Roger Corman had only one financial failure: “The Intruder,” a social issue film featuring of all people: William Shatner. Corman remains proud to this day of that early Sixties attempt at moral illumination and feels that it’s his best, most meaningful work. Shot in the tumultuous South, it concerned race and the citizens down there weren’t too happy once they caught on to as to what the film was actually about. He took a bold chance, withstood an increasingly hostile environment in that testy terrain south of the Mason-Dixon line yet, it was the only movie where it didn‘t prove a fiscal satisfaction. Bless his risk-taking heart, but Corman never went that route again and fell right back into the pattern of successful returns that he‘s most famous for.
A cinematic hero to so many, Corman had a winning formula: keep the budgets low-to-the-ground and the concepts high-to-the-sky. Westerns, rock ‘n roll, monsters, counter-culture all fit the bill. Add to that: sea monsters, biker gangs and acid freak-outs with a touch of gun-toting molls, juvenile delinquency, scantily-clad vixens, cars crashing and blowing up whatever he could get his hands on, on the cheap. He’s a template for maverick low-budget enterprise, a hero to those in the trenches of lo-fi filmmaking looking to crawl out and onto the larger battlefields of sustained success. Welcome to the wonderful world of Roger Corman.
Not only did Corman glom onto the current trends of the time, he also created them whether in the role of director or producer. He rode the wave of “Jaws” with “Piranha” and conversely his “The Wild Angels” led the way to “Easy Rider.” Corman, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were already in cinematic cahoots so it was successful inbreeding yet, Corman wasn’t affixed to the latter project and consequently never got a piece of that financially delicious pie.
And it was the amazing success of “Easy Rider” that opened the doors of Hollywood to the counter-culture auteurs and they were granted about a three year opportunity before “The Godfather” and shopping mall screens put the drop on that brief “anything goes” run. But it was Corman who continued on his own trajectory because he wasn’t beholden to Tinsel Town directives; it remained his money and consequently his way.
His directorial debut was in 1955 with “Five Guns West” and he also assumed producing duties as well, including that year’s “The Fast and the Furious.” Does that ring a bell? You bet it does, and Vin Diesel has been ringing it ever since.
Additional formative efforts included seeming absurdities such as, “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “The She Gods of Shark Reef,” and “Carnival Rock.” And he churned out the infamous “The Little Shop of Horrors” in a few days – literally. And with the equally infamous, but highly intangible “The Terror” he used the sets of a previous film on the quick when the opportunity presented itself.
He knew his art house films but he also knew the marketplace so, he put two and two together and combined aesthetic vision with fiscal savvy. Even though his earlier films possess a garage movie mentality he upped the aesthetic ante with his half dozen offerings of Edgar Allan Poe interpretations. These were colorful, elegant offerings.
Corman is famous for giving some of the Hollywood royalty their start including Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola (“Dementia 13“), Martin Scorsese (“Boxcar Bertha”) and Peter Bogdanovich (“Targets“).
Jack Nicholson made his screen debut in Roger’s 1958 film “The Cry Baby Killers.” And Nicholson tearfully breaks down as he recalls those formative years when Corman gave him his start, and even got to write some of the scripts himself.
This 2011 documentary by Alex Stapleton also features onscreen appearances by the prestigious likes of Ron Howard, David Carradine, Peter Fonda, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles and Robert DeNiro. They all weigh in with relevance for the man. And Martin Scorsese’s succinctly observes of Corman’s work, “They’re art in another way.”
Corman ultimately formed his own company, New World Pictures, and distributed European art gods such as Fellini, Antonioni and Bergman, including the Swedish master’s “Cries and Whispers.” He also served in various producing capacities on such cultural classics as: Monte Hellman’s “Cockfighter,” “Death Race 2000,” “Jackson County Jail,” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.”
Corman truly seems like a nice guy as he possesses a smooth, even-keeled, everyday demeanor all the while being a steadfast master journeyman who has dutifully plied his craft and stayed within his own budgetary terrain. It appears he was never interested in the bigger leagues of the Hollywood dynasty, he was just fine where he was hitting homeruns on 42nd Street and on rural drive-in screens.
I’ve got a few books on him and those would give any burgeoning filmmaker an advantageous view into the world of hands-on gusto and real-world attitude, playing it smart and having fun while doing it. He’s nobody’s fool and gets while the getting is good, locking onto the current trends, if not creating them with blatantly exploitative offshoot content and titles. Buy hey, he’s an exploitation filmmaker. And that’s what he’s best at, reading the marketplace climate like one does the ease of a cheap dime-store novel. He’s got his finger firmly placed on the pulse of what works and he’s successfully kept it there throughout his career.
Check out one of those books, his autobiography, “How I Made a Hundred Movies In Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime” and get it straight from the horse’s mouth. And Corman, even though he’s in his eighties, is still on set, clipboard in hand and astutely at it.
Combining cinematic imagination and a smart business sense, Corman created a virtually unerring track record of filmic success. And most importantly, his films hold their richest value in the light of retrospect, providing for a rich tapestry of America’s below-the-radar terrain and the cinematic excesses of the time.