Weiss Bros. – Artclass and Beyond – The Sound Era
Posted November 17, 2012on:
There are low budget movies, and there are no-budget movies.
The sound-era came to Weiss Bros. – Artclass Pictures a year before Vitaphone and “The Jazz Singer.”
Dr. Lee DeForest developed a sound-on-film process in the early 1920s, and many short films used this process, including vaudeville acts and “Song Car-Tunes” produced by Max Fleischer, featuring the bouncing ball. At one time Louis Weiss was the general manager of the DeForest Phonofilm Corporation, but found it difficult to interest the major studios in licensing the early sound process, despite the comparatively good technical quality of many of these films.
In 1926 Louis persuaded the Phonofilm board to allow Weiss Bros. –Artclass Pictures into distributing a series of the Fleischer cartoons. The major studios controlled the best theatres, and they weren’t interested in booking the shorts, but Artclass was able to place them into some of the better independent cinemas. However, the system was doomed, not only by studio indifference, but a series of misfortunes and patent lawsuits that Dr. DeForest was unable to overcome.
1927 – 1928
Artclass produced and released only silent films during these two years. (See my earlier posts.)
By the later part of the 1920s, the Brothers Adolph, Louis and Max had amassed a considerable amount of valuable real estate, and traded heavily on the stock market. After the market crash, their highly-leveraged holdings tumbled and much of their fortunes vanished. Among their losses included the property that later became the site of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
The first Weiss Bros. talkie was “Unmasked” a leaden and stage-bound mystery based on a Craig Kennedy crime novel, and starring Robert Warwick. It survives only in fragments.
“Unmasked” was the last collaborative production effort by the three Weiss brothers. Thereafter, Louis Weiss became the driving force behind Artclass and its future offshoots, although his brothers, Adolph and Max retained a modest financial interest until 1935.
The only other releases for 1929 were two silent films to which Artclass had only limited rights: An Art Mix western, produced by Victor Adamson, “Below the Border”; and “Two Sisters” a crime adventure starring Viola Dana, in a dual role, and Rex Lease.
Next year, as expected, there was a lean release schedule. Only one film, “Damaged Love,” (alternate title: “Pleasant Sins”), managed to complete production. Starring future cowboy star Charles Starrett (as Charles R. Starrett), the melodrama was based on a 1919 play, “Our Pleasant Sins.” Much needed cash was brought in to Artclass when Louis arranged a buyout deal for the film with Sono-Art World Wide Pictures, which released it early the next year.
Weiss picked up two exploitation melodramas from Windsor Picture Plays: “Her Unborn Child,” an anti-abortion melodrama based on the play of the same name, of note because it was Elisha Cook, Jr.’s. debut film role (Louis made several unsuccessful attempts at getting the picture remade as late as 1955); and, “Today,” acquired from Majestic Pictures on a limited distribution basis, starring Conrad Nagle…a topical subject about a wealthy couple losing their fortune, with the exploitation angle being the wife’s wandering into prostitution rather than giving up her lavish lifestyle.
Artclass reactivated when Louis concluded a deal with Alfred T. Mannon’s Supreme Features, Inc., Ltd. (not to be confused with A. W. Hackel’s Supreme Pictures*) to produce and/or finance a slate of pictures. In 1933 H.E.R. Laboratories foreclosed on the pictures, and conveyed them to Aladdin Pictures Corp. (Samuel Tulpin), which caused a series of legal problems because Max Weiss had licensed the pictures to States Rights distributor, J. H. Hoffberg Co. without the permission of H.E.R. or Aladdin. The suit continued for a year until Artclass settled with Tulpin and took undisputed legal possession of the library.
The movies were produced by Louis Weiss and frequent Weiss collaborator, George Merrick, although the producer credit given is Supreme Features, Inc., Ltd., Alfred T. Mannon, President. (Mannon went on to form Resolute Pictures.)
The slate of Supreme Features pictures were comprised of a romantic-drama, “Pleasure,” starring Conway Tearle and Carmel Myers; a crime-drama, “Night Life in Reno,” with Virginia Valli; a mystery, “Convicted,” starring Aileen Pringle; and “Cavalier of the West,” the first of four westerns starring Harry Carey. The balance of the Supreme titles were released later in 1932.
Another five features were acquired from independent producers for distribution on a limited territory basis: “Maid to Order,” was the first release from the “new” Artclass, it came from Jesse Weil Productions and starred the legendary female impersonator, Julian Etlinge; “Pueblo Terror,” a Buffalo Bill, Jr. western from West Coast Pictures ; “White Renegade,” a western from Carlsbad Productions starring Tom Santschi; a crime melodrama, “The Sea Ghost,” starring Alan Hale and Laura LaPlante from Peerless Productions (Alfred T. Mannon); a horror-thriller oddity, “The Phantom,” with a miscast Guinn “Big Boy” Williams; and a drama, “Soul of the Slums,” starring William Collier, Jr., the latter two from producer Ralph M. Like.
“Uncle Moses” was certainly a unique 1932 release, and the only production from Louis Weiss’, Yiddish Talking Pictures, Inc. Produced by Louis, and spoken entirely in Yiddish, it came about at the suggestion of his friend, German director, Max Nosseck, who had produced “Der Schlemiel” the year before. Based on the 1919 novel by Sholem Ash, and subsequent stage play of the same name, it starred Maurice Schwartz, founder of the Yiddish Art Theatre in New York. (Character actor, Shimen Ruskin, started his career as an assistant director on this film.) As expected, it performed well at the boxoffice in cities with large Jewish populations, especially in New York City, but it also became a non-theatrical evergreen when it was exhibited to Jewish groups in 16mm.
Supreme Features offered “Cross-Examination,” a mystery-drama starring H.B. Warner and Sally Blane; “They Never Come Back,” a boxing drama with Regis Toomey and Dorothy Sebastian; three Harry Carey westerns, “Cavalier of the West,” “Border Devils,” and “The Night Rider,” which was the final curtain for Weiss Bros. – Artclass Pictures. “The Drifter” a melodrama starring William Farnum and Noah Beery, was acquired from producer Willis Kent for limited distribution.
Three new entities took the now-moribund Artclass’ Pictures place: Weiss Productions, Inc. (1933-38), Superior Talking Pictures, Inc. (1933-35), and Stage and Screen Productions, Inc. (1933-46). Robert Mintz was the president of all three, although some trades listed Edmund Souhami in the top spot. In fact, he was only a short-time board member.
Louis Weiss and Robert Mintz envisioned producing movies based on plays that had been performed on Broadway. Despite only 28 performances on Broadway, their first effort was “Before Morning,” a mystery melodrama starring Leo Carrillo, produced by Weiss Productions (Louis Weiss as supervising producer), and released by Stage and Screen.
Superior acquired three westerns from producer Victor Adamson, “Circle Canyon” with Buddy Roosevelt; two Buffalo Bill, Jr.’s, “Fighting Cowboy” and “Lightning Range,” particularly shoddy productions for which one would think even the most unsophisticated audiences would demand their money back; “Sucker Money” was an expose of the “psychic racket” from producer Willis Kent (as Real-Life Dramas), directed by Dorothy (Mrs. Wallace) Reid, and starring Mischa Auer. “Trails of Adventure,” a no-budget Buffalo Bill, Jr. western, from American Pictures Corp., was released in limited territories. Stage and Screen acquired rights for limited territories to Allied Pictures’ (M.H. Hoffman) “The Eleventh Commandment,” a drama starring Marian Marsh.
International Stageplay Pictures, Inc., was set up as a derivative of Superior Talking Pictures, Inc., with the goal of realizing Weiss/Mintz’ Broadway-to-film aspirations. It’s one and only release was “Drums O’ Voodoo” (“Louisiana” was an alternate title), with an all-black cast, produced by Louis Weiss, starring Laura Bowman and J. Augustus Smith, who wrote the play and screenplay. Produced on Broadway by the Negro Theatre Guild, it closed after less than ten performances. The movie is little more than a filming of the play, with a miniscule budget reportedly using short ends of film stock. In 1940 Louis reissued it under the title “She Devil.” State’s Righter, Sack Amusement Enterprises, a specialist in distributing ‘race pictures,’ got considerable playdates for several years thereafter.
Exploitation Pictures, another Superior Talking Pictures spinoff, released but one picture, “Enlighten Thy Daughter” (reissue title,” Blind Fools”), a remake of a 1917 wayward-youth drama, produced by Robert Mintz and starring Herbert Rawlinson.
Producer Victor Adamson was responsible for three more Buffalo Bill, Jr.’s, “Rawhide Romance,” “Riding Speed” and “Lightning Bill,” and two Buddy Roosevelt’s, “Range Riders” and “Boss Cowboy,” a remake of “Cyclone Buddy” (Artclass/1924), all released by Superior.
Adamson told producer-historian, and editor of the favorite magazine of my youth, Screen Thrills Illustrated (1962-64), Sam Sherman, told me that Adamson accused Weiss Productions of purposefully bankrupting Superior in a scheme to swindle him out of royalties and his negatives. I have no information on such a dispute.
In November of 1934, Superior inked a deal with Ralph M. Like, owner of a small studio doing business as Argosy Pictures, to make two westerns for $3,900 each, and two “northwest” pictures (1930’s producer-speak for a Canadian Mounties picture) for $4,400 each, with 24,000 feet of picture and track raw stock included for each production…not a lot left over for retakes!
Weiss Productions, formed in 1933, released its first production, a Wally Wales western, “Way of the West,” produced by Robert Tansey.
Producer Willis Kent’s Real Life Dramas, provided a drama, directed by Mrs. Wallace Reid, “The Woman Condemned,” with Claudia Dell, and a Reb Russell western, “Fighting Through,” both released by Superior.
Stage and Screen’s releases included “Inside Information,” with 38 and 60 minute versions (even the 38 min. version is too long!); the first of three Tarzan the Police Dog Police Melodramas from Consolidated Pictures Corp. (Bert Sternbach, Albert Herman), starring, in addition to Tarzan, of course, Rex Lease, in a rare non-western role; and the first seven of a series of eight two-reel Wally Wales and Buffalo Bill, Jr. westerns, and perhaps some other titles from William Pizor’s Imperial Productions, to which, I believe S&S had only limited distribution rights.
Four Rex Lease westerns came from Weiss Productions and Argosy Productions, produced by Louis Weiss and George Merrick: “Cyclone of the Saddle” (Rough Riders series), “Fighting Caballero,” “Pals of the Range,” “Rough Riding Ranger”; a northwest, “The Silent Code,” starring Kane Richmond and featuring Rex, King of Dogs as played by “Wolfgang,” produced by Louis Weiss; two more Tarzan the Police Dog’s from Consolidated Pictures, “Captured in Chinatown” with Marion Schilling, and “The Million Dollar Haul,” with Kane Richmond.
“The Drunkard” was an old temperance melodrama allegedly first staged in 1843 by P.T. Barnum, then in 1933 it was revived on the stage at Los Angeles’ Theatre Mart. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Louis Weiss, under the Exploitation Pictures banner (it was ultimately produced by Bert Sternbach and released as a “Weiss Production” through Stage and Screen), optioned the rights to make a motion picture. Weiss hired former silent-era stars James Murray, ironically a chronic alcoholic after triumphing in King Vidor’s “The Crowd” (MGM, 1928), as the lead, joined by Clara Kimball Young, Bryant Washburn, and other veterans in support. Louis planned to road show the film around the country with stars of the film making personal appearances. However, James Murray tragically died a hopeless drunk at age 35, one year after production wrapped.
Ten years later, Joseph E. Levine, operating from his State’s Rights film exchange in Boston, purchased all rights for $5,000 ($61,000 in today’s dollars…far more than its production budget), and cut it down for inclusion as a segment in his first feature film, “Gaslight Follies” (Embassy/1945).
All of the Weiss Productions were released by Superior Talking Pictures, except for “Million Dollar Haul,” which was distributed through Stage and Screen.
The four proposed Argosy productions mentioned earlier ended up as three Rex Lease westerns distributed by Stage and Screen, “Cyclone of the Saddle” “Ghost Rider” (Lone Rider series) and “Cowboy and the Bandit,” the latter somehow billed as from International Pictures.
Stage and Screen also released two Northwest Morton of the Mounted adventures from Weiss Productions (sometimes credited to “Empire Pictures,” which may have been only a regional distributor), “Courage of the North” and “Timber Terrors,” with John Preston, Dynamite, The Wonder Horse and Captain, The King of Dogs!
Limited territory releases included “Get That Man” (Scott-Bennet Productions/Mayfair Pictures), with Wallace Ford, and “Arizona Trails,” an Art Mix (Victor Adamson) western.
By this time the Brothers had the controlling interest in the Hillcrest Golf Club in Jamaica, New York, and Utopia Park Villas of Flushing New York, and Hillcrest Manor, also in Flushing. Adolph and Max sold their film interests to Louis.
Max Weiss left the picture business altogether and stayed on the East Coast, only occasionally visiting Adolph and Louis in Los Angeles.
Adolph, the introspective and much loved Weiss brother who mentored his younger brothers in the business, and set the foundation for the various Weiss brothers motion picture exhibition, production and distribution businesses, allegedly became a wealthy man. He chose to dabble in various production manager capacities for Louis, where cast and crew affectionately called him “Uncle Adolph,” overlooking his obsession of stopping production caravans to collect empty bottles and return them for the deposits. In his mid-50s, he pursued, and got, his dream job…working in the wardrobe department at MGM.
Louis continued his dream job — to produce movies, especially serials, and it wasn’t long before he earned the nickname of “Mr. Serials.”
The Serials: 1935 – 1938
Louis’ first talkie chapter play was to be called “The Mysterious Pilot,” and star famed aviator, Wiley Post, who, among other feats, had been the first man to fly solo around the world. In late July, 1935, Post told Louis he’d be ready to start work in two weeks, after returning from a flight to Siberia with Will Rogers, but the two perished in a remote part of Alaska.
Three Weiss Productions (Louis Weiss/Robert Mintz) serials were filmed and released in quick succession in 1936, “Custer’s Last Stand,” with Rex Lease was the first. To promote it, an elaborate insert was placed in the December 14, 1935 issue of Boxoffice Magazine (see above.) The first three episodes received uniform acclaim in the trades, and Weiss and Mintz plastered them all over the insert. The balance of 12 chapters were duds.
Louis’ son Martin told me that one of the great thrills of his youth was being on the set of “Custer’s Last Stand” and watching the wind blow the curtain off the outdoor dressing room of actress Ruth Mix (daughter of Tom Mix), completely exposing her for a brief instant for all to see…an instant he can still describe in vivid detail over 75 years later.
A Craig Kennedy mystery, “The Amazing Adventures of the Clutching Hand” (the alternate, and feature version title was “The Clutching Hand”), followed in 1936, with Jack Mulhall in the title role. Fifteenth down the cast was Charles Locher, who became known as Jon Hall, and an instant star in John Ford’s “The Hurricane” (Samuel Goldwyn-UA/1937). Not to miss an exploitation angle, Louis later inserted a full-frame title, “Starring Jon Hall,” into the negative. It was such a blatant example of false advertising, even from a Poverty Row studio, that the title was subsequently removed, although it occasionally pops up on public domain DVD’s.
“The Black Coin,” a mystery with Ralph Graves, was the third and final serial. Both “Custer” and “Clutching” were also released in cut-down feature versions.
Among the files I donated to the Margaret Herrick Library of the AMPAS, are pay stubs for the actors performing in some of the early talkies and serials, and they were miserly. Ruth Mix, second-billed in one serial, and fourth in the other two, was paid only $3.75 a day for her work…and despite being subjected to embarrassment due to the “tent malfunction,” felt compensated enough to write a “thank you” note to Louis, asking him to consider her for any roles in his future productions! (Yakima Canutt was by far the highest paid performer in the three serials, getting $125 a day for risking his life doing stunt work.)
Other proposed serials, “The Phantom Railroad,” “Pony Express,” and “Jungle Perils,” touted as an amazing African Adventure by the Intrepid Herbert Bruce, were never produced.
Weiss Productions, operating as Adventure Serials, Inc., produced three chapter plays under Louis’ supervision for Columbia Pictures: “Jungle Menace” (1937), starring outdoor adventurer Frank “Bring ‘em Back Alive” Buck; “The Secret of Treasure Island” (1938) a pirate adventure starring Don Terry; and the reactivated Wiley Post adventure, “The Mysterious Pilot” (1938), starring another famous pilot, Frank Hawks, who himself died in an aviation crash one year later.
L. Ron Hubbard, later the founder of Scientology, regularly peddled stories to Louis, and according to Martin Weiss, said he was going to start a religion. Louis retained Hubbard to write the screenplay for “Island,” and reportedly to work on the script for “Pilot.”
Upon delivery of the last serial to Columbia, the former Weiss Bros. production and distribution offshoots, for all intents and purposes ceased; although Stage and Screen continued as a corporate entity until 1946.
The majority of the original nitrate negatives of the sound era were burned in a vault fire. I practically cried when I saw so many of the old film element cards boldly rubber stamped “AXED.” Fortunately, by that time most of the sound features and serials had been transferred to 35mm safety fine grains to facilitate the manufacture of 16mm negatives. Although the silent features and serials were “axed,” the comedy shorts were preserved. They are stored in temperature and humidity controlled vaults at the UCLA film and Television Archive, and the Academy Film Archive (AMPAS).
In 1940 Louis Weiss purchased last of the old guard, Robert Mintz’, interest in Stage and Screen Productions, and Louis’ son Adrian joined the board of directors. It was a new era for Louis, Adrian, and, later his brother, Martin, and grandson Steven. More “Weiss” stories to follow, and as well as a complete sound-era filmography.
* The Supreme Pictures releases were not released theatrically by any of the Weiss entities, but Louis did purchase sixteen Bob Steele and eight Johnny Mack Brown Supreme westerns outright from A.W. Hackel in the late 1940s for use on television.
Sources: Bob Dickson, Margaret Herrick Library AMPAS American Film Institute, Boxoffice Magazine, December 14, 1935, Film Daily Yearbook, I Went That-a-Way: The Memoirs of a Western Film Director Harry Fraser by Wheeler W. Dixon and Audrey Brown Fraser (Scarecrow, 1990), IMDb, International Motion Picture Almanac 1936-37, Kit Parker Collection, Margaret Herrick Library AMPAS, New York State Archives, Poverty Row Studios, 1929 – 1940, by Michael R. Pitts (McFarland, 1997), Sam Sherman, Martin Weiss, Steven Weiss, U.S. Copyright Office
(c) 2012 Kit Parker Holdings, LLC
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Other Weiss Bros. releases available from VCI Entertainment:
“Cavalier of the West” http://store.vcientertainment.com/product/cavalier_of_the_west/123
“Circle Canyon” http://store.vcientertainment.com/product/circle_canyon/125
“Cowboy and the Bandit” http://store.vcientertainment.com/product/COWBOY_AND_THE_BANDIT/128
“Fighting Caballero” http://store.vcientertainment.com/product/FIGHTING_CABALLERO/128
“Last of the Clintons” http://store.vcientertainment.com/product/LAST_OF_THE_CLINTONS/130
“Pals of the Range” http://store.vcientertainment.com/product/PALS_OF_THE_RANGE/145
“Range Riders” http://store.vcientertainment.com/product/RANGE_RIDERS/144