Robert Clarke & Nan Peterson in Amarillo, Texas for The Hideous Sun Demon’s premiere.
So after Dream Follies, what came next?
Probably Pachuco. . . . Pachuco was the first real picture I ever made. And when I say that, I mean in the sense that it was a real picture made in a real way for real markets, that told a story I wanted to tell. The usual shortage of money just didn’t affect me this time. We would sleep in the studio at night, the same studio that I did Dream Follies and Dance Hall Racket. We would sneak in there at night and work from around 10:00 at night ’til about 4:30, 5:00 o’clock in the morning. If all the time had been like ten-hour days, we probably spent ten, twelve days on the picture, which was remarkable for me at that time. It was a very violent picture, it was a very realistic and true picture, and it told a little story.
However good Pachuco really was, it was not by-the-numbers burlesque junk, and Tucker remembered it with pride. As his repetition of the word “real” emphasizes, this movie was notches above his others, “a story [he] wanted to tell.” Tucker was not financially strained either because of backing or, far more likely, because he was pulling the movie off on next to nothing. The paradox of how he made his best movie on no resources is unraveled by the fact that he worked late at night when no one was around. The location was Quality Studios and Tucker’s familiarity with Connell and his back-alley soundstage may have literally given him the keys to using it in the off hours, with or without Connell’s knowledge. Whatever the movie was like, it was violent and Tucker therefore believed it had box office potential.
I subsequently got the picture in halfway decent shape; I edited myself. I took it to distributors, and some liked it, some didn’t like it; nobody would really [release it]. Then a guy named Bill Hackel, who has since died, saw it. Bill produced most of Republic’s cheap pictures. He was executive producer of all their “Bs.” Bill loved it. He thought it would really do well.
The Bill Hackel that Tucker refers to was A.W. Hackel, who formed the independent company Supreme Pictures in 1934. Born in Austria in 1882, he was (according to Guy Woodward Finney’s 1929 book The Great Los Angeles Bubble) one of many (including Louis B. Mayer) involved in the Julian Petroleum oil stock scam that collapsed in 1927. Hackel was also there when Poverty Row kingpin Republic Pictures formed out of the 1935 union of Consolidated Film Laboratories and other small companies, including his own. His Supreme Pictures remained separate from the Republic conglomeration, but they acted as distributor to many of the action-filled B Westerns he ground out with his stars, Bob Steele and Johnny Mack Brown. William C. Thompson shot a couple of Hackel’s horse operas, 32 of which featured the steely-eyed Steele, and 16 with the athletic Brown. (Brown, first a football star, was an MGM lead in Hollywood, and starred in King Vidor’s Billy the Kid (1930), shot by Tucker’s mentor, Gordon Avil.)
According to Don Miller, “. . . the budgets were lower than before [in Steele’s career], and the pictures were ground out two or three at a time . . .. they were conventional Westerns, made for and played in lesser theaters.” Miller allows that Hackel’s quality may have increased after he “signed a deal with Republic for the 1936-37 season,” but still writes that Hackel’s Steele Westerns “suffered in comparison” to Republic’s own material. Republic dropped Hackel “at the end of the 1937-38 season,” but he continued producing into the 1940s. Am I Guilty? (1940) was a state’s-rights production aimed at black audiences, while most of his subsequent work as producer was done at Monogram. At least four of those productions, mostly crime thrillers, were directed by William “One Shot” Beaudine. Hackel’s last credit is for co-producing the Nazi invasion melodrama Strange Holiday (1945) with Claude Rains, which was one of Arch Oboler’s first movies as a director. Hackel then appears retired from film production until his death in October 1959, and he may have never been very hands-on. According to Sam Sherman:
Of the line producers who actually made films, many only received credit as production manager or supervisor, while many received no credit, so the production company head could claim the producer’s credit for himself. The real producer of the 1935-36 Bob Steele series for A.W. “Bill” Hackel’s Supreme Pictures was actually Sam Katzman, although you would never know it from the screen credits.
Katzman would go on to become one of Hollywood’s most prolific and profitable low-budget producers on his own, so this uncredited early work was, in the long term, good training.
Tucker’s wording is ambiguous about when he met Hackel, but they could have easily known each other for years. Hackel’s Bob Steele Westerns were at first directed by Steele’s father, Robert N. Bradbury, but then by Sam Newfield. His brother with an un-Americanized name, Sigmund Neufeld, would found PRC and keep Sam busy directing; Robot Monster’s director of photography, Jack Greenhalgh, was a PRC regular.
So [Hackel] put up the money for me to make a trip to Texas—Amarillo—and do a test there. We had a three-day weekend; a Friday, a Saturday, and a Sunday. We had two days of promotion. In those days, you still couldn’t use television; we used radio, we used newspapers. I think we spent about five or six hundred bucks for those two days, and a trailer that had been at the drive-in.
Tucker knew the state’s-rights distribution system well and, from his years of making cheap Westerns, Hackel was just as familiar. Why Amarillo was specifically chosen is unknown, but at the same time not a mystery. A Texas audience’s reaction would be more representative of the film’s long-term reception than a viewing closer to Hollywood and, as established in Chapter 9, Tucker’s earlier films had played in Texas. They even seem to have kept on playing the Lone Star State up to that point, to judge by a March 1960 Llano News ad for Bagdad After Midnight. Fifties Amarillo also had many theaters, including at least four drive-ins and some that catered to Spanish-speaking audiences. The city had also been used to premiere actor Robert Clarke’s own attempt at low-budget filmmaking, The Hideous Sun Demon, in August 1958. Clarke had no local prospects for his film but found that he could premiere it at an Amarillo drive-in, thanks to help from his brother who worked in sales at a local TV station. (Theater owner Blue Doyle had at least three Amarillo drive-ins.) Clarke prepared his own advertising materials, flew in with co-star Nan Peterson, and did a radio interview to promote the movie. Depending on when Pachuco was made, Clarke’s use of Amarillo could have been an influence.
Well, opening night they were turning away cars, oh, probably an hour before the picture opened. The next night, the cars weren’t letting them[selves] be turned away, the cars were driving in anyhow. Two people were killed. It was a predominately Chicano crowd, and they just wrecked the theater totally; not from disapproval, but from approval. They just loved the picture. The screen was never touched. But they ran, and just ripped up everything, and wrote all over the walls, “Viva la Pachuco!”
Copyright 2015, Anders Runestad