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Tag Archives: Republic Pictures

Sands of Iwo Jima (Dec. 14, 1949)

Sands of Iwo Jima
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
Directed by Allan Dwan
Republic Pictures

In my recent review of Battleground (1949), I discussed whether or not it should be seen as an “anti-war film.” I absolutely don’t think that it should be, but I do think that it’s a sensitive portrait of the stress and fear that the “battered bastards of Bastogne” experienced during the Battle of the Bulge.

In my review of Battleground I also argued that it was not the first film about World War II to depict soldiers as three-dimensional people who experience fear and doubt, even though plenty of reviews claim that it was. But the depth of the characterizations made Battleground a significant war movie, and the fact that it was the first major war movie released after the end of World War II was significant, too.

However, shortly after the release of Battleground came a movie not about soldiers, but about marines, and it’s exactly the kind of movie people are imagining when they call Battleground a “revisionist” war movie or an anti-war film.

I really enjoyed Sands of Iwo Jima, but with its gung-ho attitude towards war, heroism, manhood, and patriotism, it’s diametrically opposed to Battleground. Just about the only things the two movies have in common are that they’re both about World War II, and both feature Richard Jaeckel in a small role.

John Wayne as Stryker

Sands of Iwo Jima stars John Wayne as the alcoholic, tough-as-nails leatherneck Sgt. John M. Stryker. As his ass-kicking surname implies, Sgt. Stryker is the kind of non-com who doesn’t care if his men like him; he only cares about whipping them into a fighting force that thinks and moves as one man so they can give the Japs hell. During training, one of the marines looks at Stryker and growls, “I don’t know which I hate worse, him or the Nips.”

John Wayne received his first Oscar nomination for best actor for this film. I’ve heard that Wayne felt he should have been nominated for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) instead, but I thought his performance in that film was overly affected. His role in Sands of Iwo Jima played much better to his strengths.

The human drama in the film focuses on PFC Peter Conway (John Agar), whose father served under Sgt. Stryker. Conway comes from a family with a long tradition of service in the US Marine Corps, and when Stryker talks, all Conway can hear is his father.

Jaekel Wayne and Agar

There’s humor in Sands of Iwo Jima, but most of it comes in the form of macho posturing. There are the Flynn brothers (played by Richard Jaeckel and William Murphy), two PFCs who can’t go a day without getting in a fistfight. And there’s a scene where a sailor tries to cut in on Conway’s slow dance with a pretty blonde named Allison Bromley (Adele Mara), and he snaps, “Shove off, Mac.” (Take that, US Navy! You can give the USMC a ride to the battle, but don’t step on their toes, punks.)

But the high point of Sands of Iwo Jima are the elaborate battle scenes, which take place in two sections; first the assault on Tarawa and then the assault on Iwo Jima.

BAR

When an officer is showing the men a map of an island that is part of the Tarawa atoll, he says, “Don’t ask me how you spell it. You’ll have to stick your faces into it, but you don’t have to spell it.” He goes on to tell them that the Japanese troops are dug in pretty deep. “They’d just as soon die as stick a nickel in a jukebox. But that’s all right. Let the other guy die for his country. You live for yours!”

The action is fast and furious, which is appropriate, since this film depicts some of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of World War II.

Flamethrower

Sands of Iwo Jima was produced by Republic Pictures, which mostly made lower-budgeted films, so it doesn’t have the high production values that MGM brought to Battleground. The battle scenes in Sands of Iwo Jima incorporate a good deal of newsreel footage, which adds some authenticity to the film, but occasionally makes the newly filmed segments look a little fake. The filmmakers did as well as they could. The special effects were by Waldo and Theodore Lydecker, who did fantastic work in numerous Republic serials, and the demolition effects were carried out by the USMC. But the newsreel footage of actual fighting occasionally took me out of the picture by reminding me that most of what I was seeing was a Hollywood recreation.

Not long after Sands of Iwo Jima was released, Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High (1949) hit theaters. It was the third major film about World War II released in 1949, several years after the war had ended. Battleground was significant for being the first, but three makes a pattern, and shows that after a few years of tranquility on the silver screen, audiences were once again hungry for simulated wartime mayhem. (A more cynical view might be that Hollywood was ginning up support for the coming conflict in Korea.)

The Golden Stallion (Nov. 15, 1949)

The Golden Stallion
The Golden Stallion (1949)
Directed by William Witney
Republic Pictures

Of the more than 70 oaters that starred Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Trigger (the smartest horse in the movies), The Golden Stallion is the best known by today’s film geeks.

The reason for this is an article published in the September 15, 2000, issue of the NY Times called “Whoa, Trigger! Auteur Alert!”, in which Quentin Tarantino waxed rhapsodic about the films of William Witney.

I remember reading the article when it was first published and being immensely pleased. The writer of the piece accurately called Witney “a now all-but-forgotten journeyman director,” but I’ve been a fan of his serials since I was in high school. I watched a lot of serials when I was younger, and it was hard not to notice that the cream of the crop all bore his name as director. Along with his frequent co-director, John English, Witney made one memorable Republic serial after another, like Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941), Spy Smasher (1942), The Crimson Ghost (1946), and others too numerous to list here.

In the postwar era the market for serials started to dry up, and Witney turned to making westerns for Republic Pictures, including many with Roy Rogers. Tarantino loves what Witney did with Rogers’s films during this period.

“After their first few movies together,” Tarantino said, “Witney had gotten Roy out of his fringe-and-sparkle attire and was dressing him in normal attire, blue jeans and stuff. They stopped being these crazy musicals. He turned them into rough, tough violent adventures.”

Golden Stallion lobby card

Tarantino is absolutely right. Witney was an old hand at directing knock-down drag-out fistfights in serials, and he brought this experience to his features with Roy Rogers.

The best fight I’ve seen in a Roy Rogers film that Witney directed is probably the one in Bells of San Angelo (1947), but all of their collaborations had plenty of action, and The Golden Stallion is no exception. What I found most impressive about The Golden Stallion were not any of the fight scenes, but rather the scenes of Trigger galloping at the head of a herd of wild horses. These sequence appear to have been filmed from a jeep, and they’re full of speed and drama.

So is The Golden Stallion — as Tarantino claims — the best film that Witney and Rogers made together?

That’s hard for me to say, because their films were of such a consistent level of quality (for better and for worse). Like all of their other films, The Golden Stallion had a low budget, a tight shooting schedule, and hokey humor. But it has a better-than-average plot (about a gang smuggling uncut diamonds over the border hidden in horseshoes nailed to the hooves of wild horses), a great scene where Roy has to make an enormous sacrifice to save Trigger’s life, and some really beautiful filmmaking.

If you like B westerns — especially if you like B westerns with singing cowboys — you really can’t go wrong with any of the Roy Rogers films that Witney directed. But if you’re unsure about B westerns and you want to see just one, check out The Golden Stallion. Just make sure you watch the full version, which is 67 minutes long. There’s a truncated version that’s less than an hour long currently on YouTube, but the full color version is available to stream if you’re an Amazon Prime member.

King of the Rocket Men (12 chapters) June 7-Aug. 23, 1949

King of the Rocket Men
King of the Rocket Men (12 chapters) (1949)
Directed by Fred C. Brannon
Republic Pictures

When I was a kid, one of my favorite comic books was The Rocketeer, by Dave Stevens. The protagonist, Cliff Secord, was a stunt pilot who strapped on an experimental jet pack and fought criminals and Nazi saboteurs. As a child of the ’80s who was obsessed with old radio shows and the pop culture of the past, The Rocketeer was amazing. It was a loving homage to the pulp entertainments of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.

As a budding adolescent, the thing I loved best about the series was Cliff Secord’s girlfriend Betty, who was clearly modeled after pinup queen Bettie Page.

Betty

But pretty much everything about The Rocketeer was great. I especially liked how up-front Stevens was about his homages. Cliff Secord’s jet pack and streamlined metal helmet were taken straight from Republic’s “Rocket Man” serials — King of the Rocket Men (1949), Radar Men From the Moon (1952), and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), as well as Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1955), which was originally filmed as a TV series but ended up being released theatrically as a week-to-week serial.

King of the Rocket Men is the chapterplay that started it all. It was released by Republic Pictures and directed by Fred C. Brannon, who co-directed (with William Witney) one of my favorite serials of all time, The Crimson Ghost (1946).

King of the Rocket Men shares some similarities with The Crimson Ghost. Both are about a scientific consortium with one member who is secretly a criminal mastermind, and both feature the actor I. Stanford Jolley in similar roles. Instead of the Crimson Ghost, however, the evil genius in King of the Rocket Men is called “Dr. Vulcan,” and he’s the alter ego of one of the members of “Science Associates.”

King of the Rocket Men lobby card

In the first chapter of the serial, Dr. Vulcan — Traitor, noted “cyclotron expert” Prof. Drake, who was working on wild, unpublicized experiments on “flying suits” is killed after his car goes off a cliff (driven by remote control operated by some unseen evildoer, natch).

Our hero, Jeff King, springs into action with one of the flying suits, and blasts, zooms, and punches his way through 12 action-packed weeks of Saturday-afternoon entertainment.

King is played by Republic Pictures mainstay Tristram Coffin, who’s older and more distinguished looking than the average serial protagonist. He was only 39 or 40 when King of the Rocket Men was filmed, but his gray hair and stiffness give him a patrician air.

Rocket Man Title Cards

Every kid has dreamed of strapping on a jet pack and taking to the skies. Part of the appeal of King of the Rocket Men is that the controls of King’s flying suit are so simple even a child could operate them. There are only three controls — ON/OFF, UP/DOWN, and FAST/SLOW — and they all have numbered dials, even the ON/OFF switch, which really doesn’t make sense.

The serial also features Mae Clarke, who starred in much higher-profile films in the ’30s, like Frankenstein (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), in which she famously received a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney.

In King of the Rocket Men, Clarke plays an intrepid reporter named Glenda Thomas. While Jeff King never shoves anything in her face, his treatment of her is occasionally less than gallant. For instance, in Chapter 3: Dangerous Evidence, he tells her to jump out of a speeding car. Miraculously, she doesn’t die or receive any injuries. He jumps too, and flies away, then they reunite while dusting themselves off. She says, “Thanks, Rocket Man! You know, at first I thought you were an invader from some other planet, but it’s plain to see you’re human and you’ve made a great scientific discovery. I’d like to write an article about you for my magazine.” He responds, “I’m sorry, that’s impossible.” He wants to put an end to the mysterious activities of Dr. Vulcan, and he doesn’t want her to publicize his actions. And then, like a true gentleman, he tells her to wait for the bus and he flies away.

King of the Rocket Men Chapter 8

Weird little moments like that aside, King of the Rocket Men is well-made, fast-paced entertainment, and highly recommended for any cliffhanger fans who haven’t seen it yet. It has plenty of stock footage of car crashes and explosions taken from earlier Republic serials, but the Rocket Man himself is unique. The jet pack technology might be pure hokum, but it’s still thrilling for kids and the young-at-heart when he takes to the skies.

The reason for this is the brilliant special effects work of brothers Howard Lydecker and Theodore Lydecker, who ran Republic’s special effects and miniatures department. As they proved in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), simple techniques like a dummy on a wire and running the film in reverse are only as good as the technicians who employ them. The Lydecker brothers were magicians. Prior to Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), I think the effects in Adventures of Captain Marvel and King of the Rocket Men were the best flying-human effects achieved on film.

The Red Menace (June 9, 1949)

The Red Menace
The Red Menace (1949)
Directed by R.G. Springsteen
Republic Pictures

The Red Menace was one of the first American postwar scaremongering films to explicitly name Communism as a threat. The structure and plotting of the film are similar to both Violence (1947) and Open Secret (1948), but those films dealt with cells of American fascists who used postwar housing and employment crises for their own anti-Semitic and xenophobic ends.

The Red Menace makes no bones about naming the most pervasive threat to America — it’s Communism, brother, and it’s everywhere.

When The Red Menace premiered, Herbert J. Yates, the president of Republic Pictures, released a brochure that explained his motivation for producing the film, and ended with the following cri de guerre:

Even though the picture was made behind closed doors, and there has been no public showing to date, Republic Studios and the Writer Have Already Been Attacked by the Daily People’s World, a Communist Paper Published in San Francisco, and the Daily Worker, A Communist Paper Published in New York.

The attack is more than an open threat. It is an effort to intimidate Republic Pictures and to stifle its right of freedom of speech. We accept the challenge of The Communist Party and its Fellow Travelers, and we declare that the Republic organization will do everything in its power, regardless of expense or tribulations, to make certain that “The Red Menace” Is Shown in Every City, Town and Village in The United States of America and Other Countries Not Under Communist Control.

I assume Yates liberally used initial caps for Extra Emphasis.

RedMenaceBluray

The Red Menace was directed by Republic Pictures mainstay R.G. Springsteen, who had mostly directed westerns for Republic, including several Red Ryder films. (Don’t let his name fool you, kids. Red Ryder was no Commie.)

I really enjoyed some of Springsteen’s westerns, so I was hoping for more from The Red Menace. The main problem with the film is that it’s not ludicrous enough to be truly entertaining, but it’s not realistic or incisive enough to be a great movie.

The opening is shadowy and atmospheric. A young couple are fleeing a pervasive and terrifying menace. They’re driving at night from Los Angeles through Arizona. Could the gas station attendant be part of the conspiracy? They can’t trust anyone.

Most of the rest of the film is told in flashback. Returning serviceman Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell, who would go on to play Mr. Boynton when Our Miss Brooks moved from radio to television) is fleeced of his savings by an unscrupulous real estate developer, and he’s not the only G.I. facing a housing crisis. His disillusionment is seized on by the local chapter of the Communist party, who play on his anger toward the system. He’s further lured in by the beautiful Nina Petrovka (played by German actress Hannelore Axman, who’s credited as “Hanne Axman”) and good-time girl Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller). In The Red Menace, sex is the gateway drug to the philosophy of Marx and Engels.

The script is talky, and to its credit much of the back-and-forth debates are interesting. It’s also nice that the film acknowledges American discrimination against Jewish people and African-Americans, and there are two black men in the film who are not stereotypes (Duke Williams and Napoleon Simpson).

The film also correctly points out that Soviet bloc countries were far from paradises for writers, poets, and artists, who were forced to toe the party line or suffer the consequences. The film’s most tragic character is Henry Solomon (Shepard Menken), a Jewish poet who resigns from the Communist party when the party newspaper he works for tries to force him to retract true statements he has made about the evolution of Communist philosophy.

Not every character is three-dimensional, however. The Red Menace features accomplished radio actress Betty Lou Gerson (who would go on to voice Cruella De Vil in the Disney movie 101 Dalmations) as a Communist party leader whose final histrionics are so over-the-top that they are positively hilarious.

Axman

I think it’s easy to look back on the excesses of McCarthyism during 1950s America and see only madness. But let’s keep in mind that Soviet Russia was a totalitarian state in which dissent was met with imprisonment or execution. Millions died under Stalin’s reign of terror. Whatever Communism promised in theory, it miserably failed to deliver in practice.

But the United States was hardly a paradise for dissenters itself. The Red Menace ends with a kindly cowboy sheriff assuring our fleeing protagonists that the difference between the United States and the Soviet Union is that while in Russia there are no second chances, here in the U.S. we give people just as many second chances as they’re entitled to. But this isn’t even what the film itself has depicted, as the poet Henry Solomon was fired from one job after another and driven to suicide after his former Communist affiliations were revealed.

There is a world of difference between Socialism and Communism, but most Americans (including elected officials) could never see that. People who embraced Socialism in the 1930s because they perceived unfairness in the relationship between labor and management were driven out of their jobs and blacklisted in the 1950s because they refused to “name names.”

Despite some nuances here and there, films like this toed their own party lines. While it’s tempting to see a film like The Red Menace as a historical curiosity, fear and hatred are still the driving force behind much of our politics, and we forget that at our own peril.

Moonrise (Oct. 1, 1948)

Moonrise
Moonrise (1948)
Directed by Frank Borzage
Republic Pictures

Frank Borzage’s Moonrise is a surreal Southern Gothic drenched in noir atmosphere.

Based on the novel by Theodore Strauss, Moonrise stars Dane Clark as a man named Danny Hawkins who is haunted by his father’s execution for murder. Danny has grown up in the shadow of his father’s crime, both figuratively and literally (this is a noir, after all).

In nightmarish flashback scenes, we see the young version of Danny being mercilessly taunted by his schoolmates.

In the first few minutes of the film, the grown-up version of Danny finally lashes back at the worst of the bullies, Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges), who is the son of the wealthiest man in town. Danny beats Jerry Sykes to death on the outskirts of a carnival, and leaves his body to be discovered by the authorities.

For the rest of the film, Danny is tormented by guilt but is too terrified to turn himself in. And soon after the murder, he strikes up a desperate romance with Jerry Sykes’s girl, Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), a schoolteacher and the prettiest girl in town.

Clark and Russell

Moonrise was an attempt by Republic Pictures to break out of their Poverty Row rut and release an A picture. (The budget was $849,452, whereas the Western B pictures the studio pumped out on a regular basis usually cost around $50,000.)

It was still a modestly budgeted film by Hollywood standards, and Borzage shot the entire film on only two sound stages. Although Moonrise wasn’t a hit, I think the claustrophobic “staginess” works in the film’s favor when watched today. Lionel Banks’s art direction and John L. Russell’s cinematography give the film a dreamlike quality. Especially in the early going of the film, there are instances of dream logic — such as a terrible car accident that seems to have no consequences in the next scene — but that only contributes to the film’s hypnotic power.

Dane Clark’s performance as Danny is similar to the romantic, sad-eyed fugitive he played in Deep Valley (1947). Gail Russell is gorgeous, although her role as Gilly mostly requires her to be wide-eyed and worried.

There’s some really terrific work by the supporting cast. Lloyd Bridges only has a minute or two on screen, but his nastiness and sense of entitlement is palpable. Ethel Barrymore is wonderful, as always, as Danny’s grandmother. Allyn Joslyn grounds the film with his role as philosophical sheriff Clem Otis. And African-American actor Rex Ingram gives an amazing performance as Mose, Danny’s friend who lives deep in the swamp, raises and trains dogs, and avoids people as much as possible. The character of Mose has aspects of the “magical Negro,” but Ingram is a good enough actor — and the part is written well enough — that he mostly escapes cliché.

Moonrise is a hard film to categorize. It’s stylistically a film noir, but thematically it ranges from Southern Gothic to European art film. It’s worth seeing if you have any affinity for any of those genres, or even if you’re just someone who can appreciate a beautifully made black and white movie.

Under California Stars (April 30, 1948)

Under California Stars is one of those “Trigger in peril” pictures in which Roy Rogers’s faithful palomino Trigger, “the smartest horse in movies,” faces terrible danger, and only his best friend Roy Rogers can make things right … with plenty of help from Trigger himself, of course. (Another “Trigger in peril” film, The Golden Stallion, was the subject of a NY Times piece in which Quentin Tarantino waxed rhapsodic about the film’s director. It’s a great article, and you can read it by clicking on this sentence.)

Like most Roy Rogers movies made in the post-war ’40s, Under California Stars was directed by William Witney, a veteran B-movie director born in 1915 who had nearly 40 westerns and serials under his belt by 1948.

Witney was a brilliant director of action. He was reportedly inspired by watching Busby Berkeley direct big musical numbers in which different takes were designed to be cut together for a coherent whole.

Before Witney’s innovative work on action serials, most directors would just train the camera on the stuntmen and let them do their thing, but Witney took a more active role, arranging action set pieces that incorporated elegant camera movements and effective cutting between actors and their stuntmen doubles.

The serials he directed for Republic Pictures were done on a tight budget and an even tighter timeline, so Witney often directed the action segments while his frequent collaborator John English handled the dialogue scenes. (Witney and English directed Adventures of Captain Marvel [1941], which I consider the greatest serial ever made.) Witney’s film work is a far cry from today’s hyperactive, chopped-to-hell action movies, but in many ways he is the father of the modern action movie.

Under California Stars isn’t wall-to-wall action, but the fight scenes are well-done, and like most Witney joints, it’s a classic example of good B filmmaking.

Like most Roy Rogers movies from the ’40s, Under California Stars blurs the line between Roy’s on-screen persona and his real life. He plays a character named “Roy Rogers,” who, when the film begins, is being told by his director, “Roy, you can be mighty proud of your ten years in pictures.” (Roy’s first starring role was in the film Under Western Stars, which was released on April 20, 1938.)

The action quickly shifts from Hollywood to the Double R Ranch, where Trigger and Roy are met by foreman Cookie Bullfincher (Andy Devine), as well as Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers, who sing a hymn to Roy’s good-natured greatness. Roy is also presented with a 10-year anniversary cake and does a radio broadcast from the Double R in which he sings “Dust,” one of the songs that made him famous.

But not everyone is thrilled to pieces about Roy Rogers and his marvelous horse. Lige McFarland (Wade Crosby) and his henchman Ed (House Peters Jr.) resent the handsome do-gooder and hatch a scheme to kidnap Trigger and ransom him for $100,000 … or else.

Under California Stars is a brisk, well-made Saturday matinee western with good songs and hard-hitting action. The whole film is currently uploaded to YouTube, and you can watch it by clicking on the link below. It’s also currently available to download from archive.org.

G-Men Never Forget (12 chapters) (Nov. 13, 1947-Jan. 29, 1948)

Republic serials were always solidly entertaining Saturday-afternoon time wasters for the kiddies, and G-Men Never Forget is no exception. It never soars to the heights reached by The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) or thrills with the same combination of intrigue and action as Spy Smasher (1942), but then again, neither has any other serial I’ve seen that was made after World War II.

G-Men Never Forget was co-directed by dependable chapterplay workhorse Fred C. Brannon and legendary stuntman and stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt. It stars Clayton Moore (who would go on to play the Lone Ranger on TV starting in 1949) as FBI agent Ted O’Hara. (It’s never explicitly stated, but I’m pretty sure O’Hara has an excellent memory.)

O’Hara is paired with the beautiful Ramsay Ames, who plays police officer Detective Sergeant Frances Blake. O’Hara and Blake start out pretending to be husband and wife criminals so O’Hara can infiltrate a gang run by the beefy criminal mastermind Vic Murkland (Roy Barcroft).

Murkland himself goes undercover in the FBI after getting plastic surgery to look like FBI Commissioner Angus Cameron, and operates from that position for most of the serial. O’Hara, on the other hand, is found out in the first chapter of G-Men Never Forget, slugs it out with one of the baddies, and is back to committing feats of derring-do as an FBI agent in no time.

I couldn’t help thinking this serial would have been more interesting if Murkland had been undercover with the FBI while O’Hara was undercover with the crooks, but we’d have to wait until Infernal Affairs and The Departed for that kind of action.

I’ve had a crush on Ramsay Ames since seeing her in The Mummy’s Ghost. I liked her in G-Men Never Forget, but she’d lost a bit of weight by this point, which made her more “glamorous” and “angular,” but less appealing, at least in my opinion.

I wouldn’t recommend G-Men Never Forget to someone unfamiliar with serials, but if you’re a fan of serials and have already seen all of the best ones, it’s a strong second-tier offering. It features car chases, shootouts, explosive cliffhangers, and furniture-destroying fist fights. I was hoping for something a little more over-the-top considering Yakima Canutt was one of the directors, but I was never less than entertained by the proceedings.

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