five seconds, on average.
Another area where the Monogram films were different from Fox was in the even stronger emphasis of the former on comedy. This was largely due to the addition of Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) as Chan's unofficial sidekick in his investigations, who brings comedy value with 'funny' one-liners that tend to emphasise his cowardice in face of potentially dangerous situations (Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat contains at least eleven such one-liners). As the series progressed the part of Birmingham Brown started growing in stature, to the extent that he became as important as the character of Chan. In this way, Monogram attempted to capture two audiences, the Chan fans and the black audiences, as Moreland was one of the most popular black actors of the 1940s with credits in more than 100 films for the decade.
Perhaps the most important difference between the Monogram and Fox films was the representation of race (mainly Chinese-Americans and later blacks). With the role of Chan played consistently by whites (when Toler died Monogram replaced him with another white actor, Roland Winters), the problem of representation was certainly a thorny one. Despite his portrayals by white actors, however, Charlie Chan is one of the most positive representations of non-whites in Hollywood cinema, especially when the most recent representations of 'oriental' characters before Chan were in 'yellow peril' films and exemplified by villains like Fu Manchu. In the Fox series Chan becomes a model of a 'cultured immigrant' trying to assimilate into American culture
(Taves, 1995, p. 336). His language betrays good education and his manners are impeccable.
In Monogram films, though, the character becomes gradually more abrasive, more condescending, more critical of his sons and often offensive to several (white) characters that surround him. Consider his patronising attitude to ex-lieutenant Dennis when he wants to give him the credit for solving the Manning murder: 'and this is how you did it'; or his contemptuous response to Dr Recknick's expertise in criminology 'expert is merely man who make[s] quick decision - and is sometimes right'. The Monogram Charlie Chan, then, signifies a force as progressive as that of the Fox Chan but also a stronger one as Monogram gradually disperses with the (stereotypical) image of the subservient other, while also highlighting a more resistant and often threatening 'yellowface'. As Ken Hanke put it: 'That they [Monogram films] are different from the Fox films is undeniable. That this difference is altogether undesirable is questionable' (1989, p. 179).
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