Roger Corman: Hearts and Flowers on St. Valentine’s Day

It’s February 14, so of course I’m thinking of Roger Corman’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It details what led up to the famous mob-land killing in which Al Capone’s boys wiped out a rival Chicago gang. The film was released in 1967, amid worries by Warner Bros. studio honchos that Corman’s true-crime flick would upstage their own Bonnie and Clyde. They needn’t have worried: after a slow start Bonnie and Clyde became an enormous hit, and is regarded today as a classic. St. Valentine’s Day has its fans, but I’m not really among them. I firmly believe Roger’s best work as a director lay elsewhere. But there’s a nice story behind the making of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and it’s particularly fitting for a day dedicated to hearts and flowers.

Roger Corman has never been known as a warm-and-fuzzy guy. But actor Bruce Dern told me about a kindly Corman act that benefitted both him and a young Jack Nicholson. Because St. Valentine’s Day was a co-production with Twentieth Century-Fox, all the really good roles went to Fox contract players, like Jason Robards (who played Al Capone) and rising star George Segal. As Bruce put it to me, only “little shitbag roles” were available to himself and Jack, both of them members in good standing of the informal Corman stock company of actors. Roger told them, by way of apology, “I’m gonna make sure you each work the first week of the film and the last week of the film, so that even though you only have two days, you’ll be carried full five weeks.” In other words, Roger was cagily using SAG regulations to reward his favorites with paychecks far more ample than their small roles warranted. Bruce and I agreed that this gesture was pure Corman: he was great at being generous with other people’s money. Still, said Bruce, “It was so sweet that he did that for us, and I really liked him for that.”

Though Roger Corman’s cheapskate reputation is fully justified, in the course of his long career he’s also quietly dipped into his own pockets to help veteran employees. For instance, a fellow named Larry Cruikshank had known Roger since the old days, when he was (depending on whom you ask) either Roger’s first agent or the man who rented him his first office space. In the early 1970s, when Larry needed a job, Roger found a place for him on the New World staff. In the mornings he negotiated contracts and performed other business functions; in the afternoons he was a permanent fixture at a Sunset Strip watering hole. Nonetheless, his salary continued unabated. After Larry developed cancer, Roger instructed his staff to keep paying his health insurance premiums. Following Larry’s death in the mid-1980s, Roger made sure that the attendant who had nursed him through his final illness had been adequately compensated for his labors.

There’ve been other down-at-the-heels Hollywood functionaries, too, whom Roger quietly supported in one way or another, because their association dated back to the early years. Such kindly acts were not for show. A longtime employee, who remembers the entire Cruikshank episode, insists that Roger “never expected credit, or necessarily wanted anybody to know about it.” That was the generous side of Roger Corman. Stories about the other side will have to wait for another day. Perhaps Halloween.

This post is dedicated to loyal reader Craig Edwards, who remembered something about the Bruce Dern story but didn’t get the details quite right. Thanks, Craig, for giving me this opportunity to set the record straight!

By Beverly Gray