Monday, June 16, 2008

Poverty Row Theater

Back in the 1930s & 1940s, studios like Monogram and Republic Pictures were the “Poverty Row” of the movie business. They were strictly low-budget operations, churning out inexpensive films at a rapid pace—movies that often ran only an hour or so and could be conveniently packaged as half of a double feature.

A lot of the Poverty Row films are still a lot of fun to watch today. Without well-known stars or elaborate sets, these films depended on telling a story as quickly and as entertainingly as possible. Often, this resulted in fast-moving but well-constructed plots with likable characters.

I recently Netflixed a disc titled “The Poverty Row Collection,” which contains three Monogram efforts from the 1940s. So far, I’ve watched only one of the three, but it’s a great example of a skillfully made B-movie.

Kitty O’Day, Detective (1944) stars Jean Parker as a switchboard operator whose boss is murdered. When circumstances place her boyfriend under suspicion, she (along with her reluctant beau) begins her own investigation.

The film is played mainly for laughs—in fact, it drops into pure slapstick a few times. Kitty O’Day has a very forceful (and talkative) personality, endlessly annoying the police detectives as she drags her boyfriend along on tasks that often involve breaking and entering someone else’s hotel room or office. Jean Parker has enough comedic flair to make the material work, while Tim Ryan is very good as the long-suffering detective who constantly stumbles across her as he also works on the case.

The mystery itself is pretty basic, but the clues and the identity of the real killer all make reasonable sense at the end. It’s not a classic, but it wasn’t trying to be. The movie, in fact, makes no pretension about being any smarter than it is. It simply tries (and succeeds) in giving us 59 minutes worth of humor wrapped around a pretty good mystery. That’s certainly good enough for me.

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