On the occasion of Film Forum’s three-week B-musical fest, featuring 49 rarely seen song-and-dancers from the ’30s to the ’50s, a panel of pundits convened for a roundtable chat about, among other topics, what defines a B, why movies are better short, and Marilyn Monroe’s nose job. Pulling up chairs to the table with moderator Elliott Stein were retro programmer Bruce Goldstein, film historian Eric Spilker, Donnell Media Center programmer Joe Yranski, and Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers, co-authors of Forties Screen Style and Screen Deco. All but Myers served as advisers on the series.
Stein: It seems to me there’s a difference of temporality between A and B movies. In A movies, you see established stars of the present. But in a B picture you have both people on their way up and on their way down, and it’s fascinating in the context of film history. Look at a picture like Give Out, Sisters. You have Donald O’Connor, not even mentioned in the credits, dancing like mad with Peggy Ryan with whom he would soon team. And in less than 10 years he’d star in one of the greatest A musicals ever made, Singin’ in the Rain. But Sisters was directed by Eddie Cline, who was on the way out. He directed terrific Buster Keaton pictures and wonderful W.C. Fields comedies and had a whole history of cinema behind him. So you have the past and the future colliding in one little low-budget movie. That’s part of the fascination of these pictures.
Yranski: For me, nostalgia is a great appeal. I grew up in the ’50s when a lot of these pictures were on TV. But more than nostalgia is being able to see a lot of great performers in lesser efforts. I was enraptured with Judy Canova. Here you have a classically trained musician who was in vaudeville and decided that rather than being the small comic relief in A pictures, she’d be a big fish in a little pond and signed with Republic, not a major studio, and went on to make some marvelous films. In particular, Hit the Hay, where she sings opera straight, then parodies it.
Myers: I think she’s going to be the revelation of the series. Her films haven’t been on TV for 40 years. She’s wonderfully funny, a unique talent. How often do you get to see a hillbilly star belting out opera?
Goldstein: The thing about Judy Canova that appealed to me was, did she ever get a run in Manhattan in her heyday? A lot of these pictures never hit the Broadway theaters. Also, one of the great things about the B musicals is that they’re 60 to 65 minutes, the perfect running time. Filmmakers today could learn a lot from that. . . . When I first had the idea for the series, I told Howard and we got into a heated debate about what really is a B. One indicator certainly is running time.
Stein: There’s also the concept of the “nervous A.” It’s like bisexuals—movies that could swing both ways. There were B movies with some special qualities, so that with a real solid A they would be the second feature, but with a weak A or a B, they could be top-billed.
Myers: In these films you often get some performers who didn’t make any other movies. Belle Baker, for instance. Another bonus in the series is that in
Ladies of the Chorus you’ll see Marilyn Monroe with her old nose.
Stein: I didn’t know she had a nose job.
Mandelbaum: She had the tip removed . . .
Yranski: I’m so glad you brought up Belle Baker. This film is
Song of Love. Baker sings better than Sophie Tucker. On film, she’s a better comedian than Fanny Brice. In her big routine, a nightclub audition piece, she sings the same song in three different dialects—in Italian, in Yiddish, in Scots English. She’s one of those talents who only made one or two movies, then went to England, came back and was totally forgotten. It’s a great film.
Goldstein: I’d like to make a point about black performers. There weren’t very many opportunities for them other than appearing in specialty numbers in movies. Duke Ellington and Count Basie—two of the greatest treasures our country ever produced—their only film work is these B pictures.
Spilker: You know, as somebody moved on from B’s to A’s, they disowned the B’s. I met Eddie Bracken once and mentioned Sweater Girl—that’s in the show. “Oh, that’s nothing but a B,” he said. But these were great films.
Mandelbaum: I made Nancy Coleman cry. I used the phrase “B movie.” It’s true she was drunk, but with the words “B movie” she started to cry.
Goldstein: The public didn’t care. The public loved you.