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Columbia Cavalcade of 1940

Updated: Nov 25, 2023

I present to you a sample study of Columbia’s B movies released in 1940: an onslaught of one-hour wonders.

Let’s dive right in—


Wait, you’re asking why I’m doing this? What is the significance of Columbia in 1940?


Columbia was one of the most prolific producers of B movies and 1940 is a nice round year right in the middle of the double bill era, roughly from 1935 until the United States v. Paramount ruling of 1948. It’s fascinating to explore a studio’s output in a year when they’re running on all cylinders.


This round I picked a Karloff chiller, one of Jack Holt’s he-man actioneers, and three crime exposés (Prostitution! Black market babies! Vagrancy!).


Alright, let’s dive right in—


Before I Hang (62 minutes)


The film itself is a bit repetitive and its plot gives a distinct sense of déjà vu, but this is still a satisfying chiller. Karloff plays a frail doctor sentenced to death for the mercy killing of a terminal patient, for whom an experimental anti-aging serum failed to work. Awaiting his death at the hands of the state, Karloff is allowed to continue work on the serum, this time testing it on himself. Alas, the doctor’s conviction is overturned, and his serum works, providing him with increased vim and vigor. Unfortunately, the serum was concocted with the blood of a fellow death row inmate, a psychopathic sadist. The doctor is now free—to murder.


Alternating between benevolent and violent, Karloff is typically excellent in this role. That lisp has a way of melting the viewer’s heart, making his eventual sweaty and shaky bouts of psychosis so much more disturbing. While the pathos is effective, connoisseurs of on-screen mayhem may feel neglected. The murder scenes lack creativity—each time Karloff does the same routine, wrapping his twisted-up handkerchief around the victim’s throat. The horrific effect lessens with each recurrence.


While watching Columbia movies from this period, watch out for athletic Bruce Bennett (a.k.a. Herman Brix, former Olympic shot-putter and star of The New Adventures of Tarzan) to pop up, usually as a policeman. Here Bennett gets a meatier role as Karloff's daughter's fiancée. Great character actor—and University of Cincinnati graduate turned faculty member—Don Beddoe plays a hardboiled cop. Karl Brown, famously D.W. Griffith’s cameraman, gets a writing credit, just as he did with the two previous (and very similar) Karloff films at Columbia, The Man They Could Not Hang and The Man with Nine Lives.

Before I Hang Karloff Columbia 1940
Various ads for Before I Hang, one with art nicked from The Human Monster..

Glamour for Sale (60 minutes)


B movies are like diners. They’ve got popular appeal, the fare is predictable, and everything is served quickly. And just like diners, if the ingredients are of high quality and the people involved have passion, the experience can be sublime. Glamour for Sale is that prefab diner of your dreams; it’s the quintessential "B."


Two escort services compete in the big unnamed city: Lady Middleton’s respectable institution where the girls happily play ping pong in their down time and there are strict limits on alcohol consumption during a date, and Companions, Inc. which doesn’t play so nice. The girls of Companions, Inc. are pawns in a shakedown scheme, summed up in this offhand exchange:


Escort 1: Someday I’m going to meet and marry a millionaire.

Escort 2: Swell, and that’s half a million commission for Louie.

Escort 1: My eye!

Escort 2: No, your throat, toots.


Louie (Paul Fix, also in Outside the Three-Mile Limit) is strictly middle management, a shrill task manager. The real cut-throat in charge of the business is Frank Regan, again played by Columbia-regular Don Beddoe chewing up and spitting out the scenery. The modus operandi of Companions, Inc. is to find the richest, most respectable, and most married customers and spring a photographer at them just as they’re cozying up to the escort. One of Middleton’s nice girls (Anita Louise) gets caught up in a Companions, Inc. suicide scandal and is enlisted by law enforcement to go undercover for the blackmailing escort service, both to clear her name and to expose Frank Regan’s criminal enterprise.


Every element works here: the capable cast (especially husky-voiced June MacCloy’s turn as Regan’s secretary), D. Ross Lederman’s direction, and Franz Planer’s photography. Most impressive of all is the writing; the screenplay by John Bright is nimbler and more cutting than any throwaway picture deserves. This should come as no surprise, Bright’s name, along with fellow Chicagoan Kubec Glasmon, is associated with such incendiary classics as The Public Enemy and Three on a Match. In Glamour for Sale, you can almost hear the rat-a-tat of Bright’s typewriter behind the little throwaway lines like, “You were so drunk you had to be poured into your hotel” and “Nothing bothers me but the crackle of paper money.” Although Glamour for Sale is a tamed beast of the post-code era, it’s still a hardboiled 60 minutes.


Glamour for Sale doesn’t warrant a single mention in Bright’s memoir, Worms in the Winecup, which is not so surprising. It was his only "B" for Columbia, and one gets the sense that Bright only lasted a few weeks at the studio. Even a cursory glance through the book should reveal why this anti-establishment writer couldn’t be chained down at Harry Cohn’s strictly run dream factory.

Glamour for Sale Columbia 1940
A couple ads for Glamour for Sale. (Mad Men of Europe is a British film distributed by Columbia.)

Babies for Sale (65 minutes)


Like an epic-length Crime Does Not Pay film, Babies for Sale is a ripped-from-the-headlines exposé of a racket to pawn off the children of unwed mothers to desperate couples willing to pay for an adoption. Boyish Glenn Ford plays a journalist seeking to shed light on the corrupt agency and its head doctor, played with psychopathic callousness by Miles Mander. This may seem like a setup for a hokey laff riot, but a scene a quarter of the way in detonates any ideas of fun. We see an exasperated couple, played by ubiquitous character actors John Qualen and Helen Brown, confront Mander about their baby. “He doesn’t cry,” Qualen explains, “he doesn’t try to talk, and now we know why…” On the verge of tears, Qualen continues, telling Mander that another doctor has told him the child will never be well. Helen Brown silently holds the bundled-up baby. The scene concludes in brutal tragedy—it’s difficult to watch.


In 1949, in a high-profile case, Manhattan lawyer Irwin Slater was arrested for heading a black-market baby ring out of Florida. It seems like this little movie—along with the very similar Monogram picture from a few years later, Black Market Babies—was onto something.

Babies for Sale Outside the Three Mile Limit Columbia 1940
A pair of ads for Babies for Sale including a Universal/20th Century/Columbia triple bill.

Outside the Three-Mile Limit (63 minutes)


If Mary Pickford is America’s sweetheart, then Jack Holt is America’s dyspeptic grandfather. Because of his innate unfashionability, the run of films he made for producer Larry Darmour—twenty-two titles in a six-year span, culminating with the serial Holt of the Secret Service in 1941—is forgotten by all but the most ardent B-movie fans. For aspiring Holt-heads, Outside the Three-Mile Limit is probably as good a place to start as any. The title refers to the point in the ocean where land laws cease, and thus a perfect place for a gambling ship to drop anchor. Holt is the floor manager of the floating casino, but he’s really an undercover G-man investigating counterfeit cash. Harry Carey plays the captain and—just in case you were worried there was a shortage of tough guys—other mugs aboard include Eduardo Ciannelli and Ben Welden. When the gangsters realize they’re being investigated, they dock in some Central American village, where they stay with the slimy European kingpin Van Cleve, played by Sig Ruman. Irene Ware—in her last film role—plays a spunky reporter who happens to be doing a feature on Van Cleve.


Despite their relentless production schedule, many of the Columbia B pics have a surprising amount of visual flourish (1941’s Meet Boston Blackie springs to mind). This is not the case with Outside the Three-Mile Limit, which is rife with cheap miniatures, fist fights straight out of Gower Gulch, and bolt-down-the-camera direction. Suffice to say, this is standard issue men’s adventure material. Harrison’s Reports drolly put it this way: “It is doubtful if women patrons will take more than a mild interest in it…” That said, if the idea of old codgers Jack Holt and Harry Carey sitting across from each other smoking cigarettes fills you with a sense of calm, then this is the picture for you. It's blue-collar entertainment: visually uncluttered, leanly plotted, and centered on a stoic hero.

Outside the Three Mile Limit Jack Holt 1940 Columbia
Ads for Outside the Three-Mile Limit.

Girls of the Road (61 minutes)


Listen up, Columbia has another important story to tell. This one is about female hoboes “thumbing their way to oblivion,” as the Governor puts it. Ann Dvorak plays the Governor’s daughter, and she is fed up with the platitudes of politicians, so she goes undercover to understand the lives of girl vagrants from the ground level.


Dvorak goes hitchhiking and gets picked up by a letch. From here, she falls in with a fellow femme hobo Mickey (Helen Mack). The two find a hobo jungle, which is soon busted up by the police—the Sheriff is played by our favorite Columbia player, Don Beddoe—and the girls are taken to jail. The girls riot over the gruel they’re fed so Beddoe locks them in their cage and hoses them down. This is all in the first 17 minutes!


The police escort the road girls to a freight train, the cars occupied by scraggly people, mostly men, blankly staring down at them. In the best sequence of the film, these parallel lives—the hardened faces of the train hobos and the resentful faces of the girls—are intercut, a POV from high atop the moving train, followed by a POV from the ground level looking up into the faces moving across the frame. This and several other sequences, including the opening “bad stuff happening to vagrant girls” montage, are testament to the talent of director Nick Grindé (the ‘e’ gets an accent in the opening credits, and that’s my preference).


Harrison’s Reports got their bindles all in a stick over this picture. “Poor!” they exclaimed, “The story is sordid and depressing, slightly ridiculous in spots, and completely lacking in mass appeal.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to Harrison’s build up. The story isn’t nearly as sordid and depressing as it deserves. The happy ending is like putting a ribbon on roadkill. Dvorak is as striking a presence as ever, but her character is a cipher, a static sounding board for the more interesting supporting characters.

Girls of the Road Columbia 1940
A handful of ads for Girls of the Road.

Don Beddoe B Movie Programmer Columbia 1940 Girls of the Road Glamour for Sale Before I Hang Karloff
Don Beddoe in (clockwise from upper left) Girls of the Road, Glamour for Sale, and Before I Hang.

Bruce Bennett Herman Brix Columbia 1940 Before I Hang Karloff Girls of the Road Glamour for Sale Babies for Sale
Bruce Bennett (aka Herman Brix) in (clockwise from upper left): Glamour for Sale, Before I Hang, Girls of the Road, & Babies for Sale.

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