Roger Corman: A Hollywood History Lesson in ‘Corman’s World’

History is funny; what we choose to remember, what gets lost to time. Director-producer Roger Corman is part of film history and at times it seems like that part of history is lost. Every now and again however, Corman bounces back and with him a near forgotten history of the past forty odd years of film that he influenced for better or worse.

“Corman’s world: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel,” a new documentary from director Alex Stapleton, is a terrific time capsule of Corman’s career and the history within that career is worth digging up and rediscovering, again for better and for worse.

“The Gunfighter”

Roger Corman got his start as a messenger at 20th Century Fox and worked his way up to reading screenplays. When one of the screenplays he approved and amended was made into a hit feature, “The Gunfighter” starring Gregory Peck, and Corman received no credit he quit and began making movies.

Corman made nine movies between 1955 and 1960 including such classics as “Swamp Women,” “It Conquered the World” and “Attack of the Crab Monsters;” each more successful than the last. Regardless of the artistry, or lack thereof, of these pictures they tapped into the desire of a generation looking to escape from the bore of the 1950’s into fantastical worlds where armies of men battled giant crabs.

Hippies, Exploitation and Civil Rights

In the 1960’s Corman presaged the move toward exploitation pictures by making movies about motorcycle gangs. He then joined the hippie movement and was the rare filmmaker to work to understand and reflect the hippie movement as well as exploit it.

In arguably his boldest and bravest move Corman joined the civil rights crusade with a picture called “The Intruder,” starring a very young William Shatner, and shined a light on southern racism that even the nightly news was afraid to expose.

Edgar Allen Poe and the College of Corman

Corman never made the move toward being taken seriously however and after “The Intruder” bombed he found a new money-making venture in low budget adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories. Today, Corman produces movies like “Dino-Shark” for the SyFy channel and is finding a whole new cult fandom.

Roger Corman’s legacy however, is not his movies but his influence. It was Corman who found Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Joe Dante, and Francis Ford Coppola among others. He changed the career of Peter Fonda with “Wild Angels” and “The Trip” leading Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Nicholson to start the American New Wave with “Easy Rider.”

Corman, “Jaws,” and “Star Wars”

Without Roger Corman there is no “Jaws” and maybe no “Star Wars.” Then again, without Roger Corman there is no Eli Roth or “Piranhas 3D.” It’s a mixed legacy in the end; Corman’s World puts a nice bow on things with Corman’s 2010 Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

When Hollywood discovered Roger Corman, via the success of “Jaws,” it was arguably the end of the very brief American New Wave. Not to take anything away from “Jaws” which is a classic but once executive caught on to that style of movie, the kind that Corman made on the cheap for 20 years prior to “Jaws,” there was no turning back from the wave of B-Movie blockbusters that continue to dominate the box office today.

“Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel” opens in limited release on Friday, December 16th.

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