For me, 2021 was the year of Roger Corman. While the director was a name I always knew, I never rushed to check out his films. His is a career that came with preconceived notions. He’s “The King of the B’s,” after all. Roger Corman’s directorial filmography is filled with horror and sci-fi, often of the schlockiest variety. Truthfully, my little brain held his work in the same vein as someone like Ed Wood, who ran the spectrum between good-bad but largely made bad-bad movies. I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Over the span of a year, I watched my way through every Roger Corman directorial effort I could find. Jumping between streaming sites, I was actually able to locate all but two. To this day, he is still my top-viewed director on Letterboxd. Even a few years on, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the experience not only creatively fascinated me but also shaped me in more ways than I can describe. 

The King of the B’s 

Dick Miller smokes a cigarette in Roger Corman's A Bucket of Blood.

A Bucket of Blood

Roger Corman left us on May 9 at the age of 98. With a directorial career spanning more than 50 films before moving on to produce almost 500 films over 70 years, Roger Corman was more than simply “The King of the B’s.” Sure, movies like A Bucket of Blood, Teenage Cave Man and The Wild Angels are iconic pieces of schlocky, drive-in cinema. This, though, is an oversimplification of the role he’s played in Hollywood. The industry owes Roger Corman. 

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As a producer, Roger Corman played an important role in shaping Hollywood cinema as we know it today. This is perhaps best seen in the fact that his low-budget model allowed him tremendous freedom to develop talent. Looking at the span of his career, Hollywood legends like Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and even James Cameron got their start working under Roger Corman. Heck, he even gave the world Jack Nicholson. The now iconic actor made his screen debut in the Corman-produced 1958 film The Cry Baby Killer

Roger, the Mentor

Jonathan Haze, Mel Welles and Jackie Joseph look at Audrey II in Roger Corman's Little Shop of Horrors.

The Little Shop of Horrors

Ron Howard, in particular, speaks about Corman in glowing terms. In a May 12 article in Variety, Howard said, “Roger not only mentored a couple of generations of high-profile filmmakers but also opened doors to many on the production side who were struggling to find career paths in the industry.” Moviemaking is not an easy career to break into, and he didn’t hesitate to open doors. 

Corman’s productions were fast and cheap. It is reported that Corman’s version of The Little Shop of Horrors was filmed over two days. Recollections of why the shoot was so short differ based on the source. However, a particularly entertaining retelling reports that Corman had two days left with the sets from a previous production and wanted to squeeze out one more film. To do that, he bet his crew they could shoot another film in a mind-numbingly fast two-day period. This simultaneously free-wheeling but carefully structured creativity is a hallmark of Corman’s work, which allowed tremendous creative freedom. He could take chances on new talent, and the industry is better for it. 

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Corman stepped away from directing relatively early in his career. Von Richthofen and Brown hit theaters in 1971 and is the director’s final release (at least during his initial run). After this point, Corman threw himself deeply into running his production company, New World Pictures.

New World Pictures

A still from the 1977 film A Little Night Music, featuring Anne Egerman and Charlotte Mittelheim as they sit on a couch and drink tea/eat pastries. They wear late 19th-century clothing.

A Little Night Music

Over the years to follow, New World Pictures’ releases varied widely, helping shape the independent film scene in the United States. Of course, New World continued to distribute the standard Corman fare. These cheap and often hastily made motion pictures were chiefly responsible for developing the incredible stable of talent who emerged out of the “Corman School.” 

At the same time, though, Corman used his privileged position to pepper these exploitation releases with international and independent movies that may not have had a chance otherwise. A look at the New World release slate features such fascinating and diverse works as The Brood, A Little Night Music, Amacord and The Gladiator.  

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Forever Changing the Film Landscape 

Susan Cabot prepares the beauty serum in Roger Corman's The Wasp Woman.

The Wasp Woman

Corman relocated to California from Michigan at a young age and was very much shaped by his initial career path: engineering. According to his New York Times obituary, he graduated from Stanford with a degree in electrical engineering in 1947. However, like many with a yearning toward the creative, the career path was short-lived. 

It reportedly took just four days for the still-young Corman to realize he wanted to move into the movie business. Before long (with a detour to study at Oxford!) he was hired at 20th Century Fox as a messenger. The savvy young man rose through the ranks to become a script reader. Through all this, he learned about the industry, made contacts, and developed his experience. Before long, his independent spirit was on the way. He directed his first film, Five Guns West in 1955. 

Roger Corman is more than simply “The King of the B’s.” Looking back on his more than 70 years in the movie industry, few creators have made quite the same impact. He certainly made some delightfully cheap exploitation films.

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However, he’s more than some 1950s drive-in schlockmeister. Heck, Roger Corman did more than shape independent cinema. He helped shape the movie industry as we know it today. Some of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers in the 1970s and beyond can look back and thank him for giving them a shot. He knew talent. He understood movies. Few creators have straddled the line separating moviemaking as an art and a business. 

Thank you, sir. 

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Kimberly Pierce
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