Friday, May 30, 2008

Singing In The Saddle

This week the Bijou is celebrating the singing cowboys of the silver screen. The rich history of this cinematic phenomenon is engrossingly told in Douglas B. Green’s book "Singing in the Saddle". Green, known to his many fans as Ranger Doug, is a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning country music group Riders of the Sky. Here is an excerpt from Ranger Doug’s book where he reveals how movie mogul Herbert J. Yates acquired full control of Republic Pictures and expanded his empire into the music industry.

Of the many associated businesses that Yates came to acquire under the umbrella of Consolidated Film Industries, one of the most fortuitous was Plaza Music, which became the American Record Corporation, a major record label that made Conqueror records for sale at Sears, Roebuck, and released the same masters for other mass marketers under the Perfect, Banner, Melotone, and Oriole labels. Many of the early cowboy singers, including Gene Autry, recorded for ARC. With either phenomenal foresight or phenomenal luck, Yates had poised himself to create a singing cowboy with a dual career on record and film. With the producer Art Satherley at the helm of his recording operation, Yates developed a profitable recording business in the heart of the Depression, selling western, hillbilly, folk, and blues records. At the same time, he gained full control of Republic Pictures and turned it into a minimajor by a similar approach, that is, by developing stars and themes that appealed to a huge rural audience ignored or even scorned by the major studios.

Yates ran Republic with an iron hand and an exceedingly tight budget, something that would cost him dearly in personal relations and legal actions with his major stars, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. In his defense, Republic unquestionably made the finest, most consistent B pictures. Republic’s occasional forays into longer, more expensive A pictures were usually not terribly successful, although some were well received, including Dark Command (1940), which featured Roy Rogers in a strong supporting, non-singing role, and at least three John Wayne films—Wake of the Red Witch (1948), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), and The Quiet Man (1952). But the B movie was Republic’s strength and its bread and butter. As veteran Republic writer Sloan Nibley said: “What Republic did better than anyone else was good, fast action shows for a price.”

If the hard-as-nails Yates had a weak spot, it was for the Czech ice-skating star Vera Hruba Ralston, whom he discovered in 1940, married in 1952, and developed into Republic’s top star during the 1950s. After the departure of Wayne, Autry, and Rogers, she headlined the studio’s biggest-budget releases. The lovely, athletic Ralston (considerably taller than the 5’ 4” Yates, and forty years his junior) had taken the silver medal in the 1936 Olympics, bested only by Norway’s Sonja Henie, and she was destined to remain in Henie’s shadow as both women entered pictures. Despite Yates’s energetic backing, most of Ralston’s films were not financial successes, unable to recoup their big budgets. The studio began to flounder in the 1950s as events conspired against Republic, among them the financial failure of Ralston’s movies; the evaporation of the B-picture market; the defection of Yates’s moneymaking singing cowboys and the decline of public interest in singing-cowboy pictures in general, along with a seemingly endless string of legal battles with stars, writers, and craft unions; and the rise of television. In addition Yates was growing old and was not in the best of health. A few years after a protracted lawsuit with Roy Rogers, he was sued by his stockholders, who came together, as the New York Times headlined its October 30, 1956, article, to “Charge He Used Film Company Funds for Wife’s Career.” As John Wayne said about the situation, “Yates was one of the smartest businessmen I ever met, but when it came to the woman he loved, his business brains just went flyin’ out the window.”

It is unfair to blame Ralston’s films for Republic’s demise, as some film historians have insinuated. Yates’s and Republic’s problems were many, and they worsened when he faced an unpleasant strike in 1958 by the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America over the issue of residual payments, payments Yates was loathe to make. With the exception of 1948, Republic had turned tidy though unspectacular profits every year from 1940 to 1956, but much of the 1950s profit was not from current films, but from the sale of Yates’s older catalogue to television. This action infuriated Rogers and Autry, who brought lawsuits against Republic. Small-theater owners, long the bread and butter of Republic, were infuriated as well. They felt Yates was selling out to the enemy: Why would youngsters pay to see a reissued Roy Rogers film when they could see the same thing at home for free? Would they come to see the new Rex Allen movie if Roy, Gene, and Hopalong could be had without leaving the living room?

By the mid-1950s what profit Republic generated was not from its current film releases but from those sales of old films to television, from renting out the studio’s well-equipped lot, and from the film-processing arm of the business. Having given up on the kinds of films that had built the studio—serials, B westerns, and singing cowboys—Republic concentrated solely on A features after about 1955 and more than once considered suspending film operations altogether. After losing $1.36 million in 1957 and $1.48 million in 1958, the flow of red ink was too much for the ailing Yates, who sold the firm on July 1, 1959. Ownership of the studio has passed through various hands, and while Republic still exists on paper to this day, it no longer produces feature films. Yates, whose defiant and independent spirit guided and defined Republic, only briefly enjoyed his retirement, due to failing health, and he died in 1966 in Sherman Oaks, California.

We are grateful to Vanderbilt University Press and the Country Music Foundation for permission to share this excerpt with our readers. Singing in the Saddle can be purchased here.

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