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satisfactory programmer?


William
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I'm not 100% sure, but I think a "programmer" usually refers to a quickly and cheaply produced movie that used a studio's contracted actors, who were being paid by the week or year rather than by the picture. The more movies they could get out of these actors over the course of their contracts, the more the studio would profit from them. This is why you often see many character actors show up in as many as a dozen or more movies within the course of a single calendar year, often appearing in different films that were being shot at the same time.

 

And when the studio system ended, so did this type of movie. At least that's what I've always thought.

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Far as I can figure from a quick search is a Wikipeia explanation.

 

It refers to the concept of the "Double Bill", which was at first resisted by theater managers as being cost prohibitive. Actually, the "B" movie, which over time has collected a reputation for being cheaply made "stinkers" were created mainly to fill the double bill. The patrons felt they were getting more for their money by seeing TWO movies instead of just one, and the "B" movie didn't add too much, if any, cost in displaying. Think of it as sort of the "B" side of your old 45s.

 

Wiki went on to explain thus:

 

"A broad range of motion pictures occupied the B category. The leading studios made not only clear-cut A and B films, but also movies classified as "programmers"( also known as "in-betweens" or "intermediates")"

 

I took this to be a referrence to "Shorts". But near as I can guess, the "programmer" was the not so major motion picture that was designed to fill in the "program".

 

Oddly enough, many people then, as do now, seemed to like many of the "B" movies as much as, if not MORE than, the major release. They now enjoy a sort of "cult" following.

 

Sepiatone

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Programmers were the staple product at the studios during the studio era. They were A features, but at the lower end of the economic and prestige scale. As the bread and butter of the studios, they used their contract players to fill out the roles, including.top stars. Nowadays, the term is often used synonymously with B films. This is incorrect ,however, as a studio's B unit was usually a separate entity than the A unit, sometimes even on separate lots. Programmers we're definitely done with A personnel.

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So what would then be some examples of a programmer, as opposed to a B-movie? Where would films like the Torchy Blane or Boston **** series fit in? They certainly had name actors (Glenda Farrell; Chester Morris), but even though they're uniformly delightful, they have a distinctly "B-movie" flavor.

 

And would having a "star" involved automatically remove a movie from the "programmer" category, even if it had all the appearances of a rush job? What about Cagney in The Oklahoma Kid? Or Stanwyck in a movie like Gambling Lady?

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Good question(s) here, Andy. I too have always thought that the term "programmer" could also be used to define movies starring "big name" actors, but which were less than those aforementioned "prestige" films they would also be featured within.

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I've often thought of a B movie as a short simple movie containing actors who are not top stars or that may contain at least one rising top star, with programmers often containing two or three or more top stars but being a simple basic short low-budget film that is cheap to shoot, such as films of stage plays where all the action takes place in just one or two rooms of a house or office building.

 

And also, I think sometimes film reviewers use the term B movie and programmer interchangeably..

 

During the classic days of film, some B movies and programmers turned out to be classics, such as the 63 minute film THREE ON A MATCH, with Joan Blondell, Bette Davis, Anne Shirley, Ann Dvorak, Warren William, Lyle Talbot, Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins, Edward Arnold, Glenda Farrell, Jack LaRue, Grant Mitchell, and Dickie Moore. It's a great film, with a great cast, but it's only 63 minutes long and filmed mainly on simple indoor sets.

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*So what would then be some examples of a programmer, as opposed to a B-movie? Where would films like the Torchy Blane or Boston **** series fit in? They certainly had name actors (Glenda Farrell; Chester Morris), but even though they're uniformly delightful, they have a distinctly "B-movie" flavor.*

 

Film series, such as those mentioned here, could be either B movies or programmers, depending on the series or the studio. Both the Blane and **** series were B films. Others, such as the Maisie or Hardy films were programmers. In all instances, the appeal of these series was that the individual films could be made inexpensively, since many utilized standing sets.

 

*And would having a "star" involved automatically remove a movie from the "programmer" category, even if it had all the appearances of a rush job? What about Cagney in The Oklahoma Kid? Or Stanwyck in a movie like Gambling Lady?*

 

A movie that turned out poorly, or felt "rushed" does not a programmer make. Both of the mentioned movies had top stars, and were definitely A films; the programmer status would have to do with whether it was just another assembly line vehicle with nothing more expected than a profit, or if the film (or the studio) had a more prestigious outcome in mind. TOK could have been conceived as an important movie for Cagney, in that it was a big budget western in the year of the return of the A movie western. It turning out less than anticipated does not mean it falls into the programmer category. It is when not much is anticipated from the get go that helps define a film as a programmer.

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Thank you all for your excellent answers to my question.

 

I do enjoy the B's and the inbetweens quite a bit.

 

First I want to be told a good story. Then I want actors that don't stumble over the furniture and preferably in B/W.

 

I appreciate the education you have provided.

 

Bill

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*So what would then be some examples of a programmer, as opposed to a B-movie? Where would films like the Torchy Blane or Boston **** series fit in? They certainly had name actors (Glenda Farrell; Chester Morris), but even though they're uniformly delightful, they have a distinctly "B-movie" flavor.*

 

Film series, such as those mentioned here, could be either B movies or programmers, depending on the series or the studio. Both the Blane and **** series were B films. Others, such as the Maisie or Hardy films were programmers. In all instances, the appeal of these series was that the individual films could be made inexpensively, since many utilized standing sets.

 

The last part I get, but I can't see what the difference would be between Torchy / **** and Maisie / Hardy. Or more precisely, between Torchy / **** and Maisie, since megachildstar Mickey Rooney was clearly bringing in more money to his studio than character actors like Farrell, Morris or Sothern. I suppose that Maisie might be elevated in stature by the one time presence of Robert Young, but for the most part the followups in that series pretty much involved a cast of no-names. Other than the Hardy and Sherlock Holmes series, the rest of them seem to be populated by actors and actresses whose best days were either behind them (Glenda, Richard Dix, etc.) or ahead of them (George Sanders). The whole set of distinctions seems kind of blurry, to say the least.

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>I've often thought of a B movie as a short simple movie containing actors who are not top stars

 

Hi Fred,

 

Look at MY BILL, from Warner Brothers in the late 30s. Kay Francis has top billing, and most people would say it's not an A film, but she was an A list star (punished by Jack Warner and put in these quickies at the end of her contract).

 

>some B movies and programmers turned out to be classics, such as the 63 minute film THREE ON A MATCH

 

Film length is not always the best way to determine classification. Many films made before the code took affect had scenes deleted so they could be re-released after the code, and these are the only versions that survive. RKO's THIRTEEN WOMEN was much longer originally, but all we have now is the 59 minute print in the Turner Library. It is not a B film. David Selznick would never have produced a B film, and it has the some of the studio's top stars in lead roles: Irene Dunne, Ricardo Cortez, and Myrna Loy.

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Well, I'm not in the mood to debate the fine points about what is a B movie and what is a programmer. :P

 

The Wiki article is mainly about B movies, and it seems quite vague about what is a "programmer". Also, it tries to claim that it has something to do with the overall budget of the film, such as high (A), medium (programmer) and low (B).

 

I don't think anyone today knows for sure, and I think the terms B and programmer are used interchangably by film reviewers.

 

Also, there is the situation where a film is a basic repeat of very common stories, such as the Boston **** films and the often-made film where the father of a rich girl doesn't want her to marry a working class boy, and vice versa, although some A movies are also based on that theme. I've seen these low-budget common-theme films called both B films and programmers by different reviewers.

 

I have invented a new term, called a NO-CODE movie, such as CHILD BRIDE. Which is usually an exploitation film that shows some nudity and does not have any MPPDA code seal on it.

 

These were common in the 1930s and 40s, and they played in small independent theaters and had only the local city and state "decency codes" to control what they could show on film, which often did allow for some nudity that could not be in a Code film. It depended on the local city laws, with big cities showing many NO-CODE films whereas small towns usually could not show them, based on city laws and codes.

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The Wiki article is mainly about B movies, and it seems quite vague about what is a "programmer". Also, *it tries to claim that it has something to do with the overall budget of the film, such as high (A), medium (programmer) and low (B).*

 

*I don't think anyone today knows for sure*, and I think the terms B and programmer are used interchangably by film reviewers.

 

Fred, I have tried to explain what a programmer is below. Unless you have me on ignore, I think I've explained what I understand the difference, from I've gathered from my readings over the decades, and have an idea of what a programmer was. It is a pet peeve of mine when the terms are used interchangebly here, and have posted re: this each time I have noticed this.

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Well, B films were lower budgeted than were programmers, which fell under the range of what a studio would budget for its A features. Additionally, oftentimes, different personnel, from producers and directors, down through the leading players to even the craftspeople, would work on either A's or B's only. This distinction was made possible because different units worked on either; there were even separate lots for the B film unit of some companies.

 

While 80 or so year later the distinction between a B and a programmer may not seem as clear cut, it's usually fairly easy to tell. Bs tend to look cheaper, and are in general shorter (although as mentioned, this is not a good guide to adhere to), with the opening credits seeming rushed or compressed.Many unheralded movies with well known stars may be programmers, as one may wonder "why haven't I ever heard of this one before". But they did the trick they were intended to do, make money and keep the stars in the public's eye; unless you were a Goldwyn or a Selznick, not every film could be a prestigious epic or blaockbuster.

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>Film series, such as those mentioned here, could be either B movies or programmers, depending on the series or the studio. Both the Blane and **** series were B films. Others, such as the Maisie or Hardy films were programmers.

 

Sounds just like what I said, the terms were interchangable.

 

Maybe you could tell us what makes the difference between Blane/**** and Maisie/Hardy. What makes two of them B movies and the other two programmers?

 

What is your definition of "programmer" and "B"?

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The immediate difference would be the budgets. Programmers were A films, with larger budgets. The personnel would usually be different, and the resources would be what was available to all studio A films. All levels of production would be done with more care.

 

As to which series were Bs or programmers, as i've mentioned, that would depend on the studio and the series, with budget and staff.being the main difference.

 

What two terms should be used more or less correctly as interchangeable, compared to Bs.and programmers, would be A's and programmers...as all programmers.were A films.

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I think this thread is going off the rails a bit. The original poster, William, indicated that the header for this thread came from a Leonard Maltin review. But he did not say which one.

 

It came from (drum roll) what he wrote about DIVORCE, a Kay Francis film that aired today on TCM:

 

Francis is city girl who returns to home town, enticing Cabot away from Mack and family; satisfactory programmer.

 

Now, using what our 'experts' have said a programmer, an A film and a B (bzzzzz) film are.....does......DIVORCE seem like an A film? It is 70 minutes long and it was made at Monogram, which means it had a minor budget compared to Francis' films at Paramount, Warners, Universal and Fox.

 

Discuss.

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>The immediate difference would be the budgets. Programmers were A films, with larger budgets.

 

Yes, this sounds right. I recently watched Wives under Suspicion (1938), with Warren William, a mere 72 minutes long, yet it had the look and feel of a main feature with regard with budgeting and production values (up to a certain point, i.e., some A films were more expensive than others). A few years ago, TCM ran a few B films, complete with an intro by Mr O for each one. The idea was to show what a true B film was. Mr O is too much the gentleman to actually laugh at these films but he made us realize what exactly a B film is, much of what we could see for ourselves once they started rolling. Some of them the were by the director William Beaudine, who I think specialized in them. These movies looked they were filmed out in the hallway.

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Fred, in response.specifically to your question re: the Blane/**** series, and the Maisie/Hardy series, well tbe goals of the studios were what msde.the difference. MGM had two rising stars (they hoped) in Ann Sothern and Mickey Rooney, so they wanted to push them in decent surroundings (this WAS MGM). The genesis of the Hardy series was not focussd on Andy, but soon the studio realized they had a gold mine in Rooney, both as a Hardy and in other films. So they increased the budget and production values, and the focus shifted from father to son. A star was born. With this overhaul running smoothly, it became a launching pad, and testing ground, for new contractees, in the hopes that some might score on their own; what a better showcase than this relatively inexpensive Fort Knox. To a lesser extent, Maisie hoped to accomplish the same, and did....to a lesser extent. The studio tried Sothern out in other roles, including leads in expensivr films, but she never caught on big with moviegoers, at least not like Rooney did. AND, the Blane and **** series did the same thing, but while they did well (especially with their small budgets), but the stars were names that were past their prime, or had never made it in A features other than as featured players.

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> The immediate difference would be the budgets. Programmers were A films, with larger budgets.

 

I've posted what I found the explanation was, and it's in clear contradiction to yours.

 

That explanation provided that "programmers" were something different from BOTH "A" and "B" motion pictures.

 

And I go along with Fred that the term had been blurred over the years. Today, it's likely NOBODY really knows the original meaning of the term.

 

Sepiatone

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Well,.when I was young and got into classic Hollywood era.movies, I would go to the downtown LA library to read.all I could find. Eventually,.I discovered.copies of the weekly trade.papers, on microfiche or whatever thst was called, and started digesting them. It gave me a very different perspective from the books.i had been reading, sort of a peek into the inner workings of the studios. From here i gleened the meaning of the term programmer, as it was accepted in the 30s, 40s and 50s.

 

Since.there HAS been a blurring since the disuse of the term, and many people here are NOT familiar with it (hence this thread), over.the.years I have posted here to try to clarify the situation. From what you and others have posted, or got from the internet, it seems that there is no clarity there. I stand by my assertion that a programmerr was an A budget movie, if at the lower.end.of the range,.without the expectations or, the.promotional push of a studio's more prestigious or important items.

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I quite agree, Sepiatone. When I think of programmers at major studios (not poverty row studios), I think of something in between an A and a B. They really did not have huge budgets. Most of the stars were getting paid a weekly salary whether they worked or not. So this was a way to generate some quick product, that had a slightly better pedigree than the B films-- and to use the expensive talent that was on the lot and get a return on the investment.

 

Also, where things get blurred is where you have actors who star in B pictures, being used in roles in programmers (and A pictures) where they are maybe third- or fourth-billed. Like the character actors who were used in all kinds of pictures.

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> I stand by my assertion that a programmerr was an A budget movie, if at the lower.end.of the range,.without the expectations or, the.promotional push of a studio's more prestigious or important items.

 

I agree there. The term goes back to the days of block booking. So taking WB for example, the package of films would be led by the handful of films that would today be called Oscar bait. The prestige films from Warners in the 30s would be the likes of a Paul Muni biopic or Bette Davis in JEZEBEL or THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX.

 

A programmer was something intended to fill the bill in the weeks between those A+ titles. This would be the likes of THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, BROTHER ORCHID or EACH DAWN I DIE. Perfectly acceptable and exploitable fare in terms of stars, but while hardly prestigious they were still higher on the totem pole than SWING YOUR LADY or a Torchy Blaine film. Time may have given the programmers an added patina and they do represent the studio perhaps better than the prestige films do, but at the time of production, they were closer to commerce than art.

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Arturo,

 

Thanks for clearing up the distinction between Maisie and Torchy/****. Since my memories of Ann Sothern are almost exclusively of her TV years (Private Secretary), I hadn't realized that Hollywood at one point had had higher ambitions for her on the Big Screen. With the other three leads under discussion (Rooney, Farrell and Morris), it's much easier to see where they stood in the chow line at the times they starred in their respective series.

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