Today is the birthday of the great comedy film producer and director Jules White (1900-1985).
White is alternately revered and reviled among comedy and film fans; I am unabashed in my admiration for him (we’ll get to his flaws anon). His mark on comedy history was as the head of Columbia’s short subject division from 1933 to 1959, a period during which all the other big and small studios were closing their doors or simply phasing out comedy shorts: (Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, Educational Pictures, RKO, Warner Brothers, MGM, etc) giving White for a time a virtual monopoly. White was not just the production chief for this division, but kept his hand in as director and producer.
I think it’s telling that he learned the movie trade first as an editor working for his brother Jack White, a producer at Educational Pictures. Comedy is about rhythm and timing, and one of the things I love about the house style during his reign at Columbia is the way the comedies are cut. From editing, he graduated to directing the likes of Lige Conley and Cliff Bowes. In 1930 he launched a series of hokey all-dog comedies called “Dogville” at MGM, in which trained pooches dressed in clothes enacted parodies of hit films, with offscreen actors supplying voices. While at MGM, he and his colleague Zion Myers also co-directed the 1931 Buster Keaton talking feature Sidewalks of New York.
Then in 1933, the opportunity at Columbia, where White was responsible for turning out hundreds of comedy shorts starring the Three Stooges (nearly half his output), Hugh Herbert, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, Andy Clyde and dozens of others. Some may be appalled but I would list Jules White among my favorite comedy film directors, possible among my top ten, but definitely among my top 20 or 25. Broad and fast-paced, and invariably violent (sometimes admittedly too violent), it’s the closest live action slapstick has gotten to the energy of animated cartoons (with the exception of Frank Tashlin’s work, and of course Tashlin started in animation). White’s style is unmistakable at every level: how it is shot, how the actors are directed to behave, how it is edited, and how it is scored (often with cartoonish sound effects). White has a STYLE. How many directors of comedy — in fact, how many directors can you say that about? Furthermore, he achieves clarity: clarity of vision, clarity of intention and clarity of result. Again, how many can you really say this about?
It isn’t for all audiences, nor was it for all performers. Buster Keaton, who liked to take his time on a bit, was a fish out of water in White’s universe, and his Columbia comedies came out terrible. And towards the end of his tenure, White grew lazy, and in the name of expedience he would re-use gags, plots and even footage from old films. Some of the critical scorn White has earned has to do with this later period.
White dabbled in tv after Columbia closed its shorts division and then retired in 1961. His last film short was Sappy Bull Fighters (1959).
To learn more about slapstick comedy film history including past masters like Jules White please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc