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Posts Tagged ‘Monogram Pictures’

Don’t Gamble With Strangers

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

William Beaudine was a very uneven director, but sometimes, he really delivered the goods.

As Dave Kehr, writing in The New York Times, notes of this film, and Beaudine’s career at Monogram, the 1940s studio where Beaudine did the bulk of his work, “Beaudine was the workhorse of Monogram, signing his name to an astonishing 71 features from 1942 to 1953 [emphasis added]. Although . . . Beaudine had been a prominent silent director [starting out with D.W. Griffith, and later directing Mary Pickford in a series of films, including the highly successful Sparrows (1926)], he seemed to have lost interest in his art by [the 1940s], and most of his films have a generic, disengaged quality . . . Not so this 1946 astonishment, the thoroughly sordid tale of a card shark (the square-jawed serial hero Kane Richmond, cast spectacularly against type) who unhesitatingly betrays pretty much everyone he comes across — including his brother, his female partner and his fiancée — as he takes over a small-town casino somewhere in the Midwest.

Perhaps Beaudine was shaken from his indifference by the strikingly sordid script by the mysterious Caryl Coleman (whose only other credited screenplay [was the equally unrelenting Monogram entry] Wife Wanted) and Harvey Gates (another silent-film veteran who had seen better days); perhaps it is a case of the material’s being perfectly matched to the available means. No major studio of the time would have tolerated the cynicism that courses through this film; nor would a major studio have been capable of capturing the film’s agonizingly expressive shabbiness. In Don’t Gamble With Strangers, Monogram isn’t just a studio — it’s a way of life.”

Along with the equally brutal Black Market Babies, a 1945 Beaudine/Monogram film in which Kane Richmond again appears as a sleazy con man running an “adoption service” with the help of an aging, alcoholic doctor played by Ralph Morgan, Don’t Gamble With Strangers paints a truer picture of post-war American society in the mid 1940s than anything the major studios would touch, as Kehr suggests above. Much of what Beaudine produced is pure junk, and often he simply didn’t care what he was directing, just so long as he got paid – a major force in silent films, Beaudine fell into disfavor after a sojourn in Britain in the late 1930s, and when he returned to Hollywood, found himself unemployable, and deep in debt. But he had to work, so he took anything he could get, and soon was the most prolific director in Hollywood, along with the equally adept Sam Newfield.

Working his way back in at the bottom rung of the studio system, for Monogram or anyone else who would hire him for his flat fee of $500 for six days work – the standard length of time it took him to direct a feature film, working at top speed -  Beaudine racked up more than 350 feature films, in addition to television work on such series as the Green Hornet and Lassie – his last major job as a director – before his death at age 78 in 1970. The famous story is often told of a Monogram executive rushing on to the set of one of Beaudine’s films, demanding to know when it would be finished. “You mean there’s someone out there waiting for this?” Beaudine replied, pretty much indicating what he thought of much of the work he was forced to direct by economic necessity. Or, as he told another interviewer, “these films are going to be made regardless of who directs them. There’s a market for them and the studios are going to continue to make them. I’ve been doing this long enough I think I can make them as good or better than anyone else.” And at his best, he absolutely could.

Monogram films in general have frequently been derided for their poor quality sound tracks, indifferent cinematography and lighting, as if the entire film was shot through a gauze filter on outdated film stock, and recorded with the cheapest equipment available. In the pre-digital era, one could always tell a Monogram film by its flat lighting, cheap sets, and distorted soundtrack. But a new series of DVDs from Warner Archive is setting the record straight; earlier viewers were simply being subjected to cheap 16mm prints of the film, while the 35mm masters were as good in terms of pictorial quality as anything turned out by Universal or Republic. These new transfers are literally dazzling, and give a whole new life to Monogram’s output as a whole. It’s a revelation; these are lost films, come back to life at last.

These two 75 minute films are “pre-code / film noir / neorealism” – the real picture of life in postwar America.

Jean Renoir on Val Lewton

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

Renoir worked briefly with Val Lewton on Woman on The Beach (1947).

As he observed in a 1954 interview, “I’ll say a few words about Val Lewton, because he was an extremely interesting person; unfortunately he died, it’s already been a few years. He was one of the first, maybe the first, who had the idea to make films that weren’t expensive, with ‘B’ picture budgets, but with certain ambitions, with quality screenplays, telling more refined stories than usual. Don’t go thinking that I despise ‘B’ pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films they’re much more fun. When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see ‘B’ pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that ‘B’ pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”

You can read more about Renoir’s thoughts on this by following this link.

Lewis D. Collins’ Wild Stallion (1952)

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Click here, or on the image above, for scenes from Lewis D. Collins’ White Stallion (1952).

As Frank Miller writes of this exceptionally odd film on the TCM Website, “many movies have been built around the pursuit of a childhood love. Heathcliff pursued his [lifelong love] Cathy in nine film and 13 television versions of Wuthering Heights, and Charles Foster Kane built a business empire while dreaming of his [childhood sled] Rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941). In the 1952 Western Wild Stallion, Dan Light (Ben Johnson) searches the Black Hills for Top Kick, the horse he lost the same day an Indian raid killed his parents.

Wild Stallion was an early production from Walter Mirisch, who started his career at Monogram Pictures making low-budget Westerns and action films, most notably the Bomba series that Johnny Sheffield moved into after he ended his run as Boy in the Tarzan films. Mirisch shot the film quickly, during the month of December 1951, with the land around the Corrigan and Iverson Ranches in California standing in for the Black Hills of Wyoming. Even a windstorm that destroyed some of the sets didn’t keep him from getting the film into theatres by April 1952.

Like many films from Poverty Row studios like Monogram, Wild Stallion provided a showcase for young actors on the way up though leading man fame may have seemed far away for Ben Johnson at the time he starred in the film. A former cowboy and rodeo champion, he had come to Hollywood as a wrangler when Howard Hughes hired him to transport horses to the locations for The Outlaw (1943).

After years of stunt riding for stars like John Wayne and Randolph Scott, he was spotted by John Ford, who promoted him to ever bigger roles in his Cavalry Trilogy and the title role in Wagon Master (1950). Then the two quarreled while making the third Cavalry film, Rio Grande (1950), after Johnson’s agent tried to squeeze Ford for more money on an upcoming film. As a result, the director simply stopped working with him, and Johnson’s career stalled. He even left Hollywood for a year to work the rodeo circuit. He wouldn’t get his career back on track until Ford convinced him to accept the role of Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show (1971), which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Leading lady Martha Hyer went to school with Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman, and, like them, went to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. After being spotted at the Pasadena Playhouse, she started landing film roles, earning her first billing as Tim Holt’s leading lady in Thunder Mountain (1947). It wasn’t until she signed with Universal, where she was promoted as their answer to Grace Kelly, that the icy blonde started moving up the career ladder.

Her biggest success came with a loan to MGM in 1958 to co-star as the frigid English professor thawed by Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running. The role won her an Oscar nomination, but she had a hard time finding a suitable follow-up in a Hollywood changing rapidly with the decline of the studio system. Instead she found a more satisfying role off-screen as the wife of independent producer Hal Wallis.

Rounding out the cast of Wild Stallion [are several] reliable character actors caught between the decline of the studio contract system and the rise of television. Edgar Buchanan, co-starring as the horse tracker who trains Johnson, had been a staple of Columbia releases in the ’40s, most notably as Cary Grant and Irene Dunne’s closest friend in Penny Serenade (1941). He did well as a free-lancer in the ’50s, but is best remembered as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction.

Second-generation actor Hayden Rorke came to Hollywood after years on the stage and was a familiar face on movie screens in the ’50s, with small roles in everything from An American in Paris (1951) to Pillow Talk (1959). He entered television history as Captain Bellows, the suspicious commanding officer on I Dream of Jeannie.

In 1952, the cast of Wild Stallion was still far from the fame they would achieve in later years. As a result, ads for the film sold not the human characters, but rather the horse. Top Kick was billed as the ‘Untamed King of the Wild Outlaw Herds!’ and ‘Outlaw stallion defying man’s ruthless guns…battling snarling killer wolves!’ Hype aside, however, the taglines capture one of the film’s evergreen selling points, its focus on one of the animals that helped win the West. In most low-budget Westerns, the love story is of relatively minor importance. In Wild Stallion, it takes center stage, even if it represents a departure from the boy meets girl formula to create a boy meets horse epic.”

Indeed, this is what’s oddest about the film; Ben Johnson’s character seems utterly uninterested in anything except his beloved white stallion, to the point that any romantic interest between Johnson and Martha Hyer is reduced to the absolute margins of the film. The other thing, of course, is that when watching Wild Stallion, the viewer is conscious of the fact that these are real cowboys in the film, doing most of their own stunts; it’s as if Hollywood in the 1950s was desperately recreating the American saga of  ”manifest destiny,” using ranch hands as out of date in their time as the cowboy drifters in John Huston’s The Misfits a decade later, in an attempt to hold on to the past.

A really bizarre little film, more “boy meets horse” than “boy meets girl”; worth seeing.

Frame by Frame: Hollywood Movie Moguls

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see a brief video on the Hollywood moguls.

I have a new Frame by Frame video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on Hollywood’s movie moguls of the 1930s through the 1960s, and how their era came to an end; it’s part of the work of my book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press for Fall, 2012.

Death of the Moguls is a detailed assessment of the last days of the “rulers of film,” which examines the careers of such moguls as  Harry Cohn at Columbia, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Jack L. Warner at Warner Brothers, Adolph Zukor at Paramount, and Herbert J. Yates at Republic in the dying days of their once-mighty empires. The sheer force of personality and business acumen displayed by these moguls made the studios successful; their deaths or departures hastened the studios’ collapse. Almost none had a plan for leadership succession; they simply couldn’t imagine a world in which they didn’t reign supreme.

Covering 20th Century-Fox, Selznick International Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures and Columbia Pictures, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood briefly introduces the studios and their respective bosses in the late 1940s, just before the collapse, then chronicles the last productions from the studios and their eventual demise in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I discuss here, and in the book in much more detail, of course, such game-changing factors as the de Havilland decision, which made actors free agents; the Consent Decree, which forced the studios to get rid of their theaters; how the moguls dealt with their collapsing empires in the television era; and the end of the conventional studio assembly line, where producers had rosters of directors, writers, and actors under their command.

Barry Keith Grant read several drafts of the book during its production, and wrote that “in this accessible and engaging history of the moguls who made the studios successful [. . .] Dixon does a terrific job of getting inside the heads of the bosses who built their studios into major entertainment factories.”

The book should be out in September, so you can read it for yourself then.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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