I enjoyed this 2014 biography of producer Robert L. LIPPERT by Mark Thomas McGee. It’s a detailed, extremely well researched look at the career of a man who loved making deals – and money!
Robert Lippert (1909 – 1976) was a businessman who never tried to compete with the big studios. He knew he could make low budget movies , sell them and make a profit. His motto was “I don’t worry what the critics say, I make pictures people want to see.”
- He never came to the set, he didn’t watch rushes. But, as the author says, “a lot of filmakers got started with Lippert because he knew first timers were willing to work cheap!”
Going over budget was taboo! He was able to get producers, directors, writers and actors for minimal pay and tight schedules.He was able to sign major studio talent when their studios released them.
For instance, he signed George Raft to a two-picture deal in 1952, paying Raft $25,000 per picture and 25% of profits. ( the films were Loan Shark and I’ll Get You.)
In 1960, Raft got $31,000 as part of his profit participation!
He made around 200 films ( while still running his Theater chain) but didn’t rate a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But it is in Lippert films you’ll find many well known faces – Veronica Lake, Sabu, George Reeves, Preston Foster, Zachary Scott, Cesar Romero, Richard Arlen, Ellen Drew, Dan Duryea,Tom Neal, Lloyd Bridges, Vincent Price, Audrey Totter, Alan Curtis, Evelyn Ankers . To name a few.
Lippert , in the 1940s, owned a chain of cinemas . According to legend he said, “Every Theater owner thinks he can make better pictures than the ones they sent him – so back in 1943 I tried it.”
Cinemagoers felt cheated if they didn’t get two pictures. All the big studios had B picture units, but there was still space for small Independents. B movies had to be kept alive.
He likes westerns and the old saying, “If you wanna make money, make a western!”
In 1945, Lippert set up two companies with a fellow Theater owner, John J. Jones : Action Pictures for production and Screen Guild for releasing . (Jones later left the company.)
WILDFIRE (1945) was his first release, made in Color. It cost $36,000 and made $350,000. Lippert used rental stages and the Corrigan movie ranch.
( I love the sentence below the title in the poster- The Story of a Horse.)
Rip Roaring Action! That’s what the folks wanted and that’s what they got from a Lippert film. Mostly running not much more than an hour, and a whole lot cheaper for exhibitors to rent.
Lippert had almost a repertory company of actors who appeared in his films – Richard Arlen , Robert Lowery, Cesar Romero, Mary Beth Hughes,Reed Hadley,Richard Travis,Marie Windsor – all found work at Lippert Pictures..
Director Sam Fuller got his chance with Lippert . To write and direct I Shot Jesse James, Fuller got $5,000 plus a percentage of the profits. It did well at the box office and Fuller went on to do two more for Lippert – The Baron of Arizona and The Steel Helmet.
And , ideal for a director, Lippert left Fuller alone to make the movies his way.
The Steel Helmet, about an army unit in the Korean war, went on to make $2 million at the box office at a time when most of Lippert’s productions cost between $100,000 and $200,000.
Gene Evans probably had the best role of his career in Steel Helmet, as the tough as nails sergeant who has to take charge when his group has a weak officer (Steve Brodie).
Incidentally, Lippert wanted Larry Parks to play the Sergeant but Fuller got his way and insisted Gene Evans was right for the part.
Fuller’s talent was recognised. As one IMDB reviewer said, “it is shot with a conviction and passion few A-list movies can muster.”
Must catch up on this one.
Another Lippert Film I have yet to see, Rocketship X-M had a big cast , with a script by Kurt Neumann and involvement by Dalton Trumbo. It made a tidy profit of $500,000.
And it was another example of Lippert know-how. He managed to get his film out a few weeks before Destination Moon. Both films started the sci-fi Film boom of the 1950s.
Face masks on.
Lippert made a deal with Hammer Films in England, to co-produce, lend American actors, writers, directors and distribute the films in America. The first co-production was The Last Page (Man Bait in the U.S.) in 1952, with George Brent and Diana Dors.
Hammer made about 14 films with Lippert including Spaceways, Terror Street, Paid To Kill, Break in the Circle, A Stolen Face.
Lippert also struck a deal with Twentieth Century Fox in 1955 to produce B films under his Regal Films banner.
Lippert had sold a package of his films to television in the early 50s, and entered into a dispute with the Screen Actors Guild over residual payments. As a result , his name did not appear on any of the 100 or so films he made for Fox from 1955 to 1964.
The Fox films included The Big Show, Cattle Empire, The Fly Forty Guns.
Lippert finally left Hollywood and returned to San Francisco. In the course of the next ten years he doubled his cinema chain. He died peacefully at home in 1976.
One of the portions of the book I loved was the frank and sometimes contradictory views of exhibitors about Lippert films.
No holding back!
”I think we’d have been better off if we had left it lost.”
Tell it like it is!
” The three desperate men were my assistant, my operator and myself. Desperate about what to do to try to bring them in for this mediocre western.”
Damning verdicts :
“The only good thing about this was the print….”
“The general comment was that Mary Beth Hughes should have played the lead.”
“Nobody gives a hoot what happened to Bob Ford. They thought they’d see some Jesse James action And we’re disappointed.”
“Buy this picture while it is hot.”
“Thanks, Lippert, for a bread and butter picture.”
Even the Hollywood Reporter took a swipe:
“Flight To Nowhere is just that!”
JUNGLE GODDESS:“I hardly paid the electricity bill.”
“ Some of the supposedly tense and serious scenes were actually humorous due to the ineffectiveness of the meek looking cast of native cannibals.”
Kit Parker Films own the rights and distribute over 100 Lippert films.
Time Magazine called him “The Quickie King.”
Robert L.Lippert is part of Hollywood history and there are a few of his films I need to catch up. As we have discovered before, there may be a little gem among them.
Lippert’s family set up a permanent display in the museum in Alamada , his home town in California.