Film

The Jolting “Moonrise,” a John Wayne Romance, and Other Diamonds From the Republic Pictures Vault

Part two of the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of this on-the-cheap studio unleashes a fresh arsenal of little-seen discoveries

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When last we tuned in to Martin Scorsese and the Museum of Modern Art, back in February, they were presenting the first fifteen entries in “Republic Rediscovered,” a two-part series of thirty restored films out of the approximately one thousand made between 1935 and 1958 at Republic Pictures. Republic was the B-movie factory run throughout its brief, roller-coaster life by former tobacco executive Herbert J. Yates. It was a studio unlike any other, a place that could provide a home both to superstar John Wayne and never-quite-a-star Vera Hruba Ralston, Yates’s sparsely talented girlfriend (and, later, wife). It released acknowledged classics from John Ford and Frank Borzage alongside the best work of lesser lights like John H. Auer and R.G. Springsteen. From August 9–23, MoMA is screening the second batch of fifteen films, handpicked by Scorsese himself, and the result is another grab-bag of the fascinating, oddball, and occasionally downright brilliant output of Yates’s cut-price MGM manqué.

Two films feature John Wayne, one being the opening-night selection introduced by Scorsese, Wake of the Red Witch. Directed by Edward Ludwig (whose 1956 Flame of the Islands is also in the series), it was made during Wayne’s annus mirabilis of 1948, when the other three films with his name on the marquee were Fort Apache, Three Godfathers, and Red River. Like the Hawks film from that crop, Wake of the Red Witch, set in the South Seas in the 1860s, casts Wayne as a heavy, or so it appears it at first. He plays Captain Rall, a hard-drinking, foul-tempered, and violent commander who scuttles his own ship, seemingly so he can go back and steal the fortune in gold bullion it was carrying. It’s more complicated than that, of course — immensely so, as a flashback-tangled plot reveals it’s all part of Rall’s rivalry with Mayrant Sidneye (Luther Adler) for the love of Angelique (Gail Russell).

Wayne played a number of morally ambiguous characters throughout his career, but he didn’t get many movies that foreground a love story as much as this one. Rall’s passion for Angelique (and Wayne’s chemistry with Russell) drives what is a romantic tragedy as much as an adventure story. (“Underrated” is what Wayne biographer Scott Eyman calls Wake.) It had higher production values than the usual Republic adventure, and for Wayne, its emotional importance must have been significant. He named his production company, Batjac, after the trading company in the movie, and after he was diagnosed with and beat cancer the first time in 1964, he began to call the disease “the red witch.”

Much less lavish, but nearly as interesting, is Three Faces West, a Wayne starrer from 1940 that explicitly links the fate of European refugees from the Nazis (played by Sigrid Gurie and an accent-wielding Charles Coburn) and the residents of a Dust Bowl–ravaged farming town in North Dakota. The cinematographer was John Alton, hence some superbly lit dust storms, both day and night. The director was Bernard Vorhaus, who ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 (fellow director Edward Dmytryk was one of the ones who fingered him) and spent the rest of his career in Europe, becoming an early mentor to David Lean. The screenwriter was Samuel Ornitz, an outspoken communist and one of the original Hollywood Ten. It’s startling, to say the least, to see John Wayne playing a farmer with such left-wing sympathies. His character fights local anti-immigrant sentiment to get the refugees settled and urges a type of collectivization to undo the damage to what he calls, in his inimitable drawl, “a little ol’ gal we been kickin’ in the teeth — Mother Nature.” Eventually he leads his neighbors west to farm land given to them via a government dam project.

Moonrise, the one incontestable masterpiece in the series, is set in a richly shadowed and spooky South of glittering swamps and abandoned houses, all of it created on Republic sets. Danny (Dane Clark), the doom-haunted son of a father hanged for murder, kills a rich bully (Lloyd Bridges) essentially in self-defense. But traumatized Danny, convinced no one will believe a murderer’s offspring, hides the body in the swamp and goes back to a waterside dance club to continue his courtship of the kind, ethereal Gilly (Gail Russell). Moonrise isn’t really film noir — it takes the humanist point of view that criminals are not born, they’re made, and can be unmade — but it boasts some of the most gorgeous noir cinematography of the era, via John L. Russell. And though Moonrise certainly isn’t a horror movie, it has several genuinely frightening moments, including a jolter of an opening. Directed by Frank Borzage in 1948, this film is a tribute to the way originality could flower at Republic.

Then there’s Fair Wind to Java (1953), described by at least one critic as “the ultimate B-picture” (and once you’ve seen it, that’s hard to dispute). Vera Hruba Ralston often cited Fair Wind as her favorite movie. The Czech former figure skater’s casting as a Balinese dancer named Kim Kim (“My father was white,” the character explains casually) is the strangest in the movie, which is saying something when you have Fred MacMurray as a hard-bitten sea captain named Boll; Virginia Brissac (the grandmother in Rebel Without a Cause) as Kim Kim’s Balinese mother; and English stage veteran Robert Douglas as Pulo Besar, the masked Australian-Dutch pirate. Yet Ralston gives this role all she’s got, whether she’s warning of the wrath of Vishnu or sneaking on deck for a breath of fresh air, with disastrous results. Scorsese has often spoken of his fondness for Fair Wind — and indeed, it is hugely enjoyable in its crazy way, graced by an eye-searing Trucolor palette, barreling plot developments, indifference to plausibility, and dialogue like “It’s a little island called Krakatoa. No one’s ever heard of it!” Republic poured a lot of money into the film (a rarity), and it shows, especially in the volcanic finale, an outstanding example of the era’s special effects.

Ralston also appears to have a good time in Allan Dwan’s Surrender (1950), playing a foreign-born femme fatale who upends the friendship between a gambler (John Carroll) and a newspaper owner (William Ching) in the Old West. Dwan’s direction reaches its peak in a climactic chase scene across hills and canyons, shown almost entirely in long shot. A different kind of fatalism haunts the title character (Margaret Lockwood) in Laughing Anne (1953), a melodrama based on a Joseph Conrad play. Anne is a French sex worker, married to a lugubrious prizefighter whose amputated hands have been replaced by weights, but yearning for the love of simple sailor Wendell Corey. With every big scene played at a near-hysterical pitch, this was described by its own director, Herbert Wilcox, as a “very bad film,” but I liked a number of elements: the Technicolor; Lockwood’s interpretation of Anne as the ultimate co-dependent; the exotic-locales-on-the-cheap (it was also shot in the studio, of course); and the twist ending.

Hell’s Half Acre (1954) starts out as a fairly routine crime picture, then midway through plunges off a cliff of violence and cruelty; you will never look at the Maytag repairman the same way after seeing what this movie doles out to Jesse White’s character. Directed by Republic workhorse John H. Auer and shot on location (for once) in Honolulu, it has a large and mostly excellent cast, including Wendell Corey (as good as he ever got) as a racketeer trying to go straight; Evelyn Keyes as the wife he deserted years ago; the always wonderful Philip Ahn as a vicious gangster; Marie Windsor as another hard-bitten dame (the way she sucks down the last of her mai tai is a high point); and Keye Luke as the police chief. Though it has Nancy Gates playing an unconvincing Asian moll, the movie makes less use of stereotypes than many others of the era, and gives Luke’s chief the chance to sardonically tell a confused white witness, “What you’re trying to say is, to you, all Orientals look alike.”

The best family-oriented entry stars Steve Cochran, who was attempting to break free of his film-noir typecasting as an oily psycho ready to beat up the likes of Joan Crawford and Ginger Rogers. Come Next Spring (1956) was directed by R. G. Springsteen, who also made Hellfire, a B-Western that was my favorite discovery of the first Republic series. Ann Sheridan, in one of her last film roles, plays an Arkansas farm wife who’s been raising her kids alone after her alcoholic husband took a powder; Cochran, cast radically against type, plays that husband, home after nearly ten years, dried out and trying to stay that way so he can get to know his kids. Both give lovely performances; their first reunion, delivered with clean sincerity, is a marvel of things left unsaid. Filmed in Trucolor around Sacramento, the movie is sentimental in a way that shouldn’t be taken as a pejorative. It points to what might have been a fresh direction for both Sheridan and Cochran, but it was not to be. For Cochran, that was at least in part due to his own wild-man personality. “Steve was a bastard to work with,” recalled Cochran’s good friend and sometime producer Harrison Reader. “He drank too much, he womanized too much, and for a ten o’clock call, he got there at one. But I loved him dearly.”

Cochran would have been perfect for the villain in Make Haste to Live (1954) — a mobster just out of prison and seeking revenge against Chris (Dorothy McGuire), the wife who put him there. The mobster was played instead by Stephen McNally, and rather well, but the actor lacked Cochran’s sex appeal. As it stands, the film is a B-movie twist on Gaslight, a study in how ready people were (and are) to believe a certain type of personable he-man over a woman. Chris doesn’t lose her mind, but as in the Cukor movie, Make Haste to Live shreds your nerves as the mobster checkmates his wife’s every attempt to free herself. Helmed by William A. Seiter, a great comedy director and favorite of MoMA curator Dave Kehr, the movie uses its New Mexico location most effectively for a final showdown in an ancient burial site under excavation. Seiter’s grandson, filmmaker Ted Griffin, will introduce Make Haste to Live and Seiter’s unusual underworld dramedy Champ for a Day (1953) on August 17, toward the end of the series. Or this year’s phase, anyway. As Paramount continues to restore the Republic library, which it owns, many of us are eager to see more from the adventurous studio’s unique group of filmmakers.

‘Martin Scorsese Presents Republic Rediscovered: New Restorations From Paramount Pictures, Part 2’
The Museum of Modern Art
August 9–23

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