Republic Pictures was in many ways the highest link in the B movie food chain, certainly after both Universal and Columbia found themselves tottering on the low ends of the A picture food chain. Formed in 1935 by Herbert W, Yates, the owner of Consolidated Film Industries, one of the largest film laboratories in the country, who stayed true to his original corporation’s name by calling in debt markers he had held from many years of loaning money to independent producers and swallowing up several more successful states-righters, like Trem Carr’s Monogram Pictures and W. Ray Johnston’s Rayart then merging them with Nat Levine’s Mascot Pictures who had just bought the new Mack Sennett Studios in Studio City when the pioneer comedy producer had gone bankrupt in 1933. Bringing all of these producers in in under the new name of Republic Pictures, Yates found himself with a sizeable production company with up-to-date studio facilities.
Buying or forcing out Levine, Carr, and Johnston by 1937, Yates became full President of Republic, who already had by that time a good reputation for quality serials (which had been Mascot’s specialty) and westerns (which had been Monogram’s department, along with a contract with John Wayne who then became on of Republic’s first stars), and with a new singing cowboy star, Gene Autry, and their new and popular Three Mesquiteers series, Republic was a reasonable success nearly from the get-go. From the beginning, Republic had produced some number of mainstream feature product; comedies, dramas, mysteries, apart from their genre releases, but if there was ever a forgotten film product today, those mainstream Republic features are it. Many of them have not been seen on television since the early 60’s, and many have sat dormant as their current owner (Paramount) has little to no interest in them. Sadly, if any collector prints circulate, they tend to be the 50’s TV prints Republic circulated that they cut to 55 minutes to make room for commercials and a one-hour timeslot. It’s too bad, because Republic’s feature product is just fine, good casts, directors, and a polished look that raises them above their direct competitors like the re-formed Monogram and PRC. There are many little Republic gems that have not seen the light of day in decades.
Which brings us to SECRETS OF SCOTLAND YARD, a 1944 Republic wartime suspense thriller set in Britain. It’s a murder mystery revolving around the Top Secret Room 40 Operation, the English Cryptographers who did so much to break the German communication codes during both World Wars. At the beginning of World War II, one of the cryptographers, John Usher (Edgar Barrier) learns that his son David, who is going to a German Boarding School, is returning home because of the War, having bid his roommate and friend Carl farewell with the promise that he will communicate with him in code. One evening, after breaking the Nazi Code, John Usher is found murdered in Room 40. His body is found the next morning by his supervisor, Sir Christopher Pelt (C. Aubrey Smith), who keeps Ushers death a secret as he enlists the Victim’s twin brother Robert (Barrier again) to impersonate John and help flush out the murderer.
The rest is fun espionage and intrigue with a powerhouse cast made up of a strong sampling of the British Hollywood Raj. Sir C. Aubrey Smith was in the twilight of a long, distinguished career, but still had a dozen or so films to go before his death in late 1948. This Cambridge University Graduate had a long career on the London Stage and silent films before coming to America in the late 1920’s. Already in his sixties, Sir Charles Aubrey was perfect for talking pictures, and found himself quite busy in them from 1930 onward, finding time to bring the game of Cricket to the West Coast, inviting numerous British émigré’ actors onto the Hollywood Cricket Club’s field in Griffith Park all through the thirties. Specializing in military men, ministers, millionaires and government officials, his bushy eyebrows and gruff, stoic demeanor made him strong support for many major stars. Apparently quite hard of hearing in his later life, Actors working with Smith remembered him wearing his hearing aids in rehearsals, then removing them for actual shooting.
Lionel Atwill plays Waterlow, another of the Cryptographers in what is, for him, a nicely underplayed performance. Another distinguished member of the London Stage from the turn of the 20th Century, Atwill came to the US in 1915 and appeared in some 25 Broadway Plays between 1917 and 1931, also making a few silen films in the late teens/early twenties. Hollywood also beckoned when talkies came in and Atwill quickly found a line in wonderful villainy and horror roles, even getting to essay the occasional good-guy or misleading red-herring. An unfortunate scandal involving a party at his home (painted as an “orgy” by the press) where a female guest was raped after leaving the party in 1940 ended up with Atwill being sentenced to a years probation for perjury after he “lied like a gentleman” as to his knowledge of whom was in attendance at the party. Though the scandal may or may not have contributed to the major studios losing interest in him, Atwill found plenty of work at studios like Universal, Republic, Monogram, and PRC where he continued to ply his villainy in horror films and serials. Divorced from his third wife, Henrietta Louise Cromwell Brook MacArthur (ex-wife of General Douglas Mac Arthur) in 1943, Atwill had remarried in 1944 and had recently become a Father for the first time when he sadly succumbed to lung cancer while he was shooting the Universal Serial LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE in 1946.
Edgar Barrier was a busy character actor who gets to enjoy one of his few leading movie roles in SECRETS OF SCOTLAND YARD. A former member of Orson Welles Mercury Theater in the late 30’s (in fact, he can be seen in the recently recovered film footage from Welles Mercury Production of TOO MUCH JOHNSON), Barrier was busy in films, stage, and radio (he played the first radio incarnation of THE SAINT on CBS in 1944), and continued into television all through the 50’s and early 60’s, until his death in 1964. Barrier is a real chameleon as an actor, specializing in middle eastern or Hispanic characters or other exotic types. His lead role in SECRETS OF SCOTLAND YARD gives us one of the few opportunities to see him perform as basically his normal self, though he was not British, and he is fine as the twin brothers.
SECRETS OF SCOTLAND YARD is directed by George Blair, who, despite his more than 30 years experience and over 70 Director credits, is a name not likely to be known to any but the staunchest Cinephile. British-born, Blair worked his way up from crewman in the late Silent Era at Fox to Assistant Director by 1933, and he joined Republic right at the beginning of the Company in 1935 working steadily as an AD on may of their films until he became a full-fledged Director in 1943. SECRETS OF SCOTLAND YARD is his second directorial effort, and Blair keeps up the pace and suspense perfectly well, giving the film a relatively expensive look when you know full well Herbert Yates id pinching every penny. Blair remained one of Republic’s regular helmsmen through the 50’s, handling much of their non-western feature product like the similar followup SCOTLAND YARD INSPECTOR (1945) pitting the returning C. Aubrey Smith with Erich Von Stroheim, and other titles like MADONNA OF THE DESERT (1948), ROSE OF THE YUKON (1949), WOMEN FROM HEADQUARTERS (1950), and LONELY HEART BANDITS (1950), show of hands as to how many have seen those, and with titles like that, who could resist?
Blair’s Republic training made him a cinch to move to television in the early 50’s where he did episodes of MARK SABER (1951) with Tom Conway, THE GENE AUTRY SHOW (1952), RACKET SQUAD (1951-53), THE ROY ROGERS SHOW (1956), and most regularly, many episodes of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1953-58), CASEY JONES (1957-58) with Alan Hale Jr., and WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE (1960) with Steve McQueen. Blair retired in the early 60’s and passed away in 1970.
So Cinevent is happy to give you a rare opportunity to enjoy this seldom-seen feature from the top of Poverty Row. Though Republic never came close to being an A-Picture-Only Studio, and had trouble selling their non-western A features that didn’t star John Wayne, they made hundreds of them, and slowly but surely, some of them are returning to circulation, including some of the harder to see Wayne Republics from the forties through Olive Films Blu-Ray releases, or Netflix starting to stream Republic rarities like THE LADY AND THE MONSTER (1944) with Richard Arlen and Erich Von Stroheim. No Hollywood Studios product deserved not to be seen, there are plenty of well-known actors whose career potholes need to be filled by seeing their work at Republic. Enjoy this one.
RICHARD M ROBERTS
SOUND MOVIE MAIN is the spot to discuss non-comedy SOUND films. Go figure.
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