They liked the Western
Republic may be thought of as one of the ‘lesser’ studios but it certainly favored the Western, like Columbia and Universal.
In 1953, an example we’ve been using, Republic issued 21 films, nine of which were oaters, fully 42% – in percentage terms, remarkable. True, they were mostly ‘series’ Westerns, one-hour programmers with Rex Allen or Allan Lane, but there were a couple of bigger pictures, San Antone, directed by the studio’s standby Joe Kane and starring Rod Cameron, Arleen Whelan and Forrest Tucker, actually an enjoyable 90-minute picture, and more interesting, Woman They Almost Lynched, directed by Allan Dwan (Quentin Tarantino has called this his favorite Dwan film, in part because of the “thrilling stagecoach robbery” shot by William Witney), written by Steve Fisher and starring John Lund, Brian Donlevy (as Quantrill), Audrey Totter and Joan Leslie.
In 1955, the other year we’ve selected, there were 23 movies, seven of which were Westerns, so slightly fewer oaters and at 30% a lower, if still substantial, proportion of the total output. They were different because the Rex and Rocky series had ended and the studio put out Westerns that were closer to A-pictures. They included Timberjack, with Sterling Hayden and Vera Ralston; Yellowneck, distributed but not made by Republic, more of a Civil War drama than a true Western; Santa Fe Passage and The Road to Denver, which were John Payne Westerns; A Man Alone, directed by and starring Ray Milland; The Vanishing American, with Scott Brady, written by Alan Le May based on Zane Grey’s novel; then The Fighting Chance, with Rod Cameron; and, Republic’s biggest Western of the year, The Last Command.
This last was a tad controversial because John Wayne (who made 33 pictures for Republic) had long wanted to make a film about the Alamo and pitched the idea to Yates but Yates was reluctant to finance the big picture Duke had in mind. Instead, Yates reworked the script, cast the likes of Sterling Hayden (as Jim Bowie) and Arthur Hunnicutt (as Davy Crockett) and put it out as a Republic film. Wayne never forgave him, though ironically, the sprightly The Last Command as directed by Frank Lloyd turned out to be a better picture than the lumbering The Alamo which Wayne finally got made in 1960 (in my view anyway).
In any case it was clear that in the early/mid-50s period Republic took the Western seriously.
Republic had only been founded in the mid-1930s. In the early part of the decade small and independent movie production companies were suffering terribly under the impact of the Great Depression and from competition from the majors. In 1935 Yates, who was owner of the film processing laboratory Consolidated Film Industries, persuaded six surviving small companies – Monogram Pictures, Mascot Pictures, Liberty Pictures, Majestic Pictures, Chesterfield Pictures and Invincible Pictures – which were all in debt to Yates’s laboratory – to merge under his leadership or else face foreclosure on their outstanding lab bills. The new company, Republic Pictures Corporation, was presented to them as a collaborative enterprise focused on low-budget product.
Monogram (the largest single component of the new corporation) and Mascot (the most technologically advanced) in particular had specialized for years in ultra-low-budget Westerns and their expertise in the domain fed into the new Republic Pictures. Mascot had just discovered Gene Autry and signed him to a contract as a singing cowboy star. Republic thus began life with an experienced production staff, a company of veteran B-movie supporting players and at least one very promising star, a complete distribution system, and a functioning and modern studio. Republic Pictures also boasted the best special effects (then called “miniatures”) department in the entire film industry, courtesy of brothers Howard Lydecker and Theodore Lydecker.
Like many a studio head, Yates was autocratic and many execs of the former companies soon left, disillusioned. Republic grew, and also acquired Brunswick Records to record Autry and the new singing cowboy Roy Rogers, who starred in his own pictures from 1938.
In 1940 Yates produced his biggest picture to date, using John Wayne and Claire Trevor (hot properties after Stagecoach) and Walter Pidgeon on loan from MGM, Dark Command, directed by Raoul Walsh.
By the mid-1940s the studio was producing bigger-budget fare on a regular basis, many pictures starring Wayne and also Vera Ralston, Yates’s lover at the time. The IMDb entry on Republic says that “Yates billed her as ‘the most beautiful woman in films’ but her charms were lost on the movie-going public and exhibitors complained that Republic was producing too many Ralston pictures. Years later, John Wayne admitted that he had departed Republic in 1952 over the prospect of having to appear in another film with her.” Ralston would become Mrs Yates that year.
In 1943 Republic signed Wild Bill Elliott who made a series of popular Westerns, also becoming the latest incarnation of Red Ryder.
The humble oater rode on regardless. Autry departed for Columbia in 1947 but Rogers sailed blithely on, enormously popular. Highly professional and workmanlike directors like Joe Kane, William Witney and John English turned in Western after Western, on time and on budget.
In the face of rising costs, Yates stopped the production of short subjects, reduced the number of serials and organized Republic’s feature output into four types of films: ‘Jubilee’, usually a Western shot in seven days for about $50,000; ‘Anniversary’, filmed in 14–15 days for about $200,000; ‘Deluxe’, major productions made with a budget of around half a million dollars; and ‘Premiere’, which were usually helmed by top-rank directors not on contract at Republic such as John Ford, Nicholas Ray or Fritz Lang, and these pictures could have budgets of a million dollars or more. Such a one was the last of Ford’s so-called cavalry trilogy, Rio Grande in 1950, a fine film.
Yates resisted color on cost grounds (unlike She Wore a Yellow Ribbon at RKO the previous year, Rio Grande was in black & white) but eventually succumbed. Republic used the process Trucolor, which was cheaper than Technicolor. These days it has lasted badly, many prints having faded, but when you see a restored Trucolor picture, such as 1954’s weird and wonderful Western Johnny Guitar, you appreciate how sharp and vibrant the process could be. In 1956 the studio started using its own widescreen format, Naturama, and such Westerns as The Maverick Queen with Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan were produced in it.
As the demand and market for motion pictures declined with the increasing popularity of television, Republic began to cut back on its films, slowing production from 40 features annually in the early 1950s to 18 in 1957. There were six Westerns in 1956, seven in ’57, and only one in ’58.
A tearful Yates informed shareholders at the 1958 annual meeting that feature film production was ending; the distribution offices were shut down the following year. The last Republic Western (and last film in Naturama) was the 77-minute black & white Plunderers of Painted Flats, released in January 1959, directed by Albert Gannaway and starring Corinne Calvert, John Carroll and Skip Homeier. Fin.
So Republic only lasted (in its Yates incarnation) for less than twenty-five years. But in that time it had made a notable contribution to the Western genre