William Witney

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The Independent Online

William Witney, film director: born Lawton, Oklahoma 15 May 1915; twice married (one son); died Jackson, California 17 March 2002.

During the golden age of the screen serial, those made at Republic Studios were considered the finest, and the top director of such fare was William Witney, a master of pace and economy who excelled in the fast-moving action-filled adventures of such heroes as Zorro, the Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy and Captain Marvel.

Though less well known to the public than the directors of "A" pictures, Witney was a legend within the profession, and his work was an acknowledged influence on both Steven Spielberg, who claimed that Witney's serials inspired the Indiana Jones films, and Quentin Tarantino. Witney's handling of tough action and his visual style in such films as The Golden Stallion (1949) and Stranger at My Door (1956) was lauded by Tarantino, who said,

I've found directors I'm really into, but William Witney is ahead of them all, the one whose movies I can show to anyone and they are just blown away.

Witney, whose 1996 autobiography was aptly titled In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase, is credited with introducing the now standard practice of choreographing fight scenes. As well as many memorable cliff-hangers, he also directed scores of westerns and action films with such stars as Roy Rogers and Audie Murphy.

Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1915, but raised in California, Witney graduated from Coronado High School with plans to enter the US Navy, but changed his mind after visiting his sister in Hollywood in 1933. Her husband was a director for the low-budget studio Mascot Pictures, which specialised in serials, and he gave Witney a role as a cowboy extra in the serial Fighting with Kit Carson, starring Johnny Mack Brown as the famous scout. Witney immediately fell in love with the movies, and became a messenger boy at the studio.

Two years later Mascot merged into the newly formed Republic Pictures, and Witney was promoted to script clerk, then film editor. He started directing their chapter-plays, as the serials were also called, in 1937 when he was on location in Utah with the company of The Painted Stallion and the director was removed. Witney was asked to take over the project, and during the next decade he directed 23 of Republic's best-loved serials, including SOS Coastguard (1937, with Bela Lugosi), The Lone Ranger (1938), Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939, considered one of the finest serials ever), Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939, with Reed Hadley playing the dual role of the foppish Diego Vega and the dashing Zorro), Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Spy Smasher (1942), Perils of Nyoka (1942) and three Dick Tracy adventures.

Many of these were co-directed with John English, who handled indoor dialogue scenes while Witney took care of the action. "John was a boudoir man," said Witney:

I'm an outdoor man and a good horseman. So even though I could do good boudoir stuff, when we worked together I mostly shot the action and outdoor scenes.

Witney also worked frequently with the legendary stuntman and second-unit director Yakima Canutt, whose most famous exploit was his stunt in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) in which he leaps from a running horse to the lead horse of a stagecoach, then is shot and dragged under the speeding coach. Witney said, "We did that in serials 10 times with Yak. It was Yak who brought the idea to Ford."

Witney's inspiration for the idea of choreographing fight scenes came from the dance director Busby Berkeley. Fight scenes had tended to be ragged free-for-alls with little form after the first couple of blows. "The fights always seemed OK for the first punch," wrote Witney in his memoirs:

By the time three or four minutes had passed, the stuntmen were out of breath, scattered all over the set and seemed to be staggering around waiting for someone to hit them.

Witney then saw Berkeley working with 40 dancers:

He was lining up all the girls for just one little movement. He got it perfect. Then he sent them back to rehearse another little movement, shot it, and then maybe a few close-ups later to put in between those shots.

Witney adapted this method for fight scenes, breaking them into shorter sequences, changing camera angles and inserting close-ups, a tradition that has been continued by the stunt co-ordinators who control such sequences today.

From 1943 Witney served in the US Marines as a combat photographer, and when he returned to Republic in 1946 he made his last serial, The Crimson Ghost, then was assigned to a series of B movies starring the most popular western star of the era, Roy Rogers. These fast-paced tales filled with action and song were enormously successful. Twilight in the Sierras (1950), filmed in Trucolor towards the end of the B movie era, was a typical example, a tale of kidnapping, counterfeiting and murder, its fights and chases leavened with a number of songs, all told in little over an hour.

In the Fifties Witney directed nine westerns starring the singing cowboy Rex Allen, and also directed Allen in the television series Frontier Doctor. After Republic ceased production in 1956, Witney moved to American International Pictures, where he worked in other genres, his films including The Bonnie Parker Story (1958), Paratroop Command (1959) and several films about juvenile delinquency, including The Cool and the Crazy, which dealt with marijuana addiction, and Juvenile Jungle (both 1949).

At Universal he directed westerns starring Audie Murphy, but his most prestigious feature film was Master of the World (1961), starring Vincent Price and based on a Jules Verne novel. Much of the film was set in a delightfully fanciful flying ship, the Albatross. Time magazine described it thus:

Made entirely of impregnated paper, it checks out at 200mph and looks like a cross between a blimp, a helicopter, a giant bat and a 19th-century resort hotel. It even has a side porch.

Witney's prolific television work included episodes of Bonanza, Laramie, The Virginian, and The High Chaparral.

Boyd Magers, editor and publisher of Western Clippings magazine, said of him,

Everybody considers Bill Witney the greatest action director of B movies. He just knew how to put things together for the screen – the fights, the wagon wrecks, the falls off the cliffs, whatever; they were just expertly done.

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