Haden Guest is the director of the Harvard Film Archive, as well as the senior lecturer on art, film, and visual studies at the university. He recently curated and organized “The B-Film: Low-Budget Hollywood Cinema 1935-1959,” a repertory film program that originally served as the centerpiece of the Vinennale 2018 and is currently ongoing in a slightly altered second iteration at the Harvard Film Archive (the final screenings are scheduled for this coming weekend). I spoke with Guest earlier this month to hear his reflections on the program, and his thoughts on where it may lead next.
HG: To frame this program again, and describe the larger project of the series, which I’m gratified to see is being widely understood: The idea is to challenge the common misperception of the B-film, and what the B-film has come to represent as a sort of casual shorthand phrase. It’s become a term for degraded, sloppy, strange, marginal, unimportant film. And, on the other end [of contemporary response], there is the fetishization of schlock, which along with the Z-film is definitely part of the same family tree, but…
Certainly of prime importance here is that there is a distinction between the B-film and “grindhouse”—a distinction that got sort of flattened out during the 2000s, when grindhouse became a vogue term coming to represent basically any low-budget genre film made before the late 1980s.
Exactly. And that reminded me that the collective memory has shifted. The grindhouse is still “in,” and still part of that memory—whereas the B-film of the studio era is not. There’s a kind of slippage that takes place.
The other idea, or thing that I’ve realized while talking with people, is that for certain cinephiles, the B-film of the studio era is synonymous with B-noir. It seems like a lot of people consider them [interchangeable]. But what really interests me is the kind of experimentation that you see in the films that are between genres. Sh! The Octopus (1937): That was a film which, in Vienna and here, was among the most enthusiastically and rapturously received. And that’s such an oddball film, in every sense, and I think a quite innovative one. On the surface, it’s a zany and wacky comedy, and yet at the same time it’s pulling aspects from gothic suspense mysteries, horror films, creature features, detective thrillers, and screwball comedies… It mashes them all together in the most wild and eccentric way. Even in terms of narrative, it just keeps introducing as many characters and as many elements as possible until it almost has to explode, like the lighthouse itself.
On both a narrative and structural level it actually reminded me, quite sincerely, of The Hateful Eight (2015). And it’s also reminiscent of the Abbott and Costello Meet… films (1948-55), despite predating all of them.
Within the studios, there was a willingness to take anything that was successful, even any element of a film that found success, and then reuse it. We have all these wonderful B-movie series that we barely touch on, or not even at all, like the Boston Blackie films (1941-49), the Charlie Chan films, the Mr. Moto films (1937-39)… these are really solid films [individually], some of them quite exceptional. And those were very much in the same ecosystem as the B-film, as opposed to the chapter serial. The B-film came to take a “minor character”, or a character actor, and give them a starring role. So understanding how the B-film worked within this larger ecosystem—the studio system—I think gives us certain insights into the studio’s mode of production. And it also gives us certain insights into the popular imagination; the ways in which there was a space and desire for the continued adventures of different kinds of stars. So you have a Boris Karloff, a Peter Lorre, or a Bela Lugosi [often featuring in B-films]. And these actors were extraordinarily gifted, but they’re marked as somehow different by their accents, by their looks, by the roles they were associated with.
A small portion of the films in this program have played at the Archive before, like Ride Lonesome (1959), which played as part of the incredible “Fortunes of the Western” series in 2014. In the book dedicated to the program (currently available at the Carpenter Center bookstore), you refer to the films within “The B-Film” as forming a sort of new, unofficial, deliberately incomprehensive canon of the cycle. How did your past curation and programming, both at the HFA and elsewhere, inform this canon that we’re seeing now?
When I first envisioned the program, I imagined it being closer to 75 films. And I actually sort of pushed for that at the Viennale, and even thought, well, if we can’t do it [at that size] there, then we’ll bring it to Harvard in a bigger, expanded version. But then I started to think differently about it: Okay, having a more reasonable number of films, around 50, [could be preferable]… because to me, this is meant to whet one’s appetite for more. And to give examples of certain B-genres and filmmakers who are all the tip of their respective icebergs. To offer that as a kind of primeur, a sketch…
So to again use Ride Lonesome as the example—it’s just that one Boetticher film in the program, when in theory it could’ve been many more.
One Boetticher film, one Fuller film, one Joseph H. Lewis film. But you’ve also got [lesser-known directors, like] Nick Grinde, Phil Karlson… again, the project here is to recover the historical specificity of the B-film as a product of the studio era. And I think that having the smaller, more compact group of films… it’s still a big program, of course—but it’s an accessible program, and I think that helps.
There’s a note in the description of Plunder Road (1957), one of my favorite discoveries of the program thus far, about how it pushes against the Production Code Administration guidelines by depicting the procedures of specific criminal actions. I’m curious your perspective on the relation of the Code to these films, because when I watch even some of the earliest ones, like Island of Doomed Men (1940), there’s not just examples of specific content, but also a generally immoral tenor—front to back—that, in theory at least, censors would’ve object to.
B-films in general were less closely scrutinized than the bigger productions; both by the studios themselves and by the PCA, for the most part. Because these productions were so quick… they weren’t “rubber stamped”, but sometimes they almost seem to have been. Something like Island of Doomed Men—I mean, really! The cruelty to animals, to man, to women; it’s a really sadistic, strange film. And certainly that’s possible in a number of A-films, especially during the postwar period, but we’re talking 1940… I have to say, The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935), too; that’s an early film, 1935, right around the time the code was first being enforced. And that is a film that is also pushing a lot of boundaries.
I’ve always had the sense that there’s an unusually inhumane quality to “the B-film” that is not really apparent in the A-films of the same period. And this is probably totally disproven if I were to dig into it, but I’ve always suspected old Hollywood A-films were more prone to presenting critiques that were based on character types and personas, whereas B-films of the same period were more likely to contain some kind of critique, either in text or subtext, based upon deeper systemic circumstances.
Well, I would point to an A-film like Kings Row (1942), which really is one of the darkest visions of humanity… it’s completely savage, devastating, and leaves you with the bleakest view of human nature. So I feel like there is quite a bit of that as well in the A-films, like in the combat films of the period, or in films like Out of the Past (1947), and Double Indemnity (1944), that are sometimes now called B-noir but were certainly not B-films.
But to answer the question you ask: I think a number of B-films were able to skirt around the production code. Joseph H. Lewis spoke with glee about the ways that a film like The Big Combo (1955) [did so], which was later, in the 1950s, but… there was a kind of one-upmanship, and a kind of game being played, and that was true of the production code from the very beginning. There was a sense in which its limits were always being tested. And they’d be tested, most often, in racy comedies or in crime films, [genres] like that.
Getting back to the question about the origins of the series, there were a number of inspirations. One was my earlier study of Hollywood films about investigative law enforcement, as well as my general interest in film noir, which of course also dates back many years now. But it was also receiving an important collection here at the Harvard Film Archive, from a collector named Erik Spilker, which included a great number of films that are in this series. And he’d even categorized them; as “A-films,” “B-films,” “nervous A’s”…
I don’t think I’ve ever heard that phrase—a “nervous A.”
That’d be films that are tottering on the edge. It was a term that was actually used. And it was of use, too, because it was in fact possible for a B-film to be elevated into an A-film [in terms of distribution strategy], and for an A-film to be demoted to the status of a B-film, and sometimes even be reedited in the process. So that collection was yet another inspiration—suddenly realizing, oh, this actually would be possible. Because one of the great difficulties is just being able to find a print of, for example, Thunderhoof, something like that. In that case we were lucky, we started with a 16mm print, and then we found a 35mm print via the BFI.
That does bring us to the next subject I wanted to speak about, which is the matter of film preservation as it relates to this repertory program. I’m curious on one level if there are films that you included in the program because it was impossible to see them otherwise; I’m curious if there are films that you wanted to include in the program but couldn’t because no exhibitable materials are currently available; and finally, on a more general level, I’m curious on a general level about how preservation has played into your curation of this program.
There were a number of films that we wanted to include but couldn’t, either because we couldn’t find prints, or in one case, because we found a print that we couldn’t use because it may be the only print left in existence. That was a film by director Stuart Heisler, called The Biscuit Eater (1940), which is a story about two boys in the south, one African American and one white, and their love of a dog. That was such a success that it was indeed elevated into an A-film; it’s totally underappreciated, unknown, it’s a really important film. And it’s also a reminder of the importance of the B-film within the Southern market. There were quite a number of films that were made in this period that tell local or regional stories…
Which is another strand of this lineage that also extends into the exploitation/grindhouse era, with the films that have come to be known as “hicksploitation.”
Absolutely. So yes, there were films that we couldn’t screen. And there were a number of films that we need to… there’s a film print that we just discovered in the same collection, that could be the best known copy of Trapped (1949), by Richard Fleischer, and UCLA used the [materials] for preservation… and I’ve got to say, Sh! The Octopus, it’s just crazy, [rightsholder] Warner Bros. does not have a print of that film. We had to borrow that print from the library at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. So this series also points to a dire need for preservation for a number of key films. There’s still great work to be done.
I’ve very much appreciated this series’ presentation of the B-film as an art-historical movement, and it’s certainly had an influence on the way I think about film in general. On that note, I think we can easily find surface reflections of specific B-film hallmarks in other American narrative commercial art of the period—detective fiction is probably the most obvious example, but there’s others, including radio serials. Do you feel like the B-film, as represented by the program, is representative of something that was “in the water”, and reflective of some larger thing coursing throughout American culture during the given timeline?
Absolutely, I think radio serials for sure, and I think as they start to emerge, comic books for sure. And, certainly, what’s called “pulp literature”. If you look at something like Captive Wild Woman (1943), that’s very much in dialogue with fantasy, “exotica”…
Along these lines, I’m very excited to see the Corman film listed in the program, Teenage Doll (1957), specifically because your description cites MAD Magazine…
Unfortunately the Corman film was the one that got away. We may be able to show that later, but we weren’t able to screen it. At the Viennale, we switched it with The Burglar (1957), by Paul Wendkos.
Which, to the point of the question, is based on one of my favorite pulp novels of the period, by David Goodis.
That’s a beautiful film. So yes, there’s a kind of hybridization of genres… like science-fiction, especially, the “mad doctor” films, those were certainly part of a larger pulp imagination.
Another historical film cycle represented by the program, and one that I’m almost completely ignorant about, is the series of genre films made in the ’30s and ’40s featuring Asian American actors. Which is represented by two films still yet to play, Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and Phantom of Chinatown (1941, which play together in a double feature on 11.22 at 9pm). Could you tell us a bit about that group of films?
The B-film was also, as I’ve said, a space for experimentation and a testing ground of sorts. There were many films made with a certain specific audience in mind, and within that a number of films ostensibly made for Asian Americans as a targeted audience. I think it’s a lesser-studied group, but among them are some films we can say are really quite progressive in terms of how they deal with race. Phantom of Chinatown is an extraordinary film in that sense. It begins with ethnographic footage from an archeological expedition [being shown in a classroom], and everybody starts laughing, but then the speaker admonishes the audience, saying you laugh because you do not understand. And that sets the stage for what’s to come, which is that—I’m not giving much away, because this all happens in the first three minutes—the archeologist is killed, and then one of his apprentices, who is Asian American, takes over, and leads this voyage through Chinatown. And the film is all about changing the lens, the perspective.
And then of course Anna May Wong, who is one of the great Asian American actors, period. Though she’s best known for her role in Shanghai Express (1932), she was also in a number of B-films, such as Bombs Over Burma (1942) by Joseph H. Lewis, and the film that gave her one of her best roles, Daughter of Shanghai, by the great Robert Florey. I’ve pitched an idea for a Robert Florey retrospective, maybe in a couple years we’ll see that; he’s someone else for whom you could put together a really fantastic program, with say about 15 films. We have two of his films in this program, but we easily could’ve had more. Daughter of Shanghai was preserved by the Library of Congress, so we’re playing a beautiful 35mm print; Phantom of Chinatown is very hard to see, and we’ll be playing a great 16mm print from the archive’s collection.
In Phantom of Chinatown, there are these aspects of comedy which take on tropes and stereotypes of “Chinatown”, and lines of dialogue where… you have this figure of the Asian-American detective, who speaks with a strong American accent, but he’s able to suddenly pivot and act like a stereotype of a Chinese man, and say things like honorable father, or may you have many sons, things like that.
Exactly, and he does it with this comedic spin… the film has a lightness of touch that defuses these tropes with gentle humor, and I think it’s really quite profound.
The sub-subgenre of screwball-era detective comedies is one that’s been very important to me lately, so I’m of course very excited to see that.
And there’s a lot more, too, that we could have shown. The Boston Blackie films, the Torchy Blane series (1937-39), the list goes on, and there’s some really fantastic movies among them.
We’ve spoken about how there are reflections of past programming in “The B-Film,” and it seems certain that it will have some ripple effect on future programming, or even lead to expansions or follow-ups of some kind. A program of films by Robert Florey, it seems, may be one example. Are there other threads or ideas within this program that you’d like to explore further?
I would love to. We’re showing Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1944), which is an example of a series of films, a short cycle, about the housing crisis of the time. I think it would be great to do a small program of those films. There are a number of cycles like that [represented within “The B-Film”] where I think we could do a focused program of them, and show more. And then there are a number of filmmakers who would be great to focus on. I’ve always wanted to do a program of films by Joseph H. Lewis… Even though some of his films, like the Bowery Boys ones, maybe aren’t so good, it would still be a lot of fun.
There are some people who’ve even said, you should do a “Part 2” …
Like for exploitation films, a later timeline?
Or even just going through these same years differently.
Oh, like a Rosenbaum-esque approach, “the alternate 50.”
Exactly, and at some point down the road, maybe. Something like that is fun to imagine. I’ve really enjoyed bringing the program here, and there’s talk of it going elsewhere—and in those cases, maybe we’ll even add something else to it.
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.