Sunday, January 9, 2011

PRC: Monogram's cousin from the country

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Producers Releasing Corporation were latecomers to Poverty Row.
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When Monogram first appeared in the early thirties there were scores of small production outfits specialising in cheap and cheerful genre entertainment, companies like Chesterfield, Grand National and Invincible. But most of these had fallen by the wayside by 1939, when distributor Ben Judell teamed up with producer Sigmund Neufeld and his director brother Sam Newfield to form Producers Pictures Corporation (PPC) and Producers Distributing Company (PDC). Their first film was the interesting, and interestingly early, anti-Nazi film Hitler: Beast of Berlin (1939).
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Their second sounds like a tempting foretaste of the company's horror future: Torture Ship (1939), directed by Victor Halperin, one half of the maverick brothers that made White Zombie and Supernatural. But Torture Ship, sadly, lives up neither to its name nor Halperin's reputation, being basically a thriller, with little horror and less torture, always assuming that the 49 minute print I've seen is a fair representation of the original release. (It's a version issued to tv in the fifties to fill a sixty-minute slot, from which the enterprising distributor has simply lopped off the opening reel. Frank Capra once claimed he turned Lost Horizon from a dud into a hit by doing the same, and counselled other filmmakers to try it, but the only effect here is to make the film more or less impossible to make any sense of.)
Basically we have a mad medico who has chartered a yacht as a means of obtaining the privacy he needs to experiment on kidnapped criminals, to support his contention that either criminality has something to do with endocrine injections, or endocrine injections have something to do with criminality, or both.
The cast is a Poverty Row all-star bill: Lyle Talbot is the hero, Irving Pichel is the doc, Skelton Knaggs is on board, and Jacqueline Wells and Sheila Bromley are the gals. Wells had appeared with Laurel & Hardy and Karloff & Lugosi; Bromley is beloved by all Marx Brothers fans as the girl whose entire appearance in Horse Feathers consists of entering Groucho's office and delivering the two most thankless pun-enabling feed lines in comedy history.
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Five more films followed but the big time kept its distance and by 1940 PPC was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was then that it was renamed PRC and sold to Pathe, who appointed a new President for the company but retained the Neufelds.
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And so the golden age of PRC began.
Like Monogram, most of their movies were westerns: in their banner year of 1944 (when Leon Fromkess, one-time treasurer of Monogram, became their second president), the company were boasting of a production schedule encompassing "24 features, 16 westerns". But their line-up included most other kinds of movies too:
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PRC knows why girls leave home
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Yes, that is the Blake Edwards in the cast - and Laurel and Hardy villain Charles Middleton as the ghostly strangler (who looks nothing like this illustration!)
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A cozy murder! A mad romance! It's gay and ghoulish! I don't know about you but I'm sold
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Eight top-hatted dwarves jostle for the best vantage point from which to contemplate Mary Beth Hughes
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By 1948, the company was again looking like a spent force: it was bought out by Eagle Lion and ceased to exist as an independent production outfit.
In its various forms, PRC had existed for less than a decade. Yet in that short time, it produced a disproportionate number of horror quickies that amply reward exhumation and examination.
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We shall begin our journey by returning to the dawn of PRC proper: the year 1940, and the unleashing of one of the most loved and enduring Poverty Row horrors ever made: The Devil Bat...

6 comments:

Mykal said...

Matthew: I've never seen Torture Ship, but I have a fondness for Lyle Talbot. Was it at least set onboard a ship? Lord, that photo of PRC speaks volumes. I hosted a film series once of Poverty Row films at the library where I work. I began the series by showing an arial shot of the acres of Universal Studios of the 1940s and a corresponding shot of the building where Monogram was housed. I heard gasps when the Monogram shot popped on the screen.

Enjoying the hell out of these posts, my friend. Hope you extend it a bit into Feb.

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks again, Mykal. Yes, it's looking like we'll be drifting into February with the Zucco marathon...
I love the sound of this film series you hosted. How did it go over? What films did you show?

Mykal said...

Mattew: I wold say the numbers of attandance were small (but very enthusiastic). I did seven films: White Zombie, Detour, Strange Woman, Blonde Ice, Devil Bat, and Bad Blonde (from Hammer!).

Matthew Coniam said...

Sounds fantastic! I don't know Blonde Ice and I'm off now to look it up!

Mykal said...

Matthew: You must get it; and you must let me know what you think. Here's a link on Amazon. Once there, you can read a half-baked review I did a while back. My Amazon name is M.Dog (don't ask) Blonde IceI thought it fantastic - great performances. If you have trouble locating it there on the Emerald Isle, let me know.

Grendel said...

Great stuff, looking forward to your posts on some of my faves from that era - The Flying Serpent, The Monster Maker and Strangler of the Swamp.