July 7, 2015


“The color overshadows the plot.” – Frank Borzage on I’ve Always Loved You (’46)

In 1945 Frank Borzage signed a lavish five-year deal with the penurious Republic Pictures, and it granted him unusual autonomy over his projects.  I’ve Always Loved You was the first film he made for Republic, and he invested it with the full force of his religious romanticism, where love is the one true savior. Limited only by the restraints of the Production Code, the film has the barest of plots, its three main characters floating around each other on a plane of pure feeling, their shifting passions expressed through music and color scheme – it was the only film ever shot in three-strip Technicolor for Republic. Set in and around the classical music world of Carnegie Hall, the most impassioned contact occurs during cross-cutting between separate renditions of Rachmaninoff’s “Second Piano Concerto”. If you give yourself over to it (and you can on the Olive Films Blu-ray, out now), the last act miracle achieves an emotional intensity akin to that of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. French filmmaker and critic  Luc Moullet wrote it was “perhaps Borzage’s masterpiece….The excess of insipidness and sentimentality exceeds all allowable limits and annihilates the power of criticism and reflection, giving way to pure beauty.” In Film Comment, Kent Jones described it as an “extreme film brought to the brink of madness.” Beauty and madness are the son and the Holy Spirit in Borzage’s trinity, in which God is love.


Republic Pictures was born as a conglomeration of six smaller Poverty Row studios, making money off of adventure serials and quickie B-pictures that cost little and turned modest profits. But as they grew they experimented with A-features, bringing in top talents for a couple of “Premiere” pictures a year, which were budgeted around $1 million. A few years later John Ford (The Quiet Man) and Orson Welles (Macbeth) would sign with studio head Herbert J. Yates. According to Herve Dumont’s biography Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic, Borzage’s five-year contract called for him to make one Premiere picture a year, “conceived in complete artistic freedom”, with a maximum budget of $1.5 million. He would be given his own production unit, with his choice of actors and technicians (he hired Tony Gaudio as DP, whom he last worked with on 1924′s Secrets), while his brother Lew Borzage was named associate producer. The most amazing part of the deal is that Borzage had an opt-out at the end of each year, so Yates had plenty of incentive to keep him happy. The first project Frank Borzage was attached to was the John Wayne Western Dakota, intended to be filmed in three-strip Technicolor. That project was eventually downsized to B&W and was directed by their “Deluxe”($300,000 budgets) filmmaker Joseph Kane.


Charles Vidor’s A Song to Remember (1945), a biography of Frederic Chopin, was a recent hit for Columbia, so Yates and Borzage settled on a story set in the classical milieu. They also trucked $40,000 to Arthur Rubinstein to curate and play every piano performance heard in the film (he is credited as “The World’s Greatest Pianist”). They chose to adapt a short story by Borden Chase, entitled “Concerto”, first published in 1937 for American magazine. A former Brooklyn cab driver, Chase had written some WWII screenplays (The Fighting Seabees) and would go on to write classic Westerns like Red River (’48), so he was an unlikely chronicler of high culture. But it was personal for Chase, as he based the story on his wife, pianist Leah Keith, who had performed at Carnegie Hall at the age of eight. Borzage hired him to adapt his story into a screenplay – his advice was to “make me cry.” Concerto was the working title of the film late into the production, but in October 1945 Borzage and Yates decided to change it because, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, the majority of exhibitors polled “were afraid the public wouldn’t know what ‘concerto’ means.”


The story concerns Myra Hassman (Catherine McLeod, plucked from MGM bit players), a beautiful young piano prodigy who is discovered by the revered maestro Leopold Goronoff (Philip Dorn, a pre-WWII star in Germany), who whisks her away from her rural American home to the capitals of Europe with his mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) and assistant Nikolas (a fastidiously hilarious Fritz Feld). Eventually the sexist Goronoff becomes threatened by Hassman’s talent, and humiliates her at her Carnegie Hall debut. She is thrown out of Goronoff’s circle, and she returns home to marry her childhood sweetheart George (William Carter), a sympathetic slab of All-American blonde beef who recognizes that Goronoff – and her professional dreams – will always have a place in her heart. Their daughter Georgette (Vanessa Brown) shows some talent at the keys, and so Myra is thrust back into the classical world, ready for one last duet with Goronoff and a resolution to her divided self.


The majority of action in the film are men and women standing in rooms and auditoriums either standing next to or caressing a piano. When they are not playing the piano they are eyeing it ravenously. It is the only means of communication – in the film it replaces speech as well as sex. Goronoff is entranced by Myra at an audition after she rejects his suggestion to play Rachmaninoff, and performs Beethoven’s “Appassionata” instead. She wears a light blue frock over a white blouse, her attire blending into the similarly colored wall. Their attraction is never stated, but envisioned as a combative creative union on stage, when at Carnegie Hall Goronoff drowns Myra out with his orchestra. He demands submissiveness, and Myra’s brilliant performance challenges his authority. As critic David Phelps noted to me, there is something of Dracula in Philip Dorn’s florid, hypnotic performance (and in the way Nikolas repeatedly refers to him as “Master” in a Renfield-ian manner). In this initial battle Myra is wearing blossoming pink chiffon against a wall of dark green. She literally stands out, and for one night becomes a star.  But she still yearns for approval, the sequence a series of desperate close-ups of Myra staring at Goronoff, desperate to know what set off this rage. After her split from Goronoff, his mother says of Myra, “her voice is the piano.” Borzage then cuts back and forth between Goronoff performing the Rachmaninoff Concerto on stage with Myra playing the same composition at home, their two renditions blending into one temporary bliss. That is, until George grabs Myra’s hands, and the link is broken. Goronoff is a shadow who only has power through his art, while George is artless but physically present – in the non-professional William Carter’s performance, he’s almost nailed to the ground.


In the final performance, Myra once again joins Goronoff in the Concerto. Her hair is piled high, setting off her cheekbones, above a pink form-fitting gown. No more girlish chiffon. When Goronoff stares her away, she focuses on her hands or the crowd, communing with the music herself, secure in her own talents for the first time. Goronoff is humbled, and defers to her through his posture and orchestration. The concluding scenes, in which Myra actualizes her pianistic talents and declares her true love are intensely moving. She who could only speak through music, finally finds the words.



“For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” – Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier) in Stranger at my Door

William Witney directed over ninety serials and feature films in his career, and he considered  Stranger at my Door (1956) to be his favorite. One of the great unsung action directors of the American cinema, Witney virtually invented the job of stunt choreographer. In the mid-1930s he was inspired by watching Busby Berkeley rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone.” From then on he worked out each shot of a fight sequence with his stuntmen, making sure each movement would match the next, creating an unbroken ribbon of action. He was able to hone his craft for decades at Republic Pictures, starting on adventure serials with friend and co-director John English (Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is the prime cut from this period), and transitioning to Roy Rogers Westerns after serving five years in a Marine Corps combat camera crew during WWII.

Stranger at my Door was a fifteen-day Western quickie produced at the end of his 20-year run at Republic, as the studio would cease active production in 1958. Made outside of the bankable series Witney usually worked in, it is a psychologically intense feature about preacher Hollis Jarret (MacDonald Carey), who believes he can save the soul of wanted bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), putting his wife Peg (Patricia Medina) and son Dodie (Stephen Wootton) in mortal danger in the process. The self-sacrifice inherent in proper Christian practice is pushed to uncomfortable extremes as Hollis privileges Clay’s soul over the lives of his family. The fulcrum of the story is a terrifying sequence in which Rex the Wonder Horse goes feral, trying to stamp out the eyes of the preacher’s cute kid. Witney and horse trainer Glenn H. Randall Sr. worked with Rex every morning of that fifteen day shoot until they captured the authentic animal fury they were seeking. No director exhibited bodies in peril with more visceral impact than Witney, and Stranger at my Door pairs that talent with the finest script he was ever assigned (by Barry Shipman), which ponders what happens when a man of the cloth puts God before his family. Stranger at my Door comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week from Olive Films, which will hopefully introduce Witney’s work to a wider audience.


The film opens with a close-up of a bank window getting smashed. Clay Anderson and his gang knock over the establishment, and instead of a clean getaway, try to burn the whole town down, dragging a flaming tumbleweed behind them.  During his escape Clay’s horse twists an ankle. He wanders onto Hollis Jarret’s farm, greeted by a church under construction,  Jarret’s young second wife Peg slicing watermelon, and  freckle-faced kid Dodie gabbing nonstop about horses.  It is Americana kitsch, which soon proves to be nothing more than a veneer which Clay begins to pick away at. Pretending to be a friendly traveler, Peg agrees to house him in their barn until his horse gets well. Clay begins needling her, asking if she was the preacher’s daughter, and upon finding her true role, advances upon her with a leer. He insists that she doesn’t belong on this isolated spread, alone, rotting on the vine. You can see the flickerings of doubt on Patricia Medina’s face. She is revolted by Clay’s aggression, but the truth of his statements are as plain as day. She is too young, Hollis is too old. She is not a devout believer, while Hollis practices a severe, self-abnegating Christianity. Clay’s poison begins its work. The Anderson character was originally intended to be Jesse James, but was changed, according to Richard Maurice Hurst in Republic Studios, due to “legal complications”. Skip Homeier was a child actor (billed as “Skippy”), and he still looks like he is outgrowing his adolescence here, now a gawky 26-year-old trying to appear menacing.


It is this youthfulness that attracts Hollis. When the preacher returns home from a trip to town and sees Clay out by the barn, he immediately knows this is a lost soul from the robbery. Instead of turning him in or urging Clay to leave, he insists that he stay. Hollis has taken a passage from St. Luke’s to heart:  “There shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance.” Hollis accepts Clay’s appearance as a challenge from God – to lead this lost lamb back to the flock, regardless of the consequences. The longer Clay stays, the more aggressive his pursuit of Peg becomes, and his paranoia at being caught has him pulling his pistol on every random visitor. It is as if Hollis has invited Death himself into his home. Peg becomes disgusted with all of them – at Clay’s boorishness and Hollis’ self-destructiveness, pushing herself towards the edges of the frame. But the men proceed onward to the inevitable violent endpoint.


Clay deflects all of Hollis’ attempts at preaching, treating his elder with contemptuous scorn. After another entreaty to turn to Christ, Clay ripostes, “”For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” Hollis, unperturbed, sees this as instruction. He purchases an unruly wild horse from a reluctant Slim Pickens, and believes that if this horse can be broken, so can Clay. Hollis names the horse “Lucifer” (played by Rex the Wonder Horse), and the beast lives up to the appellation. Dodie sneaks into the stable in an attempt to calm Lucifer himself, but instead the animal goes wild, bucking and attacking with the single-minded bloodthirstiness of a slasher movie monster. When Dodie slides underneath a cart, Lucifer goes down on his knees and tries to attack him with his teeth. It is the most terrifying equine performance in cinema history. Witney recalls the performance in a video from the 1994 Knoxville Film Festival:

 “Rex, King of the Wild Horses. This was one of the most animated, wildest horse you’ve ever seen. He had come out of a boys’ school in Flagstaff, Arizona. The trainer discovered that this horse would charge him when he cracked a whip. And I mean charge him. And you got out of the way. They were crying on the set, “Rex is loose!” I saw him chase a little actor under a car, get down on his knees and try to get to him with his teeth [laughter]. It wasn’t funny. Being a horseman myself I really appreciated this horse. There will never be another horse with the animation of this big bay, a thoroughbred Morgan horse, strangely enough.


Witney spent many of his early years at Fort Sam Houston with his uncle, which is where he learned to ride and jump horses, a passion and a skill he would carry with him the rest of his life. This led him to become friends with many of the stunt riders he worked with over the years, including the legendary Yakima Canutt. But for Witney, “the finest horseman ever to step on a horse bar none” was Joe Yrigoyen, who came up making pennies in Mascot Pictures serials, stayed on when the studio merged into Republic Pictures, and continued taking celluloid tumbles into the late 1970s, in Blazing Saddles and The Prisoner of Zenda. He was the stuntman for Clay Anderson in Stranger at my Door, given the task of calming down Rex during the freak-out sequence. In an effort to distract the horse from Dodie, Clay leaps onto Rex’s neck and wrestles him to the ground. It is a supremely athletic and dangerous feat, as Rex swings Joe around on his neck like a reverse rodeo rider.


The white-knuckle sequence proves Clay’s humanity, as he leaps in to protect Dodie. So Hollis’ plan is a success, though only after Dodie and Peg were almost stomped to death. For Peg this proves to be the end of her last frayed nerve. With the entirety of the film taking place on the Jarret farm set, there are a limited number of setups that Witney can use to generate tension. So instead of repeating another image of the stable, he flicks off the studio lights. While the rest of the family is asleep, Peg snags a shotgun and stalks towards the stable. She levels the sights onto Lucifer, ready to blast it into Kingdom Come, and her relationship with Hollis along with it. Poised there in low light, the gun raised, and the industrial fans tousling her hair, she is the closest thing the film has to an action hero. But she doesn’t have the nerve to take a life, and there is a storm brewing. The local sheriff stumbles into view, and the final shootout occurs in flames, the farm now an adjunct of hell. In the light of day the family is reconstituted, and Clay has discovered a measure of peace. But the question of whether all of the blood and thunder has been worth it is a question between Hollis and his God.


For a cheap programmer, the film was enthusiastically received, with Variety calling it an “exceptionally well-done family trade offering”, and The Hollywood Reporter praising it as containing “a theme that lifts it well out of the ordinary class and into a niche where it deserves to be considered with very special interest.” Witney always remembered it fondly, probably because of the positive critical response, not something he was used to in that period in his career. Though he always had a high reputation among serial aficionados and Western obsessives, his reputation never grew beyond these cliques. His most famous fan is Quentin Tarantino, who waxed poetic about him in a 2000 New York Times article (I made my much lower profile case at Moving Image Source a few years back).  Stranger at my Door is the first of Witney’s films to be released on Blu-ray, and it might be the last. But even if he never garners a retrospective or a door-stopping biography, his influence reverberates whenever a horse bucks a rider or a punch is thrown on screen.


June 3, 2014


In 1948 John Wayne appeared in Fort Apache, Red River, 3 Godfathers and Wake of the Red Witch. After seeing Red River, John Ford was reported to say, “I never knew that big son of a bitch could act.” He wouldn’t have been so surprised if he had seen Wake of the Red Witch first. Playing an alcoholic, obsessive sea captain hell bent on avenging his lost love, Wayne finds pockets of instability in his individualist persona. Compared to his other films that year, it has faded into obscurity, but Wake of the Red Witch held a pull over Wayne throughout his life. He got the name of his production company from the film, and when he was later battling cancer, he referred to the disease as the “Red Witch”. It is a ghostly film about a lost love, a dreamlike and violent potboiler that exhibits the blacker shades of Wayne’s persona.  I was drawn to watch the film (out on Blu-ray from Olive Films) while reading Scott Eyman’s superb new biography John Wayne: The Life and Legend. His book is invaluable for treating Wayne as an artist rather than an icon or a political symbol, and it illuminates the non-canonical work of his long career, most of which was produced at budget-minded Republic Pictures. It was the studio that kept him in the business after his initial star turn in The Big Trail (1930) was a financial disaster, and he remained loyal until the company started easing out of the film business in 1958. 


Wayne had paid his dues at Republic in B-Westerns, but since Stagecoach had become the studio’s most bankable star. Though primarily in the business of Bs, company head Herbert Yates reserved a few slots for “Premiere” productions on A-level budgets. Wake of the Red Witch was one of these, made for over $1.2 million. It was an adaptation of Garland Roark’s 1946 novel of trade wars in the South Pacific.  Wayne had already worked with director Edward Ludwig on The Fighting Seabees (1944) and co-star Gail Russell on Angel and the Badman (1947). Every loyal, Wayne brought Ludwig back to direct Big Jim McLain in 1952. As he gained more power over production decisions, Wayne attempted to preserve a familial atmosphere on the set, his own version of John Ford’s stock company. Wayne even imported Danny Borzage to play accordion on the set, a loosening-up function that Borzage also served on Ford’s productions. Though taken from a novel, Wake of the Red Witch was Republic’s attempt to copy Cecil B. Demille’s Reap the Wild Wind (1942), which also featured Wayne as a morally ambiguous ship captain who brawls with a sea monster.


The book was adapted into a script by Harry Brown and Kenneth Gamet. Brown would work with Wayne on Sands of Iwo Jima (1950), while Gamet had already written for Wayne on Flying Tigers (1942) and Pittsburgh (1942). They introduce the world of the South Pacific as already soiled, plundered and ruined by the sclerotic whites who have taken over. The movie opens with this doom-laden line: “the idyllic peace and beauty of the South Pacific lay undisturbed for centuries. But the white man came eventually; he rolled it up, put it in his pocket and took it home to sell.”

The story creates tension by delaying the backstory of Captain Ralls (Wayne), the self-destructive skipper of the Red Witch, which Ralls plans to sink intentionally in the opening scene . While the plot indicates it’s the rich cargo Ralls is after, it turns out to be something far more personal. Ralls is haunted by the memory of Angelique (Gail Russell), the intense daughter of a local South Pacific Commissar. Her hand is given in marriage to rich trade company president Sidneye (Luther Adler), an oleaginous operator who has acquired his wealth on the backs of the South Pacific natives. His company is called “Batjak”, which Wayne borrowed to call his production company in 1951. A clerical error changed the spelling to “Batjack”, but Wayne thought it sounded good anyway, so he stuck with it. Ralls devotes his life to ruining Sidneye at any costs, especially if it includes giving up his own.


Ralls’ instability is represented by two extreme close-ups, where Wayne walks bug-eyed toward the camera. These unusual shots show Ralls consumed by anger, in a state of catatonic rage. In the first he is bottles-deep on his latest bender, right before a horrific beating of his navigator, who would not go along with his plan to sink the ship. After the brawl, of which nothing is shown, there is a close-up of his bloody knuckles. It is an uncanny image, as John Wayne brawls usually end up with hugs and shots of liquor. Here the physical cost of fighting is made visible. The second and final occurrence of the extreme close-up occurs in flashback, to seven years earlier, after he has heard the news of Angelique’s marriage. He is on his boat, trying to burn off his anger in another meaningless fistfight. His face is sweaty and wild-eyed, as if he is suffering from the DTs. The time of the flashback and the present day has been flattened. Ralls is the same man as he ever was, consumed by hatred and addicted to pain.


Angelique is not introduced for forty minutes, her presence an unspoken weight on Ralls’ shoulders. It is her vision that blurs his thoughts, distorts his dreams. Gail Russell’s performance is ethereal and barely there, a wisp of a woman already disappearing into the drapes. Ralls’ devotion to her memory is intense and all-consuming, entering the realm of fairy tale. Little is known about the seven intervening years between plot strands, aside from the fact that Ralls sailed the seas, thinking about her every day. It’s akin to the legend of The Flying Dutchman, who was doomed to sail the seas forever unless he won a woman’s love. Wake of the Red Witch is even darker, in which the love has already been lost, and self-annihilation is the only escape. Wayne brings his usual athleticism to the part, especially in a well-staged battle with a giant octopus, but it brings him no satisfaction or resolution. It is in the haunting finale, with his scuba mask filling with water, that Ralls recognizes a way out. He can reunite with Angelique in the last few seconds before death, remembering when he once had a future. 


January 22, 2013

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Marion Morrison had to work hard to become John Wayne. His earth-straddling lope and taffy-stretched line readings were not invented by John Ford or Howard Hawks, only finely exploited by them. The flood of Republic Pictures movies released on Blu-Ray by Olive Films illustrates this fact, filling in the blanks of the evolution of one of the screen’s most indelible personalities. Following the box-office failure of the Raoul Walsh masterpiece The Big Trail (1930), Wayne would have to wait nearly a decade before his delayed acceptance as part of Hollywood’s firmament in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). The period in between shows him sliding into obscurity, from Columbia and Warners down to the resourceful Poverty Row studios Mascot, Monogram and the slightly more reputable Republic. Olive has so far transferred sparkling editions of seven of the Republics, most of which finds him stepping in to play Stony Brooke, the leader of the long-running Western trio The Three Mesquiteers (he already played in a modern dress Three Musketeers for a 1933 Mascot serial – endless remakes are nothing new). Stony Brooke is lithe and quick where the classic John Wayne figures are slow-moving monuments, visible in Olive’s gorgeous 4K scan of The Quiet Man, out today on Blu-ray, but his Mesquiteers voice exudes the chummy warmth and presence of Wayne-ness, not yet weighed down with history.

The Mesquiteers films were Wayne’s second go-round at Republic, after a series of low-cost A action films at Universal failed to ignite audience interest. He told Maurice Zolotow that “the exhibitors wouldn’t touch a John Wayne movie with a ten-foot projector”, so when his Universal contract expired, he returned to Republic at a lowered salary. He considered his return the lowest point of his career, and was suitably dismissive of his work in this period, saying “Christ, they were awful. They were kids’ movies.” Secretary Mary St. John recalled that Wayne looked like a “wounded puppy — sad, frustrated and unhappy. He felt like his career has bottomed out.” Yet these are marvelously entertaining works, with spectacular stunts directed with speed and clarity by George Sherman, Joe Kane, and other Republic craftsmen. Wayne may have been in a depressive funk, but on film he registers with his lighthearted, almost lilting delivery, emitting from a powerfully angular frame knifing through the wilderness.

While John Ford’s Wayneare always haunted by the past, his step slowed to allow his pained memories to emerge around him, the Republic Wayne is engaged in the perpetual now of a chase. Stony is without past or future, each Mesquiteers film a new beginning. Paired mostly with fellow upright gent Tucson Smith (Ray Corrigan) and comic ventriloquist sidekick Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune), these three earnest cowhands inevitably get roped in to save their community from evil land developers of one shade or another. These quickies are strongly pro-New Deal, pitting the Mesquiteers against a parade of oily land speculators and tin-pot dictators. In this series Wayne is, above all else, a community organizer.

Ostensibly a Western series, the constant need for stories (Wayne made 8 in less than two years) incorporated all manners of cliffhanging dramatics, from the crime procedural of Red River Range (where Stony impersonates a gangster) to the surreal circus comedy of Three Texas Steers. By the end of the Mesquiteers’ time-folding run, they were fighting Nazis. The most elaborately strange of the Wayne Republics would have to be The Night Riders (1939), which imports a Mexican revolution narrative onto the Western U.S. A disgraced cardsharp is convinced to impersonate a Spanish nobleman in order to claim a “Western Empire” of 13 million acres from forged land grants. So what starts as a riverboat gambling brawler ends up as a revolutionary war drama, complete with the Mesquiteers donning masks as a violent protest group, redistributing wealth with the verve of a 99-percenter. The vigilante trio even stumbles into the bedroom of a slumbering President Garfield, who can only offer back channel support against the Western Empire dictator, his hands tied by the isolationist mood of the government. Screenwriters Betty Burbridge and Stanley Roberts stole not only from pulp novels but from the headlines, as FDR was battling isolationist sentiments even as Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia in March ’39. The Night Riders was released on April 12th.

Wayne’s career was at a standstill until his friend John Ford cast him in Stagecoach. Eager for the chance to star in an A picture, he accepted the part of Ringo Kid for the low salary of $3,000, barely above his Republic pay. In comparison, the female lead, Claire Trevor, would receive $15,000. Republic agreed to release him to film the project in return for $600 a week. Herbert Yates had no expectations that the film would raise Wayne’s standing. In fact, by the time Stagecoach was released in March of 1939, Wayne was already back making the Mesquiteers quickies Three Texas Steers, Wyoming Outlaw and New Frontier. But eventually the film’s overwhelming success, both critically and at the box office, made Wayne a valuable commodity, and he became their A feature star, for the one or two big budget features they produced each year. Dark Command (1940), one of the first results of this new contract, reunited Wayne with director Raoul Walsh, who had tapped him for stardom ten years previously in The Big Trail.

Wayne’s performances, perhaps chastened by the incessant insults Ford would throw at him on set, became more deliberate and thoughtful, as if he weighed each word before letting it loose. This makes Wayne’s characters seem haunted from the first frame in Ford’s works, even in the sprightly Irish romance The Quiet Man, in which Wayne is dogged by an accidental murder in his past. Winston Hoch’s luminous cinematography, which elaborates an endless palette of greens, can do nothing to prettify the striding husk of Wayne, who drags his violent history along with him into every frame. When he sees Maureen O’Hara emerge like a flame-haired ghost in the open plain though, some of that Mesquiteers lightness returns.


July 3, 2012

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On July 18th, Olive Films will begin their roll-out of the Republic Pictures library with DVD/Blu-Ray releases of High Noon (1952) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Republic has long been one of the most underutilized holdings in the home video market, passing from corporation to corporation with little concern for the treasures it contained. But upstart Olive has closed a massive licensing deal with Republic parent Paramount Pictures, and is set to release a flood of material (from B-Westerns to prestige pics) in 2012 that had mostly been overlooked in the digital age. While these first two releases have been well-represented on DVD, it is their premiere on Blu-Ray, and there are plenty of rare gems coming down the pike (all transferred in HD), including Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar,  Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door and Orson Welles’ Macbeth.

Herbert J. Yates began his career in film processing in 1915. By the 1930s his Consolidated Film Laboratories was a major developer of B-film. As the Great Depression sent many Poverty Row studios into the red, Yates took them over, combining six companies (Monogram, Mascot, Liberty, Majestic, Chesterfield and Invincible) into one Republic in 1935. They made money off of disreputable serials and Westerns, giving daredevil action directors like William Witney endless opportunities to hone their craft on a shoestring budget.

Witney started his career at Mascot, riding horses in films for his brother-in-law, and director, Colbert Clark. Witney directed his first film, The Painted Stallion (1937), for Yates, and remembers the set-up in his autobiography, In A Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase:

Republic’s main office was in New York where taxes were lower than in California, and Consolidated Film Industries, which made all the release prints, was located next door in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The office in New York City was located at 1776 Broadway…

Then, after Yates bought out the last of the executives from the six former companies, Witney writes, “I will say one thing for him. He screwed a lot of very smart men.” Witney wasn’t one of them, working productively for the company in serials (Daredevils of the Red Circle, The Adventures of Captain Marvel), Roy Rogers Westerns and teen-sploitation (Juvenile Jungle, Young and Wild) until the company was sold in 1959. It was because of money-making B-pictures like Witney’s that Yates had the money to invest in prestige productions like Orson Welles’ Macbeth and John Ford’s The Quiet Man and (the less expensive) The Sun Shines Bright. Yates rubbed Ford the wrong way, as the curmudgeonly director told biographer Joseph McBride, regarding The Sun Shines Bright:

Well, they didn’t ruin it, they couldn’t ruin it. But they cut a lot out of it. You’re working with a stupid lot of people, the executive producers, so what the hell, you’ve got to expect it.

But whatever his shortcomings as a producer and a shameless money-grubber, Herbert J. Yates, through accident or circumstance, funded some of the glories of the Hollywood Classical Cinema, both the high art of Ford and the low of Witney, and for that he deserves our reluctant thanks.

Yates sold his company’s library in toto to National Telefilm Associates (NTA) in ’59, bowing to the rising dominance of television. They had severely curtailed production, and were mainly making their money selling TV rights anyhow.  A Dec. 23rd, 1957 issue of Billboard announces the sale of syndication rights to NBC of 218 features and 15 serials for $3,5000,000, with the writer noting that, “the move by Republic to put its package in active sales is concurrent with reports that the studio is in the process of terminating film production.” At this point the demand for B-pictures had disappeared, as the 1948 anti-trust Paramount Decision had divested the studios of their theater ownership. They could no longer “block-book” their product and force theater managers to run whatever they sent them.

NTA made money syndicating the TV rights, with the rise of cable TV in the 1980s reinvigorating profits, leading them to change their name to Republic in 1986, and producing their own TV shows like Beauty and the Beast (1987). In 1994, Aaron Spelling Productions purchased NTA/Republic, and essentially used it as a distribution arm, and as a name to sell its own projects, completely divorced from the low-budget studio it once was. Now Republic Pictures Home Video would release a Spelling mini-series like James Michener’s Texas on VHS, while Johnny Guitarlanguished in the vaults. This was followed by some swift multinational swallowings, as Blockbuster purchased Spelling, and then Viacom bought Blockbuster. The Republic library then became the custody of the Viacom-owned Paramount Home Entertainment, all by the end of 1995.

There had been sluggish attempts to release the Republic library on home video during this period. Spelling licensed it to Artisan Video in 1995, who released The Quiet Man and a few others until the company was gobbled up by Lionsgate in 2003. Artisan’s rights expired in 2005, reverting briefly back to Paramount, but Lionsgate then decided to renew this license for another six years, starting in 2006. For what must have been effective but arcane accounting reasons, Lionsgate effectively sat on the Republic library. They released the comparatively unknown Arch of Triumph (1948), Only the Valiant (1951), and One Touch of Venus (1948) on DVD, but left the vast, and vastly better known, titles sitting on the shelf.

Once Lionsgate’s laissez-faire reign ended this year, Olive Films leapt into the fray, manically licensing Republic titles from Paramount, and almost immediately putting them into production. In the first few months of their stewardship, Olive will have released more of the Republic library than Artisan, Lionsgate and their forebears combined. As fast as they are releasing them, there are some quality control concerns, but the early returns are encouraging.  Both High Noon and Invasion of the Body Snatchers have received high marks from tech review site, as well as my own eyes. The transfers are clean and sharp with rich contrast. Paramount’s archival wing had obviously had done strong HD transfers on these, and Olive presents them with no digital blow-drying. High Noon comes with a making-of documentary, while Invasion contains no extras, which is the norm for the company. And while Olive has had notoriously poor cover art in the past, their Republic discs all seem to have original poster artwork – a huge improvement over some of their early Photoshop jobs.

While it would have been ideal for Paramount to push its massive resources behind the restoration and release of the Republic library, perhaps it’s more appropriate for the scrappy and relatively under-funded Olive Films to do the job. Releasing its discs quickly, efficiently and with little marketing muscle, the Republic Pictures library has finally found a licensor that can match its huckster spirit, and that has the smarts to take advantage of other companies’ mistakes.


May 10, 2011

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This year’s summer movie season was inaugurated by the gentle guttural drawl of Vin Diesel in Fast Five, the latest iteration of the jokey car fetishist franchise. Listening to Diesel’s lazy growl battle The Rock’s aggressive, crystalline enunciation offers more diversionary pleasures than most Hollywood money-grabbers. But the most fun I’ve had this year is watching a minor hit from the summer of 1939, the movie serial Daredevils of the Red Circle, which I picked up a $.99 VHS copy of on Amazon. The history of the summer blockbuster is usually traced to Jaws and Star Wars – in which Steven Spielberg and George Lucas filmed B-movie scenarios with A-level budgets and cemented the studios’ preference for the holy teen demographic. Lucas has previously stated that the Flash Gordon serial was one of the influences on Star Wars, and both men further indulged their serial fantasies with the Indiana Jones franchise. While  Spielberg and Lucas continue their attempts to recapture their sense of childhood wonder, always undercut by a winking self-consciousness, the originals are still around, providing unpretentious pleasures their wildly successful descendents have never quite been able to match.

Daredevils of the Red Circle began shooting on March 28th, 1939, and finished a month later, with enough footage to fill 12 episodes released that June. The first is a three-reeler, close to a half-hour, but the rest are two reels clocking in around 17 minutes each. It was budgeted by Republic Pictures at $126,855, but directors William Witney and John English completed it for $126,118. English and Witney had just completed The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939), the sequel to their smash hit serial The Lone Ranger (1938)  (the current spate of sequels and remakes is nothing new). In his autobiography, In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase,  Witney writes that after a two week vacation, Republic producer Bob Beche called him into his office for the next project, which would be Daredevils. When he heard the pitch from the screenwriting team led by Barry Shipman, he said, “I think you guys should stop drinking and give yourselves a chance to get over the DTs.”

The story follows the adventures of three circus daredevils: the leader (and high diver) Gene Townley (Charles Quigley), the nimble escape artist Tiny Dawson (Bruce Bennett) and the strongman Burt Knowles (David Sharpe). After their trapeze act is firebombed by the notorious Harry Crowel (a skeletal, menacing Charles Middleton), and Gene’s kid brother dies in the blaze, the trio starts investigating Crowel – who has been calling himself by his prisoner number, 39013. 39013 has been attacking the holdings of Horace Granville (Miles Mander), the rich industrialist who had fingered him for arrest. The Daredevils offer Granville assistance, and with the help of his daughter Blanche (Carole Landis) and their dog Tuffy, they attempt to bring 39013 to justice.

The story is an efficient delivery system for action acrobatics, if not narrative logic, and Witney and English take advantage of their athletic leading men. Bennett was an Olympian shot-putter, while David Sharpe was the stunt coordinator and main stuntman for Republic. Of Sharpe, Witney wrote, “It was a director’s dream to have a leading man capable of doing his own fight sequences. It meant you could keep the camera close to him and it gave us a chance to show him off.” The directors take full advantage of this in fight sequences of unusual physicality and intensity. Witney mentions getting the camera close, but he and English often use wide shots with few inserts and fewer cuts, letting the actors and stuntmen careen through industrial landscapes and drab offices with reckless abandon. The closer shots he mentions must be the numerous times he gets Sharpe to bust through a locked door as deadly gases are seeping in.

There is a joy in just letting these expert tumblers loose, epitomized in a late bit in episode 11 where Sharpe, having failed to break into a room where a hired goon cowers, slips around a corner and knocks the thug out through the side window. Sharpe begins to crack a smile at all the fun he’s having, before Witney-English cut to the next bit of wild action. This is the smile that Harrison Ford puts in quotes in Indiana Jones, but here it’s an accidental bit of non-fiction entering the screen. Sharpe’s character is a no-nonsense bruiser, who doesn’t crack a smile in any other bit of action. Unable to repress his happiness in his work, and with Witney-English eager to move on the next shot, this arrested upturn in Sharpe’s mouth remained in the film, and I can’t think of a better example of Godard’s dictum, “film is truth 24 frames per second”, even if it desperately wants to be lying. Along with Sharpe’s exertions, there are dives into oil fires, leaps from speeding cars and innumerable crashes into inanimate objects. This is dangerous and thrilling stuff, held together with flimsy but fleet story material that knew to keep moving forward.

Witney and English recombine basic scenario elements in each two-reeler, with minute variations to keep things rolling. The trio will inevitably get locked inside a room with death stalking them, fight off thugs at an industrial site, demean Granville’s black servant (this racist role is endured by Fred “Snowflake” Toones), and do it all with nary a crease in their natty suits. The use of repetition and variation brought the structure of these works to the forefront, and it is one of the central pleasures of the serial form. In their haste to crank out the serials, Republic created the forerunners of 70s structuralism, who, Hollis Frampton foremost among them, made films in which the structure and shape of the films was the content. The work of Witney and English made their structures just as visible, unintentionally laying bare the devices of their making, a kind of unconscious self-consciousness.

Another remarkable facet of Daredevils in particular is its emphasis on the hopes and fears tied into technology. Almost all of the major fight setpieces take place in a factory or major industrial site. The first episode ends in spectacular fashion, when a tunnel connecting Catalina Island to Los Angeles springs a leak, and Blanche Granville is stuck inside. Using the wonderful miniature work of Babe Lydecker, their tunnel is flooded. Then there are the brawls at an electrical station, an oil derrick and a gas plant, the sabotage of an experimental laser, and 39013′s expert makeup job to pass himself off as Granville. There is a thin line between technological advancement and abject terror, and the unease with the rapid changes of the era is palpable in every frame. The Daredevils offer split-second escapes from the apocalypses of the imagination, and do it with an unguarded smile.