Now that we know what’s in store for us from Bill Girdler’s filmography, let’s talk about the man himself. His biography is well documented, a good overview is found here, and some themes are worth repeating as we get ready to look at his films in depth.
Girdler was born on 22 October 1947 in Kentucky to a well-to-do family of industrialists, and after a short stint in the US Air Force–likely pleasing his grandfather whose plant built B-24 bombers during World War II–returned home to start Studio One Productions with his brother -in-law. After shooting a number of local commercials, the pair turned to feature filmmaking and changed their studio name to Mid-America Pictures. Six of his nine films were shot in Kentucky, Project: Kill, Grizzly, and The Manitou were his only Hollywood productions. Girdler and his brother-in-law would be business partners until Girdler’s untimely death in 1978.
Because Girdler said himself that he was more businessman than artist, his work is mainly underappreciated by film scholars. He gets mentioned from time to time as the director of Abby or Sheba, Baby or Grizzly, and that’s pretty much the extent to which he’s remembered.
A little more thought brings us a bit more legacy to think about: first, we see Girdler’s ghost at play nearly weekly in low-budget sci-fi and horror, especially in places like the SyFy Channel. Every time we see an “animals attacking humans” film, we should be thanking Bill Girdler. Grizzly showed that this sub-genre could be fun and successful, and it’s been with us ever since 1976 when Grizzly became the most successful independent film of its day.* More importantly, Grizzly was the first film in this genre since he was the first to rip off Jaws’ main storyline. Someone else would have done it if Girdler had not, but the point is that Girdler beat everyone else to the punch–and did it well.
Another thing we might have Girdler to thank for–only in part–is Pam Grier’s television career in the late 70s and 80s. She was pretty tired of the one-dimensional roles she was getting in the blaxploitation scene, and called it quits on the whole lot–Girdler’s Sheba, Baby was the last blaxploitation she shot and her last film for American International Pictures. Soon thereafter she moved on to television work for a spell.
As an aside, I’ll just mention quickly that Austin Stoker has fonder memories of Girdler, having been directed by him in Abby; Sheba, Baby and The Get-Man. According to Stoker, if you played a villain, Girdler would also make you show some positive sides of that character. Likewise, heroes were expected to show some villainy. To Stoker, this was a breath of fresh air during the height of blaxploitation–and he turned down many roles within this genre precisely because the charters he was asked to play were so one-dimensional in the way that Grier would have found all too familiar. One might conclude that Grier, as an African-American woman had fewer choices at that point while Stoker had more on account of gender.
So what might have happened to Girdler if he hadn’t perished in that helicopter in the Philippines in ’78? He had already moved out to Hollywood and had completed three films there, the last of which, The Manitou, was starting to get into some seriously well known stars and bigger budgets–specifically Tony Curtis and $3 million. We’ll never know the answer to counter-factual questions, but one could see the upward trajectory Girdler was on, so who knows?
*Outside of porn. By any accounting, Deep Throat was the most successful independent film ever created.