1948 put John Wayne over the top. He starred in four movies that year: John Ford’s Fort Apache and 3 Godfathers, Howard Hawks’s Red River, and one you might not have seen or even heard of, Edward Ludwig’s Wake of the Red Witch. This tale of a cargo ship loaded with a hefty freight of gold bullion was one of the most expensive productions made by “poverty row” studio Republic Pictures, and as Roderick Heath notes in his review, the film is “loaded with all the gaudy trinkets of an exotic adventure tale—windjammers, shipwrecks, pearl diving, tiki gods, hula dancers, murder, intrigue, hints of the supernatural, and deadly cephalopods.”
New Yorkers will get a chance to see Red Witch tonight in a newly restored 35 mm print at the Museum of the Modern Art, with an introduction by Martin Scorsese. The event kicks off the second part of MoMA’s series of films Scorsese has selected from the Republic library, which are currently being restored by Paramount (the first round of fourteen films screened in February). Republic produced hundreds of “B” pictures from the mid-1930s through the ’50s and, as Scorsese points out at MoMA, “what their pictures lacked in resources and prestige they made up for in inventiveness, surprise, and, in certain cases, true innovation.”
Those planning to attend the series running through August 23, or for that matter, anyone seeking to learn more about Republic, will want to turn to two essential guides, Farran Smith Nehme in the Village Voice and Gina Telaroli in the Notebook. For Nehme, “the one incontestable masterpiece in the series” is Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (1948), which Criterion released earlier this year. “Set in a richly shadowed and spooky South of glittering swamps and abandoned houses, all of it created on Republic sets,” this story of a man whose father was hanged for murder and who fears he may suffer the same fate “boasts some of the most gorgeous noir cinematography of the era, via John L. Russell.”
Telaroli has been working on this series for years now and spoke at length about Republic and its history with Caroline Golum at Screen Slate earlier this year. Presenting a round of notes on each of the films MoMA will screen over the next two weeks, she writes that she “might be most excited by the fact that most of the films in the series are not masterpieces.” They are, “by design, genre films or smaller dramas that weren't necessarily meant to garner life-changing praise.” Even so, they “all have something that makes them stand out, whether it is the color, or a performance, or a story that did something a little different, something that has stuck with Marty since he first saw it.”
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