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The name Roger Corman is burned into the consciousness of Hollywood. The movie outsider who beat Tinseltown at its own game is a pioneer and a true original. Educated in engineering and English lit, Corman worked as a studio reader but almost immediately rejected the idea of crawling his way up the beanstalk of the obsolete studio system. He instead apprenticed on a couple of films and then set out to make a picture on his own. Forget 'artistic vision': Corman gambled somewhere between 12 and 25 thousand dollars -- enough to buy a respectable house in 1953 -- that he could make a commercially viable product and turn a profit. Monster from the Ocean Floor garnered a release through the cheapo Lippert outfit, and Corman was launched.
Making exploitable thrillers for absurdly little money, Roger Corman became the most successful and admired seat-of-the-pants director-producer in Los Angeles. He found plenty of help in highly motivated Hollywood fringe dwellers aching for a path around the studio's closed shops. Even when his films were absurdly under-produced, they were always interesting and often quite intelligent. Corman exploited trends -- westerns with female gunslingers, monster movies, teen rebellion epics -- and eventually got the chance to create some trends of his own. A perfectly timed Edgar Allan Poe series earned him respectability as well as bigger budgets. He pioneered drug oriented films and biker epics. And when his home distributor American-International interfered once too often with his work, he backed off from directing and started his own highly successful distribution company.
Three years ago Corman was given an Honorary Award by the Academy "for his rich engendering of films and filmmakers". The award, and Corman's present revered position in the business, is really due to the long list of industry talent that "graduated" from his production company. Although Corman paid little or nothing and made the toughest deals in town, he was known for being scrupulously honest and above board in all of his dealings -- in exchange for labor, he gave opportunities to beginners in a business that offered precious few. The list is a long one, with a number of truly stellar names -- Nicholson, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Scorsese, Cameron; but fans of Corman films know and love most every eccentric actor, soulful actress and frustrated genius he ever put in front of or behind a film camera in the '50s and '60s.
Alex Stapleton's docu celebration of the crazy Corman legacy Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel tells Roger's story through interviews with personalities who associated with him early in their careers. As such it can be uncritical, but never abusive to the truth. Plenty of actors who showed up regularly in Corman productions saw little exposure elsewhere. But it can be said that he was as faithful to his collaborators as any successful Hollywood producer. He encouraged Jack Nicholson to keep acting despite frequently unimpressive results. Members of his unofficial acting stock company were often aspiring writers taking any kind of work they could get -- Nicholson was one. And even if his early movies weren't big shows, they got wide releases. Corman offered attractive showcases for a fantastic spectrum of young actresses: Joan Taylor, Lori Nelson, Peggie Castle, Beverly Garland, Allison Hayes, Lisa Montell, Susan Cabot, Abby Dalton, Pamela Duncan, June Kenney, Fay Spain, Ziva Rodann, Barboura Morris, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Sally Todd -- all the dream girls of '50s exploitation pix.
The docu misses the boat by not canonizing the full roster of Corman lieutenants in these golden days: Charles B. Griffith, Jonathan Haze and Dick Miller. But those dream years of near-backyard productions with Crab Monsters, Cry Baby Killers and Buckets of Blood are covered well enough, if not in the detail that Corman fanatics would like. What is emphasized is Corman's enthusiasm, speed and obsessive attitude toward money, mainly spending as little as humanly possible.
Corman's World has much more to say about later decades, when Roger's filmmaking spread out overseas and graduated to Panavision and color. Francis Coppola got to direct a horror picture for Roger (Dementia 13) on money 'left over' from a shoot in Ireland. Film critic Peter Bogdanovich joined Corman's stable of aspiring 'house' directors (Nicholson, Jack Hill, Coppola, Monte Hellman), re-cut a Russian space film and helped Corman ride herd on real Hell's Angels for The Wild Angels.. We hear anecdotal stories as these men reminisce about their wild times with the unpredictable producer-director. Bruce Dern and others marvel at Corman's unusual personality. Although he fit most people's definition of a square's square -- stills from the set show the man dressed as if ready for a day of golfing -- Corman was a voracious reader and an early experimenter with LSD.
If the docu proves anything, it's that Roger Corman was incredibly adaptable. Many Hollywood types find a commercial groove, fail to diversify and ride it into the ground. Corman quickly outpaced American-International when the rating system came in and films in general became more daringly adult. A.I.P. had difficulties functioning in a non-family environment. When its owners took it upon themselves to alter his films, Roger started New World Pictures, which produced and distributed R-rated "exploitationers". He pioneered "Women in Prison" films, soft-core "Stewardess" and "Nurses" series, along with oddball gangster films (with nudity) and sadistic demolition derby pictures (with nudity). He also distributed classy art fare by Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. Why would those giants deal with New World? Corman promoted the European films properly and gave them a fair count, that's why.
The producers of Corman's World cornered Jack Nicholson for an interview, sunglasses and all. Jack starts off being his flip self but is soon testifying to how Corman believed in him and kept rolling the dice with him, until the magic lightning struck. The last thing we expect from Nicholson is a tearful emotional display, but that's what his interview comes to, and it looks genuine enough to these eyes.
These years saw talent like Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Jon Davison, Monte Hellman, Lewis Teague, and John Sayles touching base on Corman's doorstep for one or more productions. After watching other distributors muff ad campaigns for his films, Corman took special care with his trailers and TV spots. Enter Allan Arkush and Joe Dante, who parlayed their trailer-cutting skills into directing careers. There was no precedent for this in Hollywood.
Corman's World passes over some important aspects of Corman's career. He can be described as a serious producer of runaway movies. When SAG rules tightened, he took his work out of town. In the earlier years when the Unions ruled the movie biz, he'd never have been considered for an Oscar. But the docu has a few revelations as well. Corman realized that 1975's Jaws was a blockbuster version of his cut-price thrillers, and was concerned that his days as a producer might be numbered. The whole movie industry was now making "Roger Corman movies" at a price point way beyond New World's reach. He instead followed an old commonsense edict: If you can't beat 'em, copy 'em. Jaws inspired Joe Dante's very lucrative Piranha. Star Wars cued Corman to start his own cheapo-cheapo effects facility. Carpenter James Cameron became an art director and effects supervisor under Corman. Cameron then exploded into a career that in material reward dwarfs just about everything previous in film history.
The docu doesn't dig too deep into Corman's direct-to-video years, which produced hundreds of movies. One would not want the task of picking through them to find ten worthwhile or watchable titles. Quick, name some notable, well-known Corman graduates from those years! But plenty of attention is given his present-day racket making cookie cutter monster shows for the Sci-Fi channel. The docu producers include footage of monsters attacking various Mexican resorts, but they miss a clip that would have expressed Roger's worldview to perfection. In a cameo from one of these shows, Corman watches a sea monster devour a luckless babe in a bikini -- and then calmly recovers the gold coins that she found in the sand. Roger may express a faint regret that he wasn't the kind to gamble big on extravagant productions, but he came out of the fray as rich as most major players. Just as in the film clip, he never walked away from a movie with empty pockets.
Anchor Bay's Blu-ray of Corman's World is a very good encoding of this fast-paced, always-entertaining docu romp through film history's most interesting and prolific independent filmmaker. We see plenty of clips from his movies, including a '50s title or two that I still haven't caught up with. The well-shot HD interviews allow us to put faces with many names we've known for decades. It's rather shocking to see Joe Dante in 1977 or so, looking like the leanest, most enthusiastic movie-mad editor imaginable. It's also sad to see some favorite heavyweights that have passed on: George Hickenlooper, Irvin Kershner, Polly Platt.
The extras include extended interviews from a number of participants, "special messages to Roger" from old collaborators and a trailer. The cover artwork mixes poster images from '70s New World epics and monsters from his newest cable TV shows about sharks mutated with octopuses, etc. I'd have preferred buxom Allison Hayes and a Crab Monster or two!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Corman's World Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.