Legendary B-movie producer/director/writer Roger Corman, on the set of his 1970 Shelley Winters movie Bloody Mama © 2011 Anchor Bay

In a world where drive-ins and grindhouse theaters have become as uncommon as malt shops and sock hops, legendary B-movie producer/director/writer Roger Corman survives as a fascinating relic of a very different cinematic era.

Known for shooting fast and cheap, most famously for American International Pictures beginning in the 1950s, Corman gave their first breaks to numerous directors and stars who went on to bigger things. Many of those Corman veterans, and others such as directors Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth who were inspired by his work, appear in this affectionate and entertaining documentary. So does the soft-spoken and unexpectedly eloquent Corman himself, now 85 years old and still on the job.

On-camera interview subjects include actors Jack Nicholson (whose scene-stealing cameo in Corman’s 1960 three-day wonder The Little Shop of Horrors appears here), William Shatner (whose first feature was Corman’s dead serious message movie The Intruder in 1962), Peter Fonda (who appeared in Corman’s 1966 biker flick The Wild Angels two years before making Easy Rider), Pam Grier (who graced various Corman-produced exploitation flicks) and Robert De Niro (who had a role in 1970’s Bloody Mama).

Poster © 2011 Anchor Bay

Introducing Corman at the presentation of his lifetime achievement Academy Award, Tarantino says the entire planet should be grateful for his contributions to the industry. Numerous other directors paying tribute to the man who never went to film school but who produced or directed more than 600 features include Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante and Martin Scorsese.

Nicholson is the prize “get” here, having appeared in only one director-documentary tribute before this one. (The other was devoted to Stanley Kubrick). The actor’s first movie role was in Corman’s 1958 The Cry Baby Killer, his first (uncredited) directing gig was for the Corman-produced The Terror in 1963 and his first solo writing credit was for the Corman-produced 1965 Ride in the Whirlwind. “He was my bread and butter for 20 years,” Nicholson reveals. He later comes to tears expressing his hope that Corman realizes how much people love him.

After big studio movies such as Jaws and Star Wars made horror and science-fiction films more respectable, Corman’s brand of low-budget schlock became increasingly obsolete. These days, movies like the Dinoshark feature Corman is seen supervising on location in Mexico are direct-to-DVD releases that never see the inside of a theater.

Director Alex Stapleton includes no real negative criticisms of Corman or his work, making this project more of a respectful tribute than an objective assessment. References to the substandard quality of Corman’s shockingly shoddy micro-budget movies are delivered with admiring amusement instead of judgmental disdain. The theme is that even if most of his output was junk, Corman deserves credit for making so much of it — and for giving so many talented wannabes their first jobs in the industry.

The documentary’s end credits reveal that many interview subjects — including people as varied as Tom Hanks, David Crosby, Richard Matheson, Traci Lords and Nancy Sinatra — apparently ended up on the cutting-room floor. With any luck, they will appear on the eventual DVD release.

[Rating: 3.5 stars]

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel gets its theatrical release on Friday December 16, 2011

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer. More by James Dawson