Sam Katzman - Biography
Sam Katzman (July 7, 1901 – August 4, 1973) was an American film producer and director. Born into a poor Jewish family, Katzman went to work as a stage laborer at the age of 13 in the fledgling East Coast film industry. He would learn all aspects of filmmaking and become a highly successful Hollywood producer for more than forty years.
Katzman produced cost-effective productions that made money for the studios and the financial backers. He is noted for numerous Western films of the 1930s, his Bela Lugosi and East Side Kids features of the 1940s, the 15-chapter Superman serial of 1948, and a string of rock-'n'-roll musicals in the 1950s. At MGM Studios in the 1960s, Katzman produced several Elvis Presley films and singer Roy Orbison's only film, The Fastest Guitar Alive.
Early life and career
Born in New York City to Abraham and Rebecca Katzman, Katzman entered the film industry shortly before World War I, as an errand boy at the old Fox Film Corporation, which was then making low-budget short films at their studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey. As a mail carrier, prop boy, and laboratory messenger, carrying cans of exposed film back and forth to the lab, Katzman quickly learned all the angles of the low-budget film business, and gradually rose to the rank of assistant director.
Fox let Katzman go in a wave of cutbacks just before the company merged with 20th Century Pictures. He thus became an independent producer and created his first venture, a feature-length film, His Private Secretary (1933), which he wrote himself. John Wayne was featured in the picture, which Katzman made in six days at an overall cost of $13,000. From this modest beginning, Katzman never looked back.
Low-budget producers usually made outdoor westerns and action pictures, saving money on sets and using inexpensive actors. Katzman was no exception, and he filled his films with former silent-screen players who still had name value but commanded lower salaries. His companies of the late 1930s, Victory Pictures (1935–1939) and Puritan Pictures (1935–1938), relied on screen menace Bela Lugosi, cowboy star Tim McCoy, and Olympic athlete Herman Brix to draw the customers.
Monogram Pictures, a small but prolific independent studio, specialized in low-budget films for neighborhood theaters. Monogram manufactured much of its own product, but also released films made by independent producers. Sam Katzman sold Monogram on a juvenile delinquency series, to cash in on the successful cycle of the Dead End Kids and Little Tough Guys melodramas. Katzman's series, The East Side Kids, caught on almost immediately, and before long many of the original Dead End Kids and Little Tough Guys joined Katzman's series. The East Side Kids films gradually evolved from noisy melodramas to roughneck comedies. Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, Gabriel Dell, Billy Benedict, and Ernie 'Sunshine' Sammy Morrison were mainstays of Katzman's East Side troupe.
Katzman branched out with companion series for Monogram. He partnered with Jack Dietz to produce Bela Lugosi thrillers, and comedy features with Harry Langdon, Billy Gilbert, and Shemp Howard. When Leo Gorcey demanded double his weekly salary from Katzman in 1945, Katzman refused and pulled the plug on The East Side Kids. He then approached Monogram with an idea at the opposite extreme: the wholesome adventures of squeaky-clean high school kids. Monogram agreed, and Katzman launched the "Teen Agers" series, featuring singer Freddie Stewart and future "Superman" co-star Noel Neill.
Move to Columbia
In 1945 Katzman accepted a contract from Columbia Pictures to produce adventure serials and, soon after, feature films. For two years he worked for both Monogram and Columbia, grinding out serials and low-budget features at a truly torrential pace. In 1947 he joined Columbia full-time, with a series of four Jean Porter musical comedies and another two Gloria Jean vehicles. Columbia's arrangement with Katzman was straightforward: Katzman selected the properties, Columbia approved the scripts and financed the productions, Katzman made the films using studio personnel and resources, and Columbia gave Katzman 25% of the profits. The Katzman unit occupied the former Tiffany Pictures studio, now Columbia property.
One of Katzman's specialties at Columbia was taking a major news story, popular trend or musical craze and making a film about it. He worked so quickly that the film would be in theaters while the topic was still hot, ensuring big profits. One of his first pictures of this type was 1948's I Surrender Dear, cashing in on the new disc-jockey phenomenon in broadcasting. He used elements from this picture as a blueprint for his rock-and-roll musical hits, Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Don't Knock the Rock (1957) that he remade in 1961 as Twist Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Twist. He also made films on two other musical crazes, Cha Cha Cha Boom! (with Perez Prado) and Calypso Heat Wave. Katzman produced one of the first films about the Korean War, A Yank in Korea with Lon McCallister, that competed with Lippert's The Steel Helmet and Eagle-Lion's Korea Patrol.
Katzman revitalized the waning serial market with his 1948 production Superman, starring Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel and former "Teen Agers" actress Noel Neill as Lois Lane. The 15-chapter cliffhanger was tremendously successful, spawning two more superhero serials, Batman and Robin (1949) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950). Katzman continued to produce serials until 1956; his Blazing the Overland Trail (a very-low-budget patchwork of old stock footage and new scenes, with the actors costumed to match three serial heroes of the 1940s!) rang down the curtain on the serial genre (Columbia would reissue Katzman's serials through 1966).
In 1949 Katzman hired Olympic hero and movie Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller (who had been replaced by Lex Barker in the RKO Tarzan films) for a series of Jungle Jim adventures, earning Katzman the nickname "Jungle Sam." By 1955 Columbia turned Jungle Jim into a television property, and when legalities prevented Columbia from making any more Jungle Jims for theaters, Katzman simply shrugged off the Jungle Jim character and had Weissmuller use his own name in three more features. The last one, Jungle Moon Men (Charles S. Gould, 1955), was yet another remake of Sir H. Rider Haggard’s classic novel She. (After Katzman stopped making the features, Weissmuller starred in 39 "Jungle Jim" TV episodes.)
On the set Katzman would use his collection of canes as a personal prop, banging them against the floor or the scenery when production fell behind schedule. The pace of Katzman’s film production from 1950-1959 is blistering, touching nearly all the generic bases in the process. Starting in 1950 with director William Berke’s Mark of the Gorilla, Katzman proved himself a master of all genres, with such films as Lew Landers’ Tyrant of the Sea (1950), a rapidly paced swashbuckler; Spencer Gordon Bennet’s Cody of the Pony Express (1950), an elegiac western chapter-play; the near-documentary State Penitentiary (Lew Landers, 1950); the rousing action serial Pirates of the High Seas (Spencer Gordon Bennet, 1950); Chain Gang (Lew Landers, 1950); a hard-boiled exposé of the prison system reminiscent of Mervyn LeRoy’s 1932 classic I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang; A Yank in Korea (Lew Landers, 1951), covering the then-escalating conflict), Richard Quine’s wartime drama Purple Heart Diary (1951); Last Train from Bombay (Fred F. Sears, 1952), an exotic thriller; Sears' The 49th Man, an essay in Cold War atomic paranoia; two Arabian Nights films, Prisoners of the Casbah and The Saracen Blade (William Castle, 1954), and Castle’s The Iron Glove (1954), which starred Robert Stack in a Technicolor swashbuckler, done in typical Katzman fashion. In many respects Katzman’s films proved an apt training ground for young directors; if you could work for Katzman and make something worthwhile, you could work for the majors, with their relaxed schedules, without a problem.
Columbia sometimes used the Katzman unit as a threat. When Columbia president Harry Cohn wanted to break an actor's contract, he gave the actor a Katzman script. Everyone knew Katzman as a "schlock" producer, and Cohn knew full well that the actor would refuse the lowbrow script, giving Cohn cause to terminate the contract without penalty. This ploy backfired in 1951 when Cohn owed Lucille Ball $85,000 and one feature film. He sent Ball the script of a formula Arabian Nights fantasy, The Magic Carpet, confident that Ball would decline. Ball recounted her next move in her memoir, Love, Lucy: "I had never feuded with a studio before and I wasn't about to earn the reputation of being difficult at this late date. I picked up the phone and called Harry Cohn. 'I've just read the Sam Katzman script,' I crooned into his ear. 'I think it's marvelous! I'd be delighted to do it.' 'You would?' Mr. Cohn almost fell over backward and poor Sam Katzman just about had a coronary . . . My salary ate up half Katzman's budget." Undaunted, Katzman and Columbia house director Lew Landers made the film in color, using costumes and sets left over from other, more lavish productions.
Katzman’s directors were either on their way up, or trailing off at the end of their careers. Veterans Arthur Dreifuss, Lew Landers and William Berke were good, workmanlike directors, and old hands at directing "B" comedies, musicals and mysteries. Serial specialist Spencer Gordon Bennet, whose career went back to the silent-film days, speedily churned out action fare for Katzman. Richard Quine, on the other hand, would go on to “A” features, most memorably with The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), which starred Judy Holliday and Paul Douglas, and established Quine’s career as a major Columbia director. Future horror director William Castle was still developing his own style as a director, and Katzman allowed Castle to cut his directorial teeth on a series of low-budget films. Fred F. Sears was a former actor in Columbia "B" pictures who assisted behind the scenes on Katzman's serials, and was promoted to full-fledged director.
Working for Katzman could be very tough indeed, however. On The Houston Story (1956) Castle was shooting on location in Texas in August 1955 when star Lee J. Cobb was felled with a non-fatal heart attack after three days of shooting. Katzman insisted that production continue, so Castle, who resembled Cobb’s general physical build, took over Cobb’s role, performing much of the action in long shot with his back to the camera. This took another three days, and then the company returned to Hollywood. Castle hoped to finish up Cobb’s scenes after the actor recuperated, but Katzman instead cast Gene Barry in Cobb’s role, shot a few more days of film and then released the production with Barry as the star. In the final film Cobb, Castle and Barry all played the leading role of “Frank Duncan” at various points; Katzman simply gave the material to his trusted editor, Edwin H. Bryant, and told him to patch it together.
New Orleans Uncensored (Castle, 1955) was a true-crime drama, exposing the seamy underside of the Big Easy; It Came from Beneath the Sea (Robert Gordon, 1955) served primarily as a showcase for Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion special effects; while Fred F. Sears’ Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955) was a surprisingly stark nod to the country’s new awareness of the problem of juvenile delinquency. Rock Around the Clock (Fred F. Sears, 1956) was one of the first rock-'n'-roll movies to be released by a major studio, based upon Katzman’s intuition that rock music would soon be a major force in American culture; and Miami Exposé (Fred F. Sears, 1956) starred Lee J. Cobb in a neo-realist tale of big-city corruption, with spirited support from Alan Napier and Edward Arnold.
Katzman also made it a practice to employ screenwriters who had been blacklisted due to the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Cold War Red Scare era. Many producers followed this practice, but Katzman, with his insatiable need for screenplays, was more deeply involved in using "blacklisted" talent than most. Blacklisted scenarist Bernard Gordon, for example, wrote Castle’s The Law vs. Billy The Kid (1954) as “John D. Williams,” as well as Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (Fred F. Sears, 1956), Edward L. Cahn’s Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), Leslie Kardos’ The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957) and Sears’ Escape from San Quentin (1957) as "Raymond T. Marcus", all of which were produced by Katzman. For Katzman the important thing was that a person worked reliably, efficiently and inexpensively; if a writer fit these criteria, Katzman was interested.
In all his films Katzman created a sealed, hermetic universe, within which his characters could operate with impunity. There were no rules to break, because Katzman had created the rules, and with them the concept of the genre "hot-wire" (in which several genres are combined to create a new twist on an existing format, such as the comedy/western, the horror/musical and the like). Using this concept to bring new life to existing--and often overused--genres, Katzman created a cinematic vision that was his and his alone.
As the 1960s continued, Katzman would make several films at MGM with Elvis Presley, including Gene Nelson’s Harum Scarum (1965), with a budget of $2,400,000 and an 18-day schedule. Presley received $1,000,000, while the rest of the cast split a paltry $200,000; the rest of the budget went entirely to production costs. But the Elvis films did not reflect Katzman’s true approach to filmmaking. Whereas Columbia's Twist Around the Clock, made just three years earlier, had cost a mere $280,000, now Katzman was forced to deal with a budget that was nearly 10 times that amount. The fun, and the maverick vision that had brought Katzman to Hollywood, had vanished.
Katzman’s final films were marginal, and the assembly-line production system that had served him so well now seemed out of step with the times. For the first time, Katzman was unable to adapt to changing circumstances. Katzman died on August 4, 1973, in Hollywood.
He is interred in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.
NME - February 1962
- Dixon, Wheeler Winston. Lost in the Fifties: Recovering Phantom Hollywood. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.
- Meet Jungle Sam Life magazine http://books.google.com.au/books?id=IUIEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA79&dq=sam+katzman+%2B+3-d#v=onepage&q=sam%20katzman%20%2B%203-d&f=false
- Jungle Sam in Time http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,817485-1,00.html