When John Wayne Worked on Poverty Row

PRC Studios, 1440 N. Gower St., part of Hollywood's "Gower Gulch" or so-called Poverty Row.

A movie ticket went a lot farther back in the good old days. Most movie theaters had only one screen, and they would usually show two films back to back—a so-called double feature--often accompanied by a couple of shorts, such as a newsreel, a travelogue, a comedy, or a cartoon. One of those features would be the main attraction, the A film; the secondary movie, which didn’t usually have the benefit of marketing, big-name stars, or a lavish budget, was called the B picture and was most often produced by a minor independent studio.

The A pictures were mainly distributed to the chain movie theaters, many of which were connected to, or outright owned by, the major studios. Independent theaters often had to scramble to fill their bills, many relying on B movies for everything they screened. That meant those churn-’em-out, low-budget studios had to make a lot of movies, and they had to make them fast and cheap. Many of those low-rent studios were headquartered on or near Gower Street in central Hollywood. Cowboy actors and stuntmen, hoping for work as extras in the studios' many Westerns, would gather in the area, giving rise to the moniker "Gower Gulch." Because of the nature of the cheapo studios, the area was also called Poverty Row. When more and more B-movie studios started production elsewhere in Hollywood, the motley collection was often referred to generically as Poverty Row, referring not to a specific geographic location so much as those studios that specialized in hurried filmmaking.

The Poverty Row studios could never compete with the majors like Paramount, MGM, Warner’s, and the like, but their names will be familiar to viewers of TCM from opening credits to some films of the 1930s and ’40s: Amalgamated, PRC, Grand National, Mascot, Monogram, and Republic, among numerous others. The last three of those studios might be recognizable to fans of John Wayne Speaks, who know that Duke starred in films produced by each of them.

Wayne made three serials for Mascot that were later edited down to single movies, 16 Westerns for Monogram (released as Lone Star Productions), and an astounding 34 movies for Republic. Republic, it might be argued, wasn’t actually part of Poverty Row, because with John Wayne and other stars, especially in the late ’40s and ’50s, it produced some strong films with solid scripts, actors, directors, and budgets. But when Republic was formed in 1935, it was made up of a collection of Poverty Row Studios, and continued making those kinds of B movies for a number of years. John Wayne’s first efforts with Republic, beginning in 1935, were largely rehashes of the same kind of oaters he’d been turning out for the preceding three years at Monogram, where he made an average of five movies a year!

By the 1940s, of course, Wayne no longer had to accept meager paychecks and poor scripts from the guys in Gower Gulch (even though he did continue to make films with Republic, as that studio’s reputation grew). But it’s an interesting historical note that Duke earned his chops as an actor among Hollywood’s lowliest of the low—on Poverty Row.

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