The Battle for the Bs: 1950s Hollywood and the Rebirth of Low-Budget Cinema

The Battle for the Bs: 1950s Hollywood and the Rebirth of Low-Budget Cinema

The Battle for the Bs: 1950s Hollywood and the Rebirth of Low-Budget Cinema

The Battle for the Bs: 1950s Hollywood and the Rebirth of Low-Budget Cinema


The emergence of the double-bill in the 1930s created a divide between A-pictures and B-pictures as theaters typically screened packages featuring one of each. With the former considered more prestigious because of their larger budgets and more popular actors, the lower-budgeted Bs served largely as a support mechanism to A-films of the major studios--most of which also owned the theater chains in which movies were shown. When a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court antitrust ruling severed ownership of theaters from the studios, the B-movie soon became a different entity in the wake of profound changes to the corporate organization and production methods of the major Hollywood studios.

In The Battle for the Bs, Blair Davis analyzes how B-films were produced, distributed, and exhibited in the 1950s and demonstrates the possibilities that existed for low-budget filmmaking at a time when many in Hollywood had abandoned the Bs. Made by newly formed independent companies, 1950s B-movies took advantage of changing demographic patterns to fashion innovative marketing approaches. They established such genre cycles as science fiction and teen-oriented films (think Destination Moon and I Was a Teenage Werewolf) well before the major studios and also contributed to the emergence of the movement now known as underground cinema. Although frequently proving to be multimillion-dollar box-office draws by the end of the decade, the Bs existed in opposition to the cinematic mainstream in the 1950s and created a legacy that was passed on to independent filmmakers in the decades to come.


B-movies are frequently labeled as simply being “bad” films, both historically within the film industry and by many modern critics and fans. What this overlooks is how vital B-films have been overall to cinema, particularly from a business perspective. Despite often being ridiculed or dismissed as inconsequential trash, Bs were important commercial entities, not only in how they allowed the major Hollywood studios to solidify their control over the marketplace in the 1930s and 1940s as the double bill emerged, but also in how they allowed 1950s independent filmmakers to change the very way in which low-budget filmmaking was understood.

Many film historians see the B-movie as a product of 1930s/1940s Hollywood, where the sometimes meager yet generally reliable profits generated from the Bs served as a support mechanism to the larger-budgeted A-films of the major studios. Yet low-budget filmmaking endured even after the double-bill format that necessitated B-filmmaking in the first place waned in the 1950s. Indeed, with many producers, directors, studio executives, and journalists still regularly using the term “B-movie” throughout this decade, it can be seen how the Bs did not simply die out in the 1950s—instead, they evolved. In the process, low-budget filmmaking secured a new role within the film industry, one that was no longer purely secondary but instead often innovative.

Originating as a largely subordinate and supportive entity to the Hollywood A-film, B-movies were made with the intent of generating predictable profit margins from modestly budgeted films that satisfied a marketplace need for increased quantities of cinematic entertainment. While B-movies stem from a system of distribution choices that typically placed them in exhibition contexts limiting their earning potential in prior decades (although there were often exceptions), the Bs pioneered new methods in the 1950s by which . . .

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