On Friday, September 15, 2000, to usher in a new century and to commence a new, if irregular and short-lived, series in the New York Times, reporter Rick Lyman sat down with loquacious director Quentin Tarantino to talk about movies.
Lyman's goal for the series was to talk with a prominent filmmaker while watching a favorite movie with them. Usually, but not always, the filmmaker was promoting a new release. Tarantino, on the other hand, was not. In fact, he hadn't made a film since Jackie Brown in 1997.
Tarantino didn't want to talk about his latest movie, his career, or his interesting past. He wanted to talk about William Witney.
Apparently Tarantino, an avid film fan, historian, and researcher, had been wading through the vast wealth of pulp films of the middle 20th century. And there, amid the unyielding pabulum of America's commercial empire, he made a discovery: director William Witney, who worked for Republic pictures most of his life and is most famous, if at all, for making Roy Rogers westerns.
Witney got into the movie biz the old fashioned way: he knew somebody. His brother in law was already a director of serials at Mascot, a Saturday afternoon serial manufacturing company later absorbed into Republic. During a summer break from studying for his Annapolis entrance exams, Witney subbed for a while as a stunt man and horse rider for some quickly made western serials. To his surprise, Witney later failed his Annapolis exams, and, returning to work with his brother-in-law, never left. He learned movies from the ground up: props, stunts, editing, the camera, later writing. By the time he started directing, in his early 20s (at first just stepping in for a drunk director sent home from the set), he had had thorough film training. Born in Oklahoma and raised near San Diego, Witney was an animal lover, and his films are touched by a reverence for and an understanding of all manner of creatures – even human beings.
In the Times, Tarantino offers a sympathetic account of one of Witney's Roy Rogers films, Golden Stallion, originally released in 1949 and one of Tarantino's favorites. In particular, Tarantino points out how unexpectedly weird the movie is, counter to our expectations of what we think a Roy Rogers movie is supposed to be. For one thing, Rogers's character goes to jail for five years for a crime he doesn't commit in order to spare his horse Trigger summary judgment. As Rogers grapples with his decision to take the fall for his horse, Witney's camera tracks in slowly on his Eastmancolored face. It's a breathtaking and powerful moment, and utterly unexpectedly stylish. Indeed, Witney had been summoned to "save" the Rogers series of westerns. He dressed Rogers down in more conventional garb (no more bejeweled blouses) and orchestrated brutal fight scenes for the dandified star.
Tarantino makes out Witney to sound like a fascinating guy, among other things as the inventor of "choreographed" fight scenes, among many other action techniques still used in commercial Hollywood cinema. "I've found directors I like, but William Witney is ahead of them all. I think it's so cool that he began as the king of cowboy serials and ended with a black exploitation film," he told Lyman. "That's a career, man."
I read the essay with interest. It stirred up the old auteurist in me. I though the days of unearthing another underappreciated drone from the bowels of the Hollywood studio system were over. But Tarantino had discovered a new one! But then something happened that puzzled me.
Near silence. Like the dog that didn't bark, but for different reasons, there was little response. Surely, I thought, now there would be a retrospective account of Witney's life in Film Comment or one of the other film magazines, and TMC would scoop up all Witney's films for an all-day celebration, hosted by Tarantino.
Instead, Tarantino and his enthusiasm were absorbed almost without notice into the culture. The silence was not due to over-familiarity, like the dog in the Holmes story, but from exhaustion, cinematic exhaustion. Tarantino's praise of a humble toiler in the salt mines of Hollywood was lost in a carnival of cultural over-promotion and constant movie chat that fill the air waves, the cables, the TV tubes, and the computer screens – but more about that in a minute.
Maybe there were magazine articles and I couldn’t find them. Perhaps the Museum of Modern Art staged a retro and I missed the announcements in the film journals or in The Nation. There were some eruptions of information, but all from Tarantino. In June of 2001 Tarantino joined a panel at the Seattle film festival to discuss Witney where he showed several of his films, including Stranger at My Door, Eyes of Texas, The Outcast, The Golden Stallion, The Bonnie Parker Story, Paratroop Command, Juvenile Jungle and Santa Fe Passage, conducting what he called a tutorial on Witney. And every August Tarantino carts his own prints of beloved films to Austin for his a 10-day festival, where he often touts Witney's work (along with films such as Dark of the Sun, Dixie Dynamite, and Billy Jack). Witney was still alive when Tarantino first started praising him, but he died at the age of 86 in March of 2002 in a nursing home in the Sierra Nevadas, His obits noted that he directed anywhere from 60 and to 100 films.
I was able to catch up with Tarantino's views again when Lyman's piece was published with the rest of the series as Watching Movies: The Biggest Names in Cinema Talk About the Films That Matter Most (Holt, 263 pages, $14, ISBN 0 8050 7098 2). There Tarantino's views lead off Harvey Weinstein's on Exodus, Steven Soderbergh's on All the President's Men and Nicole Kidman's on The Shining. I also caught up with Witney's own views on himself, in his autobiography, In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase (McFarland, 1996, 256 pages, $32.50 ISBN 0 78640 134 6), a charming account of his life until the brink of his service in WWII. It's a book apparently actually written by himself.
Inspired by Tarantino's enthusiasm and Witney's own engaging narrative, I also decided to track down some of Witney's films. The video shop in my neighborhood had several. I found Border Saddlemates, The Cool and the Crazy, The Bonnie Parker Story, and The Golden Stallion, on whose box an employee had inscribed, "The movie that Quentin Tarantino raves about!"
Border Saddlemates from 1952 was one of seven films Witney made that year. Despite its unhelpful title, it turns out to be a competent Rex Allen western with the singing star playing a U.S. government vet spelling the regular doc, whereupon he uncovers, with the help of Slim Pickens and an "adorable" kid, a gang of smugglers sneaking counterfeit money down from Canada inside the false bottoms of animal cages (smuggling figures a lot in Witney films). The film pauses occasionally to be informative about counterfeiting and the fox fur trade, but the key elements (besides the three musical interludes in which Allen is assistant by singing by Mary Ellen Kay and the Republic Rhythm Riders) are the fight scenes and chase sequences. Quick, brutal, and realistic, they have an energy that is palpable and contain real irresistible suspense.
The Cool and the Crazy is a teens-in-trouble film, a vague remake of Reefer Madness shot in Kansas City and with the bad sound and the sometimes awkward acting and lighting of drive in movies. Yet it too has unexpected elements. There is a great deal of sympathy for the "troubled" kids, and they are shown in several facets. And most adults are presented as unmitigatedly evil or social failures. It's also surprisingly good looking at times. Some of the shots rival Kurosawa's contemporaneous films for depth and creative framing.
The Bonnie Parker Story, like The Cool and the Crazy, one of five movies Witney made in 1958, is a version of the Bonnie and Clyde story that precedes Warren Beatty's hipper version. Dorothy Provine (the voluptuous star of the TV series Roaring Twenties), plays the maniacal murderess, the most violent screen woman since Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy. The film also stars the boxer-nosed Richard Bakalyan, who appears in several Witney films of the time, Dietrich to Witney's Von Sternberg. It's a surprisingly raw account, and Witney may well have evoked some of his Oklahoma memories to capture the odd interface of rural primitiveness and urban violence.
But why an immersion into pulp films of the past in the first place? There are plenty of new movies, and the present waits for no man. Yet there is something palate cleansing about Witney's pure formalism within adherence to genre conventions.
We are all movie fatigued. Perhaps, if you don't own a television and don't shop for magazines, just maybe you don't encounter the relentless advertising for, coverage of, and general obsession with movies. But even if you close off obvious avenues of access, the movies will get to you in other ways. If you pass a fast food joint the chances are good that it is co-promoting a big film. Snatches of theme songs will hit you from the open windows of summer cars. Bus signs, writing pads, flyers, the shouting fascia of tabs in the supermarket line, all manner of devious ingress will fly at you.
And if do pay attention to the media, the onslaught is even worse. Each month, each week, daily, as if by magic, every magazine has on its covers the stars of the movies of the moment, promotional tasks coordinated months in advance. The promotion-industrial complex chugs relentlessly to push a given movie; the ads appear non-stop; the trailers seem everywhere, the movie appears, people chat about it on TV, and then there is ... the next movie. The old one is but a passing flame, yesterday's newspaper, an old gum wrapper, now consigned to secondary markets such as DVD or tape and broadcast "events."
It's rather distressing to think of how much of the information coming to us is artificial, about something that doesn't really exist, a movie or a TV show or a musical performer, all conjured up by an industry that isn't trying to give us something pleasing but something addictive, flopping around struggling to seduce us with the next hot thing. Like the Manhattanites obsessed with Jennifer Lopez and described in a recent issue of the New York Observer, we find ourselves invaded with information about people we neither know nor care about, media creations who are artificial constructs made as if in Frankenstein's lab.
When I was a kid I used to go down to the local smoke shop and buy weekly Variety. I thought it was cool to get "insider" information about summer grosses and films in production. I could have read Proust 10 times over for all the listings of forthcoming movies I've read. But today, the weekend's grosses are considered "newsworthy." They tail the evening news. Local news! People have ceased talking about movies in a nuanced fashion. They say, "It sucks," or "It rocks," and 'nuff said. Or they quote grosses. A given movie is good because it was the number one movie of the weekend. The studios, which used to be secretive about the financial angle, now crow over the numbers, getting the public as involved with them as they would a horse race.
Our movie masters also reveal the once husbanded secrets of movie
making even as the movies are coming out. It's not unusual to find electronic
EPKs thinly disguised as "specials" on genre-oriented cable stations.
Be it From Hell or Star Wars Episode One, there is an hour
long "special" that is an unvarnished commercial for the movie,
itself interrupted by commercials. Then this shameless material finds its way
to the DVD where it has a lasting, annoying afterlife. But the worst thing
about these featurettes is that they unabashedly expose all the hidden
machinations that make movies work, while revealing nothing about how movie
makers think. Directors before the '70s were loathe to reveal the tricks of
cinema (much less discuss "ideas"). Today's audio track bred auteurs
think nothing of discussing the minutia of movie making with strangers.
Our movie masters also reveal the once husbanded secrets of movie making even as the movies are coming out. It's not unusual to find electronic EPKs thinly disguised as "specials" on genre-oriented cable stations. Be it From Hell or Star Wars Episode One, there is an hour long "special" that is an unvarnished commercial for the movie, itself interrupted by commercials. Then this shameless material finds its way to the DVD where it has a lasting, annoying afterlife. But the worst thing about these featurettes is that they unabashedly expose all the hidden machinations that make movies work, while revealing nothing about how movie makers think. Directors before the '70s were loathe to reveal the tricks of cinema (much less discuss "ideas"). Today's audio track bred auteurs think nothing of discussing the minutia of movie making with strangers.
On the one hand all of William Witney's movies are probably
trivial to most people who consider themselves sophisticated film aficionados.
On the other, Witney's films show an energy and craft that is deeply
gratifying. And in the end, amid the onslaught of pumped up vacuities that vie
for our mania, there is only craft, and its small pleasures.
On the one hand all of William Witney's movies are probably trivial to most people who consider themselves sophisticated film aficionados. On the other, Witney's films show an energy and craft that is deeply gratifying. And in the end, amid the onslaught of pumped up vacuities that vie for our mania, there is only craft, and its small pleasures.
[note, 2009: In 1964, William Witney directed a powerful episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour called "Final Escape." In it, Edd "Kooky" Byrnes plays a prison farm inmate who plans a daring escape, which includes being buried alive. Years later, Tarantino borrowed this premise for a climactic scene in Kill Bill.]
This essay originally appeared in Black Lamb in 2003.