James Curtis: L.A. Voices – Jules White, Part 1

Jules White
Photo: Jules White in an undated picture.


Here’s another of those interviews I did during a random burst of energy in 1975. This one took place a couple of weeks before my previously-posted talk with Dick Lane, and my memory is that this one is probably a bit better because of the range of topics it covers.

Jules White started in the movies as a child actor around 1910, transitioning to film editing at the age of 20. He spent several years as a cutter for Educational Pictures, then started directing two-reel comedies for the company. He worked at Fox for a year, returned to Educational where his elder brother Jack White was director-general, and moved to M-G-M in 1929. Partnered with Zion Myers, he co-directed two series of shorts there as well as the Buster Keaton feature “Sidewalks of New York.” In 1933 White joined Columbia, where he was soon directing the George Sidney-Charlie Murray comedies. The following year, he was placed in charge of the studio’s entire output of short subjects and proceeded to oversee the most varied and longest-lasting program of two-reel comedies in the industry. Among his stars: Harry Langdon, Andy Clyde, Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, Hugh Herbert, and, of course, The Three Stooges.

James Curtis’ interview with Dick Lane Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

It’s interesting to note that although I wasn’t the only one to interview Jules White, I did so earlier than David Bruskin, who compiled an oral history of all three of the White brothers for the Directors Guild of America. I met Bruskin around 1990 when the DGA interviews had been published in hardcover, and he told me that Jules had gone a bit foggy by the time he got to him (he died in 1985) and that Jules’ younger brother, Sam White, had to fill in some of the details. We both regretted that I didn’t know about the project or I could have contributed this interview, in which White was still sharp, vital, and funny.

Jules White lived in a modest tract house off Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, where he had converted one bedroom into a comfortable office. I visited him there on the afternoon of April 9, 1975 and I began by marveling at the framed photos that covered the walls.

JAMES CURTIS: You have one of the most fascinating offices I’ve ever seen, Mr. White–pictures on all four walls of practically everyone you’ve worked with.

JULES WHITE:No, that’s only some. Those are mostly the Columbia people with whom I worked. That does not include all of the others I worked with from, well, 1910, when I started as a child actor. But from 1922 on to 1958 there were many I directed that are not represented here. Altogether, I probably made in the neighborhood of a thousand pictures (as near as I can roughly estimate). I’ve never taken the time to sit down and actually tabulate them.

But this is an interesting room. It looks more like the old-fashioned booking office that you see in pictures, but these are mementos that I prize because most of these people were top comedy stars. People like, for instance, Lucille Ball up there, who was just a kid. She was under contract to Columbia then, so I used her and found her to be a terrific little actress–even before she had arrived. She’s just inherently a good actress.

JC:That was in a Stooges short, wasn’t it?

JW: That one, but I had her in several others. The below that is Betty Grable, who did some musicals for me early in my career at Columbia. And there was George Sidney and Charlie Murray, who acquired fame with the Cohens and the Kellys. Charlie Murray had been a Keystone Kop originally, and I made a series with them after the Cohens and the Kellys. Charley Chase was a very big comedy star with Hal Roach. His real name was Charlie Parrott; he was a director originally [and] he wound up as a director at Columbia. Then there’s Billie Burke, who was, of course, world famous. She was married to Flo Ziegfeld, but she was a big star in her own right. And she played in many, many very wonderful pictures. Down below that is a fellow by the name of Hawthorne and Joe Besser. I featured them together, and later I put Joe in as one of the Stooges.

JC:Jim Hawthorne?

JW:Jim Hawthorne, yeah. He’s now down in Palm Springs doing a radio show.

JC:He was quite big on radio up here back in the fifties…

JW: He was very big on television when it first started. He had those great big owl eyes and he’d gaze into the camera. Then up there you have the last Three Stooges–that’s Joe Besser, Moe Howard, and Larry Fine. Below that is Curley, Moe, and Larry. And below that is Curly, Moe, and Shemp. Shemp and Moe were brothers, as you probably know. Under that, you have Slim Summerville and Chester Conklin. Both were very big in their day, and they started as Keystone Kops. Slim Summerville obtained a lot of recognition and was a big favorite as a comedian.

Buster Keaton was one of the giants. He ranked with Harold Lloyd and almost with Chaplin. He was really one of the greatest comedians, and his pictures are legend. Under that is one of my earlier pictures. When I was about, oh, I guess 22 or 23, I started to direct at that time. Below that is Bert Wheeler of the famous team of Wheeler and Woolsey, who did many pictures together. they achieved a lot of fame. Above that is Wally Vernon and Eddie Quillan, both of them very good comedians. Though not world renowned, they got their laughs and were very funny men.

Then there was the two ex-heavyweight champs–Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom and Max Baer. And we had them as a team. Up there is Anne Jeffries, who became famous later. (I put her in pictures, incidentally.) She attained fame in the Topper series. And then below that is Harry Langdon and–gosh, I can’t think of that girl’s name. She was a big star at one time. Harry Langdon, too, in his day was tremendous. And then there’s Andy Clyde, who was a Mack Sennett comedian for many years but he was with me at Columbia from 1933 to about 1957 or 58. And Sterling Holloway, who is still doing a lot of things, and he did a lot of voices for Disney.

JC:He’s doing market commercials on radio right now.

JW:Is he? I haven’t heard them… Up above there you have Leon Errol, who was a famous Ziegfeld star. He was known for his rubber legs–he played the drunk. He worked for me in, I think, half a dozen pictures, then he went to RKO. Next to him is Vera Vague, who worked with Bob Hope for many years. She’d come out and go, “Yoo hoo, yoo hoo–Mr. Hope!” She did a lot of nonsensical things.

JC:Barbara Jo Allen.

JW:That’s right. She was a scatterbrained type of woman, sort of flibbertigibbet kind of a character, but a very capable and competent comedienne. Then Hugh Herbert, of course. He was world-renowned. There’s a fellow doing a commercial right now on television, a cartoon character, that’s using his voice and his manner of speaking.

JC:That’s Paul Winchell.

JW:Is that Paul? I didn’t know that. Paul worked with me. I don’t have a picture here, but I made a composite in which we cut out some of the best of the Stooges and tied them together with Paul Winchell doing his stuff in between.

JC:“Stop, Look, and Laugh.” Is that it?

JW: Yeah, “Stop, Look, and Laugh.” I think if we had stopped and looked before we made it, no one would have laughed. But it was one of those things where we figured we could knock off something in a hurry to make us some quick money. And it did all right, but it didn’t set the world on fire.

And then up there next to him is a very funny little man called El Brendel. He made his real big hit in, uh–I was going to say “All Quiet on the Western Front” but that isn’t it. Oh golly, what was the name of that picture? Captain Flagg–it was a very big, big smash, very early in sound… I’m not sure of the year. That about covers those up on the wall beside my awards–I have several Academy nominations and year after year after year we won the Exhibitors’ award for the best box office shorts. Now you see, everyone talks of the Stooges–that was only one of the many series I made.

JC:They were probably about one-tenth of what came out of Columbia at that time, weren’t they?

JW:Might be a little bit better altogether, because they–

JC:They went on longer than anyone else, didn’t they?

JW: That’s right. Andy Clyde and the Stooges stayed longer than anyone. They were both with me from the start to the end. A lot of these pictures with these other people were much better comedies, but they weren’t as broad and as nonsensical.

You see, I really created the Stooges in a vein of live caricatures–which is what they really were. They did outlandish things, and they were nonsensical, but their sincerity in doing them made them very acceptable. We never dreamed, of course, that there would be television, and that they would be giants on television compared to the theater where they were successful and their films did well and they were universally liked. Even now–I was in London a few months ago, and at the Victoria Station there’s a little one-hour theater where people waiting for trains can go, and they run short subjects. I’d just come in from Oxford and I said to my wife, “I wonder if they’re running any of the Stooge films here? Or any of my comedies? I’m just going to walk over there and ask them.” And as I walked into the lobby, here, as big as life, is a poster of The Three Stooges. They said they played one almost every month.

JC:Were the Stooges’ films dubbed into foreign languages?

JW:Yes. All over the world. In almost every language that was worth the money to dub them, because it did cost some money. I know they were in Spanish, French, and Italian. I don’t know about the Norse countries, but I think those were titles superimposed because the market there wasn’t as big as these others. [In] Mexico they were very big. They were called Tres Chiflados–whatever that means, I don’t know… I think it means The Three Crazy Ones or something. In each country they had a different name for them, because Stooges would not mean anything other than as an identification. They’d say, The Three Stooges in Tres Chiflados con–whatever the name of the picture might be… Actually, out of that whole bunch that you see up there, I think the only ones still alive–oh, that’s Una Merkle up there with Harry Langdon–Una Merkle is still alive and Anne Jeffries is still alive–

JC: Maxie Rosenbloom.

JW:Maxie Rosenbloom is still alive but he’s a very, very sick man. He’s almost not alive. And Joe Besser, I’m happy to say–one of the most charming little guys I ever knew.

JC:And Moe, of course.

JW:And Moe, but he’s on his last legs. Moe is very, very ill.

JC: Sorry to hear that.

JW: Yes he’s going fast, I was told the other day by a mutual friend. I don’t see much of them because I’m always on the go.

Now that fellow over there with me, that’s Jeff Chandler, who also is dead, God rest him. Very wonderful guy. I didn’t work with him, but we were very good friends. I call this my morgue more or less, and while it could be depressing, I think of their fantastic successes and I don’t feel badly about them because they had good lives and they all achieved much success. You can’t mourn a man who had a happy and successful life–at least successful in their profession. What the rest of their lives were, I don’t know. They were all very representative, and they contributed much to the entertainment and happiness of the world…

One of my best memories–not just one but some of them–the boys that knew me and that worked in pictures or in the industry, when they came back from the war, World War II, told me what these films did for these people. Told me one very interesting thing: In Australia, these boys came back on a furlough, and they had been in the hell of it, and they were running one of my shorts, and they had no theater at this particular camp where they were. They put up a projection machine and a screen outside. At night they could project onto this screen, and they’d grab boxes or sit on the ground or any way they could get in front of that screen, and when it rained they wouldn’t get up. They’d laugh so hard, and they were so happy to see these films they would not even bother to get up and get out of the rain. This was very gratifying to me to know I could contribute something to their relaxation…

JC:Mr. White, where were you born?

JW:Well, I was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1900. I’m an old duck… I don’t quack… I quake sometimes when I think of my temerity and the things I did. We came to California about nineteen hundred and four. This was before the motion picture industry really had a footing out here. It had been started, and it was very crude at that time. I guess along about nineteen hundred and eight or thereabouts, I had an aunt who had some stores that had been grocery stores and they were empty. A group came there and rented these as a studio. It was Pathe-Freres, which means the Pathe Brothers in France, and they were very big in the industry worldwide. They were making these little westerns and what have you, and in those days there were no stages–they shot outside, they had canvas sheets on wires that ran almost like a window shade, but they were pulled along when the sun got too hot to shade the set. Interiors were built outside. I used to go there to watch them. I could ride like a burr; my father was a cattle man. I was on a horse at age four. I could ride, and, as I say, everything was westerns. So I conversed with this director, who was a very nice little guy who was half Cherokee Indian, and he was the producer-director. He asked me one day: Did I want to work in a picture? Well, of course I did. So, this is how I started as a child actor.

JC:Did you ever have any dramatic training?

JW: No, I was just a born ham. You know, to be a good director you almost have to be a good actor. And in my case particularly, because later on everything was time.

I remember when we started we could take six weeks to make a two-reel comedy. We had no script–we had maybe a one-page outline, if that. Everything was gags and action, so we’d go out and start shooting and make up something and try it, and it looked all right and so you’d shoot it. Then you’d figure out something else. Sometimes we didn’t have anything to shoot, and we’d sit for hours on location–or wherever we were–trying to figure out what to do. So time flew by, but it wasn’t that expensive because nobody was getting a lot of money. But as time went on, the budgets were very tight. Time was of the essence because it cost a lot of money, so we had to be well prepared. Now, when I got on the set I found it always quicker for me to play out the scene for the actors and show them exactly what to do, rather than read it and get each one’s conception of the part… I would play these scenes for the actors, and with due humility–I don’t say this to brag–it just happens, as I said, that I was a natural-born actor and I had acquired much knowledge and information from watching and learning, [so] a lot of the times the comedians couldn’t do the scene as funny as I did. It’s a fact.

JC:Did you ever have thoughts of making two-reel comedies in which you’d be the star?

JW: No! I had no aspiration of working in them. I enjoyed writing and directing, and later producing and directing and writing. I liked to conceive the things that we did. Of course, we’re all thieves. Anything one did, others did. It just became public domain for picture people to take from each other. We called the thing “the twist”–we’ll do it just a little differently than they did. There’s only so many comedy things that one can do, and that’s why most of the films had a repetitiousness about them. There had to be; there just wasn’t that many things that you could shoot or that you could conceive. Current events came along, and certainly we used them. The one thing that I learned from experience–and that’s why my pictures outlived, I think, almost anybody else’s in the business–is because I had an idea that if they aren’t funny, make them so fast that they can’t be boring. There was always action. Always. So if you were not particularly interested in the film, you couldn’t go to sleep because the action and the noise (and the reaction from those who did like it) was so loud that it was impossible to go to sleep.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Film, Hollywood, James Curtis, L.A. Voices, Television and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to James Curtis: L.A. Voices – Jules White, Part 1

  1. aryedirect says:

    Wonderful! More, please.

  2. Scatter says:

    What a wonderful opportunity you had to speak to someone with such a breadth and depth of knowledge and experience of Old Hollywood! Thank you so much for sharing it with the rest of the world.

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