Roger Corman has been called many things over the years—King of the B’s, The Pope of Pop Cinema, outlaw, renegade, mentor. Now, maybe all of it can be distilled into a single word: legend. In a career that has spanned seven decades, Corman has worn a number of hats: director, producer, writer, and actor are the official designations, but he has also served in various capacities as set decorator, art director, grip, and driver. He has asked many to work under difficult conditions, but never anything he either hadn’t done or wasn’t willing to do himself. In the process, he has made a mark on Hollywood and international cinema that is practically unquantifiable.
The notable graduates of The Corman School of Filmmaking have become some of the most legendary of all time and in every area of the craft. As one of those graduates, Jonathan Demme said, “Roger is arguably the greatest independent filmmaker the American film industry has ever seen and will probably ever see.” If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that we should celebrate our legends while they are still with us. So, in honor of his 96th birthday, I’d like to celebrate the monumental figure that is Roger Corman.
Born on April 5, 1926 to William and Anne Corman in suburban Detroit, Roger Corman and his younger brother Gene spent their formative years during the Great Depression. Corman credits these years to shaping the thrifty nature he became famous for as a filmmaker. He was a strong student, skipping a grade along the way, and enjoyed hobbies of reading and building model airplanes. In his teen years, the family moved to what Corman described as “the less fashionable section of Beverly Hills.” He attended Beverly Hills High School where he first became acquainted with some people connected to show business as well as becoming aware of some of the class disparities in American life, a theme that would find its way into many of his films and shape his politics in a progressive direction.
Roger assumed that he would become an engineer like his father and pursued that into his college career at Stanford, but halfway through college he has switched focus at least twice before deciding to go in a different direction. He volunteered for the V-12 Naval officer training after his first year at Stanford, transferring to the University of Colorado. In 1946, he left the V-12 program early, returning to Stanford for his senior year. Though he graduated with a degree in Industrial Engineering, his interests had shifted dramatically during his college years particularly to literature and film. After a period of unemployment, he finally landed his first industry job as a messenger on the 20th Century Fox studio lot, working on Saturdays for free to observe on sets and do some script reading in the story department, just to try to break in. He was soon promoted into an opening in the story department where he made several valuable connections and learned some important lessons about the nature of the business, both positive and negative.
He then applied to Oxford on the G.I. Bill where he studied modern English literature for a short time before spending an adventurous interlude in Paris. While there, he would spend his mornings writing treatments for movies before enjoying the life of an American in Paris for the remainder of the day. While there, he wandered, met people, honed some of his famous negotiating techniques, and even indulged in a little smuggling before deciding to return home after about a year in Europe. Still, these experiences were quite formative for his career to come.
When he returned to Los Angeles, he found a few odd jobs in the industry before selling a script to Allied Artists called “The House in the Sea,” eventually changed to Highway Dragnet (1954) when the film was released. Unhappy with the way the film turned out, Corman decided to make his own low-budget feature which became The Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954), a science fiction/horror film made for only $12,000 on which he served as producer among many other various odd jobs. He immediately went into production on his next film The Fast and the Furious (1954), which was also quite successful, opening the door to a three-picture deal with a new company, which would soon be called American International Pictures.
Throughout the 50’s and 60’s, Roger Corman and AIP would have a very fruitful collaboration, with Corman’s films playing a major role in the company becoming the largest independent film studio of the era. With AIP, Corman moved from producer to director for the first time with a western titled Five Guns West (1955). Corman soon expanded his work beyond westerns and science fiction to all kinds of genres that would appeal to the youth audiences that the major studios were not tapping into. In the years 1956-57 alone, Corman produced and directed thirteen movies and thrived on the energy of the fast-paced world of low budget filmmaking. During this time, he also began to study acting in Jeff Corey’s classes where he met future collaborators Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne.
At the end of this very productive period, the AIP executives asked him to do some location scouting in Australia. He traded in the first-class ticket the studio provided for a coach trip around the world, paying the difference of only $30. While on this trip, Corman met the Shaw Brothers in Singapore, was nearly arrested by Military Police who had mistaken him for someone else in Tokyo, and was initiated into a tribe of headhunters in Fiji. Upon his return, he quickly jumped back into work, both as a producer and director, making all kinds of films across several genres, including his first with Jack Nicholson and Charles Bronson.
During this time, Corman created his own production and distribution company, The Filmgroup, for which he financed and directed The Wasp Woman (1959). He also made a trio of films on extremely tight schedules that have become legendary: A Bucket of Blood (1959), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), all three of which are acknowledged cult classics of horror comedy. Of these, Little Shop is the most famous (or infamous depending on your outlook). Shot in only two days and a half a night, the film became the epitome of the cult classic and was essentially made on a bet. Corman bet he could make a whole movie on the leftover sets from a previous movie in only the two days they had access to them. If the movie proves anything it’s never bet against Roger Corman. He succeeded and the film spawned an off-Broadway hit and a successful film based on that musical in 1986. It also gave Jack Nicholson one of his most memorable early roles as a dental masochist.
Immediately following this loose trilogy of comedies, Corman was ready to move in a new direction. “I was ready to move on to bigger, better movies on longer schedules and to direct more experienced actors and better scripts,” he later wrote. He pitched to James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, the heads of AIP, to take the budgets of two of the ten-day “quickies” they were making and selling as double features, combine them into one fifteen-day shoot in color and widescreen, and release it on its own. He suggested “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a story by Edgar Allan Poe as the first because all the high schools assigned Poe as required reading. Corman had also fallen in love with the author’s work at a young age and was eager to work in the gothic horror subgenre. The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) starring Vincent Price proved to be a great success and AIP immediately wanted more. The result became Corman’s great Poe Cycle of eight films. Seven of them starred Vincent Price, cementing his place as one of horror’s most iconic actors.
To keep himself from becoming too restless while making the Poe Cycle, Roger Corman varied the other films away from gothic horror as much as possible. The Intruder (1962), a highly political film about segregation and bussing in the South and starring William Shatner in his first leading film role, was an artistic triumph and a critical success but a financial disappointment. It’s also a film that means a great deal to Corman, as it should. Its message remains powerful and relevant to this day. He also made one of the great science fiction/horror films of all time during this period. X—The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) is a thoughtful and even spiritual film starring Ray Milland as a scientist whose experiments give him the ability to see further and further beyond the surface, eventually to the center of the universe itself. It’s experimental, psychedelic visual effects prefigure some of the techniques that Corman would use again in films like The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Trip (1967).
Corman also attempted to create a “Poe” film not based on a Poe story. The result was The Terror (1963), an odd film starring Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, and Dick Miller with sections directed by five directors including Corman, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, Corman’s talented young assistant Francis Ford Coppola, and (according to Corman) a day from Jack Nicholson. Probably the best thing to come out of The Terror was Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant film Targets (1968). Bogdanovich was instructed to take twenty minutes from The Terror, twenty minutes of new footage with Boris Karloff, and forty minutes of new footage with other actors and create a feature. Bogdanovich and Polly Platt then went on to write a script about a retiring horror actor, played by Karloff, intercut with the story of a sniper on a killing spree based upon the real-world horror of the Charles Whitman case of a few years earlier. The result is one of the most effective and unsettling horror thrillers ever made.
Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich turned out to be on the leading edge of what would become known as the “Corman School.” Other early “graduates” would include writers Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and Robert Towne; directors Monte Hellman and Jack Hill; producer Menahem Golan; and many actors including Robert De Niro, Cindy Williams, Talia Shire, William Shatner, Dick Miller, and Bruce Dern. After Corman broke free of AIP to start his own company, New World Pictures, this class would prove to be only the beginning.
In many ways, Roger Corman proved to be one of the most important figures in the rise of what is often called the “New Hollywood” or American New Wave. Though significantly older than most of the key players in that movement, he shared their politics and always had his finger on the pulse of youth culture. Two films proved to be forerunners of the flashpoint that crystallized this movement: The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip. Both of these films are experimental and aimed directly at the experiences of the youth movement of the late 1960’s. Many of the themes were combined and filtered through a new lens for the film that (along with 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde) launched the New Hollywood, Easy Rider (1969), which involved several Corman graduates including Dennis Hopper, Henry Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and cinematographer László Kovács.
The Wild Angels and The Trip were also the beginning of the end for Corman’s involvement with AIP. After turning in both films, and Bloody Mama (1970) soon after, he learned that the films were re-edited without his involvement. These films were more radical both in their filmmaking style and politics, which made Jim Nicholson nervous about the company’s stockholders. While in Ireland working on Von Richtofen and Brown (1971), Corman made some major decisions: he would permanently leave AIP and start his own company, take a break from directing, and marry Julie Halloran whom he had been dating on and off for several years.
The couple officially married on December 26, 1970, several months after returning to Los Angeles after the completion of Von Richtohofen. The two would become not only life partners, but professional partners as well, with Julie Corman jumping into work at the newly created New World Pictures as a producer. Roger called her “the most dedicated producer in the history of the film industry,” specifically citing the time that she went into the office to sign checks for the staff before heading to the hospital to give birth to their daughter Catherine. New World set out to create successful movies that would draw audiences with exploitation elements but also carry a social message. These included biker films, nurse stories, and women in prison pictures but many of them at least attempted to include a liberal viewpoint, which Corman also viewed as an element to be exploited along with action and sex. The new production and distribution company quickly began attracting young and hungry filmmakers looking to break into Hollywood.
The first major success story of the New World era for the Corman School was an NYU graduate and film teacher with a handful of shorts and a feature-length art film under his belt trying to break into bigger things named Martin Scorsese. In 1971, Corman sent Scorsese a script for Boxcar Bertha (1972), which Scorsese then rewrote much of himself and prepared to direct. The property was to be released through AIP and some of the executives of the company did not like what they were seeing. They urged Corman to fire Scorsese and take over direction of the film. Corman refused and stood by his director and the work he was producing. “The picture is on schedule, on budget, Marty’s getting excellent footage,” he told them. Clearly the gamble paid off. Boxcar Bertha opened the doors to Scorsese’s major breakthroughs with Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), and Taxi Driver (1976). This was a turning point for New World. As Corman wrote in his autobiography, “after Marty, we became a filmmaking Mecca for untested, ambitious talent.”
Following Scorsese came a number of people who became major players in Hollywood and in independent filmmaking. The list is far too long to name them all but includes Ron Howard, John Sayles, Joe Dante, Phil Tippett, Rob Bottin, Gale Anne Hurd, James Cameron, James Horner, Allan Arkush, Amy Holden Jones, Penelope Spheeris, and Jonathan Demme to name only a few. It became a point of pride to work on a Corman film and he was always happy to see his protégés succeed. As he told Ron Howard before making his directorial debut Grand Theft Auto (1977), “conditions are rough, not much money. But if you do a really good job on this picture, you will never work for me again.” It was on the job training in an artistic environment really only constrained by budget and the necessity to include certain elements to make the film successful in Corman’s eyes. New World was also a proving ground for actors in early roles including Sylvester Stallone, Sid Haig, Pam Grier, Bill Paxton, Tommy Lee Jones, David Carradine, and Barbara Hershey among many others. The track record of The Corman School graduates speaks for itself.
A point of pride for Corman was New World’s acquisition of several international art films for distribution in the US and Canada, and the fact that many of these became quite successful. The first was Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972), which was booked across North America to the widest audiences a Bergman film ever received. The film was even booked in drive-ins which Bergman himself highly approved of. Between 1972 and 1982, New World acquired the rights to distribute Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), the animated science fiction masterpiece Fantastic Planet (1973), Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala (1975), The Tin Drum (1979), and several others. “During the ten-year period from the early 1970’s to the early 1980’s, more pictures distributed by New World won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film than all the other companies combined,” Corman later wrote, a great sense of pride and accomplishment practically glowing from the page.
In 1983, Roger Corman sold New World and immediately began producing films under the new moniker Millennium Pictures, this time without a distribution wing. This proved to be short lived as Corman felt the new owners of New World were not giving his films proper releases. He started a new distribution company, Concorde Films to distribute Millennium’s movies and the studio was renamed once again to Concorde-New Horizons. This all coincided with the rise of home video and cable television, which proved to be the company’s saving grace as distribution costs continued to rise. He became something of a pioneer in the direct-to-video market and New Horizon films were HBO’s biggest supplier in their first year. He found it increasingly difficult to compete with the major studios which were now releasing big-budget versions of the kinds of films that had traditionally been relegated to studios like his, namely monster movies, science fiction, and adventure films. VHS and cable became their major source of income and several cult classics like Chopping Mall (1986), Slumber Party Massacre II (1987), and Brain Dead (1990) starring Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton were produced in this period.
As can be clearly seen in the final chapter of his autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, which he wrote with Jim Jerome, Roger Corman was becoming restless in the late 80’s. He questioned the decisions that moved him from behind the camera to behind a desk. He scratched his directorial itch for the first time in twenty years by taking the helm of Frankenstein Unbound in 1990, which also proved to be the last film he would direct. Beginning with The Godfather Part II (1974), he has also appeared in several films of Corman School graduates including The Howling (1981), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Apollo 13 (1995) as well as cameos in Body Bags (1993) and Scream 3 (2000). He has continued to produce films, particularly for home markets including the SyFy network. Content like Sharktopus and Dinocroc vs. Supergator (both 2010) in many ways harken back to the kinds of undersea monster movies that Corman cut his teeth on.
In 2009, Roger Corman was presented with a lifetime achievement Academy Award. Jonathan Demme, who presented Corman his Oscar opened his speech by saying, “November 14th, 2009, Roger Corman receives an Oscar. People, what took you so long?” What took so long indeed. Though perhaps few of his films could have been considered for a competitive Oscar, the Academy’s reasons for giving him the award which included his “unparalleled ability to nurture aspiring filmmakers by providing an environment that no film school could match” are surely worthy. And Corman has only continued to produce (his most recent producing credit is 2019), nurture, and inspire filmmakers to this very day. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he launched the “Corman Quarantine Film Festival” which encouraged aspiring filmmakers to make short films in quarantine on cellphones. Since then, he has appeared in his daughter Catherine Corman’s short films, which also star his youngest daughter Mary Tessa Corman.
Few filmmakers have had quite so much influence on the artform as Roger Corman. Elements of his philosophy of filmmaking have found their way into companies like Full Moon and Troma and even to some extent in the low-budget, high concept models of Blumhouse and SpectreVision. His films are unique, often socially aware, and adventurous very much like the man himself. They seethe with a restless energy that often betrays their low budgets and tight schedules, but also make them incredibly entertaining. Yes, Roger Corman has been called many things over the years, but the legacy of his films and those of all the artists he worked with along the way, make him truly a legend worth celebrating.
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