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VP19

'B' picture or programmer?

47 posts in this topic

This came to mind the other night, when I was watching Robert Osborne's introduction of the Constance Bennett 1941 film "Law Of The Tropics," and he referred to it as a "B picture." Now, Bob could very well be right -- I'd have to check theater schedules from the time this opened to determine what it was -- but I seriously doubt a star such as Bennett, even with her diminished stature as of 1941, would have been put in a "B picture." Those tended to have low budgets and lesser-named casts (e.g., Lynn Bari, nicknamed "Queen B"). More likely, "Law Of The Tropics" was a "programmer," an A-level picture with a relatively small budget that played theaters for a few days, then moved on. That's an entirely different animal. Perhaps in some markets, "Law Of The Tropics" was on the second half of double bills, but I doubt it was created strictly for the "B picture" trade.

 

I think this point tends to be overlooked when examining movie history, particularly in the late '30s and early '40s. Programmers and "B movies" were not one and the same thing.

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Yeah, you're probably right. The line between programmers and B movies gets blurred over time........

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Really? Why, thank you VP19, I have never heard the term 'programmer picture' before.

 

I can't think of any right now, but I've often wondered about pictures that weren't quite 'B', were really not 'A', but were very, very good, and outside of having the Jim Carrey and Tom Cruise of their day, were a lot more enjoyable than a Kate Hepburn potboiler or a Bette Davis scene chewer upper.

 

Programmer picture. I'll be darned.

 

I don't suppose there is a site that gives more examples of 'B' pictures and 'programmer' pictures?

 

Even better idea - hey TCM, why not give an entire day (not night) to 'B' pictures and another entire day (not night) to 'programmer' pictures?

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Could we classify "programmers" as being short low budget B-type pictures but with major stars, and classify B pictures as being short low budget films with no major stars?

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A cyberbuddy by the name of Rich Wannen once wrote this to define a "B" movie:

 

The designation "B" for a motion picture originated with double bills. Major motion pictures were rented to exhibitors for a percentage of the gross receipts, rather than a flat fee. Two such pictures together would, however, cost an exhibitor most of his cut of the profits, so filmmakers began accommodating double-bill-inclined exhibitors with one feature rented at a flat per day/per week rental fee. Necessarily, like short subjects, which were also flat-fee rentals, the best way for the companies to profit from this rental system was to keep the budget lower and the picture shorter. The plots were simpler and eventually formulary, the actors and talent lower on the pay scales, and standing sets or exteriors and warehoused costumes were the order of the day.

 

Because of the above, these flat-rental films held no candles to the percentage rentals, and the latter assumed the major status on the double bill. In advertising, they were on TOP or, alphabetically, the A-film. The shorter, cheapter second feature therefore became known as the B-film which, together with the "Selected Short Subjects" gave the consumer what appeared to be several "bonuses" or "freebies" for their admission buck.

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There were outfits such as American-International in the 50s who got started by making "B" movies, eventually even providing whole double-bills of two features and providing all necessary ad materials. Allied Artists and United Artists also released a lot of "B" product in the 50s, but by 1960 or so, I'd say that the tide was beginning to turn.

 

No doubt that they were filling in the void left by the decline of big studio "B" production in the 50s.

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Studios announced a number of films for each year, and in the early 1930s, where most theaters changed their lineup every few days, "programmers" were the less prestige projects of the lineup, usually designed to keep production going and to give personnel some work. The double feature concept didn't really take hold until after the Production Code was strictly enforced in mid-1934, though it was more a product of studio economics at the time rather than censorship.

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> {quote:title=willbefree25 wrote:}{quote}Were the series pictures like The Falcon and The Saint and The Lone Wolf 'B' pictures or "programmers"?

They were generally second features, and thus more closely fit the "B" definition; that would also hold true for Blondie, Maisie and the like. About the only series of the time that would get top-tier status were the Nick & Nora films, which had first-class budgets, not to mention A-list leads William Powell and Myrna Loy.

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What?s the difference between low budget films with non-stars and low budget film with stars?

 

Many of the early Bette Davis films were low budget short films with stars.

 

For example, THREE ON A MATCH was a short low budget film with stars. So was it a B or a Programmer?

 

Wasn?t a Programmer a B too?

 

What were Kay Francis films? Bs or Programmers?

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> {quote:title=Hibi wrote:}{quote}They were produced by the B unit at WB though.......

 

Reducing Kay to "B" status probably was yet another Warners tactic of humiliating her to the point where she would choose to end her high-salaried contract with the studio and leave. But as was the case with other methods Warners tried to run down Francis, she wouldn't bite the bait.

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Wow, great question!!! I rarely use the term "programmer" but probably should as it might be more appropriate for some of the films the term is describing, rather than "B" film. But I think over time, and Hibi is right, the line is blurred between the two and we often call, conveniently, films "B" when in fact they might not have technically been at the time....but it's easier and shorthand and usually everyone kinda knows what you mean when you say it.

 

At least that's my impression. Great question!!

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They may have been B unit pictures, but Kay's salary was still A (at 5,000 a week!) LOL. (I know Cheapskate Jack L. had to be furious when she wouldnt quit.) Interesting, even though they were budget pictures, I've noticed Orry Kelly still designed her costumes. Dunno if that was loyalty to Kay or what. (Granted they werent the over the top frocks from her prime........)

 

Edited by: Hibi on Nov 15, 2012 5:22 PM

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I think Kay was worth $5,000 a week. She must have had a lot of fans. And a lot of us like her films too.

 

I suppose they were mostly women's films, but I'll bet a lot of men liked them too, since Kay was always fooling around with men in her movies, and she was so sweet and kind. We male fans could imagine her as a very nice girlfriend.

 

While each of her films was a formula picture, in a way, the story line was always different enough to be of interest. Her own version of the Madame X story was really great.

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I read the Wiki article about B Pictures and Programmers, and it said there was no solid definition for the word Programmers. It said that they were somewhere in between A and B pictures.

 

Doh.

 

For now, I'm going to think of them as B pictures with major actors, while the regular B pictures had unknown and 2nd rate actors, and secondary characters playing the lead roles, such as Guy Kibbee. For example, I have several films that Lewis Stone starred in. He was a great secondary actor and character, and his B pictures are very good. Even though he is an older man, he plays the romantic lead. Ha, ha, ha, I like that, since I'm an older man (although not as handsome as Lewis Stone). :)

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Isn't it a more reasonable assumption that Jack Warner had Kay cast in 'B' picture because her prior 'A' pictures were not successful? Jack's main priority, like most studio heads, was making money. The reason Jack didn't like paying Kay that 5K a week was because her movies were no longer big enough box office hits to justify that 5K a week.

 

Warner also used Kay in the training of other actors; reading lines to them during rehearsals. That really hurt Kay's feelings but since she refused to redo the terms of her contract, Warner had to get some value out of her. It is totally understanable why Kay woudln't agree to redo the terms of her contract (hey, 5K a week is 5K a week!), but it is also understandable why WB didn't feature her in 'A' pictures once she lost favor with the general movie audiences. Also other studio's were not willing to take her as a loan out at that 5K a week price.

 

 

 

 

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Kay was in only a very few A pictures in 1929 and 30, then she started making the long series of popular Kay Francis pictures, in which she was always the star. A couple of dozen of them in the 1930s with her listed at the top of the credits. I still say she was worth $5,000 a week.

 

They must have made a lot of money for the studio, or they wouldn't have made so many films with her as the star, and people like Claude Rains, Walter Huston, and William Powell listed under her name.

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>Kay was in only a very few A pictures in 1929 and 30

 

I think you are not addressing her film resume correctly. She was the lead female actress in 12 films in 1930 and 1931 (mostly at Paramount with an occasional picture at RKO during this time). I am not even including the other half-dozen films where she was at least third-billed. So she was already a major star before she went to Warners in 1932.

 

I think you are discussing her Warners output, and you are probably most familiar with that part of her film career because those titles are in the Turner Library and often played on TCM. But to say she was only in a few A pictures in the early 30s is not accurate, especially when you have likely not surveyed her Paramount output.

 

Please, let's be accurate.

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The lady made 10 films in 1930 and her name began to creep up to the top of the credits list, except when she co-starred with several more famous men. She made 8 films in 1931. 7 films in 1932. She was the star of most of these films. 5 films in 1933. 4 films in 1934. 4 films in 1935, and by then she was on top of most of the credit lists. 2 in 1936. 4 in 1937. 4 in 1938. 3 in 1939. 3 in 1940. 4 in 1941. 2 in 1942. 2 in 1945. And 1 in 1946.

 

That's 28 films in 5 years, and many of them with her as the top star.

 

And 22 more films during the next 7 years.

 

50 films in 12 years, with her as the star of most of them. 68 films over 17 years.

 

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0290215/

 

-------------------------

 

Garbo made only 15 sound films over 11 years, before the audiences got bored with her.

 

I don't mean that Francis was "better" than Garbo. I think Garbo was a very rare and special actress, something like the way Vivien Leigh was.

 

But Francis made a lot of good films over a long period of time, and she had a lot of fans.

.

.

Edited by: FredCDobbs on Nov 15, 2012 6:59 PM

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*Could we classify "programmers" as being short low budget B-type pictures but with major stars, and classify B pictures as being short low budget films with no major stars?*

 

Well, programmers were A pictures, on the lower end of the A budget scale; they were definitely higher-budgeted than B pictures. The main distinction was that they were usually made by the studios' A Unit, quite distinct from its B unit, with much talent, from producers on down confined to one or the other.

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*For example, THREE ON A MATCH was a short low budget film with stars. So was it a B or a Programmer?*

 

*Wasn?t a Programmer a B too?*

 

*What were Kay Francis films? Bs or Programmers?*

 

In the early to mid 30s, many A films were quite short, often less than 75 minutes. Later, the length of most A films increased to over 80 minutes.

 

TOAM, as with many of Warners' fast paced early-mid 30s movies, was a programmer, so by definition, an A movie.

 

During Kay Francis' heyday at WB in this period, her films were all A features, whether programmmer or prestige item. Once her boxoffice pull began to wane (and she was voted "Boxoffice Poison"), but more importantly, after she had contentious contract talks at Warners (a culmination of several years of increasing antagonism between Kay and her bosses), in 1938 the studio announced in the trade papers that Kay would finish her contract doing B pictures. This was an unprecedented humiliating tactic in order, as mentioned here, to have her break her contract. She held firm, and though heart-broken, soldiered on making bona fide B movies at WB's B Unit.

 

Edited by: Arturo on Nov 15, 2012 11:16 PM

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> {quote:title=Arturo wrote:}{quote}The confusion between a B move and a programmer is one of my pet peeves here, and feel compelled to point it out, as some of you have noticed. A programmer is most definitely an A film, in budget (if on the lower end of the range for A films) and talent employed. Since the term has fallen out of use, It is probably best to consider a programmer as a non prestige item from the A Unit.

>

> During the Studio era, the major studios usually had separate A and B units, sometimes even located in separate studios. Each had some staff that was confined to one or the other unit....cameramen, set and art designers, stars, etc. Character actors usually were shuttled between both units. Stars of B films were usually not the big names of the day, as we now remember them, but that didn't mean they weren't popular back then. Many B stars often had supporting roles in A features.

>

> Programmers were produced by the A unit, using A talent. Most of the top stars that filmed more than a couple of films a year usually had programmers as well as more prestigious films. Besides using top names, programmers also employed up and coming talent, without name recognition or boxoffice pull, and provided a suitable, and relatively inexpensive, way for the studios to test their appeal, and showcase them as they received on the job training.

>

> Programmers were often the top half of a double-bill, either paired with a B or another programmer.

You described the difference precisely.

 

Those who earlier in this thread referred to "A" and "B" pictures in the early 1930s are incorrect; such classifications didn't occur until the mid- to late '30s, when double features became a regular part of the movie landscape and studios decided to set up separate units to handle such low-budget fare. There was occasional crossover of character players and writers, but almost never of stars.

 

Using Carole Lombard as an example (since she's the actress I'm most familiar with), specifically her career from 1930 on, she began her Paramount tenure with small roles in top-of-the-line fare ("Safety In Numbers," a vehicle for the then-hot Buddy Rogers, followed by "Fast And Loose," sort of a "prestige" adaptation of the play "The Best People"), then was given the female lead in an array of mid-level films or programmers (e.g., "It Pays To Advertise," "Man Of The World"), and finally was top-billed in the programmer "No One Man." Late in 1932, she was cast opposite future husband Clark Gable in "No Man Of Her Own," a film a bit higher on the Paramount totem pole because of the Gable loanout, but she wouldn't have had the part had Miriam Hopkins not balked over being billed second (a stipulation from MGM). Paramount continued to cast Lombard in such mid-level fare during 1933 and '34, with the occasional exception (e.g., the dance film "Bolero" with George Raft). It really wasn't until "Hands Across The Table" in late 1935 that Paramount headlined Carole in a top-rank production.

 

For that, Lombard can probably thank Columbia, which acquired her services five times and generally gave her better production values and support than Paramount did, beginning with "Virtue" and "No More Orchids" in '32 (though both essentially were programmers). Harry Cohn's good relationship with Carole likely led to the most pivotal film of her career, "Twentieth Century," which the studio probably viewed from the get-go as more of a prestige production than the bus movie that evolved, and grew, into "It Happened One Night" (Lombard was among several actresses who declined to be loaned out in the early stages of that production).

 

Carole's success in "Twentieth Century" led to a re-evaluation of her talent -- but it must be emphasized that even in 1931 and '32, when she was at best a second-tier star at Paramount and making rather lackluster films, she never appeared in a "B" picture, since they didn't exist in those days. Some of those lesser movies may have been on the bottom half of twin bills, but they weren't initially created as second features.

 

 

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*So. Casablanca is a programmer, not a B, as it is usually called.*

 

CASABLANCA was most definitely NOT a B. It was a typical assembly-line product, seemingly a programmer in conception, but the studio seemed to sense that alchemy had somehow created gold, and its release was timed to be in the running for Oscar contention. So it's promotional budget was upped and the studio promoted it as one of its prestige items; it could no longer be considered a programmer.

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