Archive for May 2011
Samuel Fuller’s “I Shot Jesse James” (1949)
Before Roger Corman there was Robert L. Lippert.
Producer/Exhibitor Robert L. Lippert’s low-budget productions are sometimes called Grade “C.” Personally, I’ve never seen one below “B-,” and in fairness, he did put out some “B+,” “nervous A,” and who can call “The Fly” (1957) anything but an “A”?
Lippert felt there was an unmet demand for “B” product for his circuit of theatres, so in 1945 he and John L. Jones formed a production company, Action Pictures, and distribution company, Screen Guild Productions. The first and sole release for 1945 was “Wildfire – The Story of a Horse,” in Cinecolor, starring Bob Steele. Regular releases followed, and in 1949 Screen Guild , became “Lippert Pictures,” and in the final count, cranked out over 125 low budget movies, and released many more acquisitions and reissues. He produced many more films for release by 20th Century-Fox…more about the Fox deal later…
The early Lippert productions were unremarkable B movies (okay, there may have been some C’s), with a few notable exceptions. Things changed in 1949 when he rolled the dice and took a chance on a feisty independent newspaper reporter by the name of Samuel Fuller. Lippert gave Fuller, who had no movie experience, virtual free-reign, and his name above the title, to create a film about Jesse James’ assassin, Bob Ford. It was released as “I Shot Jesse James” (1949), and became a critical and box office success, and today it is considered a classic, notable, among other things, for its extensive use of close ups. Soon after, Fuller directed his second film, “The Baron of Arizona” (1950), a true story about a swindler who seized much of Arizona by forging Spanish land grants. Vincent Price played the “Baron,” and many years later claimed it was one of his very favorite roles. Truly, the Lippert/Fuller magna opus was the classic Korean War drama, “The Steel Helmet” (1951), which garnered first-run dates at prestigious theatres. The three Fuller films are out on DVD from the Criterion Collection.
Lippert’s cause célèbre was to produce films as cheaply as possible, and still offer at least some entertainment value, particularly for the more unsophisticated movie patrons. No Lippert movies were allowed to go over budget. Not egotiable…even for Fuller.
Robert L. Lippert, Jr. told me a story about filming of the climactic ending of “The Steel Helmet,” where a Korean temple is to be destroyed, and it almost didn’t come to be… Fuller had shot all but the ending, and production was about to go into overtime. Lippert came on the set and literally pulled the power switch to shut down production. Fortunately, after he left the set, Fuller turned the power on and filmed the finale.
In 1950, Lippert gave himself a challenge…produce a series of six Jimmy “Shamrock” Ellison-Russell “Lucky” Hayden westerns, all at the same time, using the same casts, sets, crew, and so on. In one movie an actor may play a bad guy and a bartender in another. A camera was be set up in the saloon, for example, and the saloon scenes for each movie would be shot sequentially, with actors rushing about changing costumes between each roll of the camera. It must have been a nightmare for the script girl! Robert L. Lippert, Jr. told me it was his father’s proudest achievement! VCI released this series as a set under the “Big Iron Collection” banner.
Despite the puny budgets, minor classics resulted, including “Little Big Horn” (1951) and “The Tall Texan” (1953), both starring Lloyd Bridges. There was also a distinctive film noir series filmed in Great Britain starting in 1953 when Lippert formed a production alliance with his British distributor, Exclusive Films, soon known as Hammer Film Productions. Under the arrangement, Lippert would provide an American “star,” on the way down, but who still had some name value, plus cash to pay for part of the production. Exclusive/Hammer and Lippert divided up the distribution territories. The result was a series of good thrillers, supported by solid English casts, and many directed by Terence Fisher, in his
pre-horror film days. The Lippert-Hammers are all available as part of the “Hammer Noir” collections released by VCI Entertainment.
Lippert, like Roger Corman after him, was able to gather together producers, directors, screenwriters, composers, and, of course, actors, willing to work on tight schedules for minimal pay. There were stars who had lost their major studio contracts (Paulette Goddard, George Raft) or who had problems with the House on Un-American Activities (Lloyd Bridges, Lee J. Cobb). Even Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicolson had roles in later Lippert productions.
Lippert was a master marketer. When producer George Pal set out to mount a big budget Technicolor production of “Destination Moon” (1950), based on the science-fiction book by Robert A. Heinlein, Lippert saw an opportunity. He capitalized on Pal’s media campaign by throwing together his own low (of course) budget “moon” (he changed it to “mars” to avoid a lawsuit) picture,“Rocketship X-M” (1950). It beat Pal’s movie into the theatres, stealing a good deal of the Technicolor epic’s thunder. I’m told Mr. Pal was not amused.
Trouble, and opportunities, lay ahead for Lippert.
To be continued…
Robert L. Lippert https://kitparkerfilms.wordpress.com/2011/03/04/robert-l-lippert/
Wildfire – Story of a Horse http://vcientertainment.com/darn-good-westerns-p-558.html
I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona, and The Steel Helmet http://www.criterion.com/boxsets/499-eclipse-series-5-the-first-films-of-samuel-fuller
The Tall Texan http://vcientertainment.com/tall-texan-p-493.html
The Big Iron Collection http://vcientertainment.com/iron-collection-p-559.html
“Bombproof,” in equestrian jargon, is a horse that can be put into any situation, remain calm, and persevere until the job is done perfectly.
Author Tom Weaver is just that way with interviews. The ones he’s conducted with horror movie stars, directors and producers, throughout a couple of dozen books…are all winners. He bats a thousand.
His latest, “The Horror Films of Richard Gordon” (BearManor Media, 2011), just came out, and I can’t wait to get my copy. A Weaver/Gordon combo is guaranteed to be a page-turner.
Out of many interviews, there have been occasions when the interviewees are problems…want to give only “yes and no” answers, are boring, senile, or even drunk! Even if all four, and the house is on fire, Tom somehow perseveres. He prepares in advance, and works harder conducting interviews than anyone I’ve known. He just makes it look so eeeeasy.
I first met Tom a few years ago when he agreed to come from his home in Sleepy Hollow,New York, toLos Angeles, and conduct interview/commentary tracks for one of my “Positively No Refunds” DVD double-features. I’ve met him a couple of times since, and he’s always comes across as a warm, thoughtful, teddy-bearish sort of guy…quick-witted, a master of plays on words…with a radio voice. He loves to wear comfortable clothes (I’ve never seen him in anything other than well-worn shorts and t-shirts,) and eat comfort food (packs more cholesterol in a day than most people do in a week, maybe two).
Now that I’ve introduced the Tom I know, the movies on the “No Refunds” DVD are “Bride and the Beast” (1958) and “White Gorilla” (1945). Charlotte Austin, star of “Bride” was one of the participants, along with beloved science fiction movie icon, Bob Burns. Both movies had “gorillas” in them, and for those who don’t know, Bob is the expert on movie gorillas. “Bride” bit-player Slick Slavin (Trustin Howard) also joined them. Tom didn’t need to worry about bomb-proofing with this group…just wind them up and let ‘em roll. The funniest commentary tracks I’ve produced so far!
People ask me how I come up with those witty descriptions of my movies on the back of DVD covers. The answer is easy…I don’t write them – Tom Weaver does.
The Horror Hits of Richard Gordon:
Other Tom Weaver interview books:
Charlotte Austin’s Filmography:
Bob Burns’ web site:
“Bride and the Beast” Trailer:
“White Gorilla” Trailer:
Bride and the Beast/White Gorilla “Positively No Refunds” DVD:
Posted May 16, 2011on:
Unlike my other two “Film Friends I Miss,” Bill never wrote an autobiography. He was modest, so it would have been out of character for him. Fortunately, his son, Bob, wrote an affectionate, biographical piece on his father and his brainchild, we all know today as VCI Entertainment. Combining Bill’s biography with VCI’s history made sense to me since Bill and VCI were so intertwined that sometimes it wasn’t always possible for me to separate the man from the business.
Bill Blair-Biography/VCI Entertainment-history:
It was almost four decades ago when I first spoke with Bill, two years after I founded my 16mm (Bill called it “16 em em”) library, Kit Parker Films. This was before there was such a thing as home video. All I had to offer were movies in the public domain, so it was important to move up a notch by offering copyrighted ones. No one was willing to sell me any, at least that I could afford.
Bill founded United Films, also a 16mm distributor, only big-time, renting out many copyrighted movies from major studios. I called and asked if he would sell me several “A-” RKO movies. He agreed, even gave me a real good deal, especially considering it put me in competition with him for those movies. He was a nice man to do that, and, as you can see, I never forgot it. He let me buy more movies, and then more. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Bill worked with me not only because he was a nice guy, but because he knew I was a kindred spirit…a film nut…just like him. A friendship developed, that would which continue for over 30 years, right up until his passing.
Some time later we couldn’t come to an agreement on the price of some Dick Tracy serials. Somehow he worked into the conversation that he had, as he called it, a “bad ticker.” I took that to mean exactly what he wanted me to, that he really didn’t care if the deal went through or not, because he wasn’t going to be around much longer to care about it. I figured out years later that he was saying that to make me worry about losing the deal for fear he really didn’t care. Bill got his way, even though he wanted the deal as much as me. It was just one of his ways of negotiating. He tried the “bad ticker” routine later on, but by then I had caught on. If I pressed him I wonder if he would have grasped his chest pretending to have a heart attack, just like Fred G. Sanford did in “Sanford and Son”?
BTW, he did have a bad (physical) heart, but it managed to serve him well for another three decades-.
Another of his mid-west style negotiating tactics was to speak real slow and work into the conversation that he was just a “Slow mule from Oklahoma,” or just plain “Okie.” This was to get you to think he was a rube ripe for the picking, but in reality, at the end of the day, he’d end up with all the chips!
I don’t want to paint Bill as someone who took advantage of a 25 year old’s naïveté. The extra money he got from me was peanuts. He loved toying with me because I think I reminded Bill of himself at the same age…a kid who “had” to have those movies.
Later in the 1970s VCI got out of the 16mm film business and VCI became the first firm to produce movies specifically for the video market. In fact, they made the very first one. Don’t ask me the names because I’ve been pretty successful at erasing his made-for-video movies completely from my mind. He asked me what I thought of an early one…all I could say was it was “innovative.”
Ten years later he produced a picture called “The Last Slumber Party,” which was really gawd awful. Again he asked me what I thought, and I just paused until he blinked, and admitted, “I know, I know, it’s a piece of s**t.”
I didn’t actually meet Bill in person until around 2000. As expected, he was modest and unassuming, and I already knew he had the bedside manner of a country doctor. By now I had a reputation for clearing rights to hard to find movies, and helped him get some of his favorites, such as the Benedict Bogeaus collection**. Coincidently, they were “A-” RKO releases he had wanted for years, and it was as if I gave him the moon…just the way I felt when I got those other “A-” RKO’s from him three decades before. Believe me; I was just as happy to help him, because it gave me a chance to make him really happy. After all, he always was good to me.
Bill was beyond being a film buff, he was a film nut, and his enthusiasm was absolutely infectious. Film buffs, and nuts, alike; owe a lot to him and his team for locating, restoring and releasing hard to find movie favorites on DVD. His sons inherited that passion, and continue searching out the movies Bill always wanted, but were always just out of his grasp. I know he appreciates that.
Bill Blair lived his dream, made his passion a vocation, got to work with all the movies he wanted, and was loved by his family, employees, and people like me.
I miss Bill Blair.
The Benedict Bogeaus RKO Collection, all in Technicolor: “Appointment in Honduras,” “Silver Lode,” “Passion,” “Cattle Queen of Montana,” “Escape toBurma,” “Pearlof the South Pacific,” “Tennessee’s Partner,” and “Slightly Scarlet.” I recommend them.
“No one ever asked for their money back.”
David F. Friedman was a carnival pitch man at heart. His passion was to “turn a tip” (attract an audience with the promise of something that isn’t quite delivered), and he did it with movies.
When Dave died earlier this year, I was among many of his friends who were surprised by all of the press. Not that he didn’t deserve it; we just thought he operated under the radar. There were long obituaries in major papers calling him the “Trash-Film King.” I call him the “King of the Raconteurs.” He never repeated a story unless you asked…which I often did.
See his obituary at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/movies/15friedman.html
Overview of his life and films: http://www.grindhousedatabase.com/index.php/David_F._Friedman
His autobiography is very, very funny: A Youth in Babylon, Confessions of a Trash-Film King (Prometheus Books, 1998)
In 1987 I met Dave, along with his fellow film exploitation-partner, Dan Sonney. I was producing a documentary on the early era of exploitation films, hosted by Ned Beatty, ultimately released as, “Sex and Buttered Popcorn” (1988). Dave and Dan were the true stars of the picture, and with those two together for an interview meant you had to fight to hold back your laughter. Fortunately, their banter is captured in the finished film. BTW, Dan was a one of a kind character in his own right; he fractured the English language so much he made Sam Goldwyn seem like Ernest Hemingway.
The documentary: http://vcientertainment.com/buttered-popcorn-p-475.html
As a young man, Dave he hawked facts of life books, while appearing as “Elliot Forbes, eminent hygienist” during the entr’acte in the road-show exploitation film classic “Mom and Dad” (1945). There are scenes of that movie within my documentary, and even 40 years later he could reenact the sex book pitch from memory, “I’m here to peel away the veils of sexual ignorance…” He still knew how to work a crowd.
Dave had a successful career producing and exhibiting exploitation films, “Blood Feast” (1963), considered the first “gore” movie was his “Citizen Kane,” and “Two Thousand Maniacs” his “Casablanca,” both directed by Herschel Gordon Lewis. He loved fooling the suckers (oops, I mean “audience”) with a unique brand of what he called ballyhoo. I think his favorite thing was coming up with double entendre titles like “Trader Hornee” (1970) “The Ramrodder” (1968), and “The Big Snatch” 1971), or catch-lines like “Nothing so appalling in the annals of horror! Dave always had problems with censors and newspapers objecting to the words used in his advertising. He came up with a word that sounded naughty, but really wasn’t…“nubile.” When the inevitable objections came forth, he simply asked his adversaries to “look it up” in the dictionary.
During his early years there wee censor boards, along with cops who wanted to, and did, shut him down for showing something that would now appear in prime time on cable TV. He relished pulling one over on the authorities even more than the ticket-buying public. One time the Knights of Columbus picketed a theatre showing one of his films. They drew a crowd, even in the rain, and which increased ticket sales, so Dave went under cover, got them coffee and doughnuts, and encouraged them to stay in the rain and continue their “assault on public morals.
He was a very intelligent (got a degree in electrical engineering atCornellUniversity), creative individual, never took himself seriously, and lived life to the fullest. When he wasn’t smoking a cigar the size of a Titan Missile, he was eating enormous meals and drinking whiskey. One year I bronzed one of his stogies and gave it to him for Christmas. I never thought he’d live to be 87.
After he retired toAlabama, my wife and I visited him and his wife, Carol. She was a very refined and cultured woman who was a well-known bird watcher. She would call him an “Old Goat,” and warn him “if you eat one more bite, you’ll burst.” (She declined prestigious positions in cultural organizations inLos Angelesfor fear Dave’s occupation might come to light.) They were so different, yet perfect for each other.
One year we all took a train trip toNew Orleans. Dave and I sat in the bar for hours while I encouraged him to tell stories. Finally there came a time when even I was exhausted, and thought he was, too, so I retired to my sleeper to take a nap. I’d forgotten my glasses, went back, and there he was, wide awake, performing card tricks for a group of kids. Classic David F. Friedman.
In his later years he bought a small carnival and he was in hog heaven. I asked him how he was able to show human oddities long after laws prohibited it. “You mean ‘freaks’? I don’t have any; I simply show examples of the ravages of drug addiction!”
After “Deep Throat” (1972) was released, and hard-core pornography became readily available, Dave retired. He made a couple of those films, too, but soon became bored; it wasn’t fun anymore. There no longer was a need for a pitchman, and a con, because by that time everything was shown on the screen.
Dave often told me he never cared about making money. He used the old cliché that it was just a way to keep score. He had a long career hustling bad movies, but he swore that no one ever asked for their money back.
David F. Friedman DVDs:
Dave’s carny jargon: