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Roger Corman (1926-2024)

One of the real giants of the motion picture industry passed away in May at the age of 98. Yet, for most of his career, the industry looked down on him as a guy who cranked out cheaply made movies that primaritly played at drive-in theaters.

Roger Corman broke into the movie business in 1948 as a mail room messenger boy at Paramount Pictures. After years of bouncing around in various jobs, including some time spent living in Paris, Corman sold his first script in 1954 for a low-budget film called Highway Dragnet.

Corman took the money he made from his script and found some other money from show biz contacts he’d made and financed his first directorial effort, Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954). Made on a budget of just $12,000, the film turned a profit, so he was allowed to produce a second film, The Fast and the Furious (1955). Yes, this little hot rod epic did inspire the multi-million dollar, multi-sequel franchise of today.

Corman’s second film was distributed by a low-rent outfit called American Releasing Company. They liked Corman’s product and were happy to advance him money to make other films. Corman quickly established himself as a producer/director who could bring films in on time and under budget.

Along the way, American Releasing Company changed its name to American-International Pictures, cranking out pictures to feed the boom in drive-in theaters that were springing up all over the United States. Corman divided his time between grinding out pictures for AIP and Allied Artists, another Poverty Row distributor. He worked in all the genres that were big at the drive-ns, Westerns, science-fiction, horror, and gangster pics. In fact, it was his Machine Gun Kelly (1958) that got him his first positive reviews (and gave Charles Bronson his first starring role). That same year, his The Cry Baby Killer gave Jack Nicholson his first lead.

Corman had a reputation for completing films quickly. His best-known movie, Little Shop of Horrors (1960), was shot in just two days. Reportedly, Corman wanted to see if it was actually possible to complete a feature film that quickly.

As he moved through the sixties, Corman became very well-known for a series of 8 pictures he made based on the works (or at least the titles) of Edgar Allen Poe. These included The Raven, Masque of the Red Death, and House of Usher.

From the seventies through the eighties, Corman concentrated on producing more than directing but continued to crank out films that have become cult classics like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Grand Theft Auto, Boxcar Bertha, and Death Race 2000.

Corman’s influence goes way beyond his filmography. He gave starts to directors Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, and James Cameron. Acting graduates of his drive-in pics include Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, and Diane Ladd.

And it doesn’t stop there. As a distributor, Corman brought to American screens the films of Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, and Akira Kurosawa.

We are unlikely to see his like again. But if you’d like to salute this great American filmmaker by watching one of his cinema classics tonight, here’s just a partial list of his films not already mentioned in this post:

  • The St. Valentine’s Massacre
  • Tales of Terror
  • X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes
  • Buckets of Blood
  • I, Mobster
  • The Wild Angels
  • The Wasp Women
  • The Trip
  • Bloody Mama

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