Hollywood can be a cutthroat place, but there’s one person whose name seems to bring a smile to almost anyone’s face. That person is the legendary Roger Corman, who has directed or produced over 400 films. Now 85, he’s still at it: Alex Stapleton’s entertaining documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel begins and ends with Corman on the set of Dinoshark in Puerta Vallarta. From all appearances, Dinoshark is no Jaws, but then it doesn’t intend to be—and who would want another Jaws when we can have a new Roger Corman picture, instead?
Corman, who famously titled his 1990 autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, offers an object lesson in how to find your niche and exploit it. He understands the film business, finds ways to be creative within it, and has always been willing to give a young director or actor a break. The ranks of “Corman alumni” who directed or appeared in one or more of his films include many of the most distinguished names in American filmmaking in the second half of the 20th century.
Frances Ford Coppola was still in film school when Corman hired him to shoot a few scenes for incorporation in Battle Beyond the Sun, a 1959 Russian sci-fi movie distributed by Corman. Robert Townsend’s first script was for Corman’s The Last Woman on Earth, in 1960. Martin Scorsese made his second feature film, Boxcar Bertha, for Corman in 1972. Ron Howard directed his first feature, Grand Theft Auto, for Corman in 1977.
And on and on—you could populate a hall of fame with the people who credit Corman with giving them their start, or the boost they needed to get their young career going. Many of these individuals appear in Corman’s World, and besides praising their mentor, they have some great stories to tell (you may have thought the story about Corman suggesting that Mean Streets be shot with a black cast was just a rumor, but according to Martin Scorsese, it’s the gospel truth).
After studying engineering in college, Corman decided to give the film business a try. He began in the conventional way, starting in the mailroom at 20th Century Fox and working his way up through the ranks. However, after he felt he had been cheated out of a credit for the Gregory Peck film The Gunfighter (1950), Corman made two key decisions: to go it alone as a filmmaker, and to create low-budget, effective pictures for the burgeoning drive-in market. There ‘s nothing high-minded about most of his films, but there was (and is) a market for them and the titles let you know pretty much what you are getting for your ticket money, from Swamp Women (1955) to Sharktopus (2010). However, some of Corman’s films were more artistically ambitious—his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, particularly The Tomb of Ligeia (with a script by Robert Towne, and starring Vincent Price), were both visually interesting and effectively creepy, and hold up well today.
Corman directed only one picture that lost money: The Intruders, an indictment of racism starring William Shatner as a stranger who incites the white residents of a Southern town to attack their black neighbors. The financial failure of this film served as a lesson to Corman that his audience did not want to be preached at, and from that point forward he scrupulously avoided creating message movies. If this is a limitation in his career, it’s one he wholeheartedly embraces, declaring in an interview that “the public is the ultimate arbiter of your work.” It wasn’t as if he didn’t know the difference between quality and schlock—Corman’s work as a distributor demonstrates that he recognized the best work by European filmmakers—but that he defined his task as a director and producer in terms of providing his audience with what it wanted, and controlling costs so that he made money on each film.
Corman’s World feels something like a Roger Corman film, cobbled together from whatever was available, in this case mainly interviews and clips from Corman films. It’s not shooting for an Academy Award nomination, in other words, and while it provides an enjoyable hour and a half of viewing, it doesn’t leave much of an impression after the final credits roll. One conclusion you will draw from the many clips from Corman films is that he is more important for his influence on filmmaking than for his own creative work. That influence came from his “just do it” attitude (don’t stew over wanting to be a director—just be one by directing a film) and from his mentoring of many young actors and directors, who testify repeatedly not only that Corman gave them their start, but that the principles of efficient filmmaking they learned from him remain with them today.
Corman’s World is light on extras, perhaps in keeping with the Corman spirit of doing just enough to get the job done, and not spending a penny more than necessary. You get about 15 minutes worth of “special messages to Roger,” including some from folks like Brett Ratner who are not included in the documentary itself; 13 minutes of extended interviews; and the film’s trailer. I have to believe there must be more good material out there, and maybe we’ll get to see it in Corman’s World: The Sequel!.