McFarland & Company
Trade paperback, 413 pages
Includes 139 photos, index
(The following images are not necessarily taken from the book)
“If only we’d had a bigger budget.”
“If only we’d had more time.”
These are the refrains you’ll read over and over in Tom Weaver’s Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers, a treasure trove of memories and recollections from the people who made some of the best (and worst) B science fiction and horror pictures in the 1950s. Although time and budget were constant woes, the stories of how these creators overcame such constraints are remarkable, compelling, and often jubilant.
Most of the interviews appear to have been conducted in the 1980s or ‘90s, with the participants 30 or more years removed from the projects they discuss, yet their memories remain astonishingly clear. We hear stories from actors such as John Agar, Susan Cabot, Anthony Eisley, Beverly Garland (pictured above in The Alligator People, 1959), Paul Marco, and Gloria Talbot, producers Samuel Z. Arkoff, Jack H. Harris, and Howard W. Koch, screenwriter David Duncan, directors Bernard Kowalski, Reginald LeBorg, Ib J. Melchior, Lee Sholem, and writer/directors Edward Bernds, Curt Siodmak, and many, many more.
Although there’s no interview with Roger Corman, his name comes up again and again. All sf and horror fans know that Corman is a major (perhaps the major) figure in B movies, but it’s nice to see Roger’s brother Gene receive some much-deserved press. According to director Bernard Kowalski, when Gene produced Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), he “was so involved and worked twenty-two hours a day, went into the hospital for three or four days, just to get himself healthy, before he’d come back and finish the movie up in postproduction.” (p. 225)
Weaver’s book is filled with stories of how hard the actors and crew members of these B pictures worked, shooting with very limited budgets (usually under $100,000), little time, harsh conditions, bad food, worse lodgings, and more. You have to ask, “Why do this for a low-budget flick that’s going to appear at the bottom of a double bill or a drive-in?” The love of movie-making, pure and simple.
Makeup master Jack Pierce working on Lon Chaney Jr.'s costume for The Mummy's Ghost (1944)
Yet low-budget filmmaking does has some advantages. For one thing, most of these films had little or no interference from the studios. That allowed producers and directors to take more chances, be more daring (or maybe reckless?), and have some fun. Of course, your biggest constraints remained money and time. But for some of these guys that was no problem.
Lee Sholem (right) with George Reeves from Superman and the Mole Men (1951)
Take Lee “Roll ‘Em” Sholem, who in a 40-year career directed nearly 1,300 movies and television episodes. Or Jack H. Harris, who had distributed 500 pictures by the time he produced The Blob in 1958. According to actor Robert Clarke, Edgar G. Ulmer shot The Man from Planet X (1951, photo below) in six days. Such stories abound.
The feeling of these interviews makes you feel as if you were on the set of these pictures, rushing through scenes, applying glue and spit to plastic monster costumes held together by scant thread work and good fortune, sweating though desert scenes, jungle scenes, and hoping you wouldn’t drown in a swamp or lagoon. Yet the excitement here is contagious. As hard as it was, these people must have had a blast making these movies.
Yet readers also have to suffer the harshness and sometimes indignities of seeing their favorite actors in their declining years appearing in less-than-great roles in less-than-great films. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and many others are observed here, some needing the money, and others simply wanting to prove that they still had something to offer.
Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers is a valuable resource for genre fans, but also a great read for anyone interested in how low-budget movies were made, especially in the 1950s. The interviews are usually only six or seven pages, so you can pick the book up and put it down at your leisure. I also recommend that you get your hands on any books by Tom Weaver, a man wholly devoted to sf and horror. This guys knows his stuff. Read his books, and you will, too.
This review is part of the 2021 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!