THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

THE THREE MESQUITEERS: CHAPTER 1 -- In the Beginning.....

Republic logo, 1935-38

Created in 1935, Republic Pictures dominated B-Western and serial production until both were killed off by television in the 50's.  The Republic product was so popular in the rural areas and small towns of the country that, in one theater at least, its logo was the only one to ever be cheered by the young Western film experts sitting in the front row.

Herbert Yates, founder of Republic Pictures
The studio was the brainchild of businessman Herbert Yates.  He was born in Brooklyn in 1880 and educated at Columbia University.  He then became an advertising executive with the American Tobacco Company.

He began investing in movies as early as 1912 and a few years later founded Consolidated Film Laboratories, which processed films for a number of small Hollywood studios.  By the early 30's, several of the companies owed Consolidated large sums of money.  Yates seized the opportunity that the situation created for him and forced six of the debtor companies -- Mascot, Monogram, Liberty, Majestic, Chesterfield, and Invincible -- to merge with Consolidated, thus creating Republic Pictures in 1935.

It wasn't the first film to be produced by Republic, but it was the first to be distributed by the studio.

The main asset that Monogram contributed to the merger was to bring along a cowboy actor who had been starring in B-Westerns since 1932.  His name was John Wayne.

In 1932-33, he had starred in six Westerns at Warner Brothers.  They were exciting and well-done features primarily because they were remakes of Ken Maynard silent films.  Maynard, who couldn't act his way out of a paper bag and never looked realistic throwing a punch, was nevertheless one of the most accomplished horsemen to ride the Western celluloid range.  And his best efforts were during the silent era before his girth began to expand and he did not have to struggle with dialogue.  Therefore, the emphasis could be placed on what he did best, which was action involving him and his horse Tarzan.

Wayne was a better actor than Maynard and he didn't have to much worry about the action because his films made much use of stock footage from the Maynard films, making it appear that Wayne was a much better horseman than he was.

After the Warner Brothers series ended Wayne began a series of films that were independently produced by Lone Star Productions and released and distributed by Monogram Pictures.  Most of them were produced by Paul Malvern.

In the middle of that series the merger that created Republic occurred.  Since the Lone Star film WESTWARD HO! was already in the hopper it became the first film to be released under the Republic logo.  Wayne went on to star in seven other Westerns which, after a couple of holdovers from his previous series, eventually became full-fledged Republic productions.  

After the series concluded in 1936, he left Republic for what he thought would be greener pastures at Universal.  They weren't -- and he would return.

The Monogram component of the merger had made a major contribution with the John Wayne series and had greatly aided the fledgling Republic in getting off to a good start.  But bringing even more to the table was Mascot's Nat Levine, not just because he was an experienced film producer, which he was, but because coming along with him was a singer by the name of Gene Autry.

John Wayne would eventually win fame and fortune as the most famous and most popular Western actor in the business, but that fame, fortune, and popularity was not based on his B-Western tenure, nor was it a result of his years at Republic. Gene Autry, on the other hand, would be Republic's savior, ensuring that the studio would survive.  

He was a former radio country-western singer who ventured out to Hollywood in an attempt to break into moving pictures.  He made connections with Nat Levine at Mascot.  In 1934, Ken Maynard, in-between studios at the time, agreed to make two films for Levine, one a feature and the other a serial.  It was in these two films that Autry made his first screen appearances though he was uncredited in the casts of both.

The feature came first.  It was IN OLD SANTA FE and Autry had a brief scene singing a song while being accompanied on the accordion by his buddy, Lester "Smiley" Burnette, who had come West with Autry. 

Mascot serial in which Gene Autry made his second screen appearance
In the serial, MYSTERY MOUNTAIN, Autry appeared in four of the twelve chapters (Burnette was in three).  Then Levine, whose specialty was producing serials, which he had been doing since 1927, and who was not afraid of trying something different, cast Autry and Burnette in THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (1935).

It was different -- strange and different.  As far as I know, it is the only hybrid Western - musical - science fiction movie to ever be filmed (there couldn't be much demand!).  In it Autry played a radio singer who finds himself involved in a struggle for survival with an evil underground empire, but each chapter he would have to hustle back to perform on his radio show which was broadcast from his ranch.  (I don't want to go into more detail because I don't want to spoil the plot.  Just kidding; that was the plot.)

This is the first film to feature Gene Autry in a starring role.  It has to be seen to be believed, and maybe not even then.

 As absurd as it was as a film, it did serve to introduce the singing cowboy.  And that's where things stood when Levine agreed to the merger that created Republic Pictures.  

Part of the agreement between Levine and Yates was that Levine would be the production chief for the studios' serials and Westerns.  As noted earlier, the independently produced Wayne film, WESTWARD HO!, which was released in August 1935, would be the first film to be distributed by Republic.  The second was TUMBLING TUMBLEWEEDS, released just a month later, starring Autry with support from Burnette, produced by Levine, and directed by Joseph Kane (directorial debut).

Gene Autry's first starring feature film and the first "true" Republic release
 The combination of rookie studio, rookie star, and rookie director did not bode all that well for the film and the finished product does leave much to be desired.  But the public, or at least that part of the public that went to theaters to view B-Westerns, ate it up.  Why?  The only answer has to be that like THE PHANTOM EMPIRE it was different.  For better or worse, it launched the singing cowboy as a dominant force in B-Westerns.

With the immediate popularity of Autry other studios quickly launched series starring singing cowboys, but none came close to the popularity of the Autrys.  In fact, during the first full year (1936) of Autry films, he finished third, behind Buck Jones and George O'Brien, in the Motion Picture Herald's annual popularity poll of B-Western stars.  The next year he was number one and he would occupy that position through 1942 when he enlisted in the military.  At that point, one of Republic's other singing cowboys, Roy Rogers, would take over the top spot and remain there until the end of the B-Western era.

When John Wayne's contract came up for renewal in 1936 he decided not to sign.  He went off to Universal for a couple of years, but he would be back.  

To supplement the Autry series, Republic contracted with A.W. Hackel's Supreme Pictures to distribute two Western series, starring Johnny Mack Brown and Bob Steele, respectively.  They started appearing in theaters under the Republic banner in the fall of 1936.

Republic now had three series in circulation, but only one was truly a Republic product, and the decision was made to create a second home grown series.

One of the writers on THE PHANTOM EMPIRE had been William Colt MacDonald, who had written four novels featuring a trio of cowboys known as the Three Mesquiteers.  His characters would be the basis for the new series and it would debut at about the same time that the Mack Browns and Steeles went out stamped with the Republic logo.  

And much, much more on the Mesquiteers later.

(Of Chapter 1)







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