MoMA's Republic Pictures series offers B-movie rediscoveries and restorations

ScreenerBlog

Better than its Poverty Row competitors, but never quite a major, Republic Pictures carved out a niche for itself as a source of solid, dependable B-movies that were often better than they had to be.

Running in two parts, Feb. 1-15 and August 9-23, the Museum of Modern Art series “Martin Scorsese Presents Republic Rediscovered: New Restorations from Paramount Pictures” spotlights some of Republic's more unorthodox releases. These newly restored titles offer an intriguing look at a studio famous for its westerns and singing cowboys.

Republic was largely the vision of Herbert J. Yates, a Brooklyn boy who made a fortune in tobacco. After backing some silent movies, he invested in a film lab, Consolidated Film Industries. He also took over ARC (American Record Corporation), a company that merged several low-budget brands into a national label.

When lab work started to dry up in the early 1930s, Yates built a movie studio on the ARC plan, taking over a half-dozen or so independent outfits who owed him money. He combined Monogram for its national distribution network and Mascot for its soundstages with other companies to form Republic.

The dirty secret behind Hollywood is that during the Depression the industry was largely funded by B-movies. These low-budget, hour-long titles flooded movie theatres across the country while keeping studio employees busy. Oscars went to "prestige" projects like The Good Earth and The Great Ziegfeld, but the money to keep studios and theatres alike afloat came from cheaper movies.

Chief among these were westerns, filmed on location, often in a week or less. Yates put one of his ARC recording stars, Gene Autry, in projects like The Phantom Empire (cinema's only science-fiction/western serial about using radio to combat subterranean monsters), in the process helping develop a craze for "singing cowboys" that lasted for decades.

Autry was not only a top-ten movie box-office star, but had a hit weekly radio show, several best-selling records (like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"), toured the country hosting his own rodeo, and made a fortune from ancillary items like western gear and guitars he sold through the Sears catalog.

It took years for the star to discover that Yates was shortchanging him. During their subsequent contract dispute, Yates introduced a new singing cowboy, christening former backup singer Leonard Slye as Roy Rogers, the "King of the Cowboys."

Here's how successful the Yates formula could be. In 1935, Autry and director Joseph Kane made Tumblin' Tumbleweeds (based on his hit song) in about a week for $18,000. It grossed over a million dollars. Soon, even John Wayne, part of a Republic western series, was being promoted as a singing cowboy.

Yes, Wayne found a home for years at Republic, after the failure of his first starring project, 1930's The Big Trail. Along with Autry and Rogers, Wayne was the studio's biggest star. Others included John Carroll, Vera Hruba Ralston (who married Yates in 1949) and Judy Canova.

Although westerns dominated Republic's schedule, the studio released films of all types, from thrillers to musicals, coming-of-age dramas, romances and comedies. And while Yates kept a tight rein over costs, occasionally he would allow more expensive projects. For these he might borrow A-list filmmakers from other studios. Like John Ford, who talked Yates into backing The Quiet Man in exchange for some additional westerns. The Orson Welles Macbeth, Fritz Lang's House by the River and Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar all came from Republic.

Directors in the MoMA series include some of cinema's earliest innovators, like Allan Dwan, who ran one of California's first studios, Flying A, in 1911. Known for his grasp of Americana, Dwan joined Republic after World War II. The series includes Driftwood (Feb. 2 & 8), a gentle, leisurely but heartfelt look at a small town in Nevada. Its cast includes the reliable Walter Brennan and high-kick specialist Charlotte Greenwood, as well as a phenomenal turn by Natalie Wood as an orphan struggling to find her place in the world.

Dwan also directed 1948's The Inside Story (Feb. 8 & 13), this time following the inhabitants of a small Vermont town. Dwan's style is so basic as to seem invisible, but he treats his characters with uncommon sympathy and compassion. As a result, his actors often seem to be working at higher levels than in their other projects.

The series includes three films directed by John H. Auer, Angel on the Amazon (Feb. 3), The Flame (Feb. 3 & 6) and City That Never Sleeps (Feb. 3 &11). Starting out as an actor in Europe, Auer directed films in Mexico before joining Republic, where he concentrated on thrillers and musicals. The Flame is a smooth, polished film noir that starts with a distinctive, wordless prologue before opening up a treacherous, cynical vision of the world. City That Never Sleeps sends its characters through a dark night of nightclubs, alleyways, garages and penthouses, crime and corruption inescapable. (Scorsese will introduce the Feb. 3 screening at 7 p.m.)

Joseph Kane, sometimes considered Republic's "house" director, is represented by the widescreen thriller Accused of Murder (Feb. 5 & 7) and the western The Plunderers (Feb. 5 & 11) Like the latter film, Hellfire (Feb. 2, 6 & 13), directed by R.G. Springsteen, was shot in Republic's proprietary Trucolor process. Without the vivid greens and reds of its rival Technicolor, Trucolor offers a muted, stylized view of the world heavy with cool blues and warm, earthy tones. A vehicle for the weirdly affectless contract star Bill Elliott, Hellfire takes a satisfying tour through a Wild West without morals or consequences.

Starring Roy Rogers and Trigger ("The Smartest Horse in the Movies"), Trigger, Jr. (Feb. 4 & 10) finds the hero and his pal trying to save a circus while battling a "devil horse." Andrea Kalas, VP of Paramount Pictures Archives, will introduce the Feb. 4 screening with a presentation, “Republic Preserved.”

It's important to note that many Republic titles (especially the Roy Rogers entries) have been readily available, but often in poorly duped, cut-down versions. Films like The Red Pony (Feb. 4 & 12) haven't been seen in prints this beautiful for years. Directed by Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front, The Front Page), and adapted by John Steinbeck from his novella, this outstanding drama features a superb cast (Myrna Loy, Robert Mitchum, Louis Calhern, Shepperd Strudwick and Peter Miles), music by Aaron Copland and sensitive color cinematography by Tony Gaudio.

Another highlight of the series is I've Always Loved You (Feb. 10 & 14), a big-budget Technicolor melodrama about a pianist and her tutor. Directed by Frank Borzage, whose career reaches back to silent masterpieces like 7th Heaven, it is a sweeping but dark-hued romance with piano solos by Arthur Rubenstein.

And check out the cast for Storm over Lisbon (Feb. 9 & 14), described by Department of Film curator Dave Kehr as a "deep-discount" version of Casablanca: Vera Hruba Ralston, Richard Arlen and Erich von Stroheim.

If you're a devotee of Golden Age Hollywood, watching Republic movies can be disorienting. The basic narratives—western, mystery, musical—might be the same, but everything else is slightly off. The character actors, the locations and sets, even the color are all a little different from MGM or Warner Bros. movies.

Writers can push slightly different agendas, cinematographers can focus on unusual elements, directors can elicit unexpected performances. Republic offers an alternate take on society and culture, one not so hard-bitten and defensive as Warner’s, and not so privileged and wealthy as MGM’s. No other studio would have released a movie as cornpone as Grand Ole Opry, or as awash in high-priced Irish blarney as The Quiet Man.

On the other hand, would another studio have given The Red Pony the same simple, unadorned presentation? Would Hellfire have been as quietly effective released by anyone else?

The series, curated by Martin Scorsese, returns in August with a different set of Republic discoveries.