Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A New Appreciation of B Westerns

April 9, 2014
   I must have a dozen books on John Wayne, mostly picture and movie poster books of his movies. I have read a couple bios on him over the years and always thought I knew the Duke's story, but the new biography by Scott Eyman (see excerpt of "John Wayne, The Life And Legend" in next issue of True West) is a real eye opener. He gives all of the financials for the movies John Wayne made over his career. When you know Wayne was paid $1,000 for a Lone Star film in the early thirties (with a total budget per film of $8,000 to $12,000), and that he made Hondo in Camargo, Mexico and to see the rushes he and his crew had to drive to El Paso—five hours away!) and that the Duke is making $250,000, well you can see the career arc pretty clearly. Plus we get a close-in view of Wayne's divorce from his second wife, Chata, which cost him $375,000.

 "Hondo Lane is an Army scout who has an uneasy relationship with creatures with two legs, a marginally easier one with creatures with four legs."
—Scott Eyman

   But the big eye opener for me is I have always thought B Westerns were the end result of inferior talent and poorly chosen aesthetics. Not true. As Eyman explains, "Although these pictures got no respect, and didn't earn any, there was a good amount of money to be made." The media companies, mostly Republic, were filling a need: in those days the main movie needed an opening picture, the first half of a double feature, and the combine companies that put these double features in theaters paid a flat fee, about $28,000 for the B picture. Given that Republic was padding their expenses by at least $10,000, the six pictures produced "were carried on the books as having cost $128,000 and earning a total of $1.25 million, for a net profit that must have been in the vicinity of $850,000."

   So the guys, like Herb Yates, who were producing these B pictures, utilizing stock footage from older movies and slamming them out in six days, were actually geniuses, in my book, creating content for a new technology that resembles the current internet landscape more than it does anything else. Makes me appreciate their vision and ability to create these very smart movies.

"Harry Carey always wore a good hat, a good pair of boots, and what he wore in between didn't matter much."
—John Wayne