Lippert does a deal with Fox
Movies whose titles have livelinks have been reviewed on this blog and you can click to read more about an individual film.
In the mid-1950s, 20th Century Fox had been concentrating on multimillion dollar blockbusters but suddenly the Fox execs understood that they needed to make bread-and-butter pictures too. That was especially because the recently-formed American International Pictures had taught the majors a lesson. AIP produced low-budget combo packages with no-name actors, aimed at the youth market. They made teen movies, horrors, sci-fi, rock ‘n’ roll flicks and any kind of film that would appeal to the kids. AIP developed a strategy they called the Peter Pan Syndrome:
- a) a younger child will watch anything an older child will watch;
b) an older child will not watch anything a younger child will watch;
c) a girl will watch anything a boy will watch;
d) a boy will not watch anything a girl will watch;
Therefore: to catch your greatest audience you zero in on the 19-year-old male.
AIP output was offered to exhibitors far more cheaply than the big studios’ stuff, and it was gobbled up. Allied Artists, Columbia and Republic sat up and took notice. Soon they were making similar pictures. Spyros Skouras, at the time Fox studio boss, wanted some of that action, and he turned to his cigar-chomping golfing buddy, Bob Lippert.
Robert L Lippert, who is to be the subject of the next in our riveting series The Producers (so come back soon, dear reader), had made his money by making ‘em cheap and promoting ‘em hard. A thriving movie house owner (he had a chain of theaters and drive-ins through several states) he had resented the high prices the studios were charging for their product and in the mid-1940s had started making his own films. But he had fallen foul of the unions. When the market for B-movies declined with the encroachment of TV, he wanted to sell his pictures to the television channels. The Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America demanded a cut. Bob told them to go take a hike. A boycott was the result and Lippert was suddenly persona non grata. Finally he announced that he was abandoning film production and would confine himself to distributing independently-made pictures. It was the end of the road for Lippert Pictures.
But now here he was, back behind a (very large) desk, and what’s more, he didn’t have to scrabble around for fifty grand to make a picture. Under his deal with Skouras, he would make ten black & white CinemaScope features a year. Fox had invested big in widescreen CinemaScope but the exhibitors hated it. They had to bear the cost of adapting their theaters to accommodate the format. Skouras promised them that widescreen color pictures would be worth it; the movie-goers would come flocking back. Now, rather than go back on his word about the color side of it, the mogul set up Regal Films with Lippert, and pretended that the movies were independently made – Fox was acting purely as distributor. It was a fiction, but it worked. Ed Baumgarten was the nominal president of Regal and Bob Lippert’s name didn’t appear anywhere on the screen. The unions were held at bay.
However, AIP had abandoned the Western. They’d done quite a few early on, when they were still American Releasing Corporation (ARC) and just after. ARC big wheel Roger Corman, for example, had directed Apache Woman and Five Guns West in 1955 and Gunslinger and The Oklahoma Woman in 1956. But AIP boss Samuel Z Arkoff put a stop to oaters. “To compete with television Westerns, you have to have color, big stars and two million dollars,” he said. Flesh and the Spur, an Edward Cahn-directed picture with John Agar, released in January 1957, was the outfit’s last sagebrush saga. Bob Lippert sensed an opportunity. Westerns had always done well with him. In fact Lippert Pictures had made and distributed more Westerns than any other genre. Now he ordered that Regal would make only Westerns in its first year.
Stagecoach to Fury, Regal’s first production, was a 76-minute picture in CinemaScope (they called it Regalscope) released in December 1956. It was directed by William F Claxton and written by Earle Lyon, who was also a producer. Heading the cast were Western regulars Forrest Tucker, Mari Blanchard, Wallace Ford, Rodolfo Hoyos Jr and Paul Fix. The film even had some Kanab, UT and Montana locations – profligacy as far as Lippert would have reckoned a few years before. The budget was a heady $125,000. The cinematographer was Walter Strenge (soon to be President of the American Society of Cinematographers) and rather surprisingly, considering how few exterior shots there are, this picture, Strenge’s first Western, was nominated for ‘best black and white photography’, this being one of the last movies to be considered in that category because the Academy dropped it shortly thereafter. It was probably the CinemaScope. The picture wasn’t bad, actually. It’s certainly one of Regal’s better efforts.
The Desperados Are in Town was much less distinguished. It headlined Robert Arthur and Kathleen Nolan, hardly the glitziest of Western stars, and was directed and written by Kurt Neumann, who had helmed Lippert’s 1950 sci-fi success Rocketship X-M and would in 1958 have a big hit in the horror genre with The Fly, also a Regal/Fox picture, but as far as the Western domain is concerned, the one that counts, he directed a few decent ones, with Audie Murphy, Scott Brady, Lex Barker, even Joel McCrea. In fact he went right back to Tom Mix’s 1932 talkie My Pal the King. All this experience didn’t seem to do much for The Desperados Are in Town, however. Variety said that there was “not as much action as there should be” and the Hollywood Reporter pronounced that “the characters are stock and the situations never generate any excitement.”
The Black Whip, released December 1956, was another ‘small’ picture, in the sense of limited locations and short cast list; and it was directed by Charles Marquis Warren, who had started directing with Lippert and helmed two really quite good Westerns for him, Little Big Horn (1951) and Hellgate (1952). Warren would later become a big wheel on Western TV shows like Gunsmoke, and indeed much of The Black Whip, especially the bits in town, does resemble a Gunsmoke episode. But there was some very good acting, notably by lead Hugh Marlowe (and The Black Whip had definite similarities with Marlowe’s first and best Western, Rawhide) and the writing was also surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because it was by Orville H Hampton, who scripted a lot of extremely predictable and plodding B-Westerns, for Lippert and others. But this time he got it right. Maybe Warren had more input than he let on.
The Quiet Gun, which Fox released in January 1957, headlined Forrest Tucker again, with Mara Corday and Jim Davis. It was another Claxton/Lyon picture. It was actually darn good, lifted by the quality of the acting (especially Tucker) into an interesting, rather dark psychological Western of some quality. The Hollywood Reporter said it was “a good picture.” This one is certainly worth a look.
The Storm Rider two months later was produced by the Lippertesque Bernard Glasser, who had also fallen in love with motion pictures at a tender age. It was written and directed by Glasser’s friend and business partner Edward Bernds, a former sound man, and starred Scott Brady and Mala Powers. Bernds and Glasser made four pictures for Regal, including the Western Escape from Red Rock (see below). The Motion Picture Herald called The Storm Rider “top drawer”, Boxoffice admired the “sure-footed direction”, though Variety damned it with faint praise, calling it “convincing enough to rate as okay entertainment.”
Badlands of Montana came out in May 1957 and was both written and directed (the only Western he directed) by Daniel B Ullman, who started writing Tim Holt oaters in the late 1940s and would later script good Westerns for Joel McCrea and Fred MacMurray. He had worked quite a lot with Lippert. The picture starred Rex Reason and Beverly Garland (“Reason and Garland make a good romantic couple,” opined the Hollywood Reporter). The Motion Picture Herald reckoned that the “uninhibited script [was] played out with gusto by a large and competent cast.”
Apache Warrior in July ‘57 was notionally the story of the Apache Kid. Because the hard facts about the life of the White Mountain Apache known as the Apache Kid are so few and far between (we don’t even know exactly where or when he was born or where or when he died), he is ideal subject matter for Westerns, which feel free to make up any old stuff that will entertain the paying public. The Kid has made various big- and small-screen appearances, played by different actors. This one starred Keith Larsen as the Kid and Jim Davis as a very thinly disguised Al Sieber – he is Ben Ziegler. Actually Jim had already captured the Apache Kid before the film began, on Stories of the Century. The critics quite liked Apache Warrior. Variety said it “stands as an example of intelligence and skill applied to a modest budget.” The picture was written by Kurt Neumann again and directed by Elmo Williams, Oscar-winning editor of High Noon and producer of The Longest Day. He had worked with Lippert on the screenplays of Hellgate and The Tall Texan.
Of course Regal wasn’t going to produce only Westerns. Other pictures started to appear, such as Back from the Dead, Space Master X-7, Rockabilly Baby, and The Fly of course, grippers, no doubt. But there were still some oaters to come.
The Deerslayer, released in September, was quite a departure. It was the only Regal Western to be in color (Color DeLuxe) and it must have actually had a budget because it was shot up at Bass Lake in the Sierra Nevada, where they constructed a special floating fort, required by the plot. It starred Lex Barker, a relatively big name for Regal, who had done quite a few ‘protowesterns’ of this kind and who would of course become famous for those films based on Karl May stories he did in Europe in the 1960s. Variety called the picture “a well-turned out derring-do actioner” and I guess it is, really.
Interestingly, the ultra-talented Dalton Trumbo was brought on board as a writer, though uncredited because he had fallen foul of the HUAC and was blacklisted. That meant he could be paid less.
Copper Sky, released the same time as Deerslayer, was back to the more modest format of black & white Regalscope. It was Rooster Cogburn without the zip, Jeff Morrow and Coleen Gray not being exactly Duke and Hepburn. Ms Gray herself later admitted she’d overacted: “With me, most directors who have any sense at all will say, ‘Coleen, on a scale of ten, will you take it down to three?’ Then I behave.” The picture was directed by Charles Marquis Warren again. This one was a dud, though. Motion Picture Herald talked of its “plodding pace”, Variety thought that it “probably sets a record high for lack of action and overage of dialog” while the Hollywood Reporter dismissed it as “a tedious Western.” Critic Brian Garfield called Copper Sky a “black and white Z-movie”. It’s not quite as bad as that. It did have some Kanab locations, for example.
In November ’57 Fox released another Regal Western, though more of a historical war/spy film really, Ride a Violent Mile, written and directed once more by Charles Marquis Warren, who was becoming a Lippert go-to, and starring John Agar, another of those actors who had declined somewhat in the quality of the roles they got. I haven’t seen this movie but it didn’t go down too well at the time (Film Daily said that “After a while, the meandering plot becomes so thick, it doesn’t make much difference” while Variety opined that “This celluloid would have been put to better use as banjo picks”, which does seem a tad savage).
Escape from Red Rock, released in December 1957, was a traditional Western of the old school. It starred Brian Donlevy – well, it starred him nominally but he’s MIA for all the middle part of the film and I reckon all his scenes could have been shot in a day. The Hollywood Reporter called the picture “original and tightly-conceived” and Variety said that it was “sufficiently different to warrant good suspense.” Myself, I think original is stretching it a bit but yes, there is some suspense. It was another one produced, written and directed by Bernard Glasser and Edward Bernds. There’s the odd thoughtful line and some tension does build. In their short bit of screentime, Donlevy and Jay C Flippen as the stern-but-kindly lawman do add a bit of weight.
Showdown at Boot Hill, in January 1958, is mildly interesting as being the first Western lead role of Charles Bronson, but that’s about it. The picture was directed by Gene Fowler Jr, a former editor whose first movie as director this was. He is best known for such later marvels as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Married a Monster from Outer Space. He mostly did TV work, though the following year he would direct Fred MacMurray’s last (and worst) feature Western, The Oregon Trail. The writer was Louis Vittes, who also did mostly TV scripts but occasionally rode out on the big screen (this was his second feature Western). Unfortunately, between them, Fowler and Vittes cooked up a picture that is (I think) supposed to be profound but succeeds only in being pretentious. But the crits liked it. “There’s enough gunplay for the action fans and enough story for the thinkers.” (Variety).
Ambush at Cimarron Pass, which came out in March 1958, was directed by Jodie Copelan, his only Western in the chair (he was another editor having a go at directing). It starred Scott Brady and Margia Dean, both Lippert regulars and in the case of Dean very regular (she was Bob Lippert’s lover and appeared in 17 of his pictures). Brady and Dean didn’t get on. She later said, “He was very cocky and rude … He’s pretty lousy.” It was an early big-screen role of Clint Eastwood (he got $750 for it). Clint later described the picture as “probably the lousiest Western ever made.” A bit harsh, but it certainly wasn’t very good. Variety defined it as a “pedestrian pace slow Regal oater.”
Blood Arrow in April ’58 had Charles Marquis Warren at the helm yet again, and Scott Brady returned to star too, this time paired with Phyllis Coates (history does not record if he was rude to her also). Examples of the critical appreciation were: “Offers little that is different or exciting.” “Unreeling at a dull place, there’s little to recommend the film.” “The value of such western entertainment has been diminished by the fact that entertainment equally good is available free on television.” Ouch.
Wolf Dog in July 1958 starred Jim Davis again and was a Sam Newfield picture – this time Sam produced as well as directed. Don’t know what happened to brother Sigmund. It was Sam’s penultimate picture. Filmed in rural Ontario (Sam was up there shooting Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans, and Hawkeye’s John Hart was in Wolf Dog) it was a contemporary Western, set in the 1950s, but it had a straight B-Western plot and could just as well been the 1870s. Boxoffice slammed it as “uneventful and often downright dull” but I don’t mind it. It’s all a bit family-friendly, and the scenes with the boy and his dog and pony verge on the cloying, but there is a final shoot-out to even things up and make it a bit more Western. It does have a certain naïve charm.
Frontier Gun, released December 1958, wasn’t too bad. It was directed this time by Paul Landres, who was at Universal as an editor in the 1930s and 40s and directed his first feature film in 1949. He mostly worked in TV but he was involved in 31 feature oaters between 1940 and 1965, twelve as director or co-director – all Bs, though. He worked for Regal’s boss, Bob Lippert, quite a bit, including finishing directing the film, The Last of the Wild Horses, that Lippert himself had tried helming and flopped at. Landres seems to have known his business, for Frontier Gun nips right along and is decently photographed (by Walter Strenge again). The Motion Picture Herald said that it “moves along with fast pace” and the Hollywood Reporter complimented the picture on its “well-paced action.” It starred John Agar again and he was alright, I guess, but honors were stolen by Barton MacLane as his dad, a clean-up-the-town marshal of the old school.
Lone Texan came out in March 1959 and was Regal’s last Western. It’s another I haven’t seen, and is hard to find, but I’d like to watch it because it’s quite well thought of. Boxoffice called it “first-rate”, while Variety thought it was “a strikingly good film”. It too was directed by Landres and seems to have been one of his better efforts. Do let me know what you thought of it if you have seen it, by leaving a comment. It brought together Willard Parker and Douglas Kennedy, among others. The IMDb plot summary says “After the Civil War, a Texan who served in the Union army comes back home to find himself ostracized by his neighbors for having fought against the Confederacy. On top of that, he finds that his younger brother is now the sheriff, and is ruling the town with an iron hand.”
When Bob Lippert’s contract with Fox ran out he simply closed Regal Films down.
He wasn’t done, mind. He signed a new contract with Fox as Associated Producers Inc. Now he had to make even cheaper pictures than the Regal ones. More of those another day, maybe.