Michel Sargent, contributor
The crappy lower-tier film studios of the late 1920’s through 1950’s had so little money to make films that the slanged descriptive “Poverty Row” became popular nomenclature. This is generally where Hollywood hoisted the mass amounts of white dominance westerns, film noir, bad comedies, and serials upon mostly brainless filmgoers (I make an exception for film noir fans). The guys tended to be super proud, stubborn misogynists. The gals were generally submissive, almost oedipal, and usually showed more street smarts than the “highly intelligent” men. Stylistically, the films made up for the impoverished budgets with strange twists on storytelling, clever photographic effects, and film noir’s use of high-contrast lighting (tip hats to German Expressionism). Poverty Row is also where some select few upstarts were born and the has-beens went to die. Here’s a small sampling:
An egomaniac archaeologist captures and taunts a cool cheap-looking Quetzalcoatl and threatens to unleash The Flying Serpent (1946) on mankind. This doctor’s mad scheme involves leaving clues to the existence of the serpent, then angrily setting the deity against the people solving his clues. This one’s a real “treasure”…
A fisherman unexpectedly nets The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues (1955). He soon thereafter washes ashore with radiation burns, causing a snarky, terrible-acting federal agent from Washington to make the scene even before the police. There’s a bad guy who lurks in trees with a speargun, hilariously non-romantic romance, condescension of women and a PBS children’s TV-quality sea monster costume. Bonus points for the femme fatale turning this into a very strange creature feature film-noir hybrid.
The Monster Maker (1944) is about an egomaniac doctor who can hypnotize people with his eyes, keeps a dog-hating caged man in a cheap gorilla suit, and injects a concert pianist with a hideous, elephant-man-like disease. No, the cool lighting does not make the sexist, domineering men any more interesting. Surprisingly, though, it’s the editing that makes this film really bad.
A strange planet speeding towards Earth sends The Man From Planet X (1951) down to scare and confuse a small village in the Scottish moors. The good doctor tries to help the large, grotesque-faced being, but the bad doctor wants to exploit the alien for sinister reasons. The alien chooses his raygun to turn the populace into voodoo zombies.
My favorite serial of the era is The Phantom Empire (1935) with Gene Autry. A silly, costumed subterranean civilization with rayguns, tall buildings, and robots happens to be located under Radio Ranch, where the singing cowboy and his gang reenact live radio dramas and perform country and western music. Corrupt scientists want the wealth of discovered underground radium, and revolutionaries want to overthrow the evil subterranean Queen. Radio to the rescue! (Yes, your writer is a radio DJ)