Photo: The Senate chambers in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was redecorated as a palace for a Three Stooges film.
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 CURTIS:Would you find yourself using existing sets many times?
JULES WHITE: All the time. I say, “All the time.” I dare say ninety percent of the sets I used were other sets, butwe would alter them. The way sets were built, they were made in units. So where you had a door unit you’d exchange it with a window unit so it was a little different. And walls are walls. Your dressing would be different; the way you furnished them would change them.
JC:If there was a major picture shooting at Columbia, like say a Capra picture, could you use the sets after they were finished?
JW:Well, you hit it exactly on the head. “Lost Horizon” sets—I took some of those and had them re-finished as Spanish sets because they had stones and pillars and columns and what have you.
JC:I saw a Keaton one time called “Pest from the West”–
JC: –which took place in a Spanish setting. He played a lover who lived on a boat.
JW:Yes, well, he gets off the boat at a Mexican port. I don’t remember exactly, because we had many sets, and it wasn’t difficult to make anything look Spanish—you hang up a couple of serapes and you use tile, wallpaper… it’s not hard to make them look like what you want. I remember Frank Capra’s big set in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”…
JC:The Senate chambers?
JW:Yes, and I made a palace out of that, in which I had the Three Musketeers-like characters which were the Three Stooges. We just papered the columns with marble paper and put in the old early English furniture and made it look like a palace.
JC:How long would a set like that remain standing?
JW:Indefinitely. Many sets stayed there year after year. But every so often they’d clear the whole stage because they had to put up a whole new big picture and they needed the space. But there was always something standing. When I first came to Columbia, I rented space in a studio that had a stage and had sets standing, and on the corner was another studio that had sets standing. It was a rental studio, so I would go in there and pay the day’s rent for the sets and it was a pittance compared to what they cost to erect, but it was good business for these people because they were constantly being used.
JC:Did you find yourself on occasion designing a comedy around a standing set?
JW:Definitely. The chamber that I made the palace out of, or the “Lost Horizon” sets—I don’t know how many pictures I made around them and with them, always disguised. Because you obviously could not take a ten million dollar picture and use those sets in a little comedy and take away from them.
JC:Was there a rule about making the sets unrecognizable?
JW:Oh, yeah. Sure. The art department saw to that. The head of the art department, if I didn’t have sense enough to know it, my own art director always—I’d say I want you to do this and this and change this, and so forth…
JC:You couldn’t, in other words, parody “Lost Horizon” using their sets with the Stooges or Charlie Chase?
JW:Well, it would be bad business. Can you imagine a dress shop that has the world’s most famous couturiers and designers making these very, very expensive gowns that cost thousands of dollars or maybe as little as $250 and making a copy for ten dollars? In competition with his own expensive materials and creations? It just wouldn’t work. Even in wardrobe—I would use the same wardrobe on women and men that were used in these very big expensive pictures, but again we would alter them. Rita Hayworth’s dresses would fit some of my girls in some of the pictures, but we’d change them—change the neckline, put a different trim on them, and I had very beautiful wardrobe for my girls. Nothing was cheap; even that cost a lot of money.
JC:So, about that time you would spend roughly $20,000 a picture?
JC:How long would you have to work on a picture? Was it just that you had to deliver x-many comedies on a certain schedule? Or did each series have its own deadline?
JW: No, there was no deadline because we would just shuffle the releases. If there was a Stooge picture scheduled for October 4th and I didn’t have one ready, I’d say, “Take the Andy Clyde for October 4th and January 20thI’ll have a Stooge.”
Now when they said they wanted a 3-D film with the Stooges, they phoned me from New York. They said, “How quickly can we have one? We wanted it yesterday.” I said, “Two weeks from today I’ll have a film for you.” With no idea what I was going to do. But I knew I was going to do it, and I knew what it meant to have it that quickly.
JC:Why did they want a three-dimensional Stooge comedy?
JW: Because they had two features, and they could not make a show out of a feature alone. To put two of them in was not good business because they were a novelty. But with a short and a feature they had a program, so they had to have something in a hurry. I said, “All I want you to do is to phone the front office and tell them I want carte blanche. Give me a clear track on anything I want ahead of anything else in the studio.” Which they did. I just skulled and skulled: What story can I take and re-write in a hurry?
JC:How did the three-dimensional process work when you used it? What special considerations did you have to be conscious of when shooting in 3-D that you wouldn’t normally have to worry about?
JW:Anything that came toward the audience. Any object. Like if you threw a pie, that pie would come right into the audience. If you threw a spear, or if you threw a frying pan, that was its value to us in comedy. That first picture, I never saw such a reaction. I never saw such screams, and then laughter in relief that they weren’t really going to be hit. But, unfortunately, the glasses were annoying to the public and it soon died.
JC:This was a process where they used two projectors at one time?
JW:Yes, that is correct.
JC:And one would be slightly off?
JW:That’s right. The two of them were set up in such a way that they made one. And we shot it, of course, with the one camera.
JC:About 1935, Harry Langdon came to Columbia. He had really gone downhill in the past ten years—
JC:Financially and artistically, it seems.
JW: Well, he was still a very good comedian. Of course, you see, there was a difference in the type of film we were making then as compared to the early ones. Harry Langdon could stand still, pondering what he was going to do, and he would act out all of the things that were in his mind. He would give you three, four, five minutes of solid laughter just doing these things himself. Now I saw Larry Fine’s book, to which I wrote the introduction.
JC:“Stroke of Luck”?
JW:Yeah. I read in there a thing that he had said that annoyed me no end. He’s talking about how the scripts were concocted and how they were written. They had a hand in it, because I insisted that each comedian sit in on the final draft and check out the tidbits we were going to do to make sure they were in accord, because when you force someone to do something that he cannot understand or doesn’t feel, it’s pretty difficult to get a good performance out of him. It’s like you taking a big bite out of a sour lemon and not reacting to the taste of that. It’s just not human to do that. He said, “Scripts have so-and-so and so-and-so, and then it said, ‘And here the Stooges do their stuff.’”
Never. Never, in any film that I ever made, did I ever say: And here any comedian “does his stuff.” Everything was spelled out, and in very clear detail as to exactly what they were going to do. Butwhen we got on the set, then we would rehearse it. I’d show them what I wanted, and then let them add anything of value—particularly those slaps.
JW: You know, people have been after me to write my story, my book…
JC:And you should.
JW: I should, but I’m too lazy. You know, when the fish are biting I don’t wish to bother. When they’re not biting and the ducks are flying I don’t wish to bother. When neither of them are available, I go boating. And I go traveling. I’m lazy. I worked very hard all my life, and I’m sort of stingy of what I do with my time, other than things I wanted to do in my life and didn’t have the time to do.
My wife bought a tape recorder. She asked me to do just what I’m doing here. My real story, starting from the time when I was a little boy, and the things that have happened in my family, and in my first wife’s family—they were immigrants from Russia, but what they went through is a book in itself. Talk about “Les Misérables”—my God. The book that I will write, if I ever start, will be a big, big thing. There are such tremendous, dramatic things which occurred. I really should write it, in addition to the motion picture aspect.
JC:I heard that Moe was writing a book. Did he ever get that finished?
JW: I heard that he was too, but I don’t know what he could say that hasn’t been said. There are a couple of books about the Stooges. Of course, Larry’s book is a big flop…
JC:The guy that worked on it absconded with some stills that were loaned him—
JC:No. The ghost writer.
JW:I don’t think so. Ninety percent of the stills were from me.
JW:Yes… other than the things that happened to Larry in his early life before he came in contact with me at Columbia, were mine. And this James Carone, who wrote this… Now Larry… Yes, he sort of absconded, period. He and Larry had a lot of trouble. I didn’t want to get in the middle.
JC:Larry was ill at the time, wasn’t he?
JW:Well, he had had a stroke, but he wasn’t too ill to not know what was going on. His mind was very clear; for a man who had had the strokes he had, I was amazed how good his memory was and how clear his mind was. He had a slight impediment in his speech, and he couldn’t walk. But he was clear in his mind. And I went through a great deal of this with Larry and with Carone. Carone came and saw me on two occasions, and I spent much time with him. I wanted the book to be a success for Larry’s sake. That is why I wrote this foreword. What happened was, months elapsed. Carone promised to give my pictures back shortly after he got through with them. I didn’t hear from him. I tried to get him on the phone; there was no answer. So I wrote a letter in which I said, “You promised to return these to me. I’m a pretty good judge of people. I’ve always found people to be pretty nice. Please, don’t you spoil this image.” And he sent the pictures back to me with a copy of the book.
Now Carone had told me—and he told me, called me a couple of times—how much he had invested and how much he was losing, that Larry insisted that he get a percentage of anything that comes in, and he said, “I won’t give him a dime because I can’t even get enough back to pay for the paper.” So they were fighting. And he called me to complain, and asked me to talk to Larry, who had threatened to sue. I said, “No, I will not. I’m not going to get in the middle. You two fight out your own battles and do whatever you feel you should do. Don’t try to implicate me, because I don’t want any part of it.”
I know that Carone told me he was a nephew of Al Capone. No—of RalphCapone, the brother of Al Capone. And how much power he had and what he could do to Larry… I said, “Oh, gee, that’s fine. You’re going to send somebody in to bump off an invalid in a wheel chair.” He said, “Oh, I didn’t mean that. We don’t live that way anymore.” I said, “Maybe you don’t, but it can be done. Then what?” He said, “Well I had no intention of doing that, but I could make life awful miserable for him.” I said, “His life is pretty miserable now. In a wheelchair. In a hospital. So what are you going to do to him?’ Anyway, the book has not been successful to my knowledge. Unless it just happened.
JC:What do you think of the book? Do you think it’s mostly correct? Is it a good book in your opinion?
JW: You want to know the honest truth? I haven’t read the whole book. There’s not much in it that I would find that I didn’t know. Even his early life in the theatre. I heard him talk about it so many times it really didn’t interest me.