It’s funny how the letter Y has offered me only slim pickings, when it comes to the Wonderful World of Roger Corman. I can’t think of any colorful Corman alumni, or ageing stars, or slightly slimy overseas entrepreneurs whose names start with today’s letter. So I’ll talk about a word that has always been an important part of the Roger Corman lexicon: YOUNG.
Look back at Roger’s early film output, and you’ll see The Young Racers. In my New World days, over my desk was a poster of one of Julie Corman’s first productions, The Young Nurses. This was the usual slick combo of comedy, action, and hospital cuties who looked attractive both in and out of uniform. I scan the cast list now and see some distinguished veterans of the acting profession, including Allan Arbus, Nan Martin, Dick Miller, even the celebrated indie director Sam Fuller (The Big Red One), who enjoyed taking an acting role now and again. I’m told this was also the very last film of Mantan Moreland, the black comic actor who survived literally hundreds of movie roles as scaredy-cat butlers and Pullman porters and shoeshine boys. But the point of The Young Nurses, of course, was to appeal to youthful moviegoers much more interested in hot chicks than in cinema history. Those stories of Quentin Tarantino sneaking out of his mother’s house at night to go see New World movies? He was the ideal Corman audience.
Roger, when I first met him in 1973, was in his mid-forties. So he was no youngster, even though he was newly married and not yet a father. But he had forged his career, starting in the mid-fifties, when he was not long out of college. At that time it didn’t make sense to him that the studios were casting as romantic leads actors nearly twice his own age. Look at Audrey Hepburn’s co-stars at the beginning of her screen career. In 1953’s Roman Holiday, she was a pixie-ish twenty-four, but she played opposite Gregory Peck, who was thirty-seven. The following year, she starred as Sabrina, who had to choose between William Holden (thirty-six) and Humphrey Bogart (fifty-five). One year later, in Funny Face, she romanced Fred Astaire (fifty-eight). And in each case the unfolding romance had something to do with wealthy people and picturesque European capitals. I’m choosing examples from the field of romantic comedy, which happens to be a favorite of mine. But in action films too the stars were getting long in the tooth.
Roger’s gut feelings about the burgeoning power of the youth market were shared by the owners of American International Pictures, Jim Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff. AIP was formed to take full-advantage of the so-called Consent Decree, a Supreme Court anti-trust ruling that upended the major studios’ tactic of booking only their own films into motion picture theatre chains they controlled. Suddenly there were movie houses – particularly drive-ins – that needed product. AIP was happy to supply it, figuring that young post-war kids with money in their jeans would like spending their cash on flicks that featured monsters and girls in bikinis.
It worked. Soon AIP and other small independent film companies were grinding out genre films – horror, sci-fi, beach party romps -- with youthful casts. (Exactly the kind of movies that Bill Dever’s lively B-Movie Nation site salutes today.) Ten years later, as American kids became bolder, the movies took on a harder edge, featuring bikers and the drug scene and social rebellion. Like Roger Corman’s seminal The Wild Angels and The Trip. And Dick Clark’s Psych-Out, featuring a long-haired Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern. And Sam Katzman’s cheesy Riot on Sunset Strip. Yup, the good, the bad, and the ugly.