“There’s still money to be made in the sticks.” (Robert Lippert)
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In a corporate/entertainment move that may remind us of today’s return of Bob Iger to Disney, in the mid-1960s Darryl Zanuck was recalled to replace Spyros Skouras and head up Fox after the studio got into deep water because of massive cost overruns, especially on Cleopatra. Zanuck proceeded to fire most of the people on the lot, or so it seemed, but one of the few he kept on was Skouras’s cigar-chomping buddy, Bob Lippert.
Lippert had been in motion pictures all his adult life, in exhibition, production and distribution, and he knew the business inside out. A dollars and cents man if ever there was one, he had been making low-budget movies since the mid-1940s, since 1956 for Fox. Mark Thomas McGee, in his book Talk’s Cheap, Action’s Expensive: The Films of Robert L Lippert, a work to which I owe much for this article, says, “He was more qualified to run the place than Zanuck.”
As a youngster, Lippert had no interest at all in his father’s hardware business (in fact he was adopted but didn’t discover that till much later) and was always fascinated by the silver screen. He showed scraps of 35mm nitrate film on a toy projector and sold tickets to the local kids for 1 cent. At high school, he got put in charge of running movies on Fridays. He’d pick a new film up and hand the old one back on a Thursday evening and, the shrewd operator already alive in him, he soon found outlets to show the pictures on the other evenings too, at local clubs. “It all started when I was eight,” he said in a 1956 interview. “I gave out programs at the Strand Theater in Alameda. I just kept going from there.”
He did indeed. He got a job as a projectionist and started tinkering with the projectors to improve them. He became the manager of a theater, and then, in 1942, built his own, on borrowed money. He put it up near a wartime shipyard and military base and kept it open round the clock. He did good business. By the mid-40s he owned a chain of theaters through California, Nevada and Oregon (including that one he sold programs in) and when the boom in drive-ins arrived, he expanded into those too.
He thought many movie house owners lazy and incompetent. They didn’t promote their pictures, they booked them without even watching them, they changed the program once a week even if the current movie was selling out (often in order to show a dud) and generally hadn’t got a clue. Lippert wasn’t like that. To promote his movies he’d have ‘Dish Night’, giving patrons one plate or cup from a 52-piece dinner set, and finding they came back every week to get the rest. Then he tried with encyclopedias.
But he agreed with the other owners on one thing: the studios charged too much for their product. What’s more, until the block-booking practice was stopped in 1948, the majors obliged theater owners to take a ‘package’ of films, so that the exhibitors were in effect forced to buy real losers along with the good sellers, thus shouldering the risk and losses the studios should have done. How hard can it be to make a movie? Lippert wondered. He decided to have a go at it himself.
He formed two companies: Action Pictures, to produce the movies that Screen Guild would release.
It was a business venture, not an artistic one. He rarely visited the set of his pictures, did not watch rushes and never read scripts. He hired people (anyone who would work cheap) to do all that. Almost accidentally, he did in fact provide the start for the careers of many – the actors of course but also the likes of Samuel Fuller, Charles Marquis Warren, AV McLaglen, James Clavell, and more.
But Lippert himself had no cultural pretensions whatever. “I’m giving the public and the exhibitors the films they want for purely commercial reasons,” he said. “I don’t worry about what the critics say. I make pictures people want to see.” And he did. One Kansas theater owner enthused, “If you are in a small town with rural patronage, just line up with these Lippert pictures, and you and your patrons will be happy.” And because the Hollywood adage had it, ‘If you want to make money, make a Western’, though Bob Lippert did make sci-fi and horror flicks and so on, the majority of his output were sagebrush sagas.
The first Lippert film was Wildfire: The Story of a Horse, a 57-minute Bob Steele Western made for $36,000. It was shot in Cinecolor, a process much used at the time by smaller studios such as Monogram and PRC. The Cinecolor company lost money and closed in the 1950s, but not before a good many Westerns had been produced by the process.
Lippert chose Robert Emmett Tansey to direct the picture. Tansey was an experienced hand at ultra-low-budget oaters in all sorts of capacities – director, editor, writer, production manager, and so on. Tansey would write and direct another color Western for Lippert the year after, God’s Country, which, amazingly, featured Buster Keaton in the cast. You can watch Buster’s shtick here on YouTube. Tansey said he approached every Western the same way: twenty minutes of riding, ten minutes of shooting, ten minutes of fist-fighting, and twenty minutes of plot. If he ran a bit behind schedule, he cut the plot.
The next year, 1946, there were three other Westerns, Renegade Girl, Rolling Home and Death Valley, the first two directed by a low-budget expert, William Berke, who would also become a Lippert regular. Oscar-winning director Richard Fleischer in his memoir recalled that Berke “was known as King of the Bs. For years and years he had made nothing but pictures with ten or twelve day shooting schedules, minuscule budgets of about $100,000 and no stars. Without bothering with editing or any postproduction chores and with short shooting schedules, he was able to squeeze in eight or ten pictures a year. And he was going nuts”. But Berke knew what he was doing, and he churned them out on-time and on-budget. Just what Lippert wanted. Not that Lippert allowed him the dizzy heights of $100,000. Berke produced, wrote and/or directed 15 titles with Lippert, seven of them Westerns.
Another director who could churn ‘em out cheap and fast was Lee Sholem, known as Roll ‘em Sholem, about whom we were talking the other day (click the link for that). Sholem helmed Lippert’s Superman pilot Superman and the Mole-Men, through regrettably never did a Western for Bob.
In the same way, writers were hired who would (a) work for next to nothing and (b) would confine their plots to a maximum of four locations and as few characters as possible, limiting the action (“Talk’s cheap, action’s expensive.”) Two favorites were Maurice Tombragel, who wrote eight pictures for Lippert, half of them Westerns, and Orville H Hampton, hired thirteen times, only four Westerns, though. On one level, listening to the dialogue, you’d say these guys were ultra-untalented, but looked at another way – what they put out given the confines – they were amazingly skilled.
In very short order, the Quickie King, as TIME magazine called Lippert, was making $15,000 profit per picture. “This gives him a nice return,” said Variety, “considering that he makes ten or more a year.” The fact that Lippert had his own distribution company and made a healthy fee on each picture certainly didn’t hurt the finances. Mr McGee says, “Profit with Lippert. That was the slogan on his press books. It should have been on his tombstone.”
In 1947 Lippert tried a bit of diversification. He made a jungle flick, a noir and a comedy, for example, and the nearest he got to a Western was Trail of the Mounties with Russell Hayden.
In ’48 Lippert had a go at a sequel – sort of. He made The Return of Wildfire, this time with Richard Arlen in the lead. Thunder in the Pines, a logging picture, tried Superman George Reeves out in a Western.
That year too Lippert tried his hand at directing, on the tried-and-tested ‘How hard can it be?’ theory. The Western The Last of the Wild Horses had an unusually luxurious 84-minute runtime and starred James Ellison along with other Lippert regulars such as Mary Beth Hughes, James Millican and Reed Hadley. To Lippert’s horror, after only three days he fell hopelessly behind schedule. True to his principles, he fired himself. The film’s editor, Paul Landres, took over and finished it (though without credit). Reader Barry Lane says of the picture, “I have it here, and it is pretty good entertainment whether or not Lippert could not finish. At least he started something that has decent wit and style.”
The following year Landres directed the only film to feature Robert L Lippert in the cast, Grand Canyon. The picture (“Funny ‘nuff to make a mule laugh”, according to the poster) was all about the trials and tribulations of a film crew shooting a Western at the Grand Canyon, and Lippert played the producer (naturally).
Grand Canyon was one of twelve pictures in 1949, eight of them oaters. Two, Call of the Forest and The Dalton Gang, the latter as fictional an account of the outlaws as you could get, scripted and directed by another hack, Ford Beebe, featured Robert Lowery as the (fictional) Blackie Dalton. Lowery, who had also been in the previous Lippert oaters God’s Country and Death Valley – in fact Lowery made ten pictures with Lippert – was actually, in my opinion anyway, a rather better actor than the low-budgeter movies he was condemned to warranted. He had in fact started Westerns with parts in A-pictures, Drums Along the Mohawk and The Mark of Zorro, but it was downhill from there.
Another actor who featured in 1949 pictures for Lippert was Don ‘Red’ Barry. He was the lawman who tracked Robert Lowery down in The Dalton Gang and he also topped the billing in Tough Assignment, a contemporary Western helmed by the famous William Beaudine, the musical comedy Western Square Dance Jubilee and the boxing flick Ringside. Barry had made it quite big as Red Ryder at Republic in 1940, which was how he got his nickname (which he hated) but he wasn’t the easiest character as a colleague, to say the least, and his career was not on the up. In an effort to revive it, he formed his own company, Donald Barry Productions, and concentrated on Westerns. He made seven pictures with Lippert, in 1949 and 1950.
But the biggest Lippert Western by far in 1949 was the surprise success I Shot Jesse James. Samuel Fuller was a crime reporter and pulp novelist, and Bob read his The Dark Page and offered him the chance to make a film – if he could do it quickly and cheaply. Fuller suggested a movie about the plot to kill Julius Caesar but that was way too cultural for Bob, and he thought another assassination yarn would draw them in better, the Fords’ murder of Jesse James. Fuller got $5000 plus a percentage of the profits. He was given ten days and a liberal $110,000 to make it.
Best of all for Fuller, though, was that he was given carte blanche to make the film his way. The only concession he had to make was to agree to open the film with a horse chase, an idea that Fuller later said helped the picture. The result was a smash hit. Lippert probably then regretted the percentage he had granted Fuller, but he paid up.
Lippert used the profits to merge his companies into Lippert Pictures Inc, a production-distribution combination. As the 1950s came in, Bob was going to have his most profitable year yet.
In 1950 there would be no fewer than 16 movies, another hit in the shape of Rocketship X-M, a film that cost $94,000 to make and grossed $600,000, but nine of the year’s pictures were Westerns. Hard on the hooves of I Shot Jesse James, Lippert got John Ireland back in The Return of Jesse James. Though a weaker film than Fuller’s, it didn’t do badly. Fuller himself came back to make the entertaining Gothic Western The Baron of Arizona, with Vincent Price, an unusual picture which didn’t do as well as I Shot… In fact Variety said, “Fuller misses in scripting and direction. He tries to be too erudite, losing the fast action needed to put this one over with the general ticket buyer.” In reality, though, I Shot… and The Baron… are certainly Fuller’s best Westerns, way superior to the lurid later Forty Guns or even trashier Run of the Arrow.
Red Barry too returned, this time in an attempt to cash in on the sales of I Shot Jesse James with I Shot Billy the Kid, a far inferior picture, however, helmed by a returning William Berke. Berke and Barry also made Gunfire, with Barry as Frank James and Robert Lowery as the killer of Robert Ford (it was another one of those tales). Berke directed Barry yet again in Train to Tombstone, another cheap (and pretty bad) B.
Berke was back yet again to direct Bandit Queen, which we recently reviewed, a picture which headlined Barbara Britton.
And there was a whole series of James Ellison/Russell Hayden/Fuzzy Knight oaters, Hostile Country, Marshal of Heldorado, Crooked River, Colorado Ranger, West of the Brazos and Fast on the Draw. These six pictures were made by producer Ron Ormond and writer Maurice Tombragel and were production-line jobs. They were made, all six, in 21 days, using the same cast, crew, locations and even costumes. They’d shoot all the cabin scenes of the pictures together, then all the stagecoach scenes, and so on. The cost of each feature averaged out at $7,000.
It was quite a year.
So was ’51. The biggest hit was Fuller’s Korean war picture The Steel Helmet. It made an amazing (for Lippert) $2m. In the Western domain, though (that which really counts) we got Ireland again paired with Lloyd Bridges in the excellent Little Big Horn, and Preston Foster heading the cast of Three Desperate Men.
The first was written by Charles Marquis Warren, F Scott Fitzgerald’s godson, who’d done the fun Streets of Laredo with William Holden and also sold Only the Valiant to Warners, made with Gregory Peck. Warren now got to direct for the first time. Though like most writers he’d complained bitterly in the past about his pearls of literary wisdom being cut by philistine film makers, he now found himself cutting his own writing to the bone. He told the Daily News “I’ve been tightening scenes, eliminating dialog, and condensing action.” And indeed, the picture is spare and tense. Joanne Dru (Mrs Ireland) tested for the leading lady role but in the end declined, and it went to Lippert stand-by Marie Windsor. The picture was well received and sold well too. I reckon it’s pretty good.
Three Desperate Men had the working title The Daltons’ Last Raid, and it was a Daltons saga, but having recently done The Dalton Gang with Barry, Lippert thought better of it and the characters’ name was changed to Denton. As they are former lawmen who turn to outlawry and then all perish except the youngest in a final attempt to rob two banks at once, it was still obviously a Daltons yarn. Jim Davis did a good job as the youngest, the ‘Emmett’ figure. The most interesting thing about the picture, though, is that Gary Cooper and Carl Foreman were interested in the project. It didn’t come to anything, but it’s a fascinating might-have-been.
In 1952 Warren was back, this time with a tough prison Western, Hellgate, with Sterling Hayden and Ward Bond, and Joan Leslie as female lead. Thomas McGee calls it “one of Lippert’s best pictures”.
Lippert knew that the B-movie had a limited life. Audiences were dwindling as TV provided a lot of that kind of entertainment free. He knew he’d have to move up-market, and make bigger (and more expensive) pictures if he was going to maintain his returns. He embarked on making deals, some of which came to nothing, such as that with Monogram (although vice-president Walter Mirisch was keen, the board wasn’t) and even Louis B Mayer, who suggested that MGM make some pictures at an unheard-of (for Bob) $2m a throw to be released by Lippert. Prestigious Carl Foreman was ready to work with Bob, writing and directing three features at $306,000 apiece, but that all came to a sorry end when HUAC accused Foreman of being a Commie. Some deals did come off, though, such as that with horror specialist Hammer in England, and some jointly-made movies were the result.
Hellgate was the only Lippert oater of 1952 and in ’53 too Bob favored other genres. You’d think that Lippert would have embraced the 3D craze with open arms and made a 3D Western, but no – though one of those 1949 pictures, Deputy Marshal, proudly announced in the opening credits that it was “photographed by Carl Berger with the Garutso Balanced Lens, A new photographic principle which creates a three dimensional effect.”
Hammer didn’t really ‘do’ Westerns, and Lippert/Hammer pictures were the likes of the sci-fi Spaceways with Howard Duff or noir 36 Hours with Dan Duryea. There were two oaters in 1954, Thunder Pass, directed by Frank McDonald and starring Dane Clark, and, a departure for Lippert, a documentary, The Cowboy, by Elmo Williams (Oscar-winning editor of High Noon) and his wife Lorraine.
In 1955 we got The Silver Star, directed by Richard Bartlett, unusual in that it was the only time that the wonderful Western character actor Edgar Buchanan took the lead. It also featured Marie Windsor and Lon Chaney Jr. And finally, Bartlett returned to helm another Western with Buchanan, though this time in a more usual character part, and with Bob Lippert’s longtime lover Margia Dean as leading lady (she was in 17 of his pictures), with Wayne Morris and John Agar heading the cast, The Lonesome Trail.
That one was Lippert’s last Western as producer/distributor.
His son Robert Lippert Jr went into the business (he’d been an assistant editor on High Noon and on Hellgate and Little Big Horn) and he produced The Great Jesse James Raid. He said, “Considering it had a budget of well under $100,000, Jesse made a nice profit.” It was, though, between you and me, junk. But Bob himself eschewed our noble genre. There were more bucks to be made elsewhere.
Sensing that the days of his features were numbered, Bob wanted to sell his pictures to TV. 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 not the end for Bob Lippert.
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 younger child will watch anything an older child will watch;
an older child will not watch anything a younger child will watch;
a girl will watch anything a boy will watch;
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 buddy, Bob Lippert.
So now here Bob 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.
We’ve looked at these Regal pictures in a recent post, so click here for that. They were a mixture of the good, bad and indifferent, which I guess is normal.
When Bob Lippert’s contract with Fox ran out he simply closed Regal Films down. Regal’s last Western, indeed its last film, Lone Texan, was released in March 1959.
He wasn’t done, mind. He now signed a new contract with Fox as Associated Producers Inc. Now he had to make even cheaper pictures than the Regal ones.
Fox sold its movies to TV in packages, much as the studios had done to exhibitors back in the day. A package contained thirteen titles – a couple of premium ones to get the sale, the bulk of mediocre stuff and, as a kind of bonus, they tossed in a couple of cheapjack movies. If any of these duds made a buck or two out in the sticks, so much the better. If not, who cares?
To Associated Pictures fell the task of churning out the cheapjacks. The company did make the odd bigger picture – Five Gates to Hell, a 1959 adventure-drama written and directed by James Clavell, made more than a million and half, and A Dog of Flanders with David Ladd won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. In the Western domain, Associated made Fred MacMurray’s last Western, The Oregon Trail, released in August ’59, directed by another editor-turned-director, Gene Fowler Jr. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just Fred’s last Western; it was his worst one.
But many of the other oaters Associated did were back to the old low-budget B-Western style, black & white pictures of barely more than an hour. The Miracle of the Hills, with Rex Reason heading the cast in 1959 was followed by 13 Fighting Men, a Civil War drama with Grant Williams and Brad Dexter, Young Jesse James, directed by William F Claxton and starring Ray Stricklyn, Walk Tall, produced and directed by Maury Dexter and bringing back Willard Parker, and Freckles, with Andrew V McLaglen at the helm, all came out in 1960. Young Jesse James was about the best but it was only relative. At least Walk Tall and Freckles were in color, so that was a step up, at least as far as the exhibitors thought.
In 1960 Lippert’s long feud with the Screen Actors Guild came to an end when he agreed to pay a lump sum on condition that there would be no demands for residuals. Bob’s name could appear on the screen once more.
In 1961, The Canadians, despite being directed by Burt Kennedy, who wrote some of those superb Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Westerns in the late 50s, and starring that fine Western actor Robert Ryan, was a real dud. Boxoffice said (rightly) that it “lacks sustained action”, Variety called it a “plodding, tepid drama”, while the New York Times said it was “miserably written and directed” and called it “monotonous.”
Also in 1961, we got The Long Rope. This picture (soon to be reviewed on Jeff Arnold’s West) was more interesting. Yes, it was back to 61 minutes of black & white, but it was produced by Margia Dean, who, when asked if men resented taking orders from a woman, replied, “Some do, but I’m the nicest, kindest producer in the business,” which showed some wit. Good old William Witney directed, veteran of all those Republic B-Westerns and serials. The best thing was that Hugh Marlowe topped the billing, and he was such a fine actor. Supporting him were Alan Hale Jr and Robert J Wilke as the chief bad guy, so the cast was more than satisfactory. But as I say, more on that movie anon.
The same year The Purple Hills had a runtime of barely an hour but was in CinemaScope and color. It was directed by Maury Dexter again. Limelight said, “The Grade B western was shot in six days but, while you’re looking at it, it seems twice that long.”
In 1962 The Broken Land was in color and managed to get to a 75-minute runtime (in the director’s cut) but it starred Kent Taylor and Joel McCrea’s son Jody, and was directed by yet another editor trying to direct, John A Bushelman, whose only Western this was. Undistinguished is the word, I think. In my review I described it as “averagely alright”.
Dexter and Taylor were back to make The Firebrand, a one-hour b&w job, but I know nothing else about this one.
And Associated Pictures’ and Bob Lippert’s last ever Western came out in November 1962, Young Guns of Texas, and it was vaguely interesting as a ‘Young Guns’ oater starring Mitchum, Ladd and McCrea offspring, James, Alana and Jody, along with a sort of honorary son: Gary Conway’s mentor and father-figure was Gene Barry. It was 78 minutes of color, with some Arizona locations, and not a total dud. Uninspired but watchable, I’d say.
Lippert was hoping to make one more Western, Outlaw from Red River, because he loved the title. He was going to put Margia Dean in the lead role. But this became a spaghetti shot in Spain, Django the Condemned (1965), starring George Montgomery, Lippert withdrew from the project and Margia did not appear, replaced by Elisa Montés – apart from anything else, director Maury Dexter did not get on with Margia at all and refused to have her. The picture got no theatrical release in the US and went straight to TV. It was dross anyway.
So for Robert L Lippert and his sagebrush sagas, that was all she wrote (or produced or distributed). It was a record perhaps more distinguished by quantity than quality, but here and there he did make an occasional good one. There’s a handful of Lippert Westerns that I would gladly see again.
One of the scandal magazines threatened to expose Lippert’s long-running affair with Dean, and Bob thought it best to just retire. He moved back to the Alameda area with his wife Ruth, and was on vacation at Lake Tahoe in 1974 when he had a heart attack. Another heart attack two years later proved fatal. His secretary telephoned Margia. “Mr Lippert wanted you to be the first to know.” Ruth lived on another eight years.
Sorry this is such a long post. I just got interested in the subject.
Well, it seems you have still à lot of writing ahead with all this westerns thanks to Lippert’s low cost assembly line style concept… I remember having seen this huge theater in Alameda (there is a couple of gorgeous movie theaters in downtown Oakland too, such as the Fox or the Paramount) but I am not sure it was the original one.
Yes, plenty of Western movies still to be seen!!
Well, thanks to Internet and Alameda tourism office, those interested will find the cinéma fascinating whole story here
Interesting article. Thanks. Impressive art deco! And how nice that it’s still showing movies.