Friday, September 24, 2010

Why I Love Republic Pictures by Ed Hulse

Here is pulp fiction and film historian Ed Hulse's contribution to Why I Love Republic Pictures. I want to thank Ed (and for all of my contributors) for doing these great essays at the very last minute. Ed sent this to me yesterday, apologizing for the fact that it was very "off the cuff" you will see, this essay is anything but.


Veteran Republic cinematographer Bud Thackery was once asked what he thought had been the key to the studio’s success. Without missing a beat, he shot back: “Undercranking.” (That’s the technical term for filming action below standard speed, making it appear faster than normal when projected at the proper number of frames per second.) Thackery’s glib, flippant reply got a laugh from the audience, which was precisely what he had in mind, but there was more than a grain of truth in his answer. Undercranking, when used with restraint, lent an extra fillip to fights and chases. Overdoing it resulted in skittering movement that called the Keystone Kops to mind, but shooting at 20 to 22 frames per second (24 being the normal speed for sound motion pictures) gave much-desired oomph to action sequences and made the participants seem larger than life.

Republic’s Westerns and serials were legendarily effective because the crews knew how and when to employ such little tricks. What’s more, they were accustomed to working fast; time was money, and money was always tight at the little studio in the San Fernando Valley. But unlike the major studios, which grudgingly produced “B” Westerns to satisfy the demands of their theater chains, Republic took pride in its horse operas and chapter plays. Herbert J. Yates, who created the company in 1935, knew from the get-go that his studio didn’t have the money or talent to compete straight up with M-G-M, Paramount, Warner Brothers, RKO, or even Universal and Columbia. Glossy drawing-room dramas were fine if your roster of contract players included the likes of Norma Shearer or Ann Harding. Republic’s didn’t. Exotic period pieces were fine if your back lot had a wide variety of standing sets that could be dressed to suggest cities in practically any country. Republic’s didn’t. Big-budget spectaculars were fine if your studio had access to near-unlimited capital. Republic didn’t.

Therefore, low-budget melodramas and mysteries with contemporary settings (which could easily and expeditiously be produced in and around the Republic lot) became the staples of Yates’ output, as did Westerns and serials. Republic management reasoned—quite correctly—that the studio might not be able to compete with Metro’s latest Greta Garbo or Clark Gable picture, but it could certainly hold its own in the “B”-picture marketplace. To this end Yates’ operation concentrated on producing films targeted at either the top or the bottom of the double bill, and at the Saturday matinees where whooping kids didn’t give a fig about Garbo or Gable. Early on in the studio’s history, it was determined that Republic’s bread-and-butter product would be low-budget Westerns, melodramas, and serials. And Yates staffed the studio with actors, writers, directors, and technicians who took pride in turning out the best possible pictures of those types.

As one of the newer plants in Hollywood, the Republic studio was outfitted with the latest equipment. Technically, the studio product was miles ahead of the typical Poverty Row films that vied for off-night and Saturday-matinee playdates. Camerawork, editing, sound recording, special effects, musical scoring—all were far above the norm for low-budget pictures. The average Republic picture might not surpass the average M-G-M or Paramount picture in technical excellence, but it left the product of PRC, Monogram, and Grand National (other independent studios of the ‘30s and ‘40s) in the dust. In fact, the rentals of Republic Westerns often outpaced those of Universal and Columbia, at that time the industry’s “mini-majors.”

Republic producers and directors took pride in achieving “A”-picture entertainment quality on “B”-picture budgets. Few Western chases were more thrilling than those shot by Republic crews, often from the bottom platform of the studio’s custom-built camera truck, using a wide-angle lens to make the undercranked horses appear to be charging right into the audience. And these chases would be scored with appropriately thrilling and newly composed music, not the venerable silent-era music cues supplied to other indie producers by such cut-rate operators as Abe Meyer or Lee Zahler.

Let’s not forget the stunt people: Yakima Canutt (who graduated to director while working for Yates), Dave Sharpe, Tom Steele, Dale Van Sickel, Duke Green, Jimmy Fawcett, Cliff Lyons, Carey Loftin…some specialized in fights, others in car and motorcycle work, still others in horse falls and stunt riding. They worked for every studio, but performing “gags” in Republic pictures was a pleasure because they knew they would get the time and resources necessary to achieve the most exciting result at the least possible risk. Fistfights in Westerns and serials were often free-swinging donnybrooks that convinced none but the youngest and most gullible viewers. Beginning around 1938, Republic directors and stuntmen choreographed their fights like Busby Berkeley dance routines. To this day, many fans base their fondness for Republic serials on the effectiveness of the lengthy, set-demolishing fights in such popular chapter plays as Spy Smasher, The Masked Marvel, Daredevils of the West, and Secret Service in Darkest Africa.

I’ve barely scratched the surface. I haven’t even mentioned the stars, writers, and directors. But I can certainly do so in a follow-up post if Laurie and her readers are interested.

Well, I don't know about my readers, but I certainly do! Thanks Ed.

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Barry Traylor said...

More! More! Please Ed. As Republic turned out many of the films and serialsI enjoy watching it has long been one of my favorites along with Warner Brothers films.

Laurie Powers said...

Yes! More please, Ed.