Robert L. Lippert: Television to RegalScope (1956-1959)

Posted on: June 6, 2011

“That Thanksgiving we had two turkeys”

The early days of television were a boon to independent producers like Lippert because they could now license their movies to television.  The big studios could too, but were afraid to alienate exhibitors they were dependant on to show their new releases.  Although Lippert had problems with exhibitors as well, his first major hurdle were the music composer and musician unions.  He had previously paid them when his movies were first made.  He had the right to show them anywhere, but the unions wanted additional compensation for TV, and threatened television stations if they dared to air them.  At first he replaced the original compositions with monophonic organ scores.  Eventually the original music was restored, but his problems were just beginning.

The Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) told him that unless he gave their members residuals for television airings, he couldn’t use SAG actors in future productions.  Lippert’s position was the same, but he couldn’t make movies without actors, so he closed “Lippert Pictures.”

Lippert still wanted to produce movies, and 20th Century-Fox needed to get out from an edict it handed down to exhibitors.

The Fox problem began after it notified exhibitors that all of their forthcoming productions would be in color, CinemaScope, and stereophonic sound. But Fox still needed “B” movies as second features to its “A” product.  Also, drive-ins were coupling two B’s together as double features.  In any case, Fox couldn’t afford to make them in color.

Lippert and Fox head, Spyros Skouras, came together and created Regal Films, solving both of their problems with one name change.  Ed Baumgarten, former chief loan officer for the motion picture division of the Bank of America, and Vice-President of Lippert Pictures, became the straw man “president” of the company.  Lippert called all the shots, but with his name appearing nowhere in the credits, he was free to sell his movies without fear of union reprisal.

Concurrently, Fox got out of its ill-conceived “color, CinemaScope, stereo sound only” policy by informing exhibitors that the Regal films were independent productions, merely distributed” by Fox…technically true, even though Fox provided the funding.

All of the releases* were black and white and “RegalScope,” which allowed Fox to keep its prestigious “CinemaScope” name off low budget, black and white movies.  Earle Lyon, producer of three Regal films, told me that RegalScope was strictly a name change, and that the lenses used in the RegalScope productions were the same CinemaScope ones used for the regular Fox “A” titles.

Maury Dexter, who started out as Lippert’s assistant in 1956, and later became one of Lippert’s most prolific director and/or producers during the Lippert-Fox era, told me the budgets were only $100,000 (just under $800,000 in 2010 dollars), which is incredibly low considering the production values, such as they were.   I’m told Lippert got an additional $25,000 as a producer’s fee.  “The Fly,” which was in color, cost $700,00 – $750,000 (Approx. $5.5 million in 2010 dollars) according to Maury Dexter who was in charge of production at Lippert.

The only Regal color productions were “The Deerslayer” (1957), and “The Fly” (1958), which along with Samuel Fuller’s black and white, “China Gate” (1957), were released under the Fox/CinemaScope banner.  When I used to distribute those pictures through Kit Parker Films, there was an occasional instance where one print had a Regal logo, and another a 20th Century-Fox one…I have no idea why.

I asked former exhibitor Shan Sayles, if he played any RegalScope movies.  He told me “Yes, a western double feature that ran on Thanksgiving of 1957,” continuing, “that Thanksgiving we had two turkeys!”

One of the unfortunate hallmarks of many of the Regal titles is too much talk, too little action.    According to his son, Robert L. Lippert, Jr., the elder Lippert knew it was cheaper to film dialogue than action.

Producer Earle Lyon told mes a story about Lippert’s penuriousness while in Montana producing “Stagecoach to Fury” (1956), Lippert’s only Oscar nominee – for best black and white cinematography, when he got a call from the boss asking him to get to Las Vegas right away for an urgent meeting.  The “meeting,” according to Lyon, lasted about three minutes, long enough for Lippert to tell Lyon the movie was not to go one cent over budget.  “Do you understand, not one cent.  Now go back and go to work!”  Why Lippert spent money on a plane ticket to tell Lyon something that he and everyone else knew was an iron-clad rule, remains a mystery!

In 1959 Regal Films was abandoned altogether, but Lippert continued to produce low budget movies for Fox for another ten years.  It puzzles me that Fox didn’t release those films to television.  Instead, Lippert somehow gained control of the Regal library, and in the early 1960s sold them outright to National Telefilm Associates (NTA.)  Paramount is the current owner.

But there’s more to Lippert’s producing career…to be continued…

* At the time of the Regal deal Lippert had one unreleased picture, “Massacre” (1956), a USA-Mexico co-production Lippert and Intercontinental Pictures, Inc.  Fox’s involvement was only as distributor.

(References:  Robert L. Lippert, Jr., Maury Dexter, Earle  Lyon and Sam Sherman)


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