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Republic Pictures

by Mike Haberfelner

March 2009

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If you're at all into movie serials, you will no doubt have heard the name Republic every now and again, and the same probably goes for B-Western fans. And hell, even if you've got nothing more than a remote idea about John Wayne's early years [John Wayne in the 1930's - click here], you pretty much must have stumbled over the company name.

Fact is that in the late 1930's and especially 1940's, Republic pretty much dominated the serial market, and during the 1940's, the company also put out some of the most polished B-Westerns there were, and their roster of Western stars included singing cowboys Gene Autry (until 1947), Roy Rogers [Roy Rogers bio - click here] and Rex Allen, plus they housed that most popular of all cowboy trios, the Three Mesquiteers, of which Robert Livingston, Crash Corrigan [Crash Corrigan bio - click here], John Wayne, Bob Steele [Bob Steele bio - click here], Duncan Renaldo and Tom Tyler [Tom Tyler bio - click here] all were part of at one time or another. And yes, John Wayne did many a B-Western with Republic in his pre-superstar days, and he remained with the company even after his success with Stagecoach (1939, John Ford) and until 1952 - though he was on loan to other studios most of the time and never went back to B-moviemaking.

But all of that was much later, let's for now start at the beginning ...

 


 

Beginnings in the 1930's

 

Unlike most others, Republic was never a film company that started at zero, when it was conceived, it immediately had studios, a nation-wide distribution system and even a few stars (in the B-movie sense of the word of course).

But to understand the birth of Republic Pictures, it perhaps makes sense to illustrate the Depression era movie world: Back in the day, you had - pretty much like today - a roster of major studios, and established companies like MGM, Paramount and Warner Brothers quickly come to mind. These companies came to fame for their big budget- or A-movies, and they all had nation-wide distribution systems. Sure, they also made low budget or B-movies but never took too much interest in that aspect of moviemaking.

Why?

Because for their A's, they would be paid on a per-seat basis, while the B's only collected a (much lower) flat fee per booking. Yet back then an evening at the movies usually meant a double feature, and maybe a serial and a short as well, which in turn meant there had to be B-movies to fill the empty slots.

 

Against claims to the opposite, money could be made from the B's as well, and the more bookings a film got, the more money was in it, even at a flat fee. Which is why in the 1930's, small production outfits producing exclusively for the B-market popped up a dime a dozen (and many of them disappeared again just as quickly). But there were a few production houses that survived the initial bumps that came with the business and actually managed to stand on their own feet before too long - Monogram would be a perfect example for that. And with Mascot, there was even a studio that managed to survive almost exclusively on movie serials [Mascot history - click here] ...

 

With the stage all set, enter Herbert J.Yates.

1880-born Yates made his fortunes in the early years of the 20th century in tobacco, before setting his eyes on the movie and the recording business. In the 1910's and 1920's - besides providing financing for, among others, Mack Sennett and Fatty Arbuckle -, he acquired a bunch of film labs to eventually form the film processing company Consolidated Film Industries in 1924.

By the 1930's, Consolidated Film Industries had become the processing lab of the minor film studios. As head of Consolidated, Yates understandably had quite some leverage on his clients, and eventually, he set a master plan into motion: Instead of having several small-time companies each fighting for itself on the movie market, with Yates being a mere serviceman to them, why not merge a bunch of companies under his umbrella, making him a studio head?

 

The companies in question were Mascot, Monogram, Liberty, Majestic and Chesterfield/Invincible, all of whom Yates persuaded with a mix of friendly persuasion, appeal to common sense (fighting alongside rather than against each other surely would minimize risks), and simple blackmail (threatening foreclosure on outstanding lab bills). Apart from that though, he granted all studio heads that their production units would be independent from one another, just like in the days of true independence.

After all, what would a former tobacco merchant know about running a film studio, right?

 


Of the studios that merged under the Republic banner, Monogram and Mascot were certainly the crown jewels:

Monogram, a company incorporated in 1931 by Trem Carr and W.Ray Johnson after merging their companies (Sono-Art and Rayart/Raytone) was amazingly well-skilled in the production of low budget fare, especially Westerns, and they were just about to make John Wayne [John Wayne in the 1930's - click here] into a B-movie star when the merger came about. Wayne's rise to fame continued pretty much uninterrupted with the switch to Republic, only fate would take him much further than anyone could have anticipated before too long. Monogram did not just focus on Westerns though, the company was incredibly skilled in any number of genres, from whodunnit to melodrama, drama to gangster flick.

And Monogram also had its own nation-wide distribution system, something indispensible for a company with big plans like Republic.

 



If a nation-wide distribution system was indispensible for a production house with big plans, then an own studio lot was as well, and that's what Mascot [Mascot history - click here] brought to the merger: the former Mack Sennett lot in Studio City, with the company itself had bought in 1933.

But that's not all that Mascot brought to Republic, the maybe even more important thing was its incredible versatility in producting serials. Mascot was founded in 1927 by Nat Levine, and had been producing movie serials since its inception. The company was also the first to produce a (part-)talkie serial in 1929 with The King of the Kongo (1929, Richard Thorpe), and over the years, Mascot had perfected the art of making serials with plenty of action, suspense, mystery and the like, and though their chapterplays were cheap compared to those of bigger studios like Universal, they would often  outdo the more expensive competition in terms of pure exitement. Plus, with The Phantom Empire (1935, Otto Brower, B.Reeves Eason) - a wild but enjoyable mix of Western and science fiction elements -, Mascot had not only just had their biggest success ever, it also had for the first time created a star, Western singer Gene Autry. And the rise of Gene Autry to stardom (under the Republic flag) did not only mean big bucks, it also meant the rise of the singing cowboy subgenre as such ...

 

Compared to the contributions both Monogram and Mascot made to Republic, the other studios seem slightly marginal, but while this claim is somehow true, it also misses the point, because with the competent production units the studios would emerge into, Republic was in fact able to put out quite a number of (B-)features on a regular basis and in a coordinated way, which almost immediately made Republic into quite a force in the B-movie (and serial) world ...

 

Unfortunately though, the merger did not go quite as well as the heads of Monogram and Mascot had expected/been promised, as Herbert J.Yates soon developed a large ego as studio boss and he clashed repeatedly with Trem Carr, W.Ray Johnston and Nat Levine (as well as Majestic's Larry Darmour), proving to them that the independence under Republic's roof was nothing but an empty promise - and before you know it, Yates had them - pretty much the founding fathers of Republic - bought out of the company and substituted them with mere employees who he could be sure would do his bidding.

W.Ray Johnston went and revitalized Monogram in 1937, Trem Carr became a producer at Universal, Larry Darmour at Columbia - and Nat Levine took all his money to the horse race track ... and reportedly lost it all within 6 weeks. It is said he never quite recovered from the loss of his studio ...

 


 

Serials

 






The early Republic serials, still produced by Nat Levine, looked like a perfect continuation of the Mascot-style: the first Republic chapterplays - namely Darkest Africa and Undersea Kingdom (both 1936, B.Reeves Eason, Joseph Kane) - in fact seemed to be a bit like a rehash of The Phantom Empire, using very similar lost civilisation-storylines (though with all the Western elements removed), and even re-using some of The Phantom Empire's sets.

Plus, Undersea Kingdom also re-used The Phantom Empire's Smiley Burnette as sidekick, while Darkest Africa was a semi-sequel to Mascot's The Lost Jungle (1934, David Howard, Armand Schaefer), just like the former featuring then-popular animal tamer Clyde Beatty in the lead.

 


Republic serials however had usually higher production values than their forerunners at Mascot, and would soon become a brand in their own right, and the very slick crime chapterplay Dick Tracy (Ray Taylor, Alan James) starring Ralph Byrd from 1937 might be a perfect example as of how the company had made the genre its own in a rather short time.

 

However, it was another serial from 1937 that would in the long run prove much more influential to the serial genre as such than the wildly popular Dick Tracy: The Western chapterplay The Painted Stallion (Ray Taylor, Alan James, William Witney) starring Crash Corrigan [Crash Corrigan bio - click here] and Hoot Gibson - mainly because this serial gave a young hopeful called William Witney his first directorial assignment [William Witney bio - click here], and in the next few years, William Witney would develop an approach to directing (and editing) stunt and action scenes that would not only revolutionize the serial genre but action moviemaking as a whole.

 



Especially when teamed up with John English (who did the narrative scenes and dialogues while Witney did the action sequences), Witney delivered some of the best serials that not only Republic but any studio produced over the next few years, including Zorro Rides Again (1937) - their first collaboration -, Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939), The Lone Ranger (1938), The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939), Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), Adventures of Red Ryder (1940), and Jungle Girl (1941), to name but a few.

 

But of course, no listing of the accomplishments of the Witney-English-duo concerning the development of the serial-genre could be complete without mentioning The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), an on the surface silly and escapist superhero chapterplay (allegedly the first of its kind) starring Tom Tyler [Tom Tyler bio - click here] in the title role - but The Adventures of Captain Marvel is so slickly executed that it remains exciting throughout in terms of tension, action and suspense, and that it is now regarded by many genre fans as the best serial ever - and with some justification, too.

 



After having made an incredible 17 serials since 1937, the collaboration between William Witney and John English sadly came to an end in 1941, but for the next few years at least, both stayed true to the serial genre, with English handling such chapterplays as Daredevils of the West (1943) and Captain America (1944, co-directed by Elmer Clifton), while Witney was responsible for Perils of Nyoka (1942), G-Men vs the Black Dragon (1943, with Spencer Gordon Bennet) and the like.

 

Witney was drafted for service in World War II in 1943, but when he returned in 1946 and resumed his old job at Republic, he had to notice that the company had put further development into serial filmmaking and had standardized the already rigid genre formula even more - in a way Witney did no longer see an artistic future for himself, and thus he, after directing one more serial, The Crimson Ghost (1946), left the serial genre for good - but not Republic, he stayed with the company pretty much until its demise in the late 1950's ...

 


It's true that from the middle of the 1940's onwards, Republic serials started to tell more and more standardized plots, quite regardless of their genre, and even the narrative build-up within each chapter - which over the years developed more and more into self-contained episodes - was becoming more and more similar from serial to serial, while as a cost-cutting measure, the action setpieces - centerpieces of Mascot- and early Republic-serials - became less and less spectacular (and in late serials they were sometimes even lifted from earlier chapterplays).

 

That all said, Republic's serial-output continued to be pretty much the best of its kind, yet that is less due to Republic's sheer brilliance than due to the competition's growing disinterest in the genre. Because of course, these later efforts were a far cry from Republic's early serials or Mascot's chapterplays - as naive and cheaply made they sometimes were, they always had a heart to them amiss in Republic's (admittedly slicker) later output.

 



Still, in the mid-1940's Republic managed to establish one of the very few female stars of the genre, Linda Stirling, who gave her serial debut as a jungle girl in The Tiger Woman (1944, Spencer Gordon Bennet, Wallace Grissell), and later played the female leads in Zorro's Black Whip (1944, Spencer Gordon Bennet, Wallace Grissell), Manhunt on Mystery Island (1945, Spencer Gordon Bennet, Wallace Grissell, Yakima Canutt), The Purple Monster Strikes (1945, Spencer Gordon Bennet, Fred C.Brannon), The Crimson Ghost (1946, Wiliam Witney [William Witney bio - click here]) and Jesse James Rides Again (1947, Fred C.Brannon, Thomas Carr).

 



What made her special among women appearing in serials was that she on many occasions was not just the hero's girlfriend or the professor's daughter (or both) but actively took part in the action. She might not have been as iconic as Pearl White some 30 years earlier [Pearl White bio - click here], but she still was one of the very few actual heroines of the genre. Apart from work in chapterplays, she also appeared in a handful of Repoublic's B-pictures of various genres, but it is her work in serials that she is most remembered for.

Stirling's career was over by 1947 though after marrying screenwriter Sloan Nibley (interestingly enough a Republic contract writer, then working mostly on Roy Rogers Westerns [Roy Rogers bio - click here]).

(It should also be noted perhaps, that with Jungle Girl starring Frances Gifford in 1941, Republic reintroduced female action heroines to the serial world altogether.)

 


It was in the mid-1940's too, roughly with the end of World War II, that serials started to lose their appeal, a bit like an old friend who has outstayed his welcome, and in the 1950's, when television hit the filmworld like a bomb, this was pretty much the final nail in the movie serial's coffin. In the light of that, it might even come as a bit of a surprise that Republic actually did produce serials until 1955, but later efforts like Radar Men from the Moon (1952, Fred C.Brannon) and Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955, Franklin Adreon) - starring Phyllis Coates in a Linda Stirling-like role - with their clumsily integrated sci fi elements (a flying rocket man and aliens in the former, a mad scientist and giang crayfish in the later) only seem as ridiculous at first glance as they are tiring when watched in full. Massive use of stock footage from earlier, better serials didn't make things better either ...

With the Cold War/espionage serial King of the Carnival (1955, Franklin Adreon), Republic finally put the genre to rest, and it wasn't a moment too soon.

 

It wasn't until the 1960's that Republic was able to recut and sell its serials of the science fiction/superhero variety to television, but more about that later ...

 


 

The B Western

 



Sure Republic made films of pretty much every genre, but besides serials the company's main output was Westerns - as was the case with most B-picture outfits in the 1930's and 40's, basically because they could be cheaply made and sold easily.

Republic's first Western star was Gene Autry, the singing cowboy the studio inherited from Mascot and its amazingly successful serial The Phantom Empire. Autry would make no more serial after that but would get his own series of B-Westerns starting with Tumbling Tumbleweeds (1935, Joseph Kane), and ultimately he would continue his career with the company until 1947, only interrupted by World War II. Autry's last film for Republic was Robin Hood of Texas (1947, Lesley Selander), after which he would move over to Columbia.

Basically, Autry's films were kiddie fare, escapist and slightly childish pieces of Western cinema with musical interludes that were easily digestable - but they were often quite entertaining (in a simplistic way) as well.

 



When Republic saw Gene Autry skyrocket to stardom though in the mid-1930's, they also had to notice that with the fame, Autry got a tad difficult, so they were rather quick to try and establish another singing cowboy, and chose a young Western singer called Leonard Slye, who with his band Sons of the Pioneers had done a few films for other companies. So Slye played the secondary hero in three Gene Autry films, The Big Show (1936, Mack V.Wright), The Old Corral (1936, Joseph Kane) and The Old Barn Dance (1938, Joseph Kane) as well as a Three Mesquiteers-Western, Wild Horse Rodeo (1937, George Sherman), before his big break came when Gene Autry failed to report for his next Western, Under Western Stars (1938, Joseph Kane) - something which Autry did routinely just to let the studio feel his power -, and suddenly Slye was promoted from supporting actor (then going under the name Dick Weston) to lead, now sporting the more famous alias Roy Rogers [Roy Rogers bio - click here].

Rogers soon caught up with Autry in terms of popularity and exceeded Autry's fame when Autry went to war. And while Autry eventually left Republic, Rogers stayed with the studio for the remainder of his B-Western career, which ended with the film Pals of the Golden West (1951, William Witney) and even included a few Westerns shot in colour (though in the Trucolor process rather than the better but more expensive Technicolor process).

 

Republic also had yet another singing cowboy under contract, Rex Allen, but he made his debut only in 1950, with Arizona Cowboy (R.G.Springsteen), when the B Western of old and the singing cowboy with it were already on the decline. His stay with Republic was rather short-lived and ended with Phantom Stallion (Harry Keller) in 1954.

 


Over the years, Republic had many cowboy actors (also of the non-singing variety) under contract, including Bob Steele (whom the company actuall took over from Supreme Pictures to fill the exhibitors demand for B-Westerns) [Bob Steele bio - click here], Don 'Red' Barry, who rose to fame with Republic's serial Adventures of Red Ryder (1940, William Witney, John English), and Robert Livingston, who was Zorro in Republic's The Bold Caballero (1936, Wells Root), Lone Ranger in the serial The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939, William Witney, John English), and of course the first (and third) Stony Brook in the Three Mesquiteers series (more about that below).

 


However there is one cowboy actor who would soon outshine them all and who was under contract at Republic: John Wayne [John Wayne in the 1930's - click here], whom the company took over from Monogram in the merger. At Monogram, Wayne had just made 16 Westerns produced by Paul Malvern and many of them directed by B-Western auteur Robert N.Bradbury. For the 1935/36 season, Wayne subsequently did another 8 pictures from Republic, which might not have been an improvement over Wayne's Monogram-efforts - but that's due to the high quality of the Monogram-movies, not the lack of quality of the Republic efforts. And at least several films he made at Republic had at least some impressive setpieces, like the stagecoach race in Winds of the Wasteland (1936, Mack V.Wright).

After completing a season of B-Westerns though, Wayne left Republic, to seek fame primarily outside of the Western genre (with only moderate success though), but he returned to the company in 1938, to replace Robert Livingston in the Three Mesquiteers-series in 1938.

 


The Three Mesquiteers-series was launched by Republic in 1936 with the film The Three Mesquiteers (1936, Ray Taylor), starring Robert Livingston, Ray Crash Corrigan [Ray Crash Corrigan bio - click here] and Syd Saylor. The series was based on a series of Wesern novels by William Colt MacDonald, which before being adapted by Republic had also been the base for Law of 45's (1935, John P.McCarthy) starring Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams and Al St. John as Mesquiteers (there was no third man to round out the trio), produced by Normandy/First Division, Powdersmoke Range (1935, Wallace Fox) starring Harry Carey, Hoot Gibson and Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams (in a different role from the previous film) produced by RKO and the Rex Bell feature Too Much Beef (1936, Robert F.Hill), again produced by Normandy, which did away with the trio concept altogether to present Bell as the solitary hero.

It was left to Republic though to get the formula right, and the initial film of the series became an amazing success that was soon expanded into a series - though with a cast change: from film number two onwards, Ghost Town Gold (1936, Joseph Kane), Syd Saylor was replaced by Max Terhune.

 

Between 1936 and 1951, Republic produced a total of 51Three Mesquiteers-films, and over the years, the series experienced an amazing number of cast-changes: From film one onwards, Robert Livingston played what could be described as the primary lead, Stony Brooke, but when Livingston left for PRC [PRC history - click here], John Wayne replaced Robert Livingston as Stony Brooke. Then Wayne hit gold with Stagecoach (1939, John Ford) and Livingston was lured back to the series, to eventually hand his role over to Tom Tyler [Tom Tyler bio - click here]. During his run as Stony Brooks, Robert Livingston was replaced by Ralph Byrd in one film, The Trigger Trio (1937, William Witney), due to health reasons.

In the first 24 films of the series (which included Robert Livingston's first run as well as John Wayne's entire run and the Ralph Byrd film), Ray Crash Corrigan played the trio's secondary hero Tucson Smith, but left the series when Livingston returned, because the two reportedly couldn't stand each others guts. He was replaced by Duncan Renaldo, but due to Renaldo's rather Mexican looks, his character was re-christened Rico Rinaldo. Renaldo eventually left the series in favour of Bob Steele [Bob Steele bio - click here], and the character name changed back to Tucson Smith. Tucson Smith was actually promoted to primary hero when Robert Livingston left the series for Tom Tyler, whose popularity simply didn't equal that of Bob Steele. Interestingly, both Steele and Tyler played supporting characters in RKO's Three Mesquiteers-effort Powdersmoke Range.

Throughout the series, Lullaby (or Rusty) Joslin was pretty much the sidekick character, with Syd Saylor, Max Terhune, Raymond Hatton, Rufe Davis and Jimmie Dodd all trying their hands on the role.

 



In all, the Three Mesquiteers was a series of varying quality, and while some films, like the lost tribe Western Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937, Mack V.Wright), were great, others were less so. It should also be noted that the Mesquiteers were not tied down to one particular time period in American history, so while West of Cimarron (1941, Lester Orlebeck) takes place shortly after the Civil War, Overland Stage Raiders (1939, George Sherman) features modern busses and airplanes, Frontier Horizon (1939, George Sherman) is about the building of a dam and features caterpillars aplenty, and Valley of the Hunted Men (1942, John English) is set during World War II (which back then wasn't uncommon for Westerns, not only at Republic).

That didn't matter much to the audience, who simply loved the cowboy trio, and thus other (B movie) production companies launched their own trio series, including The Range Busters (incidently starring Ray Crash Corrigan and Max Terhune of former Mesquiteer fame), The Rough Riders and The Trail Blazers at Monogram, and The Texas Rangers and The Frontier Marshals at PRC - though none of these series matched the Three Mesquiteers in popularity.

 

Just like everything else though, the Three Mesquiteers could not last forever, and thus, the series came to an end after 51 films in 1943 with Riders of the Rio Grande (Howard Bretherton), with Bob Steele, Tom Tyler and Jimmie Dodd in the leads, and maybe it was for the best, as the trio Western as such had pretty much run its course, and the Three Mesquiteers movies as a whole had grown very formulaic over the years, and they had also grown a bit too slick for their own good (like many Republic B-Westerns actually) ...

 


 

Rise to Fame in the 1940's

 


Even though as noted above, Republic was never a company that started from scratch, the 1930's can be described as the formative years of the company, it was a time when it still struggled to find itself a niche in the movie business, and its output was primarily B-pictures and serials (which Republic of course continued producing throughout the 1940's). But with a string of successful serials and Western series that brought in quite some profits, it wasn't long before the studio started moving slightly upmarket.

And then there was of course John Wayne, who with Stagecoach (1939, John Ford) - not a Republic production - had moved from matinee idol to superstar almost overnight, and he was still under Republic's contract, and would remain so throughout the decade. The company was wise enough however to not try to lure Wayne into making another B Western series or something similar, on the contrary, Republic was more than happy to loan Wayne to other (bigger) studios, or indeed cast him in A movies of its own, big budget films that were not directed by one of the usual Republic-contract-directors but by Hollywood bigshots including Raoul Walsh - e.g. Dark Command (1940) -, Allan Dwan - Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) -, or John Ford - e.g. Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952). Besides that, Republic also cast Wayne in a string of successful propaganda movies during World War II, films like Flying Tigers (1942, David Miller) and The Fighting Seabees (1944, Edward Ludwig).

 





 

To limit Republic's high profile pictures to their John Wayne films would be a mistake though, in the 1940's the company made quite a few pictures to break away from their B-movie image, most notably perhaps Orson Welles' Macbeth in 1948, and even well into the 1950's, they would produce the occasional classic like Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray) starring Joan Crawford.

 




While most decisions Herbert J.Yates made for Republic in the 1940's seem to be right as could be though and to a degree even visionary, one such decision was less so, and her name was Vera Ralston.

Vera Ralston, formerly known as Vera Hruba, was a modestly successful Czech iceskater whose main claim to fame might have been that she personally insulted Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics when he offered her to skate for the swastika (reportedly, she answered she'd rather skate on the swastika). In the early 1940's, Hruba came to the USA and quickly caught the attention of Herbert J.Yates, who cast her in the revue film Ice-Capades (1941, Joseph Santley). Before long, he was sure he had the next Sonja Henie (a much more successful iceskaters from the 1930's who expanded her success on ice onto the movie screen) on hand, and he had her make film after film for his company.

 

Now, as long as Vera Ralston was on ice, she sure enough showed off her talent and there was little to worry about, but when it came to acting, that was another matter altogether, as she was neither a trained actress nor was her command of the English language all that good. 

Of course, Ralston's first few films had wintery themes to them, like Ice-Capades Revue (1942, Bernhard Vorhaus), Lake Placid Serenade (1944, Steve Sekely) and Murder in the Music Hall (1946, John English), but over the years, Yates became so infatuated with Ralston he gave her more and more dramatic, non-skating roles, beginning with The Lady and the Monster (1944, George Sherman), roles in films like Republic's answer to Casablanca (1941, Michael Curtiz), Storm over Lisbon (1944, George Sherman) - Ralston plays an Ingrid Bergman-like role in that one partnered by Richard Arlen as a poor man's Humphrey Bogart -, the adventure flick Angel on the Amazon (1948, John H.Auer), and two films with John Wayne, Dakota (1945, Joseph Kane) and The Fighting Kentuckian (1949, George Waggner). In fact, it is said that John Wayne left Republic in 1952 to not have to make another movie with Vera Ralston, but this might only be a cute but entirely made up anecdote.

The infatuation of Herbert J.Yates with Vera Ralston is a fact though, so much so that he in 1948 left his wife and children for her, and he married her in 1952, despite (or because of?) being some 40 years her senior. There are also rumours that Yates was sued by Republic's shareholders because he was using his position in the company to secure his mistress/wife the best parts in his films. However, Ralston did continue to star in Republic-movies pretty much until the company seized production in the late 1950's. She never made another film for another studio afterwards though ...

To be quite fair, Vera Ralston indeed was not too great an actress, but apart from her East-European accent, she wasn't too bad either - she just wasn't exactly whom the audience wanted to see, a fact that was painfully obvious to everybody but Herbert J.Yates, an old man hopelessly in love with a pretty young woman ...

 


 

Television and Decline in the 1950's

 

In some ways, the 1950's proved to be a whole other ballgame concerning the production of B-pictures than previous decades, and though Republic had made some efforts on the big budget end of moviemaking, it was still essentially a B-movie company. The cause for the stir-up was of course television, which invaded the homes of potential movie-audiences big time, and suddenly, going to the movies became a less and less favourite pastime of Mr and Mrs Everyman - after all, why pay for entertainment at a theatre when you can get it at home for free?

The B-movie (and serial) industry was especially hit because of the formulaic nature of its output which translated one to one to the predominantly serialized content presented on television. 

Of course, one would think a B-movie and serial studio like Republic would be well equipped for the switch from theatrical features to television, and for a while it even looked that way:


  • Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953) was a direct continuation of one of their (late) serials, Radar Men from the Moon (1952, Fred C.Brannon) - though featuring a mostly different cast - and it re-used quite some action and effects footage from the chapterplay. Incidently though, Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe was given a theatrical run as a serial prior to its being broadcast on TV due to contractual reasons. It was however always intended for television.
  • Stories of the Century (1954) was probably Republic's television highlight, a Western series in which a railroad detective (Jim Davis) meets all sorts of characters from American history. The series was directed mostly by Republic's action specialist William Witney [William Witney bio - click here], and besides being given an ok budget it also featured massive stock footage from Republic B-Westerns from the 1930's and 40's, giving the series a much more polished look than the budget as such would have allowed. The series was so well received actually that in 1955, it won an Emmy for Best Western or Adventure Series.

  • Way less exciting was Republic's next series, The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu (1956), a series based on Sax Rohmer's infamous supervillain which the company had previously featured in the quite enjoyable serial Drums of Fu Manchu (1940, William Witney, John English) - but even though with William Witney the co-director of the serial was one of the TV-series' directors, The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu was little more than a lame and underbudgeted espionage series that never really caught on.

Why Republic, a company specialized in the production of inexpensive serialized movie fare, had so much troubles switching to television is left at anybody's guess, but probably it had to do with the studio heads' lack of understanding for the new medium coupled with the lack of an actual hit (despite the mostly positive audience reaction, Stories of the Century was no competition for other Western series of its time) and a refusal to invest too much money into television production. Instead, Republic soon saw itself content in renting out studiospace to other TV-production companies, first and foremost MCA. This was of course less risky than producing TV-content of its own, but also less profitable (success provided of course), yet by the mid 1950's, it was mostly renting out studio space and bringing its film library to television that helped Republic weather the decade ...

 

As a producer of B-movies, though the studio lost importance in the 1950's as quickly as it gained fame in the 1940's, and more and more it left the field to younger, fresher production companies like AIP and Allied Artists (which incidently started life as an offspring of Monogram), which proved to be much better at the ballgame that once had been Republic's.

The main reason for this is probably that as a company, Republic did not understand its audience any longer. The days of theatergoing with the family and the A-movie-B-movie-serial combo were over thanks to television - but there was still one peer group that would do anything rather than spend an evening in front of the television with the family: the teenagers. And the teenagers of course needed films that spoke to them, that delivered a fast-paced mix of sensationalist content and cheap thrills, of contemporary topics and maybe even a bit of music from the charts. The drive-in had now become the typical venue for low budget movies, something outside of Republic's traditional distribution cycles, and smaller companies often used more aggressive marketing techniques to have their films played. Plus, the double features would no longer be an A- and a B-movie but two low budget films from the same (low budget-)company put together, so B-pictures no longer rode on the back of other, more successful films ...

 


One can't even say that Republic didn't try to keep up with contemporary trends, the company did include giant monsters (by the mid-1950's a sci-fi mainstay) in their serial Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955, Franklin Adreon), it produced one of Bert I.Gordon's early giant creature movies, Beginning of the End (1957) before he moved over to AIP to make much more popular but essentially similar films like The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), War of the Colossal Beast (1958) and The Spider (1958), and when Republic-house director William Witney [William Witney bio - click here] made a couple of juvenile delinquency films away from the studio for AIP, Republic asked him to make another two - Juvenile Jungle and Young and Wild (both 1958) - for its own lineup of films.

All of these efforts led to pretty little though, and as the films the studio produced became less and less successful, less and less films were produced, and by 1957, the company's output amounted to less than half from that of the annual output of the early 1950's.

It was in 1958, that Herbert J.Yates informed his shareholders at the company's annual meeting that Republic would seize film production altogether ...

 


 

The End ... Not Quite

 

For a few more years after closing down film production (and distribution offices, consequently), Republic managed to survive as it was, but by and by, it was selling its assets: Its studio complex was sold to CBS in the early 1960's, after the company had rented the lot for years, the film stock was sold to the NTA (= National Telefilms Associates), and as a film company without studios or stock, Herbert J.Yates just managed to keep Republic as such alive for a few more years on his other interests, among them his film processing labs and (of all things) a manufacture for household appliances.

 

When Republic the company folded, this however was not the end of Republic the brand: Over the years (and thanks especially to television of course), interest in Republic's output had never completely died down, and especially when in 1966 the Batman TV-series starring Adam West hit gold, NTA was quick to cash in on the series' success by re-editing several of Republic's serials into 100-minute features and selling it to television ... quite fitting, actually, that the Republic-serials of old should cash in on a superhero-boom, after all they have done to bring superheroes to the screen in the first place with serials like The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, William Witney, John English).

Apart from that, the Republic-library was over the years also augmented by acquiring the rights to many a film by other studios, films including the classics It's a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra) and High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann).

 


Republic as a brand name remained successful over the decades, and in the 1980's, it struck again gold by selling its library's syndication rights to cable television and set up a homevideo line as well. All of this was such a success in fact that Republic's mother company NTA decided to re-open Republic the film studio, and one of its first and most successful productions was the television series Beauty and the Beast (1987 - 90) starring Linda Hamilton.

 



Apart from that series and a gameshow (Press Your Luck), new Republic's greatest accomplishment was having its hands in the productions of  Knight Moves (1992, Carl Schenkel) starring Christopher Lambert and Diane Lane, and Matthew Bright's Freeway (1996) starring Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland and Brooke Shields. The rest of the revived company's output was pretty much forgettable, mostly made-for-television or -video drivel that went unnoticed by pretty much everyone. Thing was that nobody showed any real commitment for Republic as a brand with a history (as out-of-date as this brand might have been in the 1990's), and it seemed that the company name was attached to film productions of any kind by chance rather than anything else ...

 

By the mid-1990's, Republic had become such a hot property (mainly due to its extensive film library of course) that media mogul Aaron Spelling decided to buy it and make it part of its empire ... this way once again reducing it to a mere brand-name though - which meant shutting down the production and the video division of second generation Republic and leasing out distribution rights to other companies.

 

Eventually, Republic went through a few more hands, from Lionsgate to Viacom, which only matters inasmuch as it ensures that the company's library remains in release even on DVD (and whatever follows after that), and to this day, filmfans have a ready access to much of Republic's classic output.

Very probably, Republic will never return as a production house, but who cares, actually? The company has left an amazing legacy, and despite being a relatively small company shook the filmworld in more ways than one (and more than most major studios of its day, actually), and hopefully, the company's films will remain in distribution for generations and generations to come ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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