Charlie Chaplin once said to me, “The only other man in this business that I fear, who I think is as funny as anyone I can conceive of or think of, is Lloyd Hamilton.” And he was. And I patterned Curly after Lloyd Hamilton. He wore the checkered cap and the little artist’s tie and the cutaway, and he had flat feet and walked with a little sort of a duck waddle like Curly had.
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:Did you go to Educational comedies from this early experience?
JULES WHITE: Well, Educational comedies was formed by my brother, Jack White, and a man by the name of Earl Hammons, who had made travelogues primarily before this, and then there was another outfit by the name of the Christie Brothers, and this group became Educational Pictures. Now my brother and the Christies made the comedies, and when I got out of school I went to work with my brother.
James Curtis’ interview with Jules White, Part 1
JC:Did you finish school?
JW:I only had nine grades of grammar school. The rest of my education was more or less acquired through a lot of reading and a lot of observation, and then I had some private tutoring–primarily in grammar and even though I don’t speak the very best of English, my “commercial English,” as I would call it, my everyday English, is very adequate. Books, I read. I was a very avid reader, and the dictionary was always in one hand or the other. So that way I acquired a fairly good education. I’m well informed; I keep up with what goes on in the world.
JC:Did you start writing at Educational?
JW:I was a young man; I guess I was about 18 years old. Prior to that I worked in almost every kind of thing that you could think of. My father had quit the cattle business and he went into the tire business. Of all the things that had no connection. When I was about 16 years old, one day I saw a sign in the window: CLOTHING ON EASY PAYMENTS. I thought: How in the world can they do that? A guy outfits himself, says goodbye, and he’s gone. So I went in and I asked the man, “How in the world do you track these people? What are the requirements for credit?” He told me: Primarily they must have a good reputation of paying their bills and have a job and so forth. I thought: Golly, what a great idea!
I went to my father and said, “We’re going to sell tires on easy payments.” He said, “You’ve got to be crazy.” I said, “Why?” And he said, “Well, they’ll run away. How can you track them? What do you do?” I said, “Well, number one, there isn’t one in a thousand that owns his car outright. So if you know how much he owes on the car and what his equity is–if his equity in it is big enough and he doesn’t pay, you can attach the car and sell it and get you money out of it.” Well, he still thought that I was crazy, but my brother-in-law was an attorney and he said, “I’d draw an iron-clad contract. It’s a great idea.” And we made a lot of money. It was a very successful enterprise. I was very happy to realize–it took me some years–at the age of 16 we were the first to sell tires on easy payments. It was very quickly followed by almost everybody else. But in the meantime we skimmed the cream off the milk. Then I went to work for my brother as an actor, assistant film editor, projectionist, assistant property man, still photographer, and purchasing agent for $50 a week.
JC: Was there anything you weren’t?
JW:Not much. No, you see, there were no unions. Anybody could do anything. And we did it–almost anything. Educational films became very, very big in the short subjects field, and I grew with it. Eventually I became head of all the editing and photography and so forth and so on. And then I became a director. Well, to be a director in those days you had to be a writer. If you didn’t have the imagination to concoct what you were going to put on the screen, you couldn’t put it on the screen.
JC:Who did you work with in the early days at Educational?
JW:Well, I doubt that anyone in the world would ever know them. They never were famous people. There was a fellow by the name of Cliff Bowes, a fellow by the name of Sid Smith… but there was one man–one man, Lloyd Hamilton, who was an extremely funny man. Matter of fact, Charlie Chaplin once said to me, “The only other man in this business that I fear, who I think is as funny as anyone I can conceive of or think of, is Lloyd Hamilton.” And he was. And I patterned Curly after Lloyd Hamilton. He wore the checkered cap and the little artist’s tie and the cutaway, and he had flat feet and walked with a little sort of a duck waddle like Curly had.
JC:Did he make sound pictures?
JW:Eventually, yes. He was still around when sound film came in, but he became a hopeless alcoholic. And so he didn’t get much work in his latter days. I felt very guilty about not helping the man, because I liked him very much. But there was nothing I could do. You couldn’t depend on him. He might come in roaring drunk, or he might not show up at all, or he might be sober as a judge and work great. But, I think of all this group–oh, and then there was Lupino Lane, who was a cousin of Ida Lupino. He was a very, very funny man.
JC:When did you start at Educational?
JC:Did you leave to go to M-G-M?
JW:From there I went to Fox. In those days it was called William Fox Pictures. From Educational I went there, and I worked there for several years. And then I came back to Educational when sound came in, and my brother and I made our first sound picture together.
JC:What was that?
JW:Darn if I can remember. It was a circus film, and it was a very exciting film when it was done because no one had heard the circus sounds in a theater on the screen. And we had, of course, a plot and a lot of comedy in it. I’m trying to think what year that was.
JW:Yes, it was… let me think now… I think I went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from there in about 1928. Sound, by then, was quite well established. And we got an idea. This fellow that’s on the film with Sidney and Murray… Incidentally, this Sidney was the uncle of George Sidney, the director who did very well. I used to chase him off my set because he laughed too loud. He used to disturb me. I made a series at M-G-M that were called “The Barkies”—all dogs. You see these pictures up there? See those?
“Hot Dog,” an “All Barkie,” 1939.
JW:Well, dogs would dress like human beings. We did plots just like you would do in a picture with humans. Usually, we burlesqued the most famous films. Now, at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where I made this series–and then we would dub in the voices–most of their big, dramatic features were burlesqued. For instance, we made the dog [version of] “The Big House” in which Wally Beery was a very vicious criminal. And we [called it] “The Big Dog House.” And then there was “Broadway Melody”–we made “The Dogway Melody.” “All Quiet on the Western Front” was “All Quiet on the Canine Front.” This is the way we did those films, and they were fantastic.
JC:Were they commercially successful?
JW:They were the most commercially successful films in the history of motion pictures until one of my very good friends came out with a thing called “The Three Little Pigs.” And we were out of business.
JW:Yeah. Disney’s “Three Little Pigs” was so superior to anything anyone had ever done that by contrast we were nothing. We still continued to make films, but the tremendous impact these dog films had on the industry was nullified when “Three Little Pigs” came out. Of course, that was five years later.
JC:So you went back to Educational in the sound period for a little while, and then from there you went to Columbia?
JW:Um-hum. I was at M-G-M for five years. I got into a discussion one day with Mr. Mayer. He was a man with whom you did not get into discussions. He was God, he thought. I thought differently. And we settled my contract. So I left M-G-M and I did one picture at Hal Roach with ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd. Then from there I went to Paramount and did a picture called “King of the Jungle” that was an animal thing. A friend of mine… well, my agent–who became an agent through the dog series at M-G-M that I told you about–had been an assistant to one of the big producers so he had entrée there and he sold then the idea. From this he became one of the richest men in the picture business.
JC:Who was he?
JW:Milton Bren. One of the most successful agents in the industry for many, many years. He now owns buildings on Sunset Boulevard, right there by the Strip, so he didn’t need anything. He’s a very wealthy man. When I finished with Paramount–I had not quite finished—my friend Zion Myers, who was one of the most brilliant guys in the world (and we worked together, we were like brothers) told me that he had been at a party and Harry Cohn asked him: Did he want to come and create a short subjects department for him? So he said yes, but that he wanted me with him. And of course I knew the Cohns very well.
JC:Harry Cohn, I have heard, is compared to just the opposite of God…
JW:To those with whom he did not have a rapport, Harry Cohn—let me finish what I started telling you and I’ll do it briefly for you…
JW: Anyway, I went there. We did a few pictures together. I was still at Paramount, but when I finished my assignment I went to work with him. And we did a few pictures together, then he got a chance to go over to RKO and be Pan Berman’s assistant. He was now making the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films.
JW:Yes, and his cousin, Mark Sandrich, who had been my assistant and my gag man–I taught him how to direct. One day I got sick and I sat on the set and told him what to do, and he directed–that’s how he started. He directed most of the big Astaire-Rogers hits. So when Zion left, I took over the shorts department. By that time, he [had] made the first short with the Stooges, which was called “Woman Haters.” But all the rest were made under my guidance.
JC: “Woman Haters” was a musical.
“Men in Black”: Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard!
JW:Yes. It was done in recitative and it was music. A very cute film, and it was an instantaneous success, but not nearly the success of “Men in Black.”
JC:…which was nominated–and it won an Academy Award, did it not?
JW: No. I was beaten out by Laurel and Hardy. And it just so happened I had a friend working at the auditors–can’t think of their name—and he told me that I was beaten by six votes. That was my first film with them. It was a smash. They were an instant hit. That film put them on the map, and from then on we had a sort of a format, and we followed through with this real nonsense…