Roger Corman Was One of the Most Influential Figures in Movie History

A quick question: Do you like The Godfather? How about Goodfellas? Or Gremlins? Or Stop Making Sense, Avatar, Apollo 13, Chinatown, Easy Rider, Paper Moon, Lone Star, or roughly 90 percent of any movies featuring monsters terrorizing pretty ladies from the last 50 years?

You have, in so many ways, Roger Corman to thank for all of them. A producer, director and writer who became a patron saint to an entire generation of filmmakers, the “King of the Bs” either gave the artists behind those movies their start or helped give them a leg up in the industry at a crucial moment. Corman never met a trend he couldn’t exploit, never encountered a script that couldn’t be vastly improved with the inclusion of gratuitously bare breasts (assuming there was an actual script involved), never made one film when there was a chance to make three films out of the same raw materials. He was an old-fashioned Hollywood opportunist who midwifed the now-romanticized New Hollywood era into being. And, inarguably, the man responsible for The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent was one of the single most influential figures in the entire history of cinema.

Corman, who died on May 9th at the age of 98, knew that he’d be remembered more for the careers he aided than for his own work behind the camera, and like so many proud father figures, the majordomo of drive-in movies loved to talk up the work of his kids. The list still reads like a roll call at the Great American Filmmakers Pantheon: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles, Robert Towne, Ron Howard.

These young, hungry auteur-wannabes and a lot more became graduates of the “Roger Corman School of Filmmaking,” which didn’t come with diplomas but did offer a mutually beneficial proposition. They needed experience. He needed people willing to work for nothing, in order to churn out an endless line of horror flicks, biker movies, beach comedies, women-in-prison dramas, and whatever else was popular at the time. The fact that they’d eventually graduate to bigger, better, less pulpy and more prestigious projects was always a given. Both Corman and Howard would constantly trot out an anecdote about the latter being on the set of his directorial debut, a 1977 car-chase gem called Grand Theft Auto. “Do a good job on this picture,” he told the Artist Formerly Known as Opie Taylor, “and you’ll never have to work for me again.”

Yet to simply write Corman off as just another huckster or hack, bilking young talent for a quick buck, is to severely underestimate his smarts, his professional savvy, his love of films and his love of filmmakers. He and his brother, and later business partner, Gene Corman grew up watching a million and one Saturday matinees. When Roger graduated from Stanford, he was on the fast track to becoming an engineer. One pivot from Northern California to Southern California later, he wound up working in the mailroom at 20th Century Fox, where he helped shepherd a Gregory Peck western — The Gunfighter (1950) — into existence and watched his boss take all the credit. A valuable lesson was learned.

After an aborted tenure as a student at Oxford and a Lost Generation-style stab at ex-pat Parisian living, Corman returned home, set up shop right off the Sunset Strip and began making movies characterized by being fast, cheap and narratively out-of-control, not usually in that order. Long before independent filmmaking became a maverick philosophy and a marketing brand, Corman was walking the walk. And while he specialized in appealing to the prurient interests of moviegoers, designed to make an immediate return on their low-to-no budgets, he had more than just a knack for knowing which way the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s exploitation-cinema winds blowing. Watch his eight-film cycle of Gothic horror movies based on Edgar Allan Poe stories, starting with 1960’s The Fall of the House of Usher and ending with Tomb of Ligeia (1964) — and peaking with his penultimate entry, The Masque of Red Death, made that same year — and you can usually find the perfect melding of highbrow and lowbrow, literary and licentious, the stylishly macabre and the magnificently chintzy. The gent had a great eye, and not just for talent.

Corman made those Poe movies for American International Pictures, a film production company that sounds like it was named by a child trying to come up with an adult-sounding business title. Cofounded by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, it specialized in pumping out “disposable” entertainment for the youth market and became the ideal place for Corman to flex his creative and commerce-friendly muscles. It also doubled as a proving ground for up-and-coming film obsessives looking to make their mark. A great example of the producer’s waste-not-want-not sensibility and his nurturing of future cineastes is The Terror (1963). While filming The Raven, Corman realized he had the sets for that Poe adaptation for a few more days. He asked Charles B. Griffith to quickly come up with a script featuring scenes for star Boris Karloff and a castle — if he could include some sort of story, great, but if not, no worries. Also, don’t tell the A.I.P. brass. Corman would release this on his own.

They shot Karloff’s scenes on the sly the weekend before the sets would be torn down, then sat on the footage. A few months later, Corman had a film student named Francis Ford Coppola, who he’d hired to work on some other projects, shoot more footage in Big Sur with a crew made out of fellow UCLA attendees and a young actor who the producer took a liking to, Jack Nicholson. Several other directors, including future Reservoir Dogs producer Monte Hellman and Blaxpolitation legend Jack Hill, called the shots on extra sequences. The end product would be released on a double bill with Dementia 13 — Coppola’s proper feature debut, which he shot using extra sets in Ireland on a Corman production, at his mentor’s behest. When Karloff asked to be paid, Corman countered by saying he needed the former Frankenstein actor to do a few days work on another picture first. That would be Targets, the movie that helped establish Peter Bogdanovich as filmmaker. The story involved a Karloff-type star promoting his new picture. The movie within the movie: The Terror.

These types of stories were legion, whether Corman was working for American International Pictures or making films for his later company New World Pictures, which distributed foreign-language arthouse staples by Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini when it wasn’t filling market demands for women-in-prison and student-nurse movies. He enlisted Martin Scorsese to direct a picture for A.I.P. called Boxcar Bertha, one of several that took advantage of Bonnie and Clyde‘s hot-young-’30s-gangsters formula. (Legend has it that John Cassavetes told the kid it was a piece of shit, and he should do something more personal. The result was Mean Streets.) Jonathan Demme cut his teeth on the Corman-produced Caged Heat, and continually gave the elder statesman of schlock cinema cameos in his films. In an attempt to rip-off Jaws — itself a slightly fancier version of a Corman movie — he ordered Pirahna into production. John Sayles wrote the script, Joe Dante directed it, and when it came time to do a sequel, a special-effects artist who’d worked on several Corman productions took as director when the original bowed out. It would be the first time that James Cameron got the chance to call “Action!”


In his later years, Corman witnessed these whippersnappers win Oscars and drop his name repeatedly, citing him as the reason they’ve had the careers they’ve had. He saw his methods of filmmaking, distribution, and Ballyhoo 2.0 marketing — his brother Gene said that they lived by the notion of: Who needs stars when you’ve got a great, salacious poster?! — be put to incredible use. He treated the last few decades of his life as a victory lap, loving his position as the Dean of a film school of hard knocks. His memoir, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, is required reading for film geeks. Corman even got to see some of his own directorial work hailed as classics, as well as a black-and-white cheapie he did called Little Shop of Horrors get turned into a Broadway musical.

In Alex Stapleton’s 2011 doc Corman’s World, a who’s-who of American moviemakers sing his praises and the man of the hour waxes poetic about his prolific career. But the most telling scene comes near the end, after Corman has received an honorary Oscar, and his various professional offspring (along with Quentin Tarantino) pose for a picture. Then Jack Nicholson, who’s been a talking head throughout the documentary, attests to Corman being a “my main connect…my life blood” at a crucial point in his life. Then Jack, Mr. Avatar of ’70s Cool in his sunglasses, chokes up. He begins to cry as he talks about how much he loves Roger. Not, “I owe him,” but “I love him.” Nicholson eventually becomes so overcome with emotion that he can’t continue, and apologizes. Watching that scene a dozen or so years ago, it was possible to appreciate seeing one legend tear up over another from a remove. When the news of Corman’s passing began to spread through the trades and social media last night, however, a lot of us knew exactly how Nicholson felt.

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