Photo: The Three Stooges’ “Spooks,” produced and directed by Jules White.
James writes: 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.
JAMES CURTS:When you became the head of the short subjects department at Columbia, you began to assemble one of the finest directing staffs for two-reel comedies.
JC:You had your brother, who operated under the pseudonym of Preston Black, James Horne, who did Laurel and Hardy comedies at Hal Roach, Del Lord, Clyde Bruckman, who had worked with Buster Keaton on some of his classic silent features, Harry Edwards. Where did you find these people?
JW: I knew them. Most of them had worked at Roach or Sennett. Del Lord had worked at Educational with us, and then he’d been at Mack Sennett’s for many years, and he went out of the business; he couldn’t get a job. He was selling used cars.
Photo: Betsy Gay and Andy Clyde in a Columbia short, listed on EBay at $10.
JC:Why was that?
JW:I have no idea. There wasn’t too much shorts production going on, I guess. When we came in there was an impact for our situation. I had to make a lot of films, and I needed help. My right-hand writer—now Jack, my brother Jack, wrote a lot of them, and Clyde Bruckman wrote a lot of them, and another fellow who worked with Clyde Bruckman on the Laurel and Hardys and the Harry Langdons and at Mack Sennett was a fellow named Felix Adler. Felix was the best comedy writer I ever knew. I can safely say that Felix wrote darn near half of the films that I made at Columbia.
JC:How would you work with a man like Felix Adler in developing a comedy from scratch?
JW:Well, it’s the same process with any of them. You say, I need a story for, say, Andy Clyde. They were acquainted with Andy Clyde’s character because he had worked at Sennett. He was the old man with the big moustache. He was sort of a very lovable kind of a character, sort of a foxy grandpa type of guy. And yet we played him also as a youngish man with younger women—romantic type of things.
One of the funniest I ever made with him was a thing in which he thinks he’s going to be a father. His wife has befriended a neighbor, and she had made a layette for this neighbor who was going to have a child. She hid the stuff in a trunk and Andy found it. He thought that she was hiding it from him and that shewas going to have a baby. Now this was the premise. Okay, that’s enough for anything. This could have been a full-length feature.
But the way we’d do it is that the writer would come in and say, “Here’s my idea.” And he would tell it just like I told you. Maybe he’d say, “This guy is a miner, and he’s mining for gold. He digs for gold, and he’s going around looking for valuable minerals. A friend of his says, ‘I think I’ve struck something that looks like gold in my yard.’ He says, ‘You can’t mean it.’ The guy says, ‘Oh yeah!’ So he says, ‘Well let me come dig and see.’ So he digs, and he digs and he digs and he comes up against a big rock wall and he digs through it, and lo and behold he’s in the vault of the United States Treasury—one of their buildings. So he says, ‘Boy, did I strike gold!’ Well, now you go from there. I did it later with the Stooges.
So they’d come in with a little plot, and then of course we’d augment it with gags and romance.
JC:Would the plot necessarily have a punchline to it? Or could it be just a situation which had possibilities?
JW:Well, a major situation from which you would get tentacles of situations. Always it would have to have a tie in with what transpires. If you analyzed these films, you would find that a great majority of them could have been feature-length pictures done seriously. What is more serious than a kidnapped human whose life is at stake? And the quest of the comedian is to find this person and save him or her? Now that is very dramatic. Matter of fact, the line of demarcation between comedy and tragedy is as fine as a hair. If a brick falls off a building and hits a man on the head, it would very likely kill him. That’s tragedy. In a two-reel comedy it hits him on the head, it bounces in the air, he flops on the ground, flops around like a chicken with its head cut off, gets up and goes after the culprit that dropped it on him. That’s the comedy connotation of that tragedy.
JC:Was there ever a situation that you were faced with where something was just too violent? Did you ever feel that something was in poor taste and couldn’t be used?
JW:Very often it would be in poor taste, but the fact that it was violent did not necessarily deter us because violence is action. Now, I don’t mean blood-curdling violence…
JW: Yes. And, of course, as I say, the comedy was so akin to tragedy that I you did this in a comedy vein, you could take the most tragic situations. What is more tragic than a man finding his wife in the arms of a lover, for instance? It may not even be a lover, but it looks like it. And usually we would make light of it, because now the husband was vengeance-bent and he would go after the culprit who stole his wife. And when he catches him he’d say, ‘I got you… You stole my wife, you horse thief!’ Immediately, you take the seriousness out of it. Right?
JW: So this, then, was our approach to tragedy. And it was very good because we got a sound, interesting premise. When you have something of that sort as the basis—and always you find that the Stooges had a quest. What are they trying to accomplish? Any of them; not just the Stooges. Their first 3-D film—
JW:“Spooks.” There was a girl kidnapped. She falls into the hands of a mad scientist who conceives the idea of exchanging her brain with that of a gorilla. Now this has been done seriously, you know?
JW:No, it had! People had shot things like this and done them seriously. There was suspense even in the comedy, because the emotion of humanity is such that they can be swept away by what they see. And they take it at face value. Follow?
JC:So in starting one of these comedies, the first point, I guess, would be to have a plot that would go from Point A to Point B?
JW:Um hum. Always. And if you analyzed these comedians, almost all of them stumbled into success. They weren’t scientific. They weren’t real knowledgeable. They would do things that should have doomed them to failure. But by a quirk of fate they always managed to succeed in the end. It’s like a love story—if the hero doesn’t get the heroine or vice versa, your audience is very disappointed. They’re pulling for the hero. The good guys have to win; the audience wants it that way. The exception of “Romeo and Juliet” and some of the world’s great tragedies, they accepted them. Shakespeare particularly. So we always had to have the heroes succeed–a sort of a Horatio Alger hurrah at the end, either physical or… Well, it usually was physical.
JC:When you started at Columbia, you seemed to start with a nucleus of three or four major comedians: Andy Clyde, the Stooges, Leon Errol, who went, after just a few pictures, to RKO. Why didn’t Leon Errol stay at Columbia?
JW: I’ll never know. He did a very unethical thing. I was ready to start a picture; he didn’t even tell me. Had the whole thing set up to go, and I got word that he was sick. That same day, someone came in and said, “How come Leon Errol’s working at RKO? And he’s sick and he’s supposed to be here?” Well, I could have stopped him from doing pictures either at RKO or anywhere else, but I figured that if the guy wanted to be that type of heel, the hell with him.
JC:Was it money?
JW:I have no idea. I never asked him. I know my brother Sam directed some of them. See, my whole family is steeped in the roots of the picture industry.
JC:How many relatives did you have who were in the film industry?
JW: Four brothers. Jack, myself, my brother Ben, who was a cameraman, my brother Sam, who was an assistant film editor, then a film editor, then a cameraman and a photographer. He became a director.
JC:And your son…
JW: My son is at Paramount. He is a film editor, and he’s sort of a liaison between the laboratory, the agency, the networks, and the front office of the company. As I say, we pioneered, and my brother Sam directed Edgar Kennedy. He made the “My Friend Flicka” series for television, and then he was the associate producer on the Perry Mason series. Anyway, we’ve all been in the business from its inception almost. We helped pioneer it.
JC:Back in the mid-thirties, was there a set number of shorts you had to produce with a given amount of money?
JW:Yes. We started with twenty-six a year, I believe. I think that was approximately what we started with.
JC:In other words, one every two weeks?
JW: Just about. Maybe I’d have four shooting in one week, and then none for a month. That’s why I needed several directors. One that you haven’t mentioned, Al Ray, was a good writer and a good director who had been a very successful feature comedy director who I’d known for years and years. And his cousin was a fellow by the name of Charles Ray, who was one of the top silent stars. He, too, was with me. There was a constant chain of work going on—stories in various stages of preparation, films shooting, films editing, films dubbing, previews, so forth and so on.
JC:How much money did you have to work with at that time?
JW:Well, it varied from series to series.
JC:Would you skimp on one short in order to—
JC:–do something extra on another?
JW:When you say “skimp” it wasn’t exactly skimp.
JW: I always had to cut corners. We couldn’t have survived. If I didn’t know enough to make these pictures at a price, we couldn’t have existed. Because there never was that Big Money in short subjects. If a two-reeler made five-thousand dollars—and just roughly say it cost twenty—that’s twenty-five percent. That’s pretty good. If I went a day over in shooting, it could very easily cut that down to where maybe we’d only make a couple of thousand. Or maybe nothing. Sometimes I’d start out and say, “At the start of the season I want to make a few great comedies, and I’m going to spend more on them because I want to start the different series off with a bang. I want the exhibitors to say, ‘Gee, this is great.’ I want the public to respond likewise.” Then I’d say, “Now with the next group I’ve got to make them for less money because I spent more on the others.” Now that didn’t mean that we would skimp. We would just be careful in the kind of picture we would write. Maybe we’d have only a triangle—two men and a woman or a man and two women. And it would all be in one or two little sets.