Monogram gets delusions of grandeur
The last of the studios were are examining in this current series (you can catch our other articles, if you missed them, at MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros, Columbia, Universal, Republic, United Artists and RKO) is Allied Artists.
From Panhandle in 1948 to China 9, Liberty 37 thirty years later, AA released a goodly number of Westerns, including Kansas Pacific, Jack Slade, Seven Angry Men, Shotgun, Wichita, At Gunpoint, The Oklahoman and The Tall Stranger, to name but a few.
In 1953, one of the years we have been taking as an example in these studio Western posts, there were 14 oaters, out of a total of 29 films, 48% of the studio’s output, really a remarkable figure, while in 1955, our other sample year, a time of early decline of the big-screen Western, out of 30 movies released, six were oaters, still a hefty 20%.
To understand Allied Artists, though, you really have to go back to Monogram.
Monogram Pictures Corporation went back to 1931, when it was formed to make low-budget fare, and it produced a lot of one-hour Westerns.
The driving force behind these early oaters was writer/director RN Bradbury with his son Bob Steele.
The first Westerns actually starred Bill Cody and Tom Tyler but Bob Steele soon joined the gang, and there were fifteen oaters in 1932, all rather forgettable, but fun.
The actors the studio could afford tended to be young hopefuls or former bigger-studio stars on a downward career path and still glad of a gig. For example, when Universal Pictures allowed Johnny Mack Brown’s contract to lapse, Monogram snapped him up and kept him busy through 1952.
In 1933 Monogram did a deal with Paul Malvern, former vaudeville acrobat and stuntman, to put out Malvern’s Lone Star pictures, many of which featured a young John Wayne and which were often helmed by Bradbury.
It was Monogram that hit on the ‘trio’ format, with Buck Jones, Tim McCoy and Ray Hatton as The Rough Riders, Crash Corrigan, Dusty King and Max Terhune together as The Range Busters and Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson and Bob Steele teamed as The Trail Blazers.
Soon after, Monogram became the biggest of the ‘Poverty Row’ studios to merge into the new Republic Pictures, but founding Monogram execs W Ray Johnston and Trem Carr didn’t get on at all with the autocratic Republic boss Herb Yates. Carr quickly moved to Universal while Johnston re-launched Monogram in 1937.
Steve Broidy had moved from Warners to Monogram in the 30s and progressed steadily upwards, becoming VP in 1940 and head of production in 1945.
That was the year Walter Mirisch began at Monogram as assistant to Mr Broidy. The ambitious and driven Mirisch convinced Broidy that the days of low-budget films were ending and Monogram needed to move upmarket. In 1946 the studio created a new unit, Allied Artists Productions, to make bigger-budget films. The new name was meant to reflect the name of United Artists, grandly evoking images of “creative personnel uniting to produce and distribute quality films”.
First results were startling. At a time when the average Hollywood picture cost about $800,000, and the typical Monogram picture cost about $90,000, Allied Artists’ first release, the Christmas-themed comedy It Happened on Fifth Avenue in 1947, cost more than $1.2m to make. Old Monogram hands blanched. But it was rewarded with an estimated $1.8m box-office return. Subsequent Allied Artists releases were more economical, but some were filmed in Cinecolor and later Technicolor. In September 1952 Monogram announced that henceforth it would only produce films bearing the Allied Artists name, retiring the Monogram brand.
Early AA Westerns in the late 1940s, as well as Panhandle, included Black Gold with Anthony Quinn, Bad Men of Tombstone, a co-production with the King Brothers starring Barry Sullivan and Broderick Crawford, Stampede, a Scott R Dunlap production with Rod Cameron again, and Massacre River, with Guy Madison, co-made by Windsor Pictures.
For a time in the 1950s, the Mirisch family ruled the roost at Allied Artists. Walter was executive producer, his brother Harold was head of sales, and brother Marvin was assistant treasurer. They pushed the studio into big-budget filmmaking, signing contracts with William Wyler, John Huston, Billy Wilder and Gary Cooper. The big-time beckoned.
Bigger Westerns included Seven Angry Men directed by Charles Marquis Warren with Raymond Massey as John Brown and Wichita, a CinemaScope picture directed by Jacques Tourneur with Joel McCrea as Wyatt Earp. Alfred Werker also directed Fred MacMurray, Dorothy Malone and Walter Brennan in At Gunpoint.
However, AA’s first really big-name productions, including Wyler’s semi-Western Friendly Persuasion with Cooper, though that one was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, were box-office flops. Studio head Broidy took fright and reverted to the kind of pictures Monogram had previously been known for: low-budget action movies. The Mirisches released some (but not all) of their late-1950s films through United Artists.
Westerns returned a bit downmarket. For example, The Young Guns, starring Russ Tamblyn, was directed by Albert Band and written by Louis A Garfinkle. The Badge of Marshal Brennan was directed and produced by Albert C Gannaway and starred Jim Davis. These black & white 75-minuters weren’t exactly blockbusters. Gun Battle at Monterey, with Sterling Hayden and Ted de Corsia and directed by low-rent Carl Hittleman, didn’t feature a gun battle and wasn’t set in Monterey.
The occasional Mirisch-legacy bigger Western continued to appear, pictures such as The Tall Stranger in CinemaScope with Joel McCrea in 1957, but the majority of Western releases were a return to the B-Western format of yore.
Broidy retired in 1965, and Allied Artists ceased production in 1966, becoming a distributor of foreign films. It revived in the 1970s, with hits like Cabaret and Papillon, but finally went into bankruptcy in 1979.
Still and all, there were enough cheery programmers from Monogram and decent Mirisch-era Westerns from Allied Artists to gladden the notoriously stony heart of the Westernista, and so we should be properly thankful, dudes.
Well, that’s that for our examination of studio Westerns. We also looked earlier at the humbler Lippert. Next time it’ll be back to a review of a Western movie – a Warners one, in fact. Until then, sayonara, e-pards.