LEN MORRIS: Directing AMC's Hymn to Republic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

During the 1930s, '40s and '50s, Republic Pictures produced more than 1,000 movies and 66 serials. The studio was home to singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and to John Wayne, who made more than 30 pictures there, including the Oscar-winning "The Quiet Man."

Among the movie serials produced were "The Adventures of Captain Marvel," "Zorro's Fighting Legion," "Dick Tracy" and "Zombies of the Stratosphere," featuring a young Leonard Nimoy.

AMC pays tribute to Republic with a two-hour documentary "The Republic Pictures Story," premiering Friday. The special features clips and interviews with Rogers, Autry, Dale Evans, the late stuntman Tom Steele, serial director Bill Witney and many Republic stars.

Len Morris is the director and producer of "The Republic Pictures Story." The 20-year veteran of producing, directing and editing documentaries previously produced the NBC specials "Mussolini--The Wolf of Rome," "Shadow of the Reich" and "Peter the Great and Mother Russia."

Morris talked with Susan King about Republic Pictures.

Were you a big fan of Republic Pictures?

I was aware of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. I am 43 and that's not quite old enough to appreciate Republic.

This project was originally intended just to be an hour. After about six months of research and screening, we kept ordering and ordering movies. We saw 335 films. We kept coming across other facets of Republic, coming across more information and more titles.

We began by looking at the "A" movies and we ordered (from the Republic archives) every one of John Wayne's titles, all the major Roy Rogers films and ordered all of the films by world-class directors like Allan Dwan, Nicholas Ray, Frank Borzage and Orson Welles. We ordered all of the films that had stars who were recognizable or just beginning their careers. Some weren't available. We had to get copies from collectors.

Which movies did you have to get from collectors?

"The Bold Caballero," Republic's first color film. Another was "Remember Pearl Harbor!" and early Wayne titles. Many of the titles were only available in old 16mm prints. So we had to be prepared to handle videotape, film and other formats just to look at the films.

Why is it that Republic isn't as well-known as Paramount or Universal?

You can't go into a bookstore and get a big glossy book on Republic Pictures. It sure would have helped us. I think the reason is that Republic wasn't a major studio. Its identification is with the B-Westerns. Republic rode to its fame and fortune on the back of a horse.

I think a lot of people don't realize how much depth the studio actually had because the movies were made and shown in the theaters and that was it. It's kind of a chunk of our cultural history that hasn't gotten the play that it should have.

They caught a lot of the stars on the way up and a lot of stars on the way down. I mean they were shrewd and they were copycats. They made horror films, mysteries and drama, but the things they did best were the serials, which were quite fabulous and far and away the best of their kind. Of course, they virtually invented the singing cowboy.

Was it difficult to find all of those Republic stars you interviewed in the documentary?

We have about a dozen Republic people (in the documentary). That was the best part of working on the project ... meeting those people. They weren't easy to find. It was sort of like the movies in that way.

(The documentary) was all difficult to do. But we had help. (Author and Republic Pictures expert) Jack Mathis' role was really critical to the success of this project. He ended up being the subject consultant for accuracy. He knew a number of these people and put us in touch with them.

When you approach somebody to speak about their life and their work you have to plead your case and assure them it's going to be something that will represent their work and that they will be happy with the end result.

Are any of the Republic stars still active in show business?

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans are still working. Ruth Terry, the nightclub singer who did 20 films at Republic, is a housewife. Richard Webb, who played "Captain Midnight" on television, had a distinguished career appearing in films with William Holden, Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. He has done an enormous amount of television. He writes now.

Probably very few people know that Orson Welles made his critically lambasted 1948 version of "Macbeth" at Republic.

Catherine McLeod and others informed me that when Welles was working on the Republic lot that virtually everybody at the studio stuck their head in for a look. I got the impression they wanted to see a genius, and clearly an insane person, at work.

"The Republic Pictures Story" premieres Friday at 5 and 10 p.m. on AMC.

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