A photo of Buster Keaton in “Sidewalks of New York” has been listed on EBay. Bidding starts at $199.95.
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:After a series of films at Educational and some time out of work, Buster Keaton came to work for you for a while… Considering his background and stature, did you work with him in a special way?
JULES WHITE:No. More or less, we had a fixed way to work with everybody. As I said, first we’d get the idea from the writer. Then we’d talk it over and elaborate in conference. And then we’d get a first draft. And then we’d say, “Let’s do this and this and this and this, and then re-write that first draft. Now it’s in pretty good shape. And then we’d get the comedian in. And then we’d discuss it with him. And then—I dictated every script I ever shot—I dictated the shooting script. And in so doing, I shot the picture on paper. When I got on the set it was indelibly in my mind. So this was our process with everybody, including Keaton. Or anybody else. Keaton, too, contributed much.
JC: How was Keaton to work with at that time? He had had some bad luck, and I guess some bad times…
JW:He was very broke, and he was very discouraged. His wife took him for everything he had. He couldn’t get a job for some unknown reason, as good a comedian as he was, and I think more or less he was hiding out. I think an agent came to me and told me that Buster Keaton was available. Well, I grabbed him. I just sent a wire to New York and said, “I’m signing up Buster Keaton. Are there any objections?” Quite the contrary.
Keaton was always a very quiet man. I made a picture with him at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer called “The Sidewalks of New York.” Buster at that time—he was an introvert and he would eat himself. He’d never come out and tell you what was in his mind. But you could just tell from looking at him that he was unhappy. So I learned much about him on this picture and finally got him to come around. He was really unhappy at the start because Eddie Sedgwick had been directing all his films, and for some reason, I don’t know why, M-G-M wanted me to do it. Zion and I.
So it took a while to mellow him, and he’s a hard worker. When he got on the set, he’d do his little things, and he was very cute about doing them. After all those years that he was out, he was a very subdued little man. In fact, I found a similarity between Bert Wheeler, Harry Langdon, and Buster Keaton. They all were terribly tense, terribly nervous, terribly anxious. I think Buster and Harry were very broke; I don’t know about Bert Wheeler. They were all afraid; they had a fear. And I had to kid them and warm them and encourage them, and then I came on the set a lot when others were directing them.
Del Lord directed the first Buster Keaton, and he did a very good job. They all liked Del; Del was a very personable fellow. And as I said, he had been selling used cars. I sent for him, because he was one of the best two-reel comedy directors in the business. He wound up with a long contract with Columbia doing features. When Buster started, after about two pictures he became the old Buster and he warmed up. Oddly, his films didn’t sell as well as they should have. Why, I’ll never know. That’s why we didn’t make more than we made.
JC:They were very good.
JW:They were excellent. “Mooching Through Georgia” was a terrific short—the Civil War thing. He was—I don’t know… I just don’t know why… Oh, I do know. I do know. All the shorts were in trouble. This was the double feature and vaudeville era. It was hard to get a short booked into a theater. Because they had to have double features, they had to have vaudeville acts. They didn’t have to have the short, and it cost them money for a rental and extra projection time.
JC:This was the late thirties?
JW:May have been even into the forties. No, it couldn’t be. It was much later than that, because we didn’t start until ’33. So it was later; it was in the forties I daresay. I don’t know… I have a book that lists all of the release titles by year, I think. I just happened to run across this…
JC:Were there titles or certain words the studio felt would draw more people?
JW: Oh, you always tried to find a title that would have audience appeal. I got into a pretty big hassle, and Harry Cohn finally called me and said, “Lay off.” M-G-M had the Andy Hardy series?
JW:Anything that Andy Hardy made, I would re-word it and say, “Andy Clyde—” For instance, “Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever”?
JW:I made “Andy Clyde Gets Spring Chicken.” And M-G-M finally objected to us screwing up their good titles.
Now here is Charley Chase: “The Awful Goof.” And: “An Ache in Every Stake.” “Ants in the Pantry.” “The Awful Goof.” “Ain’t Love Cuckoo.” “All Gummed Up.” “The Awful Sleuth.” “Aim, Fire, Scoot.” “Andy Plays Hooky.” (I don’t remember what Andy Hardy did, but this was always a takeoff.) “Andy Goes Wild.” “Blonde and Groom.” “Bachelor Daze.” “Beer Barrel Polecats.” (Nineteen forty-six that was made.) “Baby Sitter’s Jitters.” “Blonde Atom Bomb.” “Booty and the Beast.” “A Bundle of Bliss.” “A Blitz on the Fritz.” “Bride and Gloom.” “Brideless Groom.” “Bedlam in Paradise.” “Blunder Boys.” Always a play on words. I’d usually send them about ten titles that my writer and I made up.
JC:Then it was up to the Publicity Department to decide which one they wanted?
JW:No, the Sales Department. The shorts sales manager made the final selection. We didn’t care which one he would choose because we liked them all. It didn’t matter. But some of these—“He Popped His Pistol.”
JC:That’s almost suggestive.
JW:It could be… “Hot Scots.” “His Pest Friend.”
JC:The Hugh Herberts of that period were mostly bedroom farces, weren’t they?
JW:They were more farcical and more gentle. He did less slapstick than any of the others.
JC:Was that because he was older than everybody else?
JW:No, it’s because he was better in those situations. Andy Clyde, too. With Andy we had everything, but a lot of farcical situations. Always we tried to find a farcical situation, and then we would gag it up accordingly. Leon Errol, for instance. He was a fine comedian, and he could ad lib—go on and on and on. He did a routine where he tries to put a letter in a mailbox, and he’s so drunk that every time he gets near the mailbox he staggers away and he can’t get it in the receptacle. Well, he could go on for two or three minutes, and in a 15-minute film that’s a lot of time.
JC:In the forties, it seems that Columbia went more toward radio performers. Vera Vague came from radio…
JW:With her we did situations, not slapstick.
JC:Harry von Zell…
JW:With Harry von Zell we did situations, although we had quite a bit of slapstick in them too.
JC:The Vera Vagues were remarkable; the one I saw almost played like a Stooges film. It’s very strange to see a woman knocking about at that level of slapstick.
JW:Well, Polly Moran, who was teamed at M-G-M in a series of features with Marie Dressler, she was a knockabout comedienne. I had her, too. I had forgotten about her. I’d completely forgotten about her. It was a bit of a novelty to see women do the slapstick in the same wild vein that was done with males. They were successful, but as I say, we ran into an era where the short subjects really—that’s why in 1958 we quit making shorts. There was just no market for them; you couldn’t sell them. Because everyone was running so much film as it was—they had three-hour shows with two features and some acts in the first runs, where your money came from, and the subsequent runs, well, they had to pay a projectionist an extra hour. That cost them another ten, and maybe they paid fifteen or twenty dollars for the rental of the film, then it wasn’t necessary. They didn’t have to. So if you multiply that by 365 days in a year, you’ve got a lot of money.
JC:Into the forties, were you pretty much experimenting with different personalities? Some of them—well, El Brendel made some comedies, Max Baer and Maxie Rosenbloom, Shemp Howard by himself, Tom Kennedy, Smith and Dale, Roscoe Karns, Alan Mowbray, Una Merkel… When did Smith and Dale work at Columbia?
JW:They only did four pictures. They didn’t sell.
JC:When did they make their films?
JW:Gee, I don’t know. In the thirties.
JC:Were they past their prime?
JW:Oh, yes. And I really didn’t like them. I used to laugh at them when they were on stage when they were the Avon Comedy Four. And for three or four years they worked for Paramount. And I resented these two characters on the screen. They represented the kind of Jew that I, as a Jew, resented.
JC:I’ve never seen any of their films.
JW:Well, I don’t mind out and out—George Sidney had played a Jewish comedian, yet he had a dignity… I never believed in making fun of a person’s nationality. If we had a Mexican, we’d let him have the dignity that’s becoming to him. Or if he was an Irishman—no matter what. For instance, Billy Gilbert, who worked for me…
JC:He could play any nationality.
JW:Yes, but he always played it with a little bit of a Dutch accent. And he was very funny. He’d get the words mixed up. Malaprops are always funny. That was Maxie Rosenbloom’s big talent—malaprops. He’d get screwed up in what he was saying. And to this day on TV you find this still going strong.
JC:How did Billie Burke come to do shorts at Columbia?
JW:I found out she was available. You know, agents were constantly coming to me with people that were available.
JC:Did you ever reject anybody?
JW:Sure. Many, many, many years ago at Educational, my brother Jack said to me one day, “There’s a guy at the Orpheum. He’s kind of funny looking, and he might be all right for a two-reeler. Go down and see him and see what you think of him.” I went down and I saw him, and I came back and said to my brother Jack, “This guy will scare pregnant women into miscarriages. Don’t put him on the screen.” His name was Joe E. Brown.
Did I goof! But that was my honest opinion. You know, my old mother, God rest her soul, had a very cute saying: “A horse has four feet and stumbles. What do you want of a human who only has two?” So that’s why they put erasers on pencils—because people make mistakes. This was a costly mistake, but it was an honest mistake. And you’d find somebody else. I had a fellow, Danny something or another. I made a couple of films with him, and he was very funny in the office. When he read the scripts and played the scenes he was just fine. On the screen he was a washout. Now this can happen. You find nobody—nobody—never makes mistakes. Except the guy who’s pushing up daises–and that’s his mistake.