If you are, say, late thirtysomething and remember paying a quarter to see a Saturday matinee, then you knew that when the Republic Pictures eagle logo came up on the screen you were in for a good time.
Republic, the fondest remembered of the B-movie studios, is recalled in a two-hour retrospective, “The Republic Pictures Story,” which can be seen at 5 p.m. today and again at 10 on the American Movie Classics cable network.
Republic did produce some A-list movies in its 29-year history: Orson Welles’ “Macbeth” (1948), Allan Dwan’s “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” (1952) and Nicholas Ray’s quirky Western, “Johnny Guitar” (1954), among others. But the studio is best remembered for its low-budget but lively Westerns, serials and B-movie programmers.
Indeed, Republic’s first film set the pattern for the studio’s output: “Western Ho” was shot in two weeks in 1935 on a budget of $15,000. And it starred a singing cowboy--John Wayne, his singing voice dubbed, badly. Wayne would make 33 films at Republic.
Singing cowboys were the studio’s stock-in-trade. It was the first home for Gene Autry and it brought a squinty-eyed cowboy singer from Ohio named Leonard Sly, renamed Roy Rogers, to the screen. Rogers, incredibly, made 81 films at Republic in 14 years.
“The Republic Pictures Story” also tells how fight scenes came to be choreographed and photographed in takes (serial director William Witney got the idea while watching Busby Berkeley rehearse a dance number at another studio); where Steven Spielberg might have gotten the look for Darth Vader (the Lightning, a helmeted villain in the 1938 serial “Fighting Devil Dogs”); and how the studio went to war. Republic had “Remember Pearl Harbor,” starring Don (Red) Barry, in the theaters only six months after the attack.
Republic even had its own ice-skating queen, Czechoslovakian Vera Hruba, who later married studio owner Herbert J. Yates and became Vera Ralston, her screen name. In its never-ending search for reasonably priced talent, the studio made musicals in the ‘40s featuring black artists such as Nat King Cole, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Republic finally went out of production in 1959, as film budgets became increasingly costly and television continued its encroachment. In only 24 years, Republic produced more than 1,000 films, including 386 Westerns, 66 serials and 62 short subjects.
“The Republic Pictures Story” covers all this and more in a swiftly paced two hours. One might wish that more time had been given to the contributions of its corps of stunt men (conspicuously missing is Yakima Canutt’s famous tumble beneath a racing stagecoach in “Zorro’s Fighting Legion”) and the wizardry of the special effects and miniatures artists, the brothers Howard and Theodore Lydecker.
“The Republic Pictures Story” is narrated, unobtrusively, by Ed Herlihy and includes interviews with many of Republic’s surviving personalities, including Autry, Rogers, Dale Evans and serial queen Linda Stirling. It was produced and directed by Len Morris, with Bradley J. Siegel as executive producer.
“The Republic Pictures Story” is evocative for those who remember Saturday matinees and a fast-paced and informative journey for those who don’t.
American Movie Classics is also showing two representative Republic productions tonight: “Winds of the Wasteland” with John Wayne (1936) at 7 and “Don’t Fence Me In” with Roy Rogers (1945) at 8.