This February, Herbert J. Yates's Poverty Row powerhouse Republic Pictures will be on full display in the Museum of Modern Art's Titus 1 and Titus 2 theaters in New York. The first half of a 30-film series devoted to the studio that loved westerns, noirs, serials, and all that any and every B-movie could offer is packed with treasures, all selected by Martin Scorsese, and few, if any, that are seen inside a movie theater these days. Many of the films have never been on DVD or even shown on the Turner Classic Movies television channel. Everything screening is either a new preservation courtesy of Paramount or an archival 35mm print. Over the past year, through working on the series and cutting the series trailer, I've become deeply familar with the program and was so glad to be asked by the Notebook to introduce viewers to the 14 films that will be screening starting February 1st. It's a special series, filled with films that extend beyond their genres and expectations.
Images are from the series of image essays I've published here:
I've Always Loved You (1946)
While Republic was primarily known for their down and dirty pictures, they did try their hand at some A-level beauties, like John Ford's The Quiet Man, Orson Welles's Macbeth, and Nicolas Ray's Johnny Guitar. But before those movies was this maddening tale of music and obsessive romance helmed by the un-inimitable Frank Borzage. Republic's first forays into bigger budget films was also its first time using the Technicolor process, which required the use of special cameras and personnel, which required keeping to a strict production schedule. When the production ran into delays, using Technicolor became something of a hindrance, and even when all was said and done, the release was pushed back when crowded labs delayed print availability.
Thankfully, the schedule mishaps had no bearing on the final outcome. The color truly sings and as Borzage himself said, “The color overshadows the plot.” That plot, overshadowed as it is, is based on Borden Chase's short story "Concerto," and follows a young female pianist who becomes the student of an acclaimed concert musician. Despite his womanizing and blatant sexism she falls in love with him and especially with the intensity of their undeniable musical connection. Slowly, the characters begin to take on a cipher like quality, becoming vehicles for a form of communication only possible through music. A spiritual examination slowly builds of what it means to connect through art, through something not human, and how that connection has trouble manifesting itself in the real world. The deliriously wild ending is deeply moving but also surprisingly hopeful in how it portrays a woman taking hold of her artistic ambition while simultaneously owning her desires, no matter how complicated or contradictory they may be.
After the production delays on I've Always Loved You, Republic set out to create their own color process that they could control but also rent out. They called it Trucolor and for the first 5 years it was a unique two-strip subtractive process, with red and blue providing all the color—they would use bi-pack cameras, but then use Kodak's color couplers for the release print. The couplers were built in dyes that "spontaneously and simultaneously" produced red tinting on one side and blue on the other, as they were "suspended in gelatin coatings that were bound to the silvered image emulsions."
R.G. Springsteen's Hellfire opens with a message in glowing flaming Trucolor. It reads "Man with his misdeeds kindles his own Hellfire!" and almost immediately there is a dizzying montage of such misdeeds ensconced in flames. Those misdeeds inexplicably give way to a striking meditation on faith and spiritualism, all the while hiding in the grubby clothes and dusty locations of a typical B-Western. The story revolves around a gambler turned a kind of evangelist ("Wild" Bill Elliott), who is trying to track down a female outlaw (Marie Windsor) so that he can use the reward money to build a new church. Windsor effortlessly transitions from outlaw to chanteuse and back, providing a messy emotional contrast to Elliott's eerily calm character as their tête-à-têtes about God and society begin to form the bulk of the movie.
The fragile nature of the Trucolor takes things even further, with the light subtly shifting from red to blue over single shots, creating a hallucinatory otherworldly effect that deepens every Bill Elliott plea, Bible in hand. The movie often looks more like a watercolor painting than a film, especially as characters move in and out of the moonlight or the fog.
Stranger at My Door, one of Willian Witney's attempts at telling a more personal story after years of honing his action skills with Roy Rogers, opens with a robbery that functions the same as Hellfire's burning proclamation. In the same fashion, the story truly begins when the lead bank robber (Skip Homeier) seeks refuge at a local preacher's (Macdonald Carey) house that sits outside of town. The preacher agrees to house the outlaw in hopes of reforming him, despite his wife's reservations and the safety of their young son. What develops, with the help of a wild horse named Lucifer, is a battle of the spirits, with each party stubbornly holding on to their viewpoint.
What could have been a purely theoretical film is grounded and then shook up by Witney's action prowess. When Lucifer comes to stay at the preacher's house it sets off a series of shockingly violent sequences. Witney, wanting the entirety of the sequences to have the same intense energy, decided to shoot with the horse for one hour every day, the first hour on set, over the course of the 15-day shoot, so that he would get everything he could from the performance.
Allan Dwan's Driftwood opens more calmly, as a preacher, in a rundown and abandoned town, preaches to his granddaughter (Natalie Wood) sitting alone in a dilapidated open-air church. It's a bizarre and unnerving scene for what will soon become a gentle movie that lovingly critiques society and civilization. As always, Dwan remains true to his characters and in Driftwood creates the rare film that is truly sincere.
After Wood is soon orphaned, she finds a home with a scientist (Dean Jagger) researching cures to a deadly virus (alongside his curmudgeonly roommate Walter Brennan) and soon her religious upbringing starts to clash with her new scientific environment. Dwan deftly interweaves science and religion and shows that in the end what matters most, not surprisingly, are interpersonal relationships.
Stranger at My Door screens Staurday, February 10 and Monday, February 12
Trigger Jr. (1950)
A precursor for the horse-action sequences in Stranger at My Door, William Witney took what could have been a typical Roy Rogers's vehicle and transforms it into something slightly more sinister. It's classic Rogers in many ways—the songs, the plot that involves a small business owner going up against a corrupt institution, Roy's always hopeful outlook, and of course, "The Smartest Horse in the West, Trigger"—but the tone turns decidedly darker when the bad guys (headed up by the always delightful Grant Withers) decide to release a murderous horse into the area in hopes of forcing more ranchers to sign up and pay for their protection.
Shot towards the end of Republic's two-strip Technicolor era, Trigger Jr. was the 19th of 27 movies that Witney would make with Roy Rogers.
City That Never Sleeps (1953)
The mechanical man of John H. Auer's masterful urban noir is an unforgettable screen presence. His job is to stand in a strip club's window and attract passersby to the establishment. Actor Wally Cassell's robotic gestures and striking make-up often causing people to wonder whether or not he is real, a robot or a human, calling reality itself into question. All the performances, especially by Marie Windsor, Edward Arnold, and Chill Wills, hold a special kind of weight that are deepened by the fact that it was shot in Chicago using real locations. It's a rough and tumble movie that often feels like a documentary, even as genre and fantastical elements like the mechanical man and a possible guardian angel come to the fore of a story of a worn out beat cop whose bad habits meets up with him one night. The energy is frenetic and unrelenting. Shot in Republic's poor man's widescreen process called Vast Vision, the project was able to be screened in standard and widescreen depending on what the theater offered.
Before creating a city that never slept, Auer was busy (he was always busy) telling two very different stories about finding and losing love in the city, jungle, and an isolated mansion on a cliff. The deeply strange and Tourneur-esque Angel in the Amazon begins straightforwardly enough, a plane crashes in the Amazon and the passengers, including George Brent and Constance Bennett, are rescued by a group of hunters led by a mysterious woman played by Vera Ralston. Brent is immediately taken with Ralston, despite her countless rebuffs, but he soon learns there is more to her than meets the eye. Everything eventually culminates in one of cinema's most haunting and unique endings, a stirring rumination on the tragedy and triumphs of aging.
The jungle gives way to a gothic mansion overlooking a cliff for The Flame's subtle noir love triangle. Vera Ralston, in one of her most understated yet powerful performances, plays a woman who is conning one man (Robert Paige) to help the man she loves (John Carroll). The men happen to be brothers and as Ralston gets in deeper with both of them the film transforms into a spiritual portrait of a woman coming to terms with how she's let men treat her in the past and how she decides she wants to be treated by them in the future.
Storm Over Lisbon (1944)
George Sherman's poor man's Casablanca marks Vera "Hruba" Ralston's second appearance for the studio (Sherman, Ralston, Richard Arlen, and Erich von Stroheim had already collaborated on The Lady and the Monster earlier that year). Republic head Herbert J. Yates would soon become infatuated with her and eventually marry Ralson in 1949—and in turn Vera Ralston became the leading lady of Republic. Yates would favor her and force projects to cast her. Despite solid performances his favoritism earned her the scorn of many inside the industry and out. She shines here though, and in her first dance sequence, shot with energy and love, it's possible to see how her career might have gone if she'd been able to stand on her own.
Beyond her dance number is a dastardly yet wonderfully warm turn from von Stroheim but what sets this film apart from it's glitzier muse is its physical connection to celluloid. Film itself becomes an integral plot point that allows Storm Over Lisbon to lightly separate itself from Bergman and Bogart's love story. That said, there was a time when it wasn’t going to be so light, there was once a version of the screenplay that ended with a character committing suicide. It was eventually changed so that the authorities apprehended the character.
The Inside Story (1948)
Allan Dwan's parable about the evils and slippery nature of money was shot by one of Republic's under-sung heroes, Reggie Lanning. While at Republic, Lanning made 13 films with Dwan (as well as The Flame and Angel on the Amazon) in which the pair became adept at reusing and repurposing sets, as well as finding creative ways to use the small spaces allocated to them. With The Inside Story the two come together to examine what happens when $1,000 finds its way to a small town and begins to circulate amongst the townspeople. As more and more people, more and more rapidly, come into contact with the money and use it to pay off their debts, the movie mixes folksy romance and comedy with questions of credit, capital, and the very nature of the American economy. But seeing as this is a Dwan picture it's also primarily an examination of people and relationships and how circumstance, here the circulation of money, affords opportunity for communication and ultimately for people coming together.
That Brennan Girl (1946)
For his final film, Alfred Santell created a turbulent coming of age story about a vibrant young woman (Mona Freeman) who goes every which way, fighting and scheming and pleading her way out of poverty and trouble, as she tries to make her mark in the world. Along the way she meets criminally minded James Dunn, his mother (Dorothy Vaughn), and a kind and loving soldier (William Marshall). Like in his previous Republic film Mexicana, Santell leaves room for the details, like showing a man's intricate watch or the entire process of Dunn's furniture delivering scheme. A full and rich world is created, one that moves at the same pace as its characters, whether it is Freeman effortlessly gliding through a dance club or Dorothy Vaughn quietly rocking in her chair while she gives needed advice to her man-child son.
The Red Pony (1949)
Republic went back to Technicolor for this Lewis Milestone-directed and Steinbeck-adapted film. Steinbeck, more than just providing the source material, actually wrote the screenplay himself. Aaron Copland notably provided the score, which would be his third with Milestone after working with him on Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck did not work on the screenplay there) and The North Star.
Despite the big names involved and being Republic costliest project to date, it's a quiet movie that finds it's strength in the small things, in Robert Mitchum's gestures and Myrna Loy's glances. The story, a simple one about a boy being given a pony and what happens after, is given space to develop, and the color, while encompassing everything Technicolor has to offer, is muted and subtle, gently creating a landscape that extends far beyond what one can see.
While Republic used many directors time and time again—John H. Auer, Allan Dwan, R.G. Springsteen, William Witney, George Sherman, Lesley Selander—none made as many pictures for the studio as did house director Joseph Kane.
The Plunderers marked Kane's first foray into color and he and Republic hero Jack A. Marta made the most of the red and blue two-strip process. Night and day almost become one continuous stream and anything white or light (a shirt, a face) has an immediate highlight, taking on an ethereal quality and creating an immediate contrast with the down and dirty nature of a Western. The result seemingly suggesting its own genre.
Beyond that the genre-busting color, The Plunderers starts out as a typical Western with bad guys on the lam and women who work in a saloon, but as the plot progresses it turns into something quite different. The relationships between the four main characters (Rod Cameron, Forrest Tucker, Ilona Massey and Lorna Gray) come to the fore and are quite beautiful and unexpectedly poignant. The men and the women mostly stand on equal footing and share equal power when it comes to their relationships, which is a rare thing generally but is insanely rare in a western. In the process any delineation their characters might have of good or bad are washed away.
With Accused of Murder, Kane had a new aesthetic challenge, that of Republic's widescreen process called Naturama. He adapted well and used the width to intensify a layered story centered on the death of a corrupt lawyer. As the investigation heats up, a wealth of shady characters enter the various scenes, namely dance hall witness Virginia Grey, who steals the show with her shifting loyalties and large blue eyes. The color, a new 3-strip Trucolor process at this point in time, is unbelievably bold, providing a deep contrast to the dreamy look of The Plunderers.