The Origins of Action!
In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase
By William Witney
And a bunch of other stuff
Jackie Chan wouldn't exist, John Wick wouldn't exist, Neo and Morpheus would never exist, and Marvel movies wouldn't exist if it weren't for William Witney.
What!?! Don't you know who he is? Don't feel bad. It's the kind of knowledge that guys who obsess a little bit too much about movies know. Guys like Quentin Tarrantino, Martin Scorcese, and I know. (That's an Italian Troika! But only one of us can't afford a coffee at Starbucks.) Well, pull up a chair, and I will tell another tale of someone who changed the face of cinema.
William Witney came to Hollywood as a young man from Lawton, Oklahoma. He came to live with his uncle, a Captain stationed a fort Sam Huston in Texas. With dreams of striking out on his own and seeing the world, young Bill Whitney staked his future on a career in the Navy. He took the test to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Things did not go well. Luckily his older sister, Frances' husband, Colbert Clark, worked in the movie business and allowed young William to ride horses in a couple of western scenes he was directing. Colbert had a long career as a writer, producer, and director of primarily western films. Check out the Durango Kid series for Columbia. (There are a ton of them!)
William's dreams of a seafaring life were over, but as a consolation prize, he was allowed to hang around Mascot Pictures productions. Mascot Pictures was a spin-off, kind of, of the Loews movie theater chain. Founder Nat Levine was the personal assistant to Marcus Loew. In case you don't know, Marcus Loew founded Metro Pictures in 1920. Sometime in the mid-1920s, he purchased a controlling interest in Goldwyn Picture Company, which was under the control of another theater owner and would be impresario Lee Shubert. Goldwyn not only owned a sizable motion picture studio in sunny southern California, but they owned a sizeable male lion by the name of Leo.
William Witney, Man of Action
Most of Loews' operations were on the east coast, and Levine needed someone to run the west coast operation. A low-budget producer who had a nice business making inexpensive melodramas for the ladies. William B. Mayer and his chief of staff, Irving Thalberg. And so Metro-Goldwyn Mayer was Born! Or at least glued together, and the rest is history. (MGM currently is most famous for the James Bond films, which owe a debt to William Witney, who I'm getting to.) There was no place at MGM for Nat Levine. He had it bad for movie making and founded his studio, Mascot Pictures. Levine and his company specialized in low-budget westerns and serials. He spent the least amount possible, and his films didn't lose any money. A fact that few production companies could claim.
William Witney started his career at the very bottom. Today, it wouldn't be the very bottom. That would be a Parking P.A., Those guys who try to convince people not to park in front of their own homes so the movie trucks can park there instead. Who spend long sleepless days living out of their cars, eating junk, not showering, and arguing with regular folk about parking spaces. It's not pleasant, but it's show biz! Just a step up from pushing a broom behind an elephant.
"What!?! And leave show business!"
Witney started at the bottom for that time. He started his motion picture career as a gopher and a production assistant. He showed up in the art department when he wasn't needed and in the editorial department when they needed help. He even held the horses in between takes. That kid picked up and bound the scripts from the printer and later made the copies on a new-fangled printer called the mimeograph himself!
William Witney at 21
He was an amiable young fellow, good-looking, and open to almost any job that kept him in the picture business. Eventually, he attained the lofty position of script supervisor. This job entailed ensuring it was the right scene, the costumes were correct, and the props were on set and in the correct location. In addition, he made sure the actors said all the lines the story required to work. The actors can make up their lines as long as they don't deviate from the plot. Back then, they called it continuity.
While on location in Utah's Monument Valley. The director got fired in the middle of production. (My bet he was drunk! Okay, that's a sucker's bet. He was drunk, and Ray Taylor had an excellent reputation as a filmmaker and a top consumer of hooch! His career didn't end in Utah. He would continue working for another twenty years.) The only person who knew where the film was, script-wise, was the continuity man. So Witney was told to take over the film's direction until a replacement arrived. "I was the only one who knew the script," he would later recount. (This kind of thing could only have happened in the 1930s.) He was 21 years old, and the replacement never showed up. (Why? He was probably drunk! There was a lot of drinking back then!) That potentially catastrophic situation turned into a nearly 40-year career during which William Witney directed or co-directed 24 serials and at least 64 feature films, the last of which was a Blaxploitation Musical, Darktown Strutters AKA Get Down and Boogie, because, of course it was. I'm barely going to mention his T.V. series. But since you are reading, I'll mention some T.V. shows, Branded, Tarzan, and The Wild, Wild West!
Mascot Pictures bought Sennett Studios due to the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which gave them an actual studio. It was there they would shoot The Phantom of the West, starring Tom Tyler and William Desmond, the King of the silent serials, who was silent no more! The Phantom of the West was the first all-talking movie serial. As a note to other like-minded folks, Physical Culture enthusiast and stunt player Joe Bonomo was featured as a gunman and did double duty as Tom Tyler's stunt double.
Eventually, Mascot would merge with its film lab, Consolidated Film Industries. As the alternative to Technicolor, Kodak, De-luxe, Prizmacolor, and others. CFI's film lab was not the most reputable laboratory. Nick-named, Can't Find It labs, CFI had big plans after its 1928 purchase of New York City's Biograph studios. Mascot Pictures was just one of a group of small b-picture studios that joined in the merger. I suspect the studios all owed the lab money. It was either bankruptcy or a merger. And so Republic Pictures was born.
It was at Republic where William Witney made his mark. He was a full-fledged director at the ripe old age of 21! An actual, Wunder-kinder! Today, that's all you would hear about his youth, his looks, and youth! Did I mention his youth? But our boy wasn't going to sit on his laurels. William Witney wanted to make the best movies he could. Being young and energetic, he had a wide swath of industry friends. While visiting a pal on the set of a Busby Berkeley musical spectacular, our hero had an epiphany that would change the world.
Perils of Nyoka, William Witney and Crew
Before we change the world, let's learn about Director/Choreographer Busby Berkeley. He began his choreography career as a lieutenant during World War 0ne. He was placed in charge of an artillery unit. In what I surmise was his attempt to participate in a long-cherished military tradition: How to look busy to your superior officers without really doing anything useful. He drilled those soldiers in marching across the parade grounds. Close your eyes! (Open your eyes because, you know, reading.) Imagine your high school marching band. Take away the instruments and replace them with small cannons and rifles. Now you have a picture. His artillery unit, some 1,200 strong, would parade in increasingly complex patterns, often placing their guns in a line. With a toot of a whistle, they all would shift position in unity and regroup in another direction. At the same time they are marching across the field. Hut, two, three, four!
No one could march some soldiers like Lieutenant Enos! (That was his last name. He was born Berkeley Enos.) He got nicknamed by actors in his parent's touring theatrical group Buzz or Busby.) Like me, he probably wasn't thrilled by that last name. How do you even pronounce it, E-nose? Or do you drop the "s" and say E-no? I don't know. And so, after leaving the regional theater to join the army, he left the military behind and came to sunny southern California. To Hollywood. To drill starlets! That came out wrong.
Maybe that last point was not exactly wrong. Busby Berkeley married six times and was engaged to at least two other women. Why do these Hollywood types refuse to date? Buzz thought of himself as a choreographic artist and then a director. Possessing an artistic sensibility, he was creative and very emotional. He felt that the studio's editing practices marred his beautiful dances. The sequences he envisioned were wholly separate from the main action. His "numbers" would begin as a typical stage performance. They would quickly go beyond the traditional and change time and place. This presentation could only happen in a movie. after breaking the sequence into various shots and kaleidoscopic shapes, the scene would return to an applauding audience and back into traditional theater. Buzz used one Camera to achieve this, instead of the usual multi-cam, to retain control over his vision so no other person could edit the film.
Busby Berkeley spectacle!
While Buzz was shooting his dance number, William Witney was taking notes. Witney had on-the-job training in the highly specialized field of filmmaking. Each day was working on sets and in the studio offices and he kept learning all the aspects of production. Reading the scripts as he went about his business, he learned how a screen story is told. By working in the lower reaches of the Hollywood system, he learned economy and how to streamline a story for maximum effect. Fast and cheap was not a bad thing on Poverty Row which is where you could find Republic Pictures.
I, unfortunately, have never had the pleasure of meeting William Witney, but I feel like he was a friend. In my exchanges with his son and keeper of the flame, Jay Dee Witney, and reading his fantastic autobiography, In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase, I think I know what he was like. From this book, you can tell he never lost the thrill of being on the set. His enthusiasm comes through in Technicolor. Though he probably couldn't afford the process.
So what did he learn from ol' Busby Berkely? First let's talk about movie serials, westerns, and crime dramas. These were mainly the domain of Poverty Row. Low-budget and quickly made, these films utilized talent who had worn out their welcome in Hollywood or hadn't been welcomed yet. On the one hand, you have the previously mentioned Ray Taylor, who ended his career in Poverty Row, and on the other, John Wayne, who got his start in Poverty Row. What marks these films is action!
What is action? It's a kind of dance, some folks up on a stage prancing about. That's how they shot them before William Witney. A mob is throwing wild punches with the camera capturing it like an audience watching a play. The actors beat the bejesus out of each other, getting knocked down, back up, and again. Its unfocused energy has a certain realistic quality, but it starts to get old after the third fight. Also, how do they keep their hats on? Any fight scene from the 1930s to the 1950s, hats, whether it's a fedora or cowboy hat, never gets knocked off in a fistfight.
Witney took Berkeley's approach to dance sequences and applied it to action scenes. There were punch-ups, but he placed the viewer in the fight. He could break down the structure of an action sequence to control its flow, differentiate fight scenes, and increase suspense. He could use close-ups when people had only seen wide shots.
Action scene pre-Witney: Cowboys fight.
1. Cowboys are at a bar. A fight breaks out.
2. Cowboy A punches Cowboy B. Cowboy B, flies out of shot.
3. Cowboy B lands on Cowboys C, D, and E knocking them down.
4. Cowboy B gets up walks toward Camera- punches.
5. Cowboy A is knocked out. Chaos ensues.
William Witney illustrates how to throw a perfect movie punch.
Hollywood never considered this concept. As poorly explained as my shot list is, it still gives an idea of what he was doing. The novel idea that you could think about the structure of a single scene as a series of shots before getting on set. Breaking from the previously filmed theater and into the realm of a true cinema. Usually, in production, the script gets broken down into scenes to be shot by location, time of day, available cast members, etc. It's why films are shot out of dramatic sequence.
"I can only afford the horse for three days" Complains the producer.
"But I need nine people to ride in different shots!" Whines the director.
"All the scenes with the horse get shot Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday!" Says the production manager confidently, "All the actors are working those days too."
The previous scene explains how scheduling works to complete the film on a budget. But, breaking individual scenes into a series of shots to heighten the dramatic effort before filming was new. Until this point, even in slapstick comedies, the sequences play out like they would on a stage. No matter how crazy the business on-screen is.
Expanding the director's preproduction to make creative cinematic choices before stepping on the set was revolutionary. To go a step further and apply that thought process to the whole film was earth-shattering. I don't think there is any evidence that Witney realized what he was doing at the time. He was just trying to make the films he made better. He had learned his lesson about fast and cheap. But no one ever said they couldn't be good as well. He made his productions move smoother and quicker by eliminating non-essential shots and scenes.
When I was a kid, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the television stations would broadcast programming aimed at kids. The Little Rascals, the Bowery Boys, the Three Stooges, Tarzan, and a hundred different Cowboy characters were essential to my childhood cinematic diet. The Golden Stallion, starring Roy Rogers and directed by William Witney, is a great film. Period. It stands with any movie from the 1940s. And I'm pretty sure Roy only sings two songs!
On the set of The Golden Stallion
Not only did he make Roy Rogers' films, But he did the Zorro serial, the Dick Tracy serial, Captain Marvel, Red Ryder, Spy Smasher, Jungle Girl, and more! But what were serials? They're a story told in weekly short chapters. Each begins with action and ends on a cliffhanger to get you back the following week. So the early television stations played them with commercials as 1/2 hour television programs. That repurposing of old films led William Witney to become a staff director at CBS.
William Witney was the polar opposite of modern-day directors like Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarrantino. They can command budgets that allow them to shoot whatever they come up with and indulge their creative impulses. I'm sure that none of the Republic films cost more than what one week of shooting on Gangs of New York did. We give a lot of lip service to Roger Corman, who had a great eye for talent, but none of the films he produced had anything like the consistency of Witney's output. Sixty feature films, and not a bad one in the bunch. I'm not saying they are all masterpieces, but not one of them suck.
I don't mention Roger Corman by accident. When Republic Pictures went out of business, Corman put Witney to work (duh!) at American International Pictures. In 1958, Witney directed four cautionary juvenile delinquent movies: Young And Wild, Juvenile Jungle, The Cool And The Crazy, where the high-school kids turn into psychotics after smoking grass (Not as bad as Zombies, but excellent too), and The Bonnie Parker Story, starring Dorothy Provine, which is without Clyde. Not Bonnie and Clyde, just Bonnie. (Who needs him!) Ms. Provine was born in the town of Deadwood and might be best remembered as Lou Costello's 30-foot-bride. In other words, a low-budget queen!
William Witney, in his poverty row greenhouse, was able to create modern cinema. He elected to stay working in B-Pictures so that he could continue to experiment and refine his work. He probably would hate me saying this, but William Witney was an artist. He needed to create, not to worry about bigger budgets, movie stars, and box office receipts. The math of Poverty Row was simple: if it's cheap enough, you will make money. A-Pictures were algebraic by comparison. He anonymously gave it an approach that made it the unique art form we appreciate today. His book is a lively trip through his life. He recounts his war stories contemporaneously, and it feels like he is sitting in your living room telling them. He is, to use an old-fashioned term, a real pisser. I so enjoyed his book and his company, and I miss him. Luckily I have received some encouragement from his son, and I can hear the dad's voice in the emails.
In a Door, Into a Fight. Out a Door, Into a Chase spoke to me personally as few Hollywood autobiographies have. I have spent most of my life working in various capacities in the film industry. And I love nothing more than the delicious boredom of being on set. The focus of creating that next scene, the next shot, the next project, I feel a kindred spirit to William Witney, separated by fifty years or so. When I started, he was still making films, but I missed my chance to learn at his feet. Thankfully he left us this book.
In a Door, Into a Fight. Out a Door, Into a Chase, by William Witney is published by McFarland books and is available from the same venues where you can find copies of It Came From Hollywood.
A huge thank you to Jay Dee Witney for permission to use these photos. Learn more about William Witney at https://www.williamwitney.com/.