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Republic Pictures: Thrills and Culture

IN the golden age that glowed in Hollywood from the 1930s through the 1950s, filmmaking was dominated by the ``majors,'' a handful of big studios that controlled the brightest stars and the biggest budgets. Still, millions of moviegoers got their greatest enjoyment not from high-powered ``prestige pictures'' but from Saturday-afternoon serials, double-feature programmers, and other modest fare made by the ``minors'' that played their own key role in American film history.

The most vigorous of the minor studios was probably Republic Pictures, founded in 1935 by an enterprising producer who had broken into the movie business by investing in silent Fatty Arbuckle comedies.

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From the beginning, Republic believed in making `em fast, cheap, and entertaining.

Its success was quick and consistent, at least until competition from television joined other factors to nudge it out of active film production. But it lives on, producing new TV fare and handling rights to its old pictures.

It's also the focus of a two-hour TV documentary called ``The Republic Pictures Story,'' airing March 15 on the American Movie Classics network (check cable listings).

Given the studio's commitment to efficient work on poverty-row budgets, it isn't surprising that much of Republic's output came to its public under titles like ``Zombies of the Stratosphere'' and ``Joan of Ozark,'' reflecting the market value of formula entertainments aimed at unsophisticated audiences.

What is surprising is how much top-quality cinema - even high culture, now and then - also came from the Republic soundstages. Orson Welles made his ``Macbeth'' there. John Ford, another leading genius of American film, made such masterpieces as ``Rio Grande'' and ``The Quiet Man'' there.

``The Republic Pictures Story'' is most eloquent when it serves up clips from classics like those.

Most of the documentary, though, is geared toward the commonplace thrills, chills, and spills that were the studio's specialty. Superheroes, mad villains, robots, soldiers, and cowboys compete for space on the screen.

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When the cowboys aren't shooting and riding, they're crooning songs on the Western range - singing cowboys were a Republic mainstay - and when cowboys aren't singing, real musicians are, in musicals like ``Follow Your Heart'' and ``Hit Parade of 1943.''

As a documentary film in its own right, ``The Republic Pictures Story'' leaves much to be desired. It races too quickly through too many film clips, and its narration often sounds less like an informative overview than a cheerleading commercial for the studio.

But this backward glance shows that there's still a lot of charm to the goofy and not-so-goofy cinematics that made Republic important despite its modest profile among more prominent Hollywood cousins.

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