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Monogram_Pictures

Monogram Pictures

Monogram Pictures Corporation was a Hollywood studio that produced and released films, most on low budgets, between 1931 and 1953, when the firm completed a transition to the name Allied Artists. Monogram is considered a leader among the smaller studios sometimes referred to collectively as Poverty Row. The idea behind the studio was that when the Monogram logo appeared on the screen, everyone knew they were in for action and adventure.

History

Monogram was created in the early 1930s from two earlier companies, W. Ray Johnston's Rayart Productions (renamed "Raytone" when sound pictures came in) and Trem Carr's Sono-Art Pictures. Both specialized in low budget features and, as Monogram Pictures, continued that policy until 1935 with Carr in charge of production. Another independent, Paul Malvern, released his Lone Star western productions (starring John Wayne) through Monogram.

The backbone of the studio in those early days was a father-and-son combination: Robert N. Bradbury, writer and director, and Bob Steele, cowboy actor, were on their roster. Bradbury wrote almost all of the early Monogram and Lone Star westerns. While budgets and production values were lean, Monogram offered a balanced program, including action melodramas, classics, and mysteries.

In 1935, Johnston and Carr were wooed by Herbert Yates of Consolidated Film Industries; Yates planned to merge Monogram with several other smaller independent companies to form Republic Pictures. But after a short time in this new venture, Johnston and Carr left, Carr to produce at Universal and Johnston to restart Monogram in 1937.

Monogram's stars

In its early years, Monogram could seldom afford big-name movie stars and would employ either former silent-film actors who were idle (Herbert Rawlinson, William Collier, Sr.) or young featured players (Ray Walker, Wallace Ford).

In 1938 Monogram began a long and profitable policy of making series and hiring familiar players to star in them. Frankie Darro, Hollywood's foremost tough-kid actor of the 1930s, joined Monogram and stayed with the company until 1950. Comedian Mantan Moreland co-starred in many of the Darros and continued to be a valuable asset to Monogram through 1949.

Juvenile actors Marcia Mae Jones and Jackie Moran carried a series of homespun romances. Crime themes dominated the roster at Monogram in the late thirties and early forties. For example, the very forgettable though endearing Riot Squad (1941) cast Richard Cromwell as a doctor working covertly for the police department to catch the mobsters before his girlfriend Rita Quigley breaks their engagement.

Boris Karloff brought a touch of class to the Monogram release schedule with his "Mr. Wong" mysteries. This prompted producer Sam Katzman to engage Bela Lugosi for a follow-up series of Monogram thrillers. Katzman hit the bull's-eye with his street-gang series The East Side Kids, which ran from 1940 to 1945. East Side star Leo Gorcey then took the reins himself and transformed the series into The Bowery Boys, which became the longest-running feature-film series in movie history (48 titles). During this run, Gorcey became the highest paid actor in Hollywood on an annual basis.

Monogram always catered to western fans. The studio released sagebrush sagas with Bill Cody, Bob Steele, John Wayne, Tom Keene, Tim McCoy, Tex Ritter, and Jack Randall before hitting on the "trio" format teaming veteran saddle pals. Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, and Raymond Hatton became The Rough Riders; Ray (Crash) Corrigan, John King, and Max Terhune were The Range Busters, and Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson, and Bob Steele teamed as The Trail Blazers. When Universal Pictures allowed Johnny Mack Brown's contract to lapse, Monogram grabbed him and kept him busy through 1952.

The studio was a launching pad for stars of the future (Preston Foster in Sensation Hunters, Randolph Scott in Broken Dreams, Lionel Atwill in The Sphinx, Alan Ladd opposite Edith Fellows in Her First Romance, Robert Mitchum in When Strangers Marry. The studio was also a haven for established stars whose careers had stalled: Edmund Lowe in Klondike Fury, John Boles in Road to Happiness, Ricardo Cortez in I Killed That Man, Kay Francis and Bruce Cabot in Divorce.

Monogram did create and nurture its own stars. Gale Storm began her career at RKO Radio Pictures in 1940 but found a home at Monogram. Storm had been promoted from Monogram's Frankie Darro series and was showcased in crime dramas (like Cosmo Jones, Crime Smasher (1943) opposite Richard Cromwell and radio's Frank Graham in the title role) and a string of musicals to capitalize on her singing talents (like Campus Rhythm and Nearly Eighteen, both 1943). Another of Monogram's finds during this time was British skating star Belita, who conversely starred in musical revues first and then graduated to dramatic roles, including Suspense (1946), the only A-budget picture to be produced under the Monogram name.

Series films and success

Monogram continued to experiment with series; some hit and some missed. Definite hits were Charlie Chan, The Cisco Kid, and Joe Palooka, all proven movie properties abandoned by other studios and revived by Monogram. Less successful were the comic-strip exploits of Snuffy Smith, the mysterious adventures of The Shadow, and Sam Katzman's comedy series co-starring Billy Gilbert, Shemp Howard, and Maxie Rosenbloom.

Later Monogram very nearly hit the big time with King Brothers Productions' Dillinger, a sensationalized crime drama that was a runaway success in 1945, and received Monogram's only major Academy Award nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. Monogram tried to follow it up immediately (with several "exploitation" melodramas cashing in on topical themes), and did achieve some success, but Monogram never became a respectable "major" studio like former poverty-row denizen Columbia Pictures.

Allied Artists

Producer Walter Mirisch began at Monogram after World War II as assistant to studio head Samuel "Steve" Broidy. He convinced Broidy that the days of low-budget films were ending, and in 1946, Monogram created a new unit, Allied Artists Productions, to make costlier films.

At a time when the average Hollywood picture cost about $800,000 (and the average Monogram picture cost about $90,000), Allied Artists' first release, It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947), cost more than $1,200,000. Subsequent Allied Artists releases were more economical but did have enhanced production values; many of them were filmed in color.

The studio's new policy permitted what Mirisch called "B-plus" pictures, which were released along with Monogram's established line of B fare. Mirisch's prediction about the end of the low-budget film had come true thanks to television, and in September 1952, Monogram announced that henceforth it would only produce films bearing the Allied Artists name. The Monogram brand name was finally retired in 1953. The company was now known as Allied Artists Pictures Corporation.

Allied Artists did retain a few vestiges of its Monogram identity, continuing its popular Stanley Clements action series (through 1953), its B-Westerns (through 1954), its Bomba, the Jungle Boy adventures (through 1955), and especially its breadwinning comedy series with The Bowery Boys (through 1957). For the most part, however, Allied Artists was heading in new, ambitious directions under Mirisch.

For a time in the mid-1950s the Mirisch family had great influence at Allied Artists, with Walter as executive producer, his brother Marvin as head of sales, and brother Harold as corporate treasurer. They pushed the studio into big-budget filmmaking, signing contracts with William Wyler, John Huston, Billy Wilder and Gary Cooper. But when their first big-name productions, Wyler's Friendly Persuasion and Wilder's Love in the Afternoon were box-office flops in 1956–57, studio-head Broidy retreated into the kind of pictures Monogram had always favored: low-budget action and thrillers.

Monogram/Allied Artists survived by finding a niche and serving it well. The company lasted until 1979, when runaway inflation and high production costs pushed it into bankruptcy. The Monogram/Allied Artists library was bought by television producer Lorimar; today a majority of this library belongs to Time Warner.

Probably the best-known tribute paid to Monogram came from French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard, who dedicated his 1959 film A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) to Monogram, citing the studio's films as a major influence.

References

Further reading

Ted Okuda, The Monogram Checklist: The Films of Monogram Pictures Corporation, 1931–1952, McFarland & Company, 1999. ISBN 0786407506.

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