Film

Restorations From Republic Pictures Reveal a Studio That Got Its Hands Dirty

The Museum of Modern Art's two-part series attests to Republic's legacy of cost-effective genre allure

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Film lovers are familiar with the Republic Pictures logo — an impossibly gigantic eagle perched on a mountain — from seeing it at the beginning of such significant works as John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) or Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). But for Martin Scorsese and millions of his generation and earlier, it was the symbol of old-fashioned movie-house entertainment. The specialty of the label was Westerns, especially serials — Republic all but invented the “singing cowboy,” and was the home of John Wayne for many years. But that certainly wasn’t all there was to the place. Republic released one-off movies in many genres, using a mix of its homebrewed resources and contract employees with various bigger names who, for whatever reason, wanted the work. When the alchemy was right, the result could be splendid in a way that was unique to Republic.

With Dave Kehr of the Museum of Modern Art, who has made it his mission to spotlight forgotten corners of the Hollywood archive, Martin Scorsese is presenting a series of Republic movies, all of them freshly restored. Republic made more than a thousand pictures; there’s so much to choose from that the MoMA series is running in two parts. This first, fifteen-movie section plays until February 15, and includes underseen auteurs such as Frank Borzage (I’ve Always Loved You) and Allan Dwan (Driftwood, The Inside Story), as well as films like Storm Over Lisbon, an attempt to ape Casablanca; the widescreen color noir Accused of Murder; and Trigger Jr., starring Republic’s bread-and-butter singing star-on-horseback Roy Rogers. (The second group of fifteen selections will screen August 9–23.)

Republic was born in 1935, the year a filthy-rich former tobacco executive named Herbert J. Yates united a group of Poverty Row outfits and began his reign. Virtually no other studio was as closely identified with a single person as was Republic with Yates. MGM had Thalberg and Mayer, Warner had its brothers; what Republic had was Yates. The buck stopped with him — and never escaped, as Yates was the most penny-pinching studio head around. My favorite story about Yates, told by screenwriter Edmund Hartmann to film historian Scott Eyman as part of the latter’s Wayne biography, was that Republic “would paint the wall of a set to the height of a leading man.” Yates figured that if they weren’t going to photograph past a certain point over the head of the tallest guy in a movie, then there was no point in painting what the audience couldn’t see.

One example of Republic’s cost-consciousness is my favorite of the on-view films I’ve seen: Hellfire, a 1949 Western directed by studio workhorse R.G. Springsteen. It’s shot in color, but nearly everyone is dressed in some variation of blue, and every part of the landscape seems brown, umber, and orange. Behold the fruit of Republic’s reluctance to pay Technicolor’s high fees — Trucolor, the studio’s in-house color process, here in its two-strip form. (There was also a three-strip version that helped make Johnny Guitar even weirder than it would have seemed otherwise.) As carefully restored, Hellfire’s two-color Trucolor palette lends a dreamy, fable-like quality to this tale of gambler Zeb Smith (William “Wild Bill” Elliott, a Western stalwart with an ineffably strong-and-silent demeanor), whose life is saved when a preacher (H.B. Warner) takes a bullet for him. Old-time religious though it certainly is, I loved this movie right from the opening sequence, a tour of human depravity that features a bandit firing directly at the camera, a pistol-whipping, and a lustful male trying to force a kiss on what Production Code Westerns term “a dance-hall girl.” (All of these vignettes are framed by vivid orange flames, in case these folks’ destination wasn’t entirely clear.) Zeb agrees to the preacher’s dying request: that a church be built in the town. Fully converted to the straight and narrow, Zeb rides around wielding “the rule book,” a Bible that apparently countenances all manner of shooting and socks in the jaw, provided it’s in the service of the Lord. Eventually Zeb hooks up with Doll Brown, a gun-slinging outlaw played by Marie Windsor in full Calamity Jane drag, and the movie develops a feminist slant, insofar as when Doll plugs her hateful ex-husband in broad daylight, Hellfire is firmly on her side. It’s a bigger, fuller role than the splendid Windsor usually got, and her blue eyes photograph gorgeously in Trucolor. Doll also gets the fadeout, and it’s a honey.

Marie Windsor shows up again in City That Never Sleeps (1953), but it’s a more typical outing for her: a film noir where she steals a few scenes only to have her no-good character come to a bad end. This is probably the most widely seen movie in the series, and for good reason. Much of it was shot on location in Chicago, where the film soaked up a pleasing amount of sleaze and grit. Gig Young, as a cop who’s threatening to leave copdom and his wife for a modern-day dance-hall girl (Mala Powers), isn’t much of a standout, but fortunately there are plenty of others, including Edward Arnold as a wealthy and crooked lawyer with a fabulous midcentury modern apartment. When the lawyer shows up at the villain’s cheap hotel room, his contemptuous survey of the surroundings is hilarious, like a tough-guy interior decorator. Best of the bunch isn’t Windsor, for once. Those honors go to Wally Cassell as the “mechanical man,” whose job involves hours spent in a window display, as he pretends to be a robot. The degradation of this all-night commercial charade is where City That Never Sleeps briefly shades into something close to horror.

As with Hellfire, standout visual moments of Driftwood (1947), directed by Allan Dwan, come at the beginning, as the camera moves through the streets of a Western ghost town to a roofless ruin of a church. There Jenny Hollingsworth (nine-year-old Natalie Wood) listens raptly to a sermon by her great-grandfather, played by H.B. Warner, who — another connection — also played the preacher in Hellfire. (Warner’s big break was the title role in King of Kings; as age carved out his cheeks and made his eyes ever-buggier, he became a Hollywood go-to for religious fanatics.) The cinematographer was John Alton, on this job just before the string of noirs he’s known for today. Here Alton shows what he could do with light through broken church windows and, later, the sunny streets of a sweet small town where Jenny washes up after great-grandfather dies mid-sermon. Jenny is then taken in by an infectious-disease researcher (Dean Jagger) with a fiancée (Ruth Warrick); of course, as in any self-respecting 1940s Hollywood movie, a disease specialist will find something to cure, and an orphan will always be adopted by the last reel. But as scripted by Mary Loos and Richard Sale, the film has plenty of endearingly bizarre touches, with the plot eventually settling into a cross between a Lassie movie and The Story of Louis Pasteur. Dwan gets an exceptional performance out of Wood, whose Jenny spends much of the movie spouting the Scriptures she was raised with. Wood’s on-screen affect and gestures were the same as a child and an adult, with the result being that Jenny is resolutely uncute. Imagine MGM’s relentlessly winsome (and higher-priced) Margaret O’Brien in this role, and you start to see the advantages of Republic’s budget casts.

There was one way to get boss Yates to pry open his checkbook, however, and that was to put Vera Hruba Ralston in the leading role. Vera Hruba was a former Olympic ice skater with a lithe and athletic figure, a face the camera liked only intermittently, and a Czech accent that no amount of coaching could diminish. When Yates met his version of Citizen Kane’s Susan Alexander, this girl fully forty years his junior, he was married with two kids. He signed Ralston to a contract in 1943, and thereafter this otherwise hard-nosed and entirely unromantic man spent every last one of his remaining studio years engaged in a fruitless effort to make Ralston a star, meantime divorcing his wife in 1948 and marrying Vera in 1952. Yates gave Ralston — billed variously as Vera Hruba, Vera Ralston, and Vera Hruba Ralston — his best scriptwriters, directors, and co-stars. For years, according to Scott Eyman, Yates bought the full back-page ad space at Variety and the Hollywood Reporter just for the opportunity to run a photo of Ralston with the caption, “The World’s Most Beautiful Woman.” It was rather touching, as even Yates’s frustrated employees would sometimes admit, but it was all for naught.

Ralston swiftly gained a reputation as the worst actress in Hollywood, and no amount of studio PR calling her “the Queen of Republic” could coax a sufficient number of people into seeing her films. In 1958, Yates was forced out by shareholders at Republic. The last straw, after years of red ink on Ralston pictures, had been the revelation of a wildly excessive bonus paid to Sterling Hayden for consenting to co-star with the CEO’s wife after a long, long list of other actors had refused. The studio staggered on for only a matter of months after Yates’s departure. Ralston, unlike the board of directors, stuck by her would-be Pygmalion until his death in 1966, but she never made another movie.

Now, all these years later, it’s possible to look at a Vera Ralston vehicle with fresh eyes, free of prejudice, and discover with wonderment that — well, it’s true, she wasn’t an especially good actress. But neither was she movie-wreckingly bad. She’s simply there, visibly working hard, sometimes believable, sometimes not, as in The Flame, which benefits more from Yates’s lovestruck generosity with the budget. All studios love to steal plots, but Republic was particularly light-fingered, so what we have with The Flame is a film-noir version of The Wings of the Dove. Ralston plays Carlotta Duval, the apex of the love triangle. (She was usually given vaguely foreign-sounding names so the accent wouldn’t require a lot of exposition.) Ralston’s performance has one mode, wholesome sincerity, which is fine in the scenes where Carlotta realizes her dawning love for rich dying chump Barry McAllister (Robert Paige), and a definite drawback during her initial scheming with Barry’s no-account brother, George (John Carroll). Carroll isn’t a hugely charismatic performer, and Paige is positively leaden, but the movie gets a major jolt of energy from the appearance of Broderick Crawford as a mobster and Constance Dowling as the greedy chanteuse he’s stalking. Director John H. Auer dwells on Dowling’s curves as her character struts her sultry stuff at the nightclub, as if trying to make up for the fact that Dowling should have had Ralston’s part. And Auer delivers a socko opening — if any one thing links the series’ movies, it’s their terrific opening scenes. The camera traces George’s prowl through urban nighttime streets, to an apartment where he has a shootout with an unseen victim, back out to the streets, and home to his high-rise hotel room — where we discover the victim’s aim was better than it seemed.

The centerpiece of this half of the series is That Brennan Girl, the 1946 swan song of Alfred Santell, a director who Dave Kehr has been championing for many years. The movie more than justifies Kehr’s enthusiasm: Formally, it’s fascinating, with scenes played in silhouette, in pantomime as the camera watches through a window, on two or three levels of a staircase in a couple of scenes reminiscent of The Magnificent Ambersons. The star is Mona Freeman as Ziggy Brennan, the daughter of prostitute Natalie, played by June Duprez. Ziggy starts the movie aged fourteen, being introduced to a client by Natalie as “my sister.” Unloved and emotionally damaged, Ziggy moves through a spate of juvenile delinquency and into full-scale participation in a moving-truck scam run by Denny (James Dunn). Ziggy falls in love with a gentle sailor, marries him, and becomes pregnant, only to have him die in battle. The rest of the film concerns Ziggy’s efforts to become a mother, when she’s essentially never had one herself. That Brennan Girl is unusually frank for its time about the exhaustion and drudgery of caring for an infant, and the way desire for escape can work against any mother’s love.

James Dunn was mere months past winning an Oscar for his heart-rending performance in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and is wonderful here too. But Santell is tightly focused on Freeman, who is in nearly every scene and whose essential warmth keeps Ziggy sympathetic even in her most selfish moments. That Brennan Girl should have moved filmmakers to capitalize on Freeman’s uncommon range. But her exquisite prettiness kept her playing teenagers for most of her career, with a few bright exceptions such as Angel Face (1953). Eventually she left the business, saying the roles were boring her to distraction. When Mona Freeman died in 2014, the New York Times didn’t mention That Brennan Girl in her obituary. Now, fully restored and playing at MoMA, it’s high time for Santell and Freeman’s distinctive work to show audiences the kind of creativity that once flourished at Republic.

‘Martin Scorsese Presents Republic Rediscovered: New Restorations From Paramount Pictures’
The Museum of Modern Art
Through February 15

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