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From Alfalfa to Rosie the Riveter: A New Way to Watch B Movies—For Free

Last week, during a phone conversation with an old friend who is an eminent film scholar and professor I asked, “Have you heard that Tahiti Honey is streaming for free online?” and he said “What? How can I see it?” Such is the excitement among connoisseurs of the arcane and obscure upon learning that the Paramount Vault YouTube channel is offering a random selection of titles from its vast Republic Pictures library. These are pristine, uncut versions of B-movie titles from the 1940s and ‘50s. Are they any good? That’s all in the eye of the beholder (read: no, not really) but they are rare.

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Never mind that Paramount is also offering Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 and John Cassavetes’ Love Streams, as well as highlight clips from scores of films like Airplane!, Forrest Gump, and Footloose. Most of those titles have always been accessible. Not so for the Republic archive.

I wish there were some rhyme or reason for the selection but it appears to be random, based on titles that have been restored. Among the offerings: the aforementioned Tahiti Honey (1943), a threadbare musical starring Dennis O’Keefe and the winsome Simone Simon (whose French accent magically disappears whenever she sings—thanks to an unnamed dubber), Rosie the Riveter (1944) with Jane Frazee, Frank Albertson, Vera Vague (Barbara Jo Allen), and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, and Remember Pearl Harbor (1942) with Don “Red” Barry. Barry also appears in one of the handful of Westerns on the channel (The Man from the Rio Grande, 1943), with fellow contractee Allan Lane headlining Trail of Kit Carson (1945).

One of Republic’s specialties was servicing small-town theaters in America’s heartland by featuring what used to be called hillbilly performers like Roy Acuff in O, My Darling, Clementine (1943). Mary Lee headlines Barnyard Follies (1940), which features Rufe Davis, Alfalfa Switzer, Dorothy Harrison, Queen of Dairyland and “Radio’s Popular Entertainers ‘Pappy’ Cheshire, The Cackle Sisters, Jim Jeffries, The Kidoodlers, Ralph Bowman, Isabel Randolph as ‘Mrs. Uppington.’ ”

One of the oddities of the Republic catalog is that it includes a number of British productions that studio chief Herbert J. Yates acquired for U.S. distribution, like Laugh it Off (1940) with popular English comedy star Tommy Trinder and others that he co-financed like Track the Man Down (1955) with Kent Taylor and Petula Clark.

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Perky Jane Frazee (a favorite of Ed Norton, if you remember ‘The Honeymooners’) plays Rosie, The Riveter

And there are condensations of some latter-day Republic serials like Cyclotrode X, a feature-length version of The Crimson Ghost (1946) and Satan’s Satellites, derived from Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952).

Last but not least, you’ll see unexpected titles that found their way into the collection, like Norman Krasna’s The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) with Jean Arthur and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

If I had my druthers, I’d love to see Paramount release some vintage Republic serials in their entirety. (Olive Films, which has dug deep into this archive, has only released some later, lesser examples like The Invisible Monster and Flying Disc Man from Mars on DVD and Blu-ray.)

Republic also owns the old NTA short subject library, which is chockfull of fascinating material, and a nifty behind-the-scenes series called Meet the Stars, which features rare footage of Orson Welles, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers, among others. There’s also one feature I’ve always been curious about: Sons of Adventure (1948), “the story of movie stunt men,” which was directed by the great Yakima Canutt.

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Here’s hoping that the folks at Paramount continue digging, and invite their audience to suggest titles they’d like to see. I’ve done my part.

Incidentally, this is as good a place as any to remind you that Don Miller’s unique and exhaustive book “B” Movies is back in print, thanks to Amazon Kindle. If you purchase it as an e-book you can word-search any of the hundreds of titles he describes; if you buy the print-on-demand softcover there is no index, sorry to say, but it still makes great reading and is an indispensable guide to the world of Bs.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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