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Nat Levine

Birth name:
Nathan Levine

Born:
July 26, 1900
Manhattan, New York City

Died:
August 6, 1989
Motion Picture Home and Hospital
Woodland Hills, California

Nat Levine - circa 1937
and about 37 years old.


Mascot Pictures

Born: 1927

Died: 1935



(From Old Corral collection)



From 1928 Film Daily Yearbook,
available at the Internet Archive.



1930 - Nat's first all talking picture.


1932
Above - Walter Miller and Harry Carey



1935


(Courtesy of Minard Coons)

Above - MIRACLE RIDER CLUB identification card.
According to New York City birth records, Nat Levine was born July 26, 1900 in Manhattan, New York City. And the records indicate his first name was Nathan, not Nathaniel. Parents were Saville Levine and Annie Lieberman Levine and both were born in Russia.

He never finished high school. In the 1915 New York census, fourteen year old Nathan's occupation was "Theatrical". On his World War I draft registration, he's "Secretary" to theater chain owner Marcus Loew in New York City. And in the 1920 census, Nat is "manager - Construction Engineer" and trade publications noted that he had been appointed manager of the Theatrical Department of the L. K. Comstock and Company, construction engineers.

Some film related jobs followed and most involved sales and distribution. Around 1926, he and Samuel Bischoff produced THE SILENT FLYER (Universal, 1926) cliffhanger which featured "Silverstreak / Silver Streak, King of Dog Actors".

Levine founded Nat Levine Productions and Mascot Pictures in 1927. Over an approximate eight year period, he produced a few features, but his main product consisted of thirty serials. In mid 1935, Nat and Mascot - along with Monogram Pictures - were the major ingredients in the merger that created the new Republic Pictures company.

Mascot's silent chapterplays were HEROES OF THE WILD (Mascot, 1927), ISLE OF SUNKEN GOLD (Mascot, 1927), THE GOLDEN STALLION (Mascot, 1927), THE VANISHING WEST (Mascot, 1928), VULTURES OF THE SEA (Mascot, 1928), and THE FATAL WARNING (Mascot, 1929).

KING OF THE KONGO (Mascot, 1929) was a 'part-talkie' and Levine's first all talking picture was PHANTOM OF THE WEST (Mascot, 1930) starring Tom Tyler.

Cinema veterans were often employed by Mascot. Harry Carey starred in three - THE VANISHING LEGION (Mascot, 1931), THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (Mascot, 1932), and THE DEVIL HORSE (Mascot, 1932). Jack Mulhall was in THE THREE MUSKETEERS (Mascot, 1933) and BURN 'EM UP BARNES (Mascot, 1934). Noah Beery Sr. was his villainous best in THE DEVIL HORSE (Mascot, 1932) and FIGHTING WITH KIT CARSON (Mascot, 1932). And Walter Miller, leading man to serial queen Allene Ray in many Pathe silent chapterplays, appeared in six Mascots ... and he was on "the right side of the law" in five. Miller's count goes to seven if you include him voicing the chapter recaps in THE VANISHING LEGION (Mascot, 1931).

Western themed sound serials starred Carey, Tyler, Ken Maynard, Tom Mix, and fading range rider Bob Custer. Even Bob Steele worked for Mascot, but he wore an aviation uniform rather than his normal cowboy hat and boots in THE MYSTERY SQUADRON (Mascot, 1933).

Energetic youngster Frankie Darro did a half dozen: THE LIGHTNING WARRIOR (Mascot, 1931), THE VANISHING LEGION (Mascot, 1931), THE DEVIL HORSE (Mascot, 1932), THE WOLF DOG (Mascot, 1933), BURN 'EM UP BARNES (Mascot, 1934), and THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (Mascot, 1935).

Bela Lugosi, star of Universal's 1931 DRACULA turns up in THE WHISPERING SHADOW (Mascot, 1933). And Boris Karloff, Universal's Frankenstein monster, appeared in VULTURES OF THE SEA (Mascot, 1928), THE FATAL WARNING (Mascot, 1929), THE KING OF THE KONGO (Mascot, 1929), and KING OF THE WILD (Mascot, 1931). Karloff is off screen in THE VANISHING LEGION (Mascot, 1931) - in that, he does the talking for the mystery villain known as "the Voice".

Levine didn't hesitate hiring newcomers such as John Wayne, George Brent, and Johnny Mack Brown. And a few non-Hollywood types were also given lead roles such as football great Harold 'Red' Grange, animal trainer and circus performer Clyde Beatty, and singin' cowboy Gene Autry, fresh from the National Barn Dance radio program from station WLS in Chicago.

Mascot cinema adventures also featured canines and equines Rin Tin Tin (Senior), Rin Tin Tin Jr., and Rex, the black Morgan stallion billed as the "King of the Wild Horses".

Knowing that Ken Maynard was still a drawing card for the Saturday matinee crowd, Levine starred him in the feature IN OLD SANTA FE (Mascot, 1934) as well as the twelve chapter MYSTERY MOUNTAIN (Mascot, 1934). And he was slated for another chapterplay, THE PHANTOM EMPIRE. But during the shoots on his two films, Maynard meddled in production details, was ornery and cantankerous, and there were temper tantrums and interludes of profanity. Supposedly, Ken's tirades on the set were filmed or verbally reported to Levine. None of that endeared him to the thrifty boss / owner of Mascot. The end result - Maynard was done at Mascot.

1935 was the pivotal year for Levine, his company, and his future. Hoping to expand production and profits, he leased the old Mack Sennett movie lot and acquired much of the studio's equipment in a bankruptcy sale. Trades carried the news:

January 16, 1935 Motion Picture Daily: Headline - "Sennett Plant to Levine" ; "Los Angeles, Jan. 15 (1935) - Nat Levine today purchased at a public bankruptcy sale all the operating equipment of the Mack Sennett Studio, so making Mascot lessor and sole owner of the plant. Levine plans to build a new sound stage ..."

Released in February, 1935, THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (Mascot, 1935) was a mixture of science fiction elements and traditional western plot. Levine took a chance and gave the lead to Gene Autry. His helpers were teenagers Betsy King Ross and Frankie Darro and the dozen episodes featured lots of Autry tunes broadcast from "Radio Ranch". This was early 1935, several years before the singing cowboy became dominant. Another National Barn Dance performer, Lester Alvin 'Smiley' Burnette, came west with Autry and also appears in the Mascots with Gene.

Levine enticed a silent screen legend back to the screen. The man was Tom Mix and many trade publications carried an announcement. From the November 14, 1934 Motion Picture Daily:

"Hollywood, Nov. 13 (1934). - Tom Mix today was signed by Mascot to star in a 15-episode serial, tentatively called 'Texas Ranger', which is slated to go into production around Dec. 1. " ('Texas Ranger' became THE MIRACLE RIDER.)

Mix couldn't refuse Levine's offer of $40,000 ($10,000 / week) for a total of four weeks work on THE MIRACLE RIDER (Mascot, 1935). Tom was in his mid fifties and needed money to offset losses in the stock market and Depression as well as divorces, lawsuits, back taxes and financing his new Tom Mix Circus and Wild West Show. THE MIRACLE RIDER was Levine's only fifteen chapter serial. And with the story spread over fifteen episodes, Mix got a lot of Saturday matinee screen time which helped promote his circus venture. Nat gambled that the marquee value of the Tom Mix name would allow him to peddle it to more movie houses and at a higher price. And to increase saleability, episode 1, "The Vanishing Indian", was on five reels and about 43 minutes long.


The 43 minute long Chapter 1 of THE MIRACLE RIDER was released to the theaters in April, 1935. And it was marketed by Levine / Mascot as a replacement for the typical second feature in a double bill. In this November, 1935 newspaper ad, episode 1 was paired up with John Wayne's THE TRAIL BEYOND (Lone Star/Monogram, 1934). Check the nickel and fifteen cent admission prices.
The running time of THE MIRACLE RIDER was about 306 minutes, making it the lengthiest of the sound serials (DICK TRACY was Republic's longest, clocking in at a tad under 290 minutes). The plot combined old and new west, meaning dusty trails and horses along with paved roads, cars and trucks. And there were science fiction elements (shades of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE) such as the Firebird rocket, that goofy TV screen with the scrolling messages, and super explosive X-94 which was discovered on the Indian Reservation safeguarded by Mix (as 'Ranger Tom Morgan').

Two production units worked concurrently (but that was pretty standard practice). While Mix was doing scenes with baddies Charles 'Ming' Middleton, Jason Robards, Sr., and Bob Kortman, a second unit was filming fights and riding scenes with stuntman Cliff Lyons doubling Mix. Directing was Armand Schaefer with B. Reeves "Breezy" Eason in charge of the second unit and caring for most of the exterior shooting.

Levine's gamble paid off and THE MIRACLE RIDER became his most successful cliffhanger. His cost was about $80,000.00 (half of which was Mix's $40,000.00 salary), more than double the price tag of a typical Mascot chapterplay. Some 12,000 movie houses booked THE MIRACLE RIDER and the rental fee was $85.00 ($15.00 for the lengthier chapter 1, and $5.00 for each of the remaining fourteen episodes). The end result - Levine purportedly grossed about a million dollars.

After THE MIRACLE RIDER, Mascot created two more serials, THE ADVENTURES OF REX AND RINTY (Mascot, 1935) followed by THE FIGHTING MARINES (Mascot, 1935).

In June, 1935, Republic Pictures was formed from the merger of Consolidated Film Industries, Mascot, Monogram Pictures, more. The brains and financial backing behind the new company was Herbert J. Yates, head of Consolidated. Levine was acquainted with Yates since much / all of Mascot's films were done at Yates' film processing facility.

In addition to Levine and Mascot, contractee Gene Autry became part of the new company. And from Monogram Pictures came president W. Ray Johnston and V. P. in charge of production, Trem Carr. Other Monogram alumni moving to Republic were John Wayne as well as producer Paul Malvern, who had been responsible for Wayne's sixteen 'Lone Star' oaters which were released through Monogram.

The old Mack Sennett facility which Levine had leased became Republic's studio and home base ... and in October, 1935, the lot was re-named "Republic City". And THE FIGHTING MARINES chapterplay was released through Republic's exchanges in late 1935.

During the initial year or so of Republic's complex and chaotic existence, Levine was "President Republic Productions" and responsible for their feature and serial output. Among his duties was overseeing new series westerns starring Autry and the Three Mesquiteers. He also purchased a significant piece of Republic from Trem Carr who was exiting the new company:

January 25, 1936 Motion Picture Herald - excerpts: Headline: "Levine Now Has 50% of Republic" ; "Under the latest ownership set-up of Republic Productions - producing unit - announced last weekend, Nat Levine, president, disclosed that his recent purchase of the Republic Pictures Corporation and Republic Productions of Trem Carr gives him a 50% interest in both concerns." ; "W. Ray Johnston will continue as president of Republic Pictures, the distributing organization."

The breakup came in early 1937, and Nat was bought out by Herbert J. Yates:

February 10, 1937 Variety - excerpts: "Hollywood, Feb. 9. Selling his half interest in Republic studio for a figure reported at $500,000, Nat Levine tendered his resignation as production head to Herbert Yates. He will receive part of the payment in cash immediately and the remainder over a three-year period."

In addition to the departures of Levine and Trem Carr, there were other shake-ups. W. Ray Johnston left and resurrected his Monogram Pictures company. And John Wayne and Paul Malvern completed their series of eight Republic oaters and moved to Universal Pictures where Wayne starred in six non-westerns.

For much of 1937 - 1938, Levine was in a "job search" mode. In August, 1937, he became an associate producer on M-G-M's payroll ... and left ... then returned ... and his only producer credit was FOUR GIRLS IN WHITE (MGM, 1939), a melodrama about the lives and loves of four hospital nurses. In between Metro employments, Nat considered a production arrangement with United Artists ... but that didn't pan out. There were many trade publication blurbs about E. W. Hammons, president of Educational Pictures, and his negotiations for control of Grand National Pictures which was going through a re-organization under bankruptcy laws. Levine was (briefly) a candidate for the production boss job if and when Grand National was re-organized. Nat opted out of that ... a very good decision as Grand National was liquidated in 1940.

There were many reports of Nat's starts and stops as he searched for a new place to call home. Following is a timeline and highlights:

Nat was still hoping to do some films, and to remain relevant, he maintained an office for Nat Levine Productions and Mascot Pictures. But no movies were created ... there were no job offers ... and he only made one "deal":

February 3, 1940 Boxoffice: "Majestic has acquired rights from Nat Levine to reissue 'Phantom Empire', an early Gene Autry oater, under the new title of 'Radio Ranch'." (That was the feature length condensation of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE. More on RADIO RANCH below.)

In Summer, 1945, most of Mascot's sound serials and features were sold off:

June 9, 1945 Boxoffice - excerpts: "The transaction, negotiated through Nat Levine and Consolidated Film Industries, gives IT&T world rights to 19 features and 20 serials." ; "The serials star Gene Autry, Harry Carey, George Brent, John Wayne, Bela Lugosi, Ann Rutherford and Mischa Auer, respectively."

June 16, 1945 Motion Picture Herald - excerpts: "George A. Hirliman, president of International Theatrical & Television Corporation, last week announced the purchase of Mascot Pictures, through negotiations with Nat Levine and Consolidated Film Industries." ; "... I. T. & T. has acquired world rights to 16mm, 35mm and television on all product that Mascot ever produced." ; "... distribution, both in the United States and foreign markets, will be handled by United Screen Attractions, under the supervision of Irvin Shapiro."

As to his personal life, Levine was a big fan of horse racing and betting on the ponies, and he lost big at the tracks and went broke. There were two marriages - his first was in 1926 to Frances Jeanne Goldberg (1898 - 1990), and she became Mascot's Vice President and Secretary-Treasurer. They divorced in 1947 in Las Vegas and the breakup was due to his betting on the horses. Wife number two was Rosemary Crawford and she was twenty years younger than Nat. They married in September, 1947 and she obtained a divorce in February, 1948. That brief pairing also ended because of his gambling. Son Arthur James Levine (1921 - 2002) graduated from Culver Military Academy, Culver, Indiana in 1940 and was a World War II Marine vet.

No longer wanted or needed by Hollywood, Nat made a career change and began a lengthy run managing theaters, initially in Redondo Beach, California. Newspapers from the early 1960s have him running the Picfair Theater in Los Angeles and later, the Rolling Hills Theater in Torrance, California. And in 1968, Nat became managing director of the new Hastings Theater in Pasadena, California.

Due to health issues and advancing age, Levine moved to the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, California. He passed away August 6, 1989 at the Motion Picture Hospital from a myocardial infarction (heart attack), was cremated, and interred at Valhalla Memorial Park, North Hollywood, California. He was 89 years old.

I became a Mascot serial fan in the early 1950s when they were shown on Atlanta television. Wonderful memories from my youth.

I met Levine during some off-time when I was in California attending a conference. A business buddy lived in Los Angeles, was a film buff, and arranged our visit. We spent about a half hour chatting - and stupid me spent the entire time asking about Tom Mix and Ken Maynard. He had positive (glowing) comments on Mix and THE MIRACLE RIDER. He did a negative head shake on Maynard, though he did mention that MYSTERY MOUNTAIN was a money maker. I never thought to delve into the more important questions ... like how he churned out serials for a profit ... or about the formation of Republic Pictures.

There are autobiographies on action director William 'Bill' Witney and stunt man Yakima Canutt ... and following are their remembrances of Nat Levine and Mascot.



Stunt man Yakima Canutt on Nat Levine.

Enos Edward 'Yakima' Canutt (1895 - 1986) is recognized as Hollywood's greatest stunt man. Canutt worked in most of the Mascot silent and sound cliffhangers. Following are some quotes from Stunt Man, The Autobiography of Yakima Canutt (Walker and Company, New York, 1979) by Yakima Canutt with Oliver Drake:


Director William Witney recalled his early days working for Nat Levine.

William 'Bill' Witney (1915 - 2002) became a superb action and serial director at Republic Pictures where he co-directed THE PAINTED STALLION (Republic, 1937), THE LONE RANGER (Republic, 1938), ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION (Republic, 1939), many others. He also helmed dozens of Republic oaters starring Roy Rogers and Rex Allen. Later, he became a prolific TV director, doing episodes of BONANZA, WAGON TRAIN, lots more.

He wrote about his days in Hollywood in the book In a Door, into a Fight, Out a Door, into a Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by The Guy at the Door (McFarland, 1996). Chapters 1 and 2 cover his early employment at Mascot ... working for Nat Levine ... Mascot taking over the old Mack Sennett studio ... and filming THE LAW OF THE WILD (Mascot, 1934) with Rex, King of the Wild Horses.

Witney's jobs included office boy duties, prepping scripts on a hand cranked mimeograph machine, tidying up Mr. Levine's office and desk, and being a "gofer". He even did some riding in a chase scene or two. Colbert (Bert) Clark co-directed about a half dozen Mascot serials and was Witney's brother-in-law. And director Armand 'Mandy' Schaefer was Bert Clark's best friend.

Bill Witney on Nat Levine and Mascot:

Bill Witney on Rex:

Bill Witney's son, Jay Dee Witney, has a website on his dad: http://www.williamwitney.com/
And he has a great video online of his dad talking about "good man" Nat Levine, Mascot, and the formation of Republic Pictures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8-Ez_PvFLQ



(Courtesy of Bill Sasser)

On the left, Rex Allen has his arm around his favorite director, William 'Bill' Witney, at Knoxville, 1988.

Witney co-directed many of Republic's greatest serials as well as a bunch of westerns.


Levine's impact on the formation of Republic Pictures.

Clearly, Nat Levine preferred to be his own boss and in total control. At Republic and M-G-M, he was an employee, subservient to higher powers.

Wealthy, tough, difficult, demanding, and hard-nosed describe Republic's Herbert J. Yates ... and that reputation appears to be a truism. Appears that Yates' master plan was to absorb Mascot and Monogram ... and push Nat Levine and Monogram's W. Ray Johnston out the door.

Some are critical of Levine's overall contributions to the B film, and in particular, to the serial. I agree that Mascot's chapterplays are not the assembly line quality and slickness of 1940s Republic. Some believe that "if a serial ain't Republic, it ain't worth much!" I have to disagree. In retrospect, Levine's achievements were significant, and I suggest the following for your consideration:



Nat at Mascot and Republic ... and afterwards.


Above - 1934 organization chart for Mascot Pictures. The F. J. Levine listed as Vice President and Secretary-Treasurer is Nat's wife Frances Jeanne Goldberg Levine (1898 - 1990).



Above is the Republic Pictures organization chart from late 1936 with Levine as "President Republic Productions" ... and he was the boss overseeing the company's features and serials.

About a year or so after Republic was formed, both Levine and President W. Ray Johnston departed.




After Mascot, Republic, and M-G-M, Levine was still hopeful of doing some movies and kept his Mascot brand name alive. But there were no new films. Above is a 1944 organization chart of his company.




Most fans recognize THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (Mascot, 1935) as Levine's most significant and most remembered cliffhanger. Directors were Otto Brower and B. Reeves 'Breezy' Eason.



(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Left is the cover of the pressbook for RADIO RANCH, one of two feature versions of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (Mascot, 1935) serial which were released in 1940.

"Nat Levine Presents" is in the upper left.

Nat probably needed some cash and a deal was reported in the trades - from the February 3, 1940 issue of Boxoffice:

"Majestic has acquired rights from Nat Levine to reissue 'Phantom Empire', an early Gene Autry oater, under the new title 'Radio Ranch'."

MEN WITH STEEL FACES was the other condensation, and came from 'Times Pictures' which was an exchange serving the New York City area.

I did a check for 1940 - 1941 theater ads on newspapers.com. There were over 400 ads for RADIO RANCH, and it was generally the second feature on a double bill. There were less than twenty ads for STEEL FACES and all were for movie houses in and around New York City.



Opening title screen capture from RADIO RANCH. The copyright in the lower left shows Roman numerals MCMXL which is 1940.



Links

  Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has information on Nat Levine: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0505921/

Albert E. Levoy (1902 - 1972) was on Levine's Mascot payroll as Assistant Treasurer in the 1934 Mascot organization chart above. Later, he was a helper to Nat at Republic. He became a production manager and producer at Republic and did about fifteen films. In his later years, he was involved with California theaters ... and was instrumental in getting Levine his movie house manager job: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0506282

Daniel Neyer's "The Files of Jerry Blake" website has reviews on Mascot's sound serials: https://filesofjerryblake.com/serial-review-index/
and he also has a writeup on Nat Levine and Mascot: https://filesofjerryblake.com/2018/01/02/action-of-the-tiger-the-serials-of-mascot/

McFarland Publishing has two great books:
Jon Tuska's The Vanishing Legion: A history of Mascot Pictures 1927 - 1935 has lots on Levine, Autry, Ken Maynard, Tom Mix, and more. A softcover version is about $35.00: https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/the-vanishing-legion/
Director William Witney's In a Door, into a Fight, Out a Door, into a Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by The Guy at the Door includes remembrances of his early years working for Levine and Mascot. A softcover version is about $20.00: https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/in-a-door-into-a-fight-out-a-door-into-a-chase/

The Santa Clarita Valley History website has a photo and article on Levine: https://scvhistory.com/scvhistory/lw3725.htm

At the Cinema Treasures website, Ed Collins wrote about the Pasadena Hastings Theater opening in 1968 ... and Levine was the first managing director. This link will download his article: http://www.edcollins.com/images/hastings-article-large.jpg

1968 newspaper photo and clipping of Nat Levine as managing director of the Hastings Theater in Pasadena, California: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/72784244/independent-star-news/

The Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has the February, 1935 issue of Motion Picture Studio Insider magazine, and there's an article with a large photo showing the Mascot Studio / former Mack Sennett lot: https://digitalcollections.oscars.org/digital/collection/p15759coll11/id/10129/rec/6


On the trail of Nat Levine

The Family Search website (free), Ancestry.com (subscription), the Social Security Death Index, California Death Index, death certificate, trade publications, newspapers, and other sources provide more on Nat Levine and family:


On the trail of Nat Levine, Part II
Son Arthur James Levine (1921 - 2002)

(Footnote on Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana: many sons of Tinseltown families attended Culver. In the world of B westerns, the best known of the Culver graduates is RKO cowboy hero Tim Holt, class of 1936. In my Holt biography, there's photos of Tim Holt at Culver.)


On the trail of Nat Levine, Part III
A couple mysteries in Nat's personal life.


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