Lots of actors die onscreen, but few perish the way famed character actor Dick Miller did in his film debut, 1955’s The Apache Woman. The neophyte actor-writer began the film playing a Native American, but he was surprised and more than a little amused to discover that he would be doing double duty as the cowboy who eventually kills that character in a big shootout. It was the perfect introduction to the Roger Corman method: Shoot it cheap, shoot it fast, and don’t worry too much about the specifics.
Corman’s World establishes its subject as a fascinating contradiction, a madman with the calm, soothing, rational manner of the sanest man in the world. As his vast army of protégés attest, Corman’s buttoned-down exterior hides a raging id that found its purest expression in drive-in quickies with rubbery sea beasties, half-naked women in peril, and nurses whose bedside manner is questionable at best. Corman dominated the circus-like drive-in-movie world of the ’50s through the ’70s, but the death of the drive-in and the rise of direct-to-video entertainment permanently affected Corman’s business and lowered his profile, even as his protégés (including Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Ron Howard, and Jack Nicholson) went on to become some of the most powerful, acclaimed figures in Hollywood.
If there’s a tragedy in Corman’s career—and that’s a very big if—it’s that he was too concerned with the bottom line and cranking out profits to follow his protégés to the apex of cinematic creativity. Corman’s films are often as known for how they were made as their actual quality; with Corman, the behind-the-scenes story (like shooting A Bucket Of Blood in one day on a dare) was almost invariably more compelling than the silliness onscreen. But the overall tone of Corman’s World is celebratory rather than mournful. It’s an exuberant valentine to a man with the uptight exterior of a junior bank president and the incorrigible soul of a carnie as well as a tribute to getting art, or at least entertainment, made by any means necessary, even if that means passing off cowboys as Indians, and vice versa.