LOS ANGELES — Film preservation is an ever-pressing issue, with various archives trying to ensure classic movies remain in some physical state for perpetuity. But what about the non-classics, older films whose names few know, the ones that are less likely to get priority for restoration? From the late 1920s through the mid-1950s, there was a low-budget film industry operating in Hollywood alongside the prestigious big studios. These often short-lived independent studios of “Poverty Row,” as it was called, operated on or near Gower Street in Los Angeles. Their work is not well remembered today, but that doesn’t make it unworthy of preservation.
The UCLA Film & Television Archive seeks to restore and keep as much visual media as possible, regardless of its prestige. To show off the best of its Poverty Row restorations, the archive is putting together a series of screenings and events titled Down and Dirty in Gower Gulch. I spoke with UCLA Film & Television Archive Director Jan-Christopher Horak about how this program came together and the process of preserving and curating Poverty Row movies.
* * *
Daniel Schindel: How did Gower Street become this focal point of independent production in the ’30s?
Jan-Christopher Horak: You had the major studios: MGM, Warner Bros., Columbia, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Paramount, etc. They had their big studios around town, and they are the ones that supplied the first-run theaters in all the major cities. But there was a whole other market, the so-called B film market, and those were made by smaller companies, many of which did not own their own studios, but used rental studios to produce their work. And most of those rental studios were around Gower Street in Old Hollywood.
These smaller studios provided the B movies on double bills, but they also supplied the theaters in the sticks, a circuit called “state’s rights.” The rights were sold not to a national chain like Loew’s, which distributed all of MGM’s film, or Paramount, which distributed, of course, Paramount films, but to small companies buying films for individuals states and distribution there. The producers would make films in 10 days to two weeks. They would have budgets of around $50,000, whereas the big Hollywood features at that time cost $200,000 or more. They’d shoot them quick and dirty, and then they would be shown at the bottom of a double bill or in little theaters in the countryside.
DS: What was that area of Hollywood like in this time period?
J-CH: It was actually the first place that had any filmmaking activity in the city. In the early silent period, all the filmmaking was being done in New York and out of New Jersey. Around 1909, 1910, you have some people establishing production companies and little lots around Gower. Carl Laemmle, before he created Universal Studios in 1912, had a little production company, and they were shooting off of Gower in one of those studios. That infrastructure was not very well developed, so when the big companies moved to California, they built their own studios elsewhere.
The Gower studios stayed in business as rentals for all of the individual producers. These producers were usually not directly connected to any distributors, because the big companies owned everything — the production facilities, the distribution companies, the theaters. They could automatically place their work in their own theaters. But the small companies had to rely on third-party distributors and independent theaters to get their products out into the world.
DS: What kind of artistic possibilities were offered by this absence of executive oversight?
J-CH: Because they were under the radar, they could do things that the larger studios couldn’t, especially in terms controversial content. In some cases, they did not even go through the whole Production Code, which was Hollywood’s internal self-censorship mechanism. Because they were outside that system, they could have content — especially in terms of sex and violence — that you would not see in the main studio films. So they had more freedom.
There were a lot of directors who didn’t take advantage of it, but some did. Edgar G. Ulmer, who’s now considered one of the great American directors of the ’30s and ’40s, never made a film that had a budget larger than about $60,000. He did work for hire, with companies like PRC; he made films on the East Coast, Yiddish- and Ukrainian-language films, whatever he could. But he was extremely creative and always approached these movies with a unique vision.
DS: What’s a good example from the program of a film which explores subject matter the mainstream studios wouldn’t touch back then?
J-CH: I think my personal favorite is The Sin of Nora Moran. It’s such an outlier in every respect. It’s about a woman who gets kidnapped who then joins her kidnappers. So, 40 years before Patty Hearst and what we now understand as Stockholm syndrome, you see that happening in this film. And Damaged Lives, an Ulmer film, is about venereal disease, a completely taboo topic. That’s the kind of thing that you will never see in a mainstream Hollywood film from that period.
DS: So this is an early wave of American independent filmmaking.
J-CH: Yes. They’re not talked about that way, but they certainly are, because they were not connected to any other system. And a lot of these companies lasted for around five years and then disappeared. Almost all of those companies from the ’30s and ’40s never even made it into the ’50s.
DS: How many films made by these studios would you say have survived until today?
J-CH: I haven’t done that statistical analysis, but I would say that if we’re lucky, we have around 50% of what was made at that time.
DS: Where do you tend to find extant reels of these films for the archive?
J-CH: Most come from collectors. These studios no longer exist, and haven’t existed for a long time. But there have been individual film collectors who valued these titles, and so much of this material came from them. Once we start a preservation project, what we do is we look for other materials. We may have a print in our vaults, but it’s a used projection print from 1935, for example, so we will look for other sources. Again, we look to collectors, but also archives abroad, because some of these films did find their way to other countries.
DS: How do you prioritize what to restore and preserve?
J-CH: Well, you know, there’s never enough money. Every film we preserve, we do so with third-party funding, and it is a significant fundraising effort. We look at our collection as a whole and make decisions based on a number of different issues, primarily the condition of the material. If we have something that’s nitrate that’s beginning to decompose, that will of course make it to the top of the list. As to what gets funded, the funders make those decisions. In certain corners, film historians, academics, and even film buffs, they find out about a certain kind of film and become interested in that.
We started to preserve some of this low-budget material several years ago simply because we had it and knew it was important. And there are some really great films we found. The Museum of Modern Art did a big program of our restored Poverty Row titles, and that was a huge hit in New York, so I thought we should do it out here. And after they show in LA, they’re going to be traveling all over the country. I think we have about 10 different sites already that are booking these films.
DS: Among these titles, are there any works of restoration which you’re particularly proud of?
J-CH: The Vampire Bat is a great horror film, and what we did to restore that is really interesting. We had a pure black-and-white print, but we found out looking at reviews that there actually had been a color scene in it. There’s a scene where these villagers are chasing after the monster with torches, and the flames were tinted yellow. We were able to put that color back into the film.
Down and Dirty in Gower Gulch continues at Raleigh Studios (5300 Melrose Ave E, Los Angeles) through December 8.