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.
Very interesting. Great to know about the guy. Best regards.
He was quite a character!
What a great tribute. I have that box set of his co productions with Exclusive (later Hammer films) My favourites include Stolen Face ( what great artwork) where Lizabeth Scott does a fine cockney accent in a dual role. When I mentioned the film to Lizabeth at a London function she immediately did the accent for me . If you have ever wanted to see a film where Hillary Brooke is married to Sid James try The House Across The Lake. Sid gives a wonderful straight performance (and his character is called Hilary!). Lloyd Bridges Dane Clark (not popular because of his arrogance writer Jimmy Sangster told me) George Brent, Richard Conte Marguerite Chapman, Paulette Goddard, and a tired George Brent were among the stars sent over. The Deal ended with the Quatermass Experiment in 1955
Wow! Lizabeth Scott doing her Cockney accent! What a memory for you.
What a great piece on a completely underrated Poverty Row producer/director etc. I can’t believe he doesn’t have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. So many of these unsung PR outfits deserve more recognition. BTW, I love the title of the biography. I think I’ll buy it.
“Cross this dame off your list.” Just for that quote I’d buy the DVD.
I really have to look more into the Lippert/Sam Fuller collaboration. I’m a Fuller fan and Steel Helmet is one fantastic movie.
Hi, Margot.Yes, the Poverty Row studios knew that action scenes took longer and cost more – but audiences wanted action!
I look forward to watching Steel Helmet.
He had a last fling in England in the sixties entering in to a co productions deal with young producers Neil McCallum and Jack Parroch. They were distributed by 20th as a number of former players owed the studio one film under old contracts. Gary Merrill, Richard Conte, Hugh Marlowe, Dan Duryea, Patricia Owens, Brian Donlevy. Two of the films were unreleased. Troubled Waters with Tab Hunter and Do You Know This Voice? with Duryea and a great performance from Isa Miranda. This one has been issued on DVD by Network.
Jack PARSONS and Neil McCallum made quite a few films with Lippert. McCallum was a Canadian actor / writer .
The Dan Duryea starrers sounds good – Do You Know This Voice And Walk a Tightrope.
The Last Shot You Hear in 1969 was Hugh Marlowe’s last film.
There is one review on IMDB of Troubled Waters with Tab Hunter (The Man with Two Faces in US)
Gary Merrill did The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die and Lon Chaney did Witchcraft
Apologies Sid James was called ‘Beverly’ not Hilary in House Across The Lake/Heat Wave.
Can you imagine!.
Yes Parsons, thanks for the correction. I well remember Neil McCallum who never seemed to be off TV In the sixties, he died much too young of a cerebral hemorrhage aged only 47. Neil was a one time boyfriend of Julie Andrews. To backtrack to Little Big Horn Marie Windsor said “they announced on the set that they had run out of money. They tore pages out of the script so we finished early without certain scenes” !
Love that story from Marie Windsor!
There are several incorrect statements in the book which I have read cover to cover. My nephew was interviewed for the book and I have no idea where he came up with some of what he said. First of all, my mother never had lovers, she was completely faithful to my father throughout their entire marriage. I have no idea why Bob III would say that about his grandmother. My father always watched the rushes, he was on the set of every film he made if he was in town. He was hands on. He ran his theatres from afar during the years we lived in Los Angeles, stepped in and completely took over when he moved back to the Bay Area. My mother did have a drinking problem, but Mr. McGee never researched her history. My father always gave my mother credit for supporting him from the first day they were married. She worked right along side him for the first 10 years, encouraging him every step of the way. By the time she was 28 years old she suffered from an arthritic spine. In the late 1940’s she went to Los Angeles for 3 months and was one of the first persons to received Cortizone injections, three times a day under the guidance of Dr. Prinzmetal at Cedar Sinai hospital.
My father told me about 4 months before he passed away that he never would of left my mother. We talked in detail about Margia Dean, who I happened to know very well. He used her and she certainly used him. My father was so thrilled when on August 30, 1976 he and my mother celebrated 50 years of marriage. I have read interviews by Margia, she used my dad and should have known he was devoted to my mother. I do not understand why I wasn’t interviewed, I am only mentioned as he had a daughter, no name. My brother fabricated a lot of what he is quoted, for many years he wasn’t involved in our father’s business. I worked in my father’s office since I was 13 years old. My husband and I ran one of the theatres so I could learn from the inside/out. My whole life has been involved in my father and mother’s business. My mother’s name appears on all the partnership papers. She was always involved. She was a gracious hostess at my father’s functions. My father would invite the Hollywood Press people to our homes over the years as he previewed new releases. My mother and I worked together at these dinners, everyone enjoyed them. I feel very blessed to be their daughter, I have 2 great sons who are both married, 6 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren.
Sincerely, Judith Lippert Gutzman
Thank you so much , Mrs. Gutzman. It certainly is surprising that the author did not get in touch with you.
It is good to hear that your father was a ‘hands on’ producer , on the set and watching the rushes.
I appreciate your getting in touch and , who knows, maybe the author will read your comments.
If you have some favourites of your father’s films, I would love to hear about them.