Poverty Row

Poverty Row

Poverty Row is a slang term used in Hollywood from the late silent period through the mid-fifties to refer to a variety of small and mostly short-lived B movie studios. It did not refer to any specific physical location, but was instead a kind of catch-all, figurative term for these low-budget companies. The films of Poverty Row, many of them Westerns or series such as those featuring the Bowery Boys and detectives such as Mr. Wong and Charlie Chan, are generally characterized by low budgets, casts made up of unknowns or former stars, and overall production values that emphasize the haste and economy with which they were made.

While some Poverty Row studios came and quickly went after a few releases, others operated on more or less the same terms as— if vastly different scales from — larger studios such as MGM, Warner Brothers, and Paramount Pictures.

The most successful and longest-lived of such lower-tier companies operated much like the major film studios; they maintained permanent lots (and many standing sets that dedicated moviegoers could frequently recognize from movie to movie), had both cast and crew on long-term contract, and had a more varied output than smaller firms. Leading studios on Poverty Row included Republic, that began when Herbert J. Yates combined six established poverty-row companies, Monogram, Mascot, Liberty, Majestic, Chesterfield, and Invincible with his Consolidated Film Laboratories. Republic began by releasing serial shorts and Westerns with Gene Autry before eventually embarking on more ambitious projects as The Quiet Man with John Wayne. Monogram Pictures soon left Republic then over several decades produced everything from college/teen musicals starring popular swing bands to versions of classics like Oliver Twist and the final films of Kay Francis.

The smallest studios, including Tiffany Pictures, Sam Katzman's Victory, Mascot and Chesterfield often packaged and released films from independent producers, British "quota quickie" films, or borderline exploitation films such as Hitler, Beast of Berlin to supplement their own limited production capacity. Sometimes the same producers would start a new studio when the old one failed, such as Harry S. Webb and Bernard B. Ray's Reliable Pictures and Metropolitan Pictures.

Some organisations such as Astor Pictures and Realart Pictures began by obtaining the rights to rerelease older films from other studios before producing their own films.

The breakup of the studio system (and its restrictive chain-theater distribution network, which left independent movie houses eager for seat-filling product from the Poverty Row studios) and the advent of television are among the factors that led to the disappearance of "Poverty Row" as a concrete phenomenon. The kinds of films produced by Poverty Row studios only grew in popularity , but were increasingly available both from major production companies and from independent producers who no longer needed to rely on a studio's ability to package and release their work.

However, the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. decision of 1948 that forced the major studios to divest their own cinema and theatre chains made a more level playing field so Columbia and Universal eventually became major studios in their own right.

Comparison with other studios

The Big Five majors The Little Three majors Poverty Row (top three of many)
MGM United Artists Grand National
Paramount Columbia Pictures Republic Pictures
20th Century-Fox Universal Studios Monogram Pictures
Warner Bros.
RKO

References

  • Fernett, Gene, Hollywood's Poverty Row, 1930-1950, Coral Reef Publications, Inc., Satellite Beach, FL, 1973.

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