William Witney, B-Movie Action King

by R. Emmet Sweeney  posted May 10, 2013
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Film director William Witney changed the way movie punches were thrown. It has become a cliché to say that fight scenes are like dances, but for Witney this was just common sense. He saw Busby Berkeley working on a stage spectacle, and adapted that regimented method to action sequences, essentially inventing the job of stunt choreographer. Witney honed this approach over a forty-year career directing an astonishing variety of low-budget action movies, from 1930s adventure serials to 1970s Blaxploitation comedies. A lifetime of B-movie production had left him rather unknown, except to some cult genre obsessives, one of whom happened to be Quentin Tarantino. He has been promoting Witney’s work for years by screening his personal 16mm and 35mm prints at film festivals and mentioning his name whenever interviewers ask for influences. After Tarantino finished shooting Django Unchained, he shipped its prop dentist wagon to the Lone Pine Film History Museum in California. Witney spent the majority of his career in the hills outside Lone Pine, shooting Westerns in a week or two with Roy Rogers, creating a cohesive body of work out of bodies tumbling to the ground.

William Witney was born in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1915. His father died when he was four years old, and he was raised by his mother Grace and two older sisters. William’s son Jay Dee Witney told me that William was “kind of heavy as a boy,” so his mother shipped him to live with his Uncle Lou, who was an Army captain at Fort Sam Houston. It was there that Witney learned how to ride and jump horses, beginning his long love affair with animals, which would culminate with his sympathetic work with Trigger in the Roy Rogers movies. Animals in his films are not props, but fully-developed characters given subplots of their own. Tarantino called him the “greatest director when it comes to working with animals.”


Young William Witney

Witney was ready to follow his Uncle into the Armed Forces after high school, and started cramming for the entrance exam to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. The exam was administered in Los Angeles, so Witney moved in briefly with his sister Frances and her husband Colbert “Bert” Clark. A director for the Poverty Row studio Mascot, Bert asked William if he wanted to “work for a couple of days making chase scenes with the cowboys.” Witney agreed, and after a day’s riding alongside stuntmen Yakima Canutt and Ken Cooper, he would never be far away from a saddle. Eventually Bert got him a job as an office boy at Mascot, and when he failed the Math section of the Naval exam, he stayed on for good. He gradually moved up the ranks, from office boy to gofer to editor, where he worked alongside future B-auteur Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy).

In 1935 Hubert Yates consolidated six Poverty Row studios, including Mascot, into Republic Pictures. Witney would make nearly 80 features and serials for Republic over the next 23 years. After some personnel shakeups the nineteen-year-old Witney was moved from the editing suite to the set as a script clerk. It was B. Reeves Eason (known as “Breezy”) that got him thinking about action film aesthetics. He was a flamboyant dresser, always in white silk shirts and pants, with a daredevil streak. In his autobiography Witney recalls a story in which Breezy performed a dangerous horse fall to convince a skittish stuntman of its safety, and ended up breaking an arm. Witney admired his bravado and fearlessness, writing that “I found myself using the same techniques that he had to make an action sequence come to reality.”

When the Dick Tracy (1937) serial was falling behind schedule, Witney was asked to direct second-unit location footage, and then to edit the footage himself. The low budgets necessitated that employees become jacks of all trades, and Witney had first-hand experience of every aspect of the filmmaking process by the time he was twenty years old. So when one of the directors on The Painted Stallion (1937, a Western serial starring Ray “Crash” Corrigan) was fired for his alcoholism, Witney was ready to step in. He was reunited with Yakima Canutt, who performed the first stunt Witney filmed as a director, flipping over a buckboard pulled by two horses. In chapter eight of The Painted Stallion, The Whistling Arrow, they would perfect a stunt made famous by Canutt in Stagecoach (1939). Canutt (doubling for Corrigan) chases down a breakaway stagecoach and falls in between the lead horses, grabbing the wagon tongue to avoid being trampled. Then he loses his grip and the wagon rolls over him, but before it gets away he snags a rope dangling off the back and snaps himself up onto the coach and finally settles the horses. It is an exhilarating sequence that works on pure velocity.

Witney would often shoot action scenes at 22 frames per second to create the illusion of death-defying speed instead of the simply dangerous rate at which they were actually moving. When Witney cuts in closer to the stunt, Canutt’s body position is perfectly matched from shot to shot, so his motions appear to be one unbroken ribbon of action. Witney used the Republic camera car for long tracking shots aside the stagecoach, and over the years he would experiment with how to best position it. In these early serials he would almost always place the camera so it pointed perpendicular to the chase, the viewers watching side saddle. By the time of the Roy Rogers Westerns in the 1940s, he had switched to head-on angles, with the outlaws and heroes heading straight at the camera, placing the audience directly in the line of fire.

The highlight of his next serial, S.O.S. Coast Guard (1937), was meeting his future wife in actress Maxine Doyle. The movie offered little opportunity for inventive stuntwork but plenty for the Republic special effects crew. The insane script has villain Bela Lugosi wield a “disintegrating gas” that was dramatized by using funhouse mirror optical effects, with objects elongating into nothingness. Witney would only gain some measure of directorial control when he teamed up with John English, his partner on seventeen serials with Republic. English was a debonair Brit whom Witney described as a “boudoir man.” Witney shot the outdoor and action scenes, and English would handle the interiors. It was an ideal working relationship, but they also became close friends—Witney asked English to be his son Jay Dee’s godfather. Zorro Rides Again (1937) is their debut collaboration, and acts as a compendium of pulp scenarios, jumping from Western adventure to nighttime urban noir, leading to technological collisions like when Zorro jumps from a horse to a moving truck in order to chase down a train.


Director William Witney sits on the edge of the camera platform at Republic Pictures in Studio City, California, circa 1930s

It was around this time that Witney watched Busby Berkeley at work, having been invited to the set by a friend who was a Warner Brothers grip. Berkeley would rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone,” and when he released them to get into costume, he would call in one of the stars to shoot a close-up insert of the same movement. When the dancers returned he would shoot the full routine with no time wasted. Witney sidled up to English at their local bar and told him they should use that same technique in the fights on their next picture. He agreed, and soon their choreographed B-movie brawls were as disciplined as Berkeley’s big-budget spectacles. The apotheosis of this approach appears in Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939), in which the main characters are three circus acrobats battling a villainous master of disguise. Now with input into the casting, Witney surrounded handsome leading man Charles Quigley with two athletes—the Olympic shot putter Herman Brix (aka Bruce Bennett) and U.S. National Tumbling champion and stuntman David Sharpe.  Jay Dee told me that his father was “as close to the stuntmen as he was to the actors,” and this film is a tribute to their work—the stuntman as superhero.

After Dick Tracy Vs. Crime Inc. (1941), John English left the serials to work on features at Republic, while Witney enlisted in the Marine Corps as WWII loomed. He was still able to shoot four more serials on his own before he was called into service, but he eventually left with a combat camera unit that was stationed on the U.S.S. Cape Gloucester. The Gloucester was situated off the coast of Okinawa, from which planes flew combat air patrol sorties to protect minesweepers from kamikaze attacks. On August 7th, 1945, one day after the bombing of Hiroshima, Witney tersely wrote in his diary that, “the atom bomb was announced tonight and the impact hit everyone.”

After returning from the war, Witney was assigned to direct Roy Rogers in Roll On Texas Moon (1946). He would go on to make 25 more Westerns with Rogers in five years, an outrageously fast pace, but nothing new for a man who had cranked out 12-chapter serials in similar two-week time frames. Witney consulted on the scripts, and he turned the Rogers pictures from tame kiddie musicals into more adventurous fight films. The Rogers Ranch remains as neighborly as ever with kindly old coot Gabby Hayes and squeaky-voiced galloot Andy Devine, but the world outside its borders goes a little mad. These are shockingly violent films, with the saintly Dale Evans getting shot in The Bells of San Angelo (1947), while a man is fed to wolves in The Eyes of Texas (1948).  Human lives were cheap, but those of animals sacred. In The Bells of San Angelo, a villainous silver smuggler’s hideout is shot up, and the first thing he does is step over a wounded gang member to check on his pet canary. Witney tried to keep his set as warm and friendly as the Rogers Ranch, an attempt to create a clubhouse refuge from the chaos of the wider world. Jay Dee remembers his mom taking him to the set, where he became close friends with Roy’s son Dusty. On Fridays when the film would wrap, the whole crew would head to a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard and Witney’s wife Maxine would sit at a piano and sing. On the weekends Roy and Dale, and later Rex Allen and Slim Pickens, would come over for a few drinks.

He continued to experiment with action staging in his post-Rogers movies for Republic, most notably in The Outcast (1954), which opens with a bird rescue of his own. Jet (John Derek) rescues a lady’s avian pal after her cage crashes open onto a dirt road. It’s revealed her father was the man who swindled Jet’s family out of a plot of land he’s seeking to recover. It’s a simple set up, but Witney uses it to further tweak his action ideal, using selected zooms to isolate narrative details. In a particularly brutal brawl in a high class hotel room, Jet is being choked out. After taking the brute down in a leg sweep, he can’t pry those mitts off his neck, so Witney does a slight zoom-in to capture the veins popping in Jet’s forehead before he kicks loose. This intense interior battle is then immediately followed up by a wide open gunfight outside, as if the tension in Jet’s head couldn’t be contained indoors.

Stranger at My Door (1956) is another psychological Western, this time about a preacher (Macdonald Carey) with a young wife (Patricia Medina) who wants to save the soul of bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier). Witney called it his favorite of his own films, and it is certainly the most ambitious. While it has Western trappings it is a essentially a chamber drama that Witney shoots with expressionist flourishes. The movie opens with a close-up of a window being smashed, and ends with Clay lying prone inside the frame of an unfinished church. Destruction and creation go hand in hand. Clay is hiding out anonymously at the preacher’s house, but they soon discover his identity. Instead of turning him over to the cops, the preacher tries to open his heart to God through tests that put his family in intense danger. The preacher’s faith is absolute, with no concern about collateral damage. He adopts a wild horse named Lucifer for Clay to tame, but it almost tramples them all to death in one of the most viscerally frightening animal attacks I’ve seen on film. The climax is an apocalyptic windstorm of repressed desires in which the wife points a shotgun at Lucifer’s face, their kid gets shot, and the whole farm almost goes up in flames.


On the set of Perils of Nyoka

Republic Pictures ceased feature film production in 1958, and it was sold to National Telefilm Associates the following year. Witney’s home for twenty years was gone. He adapted by becoming a prolific director for television, but for feature work he joined up with low-budget outfit American International Pictures, formed by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff in 1954. He made four films for them, including a few juvenile delinquency pictures and Tarantino favorite The Bonnie Parker Story (1958). He also made his only war movie for them, the claustrophobic WWII drama Paratroop Command (1958). It follows a single platoon as they engage in attacks in Africa, Sicily and Salerno. Witney uses packed frames of sweaty faces, frightened to move. Pushing outside these frames leads to death, whether it’s friendly fire or when they set a German on fire who emerges from behind a haystack. It is a quiet, agitated film, centered by the soulful deep set eyes of Richard Bakalyan, facing the reality of his own cowardice. The Cat Burglar (1961), which he made for United Artists, displays an agitated post-War America, trembling with Cold War paranoia. Pickpocket Jack Coley (Jack Hogan) steals a briefcase that contains a rare scientific formula, and soon he’s beset by a phalanx of foreign agents and the local fuzz. Seemingly shot for nothing in back alleys and on empty factory floors, it’s a no-budget Pickup on South Street that’s equally skeptical of American exceptionalism.

Politics come further to the fore in his work for Gene and Roger Corman, especially in the slapstick Blaxploitation comedy Darktown Strutters (1975).  It’s a chaotic swirl of old styles married to new politics. The script by George Armitage (Grosse Pointe Blank), follows Black biker chick Syreena (Trina Banks, Diamonds are Forever) as she searches for her mother Cinderella, who has gone missing ever since she opened up a secret abortion clinic. Chased by a resurgent KKK and a trio of racist Keystone Kops (including Dick Miller), her journey ends in the basement of a fried chicken magnate with his own minstrel show, where soul group The Dramatics sing “What You See is What you Get” in an underground prison. Bamboozled and Pootie Tang are tame in comparison. Pro-choice and espousing Black separatism, the film is also an homage to slapstick, with the bumbling Kops chasing Syreena around town in scenes sped-up to mimic the 18fps of the silents. It’s unclassifiable, as if Mack Sennett directed a Malcolm X-scripted version of Foxy Brown.

Everyone cites Darktown Strutters as his final film, from Quentin Tarantino to Witney’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times, but seven years later he made an independent Western in Durango, Mexico called Quell and Co. (aka Showdown at Eagle Gap, 1982). Little is known about its production. Jay Dee told me that it was a “last minute thing. He had hooked up with some producer in Mexico, where he loved going to with my stepmom at the time.” Perhaps it was simply a way to get a paid vacation. Or maybe he was getting nostalgic, because Quell and Co. is, in spirit, a Republic Western. It’s about three cowboys who meet out West and start their own ranch, but have to fight off evil land speculator Kirk (Skip Homeier, from Stranger at My Door) who is driving families out of their homes. It could be a lost episode from The Painted Stallion. He even returns to his old camera car angle, shooting hard charging horse chases as if riding side saddle—tracking shot as time machine, channeling the spirit of all those Republic artisans, from John English to Yakima Canutt, who helped him invent the modern action movie.

Quell and Co. was made on such short notice that Witney couldn’t find an actor to play the sheriff, so Jay Dee remembers his Dad said, “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.” His cherubic face is masked by a bushy white moustache and a ten gallon hat, a grin curling his lips. It is the final scene, and he is there to warn the trio that Kirk is still alive and wants his woman back. She refuses to leave, and they agree to protect her. The sheriff’s closing thought could more aptly describe Witney himself, a restlessly creative 67-year-old still searching for the perfect punch: “Well I gotta admit, you all gotta lot of guts.” Then he raises a stiff right hand, and waves goodbye to the movies.

Thanks to Jay Dee Witney for all his assistance, and to Francis Nevins, Jr. for transcribing William Witney’s WWII diary. 


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Courtesy of WilliamWitney.com
Young William Witney


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R. Emmet Sweeney writes a weekly column for Movie Morlocks, the official blog of Turner Classic Movies. He has also contributed to Film Comment, Time Out Chicago and The Believer.

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