Tales of Robin Hood / The Black Pirates

Sprocket Vault DVD $19.99 / Available through Amazon.com

Robert L. Lippert (1909-1976) worked his way up in the movie theatre business, one of the founders of the "come to the movies, get a prize" promotions of the Depression. He owned a few dozen small West Coast theatres by the early 1940s, but Lippert - a frugal man - was incensed at the rental prices studios wanted for their new films, so he mainly was a second-or-third-run outfit. By the mid-1940s, he decided he'd make more money producing cheap movies for his theatres than he would paying rental fees. He set up Screen Guild Productions in 1945, and a few years later that became Lippert Pictures, Inc.; amongst other notable accomplishments, Lippert was one of the first U.S. financers/distibutors for England's famed Hammer Films.

These days, nearly everything Lippert produced in the '40s-'50s is attended to by Kit Parker, who released countless Lippert noir and comedy volumes on VCI discs before creating the boutique Sprocket Vault label, available exclusively through Amazon. This release includes one of the rarest of all Lippert films, the AnscoColor Black Pirates, plus an adventure offering previously available on VCI's MOD program. We'll get the lesser of the two out of the way first.

Tales of Robin Hood (1951) Dir. James Tinling (58 min. / B&W / 1.33:1)

The worst thing we've seen from the Lippert stable so far, a simply dirt-cheap rehash of the Errol Flynn classic on minuscule sets (left over from Joan of Arc), filmed in only four days, and at that, I am thinkin' one and a half of the four days was taken up by the wrap party.

The usual story, with a quarterstaff disagreement on a log (over a stream about a foot wide) between Robin and Little John; an archery tournament to trap Robin (the target appears to be no more than five feet from the archers), and Sherwood Forest movingly portrayed by one fake tree and a lot of stock footage cutaways to greenery. The "camp" of the merry men and the cave where they hide Maid Marion is are the exact same set, with no redressing. Robert Clarke was advised to smile ALL the time, no matter WHAT is going on, and to enter every scene by LEAPING, as if Superman were landing through the window - one expects this Robin Hood to throw out his arms like Ethel Merman and say "TA-DAAAA!" every time he comes in.

Hal Roach, Jr. and Bob Lippert co-produced this awful thing (for $25,000, it says here), and when it didn't sell as a TV series, well, a feature film was born. And I'll admit, it induces a heck of a lot more laughter than any of Lippert's comedies do, albeit for the wrong reasons. Whit Bissell, Wade Crosby, and Keith Richards are amongst the Merry Men; Ben Weldon - talk about casting against type - is Friar Tuck, and Margia Dean is Lady in Waiting Who's in the Movie A-cause She's the Producer's Girlfriend.

Million-dollar Dialog:
Friar Tuck, making a suggestion when Robin is trying to figure out how to distract guards holding his men: "Perhaps I could lull them to sleep with a sermon."

Clarke could be Robin Hood effectively, I guess, in a better movie and without the maniacal smile and Peter Pan entrances; Mary Hatcher is a pretty good (and attractive) Marion, Paul Cavanagh(!) is Sir Gui, and Tiny Stowe (who weighed about 400 lbs.) is the Sheriff. The swords look like they were made for a buck each by a tin smith, and the sword fights are pathetic. To help tie in the story, the narrator spends a lot of time talking in the beginning, but he talks over the people in the movie, so you see Little John's and the Sheriff of Nottingham's lips moving but you can't hear what they're saying and you wanna say to the narrator, "Hey, could you shut up for a minute, I can't hear this!"

This is a junk pile of a horrid movie, but I will say this - in its way, it's fun to watch (and bein' only 58 min. long really, really, really, really helps). It's a nice print.

The Black Pirates (1954) Dir. Allen H. Miner (74 min. / Color / 1.66:1)

Our second feature is no less cheap but holds our interest much better, thanks to some absolutely gorgeous AnscoColor cinematography (the source is a 35mm original color negative), a good dramatic part for Balcony fave Lon Chaney, Jr., and a mess o' colorful pirates and feisty wenches.

Pirate Cap'n Anthony Dexter has had his ship stolen (well, wasn't THAT careless!) and so he and his men return to the island where he buried a treasure chest a dozen years earlier, only to find a church now stands on that exact spot. The Cap'n and his crew o' blood thirsty miscreants first try to sneak around the church and look for their chest, but eventually move on to a more direct effort.

Robert Clarke is back as the hero; Italian-born, Mexico-raised actress Martha Roth (El Hombre y El Monstro) is our lovely leading lady, and Lon (made up to look older, although it doesn't appear much makeup was needed) is the soft-spoken local padre.

Million-dollar Dialog:

"You can't expect peaceful men to attack armed murderers!" - Father Lon

Supposedly based on a story called El Torbellino by Johnston McCulley, and filmed in El Salvador (and taking full advantage of the local architecture and art; there's a fun sequence in which the various pirates pause to examine some of the church's frescoes, as do we). The opening credits mention a song "Soy Amour" by Nino Tempo and April Stevens; no idea what THAT is all about. Here and there, there's some minor damage to The Black Pirates' print: apparently, that was a result of film stock exposed to the heat and humidity during filming, and has existed as long as has the film.

The two films make up a key part of the ouvre of Bob Lippert, but Tales of Robin Hood Is for Sherwood Forest completists only (and you know who you are, you merry men, you) while The Black Pirates - although lacking the polish and luster of the Universal-International and Columbia pirate offerings of the 1950s - is a fun little cheap color matinee offering. Extras include "audio interview reenactments" with Bob Lippert, Jr., and Robert Clarke and a Pirates trailer; the original release for Robin Hood included commentary, so if you have that disc, hang on to it.