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Tag Archives: Lippert Pictures

The Steel Helmet (Feb. 2, 1951)

The Steel Helmet
The Steel Helmet (1951)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures

This movie is a good example of why placing films in their proper context is so important. When I first watched Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (I rented it on VHS many, many years ago) I couldn’t get past the cheapness of the production or the amateurish acting by some of the cast. The exteriors are clearly filmed in California and the interiors are a combination of cheap sets and obvious soundstages. I don’t even think I finished watching it.

Flash forward to right now. For the last several years I’ve immersed myself in the films of the 1940s, and now that I have a really good sense of how war movies told their stories during and right after World War II, I can confidently say that The Steel Helmet is a groundbreaking film. Not only was it the first film made about the Korean War, but its depiction of the toll of combat is raw and uncompromising.

It also features an incredible lead performance by Gene Evans as Sgt. Zack. Evans was an actor who’d appeared in bit parts in a bunch of B-movies prior to this, but had never had a lead role before. (He get an “introducing” line in the credits.) Incidentally, one of those B-movies was Armored Car Robbery (1950), which also featured Steve Brodie, who plays the idealistic and naive Lt. Driscoll in The Steel Helmet.

Brodie and Evans

In The Steel Helmet, Fuller casually tackles huge issues like the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and racial segregation back home, all with his uniquely blunt sensibility. He throws in oddball characters like a soldier with alopecia who can’t stop applying hair tonic to his bald head, depicts the enormous statue at the heart of a Buddhist temple with a reverence that borders on frightening, and portrays combat as an unending series of horrible events that will continue long after the movie’s runtime is over.

At his heart, Samuel Fuller was always a pulp novelist. His writing was often hackneyed and he assembled his films from crude materials. At first glance, his movies look no different from countless other low-budget productions. But once you really start to investigate the man’s work, you see that his films overflowed with ideas that most other filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch, and whatever their shortcomings, they have an impact that most Hollywood big-budget productions never will.

The Steel Helmet made almost 20 times its original budget at the box office, and opened doors in Hollywood for Fuller. His next film was another movie about the Korean War, Fixed Bayonets! (1951), made for 20th Century-Fox.

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Rocketship X-M (May 26, 1950)

RocketshipXM
Rocketship X-M (1950)
Directed by Kurt Neumann
Lippert Pictures

The classic era of Hollywood science fiction begins here.

There were science fiction from the very birth of the medium. One of the earliest narrative films ever made was Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902), and the silent era saw science-fiction masterworks like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

In the 1930s, sci-fi ranged from the Saturday-matinee action of Flash Gordon to the serious-minded speculations of Things to Come (1936).

During World War II, sci-fi all but disappeared from movie screens. (Although it always flourished in the pulp magazines no matter what Hollywood was doing.) But the 1950s were an incredible time for cinematic sci-fi, and that era started with Rocketship X-M and Destination Moon (1950).

Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M came out just a month earlier than producer George Pal’s Destination Moon, which was a lavish and much anticipated Technicolor extravaganza. Rocketship X-M, on the other hand, was shot in less than three weeks with a budget of less than $100,000, which was how it was able to beat Pal’s production into theaters. (Apparently the similarity of the two films led Lippert Pictures to include the disclaimer “This is not ‘Destination Moon'” in the promotional material they sent to distributors.)

Just like Destination Moon, this film takes many elements from Robert A. Heinlein’s “boys’ adventure” novel Rocket Ship Galileo, which was published in 1947. Unlike Destination Moon, it’s not an official adaptation, which might account for the decision to have unforeseen circumstances lead to the crew of the Rocketship X-M (which stands for “expedition moon”) badly overshooting the mark and winding up on Mars.

Aboard the rocket

The equipment seen in the film was provided by the Allied Aircraft Company of North Hollywood, so it doesn’t look particularly cheap or overly “fake,” but you’ll run out of fingers if you start counting all the inaccuracies in Rocketship X-M — the crew give a press conference with less than 15 minutes to go until launch, meteoroids fly in a tight cluster and smash into the ship at one point, there is sound in space, and so on.

Some of the scientific inaccuracies can be chalked up to the low budget. The film acknowledges that weightlessness is a part of space travel, but only partway. Small objects float up into the air and enormous fuel tanks are easy for the crew members to lift and maneuver, but their bodies all stay firmly in place.

Despite the budgetary limitations and scientific inaccuracies, I thought Rocketship X-M was a phenomenal sci-fi movie. All the things that money can’t buy — good performances, exciting story, crisp dialogue, imaginative use of earthbound locations to suggest other planets — are up there on screen.

Massen and Bridges

The script for Rocketship X-M was mostly written by the great Dalton Trumbo. Because he was blacklisted, Trumbo’s name doesn’t appear in the credits. The sharply drawn characters, the believable dialogue, and the progressive politics are all Trumbo trademarks. Several of the male characters in the film say and do sexist things, but the script itself is not sexist. For instance, after the crew has had their medical examinations, Col. Floyd Graham (Lloyd Bridges) points to Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Osa Massen) and wryly says, “The ‘weaker sex.’ The only one whose blood pressure is normal.” Later in the film, a male scientist confidently tells her to recheck her calculations because they don’t jibe with his and she apologizes — but it turns out later that hers are correct, and his insistence that he is right has dire consequences for the mission.

Most significantly, the film imagines a Mars devastated by a long-ago nuclear war. The possibly cataclysmic consequences of atomic war is a science-fiction concept that can be found in E.C. Comics (specifically Weird Fantasy #13) published around the same time that Rocketship X-M was released, and even earlier in a radio show written by Arch Oboler, but it was a new concept for a Hollywood film.

The 1950s would see plenty of politically reactionary sci-fi movies in which square-jawed American he-men faced alien menaces and came out on top, but there were a fair number of ’50s sci-fi movies that took a dimmer view of America’s growing nuclear arsenal and burgeoning militarism, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Rocketship X-M was the first of these type of sci-fi movies, and it still stands up as superior entertainment.

The Baron of Arizona (March 1, 1950)

The Baron of Arizona
The Baron of Arizona (1950)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures

Samuel Fuller didn’t suffer from sophomore slump when he directed his second picture, The Baron of Arizona. It’s every bit as good as his first film, I Shot Jesse James (1949), and boasts a great lead performance by Vincent Price and gorgeous black & white cinematography by James Wong Howe.

James Wong Howe is arguably the greatest cinematographer of black & white films of all time, and Fuller was lucky to get him at a low rate. The Baron of Arizona had a small budget and was shot in just 15 days, but it looks like an “A” picture. The cinematography is a big part of this, and Price’s pitch-perfect performance as a louche swindler is another.

Price plays James Addison Reavis, a real historical figure who attempted to defraud the U.S. government by forging land grants in order to take possession of more than 18,000 square miles of the central Arizona Territory and the western New Mexico Territory in the late 19th century.

Vincent Price is best known today as a horror icon, so many people forget that he wasn’t always associated with the horror genre. I always enjoy watching his early performances (and listening to him play “The Saint” on the radio), and the character he plays in The Baron of Arizona is perfectly suited to his talents.

Price was an actor who always seemed to be chuckling at a joke that none of the other actors in the film were privy to, and that quality works perfectly for the character he plays in The Baron of Arizona.

With just two films as a director under his belt, Samuel Fuller was already establishing himself as a filmmaker who could make entertaining, fast-moving, low-budget pictures that had hidden depths. Just like I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona uses the tropes of the western to turn an American myth on its head.

The Baron of Arizona takes the classic American idea of the “self-made man” and draws it out to its most audacious and unethical conclusion.

Vincent Price

I Shot Jesse James (Feb. 26, 1949)

I Shot Jesse James
I Shot Jesse James (1949)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures / Screen Guild Productions

If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamn garbage. —Samuel Fuller

Maverick filmmaker Samuel Fuller was shopping scripts around Hollywood when he met producer Robert L. Lippert. Lippert admired Fuller’s 1944 pulp novel The Dark Page and gave Fuller his first crack at directing.

The result was I Shot Jesse James, a low-budget but brilliant revisionist western starring John Ireland as Robert Ford, the member of the James gang who killed Jesse James and collected the bounty.

Fuller had a flair for the dramatic, and when shooting began on I Shot Jesse James, he discharged a round from his Colt .45 into the air instead of yelling “Action.”

Fuller made three films for Lippert, I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona (1950), and The Steel Helmet (1951). The budgets were tiny and the shooting schedules tight, but Lippert gave Fuller the freedom to make exactly the kind of movies he wanted.

Fuller wrote the script for I Shot Jesse James, and based it on an article by Homer Croy in American Weekly magazine. It’s a sympathetic portrayal of a roundly reviled historical figure (even if you have no sympathy for Jesse James, it’s hard not to instinctively dislike a man who shot his unarmed friend in the back for reward money).

John Ireland

John Ireland plays Robert Ford as a lovesick man who’s tired of life on the run and just wants to marry his girl, the beautiful actress Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton). He’s tempted by Missouri Governor Thomas Theodore Crittenden’s offer of amnesty for any member of the gang who turns in Jesse James (Reed Hadley), dead or alive.

Fuller depicts the relationship between Jesse and Bob Ford as deeply homoerotic, although the stolid Hadley doesn’t seem aware of anything strange about sitting in a bathtub and asking his friend to scrub his back for him. It’s the tortured Ireland who appears to long for Jesse, and perhaps by killing him he’s killing a part of himself that he despises.

Nothing good comes from it, of course. When Ford tells Cynthy that his killing of Jesse James was legal, she responds in horror, “It was murder.”

He walks through the rest of the picture with a haunted, desperate look on his face. He appears in a stage show in which he reenacts the killing of Jesse James, he dodges bullets from glory-hungry gunmen, and he desperately tries to repair his relationship with Cynthy.

This film explores a lot of the same territory as Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), which starred Casey Affleck as Robert Ford and Brad Pitt as Jesse James. The most poignant parts of both films show Ford facing his own terrible legacy, such as when he appears in the onstage reenactment or confronts a troubadour who sings hymns to his cowardice.

I Shot Jesse James has stock music and its minuscule budget is pretty obvious, but it’s a great portrait of a complicated historical figure. Samuel Fuller would go on to have a long and iconoclastic career, and while I Shot Jesse James is never numbered among his greatest works, it’s his opening salvo as a director, and it’s a powerful one.