Sunday, March 14, 2010

And then there was Sam... (A brief history of Monogram)

When we think of a quintessential Monogram movie, the image we create is almost certainly something much more specific: a Banner Production, that is to say the work of enterprising producer Sam Katzman, who operated out of Monogram in the nineteen-forties. Monogram itself was really two studios, and its history is a surprisingly complicated one that reveals much of interest about the way low-budget studios operated around this time.
Now think of the Monogram logo. What most readily comes to mind is the ring of stars rotating around a shiny disc with the letters MPC written on it. But that was the logo of the 'second' Monogram, the one we know and love from the forties.
The original Monogram had been formed long before under the aegis of W. Ray Johnston, who had graduated to company president after having kicked around the movie industry since the start of World War I.
According to the 'History of Monogram Pictures' in my invaluable 1944-5 Motion Picture Almanac:
Monogram Pictures Corporation evolved in 1930, under the leadership of W Ray Johnston, its president, who formed the company with a group of independent exchange men who were distributors for its predecessor, Rayart Productions, founded by Mr Johnston in 1924. The exchange owners who distributed Rayart product had previously formed a co-operative organization merging distribution units. This nucleus was incorporated as Monogram with Mr Johnstone as president. Trem Carr headed production, and Edward A. Golden joined the organization as sales manager.
Under Trem Carr, this thirties version of Monogram, though definitely a small studio, was one with its sights set on higher things, for whom the big time was just around the corner.
Their budgets may have been small but their aspirations were not, and their logo sequence was a gorgeous art deco cityscape, from which the words Monogram Pictures emerged, sliding on to the screen, like slick, modern trains.
The mainstay of the studio at this time was its westerns, churned out at the rate of upwards of a dozen a year through the early thirties. But Carr also supervised productions of Oliver Twist and Black Beauty (directed by Phil Rosen) in 1933, The Moonstone (with David Manners) and Jane Eyre (with Colin Clive and directed by Christy Cabanne!) in '34.
It was this forward-looking Monogram-on-the-up that first invited Bela Lugosi, then relatively hot after the success of The Black Cat, to appear in Mysterious Mr Wong (1934).
What happened next is interesting, and I hand you back to the Almanac:
During the autumn of 1935, Mr Johnston and Herbert Yates formed Republic Pictures, incorporating the Monogram exchanges as distribution outlets. A year later, Mr Johnston withdrew from Republic and revived Monogram, creating a new system of franchise distribution.
Presumably buried behind all that matter-of-fact business talk is a fascinating saga of raised voices and boardroom wrangles, but for whatever reason, the Republic experiment was not to Johnston's taste, and Monogram was back almost immediately.
But this'new' Monogram that emerged from the fiasco was one with a notably different agenda. While it had once been looking at the stars while lying in the gutter, having helped create one of its most serious rivals it could now no longer afford to experiment or aspire.
As the Almanac notes: "The reorganized Monogram in 1937-38 issued 39 features, 24 of which were westerns."
Soon, horror films would be added to the roster with the same logic: the public seemed to like them. To get a sense of what proportion of the studio's output the horror productions were, here's their list of productions for 1943-44:

A musical or two, some Charlie Chans, the odd drama, a couple of horrors and a half-dozen oaters: no room for Oliver Twist here anymore.
This time round, product was supplied by a variety of producers were employed, each with their own entirely separate production outfits, for which Monogram proper financed and distributed.

There were the King Brothers, Maurice and Franklin, who produced the closest thing to mainstream Hollywood product Monogram would handle: their Simone Simon comedy Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore remains a perfectly entertaining bit of nonsense and could almost be mistaken for a major studio B film.
. Short-lived Biltmore Productions (their FIRST also turned out to be their LAST) came up with this wartime extravaganza:
.Executive producer Sebastian Cristillo was in fact Lou Costello, and the cast includes the heroines of two of Universal's Mummy series. (And introducing Henny Youngman!)
Jeffrey Bernerd provided emotional thunderbolts:
And then there was Sam...
. It was Banner Productions, under Katzman and Dietz, that brought Lugosi and the East Side Kids to Monogram, and defined the company's popular image for all time.
"Arguably no producer or director in the history of the movies so gloriously exemplifies the joys of exploitation cinema as the legendary Sam Katzman," writes Ken Hanke in the book The Sleaze Merchants and who could argue with him? Katzman is the gold standard by which low rent movie hucksters are measured, and a man who cared only about getting as much fun on the screen as he could manage, even if the narrative made no sense and the ideas outstripped the resources of the production budget. He also had a lively and self-deprecating sense of humour that manifested itself in the form of in-jokes, not common at the time. The East Side Kids talk of altercations with 'the Katzman gang', while the hero of Voodoo Man is a horror screenwriter for Banner, whose boss 'S.K.' listens to him recounting the events of the film and proposes turning it into a Bela Lugosi movie.
Katzman's importance in this story cannot be overstressed. When we talk about all those great ingredients that make a Monogram movie a Monogram movie, almost all of them can be attributed to the one and only Sam Katzman.

Here's to you, Sam!


Holger Haase said...

Dammit where do you get all that info from. Wonderful revelations and scans.

Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

Great article! I've probably written about a hundred or so Monogram films, but I've never known much about the ins and outs of that outfit.

James said...

Great write up Matthew. Well researched and most interesting. I had no idea the history of this little poverty row studio was so cu-throat. Great scans too!

James said...