|Special thanks to guest commentator John Brooker for providing the following interview with Maurice Conn. John was born in South Africa in 1942 and his father was with the Navy. They returned to the UK after the War. John saw his first B western at about age seven, and he recalls that it was Border Roundup with George Houston as the Lone Rider. John visited the US in 1967 and 1970 and met dozens of horse opera luminaries. He has written articles for many magazines and newspapers and authored two books, "The Life and Times of John Wayne" and "Movie Memories" which was based on the TV series he devised and scripted between 1981 and 1986.|
|Maurice H. Conn|
1906 - 1973
(Courtesy of John Brooker)
Above is Maurice Conn - 1970.
(Pressbook cover courtesy of Les Adams)
(From Old Corral image collection)
John Brooker writes: "I originally wanted to interview Sigmund Neufeld but when I called him at his home in Sherman Oaks, California, he was busy and put me on to Maurice Conn who was living in an up-market trailer park off Colorado in Santa Monica. Not far from Tris Coffin who I interviewed the same day."
Following is John's 1970 interview with Maurice Conn.
The production of the so called B westerns reached its height back in the early and middle 30s. Production in those days was very simple. The unions were weak. The Stage Actors' Guild was weak. We were free to produce the pictures in whatever way we wanted.
We'd concoct a story and put the greatest amount of stress on action on the basis that action would cover a multitude of sins in so far as story deficiencies were concerned. So my formula was a fight, a chase or a killing in each and every reel. Once the script was prepared then we knew how much we were going to spend.
Some B westerns were made very cheaply - $6,000.00 to $7,000.00 for a film that would run about an hour to an hour and 10 minutes. But the bulk of them cost anywhere from $9,000.00 to $12,000.00. So once the script was completed, we'd hire a director on a flat basis, usually from $350.00 to $500.00. The camera men and the crew were hired on the same basis. So much money flat for the picture, usually $400.00 to $500.00. It made no difference to us how many hours they worked or how many days the picture took. That would be the amount of money they would be paid. It was the same with the cast. We knew from past experience, as all the pictures cost about the same amount of money, that we could afford to spend about $1,200.00 for the actors and extras, excluding the star.
We'd usually try to get a name for one days work and pay them $100.00. I'd try to get one of the old time silent stars like Robert Warwick and people of that category who I'd pay a $100.00. Whereas the great bulk of the actors, the cowboys that would be riding and fighting all week long, would get about $100.00 for a whole weeks work. So when we cut the picture we'd want to put in music. We'd make a deal with a man to dub in the music from free recorded sound. So we'd make a flat deal for that ... and usually it would cost $250.00 - $350.00.
We knew how much film we'd shoot - the picture would run some 5,700 to 5,800 feet so we'd limit ourselves to shooting about 12,000 to 13,000 feet of film because the film was expensive and every foot of film that was used had to be developed. Only the good takes were printed and this cost, of course, more than the developing so we knew very closely what the cost of the laboratory work would be. In other words, we could figure the cost of the picture right down to almost a penny. That's quite different to what happened shortly after that when the unions got more powerful. Then if you went off on location and ran into bad weather you'd have to pay the cast and the crew while they were not working. Meantime if we happened to be on location the cost of the hotel board and room would be continuing.
Back in those early days we would figure on having about two days of interiors and four days of exteriors. We'd shoot the entire picture in six days ... sometimes even in five days ... we'd have the two days of interiors as protection against the weather because sometimes there'd be a heavy fog that would come in and stay til about 1 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon which made it impossible to shoot. So the interiors were really protection against the weather. We'd make a flat deal with the studio. All of them had interior sets for westerns and they were all principally the same ... a saloon set and a ranch living room ... maybe a ranch bedroom ... a sheriff's office ... a jail ... a badmens hideout ... and as a general rule, those sets constituted 90% of all the sets we used in a low cost western. Occasionally there'd be some other set like a railroad station or a hotel room but usually we would use the same sets ... just re-dress them. In other words, if we had a ranch bedroom and we wanted a hotel bedroom we'd simply put a different bed in there... a few different pictures ... maybe move one wall around so as to have a window in a different place and as a result we rarely would have to spend as much as even $100.00 for set construction. Now the sets alone would cost more than the entire cost of the picture because the studios today operate on the principal of tearing down the sets they use for outside renters and in that way they make more profit making the production companies build them in their own studios. But as a general rule in the 30s most of the small independent studios had these sets standing all the time, particularly the saloon set which was the big one. And they had the scaffolding all separate ... the cost of putting up the scaffolding was quite expensive. If a studio had its western set torn down for some reason, we B producers would avoid it until some affluent producer was making a picture like the Hopalong Cassidys, a more expensive western where they'd be spending $70,000.00 - $80,000.00 and as a result could afford to put up sets. We would avoid studios without standing sets as if they had the plague. But once an affluent western producer came in and put up new sets we would all flock to that studio to take advantage of them.
I would read the trade papers and if I saw that a company had built a good set like a fort or something like that for a production I would quickly change a script or write a new one to use that set. This would either involve using the set really early in the morning at a cheap rent before the bigger company started work or when their film was finished I would get in quickly before the set was taken down.
Low budget film-makers looked for every chance to cut costs. Some even used off-cuts of different film stock - a few hundred feet left over by someone else. But sometimes this meant that their film would be a mix-up of different types of stock - colour, day for night, different speeds, all kinds - so the finished item would vary in picture quality, being dull, muddy, too bright as they just ran it the same through the camera whatever sort it was.
The cast and crew would meet at the studio as a general rule about half an hour before sunrise, usually about 4:30 a.m., and that way we would be on location and set up ready to shoot the minute the sun came over the horizon. And that usually would be 5:15 - 5:30 a.m. As a matter of fact, a number of times we would start shooting even though it would be very hazy. Occasionally we would run into a tremendous problem because if it was very cloudy we'd have to make a decision.. Did we want to shoot the entire picture as if it was a cloudy day ... or did we want to wait until the sun broke through from behind the cloud bank. You'd stand there looking up at the clouds with the cameraman and the director, figuring out the clouds' size, how fast they were moving and how long it would take for the sun to come out. And then how long the sun would be available before it was blocked out by another cloud. So we'd have to decide ... did we want sunlight or no sunlight for the shooting because it would have to be fairly similar. We shot so many scenes one right after another. We couldn't show a man riding under a cloudless sky and then, in the very next scene, wipe to the same man riding a short distance away and show a very cloudy sky. So this constituted a problem but it was not an expense ... it was just a matter of artistry ... as a matter of fact, I don't think many of the producers were concerned with it. I personally was. I tried to make a better quality western than most of the other producers. Whether or not I succeeded I don't know. I've had some compliments on it. But a number of the other producers would simply start shooting whether it was cloudy or sunny ... it made no difference to them. We'd keep shooting until the sun set ... as a matter of fact about 15 minutes after the sun set because there'd still be sufficient light.
It was really very interesting to try to consolidate the action so that you didn't waste time. In other words, if you had a number of run-throughs where the hero was chasing the badmen or vice-versa you'd set your camera up in a certain spot and then have the pursued and then the pursuer come into view. Then you'd change the camera round, making sure you kept your direction straight and you'd have them come through again. Then you'd turn the camera again, maybe another 10 degrees, and have them come running through again. And then you'd turn the camera another 5 or 10 degrees so as to get a little different background and they'd come running through again. And that way you could knock off these run-throughs as the posses and what-not would appear from out of view and usually exit past camera. Then we'd put the camera on a camera truck/camera car, and would get the running inserts. We would knock those off very fast. It was merely a matter of organisation. Because we'd have to consider the condition of the horses. We'd do the lead riding along ... riding hell for leather ... looking around ... firing back and so on. And then while his horse would rest we'd do running inserts of some of the villains. These would be close shots. And then, while their horses would be resting, we'd get a shot of the girl riding along all by herself and meantime all the horses would be resting. And then we'd have the lead, if he happened to be the one who was being pursued, come riding into view. The camera would pick him up in medium or long shot ... and then we'd start the truck rolling and he'd be in the foreground and in the background we'd see the heavies tearing along shooting at the lead and the lead shooting back at them. So we'd knock off all the running inserts at one time. Then we'd usually have a ranch-house or cabins ... whatever was involved. It was really a matter of careful planning so as to knock off as many scenes as possible with the minimum amount of camera movement. Because if you physically moved the camera you'd have to move your sound truck, microphone, boom. You'd have to move the reflectors where you'd be directing light in to different places in order to highlight them and whatnot so a camera move represented time.
So the problem with a low budget western was always to get as much action as possible with the minimum amount of camera movement, physically speaking. Always tried to have a story written so that the maximum number of scenes would be shot in the daytime. I did this for a very definite reason and that is I figured a number of the theatres in which these pictures would play would not have top flight projectors or operators and as a result they wouldn't be able to see the action very clearly if we made it a night scene. If we did have night sequences we would never dream of bringing a generator and lights out to location in order to shoot the thing properly. We used a special kind of film and we'd have filters on the camera so that the sunlight would then become the moonlight ... so we actually had no problem. I always made sure that we had even more sunlight for shooting the night sequences, otherwise you couldn't be sure that people would be able to see what was going on. The fact that all our Bs were made in black and white simplified that problem.
But there were always other problems - in our fight scenes, we'd usually use some of the cowboys to double for the villains and the leads and then only use the principals for close shot action. The leads were perfectly capable of handling their own fights but you just couldn't take a chance that they might get hurt and then you'd really be in trouble because on a low cost western you couldn't afford to take out cast insurance. I never had any problem regarding the replacement of actors in the event something happened to them - being injured or even dying in the midst of production - because I could always re-write a story and just indicate through a line of dialogue that something happened to someone and someone was substituting for them. So I never worried at all about not having any cast insurance.
But things would happen. For instance I remember in WILDERNESS MAIL, which is a picture I made back in 1935, we went on location to Big Bear which is up in the mountains. There was snow on the ground and the altitude was such that some of the actors had trouble breathing. One of them in particular, a man I was absolutely crazy about, Fred Kohler Sr. His son, Fred Kohler Jr., became an actor and looked very much like his father but with all due respect to Junior he never had the quality of Fred Sr. who was a wonderful man and really an excellent actor. I'll never forget we were on location, as I said, in Big Bear and I was paying a flat amount for each day for room and board. I didn't have to pay the actors or crew anything extra because we weren't able to shoot while it was snowing so my only problem was the extra cost for the hotel. So we were having a wonderful time playing poker and whatnot. I was trying to recoup part of my costs when suddenly someone came running to me and said that Fred Kohler was gasping for breath and was turning purple ... and it looked as though he was dying ... so I ran to his room followed by some of the other poker players and he was standing up and choking. He just couldn't breathe. And he was indicating with one of his hands to bang him on his back. So I told Kermit Maynard to hit him on the back and he gave him a terrific blow which seemed to have no effect. And I had another powerfully built man there - Slim something or other - I can't remember his last name - and they went over to grab Fred by the arms because he was thrashing about and he was so powerful that he just lifted these men up in the air and threw them crashing against the wall. Meantime, I telephoned to some nearby town for the firemen who had an oxygen pump and fortunately they came in time and applied the fresh oxygen so Fred survived for some years after that.
On another picture, one of the cowboys came running over to me and said that one of the actors - I won't mention his name and I didn't know at the time that he was an epileptic - was lying on the ground and foaming at the mouth and he's dying. So I thought he was joking but when I ran over there I saw that it was true. I didn't know what to do for an epileptic. Someone indicated that they should lift him up and bend him over and pull his tongue out so he wouldn't choke on it. This man also survived. They were a tough breed of men. They did all kinds of stunts ... falling off horses, going over cliffs, there was no fuss made over it. I'd give them $5.00 or $10.00 extra for it. But then suddenly I found the stuntmen were organising and asking for a great deal more money. For instance at one of the ranches that we used they had just produced a picture - I think it was with Errol Flynn. One of those pictures presumably made in India - the British troops against the Caffirs. No, not the Caffirs ... the Indians and whatnot (THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE - JB). And on the side of this cliff, they'd gone to the expense of building a scaffolding that protruded about 10 feet from the side of the cliff ... it was about 15 feet wide ... and it was stuffed with hay so I was having fun personally jumping off the cliff into this pile of hay. The climax of a picture I was making called for a fight between the hero and the villain so I changed it around so they'd fight at the cliff and the heavy would be sent flying out over the edge and he'd land in this scaffolding. But one of the stuntmen - and this was my first experience of what I regarded as blackmail - said he wanted $100.00 to do it. I said why there's nothing to it ... all you do is jump. Look! ... and I jumped. He said I'll do it frontwards, backwards ... anyway you want ... but if you want me to do it you'll pay $100.00. And I said well I don't want you to do it. So I simply had a close shot of the lead striking the heavy on the jaw and a close shot of the heavy moving away from the camera with a dazed look on his face, his arms spreadeagled as he fell away from the camera. And then I went to a long shot where a dummy went over the cliff. These are the things that we did when we wanted to save money. You had to improvise at all times.
You never knew what was going to happen - like one time one of the actors was supposed to be making love to a girl and just before that he had a fight and he had fallen to the ground and got up, smiled ... looked at me and said "I just broke my leg". I said "Impossible". He said "my leg's broken", and we found out that it was. So we hadn't shot the love scene yet. So he hammed it up, told the girl "I love you" ... then started groaning and making horrible faces from the pain. So we'd have to cut. Then he told me very courageously "I'll try it again. I'll try to forget the pain". It took about five shots to get it. I was watching the amount of film we were using. As a matter of fact, this was always the thing you had to watch ... the amount of film that was being used ... this was a variable and had to be closely controlled. For instance, I remember one time Kermit Maynard had some lines with no-one in the scene except his horse. Just after we cut, the horse drew his lips back and gave a horse laugh which I thought was very cute so I said let's get a shot of that horse laugh. I brought the two together again and told the director to shoot the same thing. Kermit Maynard said his line and the horse just stood there ... no expression ... for some reason I liked the idea of the horse giving him the horse laugh so I said make a close shot of Kermit saying his line and then go to a close shot of the horse and we tried that. We got the close shot of Kermit and then went to the close shot of the horse and he just stood there doing nothing. So one of the horse trainers said let me pinch his nostrils which he proceeded to do. Then we started to shoot and the horse did nothing. Then one of the fellers said "blow cigar smoke in his face that always makes them laugh, sneeze or whatnot". So he blew a lot of smoke in his face and we started the camera going and he still would do nothing. Then two or three other suggestions were made and the horse would not give us a horse laugh. In the meantime, I had shot some hundreds of feet of film with no results. So I said forget it and we moved the camera and the horse away - for the next hour that horse did nothing but give us the horse laugh but it was too late and I had to forget it.
Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has information on Maurice Conn: http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0174899/
(From Old Corral image collection)
Producer Maurice Conn had founded little Ambassador Pictures with offices at the California Talisman studio on Sunset Boulevard. Conn was an independent producer who churned out quickie action films. He dreamed of new series of Canadian Mounted Police yarns based loosely on the writings of James Oliver Curwood, a prominent author whose stories became the base for many cinema adventures.
(From Old Corral image collection)
John W. English got some early experience by directing three of the Kermit Maynard adventures, RED BLOOD OF COURAGE (1935), HIS FIGHTING BLOOD (1935), and WHISTLING BULLETS (1937). A few years later, John (Jack) English - along with director Bill Witney - became the directing duo that would co-create many great Republic cliffhangers (such as CAPTAIN MARVEL, ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION, and the two Lone Ranger serials).
(From Old Corral image collection)
Above from L-to-R are Kermit Maynard, Dick Curtis, Frank McCarroll and Roger Williams in a lobby card from VALLEY OF TERROR (Ambassador/Conn, 1937).
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above - the title lobby card for Tim McCoy's WEST OF RAINBOW'S END (Monogram, 1938). At this time, Conn's production company was working at Monogram.