Biography of the unsung B-movie producer is an absorbing page-turner
Customer: Bill George
-- February, 21, 2012
The title refers to a tag line woodenly recited by Rondo Hatton, a 'horror actor' who suffered from acromegaly. Exempting homage in Disney's ROCKETEER, Hatton's cult celebrity has fallen through the cracks (a vanishing act prompted more by sensitivity to Hatton's deformity than his dialogue delivery). Ben Pivar, B-movie producer of Hatton's shoestring vehicles, has undeservedly plunged into anonymity. Okay, Pivar was no Val Lewton; in lieu of Lewton's proclivity to sweep his low budgets into the shadows (opting for psychological intensity, his horrors were exiled to an off-screen omnipresence), Pivar's horrors were manifest as creatures composed of spirit gum and assorted cosmetics (Hatton was a likely an asset because of his physical affliction, sparing Pivar the expense of a makeup technician). Pivar's bread and butter included Universal's Mummy franchise and 'Inner Sanctum' mysteries (Lon Chaney proved more appealing as a mute mummy than, bereft of makeup, Sanctum's titular protagonist). Bottom line, Pivar did his job:, i.e. producing films that simply entertained.
Thomas Reeder's prose is engaging; his research is extremely consummate but he declines to fawn over Pivar (noting that the Mummy films spawned 'a really tired series' and admitting the Sanctum films were 'slow going...dull'). A fanboy or cheerleader, he ain't. But Reeder's admiration for Pivar's chutzpah and movie legacy is genuinely infectious; I polished-off the book's 550+ pages in only thre days and I'm indebted to Reeder for the education.
Developing an apprenticeship with silent films, Pivar later produced a series of adventure quickies starring fading matinee idol Richard Arlen and perpetual comedy relief Andy Devine. Compromising production shortcomings by editing stock footage into the action, Pivar couldn't mollify critics but the his films turned a profit. The producer's most controversial film, THE STRANGE DEATH OF ADOLF HITLER ('43), was launched with a competition, inviting the public to contrive a demise for Der Fuehrer. The winner earned a $100 war bond and Pivar collected $2500 for his work (wrapping the film in only 21 days). In retrospect, STRANGE DEATH paralleled the previous year's black comedy, TO BE OR NOT TO BE (the latter countering the despair of Nazi tyranny with Jack Benny and a Hitler doppelganger).
Pivar was a beer 'n' pretzels producer whose films were bereft of the extravagance and ego indelibly identified with Michael Bay. Reeder chronicles the eventual erosion of B-movies from the market, a forfeiture that prompted Pivar'who squandered his own earnings--to sell his own house and yield to not only divorce but television. His final brush with horror was developing the story for LEECH WOMAN (released in 1960, three years before Pivar's death).
Film aficionados should be grateful to Reeder for not only disinterring Pivar's B-movie heritage but offering historical, behind-the-scenes insight into films that critics and the industry gauged as inconsequential. Though Pivar's movies may not earn immortality, Reeder's communicative reading leaves no doubt that the man deserves our respect.