Tuesday, May 21, 2019


Richard Talmadge’s name is beloved by fans of 1920’s and 1930’s low-budget indie action films. An ace stuntman (who’d doubled Douglas Fairbanks, among others) and later successful second-unit director on major studio films, Talmadge (real name Sylvester Ricardo Metzetti, he was born in Germany of Italian-Swiss background) entered show business as a member of an acrobatic trio, The Metzetti Brothers, with his two brothers, Otto and Victor, who often found their way into his films. His jaw-dropping acrobatic and daredevil abilities were just what was needed in the world of stunt work in films in the 1920’s, and Talmadge made a name for himself while still a stuntman. He parlayed that into a series of low-budget silent films beginning in 1923, such as LET’S GO and THE PRINCE OF PEP (both of which are available online), which he also had a hand in producing. He was very much like the later stars of straight-to-video action films in the 1980’s and 1990’s in that his films were fast-moving, unpretentious vehicles for his incredibly dangerous stunts, all shot in such a way that it was ALWAYS clear that it was Talmadge himself doing the stunt and there was no fakery. The films were built around a series of death-defying feats, and Talmadge always delivered the goods. He was a bubbly, likeable screen presence with endless enthusiasm, and based on reports I’ve read in the trades, he was quite popular among exhibitors and neighborhood and small-town audiences, in the kind of theaters that featured low-budget indie product. Talmadge knew what his audience wanted and delivered it….with a smile and usually a refreshing dose of humor.

When sound came around, Talmadge’s thick accent (I once made a copy—back in the VHS days—of Talmadge’s 1934 serial, PIRATE TREASURE for Chris, and he wrote me back saying that he really enjoyed it, but wondered “what language is Richard Talmadge speaking?”) became a bit of an issue, but he seemed to understand what his gifts were (death-defying feats, like a cross between Houdini and Evel Knievel) and how to best market those gifts, so he moved into the lowest rung of the indie feature world and began producing a series of action-filled features putting him in one setting or another but built around a series of amazing physical stunts. His boyish enthusiasm and charming screen persona made the accent a non-issue (in fact, it may have helped him project a kind of “humble but enthusiastic immigrant made good” image). Speaking of accents, I’ve always wondered if Talmadge learned his English from a New Yorker, as he’s got a kind of German-Italian spin on a Brooklyn accent. It’s certainly unique!

After that 1934 serial for Universal (one of his few starring roles for a major company), Talmadge’s final round of starring vehicles came in the 1935-1936 season for Bernard B. Ray and Harry Webb’s RELIABLE PICTURES (also known as AJAX PICTURES, best-known for their fine group of Jack Perrin films). The series of six films consisted of THE FIGHTING PILOT, NOW OR NEVER, THE LIVE WIRE, NEVER TOO LATE, STEP ON IT, and my own personal favorite, THE SPEED REPORTER.

THE FIGHTING PILOT (I have it on a Grapevine DVD double-bill with ON YOUR GUARD from 1933, but it’s available for free online in a very good quality print) has all of the best qualities of a Talmadge film, so if you were going to see only one of his films, this would be a good choice. There is an experimental airplane being designed by the firm Talmadge works for. Sleazy heel Robert Frazer (well-known to fans of 30’s indie films….Frazer goes back to the 1910’s, where he starred in silent films, and then with the coming of sound, he was a supporting player, with an old-fashioned stage actor’s delivery….nice to see him smoking a cigarette and playing a gangster here for a change) is trying to get the plans for the plane and sell them to a competitor. The nice thing about a film like this is that you can take its one-hour running time and cut it up into segments, which is surely what the producers did and then informed the screenwriters. You get three minutes of conspiring among the crooks; you get two or three minutes from Talmadge’s comic sidekick, who is no doubt channeling an old vaudeville routine; you get two to three minutes of Talmadge talking with his girlfriend, played by BTC favorite Gertrude Messinger, who’d been in Hal Roach’s BOYFRIENDS shorts in the early sound days and who was a charming and spunky leading lady on poverty row in the early to mid 1930’s; you get a fistfight that kills two or three minutes; you have Talmadge doing a dangerous stunt for three or four minutes; you have a few minutes of aviation footage. Etc. Etc. Then you repeat and alternate those elements, have the bad guys defeated at the end, have a happy ending, keep it all family-friendly but fast moving, and you’ve killed 60 minutes and you can put it in the can and get it out to exhibitors on the States Rights circuit in the mid-1930’s.

This is exactly the kind of entertainment that bread-and-butter audiences in the midst of the 1930’s Depression wanted and needed….and that BTC readers still want and need today. It delivers the goods, crams as much action into an hour as you’d get in a 12-chapter serial, has humor and romance, and has death-defying stunts by one of the greats, Richard Talmadge.

Talmadge’s career lasted well into the late 1960’s, and once his starring career ended in 1936, he stayed behind the camera working as a stunt director and/or second-unit director on such A-product as HOW THE WEST WAS WON, NORTH TO ALASKA, CIRCUS WORLD, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, and CASINO ROYALE. However, he also was involved with (as director or second-unit director) some of the most bottom-of-the-barrel product imaginable, such as the 1950 Spade Cooley vehicle BORDER OUTLAWS (mine is the only review of that on the IMDB—check it out), the 16mm feature JEEPP HERDERS from 1946, the 1953 sci-fi feature PROJECT MOONBASE (which used some of the same sets as CATWOMEN OF THE MOON), and the 1956 Johnny Carpenter (as John Forbes) western I KILLED WILD BILL HICKOK (which you can see for free online). During his heyday as a leading man in low-budget 20’s and 30’s action films focusing on his amazing prowess as an acrobat and stuntman, however, Richard Talmadge was the master—add to that his comfortable and amiable and enthusiastic screen presence, and his ability to know exactly the kind of projects to properly highlight his gifts (and cover-up his deficiencies) and to make them quickly and inexpensively so they would turn a profit and more of them could be produced. He is still working his magic today for anyone who’ll take the time to watch THE FIGHTING PILOT or THE SPEED REPORTER.

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