It’s important to remember that poverty is a lack of resources and not necessarily of quality. That is precisely the way to view the new 4-film Blu-ray collection from Flicker Alley, In the Shadow of Hollywood: Highlights from Poverty Row.
The independent features made with fewer resources outside of the major studio system have long suffered a bit of an image problem. While they are low-budget productions that due to the structure of the distribution system were never expected to make much money, the restrictions forced upon them didn’t hamper the creativity of the filmmakers who helmed them and in some respects made for better films.
The films: Midnight/Call it Murder (1934), Back Page (1934), Woman in the Dark (1934), and The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935) were all made as the production code was reinforced with new vigor, leading to further challenges. They were made by companies that rented studio space and were often unable to afford to continue past make a few films or even just one. Intended to be modest ‘B’ flicks to serve as the bottom half of double features headlined by more plush ‘A’ films, they were by necessity short (one aspect of these films that I love; an hour and change is a perfect length), limited to spare sets, and produced quickly.
At the time these productions were typically populated by performers and filmmakers looking to break into the industry or former top-liners limping to the end of their careers. They weren’t something to brag about, though as can be seen in the performances of stars like Humphrey Bogart, Fay Wray, and Erich von Stroheim in this collection, they could be a platform for great performances. The special features in theset, including a booklet essay by Jan-Christopher Horak and audio commentaries by Horak, Leah Aldridge, Emily Carman, and Jake Hinkson are particularly valuable here as context makes the accomplishments of these films all the more remarkable.
This is a remarkable collection. I’ve already watched a couple of these films multiple times. They’ve got great characters, good pacing, and seeing them in beautifully-restored prints makes them evoke utility and craft more than poverty. Here's hoping there will be more volumes to come.
Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing copies of the films for review.