Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Guest Review: Carter Liotta Looks at Val Lewton - Introduction

The following is the introduction to a series of guest reviews by my good friend, Carter Liotta.  Mild mannered eye doctor in the daylight, and ravenous cinephile at night, Liotta, whose writing, digital videos and pithiness can be found at his delightfully droll Wordpress sight, takes a look at the works of legendary film producer Val Lewton.  We here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World (which means, me) are glad to have him aboard.  Enjoy.


Val Lewton: Movie Producer

In 1941, RKO Radio Pictures was struggling.  The studio, famous for releases like King Kong,  was being run into the ground by studio president George G. Schaefer.  Schaefer’s goal had become producing “quality movies at a premium prices,” and its relationship with auteur Orson Wells had buried the studio $2 million in the red at a time when a half-million dollar return was considered a good year.  By 1942, a full shakeup was in order.  Schaefer resigned, and many RKO employees who were not fired or did not seek jobs elsewhere were demoted to RKO’s B-movie unit. 

Charles Koerner was hired to replace Schaefer, and made an immediate decision regarding the studio, embodied in his motto: "entertainment, not genius." It was Koerner who, observing the huge profits that Universal Studios was making with monster movies, made the decision to hire a young assistant producer away from David O. Selznick to head up the B-Unit Horror division at RKO.  His name was Val Lewton.

The rules of the game were simple: Lewton world be paid $250 a week to produce movies that cost less than $150,000.  They would each be less than 75 minutes long, to play the bottom half of a double feature.  Finally, Lewton would be given a title that had been market-tested, and would have to conjure a movie based on the title alone.  What he did with the title was up to him.

Lewton brought a number of talented people with him, including screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, who also worked for David O. Selznick.  The two would often screen dozens of monster movies from other studios, long into the night, with the intention of "eliminating as many cliches of the genre as possible."

In addition to Bodeen, Lewton hired director Jacques Tourneur, with whom he worked on the second unit of Selznick's A Tale of Two Cities.  Lewton also gave RKO soundman, and later West Side Story director, Robert Wise, his first break at the helm.

Shooting schedules were generally under a month - some as few as 18 days.  Lewton, in spite of a limited budget, used the resources at RKO to their fullest extent.  He frequently utilized sets already built for other movies, took advantage of RKO's vast prop department, integrated stock footage from other films, and had the luck of working with talented editors and Foley artists who previously worked with Orson Welles and on expensive productions.

Charles Koerner died in 1946, forcing an upheaval at RKO and the shattering of Lewton's department.  Lewton worked the major studios until his own death in 1951.  Lewton's most famous body of work were his RKO productions between 1942-1946, and in the coming weeks, I will review the films found in The Val Lewton Horror Collection:

  • Cat People
  • The Curse of the Cat People
  • I Walked with a Zombie
  • The Body Snatcher
  • Isle of the Dead
  • Bedlam
  • The Leopard Man
  • The Ghost Ship
  • The Seventh Victim
My hope is to re-introduce the movies of a man who did great things on film with virtually no budget.

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