Lippert Pictures — The First Incarnation Part 1
Posted May 28, 2011on:
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…
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